Out Where the Buses Don’t Run

(Please consider this your Intertitle of the Week, since I haven’t seen any silent movies this week, and anyway the film does feature intertitular chapter headings, saying things like CHAOS REIGNS and PAIN. I don’t have frame grabs of them though.)

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Well, I let you down. Enjoying my ass off with Roger Corman’s crimson-soaked social commentary flick BLOODY MAMA, I missed the Anthony Dod Mantle interview conducted by Seamus McGarvey (one master cinematographer interrogated by another) so I’m still none the wiser about the current location of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s prosthetic clitoris. I had dreams of uniting it with Nicole Kidman’s leftover nose from THE HOURS (now in McGarvey’s possession). Eventually, we could have assembled an entire artificial woman (“That should be really interesting!”) We could call her Kate Bosworth.

But I did see Mantle’s latest film as DP, Lars Von Trier’s ANTICHRIST, and took part in the Q&A afterwards.

The movie begins with stars Willem Dafoe and Gainsbourg coupling in the shower, extreme closeups of their body doubles’ genitals interlocking as water droplets fall in mega-slo-mo and Handel plays on the soundtrack. The love scene morphs into suspense as their little son heads for the window, and the whole sequence resembles a TV advertisement crossed with a Brian DePalma set-piece. “Parts of it are extremely beautiful, but it’s beauty on the level of kitsch,” critic Jonathan Romney had told us. Yet I might give Lars the benefit of the doubt here: as we find out later, all is not well in this family, and this is not the story of happy normality shattered by tragedy, it’s more like the tragedy unlocks a pre-existing malaise. So using the imagery of commercials seems like an interesting way to suggest a false surface. The nature of the malaise, unfortunately, remains completely obscure and incoherent.

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As the film goes on, the opening b&w stylisation is replaced by another version of LVT’s dogme-esque “trashed aesthetic,” with harsh cutting and handheld movement, interrupted by more lush and lyrical landscape scenes. Therapist Dafoe tries to cure his wife’s grief, and if you can overlook the banal and idiotic dialogue (I know it’s not Lars’ first language, but he really needs help from a native-speaker) this first half is a reasonably dignified and interesting study of grieving and therapy and love. The fact that Dafoe has completely submerged any grief of his own sews some seeds of anxiety, and certainly at some level the film is an attack on psychotherapy, which is something the neurotic LVT actually knows about.

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Retreating to their cabin in “Eden,” (although dedicated to Tarkovsky, the film might as well own up to the influence of Sam Raimi’s first two EVIL DEADS as well) this modern day Adam and Eve work through the early stages of grief, anger, and pain — and then the movie takes off into horror-trash carnage. Dafoe finds his wife’s psycho-gallery, where she’s stuck dripping images of witchhunts to the wall, and Gainsbourg abruptly gets medieval on his cock, battering that helpless organ until it shoots blood, then drilling a hole in his leg and bolting a large whetstone to it. Poor Willem spends the rest of the movie dragging a Flintstones wheel around on his shin. It’s all very MISERY, with a bit of HOSTEL’s hardcore horror.

The torture porn vibe is augmented when Charlotte snips off her clit in graphic closeup (reviewers always mention the rusty shears, but I didn’t actually spot any rust and I wonder where they’re getting that from). Lars cuts to a startled deer.

Willem makes good his escape, dragging his stone shin, and Charlotte freaks out. “Where are you? You bastard!” she shrieks, about eighteen times. I think I’m the only one who laughed at the deer, but a few of us are laughing now. Charlotte is too posh to swear convincingly, and there’s something absurd about her resenting hubbie for running, or rather crawling, away.

Willem hides in a foxhole where he digs up a crow, of all things, which caws at him, repeatedly (Lars is always big on repetition), threatening to give him away. Willem punches the crow. Several times. It keeps cawing. He keeps punching. It stops cawing. Then it starts again. He punches it some more. This goes on for, I don’t want to exaggerate and I don’t have accurate timings, but I want to say about two minutes.

I think there’s something inherently comic about a man punching an animal. A small animal is arguably funnier than a large one. And I’ve tried, but I can’t think of an actor/animal combination that’s devoid of comic potential. Ed Asner thumping a llama would be amusing. Ashton Kutcher bitch-slapping a gerbil would be hilarious. Sam Neill karate-chopping an anteater would at least raise a smile.

