This week, Joe McCulloch has got your Melancholia take along with your The Secret World of Arrietty breakdown, while Tucker goes deep into spoiler territory on his favorite new movie in a long ass time, The Grey.
It’d be hard to sell a house with a magic cave anyway, 2011
Those of us damned to perpetually emphasize the Tarkovsky over the Dreyer in the Lars von Trier catalog will no doubt confront this end-of-the-world-by-way-of-angst spectacular by thinking first of the Russian master’s similarly-poised final film, The Sacrifice; our devotion will be promptly rewarded with a slow early image of a ruined painting reminiscent of the ecstatic finale to Andrei Rublev, with which the film will also share the presence of horses as symbolic of the human soul. This moreover has the double effect of positioning Melancholia as a goatee-wearing evil twin to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a film so evocative of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, and so reminiscent of the Danish provocateur’s present taste for cosmic imagery set to aching music refrains.
Yet von Trier is characteristically blunter. He might publicly fret over his movie’s visual gloss -- “This is cream on cream. A woman’s film!” -- but he cannot deny his affinity for romantic cinema, nor (I expect) the heated melodrama burning behind the likes of Dancer in the Dark. Passions. Where Malick flicks his images into an associative swirl of legs in clingy dresses on watered Texas lawns as indicative of a boy’s burgeoning sexual desires, von Trier celebrates Kirsten Dunst’s breasts as a full-fledged recurring motif. At first they heave, painfully blooming and barely-contained under the dress she’s worn to a wedding she’s trying to convince herself to like, only to later sag, defeated, in obscured profile as a brutal bout of depression hits her. Heroically, a gala unveiling later occurs as Dunst is restored to health in the glow of humankind’s richly-deserved annihilation at the hands of an oncoming rogue planet, her nude repose framed in a painterly long shot that promptly cuts way in for some straight-ticket ‘just lolling around rubbing my boobs’-style porno framing, perhaps in commemoration of the dichotomous nature of so much of the film’s content. This is not a director unfamiliar with erotic film or explicit sex to begin with, of course -- and it turns out you needed to see the movie to get his infamous Cannes joke about wanted to make a sex film with Dunst next -- yet Melancholia still seems like the horniest von Trier’s camera has ever been.
This is a visceral work, even more so to my mind than the director’s preceding Antichrist. Split into two halves, the film establishes a metaphoric steel cage match between major depressive disorder and garden- variety anxiety symptoms; each chapter is named for one of two sisters -- Dunst’s Justine and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Claire -- lead characters and respective sufferers, with each’s segment tracking their decline and downfall. Critics will gladly note that each half is thereby labeled with the woman von Trier plans to destroy, though it seems more transparent than ever before that Dunst, at least -- a sufferer of inpatient- caliber depressive symptoms much like her director’s, though her role was actually intended for Penélope Cruz, who had contributed to the scenario -- is effectively von Trier’s ‘presence’ in the film. Through her, the director lashes out at societal rituals, advertising, parenting, science, and (worst of all) ‘nice guys,’ who are always just stupid ugly beasts like the rest of us, but also pretentious.
I was not prepared for how much of a rueful comedy the initial Justine half turned out to be, though I could have expected it from von Trier’s allusion to Sade, whose work the great Angela Carter once characterized in The Sadeian Woman as a puckish affront to social mores: “Whatever else he says or does not say, Sade declares himself unequivocally for the right of women to fuck - as if the period in which women fuck aggressively, tyrannously and cruelly will be a necessary stage in the development of a general human consciousness of the nature of fucking; that if it is not egalitarian, it is unjust.” The difference here is that Melancholia cannot foresee any developments improving the human lot at any time in the future, so Dunst’s downward slide merely disrupts the automata of society’s function, from servants whisking dishes and suitcases away with cold precision to grabby bosses retaining underlings to follow valuable employees around and extract work product whenever possible.
