Sunday, June 28, 2015

Breaking the Waves and Patriarchy in Von Trier Films

Bess is a simple woman.  She loves her family, cares for her church, listens to her God and deeply, desperately, obsessively loves her new husband, Jan. She can't stand to be apart from him, but his job as an oil rig worker forces him to be away from her for months at a time.  It is at this point that Bess begins making deals with God, to get him back no matter what the cost.

Lars Von Trier is often accused of being a misogynist, because of the excessive abuses that he puts his female characters through.  Certainly the abuses in Nymphomania, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, this film and especially Antichrist are varied and of the deepest horror, and one might question the imagination of a man who creates such violence to such lovely women.

But placing the blame on Von Trier is, I think, missing the point.  Von Trier is not the enemy, and he is not punishing these women for the sin of being women.  Rather, he is displaying what happens in a patriarchal society.  Each of these films show a different aspect of patriarchal abuses.  Dancer in the Dark shows a helpless woman, caught in a web of a man's desire; Antichrist shows male jealousy and power, Dogville displays the blame society places on the vulnerable and Nymphomania shows how a woman's self abuse can occur in a society focused on men's sexual desire.

Breaking the Waves takes place in an extremely patriarchal society, in which only men are given a voice in the community, women are expected to be submissive and obey what the men order or else they are exiled from the community.  The film takes Bess, the dearest and gentlest of souls, and shows how patriarchy, just by being patriarchy, destroys her bit by bit.  She has the most loving husband and a sister in law who does everything they can to help her, but even with this kind of support, they cannot stop the voice of patriarchy in her head, which she considers to be the voice of God.

In a sense, this film displays the most insidious and evil part of patriarchy-- the voice of harsh judgment and punishment within the heads of the vulnerable and helpless, so that they never can escape the marionette strings that bind them, even if alone.  Freedom is never an option, nor is love, even when true love is found.

This is a terrible, but important film to witness.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Top Five Characteristics of Great Movies

Art means different things to different people.  Great art can be interpreted variously.  As a medium, films are significant to people for different reasons.  I love film, but maybe for different reasons than you do.  These are the characteristics that make up great film, in my outlook:

Entertainment—A movie must keep one’s attention, the best movies are riveting.  A poor movie is usually indicated by one wondering how long we have to go until the movie is done.

The reason I rate Finding Nemo or Spinal Tap so highly is not because they have any deep message, but because they are entertainment machines, no matter how often one watches them.  On the other hand, Umberto D. is arguably a great film, but pretty dull.

You cried at this scene: Admit it.
Emotion—It captures the emotions, whether that emotion is anger, romance, laughter, depression.  A poor movie leaves you feeling nothing, identifying with no character or situation.
A movie can be very successful in placing one in the midst of a situation that one finds unacceptable—such as my reaction to Seven Samurai, or some people’s reaction to Grave of the Fireflies.  However, even if we dislike the situation, we have recognize the movies as great because they succeeded in stirring us emotionally. 

Some movies might be very entertaining, but not be emotionally intense, such as The Princess Bride.  This usually will limit the work’s greatness.  But not the Princess Bride.  It's just that great.

What IS he doing to that piano?
Mystery—There is something hidden in the movie that must be dug for.  The best movies have multiple meanings, one on the surface and one not as easy to see.  A poor movie is one in which the point and ending is seen before the movie is halfway over.

A sense of mystery can go too far, if it fails in other ways, such as Eraserhead.  That film is so mysterious it doesn’t convey emotion and it’s entertainment value is limited.  It is a great movie to analyze, though.  But most critics would consider a movie shallow simply because there is nothing to think about, such as the majority of romantic comedies. 

Hey, ballet SAYS something.  I had no idea.
Communication—It accurately communicates the theme it intends for the audience to receive.  This doesn’t mean that the audience shouldn’t have to work for it, but the audience shouldn’t leave completely confused. 

This is the reason why Synecdoche, New York is so controversial among critics.  Some critics didn’t see it communicating anything, only being one huge mess of a mystery.  Others, such as myself, think that it communicated well, but left much for multiple viewings to discover.

Technically sound—The movie is put together well enough that the moviemaking isn’t noticed beyond some innovations.  If the acting, story or camera is too noticeable, then it is working against the above characteristics.  Moviemaking is about storytelling, not the other way around.

The extreme stylists, such as Peter Greeenaway, I think, make an error in having their style be louder than what they are trying to express.  While others, such as Tarintino in his best films, can use style to draw one in and to communicate.

 It is in this area that critics can sometimes be unhelpful.  If they focus so much on the technical aspects, such as a particular performance, then the viewer focuses on the technical ability, rather than what the actor wants the viewer to focus on. 

What aspects of film make them great in your opinion?

