A Pocket Full of Clemsonite

April 27, 2009

Waiting for the release of “Antichrist”: Film Director Lars von Trier’s Tinkering With Our Brains

I have recently heard that a Lars von Trier film is about to be released. It bears a sensitive name, especially for places in the US not particularly open to cultural diversity, i.e. places where films called “The Last Temptation of Christ” or “The Life of Brian” were unwelcome. This time it’s about a film called “Antichrist”. Since this is raising some serious potential issues, I am trying to make a case here for the one who possibly is the most important world filmmaker of the last twenty years.

I came of age as cinephile around the time when the French-German channel Arte TV aired Lars von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” . At that time I considered it huge, a pinnacle of filmmaking. Even though I’ve seen some other important films since (in about 12 years), I still consider it a very good film. What I added to this picture was only on the part of getting to know this film director better.
Still, this guy is not a very approachable one, from a certain angle. His films are not serene, just like an “easy watching” movie. Instead, it is a cinematographic realization of the old expression “per aspera ad astra”. He has something to say, but you have to be patient to see and hear what, and he’s taking the time to give details, but, you’re forewarned, it won’t be very easy. His explanations are carrying you through the abyss of the human spirit, before, hopefully, taking you into the elevated land of illuminations. That way, you might even appreciate more what he has to say. During this bumpy ride, you might be tempted to go astray or stop for a while, or for good.
His cinematographic achievements are not at all a mixed bag; I came to realization not too long ago. Until then, I only knew things related to his most famous finished pieces. Breaking the Waves, Europa, Dancer in the Dark and the more recent exercises “The Boss of It All” (blasphemy; a Trier comedy?) and the charming “The Five Obstructions” . I must admit I was on my way into watching his current trilogy about America (Dogville , Manderlay and the upcoming Washington ) for a few years, but I failed.

Well, a while after I kind of considered it a lost battle, somehow I managed to get closer to his earlier films. This is how I found out that he actually made a remarkable TV film called “Riget” , and Riget II , falling under the horror genre, which later Stephen King, suffering from the late Jack London syndrome – or was he in just for the money? – (lacking inspiration for having to full a life, he bought plots from Sinclair Lewis), took and transformed into the “Kingdom Hospital” TV series, thus placed in the US. I simply love the grainy image and the playfulness of the script, which could have simply accommodated much lengthier cinematic endeavors than an eight-episode TV series. Well, unfortunately the series had to stop because the main actor passed away. If I’ll ever become interested in the plot, I’ll dive myself into the Stephen King’s world and watch the US Riget series. I’ve done it before, when I wanted to follow up on the fabulous Cracker UK TV series featuring the unforgettable Robbie Coltrane (yes, the same friendly Hagrid from the Harry Potter series), there a brilliant (and deeply flawed) forensic psychologist. The US series is nothing to write home about, though.

Somehow, this reopened my appetite for the films of Lars von Trier. Strangely, not for his late films that were likely compliant to the “Dogme 95 Manifesto” , so far away from the American blockbusters’ abuses of fast sounds and images. Well, some 10 years ago I was so confused, that, sadly, I confused this to some film (the film “Dogma”, which I have never seen, helped the confusion). So I went to complete the watching of the first Lars von Trier’s trilogy, the one about Europe.

Many years ago I watched the last part of this trilogy, “Europa” . A black-and-white film about postwar Germany, where all morals are corrupted (surprisingly similar to the morals in a Communist country), Germans are still protecting former Nazis and even have “Resistance”-like acts of sabotage. A German American who refused to go to war for the Us Army went to help the postwar effort to rebuild Germany. We’re introduced in this through a hypnosis session, and the whole experience is truly surreal. The hypnosis will end in some sort of ethereal feeling of floating death of the main character, drowned in the train he sabotaged, having been blackmailed by the brigands through his love for a German woman. Exquisite cadaver, I could say.

