Monday, April 19, 2010

The Enigma of Lars

I have never been a friend of Lars von Trier.

Before I witnessed any of his films, I had heard of his swagger.  His force of self-congratulation has long whetted my mouth with a sour sensation I care not to endure.  When at last I began to watch some of his films, I found that this sour sensation enveloped my taste buds entire, and momentarily eviscerated any hope of a non-sour existence within the confines of my mouth.  These films destroy things.  Worse yet, they are highly efficient at their work.

I will speak as plainly as I can.
             Lars von Trier: his attitude bugs me, and his films cause me to feel discomfort and guilt.

Last night I watched the third of his loose trilogy of films about Europe, "Europa".  I have many thoughts about it, but most of all, it made me think about a kid I knew for just one school year long ago.  His name was Camden Dore.

Being sixteen years of age, I did not yet know who I was, or whom I was yet to become.  What I was beginning to realize, though, was that which I was not.  I read philosophy, and aligned myself not with whom I agreed with, but rather, took my side against those whose words were easily viewed as vile creations.  (Full disclosure: after reading "The Fountainhead" and having no real idea about what I had just ingested, I did briefly claim to be an Objectivist.  Thank the Good Lord I didn't read "Atlas Shrugged" in those days.)  Who was I?  I was NOT Sartre, I was NOT Nietzsche, and I was not Camden Dore.  Dore became the form by which I could come to define myself at such a young age.

Mr. Dore carried a briefcase to school instead of a backpack, on occasion wore snakeskin boots, and hung out with my ex-girlfriend.  At this time in my life I was enraptured with pressing buttons, so I joined the J.V. Academic League (Jeopardy for High Schoolers).  Mr. Dore already was competing with the Varsity team.  Perhaps he never knew it, but he was my archenemy.

The intriguing aspect of this story, however, is that in that year Mr. Dore became one of my better friends.  We bonded through our diversity.  At the time, I saw Camden as a force to be reckoned with in our High School community.  I saw him as a leader.  I saw him as someone worthy of being an absolute archenemy.  The truth is probably closer to the idea of Mr. Dore being an outsider.  He was a transfer student who brought a suitcase to class.  I'm pretty sure that suitcases have yet to become a fad in teenage style. But Dore had to be popular in my eyes for him to be an appropriate adversary.

Dore was the unstoppable force that I had to study to beat.  His words, deeds, and actions had to be scrutinized daily.  Every dot and tittle was to be noted.

We spent most of our time together chatting in our Psychology class... surely you can imagine how satisfying it is to debate one's rival in a room that focuses on the study of some of the greatest quacks in human history (That's not a bite at Psychology --- just many psychologists).  One day Dore came into class late.  He settled into his seat, and I began my usual barrage of pseudo-philosophical questioning.  He had no time for it, and expressed his current distaste for these thoughts.  He was clearly disturbed about something and wanted nothing of monumental conversating.  Later I found out that it was a girl --- he was momentarily heartbroken, and the result was letting-up of his character.  He failed to maintain his holy nemesis resolve.  That day he was a regular high schooler.  He was the thing that both of our thoughts worked to overcome.  We both wanted to be above the system, to transcend highschoolery.  He was a hypocrite.  After that day, Camden Dore was just another guy.

Lars von Trier is destined for the same result.

The works of Lars von Trier, I find him to be ever intriguing.  I also find his stuff to be ever repugnant.  And yet, after having that sour flavor in my mouth for long enough, I am beginning to acquire an addiction to it.  It is a kind of masochism.

The narration of "Europa" displays it well enough; von Trier is a control freak.  I don't know if there is a film maker in the world that is in more control of the outworking of his mind in the whole of the world (even when he supposedly releases control, as in "The Boss of It All", he still seems to be flexing his might by his ability to be merciful and 'release control').  I love finding myself immersed in movies by directors like Wim Wenders or Jim Jarmusch (though they both have many off-films), in which the characters seem to breathe and move entirely of their own discretion.  In von Trier's world, everything is pre-ordained.  He IS A TERRIFYING GOD.  The narrator of "Europa" tells us of his control from the very beginning.  He tells us what we will do, who we will meet, and when we will die.  In watching the film, we subject ourselves to be his slaves.

Luckily, for Mr. von Trier, he is adept with his many tools, and by his God-given nature, he is genius.  Therefore, to be his slave, is to be controlled by someone who knows how to control exceptionally well.

Now, I have written that Lars von Trier is destined to suffer the same fate as Camden Dore did that fateful day that he allowed himself to become heartbroken.  He cannot live up to be my new archenemy.  Apparently, von Trier has a deafening fear of planes, so he won't ever visit America, the land he so readily recreates in his movies.  This is a stupid characteristic.  It is a severe character flaw, and it undercuts his ideology.

But von Trier has something going for him that Camden Dore lacked.  Lars von Trier may keep his ideologies, and I may find myself becoming ever more coozy with his cruel manifestations, so long as I ignore Lars von Trier, the human.  I'm sure the same is true of Sartre and Nietzsche.  To see how their lives don't live up to their words would be iconoclastic.

To maintain the allure of Lars, to continue to snuggle-up with his toxic venom, I must see him only as the god of a strangely attractive world.  Whoever the man, Lars von Trier, is, I must divorce myself from.

I have written much about the STATUS of my relationship to von Trier's works without describing at all what it is about those works that I find so wrist-slittingly enthralling.  I will finish this off-the-cusp essay by telling one more analogy.

