Melancholia Sparks Sharp Disagreement

Lars von Trier's perplexing new film sparked disagreement between yours truly and our London corresondent. Both views are posted for your consideration.

Melancholia (2011)

Directed by Lars von Trier

Zentropa Entertainments, 136 mins. R (nudity)


Let me be clear about this film – I have no idea what van Trier is trying to say. However, he says a great deal and lays on the mystery so thick it’s hard to breathe. Everything that happens is so unreal that it could be metaphor, heavy symbolism, both, neither, or something clear only to von Trier. The deal is this: Two sisters find their already strained relationship challenged as a mysterious new planet named Melancholia may or may not be on a collision course with Earth. The film opens with a spoiler – it’s the end of the film we appear to be watching, though the actual end of it is somewhat different. So we are actually beyond the end at the very beginning? Confused? I suspect you will be.

The two sisters are Justine–Kirsten Dunst in a typical von Trier role of damaged woman–and Claire, Charlotte Gainsbourg as a more levelheaded character. The film’s first section is titled “Justine” and recounts her disastrous wedding day. She and her doting husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) arrive late for her wedding dinner at a huge country house and grounds, where the entire film is set. (Film buffs will be amused at the Last Days in Marienbad reference in the house’s ground.) The party is fraught with discomfort, hilarity, unease and bewilderment featuring excellent cameos from Charlotte Rampling as Gaby, Justine’s angst-ridden, cynical mother, and John Hurt as Dexter, her fun-loving and slightly daft father. Against a backdrop of embarrassing speeches, the amoral designs of Justine’s advertising-industry boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgård), the first observations of Melancholia, Justine’s battles with personal demons, and the gathering impatience of brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) who is paying a king’s ransom for the reception, we witness Justine’s marriage dissolving before it’s even consummated (or at least consummated with Michael).

Part two, “Claire,” seems to probe her character in opposition to Justine’s. Claire is decent, nurturing, and levelheaded, though she too becomes more disturbed as Melancholia approaches. I confess that at this point I was struggling to piece together disparate scenes to form coherence. However, the cinematography was stunning and as a possible companion piece to Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, to which there are filmic similarities, it left a sense of wonder over non-earthy things. But nothing was really taking shape except the fear of the travelling planet and I considered that maybe that was all there was to it!

But I’ll take some guesses here: that Melancholia is a metaphor for the inevitability of bad times? No, too glib. A portent of disasters to come? Way too simple. That the two sisters’ apparent behaviors are symptomatic of all over-emotional beings? That’ll never stick. So I confess I am puzzled. However, the film resonates with some visual mystery, and the performances are brilliant (especially Gainsbourg, though Dunst won a Best Actress award at Cannes). I guess it’s too much to expect von Trier to communicate in a direct fashion. Oddly threaded though the oblique screenplay is some very dark humor, but is that enough? In the London cinema where I saw Melancholia, there were seven others watching. In the adjoining cinema, Drive was sold out. Violence packs ‘em in.

Lloyd Sellus

Melancholia: A Response

* * * *

I agree with Lloyd that Melancholia was a mess in places, but for me it was a sublime mess. We’ve seen end-of-the-world films before, but never has it been filmed as beautifully as the opening five minutes of this film. It is, simply, an elegiac, poetic, and transformative piece of filmmaking. It’s so riveting, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine what Director Lars von Trier could have done to follow it.

Lloyd had trouble with the second part of the film; for me, von Trier stumbled in the first half. The wedding sequence simply takes too long to establish a single idea: that Justine embodies melancholia long before she’s heard of the eponymous Doomsday planet. Moreover, disastrous weddings are so clichéd that to establish Justine’s character through such a device seems especially hackneyed when juxtaposed to the bold opening.

I also agree with Lloyd that the film is, at best, enigmatic. I suspect von Trier wanted it to be that way. After all, if we really were facing the end of all time, how would we react? By leaving threads dangle, as it were, von Trier leaves us to ponder such things. It may not be as satisfying as the resolve-all-issues fare we’re force-fed at sticky-floored malls near you, but isn’t it a hell of a lot more honest?

