Thursday, September 29, 2011

Alone Together

Jean Renoir once said that the only real way to gauge the talent of a crop of filmmakers is to have everyone make the same movie. Unless everyone makes a western, how will you know whether their strengths transcend their obsessions? I like to think we've come to see that the eye-roll that used to greet Westerns and horror films critically is not only unfair, it's unproductive. The odd direct-to-dvd cheapie is going to piss on the buffet, sure, but let's look at the year 2007. Think about the few mainstream westerns that were given runs in a proper movie house; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 3:10 To Yuma, There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men (if you will). At the risk of losing my academic edge, those films fucking rule. Granted, I'm sure they sure weren't pitched like Anthony Mann would have pitched The Naked Spur to studio heads, but they're grammar is all Mann, Ford, Huston and Boetticher. Actually that's not entirely true. There's also a shit load of McCabe & Mrs Miller, Robert Altman's gorgeous, opiate ode to the west. In Altman's filmography McCabe was sandwiched between a war film, a countercultural whiff, a trippy horror film, an old fashioned showbiz movie warped into a docudrama, a dystopian sci-fi lark and a dustbowl crime dramedy. Without genre films what the fuck would Robert Altman have done in the 70s? Without the genre film just what the fuck is the Golden Age of Hollywood? In fact, where the fuck does the establishment get off using Genre to describe anything other than gripping drama or films about jesus? Sorry, my point is that if you want to know what a director is capable of, if you want their style distilled to its essence, put them in charge of a western or a sci-fi film. This year Nic Winding Refn, Kelly Reicherdt, Takashi Miike, Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz, Rupert Wyatt, Jon Favreau, Craig Gillespie and Gore Verbinski saddled themselves with the conventions of films outside of their usual mindblowing personal projects and all acquitted themselves admirably, if not actively making their previous work pale in comparison. But the person I'm here to talk about once again is Lars Von Trier. In the last two years Lars has released movies that, if you squinted, were genre exercises, but were really just Lars Von Trier films. Any director worth his salt makes a film that you could recognize a mile off as the work of its creator. Swanberg and Refn come out best on that score of those listed above but Von Trier has them beat hands down. From the first second we clap eyes on Kirsten Dunst conducting electricity through her fingers in slow motion, we know which demigod has created the universe we're now locked inside. Granted it took Dogville, Manderlay, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark for us to know that, but the genre film is too important because as we'll see, it may be the only place the artist can still thrive.

by Lars Von Trier

We meet Justine on what is supposed to be the happiest day of her life. Everyone tells her it should be the happiest day of her life. She keeps acknowledging that it should be the happiest day of her life. Yet every second she can give over to it is spent running away from the things meant to make her happy. She's just been married to charmingly simple Michael and her sister Claire and her husband John have thrown them a wedding that out-does Michael Cimino's most resplendent ceremonies in its lavishness and John is not about to let her forget how much fucking money he spent on this wedding, as if reminding her how much effort went into it makes it seem like any better an idea in Justine's mind. For despite everyone's best efforts, it's Justine's depression, not John's money, Claire, their horrible parents, her boss nor her husband, that is running the show. After every imaginable escape attempt, her husband finally takes the hint and leaves. Justine stays at John and Claire's enormous estate for as long as they'll have her but even that doesn't last long. Her depression is her only company in the week following her wedding so finally Claire sends a car to her house to pick her up. Justine might not be fit to get out of bed, but Claire's going to make sure that she's in bed near people who care about her. And just as Claire makes it her mission to cheer Justine out of her crippling depression for what must be the hundredth time, John starts worrying about Claire. The thing that has Claire having kittens is that a small planet has been spotted. Not just by astrophysicists either. Justine saw the damn thing on her wedding night and it's just gotten bigger since then. Claire has spent a little too much time on the internet and thinks that "Melancholia" is going to crash into the earth and kill everything on it. John, being the kind of know-it-all his wardrobe and wealth betrays, is something of an amateur astronomer and he concurs with the most reasoned argument that it's just on a fly-by course and will do nothing more than temporarily encroach on the atmosphere and impede everyone's breathing for a few minutes. That may be, but John's certainty betrays not only his insufferable behavior. After all, only so much of it is for Claire's benefit. He too needs convincing that Melancholia isn't going to kill all life on earth and the more he talks the more he sounds like he's trying to fool himself. In fact the only person who remains unflappable in the face of the greatest uncertainty in man's history is Justine. She seems certain that not only are they doomed, it's not even that big a deal. So who's right?

