Friday, December 4, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are: Trier and Herzog

As a rule, Lars von Trier's English language films are a lot more ambitious and interesting than his movies in Danish, where one gets the impression that he's merely keeping himself occupied in between bigger projects. Coming four years after Manderlay (2005), his boldly un-P.C. allegory for slavery in America, and two years after The Boss of it All (2007), a slight and uneven office comedy, Trier's Antichrist (2009) is certainly audacious and singular, as much for its style as its content (although it's the latter that caused such a stir at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and indeed, everywhere else the film's been shown). However, I'd hesitate to call this A-squad material because I find its subject--or perhaps I should say the film's treatment of the subject--has less resonance than Breaking the Waves (1996), Dogville (2003), and Manderlay.

Like most of Trier's films, Antichrist alternates between two diametrically opposed shooting styles: A pseudo-documentary style characterized by a handheld camera, sync sound, and jump cuts (though it seemed to me there were fewer jump cuts here than in Trier's previous films, particularly Dogville), and a more dreamlike style characterized by a stable camera, slow motion (according to David Bordwell's blog entry on the film, some shots were filmed at one thousand frames per second), and in place of sync sound, off-screen dialogue and a low Lynchian droning. (Additionally, the bookending sequences, which are also shot in slow motion with a stable camera, are distinguished from the rest of the film by being photographed in black and white, and scored to a baroque aria.) The film is about a man (Willem Dafoe) and a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose infant son, Nick, falls from an open window and dies in the opening sequence while they're schtupping in the next room. At the funeral, the woman collapses, and when the man goes to visit her in the hospital, Trier boldly cuts 180 degrees on a close-up of the man's face in profile, so that he seems to jump from one side of the 'Scope image to the other. When Trier cuts back to the woman, they both seem to be looking in the same direction, at something off-screen left, rather than each other. After the woman is released from the hospital, the man--a therapist who thinks he knows better than his wife's doctors--decides to take her, for therapeutic reasons, to the place she fears the most: the garden outside of Eden, their cabin in the woods. On the train ride there, the man asks her to imagine herself arriving at Eden and becoming one with nature. And the sound of their conversation continues over a scene representing her fantasy, shot in slow motion and accompanied by an ominous rumbling on the soundtrack. The first style is associated with reality, while the second is linked to dreams and flashbacks, but as the film continues, the line between fantasy and reality becomes increasingly ambiguous.

The film is dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky, the Russian master of mysticism, misogyny, and mist (all of which are highly pertinent to Antichrist), but the dead white guy who seems most relevant as a reference point is Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose Day of Wrath (1943) is about a witch hunt in 16th century Denmark. In keeping with the characters' puritanical worldview, Dreyer's film never questions the existence of witches and associates nature with evil--an outlook shared by Antichrist. Roger Ebert has been aggressive in pushing the interpretation that the film is about a universe created, not by God but by the Devil, which is consistent with the woman's belief that nature is evil, and therefore, human nature is evil as well. (It could also be read as a fairy tale with a cruel father and an ambiguous mother.)

However, unlike Dreyer's film, and Trier's earlier Breaking the Waves, about an isolated religious sect on the northern coast of Scotland during the sexual revolution, Antichrist is set, like F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), in no particular time or place, so the characters exist in a historical vacuum. Despite its 16th century outlook, Dreyer's film is also something of a proto-feminist statement about how women are oppressed by patriarchy. (When the heroine discovers that her late mother was a witch, she's sexually aroused by the idea that a woman could have such power.) And in Breaking the Waves, set during the time when the feminist movement was in full swing, the heroine's behavior confounds not only the rigid church elders, but the more secular and progressive characters as well (and poses a comparable challenge to viewers). I'll need to see Antichrist again to be sure, but it seems like this time Trier is siding with the church elders.

Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant—Port of Call: New Orleans (2009) is one seriously loopy movie. Although it doesn't slow down long enough to lull the viewer into the same druggy stupor as Herzog's '70s films, its story is trippy enough all by itself; as he did in his earlier remake of Nosferatu (1979), Herzog reinvents Abel Ferrara's anguished Bad Lieutenant (1992) as a stoner comedy. (There's a sequence in a retirement home, which I won't describe here because you absolutely have to see it for yourself, except to say that it made me laugh as much as anything in Todd Phillips' The Hangover [2009]--maybe more.) Then, to add an extra dash of weirdness to the proceedings, the more desperate its crack-smoking cop protagonist becomes, the more he starts to talk like Jimmy Stewart. The tension between the constraints imposed by working in a commercial genre with big stars, and Herzog's yearning to sail off into the wild blue yonder of cine-craziness, is only slightly less apparent here than in his stylistically bland Discovery Channel co-production Grizzly Man (2005), but in light of how compelling and funny this film is, maybe it's churlish to complain.

