We’ve been talking about Lars Von Trier’s “Nymph()maniac” Vol. 1 & 2.
When Von Trier’s predecessor, C.T. Dreyer, placed his camera in the homes of Danish Luthern’s in the early 1900’s he was dissecting an emotional tumor in the prudish mentality of a bygone day. Von Trier sets his lens on the same view of the opposite end of the spectrum, our modern, sex-forward culture. His characters are no longer hounded by sin and forgiveness but by obsession and repression. A Christ-like character, the compassionate fisherman and good-Samaritan, Seligman, rescues Jo from lying beat in the street. It must be Christ himself that Seligman emulates. He’s a virgin and claims never to have met a bad person in his life. He turns out to be one.
With a protracted digression. at the mid-point of the Vol. 1, about the schism between the eastern and western Christian traditions, Seligman connects sex and religion and Von Trier finds an eloquent visual impression with which to introduce it. In this case he does with the solitary eastern orthodox icon of the Madonna hanging on the wall behind where our modern day harem girl and eunuch are arguing. Without wasting dialog, the filmmaker is commenting on how the iconographic trends in the ancient sacred arts have been hijacked in the presentation of modern movies and he draws a comparison between Madonna and the girly pin-up in one skilled stroke.
The icon and pin-up were one-in-the-same when they debuted on the cave walls that sheltered our earliest ancestors. Humans are compelled to fetishize, ritualize and sanctify the human reproductive process. It’s almost as old as the act itself. Ironically, it is the male and female organs on parade, not the persons having sex, that make modern porn what it is. What we see carved and painted in stone caves and on the modern porn screen is essentially the same content. Our taste hasn’t changed since the dawn of history. The ritual, visually speaking at least, revolves around the genitals. Because that pathway in the brain is so primitive, its going to appeal, in vastly different ways of course, to the widest range and largest number of people.
With this new movie, Von Trier is not making porn. He couldn’t even appeal to the writer at the small town independent newspaper that rebuked him. The reviewer I read, anyway, castigated Von Trier as if he’d pushed the gross-out film to new heights. I admit, that some of this movie was very hard to watch. You want to push back somehow. One way, I suppose is to label it perverse. The movie reviewer that I read did just that to “Nymph()maniac,” still, I seriously doubt he was even conscious of all the people he was insulting with his cry of misogyny.
He is implying, to name just one of the other artists involved, that Charlotte Gainsborough, the star of Vol 2 is diseased. I don’t see any evidence of it in her history. The leading lady in this movie made her name playing burly roles for women. I would think she took this job to expand her chops and meet a challenge with some other artists that she respects.
Von Trier is not breaking particularly new ground in these scenes of degradation. The tradition can be traced as far back as the late silent era classic, “Haxan” (1922), and hails from Von Trier’s home country by the way as well. The soil of cinematic excess is further amended with Pier Paulo Passolini’s “Salo, 120 Days of Sodom.”(1975), one of those movies about excrement that I already named. That film offended my senses a great deal more than “Nymph()maniac.”
There is some parallel being drawn intentionally by the director between himself and his protagonist in this film. I wonder if this is Von Trier’s attempt to make amends; not apologize, but answer for some trouble he got himself into with certain mischievous remarks.
One of the thrills supplied consistently by Von Trier is his penchant for wit and sarcasm when he knows he’s being quoted. He fancies himself like Oscar Wilde and this trait often devolves, over time, into a lust for controversy. The press scoops it up and prints it. Who is the nymphomaniac here? The press, audience or director? Whoever remains least satisfied, of course.
I’ve written about how some filmmakers worship the female form and archetype with their films. Ironically, some of the same one’s reputations are tainted by scandal for doing the opposite. Misogynistic scenes have gotten other filmmakers in trouble in the past, so Von Trier must have anticipated the hot water he’s plunged himself into with this one. He knows history tends toward extremes.
Judging from the outcry, movies such as these serve to prove that social restrictions and taboos, are not at risk of being loosened when they are scrutinized in the arts. On the contrary, they are reinforced. Is it because Lars Von Trier has brought so much surprise and novelty to modern movie making that he is being singled out for his depictions of misogyny?