On its face Melancholia is one of the clumsiest metaphors in the history of film. A planet called Melancholy threatens to kill everyone on earth. Well...fucking duh. As someone with what I've always considered at least depressed tendencies (never diagnosed, never serious enough to consider diagnoses, won't pretend for a second it's as serious as those who have it, please forgive my attempts at empathy here) and who's had seriously depressed friends (To put it another way I've never been as hopeless as Justine, but I've certainly been Claire, spending whole days thinking of something to cheer someone up who won't crack, nor will they share their problem), I understand the urge to make a movie with this big and loud a message propping it up. It takes nothing so much as hearing someone argue about the wrong thing to have me thinking exclusively of how cruel and pointless life seems. All Von Trier (who has very publicly shared his depression) is doing is removing any and all associations and getting to the heart of the problem. There's death hanging literally in the sky. You can try to run from it, as Claire literally tries to, but what have you accomplished? Justine's insight into what is starting to plague her sister and her family is what keeps her grounded. This may be new for Claire, but this is just getting out of bed for Justine. Now here's the thing. I completely understand why Von Trier abandons subtlety here. He's a middle-aged man with probably very few friends and the world doesn't find his brand of humour all that funny. I, however, do. Not only do I understand him, I've made a film about death with at least as little subtlety as Melancholia, except without the metaphor. That film, Tron Wayne Gacy, is entirely about someone who thinks about death so much that it effects people he barely knows. This character is me, like Justine (and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist before her) is Von Trier. So, yeah, on paper, he made a film that could hardly be any more screamingly obvious, but in practice he made one of the few films that accurately depicts depression, and one of the most beautifully rendered cinematic love letters of the last decade.
The reason I didn't notice how clumsy Melancholia is (except when John says the planet's name for the first time) is because Lars Von Trier's style is winning at the best of times and here, in a movie where characters are not actively out to destroy each other, it becomes as engrossing as a down bed with silk sheets. The opening montage of apocalyptic tableau bests even those corresponding shots in Antichrist. The wedding is filmed so beautifully (and I can't express enough how much I love the setting and Von Trier establishes its boundaries) that it took me quite some time to recognize how miserable the lead is. Of course, that's not just the cinematography. It turns out that beneath an eminently, distractingly likable exterior, Kirsten Dunst is one of the finest actresses of the day. She commands the first half of the film with such ease, her actions slowly unfurling a complex and fragile personality. It definitely made me wish she was in the second half of the film as much more than the devil on Claire's shoulder. Watching her with Michael (fabulously underplayed by Alexander Skarsgård, whose father Stellan, plays Justine's overbearing boss) in the film's first proper scene is heartbreaking. You believe these two are in love. No, that's not right. You believe that he's in love, you slowly realize that she wants to be in love, but that someone as vanilla as Michael is never going to be enough to stop her from being herself. All he needs is that perfect midwestern accent to convey how fall short of the mark he falls. Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt play the overwhelming parents. They didn't need a single line of dialogue; their presence is shorthand. Hurt is a scatterbrained hellraiser, Rampling an ice-cold bitch. They needn't have said anything and we would know why Justine's suffering from depression. Gainsbourg is believable, as always, and likable as the supposedly normal one trying to keep everyone together while her sister simply does what's going to keep her sane from moment to moment. The other revelation is Kiefer Sutherland giving a fucking dynamite performance as the arrogant John. It's the part he was born to play. I'm glad that even when the other brilliant players went home after the wedding, he hung around. A word about the wedding. It takes up a little less than half of the film and is a showcase for Kirsten Dunst more than it is anything else. But what it is secondly is a Zentropa family reunion and as such I felt like I was invited in to something truly special, drinking wine with the only people who Lars Von Trier thinks of as family. Skarsgård, Hurt, Udo Kier (the funniest part of this occasionally funny film), Gainsbourg are all veterans of Zentropa productions and Brady Corbet and Jesper Christensen have proved their euro-arthouse cruelty credentials quite sufficiently to fit right in. The only surprise is that Kirsten Dunst leaves absolutely everyone in the dust. She's breath-taking, for one thing, and her child-like frustration and unpredictability makes it impossible to take your eyes off of her.

With as big a driving force as a planet maybe falling to earth, Von Trier doesn't even need to hammer home his big themes or human misery as cruelly as is his wont. No one hits anyone, no one raises their voice for more than a few seconds, no one is incapable of feeling. In fact I'd say these are the most human characters we've seen in one of the Danish auteur's films since...well, maybe ever. And as he's not too busy making sure everyone goes into histrionics or remembering imaginary boundaries, he lets the film student in his soul dress the set. Scott Tobias likened the film to Solaris, which by an interesting coincidence I watched not a day before seeing Melancholia, and that's certainly a possible reference point, what with its planet-as-legend-to-the-grieving-process motif. Dunst steps into Natalya Bondarchuk's adorable/sinister innocence for the first half of the film and Gainsbourg's frantically losing her footing resembles Donatas Bonionis dealing with his wife's appearances aboard the ship. But that doesn't quite cover it. If Antichrist was his tribute to Tarkovsky, I'd wager what that means is Stalker and The Mirror with a hint of Nostalghia. There is the same studied grace of every person in the frame that came to characterize Andrei Tarkovsky's films (from Andrei Rublev on, his actors looked like they were cut from some ancient tree, crafted by the director himself) present throughout. Kirsten Dunst in her wedding dress is Von Trier's most active and personal creation. It's what people will be putting in their films to signify his influence years from now. Just as thanks to Andrei Rublev, the presence of a horse will always be shorthand for Tarkovsky, and perfectly sculpted hedges in the floodlights signifies Alain Resnais' Last Year At Marienbad, if the eventually claustrophobic party at a mansion didn't do it for you (or if you thought he was merely nodding in the direction of his one-time Dogme partner Thomas Vinterberg's best film to date The Celebration). And though Solaris is too obvious to ignore but the set-up comes right out of The Sacrifice, perhaps tellingly the Russian master's final film. In that movie Erland Josephson tries to thwart nuclear war by bedding a poor neighbor. Justine tries to cure her wandering displeasure the same way. The world maybe ending on an endless green landscape bonds the two films tightly, even if ultimately Von Trier emerges the better filmmaker in this case. Why? Genre.

