Monday, February 15, 2010
Dancer in the Dark and Broken Embraces
After many months of heckling and various kinds of psychological violence (including glaring at me with his evil eye) Reid was finally able to sit me down and watch Lars Von Trier’s (the accursed Dane, as he’s known in my house) Dancer in the Dark. The film is, of course, primarily (in)famous for being the only film starring Icelandic pop diva Björk. After her experience with Von Trier’s famous tact and artistic sensitivity she swore off acting forever so this is, presumably, the only chance we have of seeing her cinematic prowess. Her performance can only be described as amazing, but don’t take this to mean that her acting is any good. In fact, her acting is nonexistent. There is no representation here, no entering into a character or a voice through which the audience can experience an unfolding story. Von Trier simply takes a non-actor and makes her literally go through a smorgasbord of different and difficult emotions. When she’s sad she doesn’t play sad, she actually is sad. This is not method acting nor is it a stylistic technique. The woman is simply not an actor and there is no art, beauty or form to what she is doing. It seems obvious that Von Trier literally forced her to go through all these emotions on a very basic level and then he simply filmed them (there were various stories from the production of the film retelling how Trier would terrorize Björk in various ways, psychologically and physically, to create these emotions). This exercise (experiment?) in showing a human being go through very intense and painful situations seems to be Trier’s main goal in the film. The story is terribly underdeveloped and the characters are there simply to move Selma’s (Björk’s character) story forward. The supporting cast does a fine job, sometimes even wonderful, especially Catherine Deneuve and David Morse. Deneuve comes off especially well since she is the only actor who can interact with Björk’s “performance” without seeming baffled or scared. She totally excepts whatever it is that Trier wants to accomplish and gives herself over to each and every scene with beautiful and sensitive acting. Here is truly an actor (and a character) who deserves a better film.
I am not trying to diminish the bravery and trust exhibited by Björk in this role, both towards Von Trier but also towards us, the audience. The performance is as naked and wounded as anything your likely to see in a film. Yet it has no purpose, no aesthetic value, since there is more to film than simply putting us through an emotional boot-camp. It is interesting to note the fascination modern directors have with emotional manipulation, as if this had anything to do with good art. Literature moved beyond such sentimentality shortly after Romanticism (although it still lingers there, just like in music and painting, although much less pronounced than in films) and films would do well to do the same. The medium lends itself particularly well to kitsch as it can barrel us over with sounds, music and images all created to pull our strings (be they connected to heart, libido or mind). Perhaps this is why cinema is such a modern art form. Romanticism was, after all, a response to industrialization and the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the new sciences. The Romantics felt that emotions must be exulted in art so that human beings would not be reduced to their rationality. In doing so the Romantics and the philosophers of the Enlightenment created the false and odious dichotomy between reason and emotions that still hampers so much of Western culture, art and philosophy. One can see this dichotomy becoming increasingly more pronounced in our times since our need for feeling something very strongly has never been greater. A nihilistic age is even more desensitized than a rationalistic one, and people’s abandonment of anything transcendent or good means that all we can hope for is too cling to very strong, intense emotions for a short time (emotions being fleeting and transitory). This is what creates kitsch, a type of anti-art that seems to have reached its zenith (one hopes) in the emotional-pornography so prevalent in modern films, television and music.
Yet films need not be kitsch. A good film can be the most subtle, most beautiful and harmonious of all art. It can elevate the spirit and bring us into contact with the depths and complexities of the human condition. An absolute prerequisite for the attainment of such beauty is that the artist trust his or her audience and that they understand the complex relationship between audience and art. This is among the many failures of Von Trier in this film, especially in the musical numbers. It is obvious that Von Trier is fascinated by American culture and films and he wants to comment on both through this particular movie, yet his tone is so condescending that any and all thematic elements or philosophical content are drowned out by his failure to appreciate the musical genre. Spike Jonze managed to create a much more interesting and powerful commentary on the musical form in the video for “It’s oh so quiet” (also, interestingly enough, starring Björk) which in turn hinted at an interesting social commentary. It isfascinating to consider how enamored Americans have been with the musical form and how this relates to some of the darker and more violent elements of American culture. Yet to successfully comment on this bizarre relationship one must understand and maybe even love said genre, enter into it with full abandon, just like Jonze did in his wonderful video where every camera movement flows with an appreciation of the heritage it is entering into, paying homage to Donen, Hawks and Demy. Jonze loves musicals (and, I believe, so does Björk) and he is able to comment on them without cynicism or condescension. Von Trier doesn’t even try to understand the genre (just like he doesn’t even want to try to understand America) and this is evident in the clumsy and pathetic framing, direction and editing of the musical numbers.
A few days after my viewing of Dancer in the Dark I saw Pedro Almodovar’s new film, Broken Embraces in theaters. And what a joy it was. Almodovar is a man in love with cinema, someone who breathes it and lives it. He is devoted to his art and sees it as a chance to explore the human condition, to look at the various positions we occupy and the paradoxes inherent within the human heart. His films are often influenced by melodrama yet he never seeks to push any emotional or intellectual content on us. Emotions in his films are truly that, movements (e-motion) that naturally ebb and flow through the scenes without any image, dialogue or moment being primarily dictated by them. His compositions are beautiful, using colors and framing in ways that almost no living director can equal. The way he uses shots is very self-aware without being too intellectual or technical, a fascination with the power of the camera to tell a story and to convey spiritual truths. I will probably write more on this picture later but I just want to describe one scene from the film that has stayed with me and granted me a lot of thought and joy:
A blind man, who once was an acclaimed director of films, sits in front of a television screen. The screen is showing a crudely shot video recording of the last few moments leading up to a car accident. The director, many years before, was sitting behind the wheel of the car we see on the screen and besides him sits his lover, played with sensitivity and grace by Penelope Cruz. What unfolds on the screen is being described by the director’s young son who is watching the footage with him: The couple in the car kiss each other, a quiet, unassuming kiss, the kind that lovers give to each other as naturally as breathing. They then drive further down the road and are hit by an oncoming truck. The accident blinded the director and killed his lover. The director mentions that he can’t remember the kiss, that everything leading up to the accident has been wiped from his memory. His son says that the film shows that the two did indeed kiss, and that “the last thing she ever felt in this world was the taste of your mouth.” The director then asks his son to rewind the tape to the kiss, moving it forward frame by frame. The camera (Almodovar’s camera, that is) moves into a close-up of the screen and we can see the director etching forward, his blind eyes revealing nothing but darkness, but then he puts his hands on the flat screen in front of him, as if he were trying to discern the outlines of the faces shown there, and we realize that in spite of his blindness, in spite of the tragedy of his accident, he can see. I believe this scene says a great deal about the beauty, power and spiritual relevance of cinema.