Archive for the ‘ Film ’ Category

Films of 1999: Nostalgia for Questioning the American Dream

It was 1999, I had just turned 17, and my friend Jake and I were driving back from watching Fight Club in the theaters. Jake jokingly hit the gas in his Mustang and took his hands off the wheel. Like Tyler Durden in the film, we were flirting with the idea of just “letting go.”

Fight Club, for all its hyper-masculinity and shots of Brad Pitt’s abs, turned out to be more than a joke for me. Its critique of consumption and the yuppie American lifestyle cut deep. Perhaps it was because I saw the film at a formative age, on the threshold of becoming an adult, but I moved forward into college and afterwards into my working life afraid and determined to not become Edward Norton’s character, trapped in an IKEA prison in some high-rise condominium. Much of my career–from working in independent publishing to living in Oakland* to working as a freelancer with one foot always outside of corporate IT departments–was driven by this fear of becoming just another soul lost in a vapid life of duvet covers.

The other week I noticed American Beauty pop-up on Netflix. After re-watching the film, I realized that it, too, was released in 1999 alongside another favorite of mine, Office Space. I had never put it together that these three films were released in the same year, and all three directly criticize the American dream of a salaried position and a comfortable, predictable life. All three films also tackle the concept of re-invention, whether it be into a construction worker, weed smoking fast food worker, or terrorist cell leader. The American dream was something to be avoided, and if you found yourself trapped in it, then it was time for a metamorphosis.

A co-worker who is nearly ten years my junior was recently having some issues with hardware, and I sent him the infamous beat-down clip from Office Space. He sent back some lols and then asked “if that was from a TV show.” I was surprised that he had never seen the cult favorite, although less so since he grew up in Iraq and Turkey. Nevertheless, it brought to mind the fact that people that are a bit younger than I am, true millennials you could say, were less effected by the three films than I was. This makes sense, since seeing these films at say, the age of 12 instead of 17, would make a huge difference. Could you really have been expected to understand the pitfalls of the American dream in the sixth grade? Confirming this theory, I have some friends and acquaintances who are in this younger age bracket that appear to have less issues with taking a typical “corporate” job or, in general, conspicuous consumption. Perhaps this be a defining line between those who, like myself, are on the border between Gen X and Gen Y, and those who are true Gen Ys/millenials.

But is this defining line really just the timing of three major Hollywood releases that took a critical glance at America? Probably not. I think they play a role, but what we really might be talking about here is pre 9/11 versus post. When I started thinking, “well what happened to that critical spirit present in these films,” the memory of waking up in an oddly quiet dorm my freshman year and walking out of my room to see people gathered around small TVs, some crying, flashed into my mind. 9/11 really did change everything. Suddenly we didn’t have time to question the vapidness of our lives–we had a new everpresent boogeyman to contend with. Things became more serious, and American life was re-affirmed in a sense. It’s interesting to try and envision where we would be had we sat, for the next 15 years, contemplating whether or not we really needed another duvet cover.

 

* This was the Oakland, CA of 8 years ago, which was a less typical city for recent college graduate to begin their career. Rougher and cheaper, West Oakland seemed like the place where Edward Norton’s character found the dilapidated house there he lived in after his condo imploded. Oakland has since changed with influx of people priced out of San Francisco due to the tech boom.

Unevenings

Tuesday, early evening, Coney Island.

 

Wednesday, early evening, Midtown Manhattan.

Fall Streaming

It’s that time of year again, when you can watch five films in one weekend and have family only be mildly concerned that you’re depressed. Accordingly, I’ve collected some brief reviews of films currently streaming  on Netflix, for those minus-30-dark-at-4-kind-of days.

What Maisie Knew

What Maisie Knew still

Family dramas are not my normal cup of tea, but I saw this poster for months outside of the Angelika theater so I’d thought I would give it a whirl. This movie is about a young girl suffering through her two self-absorbed wealthy Manhattanite parents’ divorce. Her parents are the type that I see in TriBeCa coffee houses on the weekends, forcing their only-child to eat cashew butter and green juice–the type that I really hope are not the awful people that this film makes them out to be. Moore and Coogan play truly despicable parents who ignore Maisie to pursue either trans-Atlantic business pursuits (Coogan) or nostalgic rock re-unions (Moore), the latter being one of the more far-fetched and ridiculous parts of the film. Both also marry young, fairly innocent hipsters for the sole purpose of having someone to babysit their daughter. Despite being a middle-class bartender and nanny, these hipsters are (surprise!) better parents than Maisie’s real sad-sack biological parents.