Fast forward to another aquatic experience: “The Element of Crime” , von Trier’s first feature film, is a kaleidoscope of shadows and lights above and into the all-Tarkovskian water (there’s also a horse in there!). A weird post-apocalyptic Europe, where a criminal investigator is trying to catch a murderer, using an original method developed by his mentor: ne needs to copy the murderer’s acts, and his mind will catch up with them, thus allowing him to eventually catch the murderer. We are witnessing all this by following his psychotherapy sessions once he got out of this filthy European realm. The catch is that our guy was caught in the web of the murderer’s past, so he himself gets into the same despicable state of mind he was trying to stop. Now we already see that von Trier is making use of some psychological tools that can possibly scare us deeply. Really, I can see here the future material for Riget. It’s all the same, basically, in nuce.

Things get even *better* in “Epidemic” , a pre-pandemic Europe. We are following a team of film script writers (Lars is right there!), who have taken the endeavor of describing a contemporary pandemic, based on medieval writings of the great plagues. In parallel, we are delving into the imaginary world of the pandemic, even in drowning waters, blocked caves and closed coffins! No wonder why, upon our returning back to the reality surface, for the occasion of the informal presentation of the script for the representant of the financing institution, a hypnotist-medium couple would look eerie to us. No surprise here: as “expected”, the signs are right, the hypnosis is invoking from the script’s imaginary world the PLAGUE, real people are getting infected, and here we are thrown into despair for the fate of the humanity.
Yes, there are some aspects here not fully approached in the American cinema. Actually, it’s not completely true. I would note Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo” , where an actor is coming from the screen into the real world. Actually there’s also our friend Arnold Schwarzenegger depicting such a character, in “Last Action Hero” . So it’s safe to assume that the American audience has at least sporadically exposed to such an idea, of the reality being influenced by fiction. From the cultural standpoint, however, this makes a lot of sense. Famous books, like the Bible, or the Communist Manifesto, or, say, The Origin of Species, have completely changed the face of humanity. It’s just Lars von Trier has done it using a film. Or at least he hoped.

What I do not know is how original this approach of Lars von Trier is. I have also watched an earlier TV production, Medea , which seems to be an original work, but is also based on the script made by another Scandinavian cinema master, Carl Theodor Dreyer. I have yet to see his most important films, and I suspect it will be worth the effort. On the side, though, coming back to Medea, I must say that it is a piece of cinema that does not try to spare the viewer. We are witnessing a dark side of the antique Golden Fleece story, where Jason has dumped the intelligent Medea who helped him get the Fleece, and he is now marrying a king’s daughter. Medea’s revenge may be sweet, but it raises to unimaginable levels. She poisons the bride and kills hers and Jason’s sons. The end is for us to agonize together with Jason, the lost (and unfaithful) father. Medea may be the murderer, but in some sense he ahs also murdered the beloved ones.
Now, after this long dark ride along Lars von Trier, I could see his mellower (yet cruel) takes, in his late 90’s films, but also the incisive beginnings of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Besides trying to move on to Dogville and Manderlay, I could see some reason into going back to Riget. I’m not really expecting to see threads of the later plots, as it happened with Pedro Almodovar’s “Flower of my Secret” , where several plots of his earlier and later films meet, but there’s such an abundance of ideas in Riget that it’s impossible not to find any trace of what is to follow. Not to mention that the prospect of seeing in the upcoming “Antichrist” a revisit of von Trier’s earlier motifs dressed, maybe, in Dogme’95 ‘s clothes, is appealing.
What we can expect to get is, in light of this ride, an uncompromising travel through dark corners of humanity, and, perhaps, a mild consolation or some sort of bigger picture, able to encompass the lights and the shadows that we would have seen. No, I don’t expect a re-occurrence of Bess’s bells (in the end of “Breaking the Waves”, since there was nothing like this for the comfort of Selma in “Dancer in the Dark”). Any outcome is likely. We can witness a public outrage for his film, or it could be a flop. I can even see people becoming disenchanted by Lars von Trier’s machinations and messing up with their minds, “for make benefit glorious nation of Skandistan”, to paraphrase a well-known mockumentary’s subtitle. Based on the acquired certainty that as theatrical drama playwright, LvT’s sense is solid, I do not fear any of these.
Still, there are a few reasons to follow the upcoming festival of Cannes, where it is very likely for his new film to have its premiere. First, there’s also a psychiatrist involved, and this is “ominous” enough. Also, an earlier viewer tells us that it is scheduled to premiere in the US on 9/11. Ouch. Here’s the link of the preview.
Need I say more? Well, it was my turn to take you on this ride, and it’s up to you to give such a film a chance. Or not. Since I am not contemporary with films (I tend to watch them in an order which makes little resemblance to the arrow of time, and I am obviously not invited to film festivals, to be up-to-date with the recent releases.)
But, sooner or later, I will join the watchers I would have caused with this article. Whether it would be for the horror or the “artsy” content, there’s no difference for me. We are all brothers.