Before I met Camden Dore, I spent a summer working at an elementary school for the mentally handicapped.  There was a student who loved rocks.  There would be two jugs of rocks.  I would grab a rock from one jug, hand it to the boy, to which he would respond by gleefully plopping the rock in the other jug.  This amusement could last for two hours without rest.  If I ever dared to become distracted from our epic duty of playing 'Rock-to-Jug-Forever' by looking away, this rock lover of mine would smuggle a rock into his shoes.  This is where he kept his rock collection.  We learned to check his shoes for stones before letting him run off anywhere, otherwise he would run about allowing the rocks in his shoes to bloody up his socks.  He never seemed to mind the pain the rocks caused him.  But he always screamed at us when we tried to take the rocks away.

A quote often associated with von Trier: “a film should be like a stone in your shoe”.

I have imagined being this boy, running on rocks nestled underneath my toes in my shoe.  What is that like?  I think this: as long as there are rocks in my socks, I will think of nothing else.  It has the immediate ability to focus all my energy on this singular incident.  My mind can be nowhere else.

It is often said that that with which we spend our time, there is our heart.


  1. Interesting thoughts Dante, I don't necessarily agree with all of your darker conclusions about von Trier and his work, but interesting thoughts indeed. My thing is that I have always tried to have distance between the artist as a person and their work. I've always felt that a predilection towards putting every film and filmmaker in a philosophical box is a bit much and I think that cinephiles can too easily dismiss or embrace a film or filmmaker according their own biases and agendas. Also, I think we can just be overcome by an insistence Now this is coming from someone who is believes and defends auteur theory ardently, but I think it has it's limits. Martin Scorsese for instance is one of my favorite filmmakers of all-time, he opened a window to me with cinema as seen as art, but does that mean, I embrace everything about him, including their supposed philosophical maxims, no, and I would do neither to greats like Tarkovsky, Bergman, Malick, Mann, Tarr, Soderbergh and many others of my favorites.

    I'm completely at peace with Lars and don't want him to change. I do love and embrace a lot of confrontational and active cinema and while he and his work is challenging and disturbing, in the end it is rewarding to me. Despite his persona, he builds up I think there is an honesty in his filmmaking even if it is highly controlled by him. I think a lot of his fears are expressed on screen and it is hard to watch sometimes, but I think for a filmmaker not to do that which they must through the cinematic form, then it is a detriment to that person and the viewers at large. I am spiritually moved by Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves; I am fully engaged with his dark view of morality and humanity in his Europa trilogy, and his critique of America is not only necessary and accurate, but profoundly important in a day where a mostly unintelligent and blind nationalism and unwillingness to treat America like every other nation, has risen even higher and more absurdly than ever. Von Trier inspires me, and I marvel at his craft and while I won't agree with everything in his point of view, there are very few if anyone who I would hold that high of a standard to.

    continued on next comment

  2. Finally, and I'm sorry for the extreme length, I want to finish by touching on your musings about Sartre, Nietzsche and von Trier and how they are hypocrites. In all honesty, I believe we are all walking contradictions in one way or the other, but that doesn't mean because we can exactly live out our supposed political, philosophical, spiritual ideas in complete, perfect adherence doesn't mean that the ideas have no values or we can't learn from or be inspired from them. I can be inspired by von Trier without saying everything von Trier does and says is gospel. Same goes with Sartre, who's someone I am inspired by because I am more an existentialist philosophically and politically more in line with a lot of what Sartre says, but that doesn't mean he is perfect or followed to the letter in my life along with many other artistic, philosophical, political, and spiritual figures who I see as my inspirations or in line with my view of the world. I just think buying into the man or woman at the expense of their work or with such a concerted effort to view most art through such a particularly well-defined prism has its pratfalls and problems and that is what I was trying to get across. I think more often than not art needs to wash over oneself and all of us need to sometimes take it to where it will so that we can get something significant out of it. I understand this is hard with von Trier because he is so didactic and confrontational. I understand those who reject him, even if I disagree, he and his work are not easy, but I've found many great things from his canon and I still am inspired by him to this day. Sure, would I want to be von Trier, he's kind of like Peckinpah for me, I would resoundingly say no, but is he important and needed, in my view, most definitely.

    I know we have a spirited disagreement here, and I would more than appreciate a dialogue about this. Once again, very interesting and engaging thoughts, and thank you for sharing and your honesty.

  3. Good sir, I do not believe our views are as differing as you propose.

    Yes, we all are men of contradictions (Jesus excluded).

    Currently, (and I am trying to investigate this further with my blog) I am experiencing an era of kinda a hyper-reading/viewer response to art. I am concerned with how the art form interacts with my life, my history, and my mental constructs. This may prove to make me a bad critic, but hopefully a wiser human being. Perhaps this mood-theory will change, but I'll research as long as it rattles through my soul. ... Več

    Perhaps my position became muddled through my story, but what I was trying to get at is that in viewing the Creative force behind von Trier's films, I become most entrenched in his films, and therefore most profoundly affected, if i view myself as his slave, all my laws of physics being constrained to his will. This does two things.

    1) It puts in the same place as his characters. This is perhaps the opposite of many DePalma films. I am not the eavesdropper. I am not a third party watching in on someone else's life. Rather, I am my own Trierian creation.

    2) I am armed with the thrill of having an opposing force to challenge. This was why I brought up the story of my high school arch-nemesis. In a strange way, it both bonded me to him and gave me a deeper appreciation about what my beliefs were about.

    Every von Trier film is indeed a rock in my shoe. I am frustrated by its presence, but I must admit the rocks always leave a mark.

    And I'm a glutton for life lessons.

  4. The complete story of Camden Door! I love it!
    Though I can't really dialogue much about this film, or von Trier... this is quite telling of you.
    Rocks in shoes are quite enjoyable.
    Yes, yes. Good read.

  5. Also... I really really really like that first picture... with the railway tracks. It stirs something in me similar to doors/doorways.
    It also reminds me of our (first) huge adventure we will take together!