Painting on film: A minor observation on Melancholia

Bruegel - Hunters in the Snow

Last night, The Girlfriend and I rewatched Melancholia and cast an analytical eye on the opening sequence. (I would include a video here, but the only YouTube versions I can find have alternate music, which makes me kind of sick to my stomach.) Many of the scenes in this abstract prelude are in extreme slow-motion — for instance, in one Charlotte Gainsbourg is carrying her son across one of the golf greens, and you can only faintly tell that the flag is blowing in the wind and the boy’s arm is moving. The Girlfriend observed that the presence of motion actually makes it more like a painting than if it were a still shot, and after teaching art for a few weeks, I can’t help but agree. The kind of motion portrayed in the scene with the golf green is exactly what a traditional painting would try to imply. Traditional paintings aren’t really “snapshots” of an isolated moment in time, but attempt to create the impression of a flow of time or sequence of events — to portray a whole historia, as Alberti would say — just as they use perspective techniques to create the experience of a space contiguous with the viewer’s.

One might think that technically proficient paintings from the early modern era were anticipating the photograph, but I think Lars von Trier is showing us that they were actually anticipating an extremely slow film. He reinforces this connection by actually introducing a painting into the sequence of images, indeed one of the first that Kirsten Dunst’s character selects when she angrily trades in her sister’s calm modernist paintings for less refined representational paintings. Perhaps we can even hear the recurrent Tristan motif as a particularly “painting-like” piece of music. Already Wagner stretches things out far beyond the usual compressed and rapid pace of classical music, and piling repetition on top of that only emphasizes the effect. It’s as though the slow emergence of the infamous Tristan chord is transposed into the same kind of slow-motion painting we see in the opening sequence.

Now I wonder if we can read this painterliness into the end of the film as well — if the collision with the planet Melancholia is somehow the perfect subject for a painting even as it marks the impossibility of any future painting. We hear repeatedly how beautiful the (supposed) near-miss with Melancholia will be, and of course all of the scenes portrayed in the opening evoke that moment. It’s as though von Trier is trying to turn his whole film into the subtle implied motion of the painted cloth blowing in the wind or the painted tensed muscle, but instead of opening out onto an idealized (or at least stylized) painterly world, his film-painting definitively closes down all possibility of worldhood.

Django Revisited

In Amaryah Armstrong’s recent post at Women in Theology she points to a talk by Frank Wilderson that compares the approaches to slavery in Django Unchained and Manderlay. Wilderson argues that “My goal [was] to raise the level of abstraction from discussion of interpersonal guilt and innocence–that is, from a question of morality–to a discussion of institutional violence, structural violence, and the collective responses to that violence by people in revolt. … Manderlay condemns the US and Western Modernity by arguing that a totalitarian despotic regime and democratic socialism are one and the same to and for the slave. Django Unchained seems to believe that America and Western Modernity are imbued with certain evils which can be reformed and indeed transformed, if the right people have the right change of heart.” Read the rest of this entry »

Spring Breakers’ anti-human communism

spring-breakers04The New York Times describes Spring Breakers as “at once blunt and oblique,” although you might say the film spends half its time making a very obvious point and half its time not sure what point it’s making. Which doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation, but the film is actually pretty interesting. The obvious point it seems to be making at first is an analogy between the religious enthusiasm of Faith’s (Selena Gomez) evangelical church and the hedonism of spring break, emphasised by the similarity in the energized performances with which the minister encourages teenagers to get “crazy for Jesus” and the rapper Alien (James Franco) eulogises “bikinis and big booties.” If this were all the film were doing, it would be a fairly straightforward and indeed rather puritanical criticism of Schwärmerei. It would also justify interpretations of the films as entirely contemptuous of the characters and also the audience (who would be posited as a mindless Hollywood audience caught up in the hedonistic enthusiasm the film represents).

