Friday, March 12, 2010

"We Are All Guilty": Death in the Garden (1956)

It’s always a thrill to go back and watch the early films of a director whose biggest successes came later in life. It’s this very pleasure that’s made it such a joy to catch up with some of Luis Bunuel’s films from the 1950s, many of which were only released on DVD for the first time last year. Most of the films come from the period when Bunuel was working in exile in Mexico, and they all display that very Bunuelian characteristic of being delightfully subversive and political at the same time that they often masquerade as straightforward adventure stories. 1956's Death in the Garden, which I just caught up with, is a perfect example. While it might not display the same feel for the surreal as the movies he made in France, it does show that, among his many other talents, Bunuel was a master at spinning a good ‘ol fashioned yarn. Beyond all else, it's proof that even when he was working as a hired hand within the constraints of a studio system, Bunuel was no less adept at making something incisive, thoughtful, and downright weird.

The film follows that classic setup where a group of people stranded in an extreme situation come to serve as microcosm for society at large. Bunuel being Bunuel, the extreme situation is a political uprising in a South American mining camp, and the stranded cast of characters includes a prostitute and (who else?) a Catholic priest. They’re both part of a group that’s taken hostage by a roguish French adventurer, who leads them into them into the jungle in order to escape from the local military.

It’s when the action gets moved to the unforgiving setting of the jungle that Death in the Garden really kicks into gear. Unlike a lot of directors, Bunuel doesn’t go out of his way to romanticize the beauty or purity of wild nature (just look at the film’s title). Instead, he portrays it as brutal and godless anarchy—a false paradise where any small misstep could mean death. This is all summed up rather succinctly in an early shot that depicts a snake being consumed by an army of fire ants, and it’s carried through as the weary runaways start to fall prey to the tests of the jungle one after another. Even more noticeable than the detail in which Bunuel documents the terrors of the wild is a high pitched squeal—insects? birds? a bad mic?—that accompanies a good many of the jungle scenes. It’s hard to say if it was intentional or not, but either way it definitely helps to give the viewer a sense of the intolerable conditions the characters are dealing with.

Bunuel’s camera and his blocking are pretty conventional—even stagy, at times—but the sophistication and audacity of his ideas makes up for what are otherwise some pretty forgetful stylistic choices. That being said, there are a few great little moments that remind you that this was the guy who had already made Un Chien Andalou, and who would later make The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. One of my favorites comes midway through the film when he abruptly cuts from a shot of the green labyrinth of the jungle to a soundless, stationary shot of cars driving by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris at night. It’s a jarring transition that’s only made all the more affective when the shot cuts back to the jungle to show the character of Castin, an aging miner who dreams of opening a restaurant back in Europe, wistfully looking at a post card that depicts that very scene.

Thematically, Death in the Garden is certainly a rehash of several of Bunuel’s time-honored themes, but they are presented here with more restraint than they would be in his later films. First and foremost, as usual, is his antagonistic take on piety, which is personified here in the form of a na├»ve and well-meaning priest who seems oblivious to the fact that he’s being used to civilize the local Indians only so that they can be exploited for cheap labor. This is emblematic of the opinion that Bunuel—an avowed atheist whose iconoclastic position in the media often overshadowed the real subtlety of his theological ideas—seemed to hold on religion throughout his career. For him, it seems that the message of religion is not the problem. It’s that the figures in power—usually priests, politicians, and aristocrats—abuse it for their own gain at the expense of the masses, often without even knowing it. This, too, is expressed in a scene where the French adventurer called Chark is arrested and brutally beaten by soldiers who, in a darkly comic twist, stop off at the church for a quick prayer on the way to the jailhouse.

