I am not sure if there is any social significance to this yet (and if I can’t find any, there probably isn’t any to be found) but there seems to be more than the usual “end of the world” type films lately. Recently I watched DVD screeners of two films released this year, courtesy of the film publicists’ trying to drum up support for Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” and Eva Glodell’s “Bellflower”–highly mannered and annoying works whose dubious charms I found easy to resist. As one of the few American films made in 2011 that I paid good money to watch in a theater, Jeff Nichols’s “Take Shelter” was worth every penny of my reduced-rate elder’s ticket and on my short list for movie of the year. Finally, there’s “Knowing”, a 2009 film by Australian director Alex Proyas and starring Nicholas Cage. I avoid anything that Cage is in like the plague but since it has been getting heavy rotation on the premium cable stations this year, I thought I’d give it a try. It is really quite good in its mindless way.
“Take Shelter” has a premise much like “Close Encounters of the Close Kind” but turned upside down in a malignant fashion. While the object of awe and wonder in Spielberg’s great movie was Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the future landing site of flying saucers piloted by benign creatures, Nichols’s main character is haunted by nightmares of an apocalyptic future as well as by hallucinations when he is awake. Birds fall out a blue sky while terrible thunderstorms produce raindrops with the consistency of motor oil and a brackish smell.
Like Roy Neary, the character played by Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, Michael Shannon is a blue-collar worker living in a humdrum Midwest town. Like Neary, Curtis LaForche has a completely normal life and enjoys all the typical pastimes of a workingman, including church on Sunday and drinking beer after his day is done drilling holes in a construction site.
At some point, the accumulation of dark omens convinces him that the world will end soon and he makes the drastic decision to build an elaborate storm shelter in his backyard that costs tens of thousands of dollars that he secures through a loan. Against all common sense, he recruits his co-worker to “borrow” heavy construction equipment to excavate the site for the shelter one weekend.
LaForche’s increasingly erratic behavior alienates him from just about everybody, including his wife. Like Roy Neary, he ignores friends and family since the imperative of his higher vision makes it impossible to follow any other course.
When Roy Neary quits his job and begins his odyssey toward the Devil’s Tower, there are no economic obstacles in his path, only a military bent on keeping intruders away from the UFO landing site. Made in 1977, Close Encounters reflects the expanding capitalist economy of the time. As a work of art that reflects its time and place (as all good art should), “Take Shelter” is all about the catastrophe that awaits a worker who takes out a bank loan he is no position to repay. While you are gripped by LaForche’s psychological dilemma (is he acting on insane beliefs?), it is his pending personal economic apocalypse that ultimately makes his drama compelling.
Like “Take Shelter”, “Melancholia” opens with the image of birds falling from the sky. In an opening montage whose arty pretensions are accompanied by the strains of the prelude to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, we see falling birds and other apocalyptic images including a planet called Melancholia careening into the earth, destroying all life. Unlike most films in this genre rely on the suspense whether such an cosmic collision will take place or not (“Deep Impact” and the aptly named “Armageddon” being typical) to sustain interest, Von Trier thumbs his nose at conventional expectations by including a “spoiler” at the very beginning.
The reason for this is that the film is not so much about Armageddon but about depression, the so-called “melancholia” that names the planet and the film. The first half of the movie consists of the dreariest collection of figures you have seen in an art movie since Luis Bunuel’s “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”.
They are the assembled guests for a wedding party for bride Justine (Kirstin Dunst) and bridegroom Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) at Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) country manor. Unlike Kim Kardashian, Justine doesn’t waste any time, deciding to end her marriage on her wedding night. It seems that she is fed up with life and has no interest in anything, her career (she tells her boss to go screw himself the same night) or love.
In the second half of the film, we see Justine in a semi-vegetative state at Justine’s castle fixated on the planet Melancholia. Now that it dominates the sky during night and day, it is impossible to ignore. Claire soon becomes convinced that the world is coming to an end as well, ignoring the cheery assurances of her husband John—an amateur astronomer—that the planet will miss Earth.
During the entire time when all this is transpiring, you never see them watching television or connecting with friends or neighbors to share thoughts about the impending doom. What you see is Claire becoming as troubled as Justine, although her depression is a function of objective reality rather than a chemical imbalance.
Fortunately for me, about 25 percent of my DVD was damaged so I missed large passages of this largely unwatchable film. I have taken a brief gander at other Von Trier movies over the past five years or so and cannot understand how he can be taken seriously. As a member in good standing of the Dogme 95, Von Trier insists on the use of a hand-held camera, whose jarring shifts were on display throughout “Melancholia”. I have never seen such a radical disjuncture between technique and artistic goals—granted that such goals were attenuated to begin with.
Clarifying his filmic intentions, Von Trier once said:
I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work”, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations. Thus I make my vow of chastity.
Well, that explains everything, I guess.
The only other thing worth mentioning about “Melancholia” is the trouble that Von Trier got in during a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival when he wisecracked about Nazis, as the Telegraph reported:
Asked if his Germanic roots had influenced his work, Von Trier replied: “What can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things, yes… but I sympathise with him a little bit.”
He ended by laughing: “Okay, I’m a Nazi.” Festival organisers declared him “persona non grata” and banned him with immediate effect. Von Trier issued an apology but retracted it earlier this month.
