Lars von Trier, 2011

#7, 2011 Skandies

Hey, finally one I have things to say about.

Melancholia is divided into three parts.  It begins with a montage of surreal slow-motion images — a woman watching electricity flow upwards out of her hands, another woman running across a golf course while her legs sink knee-deep into the ground, etc. — culminating in a shot of the entire Earth smashing Theia-style into another planet.  All righty then.

The next hour is devoted to a woman named Justine during her slightly surreal wedding reception.  Nothing really impossible happens, but things are slightly off: her parents and sister (who doesn't look remotely like her) have British accents while Justine's is American; her young nephew calls her "Aunt Steelbreaker" (?) and gives her a dagger as a wedding present; there are too many people named Betty, and Justine's father calls her that at one point.  The party is populated with eccentric characters: Justine's mother gives an acidic speech about how she loathes the institution of marriage, her father brazenly steals spoons, her boss jokes that he's only there because he wants Justine to write some advertising taglines during the reception (and turns out not to be joking).  But the main wrench in the gears is Justine herself, who shows up two hours late and then takes every opportunity to absent herself from the proceedings.  The reception is held at her rich brother-in-law's estate, complete with golf course, and at one point Justine slips out, commandeers a golf cart, and drives off into the night (blithely ripping the hem of her wedding dress off when it gets caught on something).  At another point she leaves the party to go upstairs and have a bath.  When she does get dragged back to the reception, she can usually act as she's supposed to for a few minutes at a time, smiling at the appropriate junctures, but before long she's back to this:

…and good heavens, but can I ever relate to that.

I have two responses to this section:

On acting out
Justine's behavior struck me as a textbook example of a crosswalk situation: I get where she's coming from, and I get why those around her would be pissed off by her behavior.  This is supposed to be Justine's special day, yet she has the wedding planner lurking behind her to chide her that, no, no, she must pass the food around the table counterclockwise.  Now she's supposed to walk through a bunch of rituals that are meaningless to her, like throwing a bouquet to a bunch of people who are only there out of obligation rather than affection.  Even the moments that are supposed to be particularly magical — e.g., the guests scribble love messages all over huge sheets of paper, that are then turned into hot air balloons and set aloft — are just luxury-package ideas from some corporate office, nothing special to Justine and her new husband at all.  So if what would make Justine comfortable on what is supposed to be her day is to escape from this horror to have a bath, then she should go have a bath!  If her reaction to her boss asking her to write advertising copy on the evening of her wedding is to tell him what a loathsome human being he is and to quit, that seems both entirely justified and very brave!

At the same time, if I went to a wedding reception and it kicked off two hours late because the bride was being flaky, I doubt I would have a basketful of you-go-girls at the ready.  And if I organized something this elaborate for someone, on request, and then received this little appreciation for it, it could endanger the relationship.  How seriously depends on the type of relationship.  I mean, I am not unfamiliar with what it's like to be attached in one way or another to people prone to melting down in public.  I've done the "she's not feeling well" routine with concerned friends my share of times.  Doing this sort of damage control is the sort of sacrifice that you don't think twice about making for someone you love — but it is a sacrifice, and to have it taken for granted is corrosive.  And of course there are different degrees of acting out.  The bathtub stunt is quirky, but some of Justine's other moves go so far beyond the pale that they torpedo her marriage before it even begins.

On parties
Again, while I am emphatically not on board with everything Justine gets up to during her retreats from the party, for the impulse to retreat from parties in general I have worlds of empathy.  On the very rare occasions that I have found myself at parties, I have nearly always wound up absconding to an empty room after a few minutes and going home not long thereafter.  Justine's party in particular, with its formalwear, bickering relatives, and re-enactment of other people's traditions, would have me eyeing the exit the moment I arrived.  And yet, in the true spirit of the crosswalk, I simultaneously feel no small amount of resentment at being left out of events like these.  A while back I happened across some pictures of interesting-looking cakes online, and that prompted me to search for some more, and I noticed that a lot of the cakes that popped up had numbers on them, the most common of which was 40.  I turned forty this year, and I didn't get a cake.  I felt like I should do something to mark the occasion, though, and I happened to be on an early schedule at the time, so I went to my favorite breakfast place.  At the table next to me, two women were finishing up their meal, and when the check arrived, they did the usual routine: "What do I owe you?" "Don't be silly, it's my treat!" — and then the one paying added, "It's your birthday!"  Then she immediately got up to go to the bathroom.  I was about to turn to the remaining one and say something like, "Hey, happy birthday — it's my birthday too!", except (a) I very rarely talk to people in public and (b) I suddenly realized how that conversation might go.  "Oh, how about that! How old are you?" "I'm forty." "…Today's your fortieth birthday and you're eating by yourself? How big a loser are you?"  And in fact I spent the entire day completely alone.  If there were a clearer signal that I had fundamentally failed at life, I couldn't imagine what it might be.  The one silver lining: at least I wasn't stuck at a birthday party.