To von Trier, this is empowering; maybe the only empowerment. Melancholia begins with a prelude, an overture, depicting scenes from throughout the film to come -- including a few which exist only inside characters’ heads and are only later presented through dialogue -- in agonizing ultra-slow motion, so that they seem like people posed in photographs, with only eerie small gestures affording them any recognizable life. This, right up front, is the perspective of Melancholia-the-planet, the destroyer’s view on things, an all-seeing, all-knowing planetary take on the action, with humans diminished and near-frozen from the encroaching calamity’s cosmic speed. It does not care that they are obliterated, because it cannot process them as more that icons of obscure drama; this is the film’s notion of God, and its summary of humanity.
From this, Dunst emerges as heroine in the Claire half, because while the approaching planet’s atmospheric trickery prompts in Gainsbourg the shortness of breath and panicked grasping of anxiety, Dunst has already been through everything, and can emerge as a confident, validated, sneering asshole anti-savior; as always, von Trier makes no effort to appear particularly likable, whether off-camera or through his movie avatar. It is ‘my disease is harder and stronger than yours, and so I am harder and stronger than you,’ with major depression finally suggested as a ‘magic cave’ that insulates the proprietor from the horrible, inarguable shit of reality. Why Gainsbourg’s idea of putting on classical music and drinking wine at the apocalypse is worthy of instant derision while Dunst’s magic cave is known to be glorious can only be understood as indicative of inner understandings: the knowledge that nothing is beautiful, that strength is a temporary salve, and that we are only poignant because we are finally so utterly fucking worthless.
Of course, the ambiguity remains that Dunst may have just summoned the damn thing itself to re-write her life as a narcissistic heroine’s triumph to the ruin of everyone who loves her. Because that’s what depressives can potentially do. And that’s why everyone hates Mr. Lars von Trier.
The Secret World of Arrietty
Keep in mind, I liked Ponyo way more than Princess Mononoke, 2010
In these circumstances I kind of envy critics like Manohla Dargis, who, mindful of her generalist audience, can pluck certain aspects from a foreign picture and riff comparatively without too much sweat, because for that readership the primacy of female characters throughout the Studio Ghibli catalog is a happy alternative to the wares of big ‘n easy target Pixar, and not another reminder of studio rock star Hayao Miyazaki’s formative (albeit unwilling) influence on the moe impulse in anime, a particularly slippery subcultural symptom in the big body of gender discussion re: ‘geek’ culture, which at this level of specificity is maybe just a discussion of culture knowable mainly to geeks, for all the effect it has on the public at large. I mean, shit - the Walt Disney Company has a lavish slab of $23 million feature anime playing on 1,200 screens in the U.S. right now, and I suspect its their bread & butter audience of parents or grandparents contemplating a brand-approved trip are more likely to nod toward Dargis’ broad cultural implications than the furrowings of childless J-culture sensitives seated way toward the front of children’s cartoons.
Still, I wonder if I’m not hallucinating some under-the-floorboards skittering in this Miyazaki-planned/ co-written adaptation of Mary Norton’s 1952 novel The Borrowers -- the debutante feature from director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a longtime Ghibli animation hand applying a tone of abject melancholy to much of the film’s runtime -- insofar as there’s an interesting predetermination at play in the blend of Japanese and Western visual decorations onscreen. It’s genuinely easy to forget that the film is even set in contemporary Japan, given its country setting, its regal dollhouse furnishings and its lusciously sound-captured rotary phones - My Neighbor Totoro seems an easy comparison, as are parts of studio co-founder Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday, if here by way of mid-century shojo manga’s taste for European exotica, or maybe just Miyazaki’s longstanding taste for foreign influence. Yet there is also a sequence where Shō -- a sad boy with a heart condition who’s been moved out to the sticks to stay with an elderly relative AND WILL TOTALLY KNOW ENCHANTMENT THEREFROM -- is seen conspicuously eating with chopsticks while the adults of the house dine with forks and such, both validating and upending the usual ‘bucolic locale as reservation for spirits and Old Ways’ motif by positioning the country home as inhabited by the uncanny, yes, but also representative of evidently non-Japanese ways.
This makes logical enough sense for a Japanese film adapting an English classic, but Miyazaki and co- writer Keiko Niwa take it a step further by drawing a distinction between the names of the full-sized human characters, all Japanese, and the miniature Borrower people who live under the floorboards of the house and snatch little crumbs of sustenance and pleasure from the big world - their names are taken from Norton’s works, a difference sadly erased by Disney’s U.S. adaptation, which westernizes everyone’s name as a means of presumably not losing the less attentive beans in the crowd. As such, there is less underlining the relationship between Shō/“Shawn” and willful Borrower heroine Arrietty, whose zest for life detoxifies the boy’s exceedingly mono no aware worldview, fixated fatalistically on the pathos of his fragile body and the endangered nature of the lil’ folks. His is a sensitive but do-nothing philosophy, which eventually costs the Borrowers all of the security they’ve built up, though they remain (mostly) determined to stride into a future the lad can only see as lovely in terms of doomy poignancy.
Naturally, such exposure to a foreign culture does wonders for one Japanese heart, though I wish the American voices employed for the big screens around here were a bit more up to the task. Disney Channel veteran and pop singer Bridgit Mendler acquits herself fairly well as Arrietty (the U.K. dub got Saoirse Ronan - unfair), but David Henrie (as “Shawn”) underplays to the point of blandness, as does Will Arnett, bizarrely miscast as gruff Borrower patriarch Pod, which brings back memories of Liam Neeson’s utterly bored rendition of the colorful magic daddy figure in Ponyo, a gross but typical case of a big studio cramming in as many available names as possible regardless of their applicability to the content itself. On the other hand, much as Tina Fey proved to be an excellent fit for the Ponyo world, it must be said that Carol Burnett absolutely nails the role of antagonist Haru (“Hara”), filling the house’s ill-intentioned caretaker with richly misplaced condescension transitioning into waves of sputtering confusion that sync perfectly with the goony grins drawn onto the character.
And there’s maybe something extra going on there too. Japan might be a culture that values stoically filled obligations, but I find it hard to believe an old-school Class of ‘68 leftist like Miyazaki would be entirely comfortable with the locus of villainy being the film’s primary representative of the servant class contra the wizened tolerance of a bourgeois landowner and her sickly charge. Noticeably, Yonebayashi devotes much onscreen attention to detailing the Borrowers’ navigation of familiar household spaces made weird and looming - caverns of adventure with ‘not starving’ as the prize at the end. Yet this world is ruled by folks born into evidently greater power, and “Hara’s” ‘villainy’ comes from the yawning disparity -- underscored by Yonebayashi’s mise-en-scène -- between the Borrowers’ meager takings and the caretaker’s rage at less the reality than the idea of theft from the property, to which she attributes the embarrassments of her life, and thus inevitably embarrasses herself further.
Of course, to see an unhappy, economically disadvantaged woman humiliated isn’t a lot of fun in retrospect, but then The Secret World of Arrietty isn’t all that sunny a film, so full of sweat and aching chests and spoiled wishes and ruined homes and childhood confrontations with mortality, and the acknowledgement that the born-powerful are generally going to okay while smaller folks just vanish. The takeaway, in this nonetheless Ghibli film, is that survivalist determination can be a font of shared humanity - to extrapolate specific politics from that is maybe just my own lunging toward local applicability. Hopefully I’ll get a Times rate for this!