Martin Scorsese’s most successful movies graphically portray a woman being physically abused by a man and it is usually her husband. So, if we say the guy that whips the stuffing out of Jo in “Nymp()maniac” Vol 2 is her husband, will that bring the movie back in line with acceptable standards?
The stakes are quadrupled in Vol 2. Jo returns for punishment repeatedly, under her own power. This is not domestic violence. No one hurts her without her consent. Excuse me, but isn’t this is a slightly softer position than domestic violence. Aren’t Jo’s circumstances, if we were to come across them in real life, superior, in theory anyway, to those of say Ginger’s in Scorsese’s “Casino”? So, rather than being an unwitting victim of someone’s abuse, Von Trier’s heroine puts herself there and he gets called for misogyny?
The small town free press film reviewer who’s review I read said the end of this movie was totally predictable. On thing for sure, his reaction was. I felt sympathy. Watching Jo’s predicament unfold to that extreme extent made me fret that suicide would end her story. I was glad to be wrong about that.
I hate some of the images in this movie. It makes me sick to think of such things but I suppose that’s the point in showing them. If the reviewer I’m referring to saw that Jo’s ordeal on screen, in any way, condoned the torture of women or, in any way, rewarded the exploits of nymphomania, then that was his movie not mine. The story I watched flat out warns us that violence breeds violence, as we watch Jo seesaw from being the punished to punisher in Volume 2. In the movie I watched, the protagonist finally learns to accept herself for what she is. That was not a predictable ending for me. It made sense afterward, but I was surprised. Of coarse we don’t know what exactly happened, in the end because it happened in the dark.
While that movie reviewer that I disagree with and I, as well, have had our rear ends in chairs and our eyes glued to screens, either writing about or watching films, Von Trier and his company and others like them, have met, agreed to organized, prepare, craft and release a feature film. They chose a story with a social dilemma at its core, just so we can identify and talk about critical dysfunctions, like the effects of misogyny in our society.
While the surveillance state inserts its proboscis into our psychic circulation systems, I will attempt to look on the bright side. It’s an audience. I am accustomed to revealing my most private thoughts and wrestling with my demons in public and listeners are listeners, after all. It’s not for me to pick and choose. I should be glad for the company but seldom has anyone from the public hung in there past the first act. Does this mean at least someone might get through the entire output? What if it sucks? What if it’s so great, they come out of the woodwork as fans? Then, by their word of mouth, my public expands and expands. Pretty soon everybody’s sending me salutations and money. Is that worse than toiling away in obscurity?
It’s not for me to judge you personally. I include myself in the surveillance community. The variety of voyeurism practiced at the multiplex is non-intrusive. Those that subscribe to the golden rule won’t take advantage of their neighbors the same way as films do characters. There is a kind of vigilance about the world around us that is rewarded through natural selection and we can develop that through movie watching. We don’t have to pry into real people’s private lives. Filmmakers have tamed and civilized the act of eavesdropping for us. Movies provide an outlet for our nosy, curious nature without anyone’s privacy actually being disturbed.
Whereas its obvious that the vast majority minds their our own business pretty well, the preponderance of audio/video and other recording technology all around us begs to be turned on. Still, it tickles me to think how far behind the curve the intelligence gathering agencies are. No one keeps tabs on his or her fellow citizens as well as movie watchers. In our society, you can learn more about human beings in a two-hour movie than by living next to them on the same street for years. Anyway, the information we seek most diligently, by scrutinizing the actions of others, should be whatever teaches us most about ourselves and that’s how the movies work.
“Requiem for a Dream,” (2000) is a story of addiction, a gorgeously grimy picture that cuts to the bone. Each time I’ve watched it, it has stayed with me for days. Opening act scenes of the budding romance between pretty addicts make their risk-taking appear glamorous, but love gets mixed-up with getting off, pushing them over the edge. If you’re inquisitive, like me, you’ll hop on the danger train with them while director Aronosvsky examines the tragic spiral from feel good scratch to fetal clutch.
