Censorship is a Funny Thing

In the past few weeks, my roommate and I have watched a couple of movies that got their directors banned from making films in their home countries. We didn’t set out to do it; it’s just what we like, I guess. It seems a bit extreme to me, not just to ban the film itself, which is bad enough, but to tell the filmmaker, “Sorry, but you’re done here.” If you put too much sex in your movie, the film is banned. If you add too much violence, the film is banned. If you do both, and also make it funny, then you get banned.

What is it about humor that is so upsetting? The Serbian filmmaker Dušan Makavejev said, “When I started making films, sex and humor were considered as very serious matters—even high treason.” After attempting to release his 1971 film WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Makavejev found that his film was banned, he was exiled from Yugoslavia for 17 years, and various groups of people around the world considered him an enemy for seemingly conflicting reasons. Try to pin down what pisses you off about the movie, and two seconds later it’s doing something else. Satirists don’t have to follow the same rules of consistency that other people do.

WR alternates between documentary footage about Wilhelm Reich (who investigated the potential of collecting orgasmic energy from space and using it to prevent physical and mental illness–his work reads as if your Dr. Bronner bottle got angry that you don’t masturbate more) and a fictional plot about a young Serbian woman named Milena attempting to sexually liberate a frigid Russian ice skater named (ha) Vladimir Ilyich from his fascism. Reich and Milena are both presented as tragic revolutionaries, wanting good things for people but approaching them in tragicomically wrong-headed ways.

Reich, who moved to the US to escape Nazi persecution, pursued his research until the US government burned his books and he died in prison; Milena preaches from her balcony that sexual freedom will save Communism from becoming fascism until (…no spoilers!). But, just as the Reichians are shown teaching their patients how to have proper orgasmic freedom (no don’t do that, do this; don’t say that, say this), Milena talks and talks about the importance of sex while her cute roommate is actually getting it on with a fellow worker right in front of her. It’s funny, sad, funny, and not entirely fair to everyone represented. (Can I admit that I think it is OK not to be entirely fair all the time?)

Meanwhile, a lot of other things are cut into the mix. Tuli Kupferberg masturbates a machine gun under a voice-over of irritating poetry, someone makes a plaster cast of an erect penis, Betty Dodson talks about masturbating; i.e., there’s sort of a theme. Guess what it is and you get a prize!

If you’re into this sort of thing (experimental/political/pornographic/comic satire—you know who you are!), it can be viewed here.

The other entry in our BANNED FOR LIFE* film festival is Jiang Wen’s 2000 film, Devils on the Doorstep. Now, I know, you’re thinking, AWB just recommended something that sounds like everything I hate about artsy foreign political movies mixed with everything I hate about porn! She is unreliable! So let me take an entirely different tone of voice when I tell you to watch Devils on the Doorstep right now. Run, do not walk, etc.

Like WR, it begins with sex and ends in violence (and I really don’t want to spoil this, but it is really eerie how similar the final shots of these movies are), but Jiang’s movie is more the sort that is as genuinely funny and genuinely sad as anything I’ve ever seen. And also like WR, Devils on the Doorstep confronts the disconnect between national myths and the desires of individual people.

I really don’t want to ruin anything about the plot of this one, but the first 10 minutes or so are basically what you would get if the Coen brothers set a black-and-white movie in Japan-occupied rural China during World War II. Hapless villager Ma Dasan (played brilliantly by Jiang himself) is lustily screwing a local widow when there’s an insistent knock at the door from someone claiming it’s “me.” “Me” pins Dasan to the wall with a gun and tells him he has to keep two things out of the hands of the Japanese soldiers until New Year’s, five days from now, and “Me” will come collect them then. Dasan sees “Me” has unloaded two huge sacks, which turn out to have a Chinese and a Japanese man in them. “Me” says Dasan should interrogate them, and disappears. Dasan can’t figure out what to do, and goes to the other villagers for ideas, embellishing the story to say that “Me” said everyone in the village will be murdered if anything happens to the captives. The other villagers are mostly for burying them alive, handing them over to the Japanese, or, in the case of the town’s crazy old man, “throttling those turtle-fuckers with my bare hands.” The decisions made make the stakes of the film higher and higher, until any gesture made by even the most insignificant entity has the potential to cause a terrible international crisis.

It’s a truly awesome movie, and watching it made me mad that no one in my life had come to me and forced me to watch it in the preceding 10 years. But it turns out it’s never really had its day. Jiang sent it to Cannes under the censors’ noses and it won the Grand Prix. It was banned in China, and Jiang was banned from directing for seven years. It received a little release in Japan where, despite containing some brutally racist anti-Japanese dialogue and plot, it was well, if gingerly, received. In the US, it showed for a couple of weeks at Film Forum to very little response.

Definitely the main problem with this one is the comedy. What can you do with a movie like this? Its humor complicates everything, which is, I think, Jiang’s point. The humor is at the expense of Chinese collaborationists, absurdly romantic resistance fighters, Japanese warriors, stupid villagers, wily cowards, belligerent assholes, US occupation forces, Chinese leaders, and even fairly decent schlubs like Dasan. Everyone comes off seeming pathetic and not big enough or smart enough to do what they need to do. That is, it’s a great deal like a Coen brothers movie, if the Coen brothers were capable of making something so upsetting and dangerously funny that they had to take a break for seven years.

My roommate and I will continue our research into Stuff That Will Get a Person Exiled and/or Banned from the Film Industry of Their Home Country! Until then!

* – Not really “life” but it sounds better.