This led to him being ejected from the film festival and being interrogated by cops in Denmark. Frankly, the only thing he is guilty of in my eyes is making boring movies.
But the fact is that Lars von Trier was a red-diaper baby. His mother was a Communist, his father a Social Democrat, and both worked in Denmark’s social-services ministry. According to a NY Times (Apr. 30, 2000) profile of von Trier and Dogma 95, they met during World War II in Sweden after fleeing the Nazi occupation of Denmark, “my father because he was Jewish and my mother because she was in the resistance.” Of course none of this matters when it comes to the holocaust industry trying to make sure that nobody makes a wisecrack that might be interpreted as a threat to Jews, particularly those in Israel.
Like “Melancholia”, the main characters in “Bellflower” are repellent but in an entirely different manner. Unlike the tuxedo-clad specimens in Von Trier’s opening scenes, we are introduced to a bunch of slackers in Los Angeles whose speech consists almost entirely of words like “Dude, that’s awesome” or “Sweet” and whose actions revolve around getting drunk, having sex, and fighting. Yes, I was young once myself and indulged in such pastimes (largely trying to avoid fights) but who wants to see a 90 minute film with such unremarkable events being depicted dramatically? By now, you might have figured out that “Bellflower” is the latest entry in the mumblecore genre, a sorry attempt to make art that is as futile as Dogme 95 but in its own downscaled manner.
“Bellflower” was made for $17,000, filmed on location in Los Angeles, and includes friends of first-time director Evan Glodell who plays Woodrow. Woodrow shares a run-down house with his pal Aiden (Tyler Dawson) who has come out to LA from Wisconsin to make the scene. Neither has any visible means of support but is never short of money for booze or gasoline. I guess in Glodell’s world, it is still 1977.
So you might be asking at this point what all this has to do with Armageddon? It turns out that Woodrow and Aiden are fixated on Mad Max movies and spend their spare time (which they have plenty of since they don’t seem to have jobs) building a flame-thrower and a scary looking car they call Medusa. The end of the world is not so much a literal one but one taking place in their minds, as they resort to a bloody vendetta against man and woman alike in the film’s climax. Jilted by his lover Milly (Jesse Wiseman), Woodrow is ready to kill and be killed. Most critics feel that the film’s violent second half is a departure from mumblecore norms. I suppose that is true, but this does not make it a good movie.
“Knowing” features Nicholas Cage as an MIT astrophysicist named John Koestler. Only I know how ridiculous this is since my good friend Les Schaffer who is technical coordinator of Marxmail is a real astrophysicist who graduated from MIT and—trust me—Nicholas Cage is poorly cast in this role.
That being said, he does a good job at scenery chewing, which is his forte after all. When his son brings home a sheet containing what appears to be a random string of numbers that was buried in a time capsule with other mementos of a grade school class from 1959, his scientific curiosity is whetted. What can they mean?
It turns out that the numbers were predictions of calamities such as 9/11. The student who wrote the numbers was in a kind of trance that people at the time regarded as a kind of temporary mental illness. When Koestler’s young son begins to display signs of the same kind of instability, he becomes worried. But he is even more worried about the possibility that the numbers portend something graver—the end of the world.
As is the case with “Melancholia”, the threat is astronomical in nature. A massive sun storm threatens to penetrate the earth’s atmosphere and burn everybody and everything to a crisp.
The best thing about “Knowing” is the creepy mood that is sustained throughout and the CGI special effects of one disaster or another. I can’t call this movie memorable but the 121 minutes spent watching it will be a lot less playful than the pretentious Dogme 95 and mumblecore works described above.
One has to wonder to what extent such films reflect an underlying insecurity about our future, which has much less to do with colliding planetary orbs than it has to do with economic and ecological distress. The sight of falling birds in both “Melancholia” and “Take Shelter” in fact has a lot to do with current events:
More birds fall from sky – this time in Louisiana
LABARRE, La. (AP) – State biologists are trying to determine what killed an estimated 500 birds that littered a quarter-mile stretch of highway in Pointe Coupee Parish near Baton Rouge.
The birds, including starlings and red-winged blackbirds, were found Monday along Louisiana Highway 1, about 300 miles south of Beebe, Ark., where more than 3,000 blackbirds fell from the sky three days earlier. Authorities said examinations showed the birds found in Arkansas suffered internal injuries that formed deadly blood clots.
Louisiana state biologists are sending some of the dead birds to laboratories in Georgia and Wisconsin for testing.
Large numbers of bird deaths are not uncommon.
In January and February 1999, an estimated 3,000 birds died in Morehouse Parish in northern Louisiana, many of them falling from the air. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Service laboratory in Wisconsin diagnosed the cause as an E. coli infection of air sacs in their skulls.
The U.S. Geological Service’s website lists about 90 mass deaths of birds and other wildlife from June through Dec. 12. Five list deaths of at least 1,000 birds and another 12 show at least 500 dead birds.
The largest was near Houston, Minn., where about 4,000 water birds died between Sept. 6 and Nov. 26 from infestations of various parasites.
That’s the way the world is likely to end, from E. coli rather than runaway comets or asteroids. And it is up to us to prevent this from happening.