What makes the film interesting, though, is that it doesn’t just make this analogy the basis of a simple criticism: it takes this analogy seriously, or at least plays with it at length. It’s Faith, steeped in the dubious transcendence of church youth groups, who describes spring break as “the most spiritual place” she’s ever been, but the film-making seems to back this up. The bright colours, the visual and temporal distortions, skips and, repetitions, suggest  (the fantasy of) a spring break outside mundane time. This interesting review suggests the film is a “music video,” but I’m not sure that’s quite right. Rather, the film produces visually the affective structure of a dubstep track (or specifically of its theme tune, “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” by some distance the best brostep track); sharply switching between an ethereal straining at the limits of reality and a brutal pulverising of it produces a kind of transcendence, or an aesthetic effect that hints towards transcendence, at least. Read the rest of this entry »

The long death of the middle-brow

The Oscars do not give awards for the most popular movies — that would simply be redundant. The Oscars also do not give awards for the best movies — they will make their presence felt over time. The Oscars instead operate in the uncertain terrain of the middle-brow. They have to hit a mark that’s snobbish enough not to simply endorse popular taste, but not so snobbish as to be a serious engagement with cinema as an artform. In short, they have to make moderately educated people feel smarter than average without accidentally making them feel dumb.

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Monday Movies’ Best Unseen Movies of 2012

In keeping with past practice, here are my top 2012 movies I haven’t seen and want to:

  • Compliance
  • Les Misérables – please don’t ask how it’s possible that I haven’t seen it. Since Christmas, it’s been hard to invest an outing with the appropriate amount of hysteria.
  • Margaret
  • Take This Waltz
  • This Is 40
  • Your Sister’s Sister

Special consideration:

  • The Master. I reviewed it here, and even after reading Kent Jones’s magnum opus review in Film Comment, I still couldn’t get over the feeling I came away with — that the movie’s circle was too tightly closed around Freddie and Master. But I wish I’d seen the movie Jones did, and I’m very glad to have read his review.

What have you missed? (Here’s the comprehensive list I’m working from — it’s a mix of the Village Voice ballot and the Oscar reminder.)

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A first pass at Django Unchained

[WARNING: Spoilers!!! I’ve tried to put enough prefatory material that you can easily skip past it in Google Reader at least.]

From the moment I first saw the preview of Django Unchained, I could predict the criticisms from my general vicinity of the internet: Tarantino’s exploiting black suffering, he’s not giving the appropriate amount of “agency” to the hero, he isn’t using the opportunity to educate the broad public about the true horrors of slavery, etc., etc. After seeing the film, I’m convinced that all those fussy, hand-wringing critiques are bullshit. If he’d taken the advice of liberal critics, he would’ve made the kind of self-congratulatory, “morally nuanced” film that they’d show in schools in February as a token gesture. Maybe he would’ve even won an Oscar!

The one critique that stands is: “Isn’t it kind of weird that it’s a white dude making this movie?” And it is, but that isn’t Tarantino’s fault. An identical film spearheaded by an angry black man simply wouldn’t have been made, for much the same reason that our first black president doesn’t support slave reparations. Until American society stops being so deeply racist — i.e., probably not in our lifetimes — a white artist is going to be stuck in a double-bind when it comes to race. Either you bring the black experience into the conversation the best way you know how and inevitably get accused of some form of racism, or else you leave it to the blacks and ensure that it remains a “ghetto,” special interest topic — rather than the scar that runs down the very center of American history and society.

This double bind is irreducible, an unfixable problem. There’s no “right answer” to the portrayal of race for whites because and as long as our whole society is wrong. Either you remain silent, “just to be safe,” or you take the risk — and maybe create something like The Wire.

So, here begin the spoilers: Read the rest of this entry »

Monday Movies Is a Little More Used to Americans Than He Is

Have you seen Django Unchained yet? What did you think?

Quentin Tarantino’s films are such excesses of signifying that I get headachey trying to write anything comprehensive about what’s becoming known as his slavery revenge epic (not entirely accurately, for reasons I’ll get to). So I’ll throw out a couple of thoughts I had and hope that by now some of you will have enjoyed it and will throw in.

If you haven’t, I’m going to spoil away below the fold. You may prefer to prime your Tarantino pumps with this seemingly unending, possibly ouroborean, Kotsko-Canavan-et-al Twitter battle royale on the subject of Tarantino and revenge. I wrote a scattered summary of my thoughts on Tarantino before IB came out, and wrote about the use of language in its first scene here (with the return of polyglot performer Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, it remains relevant). AUFS discussed IB here, in many terms that pertain to Django.

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