That’s the kind of subversive aside that all of these early Bunuel films manage to sneak in, and not just on religion, either. As a character says at one point in Death in the Garden, “we are all guilty,” and Bunuel made sure to be an equal opportunity social critic. Other movies (like The Young One, Simon of the Desert, and the early masterpiece The Exterminating Angel) target everything from racism and sexual abuse to the excesses of the upper class. That they’re always just as funny as they are incisive is only all the more proof of Bunuel’s untouchable position as the cinema’s greatest provocateur.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tourism Ads by Lars Von Trier

I'm not sure how long this has been around, but in light of my Antichrist discussion from a few days back it seems more than appropriate. The Onion never fails.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Antichrist (2009)

Like Transformers 2, which might have single-handedly garnered print film criticism a stay of execution, last year’s Antichrist is one of those movies where the critical uproar surrounding it seemed to overshadow the picture itself. The film, which tells the story of a nameless couple (played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) retreating to their mountain cabin in order to get over the death of their son in some decidedly unhealthy ways, became notorious before it was even released. It’s Cannes premier alone, which was preceded by its director Lars Von Trier bestowing the mantle of “The Greatest Filmmaker in the World” on himself, was met with a substantial (for Cannes, anyway) amount of jeers and catcalls from the audience. Critics were polarized. Some called it a bold and challenging artistic statement, while others derided it as meaninglessly violent, misogynistic, and grotesque. Suffice to say, I had to see this thing. And thanks to Netflix watch instantly (these days you can get your Depravity On Demand), now I have.

I can’t really say what I expected going in. I’d avoided a lot of the conversation about the film, and besides some whispers about some particularly grisly activities that occur near the end, I knew very little about what Antichrist was actually about. So I was surprised to find that early on the film delivers some of the most strikingly beautiful (and yes, often gratuitous) imagery I’ve seen in some time. For a guy who once railed against the tricks of the cinematic trade when he formed the Dogme 95 movement, Von Trier certainly does possess a deft, sure-handed control of them. He mixes in just about every kind of stylistic tool at his disposal, from slow motion to jump cuts, handheld camera, and even subliminal images. But instead of coming off as muddled art house flash, all of this stylistic noise actually sort of works, and for a while the film is as gripping and atmospheric as the best of David Lynch’s work. The genre here is as much horror as anything else, and Von Trier manages to make the woods outside the couple’s cabin look deep and sumptuous like something out of a fairy tale at the same time that they’re creepy and unsettling. That they’re also filled with deformed deer, dead birds, and a mutilated fox that speaks aloud to Dafoe that “chaos reigns” only adds to the overwhelming feeling of dread and surreality that starts to form.

And then the last 20 minutes happen. Nearly all of the critical discourse on this movie has focused on the ending, so I’ll try to keep it as brief and mercifully vague as possible. But let's just say the movie, which to this point has been teetering on it quite skillfully, goes over the edge completely. The violence that happens is shocking—fucked up is probably a better way to describe it—but the real problem is that it’s also meaningless and uninteresting. Truth be told, half of what goes down is no more extreme than your average b-level horror film. But up to this point Von Trier’s made a movie that was so hauntingly vague, mysterious, and even beautiful that seeing such aggressive imagery manages to drain the film of any artistic credibility.

Suddenly, all of the preceding scenes, with their hyperactive camera and dreamlike editing, start to mutate into something hollow and almost laughably pretentious. And the story, which was pretty half-assed to begin with, suddenly seems the worst kind of art film trash. Von Trier’s smart enough—and big-headed enough—that it’s difficult to believe that it wasn’t all somehow intentional, but this doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t work. He’s giving his audience answers to questions they didn’t ask, and in doing so he sabotages his own movie. For a great deal of its running time, Antichrist has flirted with territory that’s vaguely reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky. Von Trier certainly thinks so, and he even includes a dedication to the great Russian filmmaker in the end credits. But after the legendary blow-up his movie has in its final act, even this seems all too reminiscent of something an affected film school student would do.

Disappointing as it is, Antichrist is an important film for a variety of reasons. For one, it’s proof that even in today’s culture (whatever that means) movies still have the ability to shock and provoke controversy—even if for pretty base reasons. More importantly, though, this film is as good of an argument for the auteur theory as any in recent memory. It’s impossible to talk about it—either textually or as a cultural artifact—without discussing Von Trier and his more than questionable intentions. He’s stated that he conceived the film in the wake of the worst depression of his life, and you can’t help but attempt to delve into the guy’s mind and psychoanalyze him when talking about his movie. Whatever he is—and angry film critics have called him a lot of things—there’s no denying he’s an important artist. I guess we can only hope that next time he’ll use his powers in the service of more substantial material.