Top 10 Movies to Give an Alien

Top 5 Movies To Teach An Alien about Earth
So here comes Starman, looking just like Jeff Bridges.  He convinces you that he's an okay guy, no wonder because he looks just like The Dude, and then he convinces you he's an alien, and no wonder because he acts just like the Dude.  But he's a bit naive and, well, clueless about what's going on.  What movies should we give him to get an idea of what life is like here?

5. Breaking Away—Describes the working class, the dependence on limited resources, the hopes of teens and has the competition and victory of a typical sports movie.

4. When Harry Met Sally—A sincere example of friendship and love with some sex thrown in.  Hopefully he won't learn that orgasms are okay in public.

3. Parenthood—Although played for laughs, this movie does show the drives and hopes and fears of parents.  And teach him a clear warning about blowjobs while driving.

2. Salaam Bombay—The alien shouldn’t have the idea that all of humanity is white and Western.  This movie not only describes urban Indian culture, but also the real poverty that a billion people live in.

5. Schindler’s List:  Shows both the inhumanity of some humans as well as the underground compassion of some, and how humans can use lies and manipulation for good.  This also provides a good contrast to Salaam Bombay.

Top 5 Movies To Warn An Alien About Humanity:

Suppose you didn’t LIKE aliens?  Then you would show him/her/it these movies and they will leave with their tentacles throbbing in fear of unstable humanity.  Or they might just decide to wipe us out for the sake of the universe as a whole.  But what is life without risks?:

Signs—Humans run around, scared to death, trying to kill the unseen which turns out to be friendly aliens.

The Day the Earth Stood Still—Through the fear of a single human, humanity and aliens go to war.

The Iron Giant—Through the paranoia of a single human, despite the good intentions of other humans, the alien sacrifices himself for them all

E.T.—The alien becomes an object of fear and scientific experimentation of a huge, faceless human institution.

Aliens—This movie, from the viewpoint of an alien, shows just horrific humans are: A human breaks her promise to the mother alien and then kills all of the alien’s children.  If this doesn’t cause the alien to leave earth, nothing will.

Hunger: Who is Willing to Endure?

Hunger is the story of Bobby Sands, an Irish Republican put in prison for political violence against the British.  While in prison, he leads protests, demanding to be treated as political prisoners—POWs— instead of just criminals.  As the British refuse, he and his co-prisoners suffer the filthiest existence at their own hands.  And then they endure forced bathings and the most inhumane searches.  Finally, Bobby Sands decides on a hunger strike, for him and his comrades.  And the horror of that fast is depicted gruesomely.

Obviously, this is not a movie for everyone.  By the end of this film I began to wonder why I was putting myself through this torturous movie.  Then I wondered why the director put in all of this amazing effort, with some of the greatest filmmaking talent ever, to put us through this experience with Bobby.  It seems that Bobby is going through some of the most terrible self-torture, and for what?  Political recognition?  For the recognition of human rights, most of which were in their grasp at any point?  To make some petty point?

But I realized that this was not a political film.  The director depicts the suffering of the guards as well as the prisoners.  The fact how everyone’s life involved was simply miserable because of this system, because of the determination of these men.

Finally, I realized what the movie is about.  Endurance.  It doesn’t matter what Bobby Sands was fighting for, or what methods he used.  The point is simple—he was willing to go to whatever extent to obtain his goals.  He had the steadfastness to put his body through any degradation, to suffer whatever the cost, to go through any pain or mutilation in order to achieve his goals.  The ethic nature of the goals weren’t significant.  But his determination was.

And, honestly, that’s what makes any cause great.  Not the rightness of the cause, but the stark determination of the promoters of the cause.  This is what made the civil rights movement great, as well as the Indian freedom protests—they were willing to suffer all, while not causing the suffering of anyone.  This is what made the early Anabaptists great, the early Franciscans, the first century church.  They all promoted their cause to the death, while never harming another.

I am ashamed of our modern day church.  How little determination we have.  How we speak so much about “balance” and “cycles”, as if the main text of Scripture we should be living out is not the Sermon on the Mount, but Ecclesiastes 3.  We speak of the “discipline” of rest, but the fact is our lives are full of rest and we do little work for those who honestly need it.  Pastors are the ultimate compromisers, seeking salaries and retirements and office hours, instead of trusting and giving. 

I know true endurance.  I once lived it.  For fifteen years, I worked hard for the people on the street until my body, slowly but decidedly gave up on me—until my stress levels exploded.  Surely, people would say, that is the need for balance.  And I will say, no one’s body is meant to endure terrible stress for twelve or fifteen years.  We just can’t keep doing it.  Even Jesus only dealt with daily suffering for three years or so. 

