Saturday, March 22, 2014


Charlotte Gainsbourg assumes the position in Nymphomaniac, Volume 2

««½ Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 and «««½ Nymphomaniac: Volume 2. Written and directed by Lars von Trier. At selected theaters.
Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac starts with one minute and twenty seconds of black leader. For viewers settling in for what they hoped might be a sexy new opus by Denmark's bad boy of cinema, that's an eternity of dead time. But this choice turns out to be oddly apt, because nobody gets what they want in this film—neither von Trier's characters, nor most viewers, nor the critics, nor—we suspect—von Trier himself. For a film about bottomless, unfulfillable need, what's more fitting than a minute or two in the yawning darkness?

          The script—also by von Trier—concerns Joe, a woman we meet beaten and dumped in a rain-soaked alley (played as an older adult by Charlotte Gainsbourg, and younger by Stacy Martin). She's rescued by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a bookish loner who takes her back to his flat for tea and pastry. There, Joe unburdens herself of her long, sordid sexual history—with a heaping side dish of self-loathing—to the sympathetic, analytic Seligman. "I love my cunt and my filthy dirty lust," she proclaims, while simultaneously indicting herself as a terrible, awful person.
          In Volume 1 of Nymphomaniac we see Joe discover her sexuality at age two, lose her virginity as a teen in a mechanical exercise with a boy named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), and engage in competitive "sport fucking" on commuter trains. Soon she's juggling ten lovers a day, taking on all comers with such indiscriminate abandon we begin to feel sorry for her gynecologist.
          The coltish Martin has the looks and the lubricity to make these proceedings full-on pornographic. Nor does von Trier shy from showing skin—albeit with the help of digitally inserted body-doubles. But von Trier never lets the sex speak for itself. Instead, he has Seligman interrupt with (occasionally) germane, always pedantic "explications" of Joe's adventures, likening her behavior to everything from the art of fly-fishing to the progression of Fibonacci numbers. Everything, that is, but the simple judgment of old-time religion, which Joe professes to reject. but fears anyway.
          By placing the action in so obvious a frame, von Trier is intentionally frustrating his audience, giving them no cues of how to react to the couplings onscreen. Joe never really seems to enjoy herself, yet clearly gets something out of the sense of control she gains over men. Seligman analyzes, but he's clearly out of his depth, and fails either to illuminate Joe's acts nor redeem them. To most audiences, this ambivalence reads neither as conventional drama, nor honest pornography. In von Trier's world, however, it's the only defensible place to stand before the conundrum of sexual desire in the post-Puritanical West.
          Like the proverbial elephant approached by different blind men, the Nymphomaniac you get varies depending on the obscenity laws where you live. International release versions of the film are all abridgements of von Trier's original, unexpurgated, five-and-a-half hour version (which, no doubt, is headed for DVD release on its own). US audiences get something cut down to four hours and divided into two parts, with most of the penetrative sex removed. Volume 1 isn't exactly unprecedented stuff: to cite but one example, the endless lovemaking scenes in Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color seem just as gratuitous as anything in von Trier's movie. The difference is that, in the current political environment, watching a young woman explore lesbian sex still has an air of joyous self-discovery about it. Von Trier's hetero- humpings, meanwhile, are just problematic and sad.
          In the end, the first half of Nymphomaniac isn't very satisfying on its own. Von Trier succeeds in titillating and alienating us at the same time, but to what end we can't yet see. In Volume 2 (opening domestically on April 18), the adult Joe (Gainsbourg) embarks for different, even more dangerous territory. A married woman now, and a mother, she explores the farther reaches of self-degradation with an inventive sadist (Jamie Bell). Here, and later when Joe takes on a protégé (Mia Goth) straight from a foster home, von Trier's real object finally becomes clear: he wants to upend our complacence by turning moral categories inside out, showing the good in the bad and the bad in the good. In the end, it becomes much like the public comments he made several years ago at Cannes, when he dared express empathy for Adolf Hitler ("I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi…I understand Hitler…"). His audience gasped, and von Trier was banned from the rest of the festival. Nymphomaniac is nothing less than a five hour enlargement of this sentiment, as von Trier (through the mouth of Joe) dares express empathy for unrepentant sex addicts and pedophiles struggling to bury their forbidden lusts, among other types categorically rejected by polite society. Neither Joe nor Seligman are "on their knees" before religion, but von Trier's radical empathy surely qualifies as deeply Christian, if we pay attention to what Jesus actually said.
          What seems most unique about von Trier, though, is that he still believes in the transfigurative power of film. At one point, he has Joe declare that she wants to challenge "the love-obsessed society"— the values that sanctify romantic possessiveness and obsession over the simple pleasure of the physical act—and there's no doubt that von Trier has some sympathy for what she says. Even more remarkable, he still believes that making movies can make a difference in how we view such basic issues—as if this were the early 1960's, when the art of cinema still mattered. In this sense, von Trier (Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, Antichrist) is worth watching even when he fails. His kind is unlikely to be around much longer.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

All Evidence to the Contrary

Neil DeGrasse Tyson steers the Spaceship of the Mind in Cosmos.