Here’s my take on the film, though I freely confess that it’s speculative. I see Justine as Fate; she’s the Greek moira in one body. Have we ever considered what the Fates thought as they spun, measured, and cut the destinies of all others and finally got to the task of their own demise? And would not knowing it induce depression interspersed with despondency; that is, melancholia? Justine first realizes that she is the walking dead when her beloved horse refuses to cross a bridge; in folklore, ghosts cannot cross water.

I see Claire as the Spirit of Life, clinging desperately to hope, nurturing her son, and both literally and figuratively tending her garden to the bitter end. Surrounding Justine and Claire are cameos that represent the Seven Deadly Sins: the upper-class twits stuffing their faces as gluttony; Gaby is wrath pronouncing doom to any hint of happiness; her devil-take-care ex-husband Dexter is sloth, content to have fleshy women at his side as he overdoes already shopworn jokes; Michael is envy, desirous of Justine’s beauty and wealth, but too laconic to battle for her affections; the rapacious Jack is greed; Jack’s bootlick assistant Tim is lust, one so stupid that he confuses a depressed woman’s one-off with him as having had “good sex;” and the cocksure John is pride trying to will Melancholia out of harm’s way and whose courage falters in the wake of classic hubris.

Melancholia becomes, then, a clash between competing belief systems: ancient Greek, Medieval Latin Catholicism, modern-day cynicism, and humanitarianism. Lars von Trier also makes brilliant use of a Richard Wagner’ opera throughout (from Tristan und Isolde), music that is simultaneously dramatic and terrifying, yet dignified in a funereal fashion-–appropriate ambiguous music for a puzzling film. But von Trier does seem to be telling us one thing very clearly: when the end comes, no belief system will save us. The demise will be sudden, inevitable, and perhaps even beautiful.

Lars Vigo


Obama Middle East Policy Encourages Mislamgyny

Boys will be boys.

Last week Thug-for-Life Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to step down in Yemen. It came at a time in which Egypt erupted again–this time with protesters pouring into the street to demand that the military hand over power to a civilian government. Meanwhile, in Syria, government troops fire on protesters. U.S. President Barack Obama went on the air to reiterate that his government was “behind the people” in Yemen, Egypt, and Syria. To which I retort, “Rookie!”

It’s weird being older than the president of the United States; sometimes I feel like I ought to take the prez into my office and for one of the firm-but-challenging discussions I’ve had with grad student with interesting ideas but little evidence to back them. Take a close look at the street celebration from Sana, Yemen’s capital, that greeted Saleh’s announcement. See anything missing? Now Google images of Cairo protests and tell me what’s not there. Do you see a single female face in the crowd? (How about burning Israeli and U.S. flags?)

Earlier this year I warned people not to get excited about Arab spring. Americans are told that Arab nations are on the road to redemption because they’ve held elections. What utter nonsense! At the risk of offending every liberal and most of the conservatives in North America, allow me to suggest that women in Egypt were better off under Hosni Mubarak, those in Yemen and Syria under Saleh and Assad respectively, and Iraqi females under Saddam Hussein. Only in Afghanistan have women done better since a change of government. Egypt is rocketing toward rule by the Muslim Brotherhood; its equivalent will take over in Yemen, and Iraq will devolve into further anarchy. None of this portends well for women. To put a point on it, power by the masses in the Muslim world means male tyranny–call it mislamgyny. (misogyny + Islam)

Idealism is to be commended, but it’s poor foreign policy unless it’s backed by something more substantial than nostrums. Jimmy Carter’s linkage of aid to human rights in Latin America is a rare example of morality-based policy that actually worked, but don’t look for a similar policy in the Middle East. The U.S. took the high moral ground in Latin America because loss of trade was offset by goodwill, but its Middle Eastern policy is single-minded and non-lofty: keep the oil flowing.