I liked this film because it depicted how a childhood could be both drenched in material goods and completely devoid of stability and love, something that is probably quite common in America’s ruling class. It also offered some interesting generational commentary. Despite lacking careers, in this film Gen Yers are decent human beings and parents, while Gen Xers are materialistic, confused people who follow in the footsteps of the worst of the boomers. One of the several unrealistic parts that bothered me was that Maisie, although adorable, was not realistic in her ultra-mature, zen-like approach to her parents awfulness. Most kids would be well on their way to being little monsters.

Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives still

Staying on the topic of bad parents, we have this beautiful and gruesome crime flick, Only God Forgives. Kristin Scott Thomas has an epic performance, playing a sadistic and quasi-incestuous crime-family matriarch, Crystal. Crystal manipulates with her son (Gosling) with some deep dark Freudian stuff. All poor Gosling wants is to not kill innocent people and children, and to have a prostitute like him. Both are hunted by a demi-god Thai police chief who routinely murders and chops off limbs to impose his ethics.

This film looks amazing. It could have been Panos Cosmatos’ next film. It could have also been a misfire by David Lynch, since it is filled with dark corridors, red lighting, and hands moving through veils. It would have been a misfire, though, because despite the visuals, excellent soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, and Thomas’ performance, the plot and the acting are not that good.

Holy Motors

Holy Motors still

I’m a fan of strange experimental films, and this was probably the strangest film I’ve seen all year. Not just because the plot is totally surreal, but it’s real-deal surreal, meaning French. And sometimes French things are so weird it’s like they’re from another planet.

Denis Lavant gets to “meta-act” in this film, playing a mysterious man who is driven around Paris in a limo, to his various “appointments,” acting as a homeless beggar, a futuristic gaming green-screen sex actor à la The Lawnmower Man, and a flower-eating, sewer-dwelling, Eva Mendes breast-revealing dwarf, to name a few. The latter was so bizarre and so seemingly packed with literary and historic reference that my brain couldn’t really process it.

All that aside, I didn’t actually finish the film, since it was near 3am and suddenly Kylie Minogue appeared and it became a musical. Nevertheless, this is some crazy adventurous stuff along the lines of Enter the Void, and it’s definitely worth seeing.

Electrick Children

Electrick Children still

The plot of Electrick Children is wistful. A Mormon teenager listens to Blondie and becomes pregnant with the Child of God, then takes off to the big city to find the rock star father. It would be a mediocre or bad film if it was only the plot that was wistful. But it’s a good film because the mood is nostalgic as well.

It was hard to put my finger on exactly what I liked about this film, but whatever it was definitely had a residue of nostalgia. It clearly dealt with the repression of Mormonism, or any religious orthodoxy, for that matter. More importantly, however, it managed to portray teenage love in messy way, complete with a final escape to the ultimate symbol of freedom, the California coast. It kind of reminded of a Paris, Texas for the 2010s. Expansive, austere landscapes, missing fathers, urban decay (Las Vegas, Houston), and contrasting suburbia.

Después de Lucía

Despues_de_Lucia

A good friend, knowing that I am a fan of dark cinema, suggested that I check this one out, as it might challenge my tastes. And it did. This was one of the only films in recent memory that I initially regretted watching because it was so disturbing.

I say initially because I think Después de Lucía is a unique and important film. It deals with themes of grief and the terrifying notion that terrible things happen to decent people who have just experienced terrible things, for no apparent reason. At the expense of sounding like a misinformed white man, I feel that there is something particularly Mexican about this kind of nihilism, or at least that it is born in a place where people live amongst barbaric drug-trade murders and thousands of women disappear without a trace.

What’s interesting about this film, though, is that its terror does not reside in the slums of Ciudad Juárez but in the wealthy enclaves of Mexico City. The terrorists are not drug cartels, but rich teenagers with iPhones. Yet the same themes creep in; in particular, violence against women and inadequate law enforcement. Lucía’s father ends of up taking on the role of the enforcer, or judge, jury, and executioner. In the films unforgettable final scene, his cold-steel and mechanical murder of Lucía’s schoolmate/tormentor summarizes something terrible about the world that is best unearthed only once. So yes, the movie is not something I would watch repeatedly, but definitely worth watching.

