Friday, March 21, 2014

Dancer in the Fark (sic!)

Recently I had to re-watch Dancer in the Dark as part of a seminar, but I couldn’t bare to sit through even half of it. In my whole life of obsessive movie watching, I can count on less than ten fingers how many times I've stopped watching a movie before the credits, and I usually even make sure to check if there might not be an extra snippet after the names have rolled across the screen. But this time I just couldn't do it.

I left the cinema outraged at the blatant insult von Trier made to his audience, and even more furious that he thought he could actually get away with it. As I wanted to find like-minded people and read more about how terrible the film was, I checked the IMDB forums, as I always do after watching any film. What I found was a nothing but blind devotees, who failed to see that von Trier telling them to Fuck off!  

C'mon, let's cry again. Like we did last summer...

In his career Lars von Trier has basically made the same film over and over. There are some exceptions, sure, however Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Manderlay, Antichrist and Melancholia, all basically revolve around a woman in peril, who shows her strength through tremendous sacrifice.

There's nothing wrong with making variations on the same theme. In fact, I would argue that this is what has enabled von Trier to find his niche in experimentation. Always the one to break the rules, he can proudly boast to have pushed the boundaries on countless occasions.

You can leave your plot on

Instead of experimenting with technology and colossal budgets like the mammoths of Hollywood, von Trier has been the prophet of minimalism. He's constantly stripping away layers and telling his stories in ever more restrained formats. The Idiots might be the most famous example, where he went full-on low-fi and created a masterpiece that was both hilarious and touching, without the comforts of make-up, props, camera filters, tripods, or even a soundtrack. That he was one of the founding fathers of the Dogme '95 manifesto (a simple set of rules that created a whole genre and spawned more than 250 films) speaks for itself.

He took a both similar and different approach in Dogville, when he removed all film sets. While this might have been an attempt to join theater and cinema in holy matrimony, it also created an ingenious illustration of a town where everybody can see what happens behind residential walls and choosing to look the other way.

In The Five Obstructions von Trier wandered down yet more untrodden paths. Here you can see him taking great pleasure in forcing another filmmaker to think inside ever smaller boxes, and force creativity from ever more constricted chains.

von Trier understands the effectiveness of his simple methods and seems to be on a mission to see how many elements he can eliminate, while still have the audience falling for his tricks. He’s not even trying to hide what he's doing, but uses his self-imposed limitations as the very fabric of his storytelling. Always the one to find new ways of stripping away what is considered "professional" and "proper" filmmaking, I picture him jumping from foot to foot, shouting: "Will people still buy it, if I take away THIS?"

King Trier

Although some of his films are astounding achievements, no one is more aware of this than von Trier himself. His real name is actually not Lars von Trier by the way, but simply Lars Trier. The von was a nickname given to him in filmschool, on account of him having so high thoughts about himself. I guess he didn't get the joke, because Lars "von" Trier thought this to be an honor, and promptly went on calling himself just that. One might think that this was just the megalomaniac antics of a immature film student, however it seems like he never quite grew out of it, and in the infamous Antichrist interview at Cannes 2010, he solemnly proclaimed, without a hint of irony, himself to be the greatest director in the world.

Some have argued that his controversial media persona is nothing but a clever campaign to provoke headlines more valuable than millions of dollars in advertising. And that might very well be. There's also no denying that the man has made some fantastic films. However, Dancer in the Dark is the one film where he took it too far.

What's so bad about Dancer then?

Well, in short: von Tirer took away too much. This time around, he didn't remove the sets or tripods or soundtrack, but he took away something much more fundamental, namely character depth, clever dialogue, intelligent plot, and actual acting.

His characters aren't so much characters at all, as they are reduced to the most one-dimensional motives, spewing on-the-nose dialogue without the slightest emotion, just to move through a bunch of predictable cliches. The whole film is built on banality and meta-sarcasm, in a terrible parody of the worst kind of low budget soap opera.
Some have argued that von Trier's intention was to mock the musical genre. This would surely explain the line from the film: "In a musical nothing dreadful ever happens" (a rule the director sets out to break with great gusto). But if that is the case, von Trier made his mockery with the utmost contempt for both the genre and its audience.

The whole film reminds me of infamous musician Aphex Twin, who once used a saw to chip away at the record player while playing a live dj-gig, and the screeching noise was nothing less than soul-ripping. But the audience devoured every shrill sound and dubbed the man a god for the sheer galls in daring to go through with it. When asked about it later, Aphex Twin called his fans "bloody wankers".

So, now what?

von Trier seems to have grown up a bit since Dancer in the Dark, and as any adult who once had a crazy style in their teens will tell you: breaking the rules is a young man's game. His whole venture into minimalism seemed to come to a full stop with Antichrist, where he went in the total opposite direction and made pure eye-candy instead. He took it even further in Melancholia, which featured elaborate CGI-scenes and even more excessively manicured cinematography. Nymphomaniac basically amounts to a long exercise in masturbation, both literary and as a metaphor for von Trier's showboating brand of filmmaking where he uses exploitation as a marketing tool. It would seem the adult von Trier feels he has stripped away enough layers and is now trying to find his way back to a more commercial audience, paved with conformance and the most marketable concept in history: pure sex.

Though narrow experimentation might certainly gain critical appraisal, it rarely rakes in at the box office, and it might be that von Trier's full 180 turn was brought on merely on account of monetary issues. However, as Dancer in the Dark proved that there are some elements of filmmaking that you simply cannot take away, I hope that this was the danish auteur running out of ways to limit himself.

No comments:

Post a Comment