In the same story, there is an elderly woman that lives by herself. She spends her lonely hours watching television. She becomes obsessed with trying to make herself look better and fancies appearing on television as a substitute for a more meaningful connection with her son. What would be considered a softer addiction proves to be equally devastating.
“I wanted to show how addiction is about repetition and obsession.’ Listening to Aronovski’s comments while re-watching the film was informative. “When we were amoebas in the primordial soup we were looking for carbon molecules to get high off of.”
The mix of fantasy and denial that allows addicts to plunge themselves into the abyss is blatantly familiar to us all, at this juncture in history. Unhealthy habits assail us from all directions and none is more potently self-destructive than our dependence on fast, cheap, easy fixes for our complex, long-term, critical challenges.
“It’s about the lengths that people will go to escape reality and when you escape your reality, you create a hole in your present, because you’re not there, you’re off chasing a pipe dream in the future and you’ll use anything to fill that vacuum, coffee, TV, tobacco, heroin to feed the hole. The hole grows and grows until eventually it will devour you. This film is about how you can use anything to get high off of, anything to fill that hole.”
He’s saying everyone wants safety, security and connection. When we feel powerless to get it, we settle for a substitute, but there is no substitute. He said that back in the year 2000, before everything changed. We’re going to follow this filmmaker into next month to review his latest film entitled “Noah,” made 14 years later. The story of the great flood appeals to the part of us that longs for a clean slate. It’s a metaphor for “cold turkey.” Civilization must go through withdrawal, if we’re going to survive, but we’re so badly hooked that we convince ourselves the correction will come from God, or in other words, don’t count on us to do anything but what addicts do.
Aronovsky is fascinated with excess and that works well in a movie that is literally about addiction, such as of “Requiem for a Dream,” but not so swell in his movie about death and dying, “The Fountain” (2006). He achieves mixed results in his films about performers, “The Wrestler” (2008) and “Black Swan” (2010). The work is always daring and visionary, but his stories, with the exception of “Requiem,” tend to collapse under the weight of their own excess. If you’re not up on The Theater of Cruelty, this director will school you with his moves.
The problem often lies with where Aronovsky choses to begin. To my own sense of correct proportion, the third acts of his last three films overshoot the mark by a power of ten. Imagine if Beethoven started his Ninth symphony in the middle. There would practically have to be bombs exploding at the finale.
So we will see if an apocalyptic deluge will be a subject that lends its self to Aronovsky’s predilections. I hope it doesn’t fly off the rails. All concessions to the Theater of Cruelty considered, at one point does one begin pushing back at the screen?
In memory of the most illustrious hanged man in history, whose birth we commemorate this month, I’ve decided to explore two European motion pictures that end with institutional hangings. The first won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 1977. “The Ascent,” by Soviet director Larissa Shapitko. It details a young revolutionary’s climb to the gallows. The second film, from year 2000, Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” features Icelandic pop singer Bjork as a blind, young, single, factory worker bound for the noose. Watch these two films and then come join the discussion.
We often reach back through literature to find parallels in treatment of subject matter. This months subject being capitol punishment I didn’t have to delve very far back for something stellar. Like Kafka’s “ In the Penal Colony,” “The Ascent” is not about capitol punishment. Nor are the two films in this series.,Even though their story lines climax with executions, they are about something much more personal to each of us. As I see them, both films are focused on the integrity, or lack of, in each character more than the right or wrong of the punishment. At least Von Trier states as much, on the commentary track for “Dancer in the Dark” (Criterion edition).
We aren’t given that much time to sift through credos or dogmas in either film. The masterstroke in Shepitko’s opus must be how we are permitted to acquire sympathy for the humanity even in the enemy, especially the ruthless police inspector, whom the camera successfully susses out for that torturing angel of conscience that flits up in his eyes.
“The Ascent” becomes, essentially, a passion play. We don’t realize it until the very end. Gradually, the character Sotnikov’s peculiar compassion takes us in, but his motives can not be instantly, fully ascertained. When he finally does transcend, we don’t have long to admire him. That’s is usually how this type of story unfurls. But instead of thieves on the crosses beside this savior, there swing innocent folk on those ropes, including an elder farmer, a single mother and adolescent girl. All three of those punished with Sotnikov are utter strangers to the condemned man, which seals his second to last breath with karmic remorse. The last one is reserved for a redemptive exchange between the accused and an innocent in the crowd of onlookers for whom this hanging has been staged.