Mulholland Drive: The Personal and the Post-9/11 World

glow of street light in suburban area at night

Ironically, this photo was taken in the Inland Empire.

I first saw David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive as a freshman at U.C. Berkeley. It was screened at Wheeler Hall in the auditorium where I would later listen to Professor Leon Litwack, whose lectures on antebellum America, with their dramatic deliveries fit for the History Channel, would inspire me to study history. I have a lot of memories of lectures at Wheeler—Todd Solondz’s intriguing awkwardness, David Byrne rambling about PowerPoint, falling asleep in Pychology 101—but two memories stick out the most. One is Litwack recounting President Nixon “giving bombing directives while drunk” and the other is watching Mulholland Drive. Somewhere in there lies a connection.

After watching the film at Wheeler, I walked back to my dorm puzzled, talking with other students about the bizarre plot and possible interpretations. Later that night, when I was alone (or at least retired to the bottom bunk of my three-person room), I was gripped by anxiety over some of the images and symbols in the film, particularly the man behind the dumpster and Diane Selwyn’s corpse. I was frightened by the irrational belief that these images would never leave my mind.

The exact timing of the screening at Wheeler is hazy to me. I recall it being one of the first non-welcome events I attended as a freshman, which makes sense temporally since the film was released in May of 2001, and it would have taken some months for it to pass through theaters and to a college screening. This would have placed the event around 9/11, either right before or right afterwards.

As I moved through my early-to-mid 20s, Lynch stuck in the back of my mind as the director of that unique and unnerving film from freshman year, a name I would mutter in group settings to prove I understood something about film, but still with a bit of nervousness since I knew relatively little about Lynch’s other work. I think there was one subsequent viewing of Mulholland Drive during that period, but the themes present in the film had not yet “clicked” with me.

In my late twenties I experienced my sister’s suicide, and shortly thereafter, the death of my grandmother and the loss of my childhood home in Orange County where she helped raise me. My family and childhood had imploded in a matter of a few years. I began to watch particularly dark films, mostly psychological thrillers, with regularity. I would look forward to the late hours of the night when, my girlfriend asleep in the bedroom, I would sit on the couch immersed in the soft glow of the flat screen, cocooned in the “gaze” of film. The psychological reasons for this are many and probably better topics for the therapist’s office than this piece.

During this time, I became a more serious ‘student’ of Lynch, examining his films and shows in greater detail. I had several revelations about his style and themes, all of which seemed interconnected.

The Uncanny

In his films, ordinary objects, spaces, and sounds are made strange and therefore frightening. An isolated phone, a dark hallway, or the ambient whine of machinery all become menacing. Things that should remain hidden are revealed, such as the monster behind the dumpster (in some perspectives representing American homelessness) in Mulholland Drive, or the personal/domestic life of a couple secretly recorded and re-played in Lost Highway. Lynch borrows so heavily from the uncanny that, in my opinion, the easiest way to understand the ambiguous concept first detailed by Freud is to watch his films.

As an aside, I’ve come to believe that Lynch’s personal interest in meditation helps create works of art that are steeped in the uncanny. Meditation seems to remove the veil, so to speak, and ordinary sights and sounds become novel and strange. I remember searching for interviews and lectures by Lynch and becoming annoyed at how much he talked about meditation, but now I do believe that it is a key to understanding his work.

Dreams and Intuition

In my opinion, no other artist conveys the world of dreams better than Lynch. His labyrinth-like plots and various cinematic techniques (lighting, colors, out-focus shots) make his films almost indistinguishable from dreams. This aesthetic is summarized well by a line from the famous “Winkie’s” scene in Mulholland Drive:

I had a dream about this place. Well, it’s the second one I’ve had, but they’re both the same. They start out that I’m in here, but it’s not day or night. It’s kind of half-night, you know? But it looks just like this, except for the light. And I’m scared like I can’t tell you.

All of Lynch’s films seem to pull heavily from intuition as opposed to rationality. An obvious nod to this fact is Dale Cooper’s intuitive techniques and experiments as an FBI agent in Twin Peaks. One could say that Mulholland Drive itself was born of intuition, or random chance. It started out as a serial TV show for ABC, but it was subsequently dropped. Lynch then rewrote the script into a feature film. In this way, the “real-life” story of the film mirrors its content: a Hollywood dream is broken, and morphs into something more frightening. It seems that some of the most powerful films are created with this mirroring effect, such as Herzog’s real-life (and larger than life) trials and tribulations making Fitzcarraldo.