«««½ Cosmos. Created by Ann Druyan & Steven Soter. Produced by Seth MacFarlane, et al. Directed by Brannon Braga. Sundays at 8pm on Fox and National Geographic Channel.

Appearing on The Colbert Report, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson was asked what would surprise Carl Sagan—the creator/presenter of the 1980 TV series Cosmos—the most about developments since that landmark show. Tyson replied: "I think that what would surprise him the most is that we still have to argue that science is something important in society."
          By "something important in society", Tyson surely means more than that kids should learn physics and biology in schools—a proposition virtually everyone accepts. Rather, he means that science should be taken as an essential tool for making public policy, even when its findings are fiscally inconvenient or make us uncomfortable. In this, Tyson is talking to the 46% of Americans who are "young Earth creationists", and the 51% of Americans don't take global climate change as a serious threat (figures from Gallup). Indeed, he's presumably challenging a good part of the typical audience for Fox, the network broadcasting Tyson's rebooted Cosmos, Sunday nights at 8pm.
          Sagan may well have been, as Tyson claims, the greatest communicator about science of the 20th century (pace Bill Nye…). But since his death in 1996 Sagan's legacy in America is in deep trouble. Contrary to his narrative of human progress through the application of reason, the story in his native country is increasingly one of spurning scientific evidence. Sagan the astronomer was instrumental in diagnosing the runaway greenhouse effect on our closest planetary neighbor, Venus—but persistent, under-informed skepticism has paralyzed action on climate change here on Earth. Vaccination has all but ended diseases like polio around the world, but the pseudo-science behind the anti-vaxxer movement has led to fresh outbreaks of measles and whooping cough. And despite couple of centuries of progress in the sciences of geology and evolutionary biology, you can talk like  Georgia Congressman Paul Broun ("All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell…") and still sit the House Committee on Science and Technology.  
          There are no shortage of places to point the finger of blame. Starting before the original Cosmos aired, elements of the GOP were aggressively escorting religious conservatives---along with their energy, votes, and money—into the political mainstream in a way unprecedented in Sagan's lifetime. The internet compounded the problem by giving formerly isolated troglodytes on the lunatic fringe an easy way to network and mobilize. Meanwhile, in academia, resistance to science denialism has been undercut by developments in the philosophy of knowledge that place modern science on the same level of ontological reality as, say, a Hopi origin story, a Greek myth, or the Book of Genesis. Notwithstanding cosmic red-shifts and uranium-isotope dating, science is presented as just another story among others, no more worthy of special authority. It's an error with consequences far beyond the seminar room, as fundamentalists claim equal time for "their" science, Biblical "science", in classrooms.
          These are troubled waters indeed. And truth be told, if he'd lived longer, it's not clear Sagan would be as effective a communicator in the current environment. Where some found his manner inspiring, it struck others as arch, and somewhat imperious. In the post-Internet age, where everyone with a keyboard and a wi-fi connection believes his opinion is just as valid as anyone else's, ivory-tower experts like Sagan have not fared well.
          As a presenter, the avuncular Tyson is more in tune with the times. And through the first two episodes of his new, thirteen-part Cosmos, he is indeed pleasant company as he escorts viewers through 13.8 billion years of universal history (cutest moment so far: he dons his Wayfarers to view the Big Bang). Unlike Sagan or outspoken atheists like Richard Dawkins, Tyson's likability buys him the goodwill to sharpen his rhetoric, such as when he excoriates the Catholic Church for the execution of 16th century prophetic monk Giordano Bruno. "Science is true whether you believe it or not," he declares, much to the irritation of both religious fundamentalists in the pulpits and epistemological relativists in academe.
          Still, it will be interesting to see how aggressively Tyson and director-writer Ann Druyan take this unique opportunity to speak up in prime time for evidence-based rationality. In America, it may be a matter of make-or-break in the struggle against aggressive ignorance.
          In countries like China and India, by contrast, few see the relationship between science and faith as a zero-sum game. Sooner or later, humans will reach another planet in a real spaceship, not just in Sagan's "Spaceship of the Mind". The only question is what language their first words will be in when they step out on the surface.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

She Slouches to Conquer

Eva Green burns it down in 300: Rise of an Empire.