Spare all the piety about overthrowing dictators; the U.S. is happy to deal with thugs, as long as they’re our thugs. When Jeanne Kirkpatrick was Ronald Reagan’s advisor, she divided the strong-armed world into “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” nations in a lame attempt to parse the morality of dealing with monsters. In her twisted logic, it was fine to deal with “authoritarian” leaders because their tyranny was a “temporary” measure aimed at “stabilizing” their nations, as opposed to the permanency of “totalitarian” governments. It was bollocks, of course, but it did have the dubious virtue of putting national self-interest upfront. (Under Reagan, by the way, the U.S. did business with cuddly types such as Marcos in the Philippines and Pinochet in Chile, as well as–­ahem­–Saddam in Iraq and Osama bin-Laden in Afghanistan.) That damn fool George W. Bush managed to ruin even the self-interest policy in his needless and geopolitically stupid invasion of Iraq. (Good idea, Georgie boy, take down the only regional power that countered Iran.)

This brings me back to the current mess in the Middle East, where President Obama’s policy is crafted around neither self-interest nor morality. How blind must one be to overlook the reality that Middle Easterners seeking to overthrow their governments hate the United States? And how can anyone be so naïve as to think that an election means that the masses are right? Democracy often yields tyranny, not freedom. (Left to its own devices, the U.S. electorate would ban gay marriage, abolish affirmative action, sanction school prayer, expand the death penalty, dismantle income taxes, and overturn a host of environmental laws. It’s not clear it would approve the Bill of Rights if it could vote on it!) Get ready for the Muslim Brotherhood and groups even further to the right when elections are held in the Middle East. These governments will be anti-Semitic, anti-American, and deeply misogynist. I never thought I’d find myself rooting for Assad or the Egyptian military, but given a choice between secularism and mislamgyny, I know where my loyalties lie.


J. Edgar a Very Dull Film

J. EDGAR (2011)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Warner Brothers, 137 mins. Rated R (language, violence)

* *

J. Edgar has been getting rave reviews from critics. Don’t fall for it; this film is flatter than a Herman Cain tax proposal. It is indifferently acted, weakly scripted, and unimaginatively directed. The film checks in at 137 minutes, but it feels much longer.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), whose rise to fame and infamy this film purports to trace. Director Clint Eastwood does this through a very tired filmic device-–flashbacks interspersed with the late-in-life writing of a memoir. DiCaprio is in every scene–as the ambitious and oily young Hoover, as the amoral and outdated older man, and as the omniscient voiceover for all of the linking passages. Phoenix thought he was convincing as Hoover–though she agrees the movie was dull–but I’m just not a DiCaprio fan. For me, he never quite manages to be anyone other than Leo and I no more bought him as Hoover than as Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004). I admit, though, he looked the part. I’d have no quarrels with this film winning makeup and costume Oscars, but if it wins much of anything else, it may be time to write Hollywood’s epitaph.

One of the film’s subthemes is the relationship between Hoover and his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The film takes as a given that which remains speculative among Hoover biographers: that Hoover and Tolson were lovers. And that’s about all it does. Their love is (or isn’t) consummated off-screen, as is virtually every other bit of action that might give us insight into Hoover’s character. I suppose we’re supposed to conclude that Hoover became a Machiavellian monster because he tried to sublimate and hide his homosexuality and that he felt compelled to win the love of his unapproving and domineering mother (Judi Dench as Anna Marie Hoover), but there is not enough depth to writer Dustin Lance Black’s script to convince us of this. Eastwood’s clunky direction doesn’t help; he truncates potentially revelatory dialogue in favor of moving us back into the compilation of Hoover’s memoir. (I can think of few less interesting ways of making a film than watching someone dictate thoughts to a typist.) What could have been a semi-interesting history lesson get lost as well; Eastwood deforms dramatic events from the past into little more than potted plants lurking in the background. To pick just one example, the film begins with Hoover’s obsession with stymieing a 1919 Bolshevik plot to bring down the government. We see a few bombs go off, including one that almost killed Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. But the only “villain” we see exposed comes during a brief segment of Emma Goldman refusing to answer questions at her deportation trial. We certainly do not learn that most of the offices the Justice Department raided belonged to innocent members of the Industrial Workers of the World, immigrant social clubs, and anti-communist socialists.

