As far as LvT’s films go, Dogville (2004) affords a certain measure of narrative satisfaction that we don’t necessarily get from, say, Dancer in the Dark—namely, the kind of satisfaction that comes from seeing poetic justice served. (In Dogville, set in the realm of American archetype, poetic justice takes the form of frontier justice.) Linda Badley notes that Dogville serves as a neat corrective to LvT’s sagas of female martyrdom. Here, the bedraggled Grace (Nicole Kidman, in just about the only performance of hers with which I’ve been genuinely impressed) manages to turn the tables on her oppressors after suffering roughly two hours of systematic abuse and torment at their hands. Grace and the film go out in a blaze of gunfire and gasoline. It’s a climax to which the film’s deliberately paced three hours have been slowly but steadily building. Dogville is so long and stark, and its plot so frustrating, and its characters so hateful, and its heroine so maddeningly passive, and her travails so surreal and intricate, and John Hurt's narration so blithely convoluted (it seems to have been written in the style of Henry James) that after two and a half hours you feel just about ready to, well, explode—which is exactly what the film facilitates, in the form of its explosively violent conclusion.
“When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me, flying around in invisible pieces.” That’s Hushpuppy, a daughter of the Louisiana bayou, speaking in voice-over at the beginning of Benh Zeitlin’s striking, lyrical, maddeningly uneven Beasts of the Southern Wild. The film has been generating buzz ever since it premiered at Sundance earlier this year; now there is talk of Oscar nominations. It’s the kind of movie that has the power to run on its own novelty: I can’t really say that there has ever been a film like it before, though it has invited comparison to Malick’s Days of Heaven (it also variously recalls George Washington, Killer of Sheep, and Where the Wild Things Are). Set within a community of New Orleanians known as The Bathtub, whose denizens live in trailers and houseboats in abject poverty, it re-imagines the trauma of Hurricane Katrina as the stuff of folk legend: Hushpuppy uses roots and herbs to heal her ailing father, communes with the spirit of her mother via an old basketball jersey, and hears stories of monstrous beasts, once frozen in the polar ice caps, now re-animated by global warming.
The Five Obstructions might be considered one of LvT’s B-sides, along with Epidemic, The Boss of It All, and Medea. These are minor works, which isn’t to say that they’re not good (Epidemic has been one of the pleasantest discoveries of this project), simply that they’re more modest, more idiosyncratic projects. It’s also worth noting that they tend to be funnier and perhaps loopier than weighty epics like Breaking the Waves, Dogville, and Melancholia. They often resist being grouped together with his other films, many of which divide neatly into trilogies; even though Epidemic technically belongs with The Element of Crime and Europa, its off-handedness and cheeky self-referentiality set it apart from those other films. The Five Obstructions occurs at a particularly interesting point in vT’s filmography, coming after the triumphant success of Dancer in the Dark (which won major awards at Cannes in 2000) and before his embarking on the as-yet-unfinished U.S.A. trilogy, which would take him into more controversially political waters. It is vT’s only documentary feature, an experiment in which he forces his “hero,” the filmmaker Jorgen Leth, to re-make his 1964 short film The Perfect Human five times, each time confined by a different set of technical limitations.
Brave (dirs. Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman), which is being emphatically touted as Pixar’s first animated film to feature a female protagonist, is an old-school fairy tale adventure spruced up with some revisionist touches. Our heroine, a spunky Scottish princess named Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald), plays with a bow and arrow instead of dolls and bristles whenever her mother (Emma Thompson) attempts to school her in the ways of feminine decorum. When her parents host a contest in which the sons of neighboring lords compete for her hand in marriage, Merida explodes—and then sets about asserting her independent will.