Let the visual feast begin!


March 20, 2009

Denys Arcand’s “Jesus of Montreal” clues us into what a contemporary Savior would look like

So far, cinema has acquired quite a few films treating the subject of Jesus Christ in a rich, creative manner. Let me put it straight, I am not referring to faithful (pun not intended) adaptations of the Gospels, but rather author films, or at least have a coherent source of inspiration other than the Gospels themselves. Also, I am ruling out films referring only in passing to miracles or other aspects which are present in the life of Jesus Christ as presented in the New Testament. As a consequence, I won’t talk about Tarkovski’s “Sacrifice” or Carl Th. Dreyer’s films. Finally, when the Biblical reference is just brief, even if it’s a masterful depiction of the Last Supper (as in Bunuel’s Viridiana or in Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H. – the original film, not the TV show), I will skip these as well.

We are left, more or less, with the following list:

– Pierpaolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew”, which is apparently breaking the first rule, being a good adaptation of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Except that, when you take a closer look, this black-and-white film is more than that (if you watched a color version, it was an abridged version which was colored manually, so there’s nothing in it bearing some of the author’s intent). It could be a story of our time (or that time, early 60s) in Italy, or it could be a story of any time. You could actually watch those simple people and see nothing is idealized; they are under the material and social constraints of their time as much as we are under ours. This approach is unusual for a film depicting the life of Christ. Just because of this, it can be considered an oddity among others, although, as we will see, every film on this list has its share of very individual characteristics.

– Norman Jewison’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a film based on an opera rock. As such, it has some good music on it. Well, even Ian Gillan is there. This film approaches the last weeks in Jesus’ life from Judas’ standpoint, which seems actually intelligible, but of course so wrong (from the eternity point of view, as opposed to the perspective of his times). I have to admit that not everything is golden here, in this film. Aside from music, I especially noticed Jesus’ reaction when, on Palm Sunday, people switched from singing “J.C., J.C., would you pray for me?” to “J.C., J.C., would you die for me?”, and the appearance of modern paraphernalia in the life two thousand times before us, e.g. the machine guns in the temple.

– Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” is perhaps the most faithful to the spirit of the Bible, although from an Eastern Orthodox stand. This film is based on a novel written by the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, also known for his book “Alexis Zorbas” which became “Zorba the Greek”, a famous film with Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates. Throughout the film we are exploring the human nature of Jesus, who is facing the temptations in the desert and he is resisting them, but is still weak, and resists a final temptation, while on the cross. Namely, he decides he cannot go on anymore and God allegedly sends an angel to free him from the cross and take him somewhere safe. He then marries Mary Magdalene (and YES, he makes love to her, this is maybe why the fundamentalist Christians fought against them being presented at movie theaters in many places in the US) and has children. Only later, something doesn’t seem right, and realizes that the angel is not really an angel, but its opposite. He then is old, but sees his mistake and repents. The final scene is back on the cross, as if all this was a temporal parenthesis which has just been closed and Christ dies, murmuring the redeeming words “It has been accomplished!” As a side note, the acting is uneven, Willem Dafoe is not so great as Jesus Christ; instead, David Bowie is marvelous as Pontius Pilate.

– Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” is a trademark Monty Python production, meaning it’s filled with this acting group’s jokes, centering a fictitious Brian, who happened to have been born in the same night and a few houses away from the place where Jesus Christ was born. This life in the shadow of the chosen one will mark Brian’s life, until a few random events make the Jews believe that he is the One and follow him in his absurd quest to free Judea from the Romans. The story focuses on the last part of this inadvertent “Messiah” and despite having lots of casual jokes; it has a few good, thought-provoking points. Again, this is not a film that is recommended for people who are rigid in their Christian faith, but rather for those able to think by themselves and discern what’s perennial from what’s only incidental in the Great Story.

