Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dancer in the Dark - Another Perspective

I've never really hidden that I'm a fan of Lars von Trier. But let it also be known that I don't think he's some super director. I find his films personally challenging, and not in some projected, post hoc way. I think he makes films partially to challenge his audience. I think he also makes films because he has to - that if he didn't have film as a personal, artistic, therapeutic outlet, then he'd be even crazier than he is today (and that's saying something). As I was telling Agust the other day, I always get the feeling that his films are a means for Lars to work through whatever spiritual demons he's feeling at the time. It's like a psychologist giving a traumatized child a crayon and a piece of paper. Of course, it's not exactly the same, but I think it bears a similar rawness - for better and worse.

Dancer in the Dark is a tough pill to swallow. There are some problems with the screenplay - inconsistencies, unintended vagueness, incomplete characters. The drama is often hyperdramatic (probably more than any of his other films that I've seen). It's often unpleasant to watch (not a problem, per se). Accordingly, I do not think this to be one of his strongest outputs. However, I own this movie and have seen it probably 4 times. Why?

Ultimately, I'm not sure. There is something of a moth and flame effect going on with Lars and me. The first couple times I watched the movie, it was Bjork's performance that grabbed me. It is difficult to deny its power. I go back and forth trying to decide the extent to which she's acting. Just watching the movie, there is something so virile, so unhinged. This is how Dancer in the Dark got its hooks in me initially. I've seen plenty of "sad" movies, but this one was different. It wasn't that I felt bad for Selma. It was almost like I was feeling what she was feeling. I don't mean to say that I was empathizing with her. Her slew of crazy decisions makes emapthy a bit tough. Rather, it's like the emotion reached out of the screen and grabbed me. In this way, I can understand the claim that Lars is manipulative. However, does he "earn" it? This is one of my current questions. Selma goes through a lot of pain. Is it justified? Does he just spring it on the audience? Is his purpose solely to make the audience feel one way? Even though it seems like he does lead his audience around with a noose, I also get the feeling with Lars that something different is going on. Maybe I just want to give merit to some of the strongest acting performances on film. Maybe it's because Lars and his films strike me as particularly thoughtful. I'm not sure

After reading a variety of interviews with both Bjork and Lars, I've decided that Bjok is acting, but because she's so new to the artform - and because he's her own brand of crazy/fragile - her acting has such a distinctly primal feel to it. These days, while I still have a lot of respect for Bjork's acting in the the film, I don't feel the same emotional attachment, which is to be expected. So why do I still like it?

To differ from Agust, it's because of the music. I don't mean just the singing or the songs, but I do enjoy the musical numbers, dancing and all.

"Most musicals are extremely americanized. I think that's why 'West Side Story' is my favorite musical, because it's dealing with such a typical American matter. I think 'West Side Story' is the one musical, which that can easily become a movie. Maybe because it was the first musical to deal with unglamorous, everyday matters. I think 'Singin' in the Rain' is my favorite among the old classical movie-musicals. Much because of Gene Kelly. Fred Astaire was a very great dancer, but Gene Kelly was a great dancer with a remarkable talent for choreography. " -----Lars

That was from an interview he did before actually making Dancer in the Dark, and it think it reflects some of his intentions with the movie. Dancer in the Dark, like West Side Story, is not glamorous, and more or less deals with everyday matters. The way the musical numbers are incorporated into the film (i.e. daydreams) is so simple and so smart. While part of me wonders what the scenes would have looked like if they were more gaudy (like most musicals), I ultimately think it works best how it is. They are adequately grandiose. They serve the story and the character. In that way (among others), this is not a typical musical, where the musical numbers and the story almost have the same level of importance. Here, each song, each dream reveals something about Selma. The dancing, choreographed by Vincent Paterson who has worked a lot with Madonna, is pretty good. I imagine it's tough to choreograph scenes with Bjork and the other actors who are not dancers. You can't let the dancers outshine them. Spike Jonze's "It's Oh So Quiet" video is pretty great. Maybe Lars asked him to do the choreography. Probably not. I think Lars probably loves a number of musicals, but for the reasons that he likes them. I don't think he's saying they are dumb or pointless or whatever, I think he just wants to make a different one. And it is that....I think ultimately for the better.

In Dancer in the Dark, most attention is paid to the drama, but for me today, I really cling to the unadulterated joy that Selma experiences in the music. Her sadness and pain are strong and multi-layered, but I really think Selma's spirit is never truly squelched. Her life, up to the end of the movie, is a musical - it's her dream. And there is an intended beauty there, I feel.

That's pretty much all I have to say off the top of the dome, but here's the beginning of the movie. I always forget that it starts with an overture:


e said...

i'm thinking most about the emotion of the film. Agust called it an "emotional boot camp," where as you seemed to say you enjoyed how the emotion came out of the screen, made you feel what Selma was feeling (as opposed to feeling FOR her). Do you think there's a difference in what you're saying and what Agust is saying, or is it the same, and you just like it, hence call it something less degrading. (as an aside, boot camp is training, so in regards to film (or any art), could it be possible to view film as an emotional training amongst other trainings for life?)

R Logan L said...

there is probably overlap, but probably just as much differing...
I base lot of my thoughts on this topic, for better or worse, on an intuitional concept of "earning it". i'll make more of an effort to conceptualize this at some point, but for now I'm content to say that I know my standards for emotional resonance in my gut