Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Sugar is dangerous: Sweet Movie

Dusan Makavejev’s 1974 film Sweet Movie, opens with a rather unorthodox beauty pageant. In this contest, the freshest virgins from around the globe display their finery, not in a swimsuit competition, but rather, through an onstage gynecological exam! The shock of the Miss World pageant pales in comparison to the countless displays of unabashed public sex, a urine- and vomit-soaked orgy, and the striptease seduction of preadolescent boys by a grown woman.

Makavejev, most well known for WR: Mysteries of the Organism is Yugoslavian and his films certainly contain ample historical and political references. Eastern European history isn’t my strong suit, so I prefer to focus on the symbolic and visceral aspects of the film.

Sweet Movie has at its center the story of two women, the virgin, Miss World 1984 and the whore, Captain Anna Planeta, a revolutionary prostitute who has been exiled from her homeland and forced to reside on her candy-filled boat named “Survival.” Anna is forlorn and she laments that all her lovers are dead. That’s because she is a black widow who lures men and boys alike to their demise in her sticky lair. Before stabbing her lover Potemkin, she gently purrs in his ear “sugar is dangerous” as they copulate in a tub of the white stuff. Anna is sexually free, but in the end, she is captured and punished for her murderous ways.

Both women have limited mobility, but this is shown most dramatically in the mute and doll-like Miss World 1984. Throughout the film she rarely moves of her own volition; she is carried and wheeled, and most disturbingly stuffed into a suitcase and shipped around the globe. She is the female body as commodity, as pure fetish object birthed for consumption. As the film concludes we see Miss World being filmed in a vat of chocolate sauce. Where Karen Finley’s chocolate-smeared performances in the 90s were filled with rage and sexual power, Miss World, her polar opposite, is catatonic and closed off from her own bodily experience.

This idea of waking up to one’s life is echoed in a musical interlude that plays throughout the film. In a simple song, a female voice asks “is there life after birth?” Makavejev seems to ask are we really alive to our bodies, emotions and experiences, or are we simply automatons who have been dulled by repeated cultural tyranny? He was heavily influenced by Wilhelm Reich’s controversial research into the link between sexual repression and neurosis, and Makavejev often uses displays of unfettered erotic play as an expression of complete liberation. Over time, the film has remained challenging, because it gets down to deeply ingrained taboos against the oozing, dirty, raw, and ultimately mortal body.

Makavejev taps into the abject most directly in the scenes at the Milky Way Commune, where Miss World sits listlessly while acts of debauchery swirl around her. Many of the members of the fictional commune were actual members of Otto Muehl’s Actions -Analytic Kommune. Founded in 1970, the commune was an offshoot of the Vienna Actionist performance group that included Hermann Nitsch, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and Gunter Brus. Muehl saw sexual repression as the cause of a litany of social ills, including, fear, aggression, antisocial behavior, depression and creative impotency. As a healing device, the group enacted frequent regressive therapy sessions aimed to recover infantile sexual urges.

 image from Otto Muehl's cosinus apha, 1964

The first commune scene in Sweet Movie displays a vigorous orgy of meat, piss, shit, and vomit around a large dining table. One man pulls a slab of cow tongue out the opened zipper of his pants and proceeds to chop away at his proxy penis. While we know it is a fake, the proximity and visceral likeness evoke a powerful repulsion. Later, we witness a grown naked man, rolling around on a dingy mattress like a giant baby. He freely urinates and plays with his own shit as onlookers violently strike his chest and douse him in clouds of flour. The images are disturbing, yet powerful in their ability to reveal the ingrained fears we all have against the physical and emotional outpourings our own bodies and our ultimate collapse into death. 

With Sweet Movie, Makaejev cracks off the candy coating and shocks us into a realization of the limits of our freedom from both internal and external forces. He prods us to wake up to the real experience—both the beauty and the horror—of our flesh.

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