I cannot adequately describe the poignancy with which the execution scene in this movie is presented. We’ll try to provide you with a reference. The image above, of a painting by Paul Delaroche, “Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1834) seems to harbor some of the same spirit. This roughly 8 X 10 foot canvas is among the most emotionally overwhelming objects I have ever seen. Coincidentally, this particular image of the painting that you are looking at has been cited as one of the finest images on the entire English Wikipedia. Search your conscience, while examining this image, for a key to the end of “The Ascent,” and “Dancer in the Dark.” What’s wrong with this picture? Lady Jane was elevated to the throne for less than a month before she was deposed and beheaded by a relative, in a bid for power by protestants against Catholics during that time. The victim was scarcely 17 years old.
“Dancer” will be zoomed in on next month. In “The Ascent,” the child actress, Lyudmilla Polyakova, gets to be a part of one of the most tender and lyrical passages in cinema, just as the noose slips around her neck. Shepitko orchestrates the scene for maximum heartbreak. It’s like something straight out of Chaplin’s “The Kid,” but with darker twists. Let’s begin dissecting this sequence with her approach to the noose. It was obviously tied up there for someone much taller. Because, evidently, not even the chief of the gallows could correctly anticipate the needs of this hanging. So a square apple box booster is hastily brought out and laid on top of the too short trunk of tree. All these things look gigantic next to the sparrow-like frame of the little girl. Those heavy implements of demise take on the scale of sandbox toy or circus ring geometry, reminiscent of children’s playthings. She’s a hatchling, for God’s sake. Those goddamn Nazi’s plan to hang her. That’s an act of terror. Tissues please.
Shepitko cares about human beings that will die before they outgrow the playground. She confronts us with an innocent being blatantly victimized. Watch this one take that giant step. She’s literally lifted off the ground by the hangman, by taking hold of his hand. The staging evokes some father helping his daughter on the jungle gym. She slips her head through the loop and peeks out at the spectators like baby bird on a limb. It is an evocation of pure pathos. Why should a child go through this? Authorities commit such atrocities to provoke fear.
What are we afraid of? Before he’s captured, in those wintery wilds of Russia, near the close of WWII, Sotnikov appears too physically weak to buck the status quo. Marooned in the forest, sporting a bad cough in his chest and a slug of lead in his leg, he rails against the branches on a low hung bow. Right out on the screen, for all to comprehend, here, a “man for the people” rues the masterplan’s unraveling, but at this stage, all we can see is a hurt soldier trapped like a rabbit under a tree. There’d be scant evidence that he’s a figurehead for the resistance, except for this one, raw expression of rage.
The backdrop for this rabbit hunt is rendered all the more claustrophobic with shrouds of snow dust whipping about all the time and a howling wind singeing everything else back down to zilch. By the way, let’s own up once more, thanks to Shepitko’s camera crew, to how old-fashioned 1:33:1 black and white film can convey the menace of frigid skies and fields as good as anything digital and new.
“The Ascent” has been called Shapitko’s masterpiece. I can’t find any reason why not. The filmmaker made her warm-hearted tragedy in the bitterest cold. Her ability to capture such subtly nuanced performances, consistently, in uncommonly long takes, under harsh conditions indicates bona-fide directorial grace. Her actors display world-class gifts. Sensors often made it hard for auteurs working inside the Soviet egg to make their movies competitive at international contests, but this one broke the shell.Prolonged, intimate close ups invite us to witness and be amazed at the ways ligament and scruple can hitch and mesh inside the human face.
In the political chess game of that took place during those times, history lays much of the blame on Nazis. Including this in her anti-war film probably helped Shepitko avert big showdowns with censors, but it was popular with everyone because she struck a universal chord. There was evidently enough of an openness to gender equality built in to that republic at that time, for an enlightened woman director to make positive contact with the outside world. Shepitko’s movie as well as Delaroche’s painting propose, at the level of conscience, we are all pretty much the same. Everyone that looks at them comes to the same conclusion.
