“If you ask a connoisseur for his opinion, you’ll get what you deserve” – these words introduce a scene from Dušan Makavejev’s Hole in the Soul (1994): the director’s meeting with Dennis Jakob. Hole in the Soul is an autobiographical documentary but, as I discuss in a previous text, it’s not always clear (and this is part of the movie’s charm) what has been staged and what has been captured, what kind of arrangements and agreements have been made behind the scenes. Is Jakob’s speech, in this scene, one of his own, free making? Or is he, to some extent, performing a part? These are intriguing questions to which, despite my intuitions, I don’t have a definite answer. Therefore, I’ll be writing here about Jakob and Makavejev as characters, dramatised characters. Jakob is the film Expert, Makavejev the lost Director in search of advice.
I think, however, that part of the tension aroused by this scene has to do with the relations we can establish between these two characters and whatever we may know about the real people. With this in mind, I’d like to give some information about Dennis Jakob. When I watched Hole in the Soul I didn’t know who he was, though his name rang a bell and his speech was painfully familiar. I looked him up. Here’s some of the data I found: he worked as an editor on several Roger Corman films, he has been a creative consultant for Francis Ford Coppola, he’s written a couple of screenplays, he’s the author of a memoir and of several novels – including Summer with Morrison about the UCLA years he shared with Jim Morrison, who was his friend and roommate. He has helped or been praised by directors such as Errol Morris, Guy Maddin and Mark Cousins. In bios and fan pages, he’s referred to as an historian, a provocateur and a genius.
In the scene, we see and hear Jakob but, most of the time, sound and image are un-synched. Exterior shots of the city’s streets and buildings are interspersed with a few interior shots taken in a dark office. Jacob, hat and sunglasses on, sits behind a desk. He looks through the closed blinds, turns in his chair, inspects books with a flashlight and, with Makavejev’s help, lights a row of candles. His speech is delivered in voice-over:
1960 is the big day, you know, that motion pictures changed. Because, essentially, this is the year after Breathless. With Godard, with Truffaut, with Chabrol, you have what corresponds to what Nietzsche called the great slave revolt. That was the slave revolt against all noble values. This affected motion pictures everywhere. What it was, was: anything goes, anything will do. Make the most disgraceful cuts, the most lousy compositions … and you were not different than anybody else. You were part of that generation. That generation of yours worshipped Howard Hawks, who has no more visual sense than a cockroach. Whereas I worshipped John Ford. He made pictures. And now, now I hear from your wife that they even have festivals and things in your honour in Russia. While, when you abandoned Russia, once you were something. You were a threat to somebody.
How well this diatribe encapsulates the dominant forms of cultural commentary: the pompous exhibition of knowledge, the total lack of uncertainty, the dogmatisation of personal taste, the authoritarianism of opinion, the satisfaction in crafting humiliations and ad hominem attacks … And all this is passed on as lucid dissection, sharp criticism, even history lesson. When I hear people speaking like this, using language like this, it makes me ill. But people speak like this, more and more. This is the kind of speech that proliferates and reproduces itself, popping up like poisonous mushrooms, creeping in everywhere. It has created schools, followers, disciples and hooligans. And you’ve got to keep yourself in check constantly, because it’s not easy to remain immune to it.
There’s a bit of generational shaming and a lot of uncontained narcissism (when talking about Makavejev, Jakob refers to a generation, but when talking about himself, he resorts to an emphatic “I”). There is, above all, the dispensation of flowery insults and offensive remarks elaborated on the basis of taste-superiority (“Howard Hawks has no more visual sense than a cockroach” versus “John Ford made pictures”). This is the kind of speech that, in the name of truth-telling, reveals a true blindness for singularity, reducing all modern cinema to “disgraceful cuts and lousy compositions”. For the Expert, it’s all clear-cut and it’s all the same: he can’t make distinctions between quite dissimilar filmmakers, nor can he tell the difference between Russia and (the former) Yugoslavia. “Anything goes”, says Jakob, neatly summarising the slave revolt of modern cinema. And, listening to his speech, it seems that, for him, anything indeed goes.
Meanwhile, not much is said about Makavejev’s films, whether their strengths or flaws. Guilt is proven, however, by this fact: now, they hold festivals in his honour. While it’s not in our power to decide if our work will, one day, be assimilated by the establishment, it’s still possible to refuse becoming its servant by echoing its rhetoric. Jakob’s cap-off is a low and easy accusation to throw at a filmmaker who was once hailed as a revolutionary, but whose reputation had diminished considerably by the ‘90s: “Now, Dušan, you are now like Flaubert: a bourgeois living the bourgeois life. And you are trying to be an artist.”
One cut, and we are in Belgrade. The colours and textures are different: softer, gentler. Dishes with biscuits and apples rest on a window sill. Two women (Milena Dravic and Eva Ras, who acted in the early films by Makavejev, those made when he was “a threat to somebody”) appear at the other side of the window. They are carrying some presents, smiling and waving at the camera. A zoom-out reveals two older women inside the house. As they move toward the entrance to receive their visitors, the camera follows them. This vignette – which Jakob would surely decry as the ultimate give-away of bourgeois taste – is accompanied by Makavejev’s voice-over: “If I had to choose between Nietzsche and Flaubert, I always thought the Frenchman was a better option”.
This declaration – which may have been as unfashionable in 1994 as it is today – acquires sense via the gesture that accompanies it: filming a meal between family and friends as the most precious and delicate thing. Makavejev appears on-screen for a moment, asking Eva about her present. “Wine from Mostar. Mostar is no more, but the wine is still there”, says the woman. “Tell that to Mum”, he urges. He takes the women’s coats and disappears, coming back with a bowl of soup.
The tenderness for all these small-scale gestures, for the bodies’ slow movements, for the embraces and kisses with which the women greet each other; the pleasure taken in this meal enjoyed in good company … This is Makavejev’s response to Jakob’s accusations. But this tenderness was never absent from his earlier films. The gestures may have been fiercer, the statements louder and the movements faster. But the enemy was never family, domesticity, not even coziness. The enemy was power, stupidity, and the repressive forces that annihilate life’s joy.
We move, once more, to the Expert’s office for his final verdict: “I hate to say this, but all the stuff that used to work, no longer works. Dušan, you are no longer funny.” The lost Director asks eagerly: “What shall I do?” With the aid of Sergei Eisenstein, the Expert serves him, on a platter, the key for success, the prescription according to which audiences will flock to see his films again: “We’ve separated the boot from the creak; the dialogue from the picture. That’s what you’ve got to do”.
What does it mean to wish to reconnect with the audience? One doesn’t touch spectators by giving them what they (openly or secretly) demand, by obeying the rules (spoken or unspoken) of the market, by yielding (in opportunistic follow-up or clever anticipation) to the fashion of the day. In an era where every new gimmick is hailed as the cutting edge of innovation for the next five minutes – before rapidly fading away and stepping aside for some new, fancy gadget – originality has become a recipe with a tight expiry date. But spectators and customers are not the same thing.
That’s why the Expert always has the answer, and the Director can never be satisfied with it. He remains lost, because his crisis is not only personal, but also concerns his relation to the world. He’s sad enough to keep wandering and asking for the miraculous cure, but funny enough to turn the Expert’s advice into the main joke around which the segment is built. He’s fool enough to dare to be unfashionable, to stick to his own project, to honour what fills his heart – with the hope of producing that spark which crosses the screen, touching the world a little, changing the world a little.
I guess that if I have to choose between the certainty of the Expert and the despair of the lost Director, I’ll always choose the second option.