«½ 300: Rise of an Empire. Written by Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller. Directed by Noam Murro. At area theaters.
History is much like a golf swing: it's harder to unlearn bad habits than it is to learn it right in the first place. So take pity, if you will, on the hapless adjunct professor of history, facing a class full of students whose only knowledge of antiquity is watching Noam Murro's wretched 300: Rise of an Empire. Unlike most scholarly issues treated by specialists, the epic clash between Greeks and Persians is one story everybody thinks they know something about. And yet, after watching this 300, the class would start out knowing less than nothing.
          And so…no, Jacob, the Persian King Xerxes did not attack Greece in 480 BC because he was "annoyed by the notion of Greek freedom." (He invaded to punish the Greeks for meddling in the empire's internal politics.) And no, Madison, Greek hoplites did not fight like Roman gladiators, flailing and hacking as individual "heroes". (They fought as tightly-knit phalanxes, with shields locked together.) And no, Tyler, the Spartans didn't swoop down at the last minute to save the Athenian fleet at the Battle of Salamis (Sparta sent a token few ships, but the Spartans had virtually no tradition of fighting at sea.) In fact, Lucas, the real "tyranny" in this story wasn't Persia—which had a fairly liberal organization that allowed individual states much freedom to run their own affairs. The tyranny was Sparta itself, a totalitarian state unique in Greece for its secret police and nasty habit of enslaving other Greeks. Nor was democratic Athens more than partially "free", in the sense that it was slave-owning society where only adult males governed in principle, and only wealthy adult males in practice.
          But let's back up. 300: Rise of an Empire follows in the style of 300, Zack Snyder's 2007 hit based on the Frank Miller graphic novel. I've had occasion to complain about that film's butchery of Herodotus' already "colorful" history elsewhere. Rise isn't so much of a sequel as a pendant piece, covering events that happened while Snyder's Spartans under King Gerard Butler held the line at Thermopylae. The out-numbered Athenian fleet, under the crafty Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) prevented a massive enemy navy from doing a wet end-around the Spartans. Along with their knowledge of the terrain, the Athenians had to rely on their superior seamanship to frustrate the enemy. And indeed, there is a great story to be told of the sea battle off Artemisium—one too long in the shadow of Leonidas' legendary stand at Thermopylae.
          Murro's movie is far, far from the definitive telling. Even more than 300, Rise is preoccupied with conjuring turgid, busied-up visual spectacle that ups the ante on beheadings and lopped-off limbs. (And no, Ethan, the Greeks didn't lop off many limbs; in hoplite warfare the damage was usually puncture wounds.) The Persian soldiers pop nicely, like sacks full of stage-blood, and the Greek oared warships seem to motor as if pushed around by 300-hp outboards, and the whole point seems to achieve, as Themistocles says of the Spartans, "a beautiful death." It's all somehow pornographic, but in the sense of being repetitive and dull, not titillating.
          The eroticizing of combat is nothing new. Nor should historical accuracy ever be an object in itself when fiction is made out of history. The point should be to strike the larger themes, not dwell on niggling details. Trouble is, the larger themes here have nothing to do with the tragic values realized so brilliantly in the works of actual Greeks. Screenwriters Snyder and Johnstad take a perfunctory stab at grown-up tragedy by suggesting that Themistocles invited invasion by killing Xerxes' father, Darius, at the Battle of Marathon. In other words, Themistocles sinned by needlessly gilding his victory, Alas, the lesson becomes, in these writers' minds, that he should have killed the young Xerxes too, before the son could take revenge. Here, hubris is an even more foreign concept than accuracy.
          There is an inviting ambiguity of sorts in the title, Rise of an Empire. Which empire, actually? Persia's, or the one Athens built after the war, largely through Putin-esque bullying and forced "contributions" to a "self-defense" league run entirely by Athenians? Ironies abound in what, you know, actually happened. But instead, Snyder and Murro are content to deliver tired, mostly discarded themes about the triumph of the "free" West over decadent, slavish Orientals. The kind of stuff that was already old at the turn of the 20th century, let alone the 21st. Mussolini would have loved it.
          If there's anything to appreciate here, it's Eva Green (Casino Royale) as Artemisia, the dominatrix-admiral of the Persian fleet. What's not to like as she struts the deck in leather corset, fishnet stockings and gonzo eye-makeup, breathing lines like "You fight better than you fuck, Themistocles!" and "I know every man under my lash"? When seated on her throne, she insouciantly drapes a leg over the arm—all the better to display the source of her power. She's more like an animated villain than most animated villains.
          In her breakneck, WTF performance, Green cops the only attitude this material truly deserves: contempt.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Never Forget

Anwar Congo shows how it's done in The Act of Killing.