And this kind of endurance isn’t for everyone.  It is a saintly life to support the spiritual athletes and soldiers—those who lay down their lives for the cause.  But, honestly, we are in a time of the church where those who are willing to lay their lives down for the gospel are few.  Very few. 

What is the task?  To love others, even if it means our own death.
What is the cost?  Our lives, our sanity, our family, our “balance.
Who is willing to endure?

Who is willing to endure?

8 1/2, a personal view

Some spoilers ahead, but they don't ruin the enjoyment of the film:

The plot is confusing and switches time frame frequently.  It is the story of Guido, a director in the midst of creating a film that no one making the film knows the story or anything about it.  At the beginning is a dream in which Guido is in a car filled with smoke and he is choking, then he dreams that he flies out of the sunroof of the car and floats in the air, until his producer captures him with a rope at the beach, where he is pulled down, falling to the ocean.

 As he is making this film, he is in a spa and mineral springs for his deteriorating health.  He had handed the script over to his harshest critic, a cinematic artist, who condemned the script as trash through and through.  Guido knew that changes had to be made to the script, but he wanted to stick with it, because within it is a kernel of truth about himself that had to come out.  His mistress follows him to the spa, where she expects to take a holiday with him, but she gets sick and he ends up having to take care of her.  And all those making the movie with him need constant direction or coddling or help from him—but he feels that he is washed up, unable to direct anymore.

Eventually he invites his estranged wife to join him, which she does with joy until she notices his mistress, of whom she knows.  His wife becomes sullen and distant, until she explains her anger to him.  He has a fantasy about him having a harem of all the women he is attracted to which is very pleasant, until they rebel against him because of his rule to discard any of his harem who is older than twenty nine. 

In an examination of a number of screen tests, it is obvious to those who know him that, rather than the science fiction film they thought he was making, that he was planning a film about his life.  Some of the script comes out, and his wife understands that he is trying to defend his unfaithfulness and lies.  She tells him at that point that she is leaving him. 

He decides to listen to his critic and to abandon the project.  The sets are taken down, and he imagines himself attacked by critics and his producer, and he crawls under a table and shoots himself.  Then his entertainment self convinces him to go through with the movie, presenting it as a musical comedy, where everyone in is life is dancing together to make the film.  He begs his wife to join them, saying that all he wanted to do is to present the truth, even her side of the truth.  She reluctantly joins the dance, and the film is made.

There is so much else about this movie that should be said.  I only gave the barest bones, and communicated none of the wonderful complexity, the richness of the fantasy, the fullness of the life presented.  Interestingly enough, Guido, although a well-known director, is relatively passive throughout the film, doing whatever people wished of him, saying whatever they wanted to hear.  I didn’t get around to the important sub-plots of Claudia, Guido’s idealized woman and actress or Seraphina, whom his Catholic teachers called “the devil”, but Guido as a child was drawn to because of her seductive dance.  There is so much here, that to summarize it is to lose something significant.

My personal interpretation:
All throughout this film, I had two other movies running through my head: All that Jazz, (the Bob Fosse auto-bio pic) and Adaptation (the Charlie Kauffman auto-bio-pic).  All three movies talk about aging, the creative process and has interchange between autobiography and fantasy.  Clearly the two later movies depended much on Fillini’s classic, and 8 ½ is the more complex, more human and more likeable film. 

Another movie I thought of is Altman’s The Player, because of the self-referential nature of both films and their critique of filmmaking and those who make movies.  Also, both films attempt to be comedies (The Player is more successful in that), but the utter gravity with which they take filmmaking ultimately belies the humor they present.

But never have I seen a movie so successful at being a satire of itself.  The movie Guido is directing is a mystery throughout much of 8 ½, until the watcher understands that Guido is making 8 ½ itself.  But what kind of a movie is it?  There are different characters presented to guide the direction of the movie.  The critic, who dislikes it’s lack of art and popular notions.  The producer, who wants something popular, with famous actors, that will sell tickets.  The entertainer, who wants it to fascinate and captivate the audience.  But they are all a part of Guido/Fellini, who’s indecision is actually playing out in his own head.  And then there is the personal nature of the film—what will the film mean to his wife, his mistress, to others whom he portrayed?  All of this adds to the indecision.

Ultimately, he decides on an entertainment that tells the truth—about himself and about the creative process.  No, the truth may not be pleasant for himself or his loved ones, but it must be told.  But, in deciding on the entertainer, he has made the art film par-excellance—despite his critic telling him it is no such thing. 

In the end, this is one of the greatest films I have ever seen.  After just this one seeing, I am putting it my top five.  I don’t know when I have ever seen a movie so complicated and yet almost perfectly balanced, so fascinating and yet so entertaining, such an equal use of my heart and my head.  

-Written in 2010