While watching The Idiots last weekend, it occurred to me that it might be possible to read nearly all of LvT’s films as being about the primacy of some sort of bodily excess; bodies in vT’s films seldom behave, and are constantly sources of horror, discomfort, or disgust, both on the parts of the other characters and of the audience. As a filmmaker who continually takes shots at all manner of controlling discourses (science, medicine, the law, religion), it’s fitting that vT be drawn to bodies that repeatedly confound those discourses, such as the supernatural bodies that haunt the hospital in The Kingdom or Bess’ sexually insatiable body in Breaking the Waves. In The Idiots, he presents us with the spectacle of the disabled body, albeit mediated by the able bodies of the young Danish radicals who only play at disability. The film takes place in a commune where members delight in “spazzing” (pretending to be disabled), often in public. What this means, practically speaking, is that they assume an intensity of embodiment, to borrow a term from D. A. Miller—moaning, drooling, pissing, shouting, and crying at will. Intensity of embodiment becomes the veritable sign of “idiocy” in the film: in its final scene, we suddenly realize that Karin (pictured above) has shifted into spaz-mode while visiting her family when chewed cake begins to ooze out of her mouth. (The films, many of which adhere to the conventions of what Linda Williams has called "body genres," inspire an intensity of embodiment on the part of the audience as well. I recall being reduced to a sobbing wreck by the end of Dancer in the Dark; I witnessed a fellow audience member visibly shaking during the final shots of Melancholia; and Roger Ebert has described seeing Georgia Brown flee a screening of Breaking the Waves in tears.)
My summer with Lars: “In the musicals”: Björk, Hollywood and revisionism in “Dancer in the Dark” (2000)
“This is a musical,” Selma Jeskova, the beleaguered heroine of Dancer in the Dark, played memorably by Icelandic alt-pop star Björk, helpfully informs us during one of the song-and-dance numbers near the end of the film. Last week I wrote about the possibility of LvT playing the melodrama “straight” in Breaking the Waves; Dancer in the Dark seems to me a much better example of what people mean when they call LvT’s films “ironic” and “postmodern,” because it engages much more directly with—and disorientingly unsettles—a set of generic conventions, namely those of the Hollywood musical. “Nothing bad ever happens in a musical,” Selma, herself a die-hard musical buff, muses; while that’s not exactly true, we can certainly contrast The Sound of Music (a bizarre community-theater production of which features Selma in the Julie Andrews role; see above), in which the smiling von Trapp family successfully flees Nazi-occupied Austria, with Dancer in the Dark, in which Selma sings and dances her way to Death Row. Nothing very bad happens to Maria von Trapp; very, very bad things happen to Selma. This contrast is perhaps made clearest when, alone in her cell, Selma tries to cheer herself up with an a capella rendition of “My Favorite Things.” As she sings (and even gets some of the words wrong), vT gives us uncomfortable close-ups of the cinderblock walls and the toilet. It may be a musical, but Rodgers and Hammerstein this ain’t.
Early scenes in which Selma attends theatrical screenings of classics like 42nd Street should also remind us that since the 1930s Hollywood musicals have often promised a particular kind of escapist fantasy that other genres don’t. Depression-era audiences (like Selma, trying to stay above the poverty line) flocked to these movies, perhaps because they are so unself-consciously Utopian; they present, without apology, a flagrantly unrealistic dream world where social problems are stamped out by endless lines of tap-dancing chorus girls. At the same time that vT acknowledges the cultural history of the Hollywood musical, he revises it by giving us dressed-down production numbers set in factories, courtrooms, and prisons and a leading lady whose singing voice hardly sounds like Marni Nixon. “I think she sings funny,” a member of her community-theater troupe complains in the first scene, perhaps speaking for members of the film audience; her director, perhaps speaking for von Trier, replies, “She’s fantastic—what are you talking about?”
Björk herself had already established herself as a cheeky reviser of Hollywood musical conventions. vT reportedly became interested in her after seeing her music video “It’s Oh So Quiet,” a send-up of corny musical-number clichés that ends with a visual nod to Singin’ in the Rain:
Selma observes that in the final numbers of movie musicals “it goes really big, and the camera goes, like, out of the roof, and you just know it’s gonna end.” She’s referring, presumably, to the kinds of high-angle shots that end both “It’s Oh So Quiet” and Singin’ in the Rain’s “Broadway Melody,” or Busby Berkeley’s famous overhead shots of dancers arranged in geometric patterns (see above), in which we get a God’s-eye view of the musical number in all its splendor. It’s telling that Dancer, too, ends with the camera going “out of the roof” in a graceful crane shot—but vT turns the shot literally on its ear, framing the tableau of Selma’s execution from the side rather than from overhead. Unaccompanied by any fanfare, the camera tracks upward to reveal a lone prison guard, shaken by the trauma of Selma’s death, and then out of the roof into darkness.