18 responses to “Censorship is a Funny Thing”

  1. Whoa, what a fantastic pair of recommendations. Thanks. If I am not missing anything from my mental calendar, this evening’s activity will be watching WR.

  2. A White Bear says:

    Hope you enjoy it, TMK! If you pursue Devils on the Doorstep, I would recommend getting it from Netflix; I think you’d appreciate the tight cinematography on a bigger screen.

  3. Yeah, watching full-length movies via YouTube is a fool’s exercise if they are available elsewhere. A friend on Facebook is recommending Makavejev’s “Sweet Movie” (1974, France) but from the description at IMDB it sounds a little too much like a full-length feature of Pudding and Katje, and makes my skin crawl.

  4. A White Bear says:

    Yeah, my roommate likes “Sweet Movie,” but did not actively recommend it. “WR” at least has its charms. (I had a very difficult time finding a photo from the movie for this post that did not have extreme nudity in it, and was tempted to go ahead, but I’m aware some TGWer have, like, jobs, and stuff.)

  5. F. P. Smearcase says:

    “Not entirely fair to everyone represented” sounds exactly like the Coen brothers, and I go back and forth on whether this sucks about them.

    (Maybe the first film in this festival was actually Kicking and Screaming last weekend and Noah Baumbach was banned from every writing anything good again.)

    I laughed out loudily at “his work reads as if your Dr. Bronner bottle got angry that you don’t masturbate more”.

  6. A White Bear says:

    In that way, Devils on the Doorstep is also a bit like the better aspects of Tarantino (who was, he says, deeply influenced by Jiang’s earlier film In the Heat of the Sun, about dudes lazing around talking). Although the plot is very Coen, the characters are more like Tarantino’s; they’re all kind of silly, foul-mouthed (and sometimes violent) douchebags, but one feels affection for them nonetheless. I agree that sometimes the Coens go a bit far with making everyone contemptuously stupid or simple.

    Poor Noah Baumbach.

  7. A White Bear says:

    Oh, also cute: Jiang has a pretty thick Beijing accent that peeks out here and there in this movie, which is sort of like when a New York actor tries to play a country boy but gets all Brooklyn when he’s mad.

  8. Tim says:

    I, too, laughed out loud at the Dr. Bronner line. Zowee.

    Thanks for this! I’d never heard of either movie or filmmaker, and you’ve made them sound very intriguing to me. I’m planning on checking them out as soon as I can.

    P.S. What’s with running down Noah Baumbach, people? I really liked The Squid and the Whale, and Margot at the Wedding is some of Nicole Kidman’s best work in a long while. So Greenberg was putrid (I’ve heard), but his stuff isn’t uniformly awful.

  9. A White Bear says:

    I didn’t think The Squid and the Whale was awful, but, especially while watching Kicking and Screaming again for the millionth time this weekend, it struck me just how brilliant and subtle it was in comparison. Everything about it is so quiet and lightly done. The camera movement is especially great; you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking for it, but it’s almost always in circular motion except during the flashbacks with Jane and when Grover almost buys a ticket to Prague. I love it. While not hating S&tW, I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it again.

  10. A White Bear says:

    Let me know what you think of them, Tim!

  11. I watched S&W again recently and had essentially the same reaction I had last time: Loved the camerawork, loved most of the acting, found the plot extremely contrived and unbelievable.

    WR: the opening shot with all the hands passing around an egg yolk is fantastic. I’m having a little trouble following because of the subtitles, which don’t have any relationship to the sound — they may be translating bits of narration which have passed or which are yet to come, but almost never do they match up to what’s currently coming through the speakers, and that freaks me out a bit. Also it makes me concerned that the video and audio may be totally out of sync. Maybe I should track down the DVD.

  12. A White Bear says:

    Oh, I apologize if that WR vimeo isn’t good. I watched the YouTube Devils and it’s very good quality for YT, but WR I didn’t preview much of. Both of these movies are available on Criterion DVD.

  13. J.D. says:

    For a fact-check, I suggest to review this Review of WR:
    http://www.orgonelab.org/makavejev.htm

  14. Dave says:

    And Criterion are all on Netflix streaming, no? Or maybe not all. Anyway, these look great.

    I was trying to think of a Roman Polanski joke to go with the post but couldn’t.

  15. Why does the review J.D. links to remind me so strongly of Makajev’s statement that “sex and humor were considered as very serious matters—even high treason”?

  16. A White Bear says:

    The Neo-Reichians were definitely part of those I was thinking of who were (and still are) enraged by this 40-year-old movie. I feel like the film is far more subtle than they give Makavejev credit for—I think Makavejev admires Reich deeply for what they have in common. They’re both oddball exiles who are working outside the normal, allowable terms of discourse, and both paid a heavy price for being willing to say things that no one else would even think to say. Both were accused (by people who need to spend more time watching real pornography) of being pornographers, not because their work serves the function of pornography, but because it discusses sexuality in terms and representations that some people find unpleasant.

    While being targeted by the US government, Reich wrote, “I would like to plead for my right to investigate natural phenomena without having guns pointed at me. I also ask for the right to be wrong without being hanged for it … I am angry because smearing can do anything and truth can do so little to prevail, as it seems at the moment.” I believe Makavejev might say the same.

  17. Mr. Smearcase says:

    Tim, all just taste of course. For me, The Squid and the Whale is where I said “I’m not really interested in this guy’s work.” I’m never sure if this is a very valid criticism, but it felt to me like he had great disdain/contempt for his own characters. It made me uncomfortable, and not in a way that interested me.