Now I did ask — I did ask — the cinematographer if any of this was meant to be funny. Mantle swears it isn’t. Lars was suffering from depression before and during the shoot — here I sympathise, that illness is a horror — and was not his usual cheeky self. Perhaps that meant he was ill-equipped to judge if something might be a bit ridiculous. Mantle more or less accused me of using humour to disengage from the film, and while I don’t think I did that as a conscious or unconscious tactic, I have seen that happen and I don’t totally discount the possibility.

In EXCALIBUR, director John Boorman seems willfully blind to the fact that Monty Python had only recently done their own version of Arthurian lore, and that his film often resembled the pre-existing spoof. And he doesn’t seem to care that some of his costumes, notably Helen Mirren’s Flash Gordon breast-plate and Nicol Williams’ tinfoil skullcap, have a kitsch quality that invites amusement. There’s actually something commendable about a filmmaker pursuing their own particular brand of beauty and not caring if anybody laughs. It’s courageous.

I do think there may be a point where that becomes folly, and that if we allow humour to have a role in our lives at all, there are some occasions when the only response possible is laughter. If a filmmaker presses those buttons unintentionally, he or she is making a mistake, however brave.

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That’s probably secondary to the major problem, which is the film’s shrill, empty-headed incoherence. There’s some debate about grief, therapy, and misogyny, but none of it goes anywhere. LVT has spoken of using his dreams in the film, and purposely avoiding story logic, plot and resolution, but the trouble is what we have is an unsatisfactory narrative rather than a non-narrative experimental film. Bergman’s PERSONA might hint at what’s being aimed at here, and Altman’s THREE WOMEN similarly took its cue from the director’s dreams, but wisely neither of those films tries to put forward some kind of didactic point, which LVT certainly seems to be trying for here. Long stretches of the film are NOT dreamlike, intense audio-visual experiences. Long stretches are talkie chamber piece in which characters fire ill-thought-out philosophies at each other. If it were a parade of visuals aiming for abstract poetry, the movie might be OK.

The charge of misogyny is being flung about, but one of gynophobia is more germane. Von Trier doesn’t necessarily hate women, but Dod Mantle admits he doesn’t understand them, and probably fears them. “I don’t think women or their sexuality is evil,” says Lars in the press notes, “But it is frightening.” To which I ask, to whom? The answer’s obvious, but the problem is not that Lars is projecting his anxieties outwards upon the world, nature and women, and then making art out of that pathetic fallacy. The problem is that he doesn’t realise that’s what he’s doing, as that sentence makes clear. His anxieties are childish and irrational, which doesn’t automatically make them uninteresting, but he’s holding them aloft as if they were great insights. In other words, he’s a fool.

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18 Responses to “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run”

  1. Hmm… Sadly(I don’t know if sadly is the correct choice in this case) I missed the film but I still think I want to watch it. I was speaking to my cameo friend about it last night after watching Mary and Max and the first thing he mentioned was the rusty shears..then followed closely with the emotional distress of surviving the film. How bizarre?

  2. Arthur S. Says:

    I don’t fancy seeing LVT’s film. I’ve endured BREAKING THE WAVES and the film with Bjork and even Dogville…but that’s all I can stand. ANTICHRIST sounds like a Michael Haneke film crossed with Gaspar Noe.

    Funny thing about ANTICHRIST is that it’s gotten more press than any other film at Cannes, including the film that won the Palme d’Or(which actually seems to have gotten the least).

    Eric Rohmer’s film PERCEVAL LE GALLOIS was this wild-eyed, sparse submersion into Arthurian lore and medieval customs. Rohmer believed in realism so assiduously he felt that using existing forests as sets for medieval atmosphere was our projection of medievalism on these castles so he felt that that re-creating the customs out of scratch on a soundstage was the way to go. The interesting thing is, his PERCEVAL is quite funny and quite tongue-in-cheek in it’s approach to it’s noble hero but it’s also a rousing tale of knight-errantry.

  3. I love the look of the Rohmer. DP Nestor Almendros rather enjoyed breaking all his own rules of naturalism on it.

    The LVT has some real visual pleasure on offer (see top still), so it’s an easier watch than most recent LVT. I have to keep reminding myself that he did make The Five Obstructions fairly recently, and I consider that a very nifty work.

