A still from “OR119,” a film about controversial Maine inventor Wilhelm Reich. Photo courtesy of Space

Mainers with a sense of history (especially Maine’s strange history) know the name Wilhelm Reich. An Austrian-born doctor and psychoanalyst and disciple of Sigmund Freud, Reich did influential work in various analytical fields before moving to the United States in the days before World War II, eventually settling by Dodge Pond in Rangeley. Building a retreat/institute he called Orgonon in an old farmhouse, Reich, his family and his followers spent the next several decades writing, lecturing and inventing.

Those inventions included “cloudbusters,” complex arrangements of pipes he claimed could bring rain, and the “orgone accumulator,” a wooden box in which subjects would sit and absorb orgone energy, a force of esoteric sexual energy that, Reich claimed, could improve everything from libido to physical and mental health. The new film “OR119,” playing at Portland’s Space on Friday, is the work of filmmakers Peggy Ahwesh and Jacqueline Goss, dedicated to exploring Wilhelm Reich’s works and legacy, especially that formed and refined in that remote cabin in the Maine woods.

“Jacqueline Goss showed a movie of hers at Space a decade ago, while Peggy’s work goes back to her early 1980s experimental shorts. Their careers are both really exciting,” said Greg Jamie, who continues to forge his own eccentric path as movie booker for not only Space but Portland’s Apohadion Theater. “This is thoughtful and compelling filmmaking, reinterpreting Reich’s writing under a feminist lens.”

Oh, and “OR119” is a musical, just for added weird- and wonderfulness, with Zach Layton’s music accompanying ruminations on Reich’s writings in numbers like, “Breast Song,” “Deadly Orgone Song” and “Last Will and Testament,” which fittingly closes out the impressionistic musical with a chanting recitation of Reich’s will, written while the aging thinker was in jail in 1957.

Why did this eminent Austrian doctor and philosopher end his eventful life in a Connecticut federal prison? Well, that’s a long story, one that “OR119” hints at in the actors’ impressionistic interpretation of their subject. The short answer is that Reich was enjoined from manufacturing and selling his orgone accumulators, violated that injunction and was sentenced to prison. While Reich’s early psychoanalytical work was well regarded, his later theories concerning the sexual roots of fascism and mental illness, and especially his controversial concept of orgone energy, were increasingly dismissed as pseudoscience. (That he also believed he could use that energy to make it rain was its own controversy, although Reich did successfully collect his fee for using his cloudbuster device to supposedly save the 1953 Maine blueberry crop, so make of that what you will.)

A longer and more compelling answer is that Wilhelm Reich was a pioneering proponent of sexual liberation, both as a component of mental health and as a way of life. His Rangeley retreat became a subject of wild rumors and inevitably sensationalistic headlines (the orgone accumulator being termed cancer-curing “sex boxes”) leading to 1950s America swooping in to put a stop to whatever was going on up there in Maine. That Reich was not only imprisoned but that some six tons of his books and writings were ordered to be publicly burned is one of the fishier instances of American censorship in history, one that lends credence to Reich’s theories about sexual repression and fascism.


Says the enthusiastic Jamie of “OR119’s” evocatively free-form approach to Wilhelm Reich’s complicated story, “The tone of it is surprisingly gentle. There’s definitely a playfulness, which is pretty striking. It just looked like it was fun to make, which is not always a good thing, but you have a sense that the filmmakers were playing with the language of Reich and the space they were in.” That space is Orgonon itself, the still-standing, well-preserved Rangeley home base that forms the actual setting for the cast’s puckish take on Reich’s thorny legacy.

As Jamie continues, “The musical aspect seems counterintuitive in a way, but it does something to the language that’s really surprising. They have a real mastery of what they’re getting across, a way of appreciating the spirit of mysticism. Something about the movie makes it all a little more accessible.”

“OR119” is just the latest wonderfully odd cinematic pursuit that Greg Jamie’s brought to Portland, at both Space and The Apohadion. I’ve said it many times, but a film scene needs a guiding voice, and Jamie – like former Space and PMA Films programmer Jon Courtney before him – is a fine curator of the local indie scene.

Jamie says that Space’s recent offerings have been warmly received by Maine moviegoers looking for something different, and points to the upcoming screenings of environmental documentary “A Watershed Moment” (Saturday) and the behind-the-scenes Thelonious Monk performance documentary “Rewind and Play” (March 15) as the sort of adventurous movies targeted right at Maine viewers’ sweet spots.

Am I calling Greg Jamie Portland’s eccentric movie guru? Well, he’s not inventing mysterious film energy accumulators (that I know of), but why not? Every film scene needs a curator willing to reach out into the ether and bring back something challenging, weird and wonderful.

“OR119” is playing at 7 p.m. Friday at Space, 538 Congress St., Portland. The screening is free and will be accompanied by an appearance from filmmakers Peggy Ahwesh and Jacqueline Goss, and David Silver from the Reich Trust, should you have any questions. Which you will.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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