A subliminal collage, a sci-fi epic, an avant-garde restaging of an ancient Indian myth — there’s really no one way to characterize Fernando Birri’s ORG (1979), a kaleidoscopic behemoth of a film. In it, the Argentine writer-director quotes, in a title card, the British poet William Blake: “Excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” If ORG is such a palace of wisdom, its baroque, winding architecture suggests that true knowledge lies deep in the murky dungeons of our subconscious. (ORG has three forthcoming screenings in Williamsburg as part of Spectacle Theater’s retrospective of Birri, who died last year.)
In lieu of plot, we follow a multicultural, interracial love triangle consisting of two male friends, Grrrr (Isaak Twen Obu) and Zohommm (Terence Hill), and Grrrr’s girlfriend, Shuick (Lidija Juraçik), as they embark on a cosmic mission. Well, “cosmic” in hallucinogenic, rather than strictly Martian, terms — an existential mindfuck, so to speak. Birri borrows from an Indian myth about an innocent girl, Sita, who, by falling in love with two men simultaneously, stirs up their jealousy and drives them to suicide. She, in turn, becomes a manifestation of the goddess Kali, a symbol of creation but also death. The tale inspired Thomas Mann’s novella, Transposed Heads, which transformed Sita into a femme-fatale figure. Similarly to these sources, Birri has the male friends become jealous and despondent, even losing their heads, literally. The mayhem of decapitation concludes on a relatively upbeat note in all versions of the tale — an oracle brings the men back but mixes up their heads, attaching them to the wrong bodies and confusing Sita as to which man she should love. But where the literary texts end in a tragic reversal, with the men dying for good and the heroine delivered to a sacrificial bonfire, Birri’s film and its denouement foster a much more tongue-in-cheek tone.
To recap ORG’s narrative arc is to give away little. The film’s ambition lies not so much in the sum of its acts as in their proliferation and in the endless cross-referencing of fact and fiction. As for the title, Birri noted in interviews connections to various concepts (“organ, orgasm, orgy”), plus an allusion to Orgonics, a vague philosophy of universal life force. (Look up “orgonics” online and you’ll find a slew of New Age–y health products.) Birri himself identified the man whose research inspired Orgonics, Wilhelm Reich, as a creator of the sexual revolution, and dedicated the film to him, along with Che Guevara and Méliès.
If an underlying question can be said to drive ORG, it’s one that urgently echoes the name of both a Soviet classic by Nikolai Chernyshevsky and a turn-of-the-century Lenin manifesto: “What Is To Be Done?” We can see why these historical precedents resonated for Birri, who was a guiding star in Argentina’s socially engaged cinema of the Seventies, having founded a film school in Santa Fe, Argentina, and, together with Gabriel García Márquez, another one in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba (where the 1971 Latin American Cinema Congress took place). At one point in ORG, there’s an encyclopedic rundown of clips — interviews with Godard, Glauber Rocha, Luis Ospina, Jonas Mekas, Jan Němec, Fernando Solanas, Octavio Getino — that plays like the Parthenon of the period’s numerous nouvelle vagues. Yet as Birri was filming ORG in Italy, from 1967 to 1978, the dream of politically attuned cinemas hinting at a radicalized social order had been profoundly shaken. By then, the Eastern European and Latin American military regimes had tightened their grip. Birri, like Rocha, was an exile.
ORG was shot by seven different directors of photography, and includes more than 26,000 cuts and 700 audio tracks — a tremendous, maddening effort. In the end, the wisdom present in Birri’s extravagant, orgiastic feat stems from his political disillusionment. Throughout ORG’s bloodied visions, Birri delivers a virulent critique of late capitalism and a mournful paean to the demoralized Left. As Godard, quoted in the film, says: “An intellectual, in his essence, must commit suicide.” Birri repeatedly hints at treason and cowardice. There’s betrayal, as the camaraderie of Grrrr and Zohommm devolves into violence, and class tensions, as the soundtrack continually pits the intelligentsia against the working class. In the context of the mid-Seventies, such bitterness is understandable; it wasn’t until the late Eighties, when in countries such as Poland workers, students, and intellectuals marched together, that some of the region’s autocratic regimes were finally toppled. Though today, as ugly populism once again rears its head, we may ask how much of that revolutionary energy remains.
Birri said in interviews that his time in Italy — his second exile, his cinema studies in Rome in his twenties being the first, joyful one — was the darkest period in his life. Yet he found the stamina to play. In ORG, he depicts his protagonists by turns naked and wearing green plastic space suits, a touching sight that proves how unprepared they are for their voyage. Their homemade spacecraft, a metal tin-wreck, lands in a mountainous terrain with dilapidated houses. Mars meets Biblical garden meets historical ruin — which is to say, a bit like Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966) or Andrzej Żuławski’s On the Silver Globe (1988), ORG isn’t strictly set in the future. Its time is expanded, diluted. A hallucination or projection of our nightmares, it mixes intergalactic time with both the historical past and the here-and-now.
Birri injects ORG with archival photographs of Sixties and Seventies political protests, of violent police reprisals, and with tidbits from activist and intellectual speeches. In one hilarious fragment, we hear a speaker denounce fascism but get frustrated with his own performance, as he suddenly exclaims “fasciste, fasciste…porca Madonna!,” veering from solemnity to slapstick. This jouissance, this verbal and visual slyness, is one of ORG’s great rewards. Birri borrows inspiration from a wide variety of sources: Surrealism (incongruous imagery, striking juxtapositions); authors like James Joyce and Julio Cortázar (onomatopoeic delights, stream of consciousness). As the pace intensifies, words turn to screeches and garbled cries, and images flash with alarming frequency. Embedded in this claustrophobia is the torment of mass communications, mass culture as a nervous illness. The actors tether this flotsam, but then turn on a dime to comment on their own roles and attitudes toward polymorphous romance — a meta twist reminiscent of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961).
To watch Birri’s phantasmagoria today is to appreciate its irreverent mockumentary impulse and self-referential, cannibalistic postmodern energy, unafraid of sabotage, of pastiche, of what Fredric Jameson calls “artistic simulacrum.” This may be quite far, at times, from Birri’s original intention, when the agonies of political transformation — or dreams of one — were still painfully fresh. Such emotions remain tangible in the way Birri manipulated the image, scratched it, distressed it with nails, spray-painted it. And, for sure, our own age reveals its own festering wounds, and with it, new uses for Birri’s dystopia. Might we glimpse in ORG’s electronic Sybil the grim spectacle of the electoral college that reanimates a discombobulated body politic? Trumpism? Birri insisted that his film, or “filmunculus,” revealed different meanings, depending on the viewer and context. It is all there.
Screens July 21, 22, and 29
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