“The Ascent” is an adaptation from the novella “Sotnikov” by Vasili. Bykov. I don’t know how it begins, but the opening of Shepitko’s film frames a blizzard on a Russian landscape. Violent gusts whip snow crystals and ice dust into pale, grainy gradations of grey. Silent telegraph poles lean both ways like staggered burial markers along the railroad right of way.
A vanishing veil of snow serves as a wipe reveal of a village, in the near distance, in which no one is left to defend.
This and a hand full of other shots are re-inserted after the finale of the film, like bookends. Was the filmmaker suggesting that the way out in of this predicament is the same as the way in? Or are we simply left reminded of home and liberty lost at the end?
A vacant village and machine gun fire is the first sign we see and hear as the film begins. Then a man’s upper body pops up from a hiding place and signal’s to retreat with his arm. Many heads pop up. What’s left of the population of that village ascends into view from the bottom of the frame. We watch from behind, the backsides of folks in retreat, fleeing in fear. Does this ascension accentuate a notion of this population’s “rebirth” as refugees, or perhaps The Rapture is being interpreted quixotically?
Either way, through lashing wind, extended families and neighbors carry what they may and make their way over snowscapes warily. A few rifles hang off uniformed shoulders of mutinous soldiers, shepherding those gentle folk as kin. As 2013 comes to an end and 2014 begins. Let us pray this historical trend stops before it sweeps us all in.
Nature & Machine Part III
Does “Terminator” mentality spread from individual to society or vice versa, or both? It is easy to blame the movies, but at the time of this post, my country’s representatives have just returned from a climate summit in Qatar in which, yet again, they failed to take vital steps to avert ecological disaster. What kind of outlook can such deliberate denial foster in a people when it imposes a death sentence upon their future? You can’t blame that on the movies.
Does the rest of the world comprehend now how random citizens go on killing sprees in my country? The malfunction of the American dream is not part of some twisted conspiracy, but an unfortunate side effect of toxins churned up by our misuse of machines.
In relation to most of the rest of our breeding, excreting kin on this earthly plane, my country’s an infant that needs its diaper changed. We won’t deal with our excrement so it piles to the ceiling. This lack of hygiene is bound to kill some and spoil things down stream. Toxins, like bad news, beget more of the same. Less than a week after Qatar comes Sandy Hook to heap shame upon shame. Why is it that suburban psychos targeting children and mothers confound us? Was it a wacko’s attempt to spare future refugees from the larger nightmare closing around us?
We overtook this country by force and we’ve been polluting it ever since we moved in. As far back as we are willing to look warnings about the consequence have been pouring in. Back when I first struck out on my own, we were being cautioned about a nasty dragon, somewhere upwind, wielding mechanical limbs beneath human skin. I saw him first on a giant screen at the drive-in. A cold-hearted robot, programmed for obsession, was stalking and slaying with automatic weapons. If you missed that particular sci-fi attraction, just imagine any suburban assassin from last year in action.
The film I was referring to is James Cameron’s “The Terminator”(1984), which features a mechanical hit man dispatched from the future to prevent the birth of a rebel redeemer. It has been said that Cameron took his story from Harlan Ellison, another insightful science fiction dreamer. But their bad guy was clearly nicked from the last book of the Bible in which a dragon threatens the mother of the savior. Both stories’ beasts personify our most toxic behavior.
So, if books of old also illuminate opposing sides of human nature, why blame popular songs, games and movies of the new and future? In the Bible, our internal opposites come to head in bloody war. When the Savior subdues the Beast, it settles the score. Cameron’s tightly plotted Armageddon of ’84 is an American factory assembly line noir, where a robot’s rampage ends with a hydraulic squish under the hand of a mother savior.
But first, the Beast, according to Cameron, arrives disguised as a man. From beside a dumpster, in a garbage truck’s beneficent shade, the monster embarks on its toxic crusade. Any one of the Terminators attempts on Sarah Connor’s life should easily have done her in, but John Connor, her future savior/son, sent to her a brave and horny warrior friend.