A history lesson is merely among the things this film could have been but isn’t. It’s also not a convincing portrait of a tortured soul, not a searing exposé of the rise of a demagogue, not a revelation of gay life in the stay-in-the-closet years, not a blow-the-lid off divulgation of justice miscarried in high places, and not a penetrating look at a relic out of step with the times. To my eyes, it was just Leo trying to appear weighty (both figuratively and literally).

My vote for the best acting in the film goes to Naomi Watts for her role as personal secretary Helen Gandy. She takes very thin material–Black’s underwritten script–and emerges as an enigmatic character. If Tolver is the right hand, she’s the left. Watts plays her sparse role with icy efficiency, leaving us to wonder if she’s loyal to Hoover because she shares his paranoiac values, or whether she’s simply savvy enough to calculate that the antidote to powerlessness in a pre-feminist world is to be the puppet mistress.

Here’s the ultimate measure of this film’s lameness; I did not walk out hating Hoover. I should have; he was a despicable man who undermined American democracy in the guise of saving it. I hated the real SOB when he was alive, but I simply couldn’t care less about the cartoon cutout I saw on the screen. Label this one a bore and a snore.


Chick-fil-A Seeks to Intimidate Vermont Artist

I'm confused. Is this man holding a chiken?

File this one under “You’ve Got to Kidding.” The nation’s second-largest purveyor of fast food cluckers, Chick-fil-A, has filed a violation-of-trademark lawsuit against Vermont artist Bo Muller-Moore for his t-shirt designs emblazoned with the phrase “Eat More Kale.” Huh? Well you might ask.

Muller-Moore has been selling hand-designed shirts exhorting folks to devour more brassica oleracea since 2000, which he sells for $10 a pop. Somehow or other the Louisville, Kentucky-based megacorp Chick-fil-A thinks that Muller-Moore is violating their trademarked slogan “Eat Mor Chikin.” Their suit contends that Muller-Moore’s phrase “is likely to cause confusion of the public and dilutes the distinctiveness of Chick-fil-A’s intellectual property and diminishes its value.” A professional satirist couldn’t come up with better than that!

Where to start? Can three misspelled words even constitute “intellectual” property? Dilutes their “distinctiveness?” Have you ever heard of a person ordering chicken in a restaurant only to throw his hands up in the air when the food came and exclaim, “Oh no! I thought chicken was that vegetable from the cabbage family that’s high in beta carotene and is especially excellent in colcannon.” Just who in the public is likely to confuse a leafy green vegetable with a beaked, egg-laying fowl? I suppose it’s possible that the kind of person who’s dumb enough to think chicken is spelled “c-h-i-k-i-n” or that fillet is spelled “fil-A” might think so, but even that seems a stretch. But at least it’s more—or should I say mor?—plausible than thinking Muller-Moore is any sort of economic threat. I mean, this guy moves product in the tens, not tons.

I can’t say that I’m a big fan of kale, but I’d learn to love it before I’d purchase anything from Chick-fil-A. How can one have confidence in a product sold by a company that makes one wonder if its marketing, PR, and legal departments have the collective IQ of a stalk of kale? We can only hope that there’s a judge somewhere with the courage to call this what it is: a frivolous lawsuit whose sole intent is to intimidate. And while the court is at it, one hopes the judge directs the Bar Association to consider revoking the license of the law firm that advised its client to file such a silly and expensive lawsuit. In a court system clogged by backlog we waste time on this? Maybe Chick-fil-A should spend some money to get abreast (get it?) of the First Amendment.

Here’s the Chick-fil-A contact page: http://www.chick-fil-a.com/Connect/Contact-Us-CARES I suggest you write to the firm and express your views on this matter. They have a Facebook page as well.

If Muller-Moore loses his battle, our next step is clear: set up a legal fund that helps him acquire copyright control over the capital letter A and countersue.