And my cognitive dissonance about parties is really just synecdochic for how I feel about everything.  Given that my life has taken a severe downturn over the past two years, and that I was never really happy even before that, I am pretty much constantly consumed with envy of virtually everyone.  I've gathered that this isn't an uncommon phenomenon in the Facebook age — I've read many an article about how we have a distorted sense of our acquaintances' lives because we only see their curated highlights and not their problems and anxieties.  Certainly my list has its allotment of people who feel compelled to crow at regular intervals about how awesome their lives are.  The thing is, for the most part, the lives these people describe as so awesome pretty much always strike me as a species of hell.  Like, many of them have achieved success in their fields and have lucrative jobs and big houses and fly around the world all the time and whatnot… but I wouldn't actually want to trade with them, because I have no interest in those fields, am quite glad that I don't have to wake up to an alarm clock, wouldn't be able to make any use of a big house, and don't have any particular desire to spend any time in London or Tokyo.  A lot of them have kids, and in the past I have written at length about how I've always wanted a daughter, but while I do still feel a touch of envy when I see amusing or touching parent-child interactions out in public, seeing what the parents I know go through from day to day has punctured any daydreams I've had about what raising children would be like.  Not to say that there's anything wrong with anyone's particular kids — often I've thought that the kids were wonderful, and still breathed a sigh of relief that I got to go home and didn't have to deal with the constant demands for attention, much less the defiance and the squabbling and all the rest of it.  And as much as I've wished for a more successful romantic history, I certainly don't envy anyone their specific partners.  Even in those cases where I once had a crush on someone, I now thank the fates that the crushes never came to anything: invariably our lives have gone in radically different directions since then, and the idea of making a life with any of those people would be a ludicrous proposition.  In summary:  In the fable the fox acts like it doesn't want the grapes because it softens the blow of not being able to get them; I'm like a fox that's gnashing its teeth over not being able to get the grapes, even though it doesn't actually like grapes.  (Except I do like grapes. Change it to cucumbers and it works.)

Gosh, that's quite a bit of blather and I haven't even talked about the whole last hour of the movie.  Moving on.

The last part of Melancholia is what elevates it from a slice-of-life thing I would forget pretty quickly to something that will stick with me for a while: it turns out to be a Pattern 8 movie, one that isn't at all the sort of film it initially appears to be.  For it turns out that while the wedding planner has been counting beans for a guess-how-many prize, and Justine's father has been swiping spoons, and all the rest of it, the Earth has been on a collision course with a rogue planet and is about to be annihilated.

The key dynamic of this section is that Justine, who since the end of the previous section has become catatonic enough that she needs assistance getting into a taxicab or a bathtub, turns out to be the one person on hand equipped to deal with the situation.  Her brother-in-law is in denial, and her sister is out of her mind with fear and despair, but Justine is untroubled.  There have been a number of studies suggesting that one of the chief manifestations of what we call "depression" is viewing the world accurately — that nearly all of our lives really are as shitty as I perceive them to be, but the non-depressed delude themselves into thinking that things are great.  As far as Justine is concerned, the rest of the world is just catching up to what she's always known: that existence is a catastrophe.  "Life on Earth is evil," she shrugs. "We don't need to grieve for it." 

Melancholia is not exactly what you would call scientifically accurate.  Not only is the trajectory of the rogue planet impossible, but the Earth's crust would be shattered by tidal forces during the initial fly-by, killing everyone and making the eventual impact academic.  That's fine — this isn't supposed to be hard SF.  But what about Justine's insistence that there is no life anywhere else in the universe?  Given how common the conditions for life have proven to be, this seems highly unlikely.  In any case, it raises the question: would extraterrestrial life be as evil as the local variety?  I think about this a lot.  On the one hand, natural selection seems like it would operate in much the same fashion throughout the universe — after all, the basic principle that qualities that assist in survival tend to survive and those that hamper it tend not to shouldn't really vary by location.  And those helpful qualities, from teeth and claws to instinctive fear and hatred of the Other, tend to make creatures pretty nasty.  But others fall on the positive side of the ledger — cooperation is a survival strategy, after all — and happenstance shapes genetic change as much as selective forces.  If evil biospheres tend to wipe themselves out, maybe the life that manages to sustain itself is mostly good?  (Probably more of that delusion talking.)

Once the movie was over, I went back and watched the prologue again to have another look at those images and see whether I might be able to get anything out of them knowing what was to come.  It turns out that they're not exact flash-forwards to the last few moments before the catastrophe — they're more like representative tableaux vivants, and yes, they're a lot more meaningful the second time around.  (E.g., it turns out that the important thing about the second shot is not the landscape but the shadows.)  And that got me thinking: it was certainly handy for me that I was watching this on my computer and could just click back to the beginning.  The reason I stopped going to movie theaters in the early '00s was that I couldn't deal with people's increasingly obnoxious behavior — talking on cell phones during the film, that sort of thing — but now that's almost incidental.  The reason I watch everything on my computer nowadays is primarily that I have come to watch movies the way I read books: I'll watch a scene, hit pause, think about what I've just seen, watch another scene, hit pause, go back a minute and listen to the dialogue I didn't quite catch the first time around, etc.  I imagine that some might object to this sort of thing and argue that it's not seeing the film the way it was meant to be seen.  But it seems to me that, first, the model of "sit in a chair for over two hours and watch the movie unfold without interruption" is not one chosen by filmmakers, but an artifact of technological limitations that no longer exist — and second, how on earth are we supposed to get anything out of the prologue in a single viewing?  Are we actually supposed to process a series of images that don't yet connect to anything and retain them with photographic clarity for 130 minutes?  That was one of the things that always bugged me about literary criticism back in my academic days: nearly all of it discussed texts as experienced by someone who had read them and reread them and re-reread them and become intimately familiar with every line.  And that is usually unrepresentative.  Most reads are first reads.  But the flip side of this is that there are certain texts that aren't entirely intelligible on a first read, or a first viewing, and Melancholia is one of these.  If this had come out during the '90s and I had been watching it in a theater, I would have had to pay for another ticket to go back and fill in the gaps, and I probably would have resented it.  As it stands, it was just like flipping back to the beginning of a book, and I bore no grudge against the prologue for its initial opaqueness.  So in this case, yay for the evolution of media.

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