Though the Terminator appears to embody the human ideal, what moves him even alien fenders can’t conceal. Once he’s stripped down to the exo-skeletal core, he looks like some ruthless, rolled-Buick man-o-war. But it all comes down to a toxic program. So it is clear. We must extricate the program of the damned, unless we want to live in perpetual fear.
The Terminator’s is the ultimate killing machine. Brute force and hostility are calculated to win everything. It is not another warrior that finally does this Beast in. Mother Sarah pushes a button on a gizmo that caves him in. Let a constructive machine consume its destructive twin.
Part 4, the next in this series delves even deeper into the machinations of man and how they can either halt or hasten humanity’s stand. We’ll crack more clues to the mass executioner’s blues when we next begin. If you haven’t done so already and would like to, read the last book of the Bible, or watch “The Terminator” and “The Matrix,” then check back in.
Are we sleeping? Do we need a wake up call? Good stories call out our common conscience. If a major goal of democracy is to give everyone a gun, then a major goal of storytelling must be to prevent us from pulling the trigger. The preservation and protection of personal liberties could not be of greater importance in the minds of the great storytellers. The films in this series have that in common.
It is high time that Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (1936) be fit into our massive blog on Humanity and the Machine. It is not technically science fiction, as most of the films in this series are, but neither is Geoffrey Reggio’s “Quatsi Trilogy” which opened the series and yet it informs us so richly about our future.
Contextually, Chaplin’s “Modern Times” presents us with a romance between two optimistic homeless persons. Ideologically it pays respect to the poor and working classes during the height of the industrial era. As a piece of research into what makes humans laugh, “Modern Times” conducts us through a prolonged, elaborate and ingenious series of gags accomplished by a combination of rigged sets, split second choreography and virtuosic variations on the mechanization of humans.
I have pitted guns and movies against each other in this series more than once. “Modern Times” gives us a chance to compare the two very similar looking machines that produce them. Compare any state of the art factory assembly line, making say weapons of the WW I era, with the one in the movie set that manufactures laughs in Chaplin’s blockbuster movie. Both depend on a huge collective of workers. Both were made for a profit. It could be argued that Charlie Chaplin’s factory has produced something of much greater and lasting value for the benefit of more people than any other factory of its time.
As for the argument that movies are fantasy and not accurate when compared to the real world, even though it premiered almost seventy years ago, “Modern Times” managed to foresee the two-way screen that enables Big Brother to eavesdrop on law-abiding citizens. “The Matrix (1999), reminds those who have taken on the questionable karma of invading the privacy of the masses, that they too are being watched at all times, no doubt from all angles.
Surveillance may be a dandy method for catching criminals but it sets up the environment for a war on thought. Another fine science fiction film that delves into this subject and would deserve to be included in this series, if it wasn’t already discussed in these pages a few years back, is “Fahrenheit 451” (1966). As if we were actually paying attention, the French New Wave prophet Francois Truffaut brought Isaac Asimov’s science fiction classic to the screen to provided us with advanced warning on the totalitarian wet dream that is well on its way to becoming the norm in America today.
Storytellers by nature are prophets. Could our best contemporary ones be on par with the old world prophets of scripture? Hardly. Those great oracles in the scriptures have had a long time for their prophecies to be adulterated by hypocrites. Their words have been being cooped by power brokers for thousands upon thousands of years. The modern day prophets haven’t been recognized yet.
There is an amusingly prophetic sequence in “Modern Times” where we were warned about this recent very grave and disastrous privacy violation imposed on Americans by our government. The Little Tramp is not a tramp yet but a factory worker. The first act of Modern Times deals with the events that lead up to his homelessness. His trouble begins when he clocks out for lunch two minutes early, ducks into the washroom and leans back on a washbasin for a cigarette break.
“Hey you! What are you doing there? shouts the boss,
The startled worker almost falls in the sink scissoring his legs twice in the air before his feet return to the floor.
Get back to work?”
From an enormous screen that moments ago was only a wall, a hard nosed executive frowns down on the little, blue-bibbed man.
Charlie drops his smoke and scurries back to the jangling noise and repetitive stress of the factory assembly line.
So many Americans seem to have skipped the shock response altogether and rushed back to their business without question.