The American Nightmare

Almost all of Lynch’s films and shows deal with an evil force or nightmare lurking below apple-pie America. His films are riddled with often campy Americana: diners, classic Hollywood “stars,” the “jitterbug,” James Dean types and motorcycle rides to make-out spots, to name just a few. He then embeds this imagery in uncanny imagery and non-linear plots. There is thus always something lurking behind the white-picket fence; one just has to focus their gaze (or meditate on it) to see the devil in the details.

Circling back to the unconventional development of Mulholland Drive, this juxtaposition appears almost accidentally. The initial serialized segments and characters were embedded into a very non-linear plot, following the fiasco with ABC. The result is that viewer is made to anticipate the pacing and character development of a TV series, which never comes true, as certain narratives loop back or disappear entirely. (For more on this topic, check out this academic article.)

It’s worth nothing that even the films title connects with this dream/nightmare dichotomy. William Mulholland’s monomanical pursuit of the dream of Los Angeles created nightmares like the St. Francis Dam disaster and the apocalyptic landscape of the Salton Sea.

The Film Watching Back

What arguably makes Lynch’s film most unique is that they are open to infinite interpretation, while retaining meta-narratives and themes. This allows for a two-way viewing experience, through which certain meta-themes are imparted on the viewer, for instance, the “American Nightmare” narrative from above, while the viewer also injects his/her own personal meanings and emotions into the film. I wish I was better versed in post-modern philosophy and theory, as I am sure that there are connections here with ideas proposed by the likes of Deleuze and Lacan.  I suppose any great work of art carries this experience, but my gut tells me that the medium of film combined with Lynch’s style make the experience one-of-a-kind.

It is this last point that inspired me to start this piece on a personal note. Analyzing my connection with Mulholland Drive, I can’t help but to draw connections between the film, the decade in which it came into my life, and the themes described above. One could say that all of this is a result of the “film watching back.”

Personally, the 2000s were bookended with tragedy and with the turbulent revelation of a nightmare below the American Dream. The first part was the collective experience of 9/11, which occurred within the first month of becoming independent and starting college as an adult. I think this had psychological effects that separate my contemporaries (those graduating high school in 2001) from both those before (Generation X) and those after (Millenials). Not only did 2001 mark the beginning of the transition from childhood to adulthood, is also marked the monumental paradigm shift from the pre to post-9/11 world. One could say that other events (for instance, Vietnam) had already pulled back the curtain from behind the American Dream, but 9/11 was particularly focused and resonant, with the dream literally “shattered.” When the towers dropped, what remained hidden had been revealed, in this case, the seething resentment of America harbored by Islamic terrorists and other groups around the world.

The second part was the personal experience of death and loss within my family at the end of the 2000s. My sister’s suicide revealed the problems in our family, in particular a family legacy of suicide, which remained hidden underneath a Southern Californian shimmering of beaches and fancy cars. The fact that it took place in our house, which was subsequently repossessed by the bank, a direct result if the predatory loan practices of the late-2000s financial crisis, formed a connection between the personal and the collective.

Dreams and symbolic imagery abounded during this period. Growing up, I often had dreams of my childhood house that was somehow “familiar, yet different” and contained rooms that terrified me. Years later, after our home had been foreclosed upon and purchased by new owners,  I returned to my childhood house (at night, for some reason) to see it still “looking the same, but different.” I also recalled at some point after the tragedy a poster that I had in my room during high school, a painting by Gottfried Helnwein called “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” which shows James Dean walking alone under a grey sky and though flooded street in New York City, where I moved shortly after my sister’s death.

Taking this decade into account, it is no mystery why I felt such a strong connection with both Lynch’s cinematic style and Mulholland Drive. I agree with Time Out New York’s summary of the film:

Can there be another movie that speaks as resonantly — if unwittingly — to the awful moment that marked our decade? […] Mulholland Drive is the monster behind the diner; it’s the self-delusional dream turned into nightmare.

The anxiety I felt as a freshman was the collective-personal unfolding of the “dream turned into nightmare.” The film truly “gets” Los Angeles and by extension Southern California. Blazing sunlight, such as that which surrounds Betty as she steps off the plane and the Hollywood apartment complex, creates spaces of shadows, such as the area behind the dumpster, the neighborhood of Club Silencio, and the terrifying interior of Diane Selwin’s condo. With Hollywood being America’s myth-making machine, this dichotomy is broadcasted out past the hills to America at large. In this sense, to watch Mulholland Drive is to gaze at our lives in post-9/11 America.