«««« The Act of Killing.  Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous, & Christine Cynn. Available on Netflix.

This time of year, around the Oscars, it's typical to hear the phrase "triumph of the human spirit". That's usually taken to mean some peoples' capacity to overcome suffering. But as Joshua Oppenheimer's fascinating documentary The Act of Killing shows, the human spirit can be irrepressible in another, darker way: in the power to rationalize, transform, or otherwise cope with suffering inflicted on others.
          Mid-1960's Indonesia was the scene of one of the biggest genocides of the 20th century. After an abortive coup against the Indonesian military, nationalist elements in the country took revenge on the left-leaning government of President Sukarno, launching a nationwide purge. In the space of less than a year, one million people were murdered by right-wing death squads. The victims were supposed to be Communists, but the freelancers weren't scrupulous about whom they swept up. Urban intellectuals were targeted, and Christian missionaries, and rural people who benefited from agricultural subsidies, and anybody else on the receiving end of petty score-settling. Untold thousands of ethnic Chinese—presumably because of alleged kinship with the regime in Beijing—were exterminated.
          Disturbingly, the military-backed government has not covered up these crimes. Instead, the massacre is widely celebrated in Indonesia. None of the former paramilitaries who personally engaged in killings have been prosecuted. Some still throw their weight around in their local districts, enjoying the fruits of small-time racketeering. Others have ascended to seats in Parliament. In a real sense, it's as if thousands of former Nazis were still free in Germany, boasting of their acts in the beer-halls, gathering for reunions in their old uniforms as current political leaders fete them with toasts and keynote speeches.
          Oppenheimer cleverly exploits this pride to craft a memorable piece of self-incrimination: he asks several of the erstwhile killers to "educate" the rest of us by reenacting their exploits for the camera. Unabashed, these old guys really take up the challenge. Anwar Congo gets a dye job so he can look more like his younger self; Erman Koto, for some reason, spends most of the film in elaborate drag. Some of their enthusiasm stems from the influence of American movies on their misspent youths. They call themselves the "movie theater gangsters", dressing up in fedoras and pimp suits, like a fun-house version of a Bogart movie. In one reenacted scene, they torture a "communist" who dared propose banning American movies from the country.
          Watching The Act of Killing is to enter a Twilight Zone where basic norms of morality are roughed up, strangled, and dumped in a river. Congo cheerfully demonstrates the preferred method of dispatching victims without making too much of a mess (garroting with metal wire). "Always wear dark-colored pants for killing," he advises. In their make-up chairs, the killers muse over the semantic distinction between cruelty and sadism. They note that they proved that Communists weren't the only cruel ones—which is supposed to be a good thing. Instead of disowning their acts of sadism, they fret that the younger generation will never know of their exploits. "Never forget", they warn us.
          The legacy of the purges has varying effects on the "players". After personally strangling, bludgeoning, and beheading about a thousand people, the affable Congo integrated smoothly back into ordinary life. Adi Zulkadry claims he never had a single nightmare, never suffered a shred of guilt. If this were where Oppenheimer left it, the film would have been merely a clever, albeit appalling, exercise.
          The film's genius emerges when cracks appear in Congo's happy-go-lucky façade. As the reenactments go on, he grants there were bad dreams. Curious how his victims must have felt, he asks Oppenheimer to film him pretending to be garroted by Koto. The experience leaves him disturbed. "I could feel my dignity being stripped away," he complains. Duping these men into incriminating themselves is clever, but it's how it changes the outlooks of real killers that makes this film truly remarkable.
          The release of The Act of Killing is not the last act in this drama. The film is still largely unseen in Indonesia, and has barely been discussed in the press there. With many of the criminals and their enablers in positions of power, some of Oppenheimer's brave native collaborators had to credit themselves as "Anonymous". Though it was nominated for the Oscar for the Best Documentary Feature—and might have earned some attention in Indonesia if it had won, it didn't (losing—preposterously to my mind—to a piece of relative fluff, 20 Feet From Stardom).
          As Martin Luther King said, "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." In this case, the bend is still too shallow to make out.

© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro