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!


September 1, 2008

Woody Allen in Spania: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Filed under: cinema — Tags: , , , , , , , , — floreign @ 4:38 am
  • Dupa trei ani si aproape cinci luni de zile de cand ma aflu in SUA, iata, ieri a fost prima oara cand am calcat intr-un cinematograf. Asta dupa ce micutul cinematograf Carmike de $2 filmul din Clemsonul meu “natal” si-a dat obstescul sfarsit (nu m-a atras niciodata cu adevarat, unicul film pe care as fi vrut sa-l vad a fost Razboiul stelelor partea a treia, insa pesemne ca eram prea ocupat ori prea deprimat ca sa ma deranjez in timp util). Cinematograful Landmark din Atlanta are vreo opt sali, are popcorn  (in jur de 4-5 dolari cornetul, in functie de marime), suc si apa minerala (iar vreo 4-5 dolari, in functie de gusturi), plus, dupa cum am aflat dintr-un pliant, are si un program de cineclub cu filme independente si straine (adica non-americane), duminica dimineata la ora zece, de sapte ori pe an. Clubul prezinta in avanpremiera filme inainte de lansarea lor in America si fiecare vizionare este urmata de o discutie moderata de un profesor de studii cinematografice. Ma bate gandul sa ma inscriu, m-ar costa $89 cu discount pentru primul an, cam $13 per show, atata ca filmele nu sunt intotdeauna geniale.

Sa revin la subiect. Onoarea pe taram american i-am facut-o prima data unui regizor american, taman Woody Allen din titlu. Eram eu cam curios deja privitor la noile fapte de arme ale vechiului comic, si stiam ca trece printr-o perioada europeana. Asa ca am ajuns sa vad filmul lui spaniol, iata cateva imagini de la lansarea lui in Los Angeles: . De aceasta data, filmul nu a fost neaparat comedie (desi replici comice are cu prisosinta) si nici Woody Allen nu a aparut, nici macar in voice-over (desi prezenta i-am simtit-o, mai ales in secventa cu gazda binevoitoare ce-i destainuia lui Vicky franturi din dialogurile ei cu psihoterapeutul). De fapt constructia Allen-iana, bazata pe “bagajul anterior” al personajelor si pe mici intamplari care pot schimba destine, este la ea acasa in acest film. Iar in loc de muzica demna de “Radio Days” a aparut un cantecel pe spaniola care te introduce perfect in atmosfera filmului. Atmosfera dominata de arhitectura lui Antonio Gaudi, cea care le-a adunat si pe protagonistele noastre la Barcelona.

Avem asadar doua turiste americance, prietene, calatorind impreuna prin Spania. Bruneta Vicky, care urmeaza sa se casatoreasca cu un tip serios si cu o slujba bine platita in State, si blonda Cristina (Scarlet Johansson), care a acumulat deja cateva deceptii amoroase la activ, desi nu-i vine greu sa riste in dragoste. Ele urmeaza sa-si petreaca vara in Barcelona, locuind la o familie de americani de treaba, ceva mai in varsta. Gazda se ofera sa le arate cateva dintre atractiile orasului, atractii printre care, la un moment dat, se afla si o expozitie de pictura. Discret, apare in imagine si pictorul Juan Antonio (un Javier Bardem total de nerecunoscut dupa rolul din “No Country for Old Men”), despre care aflam o istorie incarcata, un scandal monden cu fosta sa sotie, unul dintre ei l-a amenintat pe celalalt cu cutitul. Imediat dupa aceea, fetele iau cina la restaurant, unde il remarca pe pictor. Pare-se ca ocheadele Cristinei sunt remarcate de catre acesta, asa ca urmeaza secventa pe care o vedeti in prezentarea de pe Youtube, in care Juan Antonio le invita la Oviedo, ca sa vada impreuna o sculptura care pe el personal il inspira (plus niste propuneri indecente, dintre care trebuie sa tinem minte: “we’ll make love”, “all three”). Vicky, care prefera siguranta, nici gand sa intre in joc (si aici mi-a amintit de barbatul ca si casatorit din Genunchiul Clarei a lui Eric Rohmer). Cristina insa ii strica jocul, asa ca ii vedem pe tustrei mergand cu avionul spre Oviedo. Acolo, blonda Cristina este foarte receptiva la avansurile si in general stilul de viata al artistului Juan Antonio, asa ca o vedem si dupa cina in camera lui (iarasi, atentie la expresia “a counter-intuitive relationship). Numai ca nu va cadea la cearsaf, sau mai degraba va cadea prea bine, cert este ca din cauza unei indigestii,ea nu va mai conta in restul week-endului in Oviedo.

Cum-necum, a doua zi Vicky isi petrece timpul impreuna cu Juan Antonio, chiar ii viziteaza tatal, un poet batran si nepublicat, un fel de geniu care decide ca lumea este nedemna de a beneficia de produsele creatiei sale (ceva gen Pasadia lui Matei Caragiale), care ii spune fiului ca inca are vise erotice cu fosta lui nevasta(!). Pe scurt, Vicky se descopera pe sine dezvaluindu-se treptat si renuntand la siguranta pana ce, dupa o seara cu muzica spaniola de chitara, ajunge in mod natural sa faca dragoste cu Juan Antonio (o adevarata relatie contra-intuitiva).  Si, in timp ce se infiripa legatura intre Cristina si Juan Antonio, o vedem pe Vicky ca nu mai raspunde la mesajele pasionate ale viitorului sau sot. Ajunge de fapt pana acolo incat sa fie tare incurcata cand acesta ii propune ca el sa mearga si el la Barcelona si sa se casatoreasca acolo, urmand ca ceremonia sa aiba loc tot in toamna, dupa program, la reintoarcerea in State.

Cristina se muta in final la Juan Antonio, care, ca orice artist, prefera sa aiba in preajma o femeie (citat aproximativ). Relatia evolueaza, intelegem pana si cate ceva din profunzimea, dar si fragilitatea relatiei sale cu fosta sotie: o iubire furtunoasa, careia se pare ca ii lipsea totusi un ingredient fundamental ca sa poata dura. La un moment dat insa, Juan Antonio o aduce in casa, pentru a locui in casa de oaspeti, pe fosta sa sotie (Penelope Cruz), dupa ce aceasta a incercat sa se sinucida.

De aici incolo avem mai multe directii. Pe de o parte declinul relatiei Cristina-Juan, pe de alta parte urcarea la orizont a fostei sotii a lui Juan, pe de o parte prin faptul ca o initiaza pe Cristina in arta fotografica, pe de alta parte ca incepe sa joace un rol activ in viata casei: cei doi soti se regasesc in pat, acum ca descopera faptul ca rolul jucat de Cristina ca zona-tampon este tocmai elementul care le lipsea relatiei lor ca sa poata dura, dar si o relatie intima intre cele doua femei.

Vicky ajunge la un moment dat sa-i spuna, cand se intalnesc intamplator, lui Juan Antonio, ca nu a uitat ce s-a intamplat intre ei, dar pe de alta parte nu pate refuza sosirea logodnicului la Barcelona (care descopera, cu uimire, cat de focoasa a devenit ea intre timp, prin contagiune de la pasiunea spaniola care pluteste in aer – scena cea mai hilara a intregului film, dupa mine). Cei patru ajung sa se si intalneasca, iar din intamplare (Juan Antonio vrea sa o mangaie cu piciorul pe sub masa pe Cristina, insa din greseala o mangaie pe Vicky) ajung iarasi sa vorbeasca despre ei, Vicky ii spune ca nu poate renunta la ceea ce are deja.

Inca un eveniment mai are loc: Vicky isi vede gazda sarutandu-se cu asociatul sotului ei, iar gazda o invita in oras ca sa-i explice ce se intampla de fapt. Astfel, relatia dintre cele doua femei de generatii diferite se adanceste. Femeia mai in varsta afla despre pasiunea ei pentru pictor, si nu intelege ce o retine ca sa dea frau liber iubirii sale.

Iarasi doua evenimente paralele. Pe de o parte, prejudecatile Cristinei inving, ea descopera astfel ca, desi se considera “open-minded”, nu poate suporta la nesfarsit situatia, si decide sa paraseasca tripleta, dupa un moment de deja-vu al sfarsitului relatiilor sale anterioare. Pe de alta parte avem casatoria lui Vicky cu logodnicul ei american, la care Cristina vine singura, Juan Antonio invocand un motiv oarecare pentru a lipsi.

Filmul este aproape gata: Cristina este libera, si afla cu stupoare despre cele intamplate pe cand ea bolea in camera ei de hotel, spunand ca s-ar fi dat cu placere la o parte, iar relatia lui Juan Antonio cu fosta sa sotie se termina iarasi intr-un mod destul de vocal. Vara se apropie de sfarsit, si totusi gazda ii mai ofera lui Vicky o ocazie de a se mai confrunta o data cu sansa vietii ei.

Las finalul nepovestit, intai pentru ca imi dau seama ca ar fi fost bine sa structurez mai bine povestea, dand mai putine detalii, iar apoi ca sa las o farama de libertate si de surpriza spectatorilor filmului, asta daca si cand va fi difuzat in Romania.

Ma pregatesc pentru Fatih Akin’s Edge of Heaven si pentru Brothers Coen’s Burn After Reading, asta insemnand urmatoarele doua saptamani la cinematograful Landmark din Atlanta. Si poate pentru cineclub, daca ma hotarasc sa ma inscriu.

Ma mai gandesc.

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