Interesting films on Instant when it’s sludging outside

Late winter / early spring weather in the northeast is usually a mixture of snow and rain that is best described as ‘not very fun.’ It’s a good time to stay inside and watch films, which for me means streaming them on Netflix instant. Here are some films I enjoyed in the past two months.

(Disclaimer: My taste in films is quite dark)

The Turin Horse

Turin Horse screen shot

This is an anvil of a film, dropping the full weight of nineteenth century humanity on the viewer’s head. It’s a painful, paced, and myopic look at father and daughter weathering an apocalyptic dust storm in their dilapidated country villa. The father (who beat the horse that Nietzsche tried to save, pre-downward spiral) is a broken man, who can only hobble around, bark orders at his daughter, and shove piping-hot and half-cooked potatoes into his mouth. The daughter has more redeeming qualities–there are possibilities of a better life floating around her, but circumstances keep her stuck with her father, patiently dressing and undressing him and tending to all of the monotonous household duties.

It’s a beautiful film, with impeccable black-and-white cinematography. That paired with a difficult and often unnerving look at nineteenth century domestic routines made this, in my mind, something like a historic Eraserhead. As for the Nietzsche connection, there are philosophical rants and mysterious book to analyze, which I won’t venture to do here. I will say that, knowing the story of Nietzsche’s breakdown in Turin, I went into this film with a bias against the cruel monster of (a) man who beat the horse, but I came out with a different perspective. The man and daughter in this film appear as the beasts of burden–even the horse has enough sense to give up and not try to fight through the storm. So maybe Nietzsche, in throwing his arm around the horse, was not simply crying out against man’s cruelty against the horse, but was crying for man, for the “laughingstock,” or more appropriately, for that “painful embarrassment.”

Beyond the Black Rainbow

BTBR screen shot

Critics of Panos Cosmatos’ debut film remarked that it isn’t really a film, that there is nothing there, that it was like ‘gazing at a lava lamp for nearly two hours.’ I think they missed the point on a few different levels.

Firstly, there is a lot there, despite it having very little semblance of a plot. The retro look and feel is probably the best resurrection of 80’s aesthetic I’ve ever seen. The soundtrack by Jeremy Schmidt of Black Mountain is amazing. It’s a synthy ambient record I would listen to a lot if it was available as a record (someone needs to get on top of that). Cosmatos’ also creates a kaleidoscope of references and homages: Enter the Void, 2001, The Shining, and American Pyscho, to name a few.

The film is also very much a postmodern piece of art. The critics were, after all, correct in saying that it isn’t really a film. It’s simulacrum, a film watching films, hence the kaleidoscopic references. I wonder if Cosmatos is making some subtle statement here. If the younger generation can only create by reference to the past (think retro filters on what are often truly creative photographs), then Cosmatos has created some sort of hipster masterpiece.

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of Toynbee Tiles

toynbee

Although a documentary, this film watched like a crime mystery. Three amateur investigators, including the protagonist Justin Duerr, team up to investigate the origins of the enigmatic Toynbee Tiles, and they actually figure it out!

I went to bed after watching this film feeling creeped out. Really only Lynch can send me to dreamland scared, so I was impressed. The fact that a Philadelphia recluse had, for decades, planted schizophrenic street art around the country was unnerving. I think it was the combination of audacity and insanity.

As in any great documentary, there were several subtle gems. One was the story of the Toynbee tiler jamming his way on to television, sending out cryptic messages to Phildelphia news watchers. Another was discovering that the tiler was called the ‘birdman’ by neighborhood residents because he cared for birds in his boarded-up home, shortly after the viewer is presented with a random clip of the chief investigator, Duerr, mending the leg of a injured bird in his home. Weird.

The Comedy

The Comedy screen shot

If you’re a fan of Tim & Eric like me, it’s worth seeing this film just to watch Tim Heidecker in a serious role, itself kind of a head trip. The opening scene of partying, beer spraying, and male nudity makes the film appear kind of jokey and fratty, but it’s more than that. It’s basically a really painful stare at the lives of aging, trust fund Brooklyn hipsters. And it’s probably more than that.

There is one scene where Heidecker’s character Swanson, buzzed, spews offensive pseud-intellectual nonsense to a cute 20-something who later sleeps with him. It’s painful because it serves as a sort of mirror for a lot of young people in NYC (myself included). We’ve all participated in vapid conversations and meaningless encounters that would be excruciating if recorded and re-watched.

What makes the film complicated and deep is that Swanson is not 100% bratty hipster–he’s actually multi-dimensional, seemingly searching for something good or at least ‘real.’ At several points he does this kind of voyeuristic performance art, pretending to do various menial jobs like being a store clerk or taxi driver. In one revealing scene, he acts as a landscaper and asks the owner of the house if he and his fellow boys can use their pool, ‘translating’ their wishes from English to Spanish, much to the confusion of ‘the boys.’ After some awkwardness, the owner agrees, and soon thereafter Swanson just walks away from the job, leaving the other landscapers to enjoy a dip in the pool.

Whore’s Glory

whore's glory screen shot

A lot of films are described as unflinching. This one really is. It gives prostitution the long stare that it deserves–so long, in fact, that the film actually ends with the ‘concealed’ act itself. Filmed in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico, Whore’s Glory is cinéma vérité at it’s finest, leaving viewers (in this case, myself and my friend Mikael) wondering aloud, ‘how did the filmmakers get that footage?’ Then the credits rolled with German names, and it all seemed to make sense, at least to a fan of Herzog.

The great thing about this documentary is it’s range. Starting in Thailand, one gets the impression that the women’s lives, I dare say, are not that bad. Yes, the men you see selecting women in the ‘fishbowl’–as the brothel is called due to the large glass ‘stage’ that the women sit on while being selected by potential clients–are predictably creepy, especially, of course, the American men. But the women also seem empowered, and they display close bonds with their fellow working women. They even go out together to spend money on the ‘bar boys,’ their masculine equivalents.

Then comes Bangladesh, which is just heart-wrenching. Girls, some who appear as young as 12, are stuck in a horrific cycle of poverty and prostitution. They are relegated to labyrinthian slums, lorded over by madams who push the girls to turn over as many clients as they can per day (from a few comments, approximately 10-15). Near the end of the segment, a young girl looks into the camera and says that she knows that there has to be something other than this. It’s a distilled clip of suffering that leads one to think about possible exits to our insane world.

Mexico is not much better. The machismo of some of the male clients adds a rare offensive but humorous touch. The cinematography in this segment is also particularly amazing, the border town glowing bright green and orange under the flourescence. But the cycle of despair continues with prostitution and subsequent drug abuse. The Mexico segment culminates in the filming of an actual sexual act. It wasn’t particularly violent (although many are), nor was it disgusting (the man was young and soft-spoken), but it was just very transactional.

NYC Cultural Notes 10.28.12

Film Forum on Houston is playing a movie that can be briefly described as the Australian version of Deliverance. It’s called Wake in Fright, and it’s a doozy. I took a few friends who are well versed in film to see it, and they walked out muttering ‘that was weird,’ and then we all promptly went our separate ways.

Wake in Fright was directed by Ted Kotcheff in 1971. It was critically acclaimed and was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes, and then somehow the best print sat in Pittsburgh for years and was almost tossed. Luckily it was found by the director and restored.

The film’s protagonist John Grant is a buttoned-down teacher and humanities major, trying to travel from the outback to Sydney to see his girlfriend for the holidays. His trip involves a one night stay in the ‘Yabba,’ a rough-and-tumble mining town in the outback. One night quickly turns into more as Grant devolves into a giant bender complete with moronic gambling, fighting, kangaroo murder, and a unsettling homoerotic encounter.

Grant thinks he escapes the Yabba after walking through the desert and finally convincing a truck driver to let him hitch a ride to Sydney, but the driver misunderstands his plea and ends him dropping him off back in Yabba. Any attempt to escape is futile, even suicide, a scenario which appears as a joke in the beginning of the film but becomes a dark reality by the end. The film seems to be pointing at the fact that the base and violent nature of human beings is inescapable, always returning.

The New Museum has three-floor exhibition on Rosemarie Trockel, a German artist who works in a ridiculously wide range of mediums. I happened to pass by the museum Thursday night, and asked if there was discount. “How about a 100% discount,” the girl behind the counter said–sounds good to me! So yes, Thursday nights are free.