James Badge Dale Is All About Failing To Catch A Break, 2012
For those who have yet to catch The Grey's theatrical run, let me roll out an obnoxious hobby horse, of interest only to me: no television set is going to be able to closely approximate the experience of this film's plane crash. It's one of the most antagonistic moments I've sat through in years, and having seen the movie twice, I feel confident in promoting a theory that, for every time The Grey plays in a movie theater, there is one man who says something like "Jesusfuckingchrist" or "holyshitchrist" or just a hoarsely mumbled "goddamn". Sitting right up in front of the movie, resting as the conclusion of the film's first, melodramatic arc, the crash is depicted almost entirely by resting on the blinding white howl that faces Liam Neeson's oddly named Irish character as the plane bearing him and his Alaskan oil field co-workers heads down forever. The audio, slowly ratcheted up during the prior scene's are-we-going-down fake-out scene that quietly serves as the introduction to the film's initial group of protagonists, provides a cacophonous roar of static and turbine noise, eventually exploding into--because what else would surprise better--total silence. What follows is a quick run through of survival film basics: shock followed by bonding, a meditative lesson in death, the set up of hierarchical authority (with Neeson as the immediate, obvious head) and the first night.
The Grey isn't a realistic film, and it isn't a macho one either, and part of the reason so many of the reviews seem to have come down on it so harshly is because that's what they expected it to be. That's to be expected: it was clearly marketed as being a macho version of man versus wild, with one trailer even going so far as to use a deleted sequence of Liam Neeson leaping into the air with those infamous glass claws. If you saw that trailer--and who didn't?--and you expected that film going in, there's good reason for disappointment. As is pointed out in Ignatiy's Vishnevetsky's insightful piece, Liam Neeson's character is horrible at keeping the survivors alive. Unlike the films that The Grey cleverly mimics, the main character in this one isn't lying when he offhandedly mentions the likelihood that they're "all going to die", even better, his open admission that he's terrified (an admission that comes so unadorned with pretension that Neeson delivers the line with his actual accent, the sound of which seems to even confuse him) isn't a smokescreen for badassery, it's just a fact: this isn't going to work, and he's not going to make it.
For all of the film's excellent sequences--I doubt I'll see something with lighting this remarkable anytime soon, and the last thing I can think of that surpassed it was Barry Lyndon--the moment to beat has to be the one near the very end, where Neeson, framed at the bottom of that expansive white, cries out for actual meaning, for some evidence that what he's experienced has some sort of value or purpose. Cast against the opening of the film, where the character is depicted with gun in mouth and hand on trigger only to be stopped by the deus ex machina of a perfectly timed wolf howl, the moment is one buried in such unbelievably constructed horror (all of the film's most likeable characters having suffered tremendously brutal deaths, the last of which serves as Neeson's psychological annihilation), the audience can't help but openly cry out with Neeson that Enough Is ENOUGH, where's the helicopter or winged chariot, just/fucking/anything. This blog's own Nina Stone was heard to say aloud the phrase "Please, I just cannot do this anymore"--"do", not "take" being the word choice I found most interesting, as it implies to me that the audience bears ultimate culpability for the degradation on display. Taken to its extension, the "reason" Neeson demands is obvious to anyone: so that those of us in the stadium seats can tip or toe into death. What greater value can fiction provide?
What follows that moment is where the true believers diverge. To my mind, the implication that the film implies atheism and some sort of bootstrap-pulling self-reliance is incorrect--if Neeson's character truly didn't believe in hope, none of his actions make sense whatsoever--but as was explained to me at great length in the subway systems of New York City by a furious woman, there was ample evidence to believe that an empty, man-centered worldview at the heart of The Grey is a distinct possibility. I still can't say that I buy it, and while I doubt I ever will, there's nothing quite as stirring to find out that there's still movies out there--not "films", but rip-snorting, blood and annihilation soaked actioners with Dermot Mulroney and Dallas Roberts in tow--struggling to force that question to the dead center.
Or, to steal the colorful analysis I heard on the way out of the theater when a young woman theoretically proposed an alternate ending to the one just witnessed?
"Bitch, this ain't Underworld. There's no coming back."
-Joe McCulloch, Tucker Stone, 2012