Considering the huge differences between the two films in terms of character and plot (to say nothing of tone), Herzog's Bad Lieutenant feels closer, in some respects, to a crypto-remake of Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (1956) than it does Ferrara's bellow of Catholic angst. For starters, Ferrara didn't give his character a backstory or even a name; instead of trying to explain his behavior, Ferrara's lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) simply was. Here, the screenplay by William Finkelstein not only gives the lieutenant a name, Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), but a more detailed backstory as well. Like Ed Avery (James Mason) in Bigger Than Life, Terrence is diagnosed early in the film with an incurable condition that will require him to take medication for the rest of his life. In Ray's film, Avery goes cuckoo for Cortisone and tries to kill his son; here, six months after his doctor prescribes him Vicadin for chronic back pain, we see Terrence snorting a little cocaine in his car before walking into the scene of a murder. Later, we learn that Terrence's father is a recovering alcoholic. (Like father, like son, we're obviously meant to conclude.) Also, like Bigger Than Life, Herzog's film has an ambiguous ending, since in each movie the protagonist will have to continue taking drugs indefinitely to treat his condition. The sinister implication of both films is that the characters were already bad, and the drugs merely exacerbated an existing situation. Other changes to the story are more dubious, like the substitution of a pair of wretched Latino rapists in Ferrara's original for a flashy black gangster (Xzibit) in Herzog's remake, which is indicative of how the material has been Hollywoodized in certain respects.

Stylistically, this doesn't look very different from a Hollywood feature, apart from Herzog's taste for the occasional handheld sequence shot--here broken up by jump cuts that don't reappear elsewhere in the film. Herzog's touch is particularly evident in the scene where Terrence tells his girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes), a story about his childhood, which is filmed in an unbroken take (without jump cuts) with a handheld camera, and set to a score by Mark Isham doing his best Popul Vuh impersonation. But what's most Herzogian about this scene, which recalls the best moments in Herzog's non-fiction work, is the way it invites the viewer to fill in the gaps with their imagination. And then there are the reptile point of view shots, and in particular the already famous scene where Terrence sees some iguanas on a table that no one else believes are there. Herzog employs a wide angle lens to distort the space of the room, and the story comes to a complete halt as Terrence just stares at the iguanas while an old blues song plays on the soundtrack--a moment that feels closer to the work of Herzog's American disciple Harmony Korine than Herzog himself. (Making this scene even stranger is the fact that none of Terrence's coworkers seem even remotely concerned that he's apparently hallucinating. As in a later sequence where he sees the soul of a dead man dancing, the obvious explanation is that Terrence is straight-up tripping; but a crazier, more Herzogian explanation is that the world is an illusion and Terrence is simply being given a glimpse into the reality of dreams.) But apart from occasional non-narrative interludes like these, the film is, on the whole, a fast moving piece of storytelling, lacking the meditative quality of Herzog's German films, like Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Heart of Glass (1976).

It's curious how, in a matter of only a few years, Herzog has gone from being a slightly marginal cult hero to something like a bankable Hollywood director. It all started when Grizzly Man became an art house hit and was shown endlessly on the Discovery Channel. I was in the minority in finding it a disappointment, and passed on Herzog's subsequent Rescue Dawn (2006)--a fictionalized version of the story Herzog told in his already pretty conventional Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)--and Encounters at the End of the World (2007), his Antarctic documentary which was nominated for an Academy Award. My immediate knee-jerk conclusion was that Herzog had been tamed enough to be embraced by the mainstream, and I probably would've passed on The Bad Lieutenant as well had it not gotten such ecstatic reviews coming out of TIFF.

My own enthusiasm for The Bad Lieutenant has forced me to rethink some of my biases, but as with Grizzly Man, its craziness is largely a matter of pro-filmic content rather than anything Herzog's doing behind the camera. And even then, the delirious hyperbole of the story is tempered somewhat by leftover obligations to the detective genre, like a sub-Peckinpah slow motion shoot out, which was less the case with Ferrara's original despite it being less ostentatiously weird. Also, one misses the the presence of real people in Herzog's films, as opposed to actors, which was so effective in Invincible (2001), where he contrasts Zishe Breitbart's total lack of guile as the simple strong man with Tim Roth's performance as the sinister illusionist. As with Fritz Lang, another German who made some impressive films in Hollywood (but nothing to rival Die Nibelungen [1924], Metropolis [1927], Spies [1928], M [1931], and The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb [1959]), Herzog's talent seems diluted rather than enhanced by his access to the resources of a Hollywood studio.

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