It makes sense that Man Is Not a Bird was Dušan Makavejev’s first film. It has that first-film “breadth” to it.
Where Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice P.T.T. (Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator) struck with absolute precision, Čovek nije ptica meanders about a bit in search of the appropriate film language.
[N.B. Wikipedia spells “bird” in Serbo-Croat for this film as “tica”. I’m not sure why that is as “tica” seems to mean nothing (whereas “ptica” means “bird”).]
Though our film is set in a strange, backwards town, the narrative is considerably sprawled.
Eva Ras (the star of Love Affair…) is here as a more minor character. However, she is the one who most lives out the message of the title.
This film has a strange obsession with hypnosis. There is a hypnotist, but the film starts off with a scientific denunciation of superstition. Through hypnosis (we are told), a distressed person can be made to abandon the grip of superstition.
Back to our hypnotist in the middle of the film…he is more of an entertainer than anything. I am not entirely sure, but I believe the initial “legitimate” hypnotist (psychologist) and the later “entertainer” hypnotist are played by the same actor.
If that is the case, then Makavejev’s later metaphor (the circus) makes more sense. But what is really complex about this film is the layering of metaphors upon one another. It makes finding meaning very difficult.
One “reading” would be that life is a circus. Another reading would be that “cinema” is a circus which purports to present a more truthful version of life than what we know.
But what does that mean?
Every day we experience life is some respect. What could be “more truthful” than our daily experience? Is Makavejev implying that we lie to ourselves? Quite possibly.
As film viewers (spectators), we may become immersed in a particular movie and identify with characters and stories. In a way, WE are the fourth wall. The fourth wall is our temporary reality. We enter into the false reality of film.
But, film gives us a chance to observe “ourselves”. When we heavily identify with a particular character, we are having a sort of “out of body experience”.
And this brings us back to hypnosis.
Man Is Not a Bird is a very beautiful film (in a grimy, socialist, factory soot kind of way), but it is (perhaps not surprisingly) a dark film as well.
Shot, like Love Affair…, in black and white there is something more sinister about this film than the more gentle and humorous Love Affair… But who are we kidding? Love Affair… is inextricably wound up with death. What could be darker than that?
Answer: life without life.
It is what Eva Ras experiences as she is emotionally abused and disrespected by her husband. Her husband, as it turns out, is working a job which is so hazardous to his health that the position is being eliminated ASAP. And that’s in communist Yugoslavia! All through this film we see a sort of poverty which separates East from West. The poor Eastern Europeans. What the West would come to realize (like New York Times film critic Vincent Canby) was that the East had something of immense wealth. If pressed, I would call it soul.
Man is not a bird (even if, under hypnosis, he believes this to be the case). Man is also no angel. Janez Vrhovec plays a sort of martyr in this film. Another more light-hearted character prods him as to whether he can feel the tingling of his burgeoning angel wings (the prodding is actually quite sardonic).
Man is not a machine. But Jan Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec), the deft Slovenian machinist/engineer, has become a slave to his job. From Pakistan to Dar es Salaam: Rudinski makes his comrades proud with his exceptional efficiency.
But let us return to Eva Ras.
To turn Godard on his head, A Woman Is Not A Woman.
Why do I say that?
Because the French word for wife (femme) is the same as the French word for woman (femme).
And so a whole new world of wordplay opens up for us concerning TWO Godard films (namely):
Une Femme est une femme
Une Femme mariée.
In the first, we could potentially have the proto-syllogisms:
A woman is a wife.
A wife is a woman.
Furthermore, we could have:
A woman is a woman (the accepted translation in the English-speaking world).
Or, on the contrary:
A wife is a wife.
It gets to be such that we assume there is some sort of “boys will be boys” idiomatic phrase in operation. Not being a native French speaker, I cannot confirm or deny that. But I do know that Godard loves word play. And therefore, the simple answer may not be the intended answer.
To illustrate further we have,
Une Femme mariée.
The accepted English translation is A Married Woman, but could it not be the more perverse and thought-provoking A Married Wife?
One thing is certain:
Man Is Not a Bird will have you under its spell whether you understand it or not. At least, that’s the experience I had.
I would add one final bit of exegesis (extra Jesus).
It may very well be that Makavejev was making a disparaging statement about the communist Yugoslavian state with his first film. It would be like the secret messages which Shostakovich managed to work into his music (particularly the string quartets) while living in Soviet Russia.
In the hands of communist governments, art (and particularly film…after Lenin’s admiration of the medium for its uniqueness) had to represent the people. On one side (with communist eyes) this is admirable. From the other (with capitalist eyes) this is seen as propaganda.
Any astute capitalist would have realized that (particularly in times of war) there was not much difference from communist and capitalist propaganda. Both economic systems availed themselves of the practice of propagandizing.
But my guess, regarding the film in question, is that Makavejev recognized his own role as a propagandist (he had no choice in the matter…either please the censors or leave the profession) and likewise saw film as a double-edged sword of hypnosis.
And so his first film is really a realization…of that power in film…that power that can drive the masses to love…or to kill.