I saw a giant lobster, giant Rothkoesque pieces made of stretched yarn, and a giant couch. However, I was most impressed by the photography. This one photo titled “Bibliothek Babylon” caught me eye. I remember reading somewhere that the missing and subtle elements make something erotic. Something like that is at play here. Also, I could be totally off, but I think that there is a modern Queen of the Night theme in this image. I also just kind of like this just because it reminds me of the similarly titled story by Borges.

There is a large eye next to the Williamsburg Bridge is Brooklyn, which looks especially cool at night.

If you’re like me, and you have troubling finishing novels, I suggest you check out Melville House Books’ series The Art of the NovellaI recently picked up The Alienist by Machado de Assis at Word in Greenpoint. At 86 pages, it was brief enough to get through in a few nights of casual reading and small enough to take to a bar or restaurant. Sometimes it is just too much to cart around the hardback of The Pale King.

The Alienist is an odd little book, centered very clearly and deliberately on the question of madness, and what truly defines it. It’s also funny. The design for this series is great, and each edition comes with additional digital material that you can download easily from the Melville site.

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist

Due to my penchant for psychological thrillers, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist sat on my “recommended” list on Netflix for over six months. I had never seen a film by Trier, so I read through the reviews section several times, trying to decide if I wanted to devote two hours to the cause. I noticed how divided the reactions were—some people loved it and wrote lucid reviews, other people thought it was totally offensive and disgusting. During this time, I also read news of Trier offending the film industry with bizarre Nazi comments at Cannes. With my interest in the director piqued, I decided to see what all the controversy was about and give Antichrist a go.

Once the first “Act” started rolling—a slow-motion, passionate love scene between Willam DaFoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg-—I was immediately impressed with Trier’s artistic approach and the cinematography. I thought of how Trier could make a fortune directing short vignettes for high fashion—a racy Gucci ad, or something. However, as the couple’s son Nick falls from their apartment window to the ground several stories below, the glamour ends and the viewer abruptly moves into the next act, with the couple (who, by the way, do not seem to have proper names in the film) crying and stumbling through a funeral procession. The wife is wrought with grief, and is undergoing treatment by a psychiatrist, who we learn prescribes her drugs (“too many” in the husband’s opinion) and informs her that her grief pattern is “abnormal.” The husband is also a successful therapist and doesn’t believe that the psychiatrist is doing a proper job, so he eventually asserts himself as the therapist of his own wife.

This prideful act on husband’s part introduces the film’s central dichotomy between the rational/logical and the intuitive/natural/chaotic. Dafoe’s character approaches his wife’s massive grief with a conqueror’s mentality, believing that his various psychoanalytic strategies will help her overcome her grief and bring her back into the rational world. He forces the wife to admit her deepest fear, which is “Eden,” the remote cabin that the couple owns and where we soon learn the wife spent time writing her doctorate thesis on gynocide, the systematic persecution and murder of women throughout history. The husband arranges a trip to “Eden” in order to push his wife to confront her inner fears. As their train races out into the wilderness, the camera is focused on the rapidly passing trees outside of the window, and demonic faces and images flicker through the brush, foreshadowing the evil that the couple will face in the wilderness.

As the story moves to “Eden,” Trier focuses his artistic prowess on creating a nightmarish version of nature. The image of a cabin in the middle of the woods, not accessible by roads, when done correctly, is probably one of the most terrifying settings available to a writer or director. Lynch used this setting successfully in his TV series Twin Peaks, and Trier follows suit, backing it up with unsettling imagery—elapsed shots of moonlight moving through forests, a dark hole under a tree which serves as a source of fear for the wife and from which we watch the couple hike towards the cabin, etc. All of these speak to an uncanny sort of fear—however, Trier also uses in your in-your-face, grotesque images, such as when the husband spots a beautiful deer in the forest, only to find on closer inspection a dead fawn dangling from its womb, a victim of some horrific birth. In my opinion, these CGI-enhanced grotesque images negatively impact the film, and place Trier on a slightly lower level in comparison to a director like Lynch‑-at least in terms of horror.

As a side note, there are clearly other interesting themes and symbols present; one of the most obvious themes deals with the Christian story of the Garden of Eden. The three animals that keep appearing—the deer, the fox, and the crow—are directly out of classical paintings depicting Adam and Eve, with perhaps the crow serving as the trickster archetype as well. However, since I am not that versed in Biblical references, I will look closely at the rational vs intuitive dichotomy instead.