A few weeks ago I saw a film called Another Earth whose sci-fi trappings were really just a springboard for an unconvincing romance and an exploration of grief that I'd seen before and better. The problem is that the makers of that film evidently thought they were making something greater and more important than sci-fi and spend so little time on the ramifications of a plot device not at all dissimilar from Melancholia. In that film the planet is identical to earth and not an ominous, lifeless wake-up call. The films work to opposite purposes. Another Earth uses its planet as a cure for one man's depression with the promise of hope and possibility. Melancholia's planet is meant to remind us that we're entirely the fuck alone in the universe and that we have to acknowledge horrible things to really be able to face the idea of death. Tellingly, Another Earth spends so little of its run time on its titular plot device and comes across as achingly inessential despite its best efforts to be bigger than the two cloying romantics it centers on. It has important things to say about love and forgiveness. Melancholia has one thing to say and like Solaris, you can never escape it. Just as you're trapped aboard a spaceship for all but the opening 45 minutes of the film, Von Trier's opening montage ensures you never forget about his planet. Just because it's set on earth doesn't make it any less of sci-fi film than Solaris or Moon or Sunshine, even if it's a heady, unscientific sci-fi. Like those films, it takes one motif (the sun, the moon, another planet) to explore the human condition, the idea being we have to go there, to the farthest reaches of the universe, to be truly alone with ourselves and our problems. Von Trier figures there's no reason to leave and gets in the same punches with an even heftier emotional weight than the other movies. The reason Solaris is a better film than The Sacrifice (and the better known of the two) is because it hides its message in the fantastical, something cinema is made for. The Sacrifice is a big important movie about big important issues and for goodness sakes can you believe this cold war!? It's not relevant today, but by setting Solaris in the future and generalizing his crises, he made a lasting and beloved classic, at least among freaks like me. Sci-fi lent Tarkovsky a cushion for his ideas, just as it does for Von Trier.
I should come clean and admit that I've seen everything he's ever done. Von Trier is the White Stripes of the film world; they made some of the most incredible rock music of all time, but none of their albums work from start to finish. Jack White's uncanny ability with a guitar mimics the miracles Von Trier pulls with his digital imagery (the chapter markers in Breaking the Waves, the tableau of his latest work, the sheer audacity of the way he filmed Dogville and Manderlay - though I'd only call the latter of them really pretty) and, you know, I'll go ahead and stop this comparison right here. This fucking thing is long and convoluted enough as it is. Suffice it to say The White Stripes broke up before they released their Melancholia. Anyway, Von Trier is an artist whose explorations are never less than fascinating. But the issue is that I can only stomach his genre exercises enough to watch them twice. Anyone who watches Dancer in the Dark for fun should probably find out who Lars is seeing about his depression and schedule an appointment. I was always kind of amazed that some of his movies were given DVD releases. Who the shit can sit through Breaking The Waves or The Idiots twice? I don't regret seeing any of his movies, but I never want to see some of them again. I've never been tempted to find Dogville again. Like Michael Haneke's best known works, the ideas work well enough that I don't need a second visit. Give me Time of the Wolf over The Piano Teacher anyday (speaking of Tarkovskian...). But even though his films were hitherto like arthouse bootcamp, to me, that just makes Melancholia that much more special. His work and I have been flirting since we discovered each other and it took getting to know each other, a courtship that spanned at first only seeing youthful zeal and incredibly appealing aesthetics (Europa, The Element Of Crime, The Kingdom). This gave way to an untenable Marxist hardening, the equivalent of watching them date other people and mirror that person's personality to the point that you wonder if you'll ever get together (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots). But they broke it off eventually, and it was hard (Dancer), but personal growth showed me what I saw in them to begin with (Dogville, Manderlay). Then they played coy (Five Obstructions, Boss Of It All) but with the blanket of the horror genre, it finally seemed like it was time to give this thing a shot. She was certainly sending signals. And now, Lars Von Trier's films and I are on the same page. Not only could I see watching Melancholia again, I can't fucking wait to own it so I can watch it in perpetuity alongside Apocalypse Now, There Will Be Blood, Let The Right One In, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and Inception. It may have taken our whole lives, but it was worth the wait.


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