  4. LVT like Gaspard Noe, is the art house equivalent of Herschel Gordon Lewis.

    There is nothing “profound” about misanthropy. It’s tiresome. LVT interests me only for his frequent use of two of my favoirite people: Jean-Marc Barr and Udo Kier.

  5. The defense against charges of misogyny offered by Lars’s DP is that he doesn’t hate women, he just fears and fails to understand them. Which is probably what most people mean by misogyny anyway. And his misanthropy may be similar. I think his best course might be to make a film that’s actually about himself, rather than about how the world looks to him. Because that’s getting less and less interesting. We know he can pull off unusual stylistic tricks, but it’s not enough.

    Gaspar Noe is beyond uninteresting to me.

    Sara, I expect you’d get something out of Antichrist. It’s got enough visual interest on a technical level, and you can’t help but spend a bit of time puzzling out what it means. But I’m not actually RECOMMENDING it. Other films have those same qualities and a lot more.

  6. Arthur S. Says:

    Misanthropy is an understandable emotion but it has limitation and can go so far…unless you are a genius like Shohei Imamura or Nagisa Oshima.

  7. LVT admits to making the same story again and again, filtered through different genres. I’d rather he made different stories, in the same genre if need be. When he odes a genuine departure like The Kingdom or The Five Obstructions, it can be interesting. His early films are a little better too, because they lack the crass emotionalism. The Element of Crime and Europa are kind of slogs for me, but they’re beautiful to look at and lack most of the obnoxious elements.

  8. On the other hand I love Lars von Trier, mostly because I don’t take any of his work seriously even when it moves me. He strikes me as a filmmaker who sees the work of others and pushes it to extremes as if to say “is this what you are trying to work towards?”

    In an almost autistic fashion he focuses on elements of a film from stylistics to faux-naturalism; from actors as props to a focus on suffering and truth as a path to ‘transcendence’. But with either aproach he sees both approaches as manipulative, and emphasises the unreality and in some senses laughable attempts at connecting with an audience. If you don’t approach his films with the knowledge that he is a provocateur, then you deserve to be upset by them, and in a way cannot be moved on any more than the visceral or visual level by them!

    For me his best film is The Five Obstructions, where he puts Jorgen Leth through the prerequisitve trials all of his film protagonists face in one form or another and then pulls an obviously calculated far in advance twist (likely from the inception of the project) at the end that adds the extra significance and poignancy to the film. Is it less poignant for being calculated? Not in that case, for me at least.

    Having not seen Antichrist yet (though very interested to), it sounds fascinating and makes me think a lot of that 70s Australian film The Long Weekend, in which a bickering couple go on a camping holiday, anger the local wildlife and then get horribly killed!

    I was also wondering whether can you be a misogynist and a misanthrope? If you hate everyone, is it possible to hate women more?

  9. I think that’s a very fair assessment of LVT. I don’t find the result as compelling as you do, but I agree broadly that’s what’s going on.

    It clearly IS possible to hate everybody and women more, I don’t see any contradiction there. That’s not necessarily what’s going on with LVT, perhaps he just hates his audience?

  10. True. Perhaps I respond more to LvT because I don’t mind having an in your face assaultive experience with a film. I can grapple with it. I get much more offended by, and find more frightening in a way, films that think they are getting away with hiding their manipulations from the audience (for example I got rather angry with the film I saw last night – P2 – which pushes some very retrograde plotting and character motivations and plays it as conventional thriller material without comment). The one thing LvT cannot be accused of is hiding his controversial elements behind a glossy facade designed to appeal a mass audience!

  11. This is true. All that offends me in his films is lack of skill or a tendency to pretend to tackle subjects without really illuminating them, which is the biggest problem I have here. His repetitive, bludgeoning approach isn’t really to my taste — it could have worked well in a horror context, as it does in The Kingdom, but in this case I don’t think it says anything meaningful.

    And similarly to Vinyan, it makes the bereaved mother into a monster, which I find, not offensive (it’s the racism in Vinyan that gets me) but certainly suspicious.