Once at the couple arrives at Eden, Trier is able to really develop the theme of the rational, logical mind vs the intuitive, raw, chaotic side of nature. As I mentioned before, the husband had a certain amount of pride in the fact that he could act as his wife’s analyst and help her through her grief. She intuitively fears “Eden,” but the husband dismisses these fears as irrational. At one point he claims “fears distort reality, and not the other way around.”

Things begin to unravel out in the woods, with the husband slowly losing his psychoanalytic grip on his wife and realizing that she believes the opposite of her doctoral theses—that women are actually evil and deserved persecution. His wife becomes more and more violent and unpredictable as he pushes harder and harder to “cure” her. During this time, nature outside of the cabin offers its signs: as the husband sleeps with his hand resting outside of an open window, a bunch of ticks latch on and have a bloodmeal. Additionally, while out for a walk, the husband encounters a disemboweled fox which mutters the words “chaos reigns.” The husband, representing man’s rational crusade, begins to realize what he’s up against.

In a particularly creepy plot turn, it’s revealed that the son’s autopsy report, which the couple initially ignored, revealed one small but interesting abnormality: the bones in the child’s feet where deformed. As the husband rushed through scrapbook photos, he realizes that his wife had been putting the child’s shoes on the wrong feet the whole time she was staying at Eden. This is a great example of a reversal of logic or rational behavior, which points at something sinister within the wife. And there is indeed something sinister present, as she draws the husband into more and more violent sexual encounters, culminating in the two scenes that made the film notorious—one in which the wife crushes her husbands testicles after sex, and the other where she cuts off her own clitoris. I remember at one point yelling “oh jeez!” in my living room, and my girlfriend asking what happened, to which I responded, “she just cut off her clitoris.” Sadly, this is probably how the film will be remembered for many viewers, as something of shock value and not something of philosophical and psychological depth, which it really is. I’m not sure why Trier mixes these two elements, but it definitely moves his films into the realm of transgressive art, for better or for worse.

Critics of Antichrist say that it is misogynistic. On a surface level it is. The day after I watched the film, walking through the streets of Manhattan and glimpsing women with suggestive expressions in fashion ads, I couldn’t help but to see something slightly “evil” in the images. Clearly it had some sort of effect on me. But to say that the film is purely misogynistic is missing the point, I think. Trier chose to represent the dichotomy of rational thinking vs chaotic nature with the dichotomy of man vs women (which in turn is connected to the other Biblical themes that I have not covered here). The finale at “Eden” involves the husband killing his the wife and burning her on a pyre. The wife’s research, which the husband finds hidden in the attic, dealt with historic witch hunts. So in a revealing twist, after getting angry with her from diverting from her “thesis” that women were in fact wrongly persecuted, he ends up becoming one of the persecutors. Thus the “rational” character gives way to the chaos and ends up becoming a murderer.

In my mind, this points at a universal lesson. Man has always wanted to dominate nature—one can think of the trajectory of the sciences, to look deeper into subatomic particles and father into the universe and to understand the mysteries. Yet as we do, the essences constantly evade us, merging into infinity and chaos. It is because we do not realize that as we look farther out, we’re also looking farther within, and we’ve forgotten that we are nature. Perhaps this lesson (and the dichotomy of the film) can be best summed up by a quote from Nietszche:

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”

On a final (and personal) note, I also wanted to say that this theme (rational vs intuitive/chaotic) imparted by the film could also be applied to the grief process. Both characters are grieving in the film at the loss of their son, the wife most dramatically. Various strategies are applied to “cure” her and get her through her grief, but all fail. I think Trier is trying to make a point that grief over the loss of a loved one is so deep that rational attempts at dealing with it are really futile.

I myself have experienced this after my sister’s suicide three years ago. I was angry for long periods of time because other family members were acting wildly, blaming others, and in general causing me a lot of stress. I wanted them to just act sane, but I’ve since realized that in the wake of tragedy, there is really no logical order or sanity. Even after a year of therapy, I feel possibly more confused by the cyclical and liminal nature of grief. This is not to say that psychotherapy is bad (a claim that Trier was more willing to make in the film), but that it’s not going to “defeat” grief, or even fit it into a linear trajectory. What Trier might be saying is that grief (and other extreme emotions—for example, the directors own clinical depression) will never be able to be contained by the rational mind, and it is a mistake to attempt to do so.