Friday, March 21, 2014

Dancer in the Fark (sic!)

When I recently had to re-watch Dancer in the Dark as part of a seminar, I couldn’t bare to sit through it till the end. 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 usually I 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, and would rather claw out my own eyes than sit through even half the horrible movie.

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. Wanting to find like-minded and read more about how terribly bad 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 the film was von Trier telling them to Fuck off! Why? Let me tell you.


Common, 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, but 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. The man has given us some amazing adventures in filmmaking, and can proudly boast to have "pushed the boundaries yet again" on countless occasions.

You can leave your plot on

Instead of experimenting with technology and colossal budgets, von Trier has been the prophet of minimalism, constantly stripping away layers, and restraining himself. The Idiots might be the most famous example, where he went full-on hardcore low-fi, and created a masterpiece that was both hilarious and touching, without the comforts of make-up, tripods, camera filters, props 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 made the ingenious point of illustrating a town where everybody can see what happens behind residential walls, yet they all choose to look the other way.

In The Five Obstructions he wandered down yet more untrodden paths. We see him taking great pleasure in forcing his teacher to think inside ever smaller boxes, and force creativity from ever more constricted chains.

He understands the effectiveness of his simple methods, and seems to be on a mission to see how many superficial elements he can eliminate, and still have people falling for his tricks. He’s not even trying to hide it, and uses his obstructions as tools and the very fabric of his movies.

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 in anticipation, wondering: "Will the audience still buy it, if I take away THIS?"

King Trier

Although some of his films are astounding achievements in movie making, no one is more aware of this than von Trier himself. His name is actually not Lars von Trier by the way, but simply Lars Trier. The von was a nickname given to him by his filmschool mates as a joke, on account of him having so high thoughts about himself. I guess he didn't get the joke, because he thought this to be an honor, and promptly went on calling himself just that, apparently feeling himself worthy of a royal title. More proof of his megalomaniac antics can be seen in the infamous Antichrist interview at Cannes 2010, where he solemnly proclaimed to be the greatest director in the world, without a hint of irony.

But who am I to say otherwise? Although some have claimed that his controversial media persona and effective use of his bad-boy-filmmaker status in interviews, is nothing but a clever campaign to provoke headlines more valuable than millions of dollars in advertising; I personally am a big fan of his films.

So what's so bad about Dancer then?

Well, in short: he took away too much. In Dancer in the Dark, von Trier used normal sets, and had both a tripod and added a soundtrack, but he took away something else: Character depth, clever dialogue, an intelligent plot, and actual acting.

Ripping away these essential fundaments of all storytelling, he built his film instead on banality and meta-sarcasm, with an ensemble of strictly one-dimensional characters, spewing out intentionally on-the-nose dialogue without the slightest emotion, and a script consisting of nothing but predictable cliches.
I picture von Trier sitting in his chair laughing at an audience that still buys his cheap production: "Can't they see it's nothing but a badly shot, terribly lit melodrama without make-up? Don't they realize it's about as enticing as a low budget soap opera, helmed by Bjørk’s music?"
Some have argued that von Trier's intention was to mock the musical genre, hence the much quoted "In a musical nothing dreadful ever happens"-line, a rule he sets out to break with great gusto. But if so, it is done with the utmost contempt for both the genre and its audience.

It reminds me of the story of infamous musician Aphex Twin, who once brought an electric saw to a live gig, and started chipping away at the record player while the screeching sound blasted out across the speakers. It produced a horrible noise that was nothing less than cringe-worthy. But the audience devoured every shrill shriek, 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?

As any adult who once had a crazy hairstyle in their teens will tell you, breaking the rules is a young man's game. Von Trier's whole venture into minimalism seemed to come to a full stop with Antichrist, where he went in the total opposite direction and made a pure eye-candy film. He took it even further in Melancholia, which featured elaborate CGI-scenes and even more excessively manicured cinematography. Nymphomaniac basically amounts to a long exorcize 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 home to a more commercial audience, paved with conformance, compliance and the most marketable concept ever imagined: pure sex.

While my initial thought were that this was because of monetary issues, as narrow experimentation might certainly gain appraisal but rarely rakes in at the box office, this seemed too simple an explanation.

So, could it actually be that his highness has run out of ways to limit himself?

While I'd be sad to see the interesting, challenging and provocative von Trier go (my favorite of his will always be Riget), still if this means he's through taunting his audience with shameless insults, I'm very excited to see what he will produce when he decides to get serious about movie making once again.

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