But my main goal tonight is to discuss “Jesus of Montreal”, the film I have recently watched, the one showing up in the title. Right now I believe it is better than “Last Temptation”, it is deeper and is better placed to our time than other such productions. It is both a discussion about the essence of faith in God as God (and not as a mere convention) and about the art as Art, and not cheap commercialism, in this case movies a la Hollywood or TV ads.

The story begins with Daniel, a former valedictorian in his Dramatic Arts School, who preferred to travel around the world and appear in random underground theater plays. He is asked to resuscitate a Passion Play script about Jesus Christ, which is to be enacted around Easter in a Catholic church in Montreal. Well, those in the know about what Montreal can do to religiousness can already guess that this will be a highly unconventional performance. It is, mainly because the script was based on the latest updates on the archeological discoveries in the Middle East. But not only that: Daniel sets off his troupe by looking for good actors who happen to do other things in other to make ends meet. One is a porn movie audio dubber; another actress is making TV commercials relying on her physical beauty, although she wants to really act. This is obviously a parallel to the gathering of the Apostles, but also to the theme of Mary Magdalene the prostitute. After all, they are all (except Daniel) prostitutes by not being faithful to their profession, but instead making such compromises.

The most haunting series of scenes is with Daniel taking the Christ-of Theater role while attending a TV ad casting where his Magdalene has to undress in order to get the OK for having the right physical assets to show up in the ad (an awful Grease-like dancing number). He destroys everything in there, as Jesus caused some mess in the temple for the money changers. Later, he is summoned to trial, he pleads guilty and refuses to be represented by a lawyer. The judge sees here a reason for him to be examined by a forensic psychologist. What ensues from this Pontius Pilate-like encounter? A statement according to which he is better anchored in reality than most judges.

The play is successful. The public likes it (although some of them cling on “Jesus” as if he were the real Jesus; it’s fun to see a mix of actor, audience and police guards there), but obviously the priest and his higher-ups has a big problem with it. Actually, he doesn’t have a problem with his own life, in which he has a relationship with a woman, he even doesn’t have a problem with the plastic saint figurines he sells to people who can’t afford, as he puts it, psychotherapy, and goes to hear the priest absolving him/her of their sins for much cheaper. He might have a problem with quitting the religious order for living with the woman, because this would leave him completely broke. Actually, the funniest scene occurs when the priest tells the actors that they should change the way they are interpreting the play, and they mock him by giving him a sample of the “repertoires” they could use in acting. Affected style, NY-style, slang-style (with flamboyant Canadian cusswords), kabuki-style. Awesome.

Long story short, a final show is put on “stage” by the actors. The police arrives before the end and tries to stop the play, but some people from the audience are intervening and a fight ensues. During the scuffle, Daniel, who is on the cross playing the crucifixion scene, suffers a head concussion and is taken to ER. He recovers for a while, his female colleagues take him to the subway station where he plays his last act, and falls unconscious.
The irony continues, he is now taken to a Jewish hospital, where he actually dies. But Jesus continues his miracles, he gives life to a practically dead man via a heart transplant and eyesight to a woman via a eye transplant.

Still, the temptations are not over, after his death a consultant is advising the rest of the actors to found a theater company bearing Daniel’s name, and its goal would be to stay away from commercialism and stick with real theater play. We can only guess the actual confrontations with the reality, knowing that they have made compromises before. Will this proto-Christian model live on in the world of theater?

We don’t know, obviously, the answer to this last question. We still know that a man died for his ideals, and that his friends value his sacrifice and want to keep his effort’s memory alive in their lives. This is basically at the root of any imaginable Christian movement, and shows that the engine that gave the humanity Jesus Christ almost 2000 years ago is not necessarily dead.

And, most importantly, this film gives us an image of the scenario of “What if God was one of us”, as Joan Osborne is saying here, lyrics here. It’s no little thing.

Thank you, Denys Arcand, the God-fearing cinephiles salute you!

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