  12. Chris B Says:

    >So using the imagery of commercials seems like an interesting way to suggest a false surface.

    Friend of mine attended a screening of Antichrist in Copenhagen, where, subsequently, Lars held a Q&A. According to Mr. Trier, he was unhappy with the opening montage due to it being too “Hollywood”, although the slow motion was appealing (shooting at approx. 1000 frames per second). My friend goes on: “Apparently, in the penetration shot, they used body doubles and lars told the guy to shag her quickly, because it would be in slow motion and he wanted his balls to swing back and forth…”

  13. Oh, they swing alright. Swingingest things in the movie.

    It’s all Lars’s choices that make it so “Hollywood”. He didn’t have to use that music, for one thing. Seems I was giving him too much credit.

  14. From an interview I just read in the online journal Electric Sheep:

    VS: Do you feel there is a sense of humour in Antichrist?

    LVT: Well, I know that there is a sense of humour, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can see this film as humoristic. I would say that the way I work is based on humour, because my life is full of humour, but sometimes it comes out as very melodramatic, very serious, but I think the source for the whole thing is the same.

    So much for the DoP’s assertion that you were missing the point… the thing I like about LVT is his loony combination of humour and high seriousness. The ending of Breaking the Waves had me choking with laughter and tearing up at the same time, something not many films manage (maybe even just one).

  15. I think the ending of Breaking the Waves is a test case: if you have any kind of Christian background, it doesn’t matter if you believe, there’s a chance the ending will work.

    I was like “SO WHAT there’s bells in the sky, she’s still DEAD!” Then I had to go, “Oh yeah, she’ll be in heaven then…” but it still seemed stupid. Bold, in a Kingdom-style way, but I couldn’t get into a headstate where all that suffering could make any sense.

    Sounds like LVT is saying you shouldn’t feel like laughing at Antichrist, even if there’s humour in his creative side. And if there IS deliberate comedy, and even his DP doesn’t know about it, that seems like a failure of communication, if I may quote Cool Hand Luke.

  16. Re Noe, I disagree with you, David – I think he’s an interesting director and I wish he’d make more films (or some that I could bear to sit through twice, maybe). I just discovered an ancient interview I conducted with him has been preserved online here: http://www.letempsdetruittout.net/gasparnoe/index.asp?v=156
    and as you’ll read, he’s a cineaste with excellent taste, as well as being great company.

  17. Great interview. Maybe I should try something from his earlier period. That kind of self-consciously “extreme” stuff isn’t my bag, but maybe I’d find something unexpected. Sounds like at least there’s some interesting technique, although he doesn’t offer any rationale for using it…

  18. While I do like Von Trier, I do agree with you on Breaking The Waves – it is one of the few films that I’ve thought was excellent (what can I say, beautiful women being callously treated obviously touch a nerve with me – perhaps why I like The Birds and Marnie too!) up until that final shot.

    It struck be that before the film the audience could bear witness to Bess being abused and yet still displaying a naive faith in decency and doing what she believed was ‘right’ and could celebrate her for her constancy in the face of all those trials, if not for her smarts (that dialog with God in the church where Bess performs both parts I found to be really touching, and I often wished there was a final scene where the priest sees her doing this and attacks her for her ‘insanity’ because it doesn’t take the accepted form of communion through prayer!)

    But with those bells of heaven I think Lars oversteps the mark too much and instead of letting the audience celebrate Bess he FORCES us to see know how wonderful she was. It also has no impact on the plot itself, since Bess is dead at that point, beyond rubbing Bess’s decency in the faces of the people who abused her and forcing them to face the error of their treatment. It seems a sad undercutting of the previous couple of hours, which have shown that people often do not get punished for the way they treat others, no matter how much we may want them to be.

    This also plays into and is developed and modified in Dogville I think, in which at the end the protagonist has to take cathartic revenge into her own hands rather than waiting for the film to do it for her (and I think this also explains the God’s eye top down poin t of view of many shots, as well as the lack of barriers that suggests a Godly omniscience of the viewer and director, but one which is not going to intervene.) And since the final massacre kind of sullies Grace as much as the abuse she suffers in the town, I think it suggests that for as cathartic as it may be it is also a terrible act in itself. That morality and questions of right and wrong are created in the human soul rather than imposed from without.

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