October 2, 2011 § 6 Comments
Austin’s Fantastic Fest is the largest genre festival in North America, apotheosis of the mainstream clout “geek” or “fan culture” has been building since the ’90s. It shares the sense of cinematic utopia with other international film festivals, a genuinely diverse collection of movies populated by adventurous audiences, the comforting (and misleading) sense of an alternative to Hollywood instead of a supplement. But its difference is obvious, and not just in the programming, which draws on a pretty liberal definition of ‘fantastic’ and ‘genre,’ even as film culture itself moves ever closer to ‘nobrow’: it is not all that shocking when established auteur Lars von Trier, whose reputation is based in part on a gothic TV miniseries (Kingdom Hospital), does horror (Antichrist) or now science fiction (Melancholia). No, the difference is clearest in the ‘extras,’ the celebrity boxing matches and superhero costume parties, and the flavor of interaction between attendees — fans — and filmmakers and fans and each other. These interactions are structured by the assumption that film is primarily entertainment, and everyone is there to satisfy shared fetishes, often perverse or trivial ones, not to achieve mainstream cultural relevance. If elitism is prideful participation in some elevated thing that others should share but are too dumb, then geek/fan culture is about pride in the terminally marginal. The boundary between the two has been disintegrating for some time (in my generation producing mutants like the post-bloggers at zero books), but it’s stable enough to be recognizable, for people to still think and speak as if they were one or the other. The international filmmakers not accustomed to encountering fans instead of cinephiles, i.e. Michael Roskam of Bullhead, were taken off guard at first but seemed hooked by the end (by the third screening he was savvy enough to compare his film’s protagonist to Batman – “You’ve spoiled me for the art-house circuit,” he said, “and that’s a good thing”). There’s probably little more gratfying for a filmmaker than meeting an audience that not only passionately loves you just for being there but today is a serious tastemaker.
The following are my notes on the films I saw that had something worth noticing, good or bad.
Juan of the Dead (Alejandro Brugués, Cuba)
Thankfully Alejandro Brugués second feature isn’t limited to its novelty value as the “first Cuban horror/zombie movie.” Nor is it the cheap knockoff of Shaun of the Dead its title suggests, though they start from a similar place – zombies who allegorize the worst tendencies of their societies (basically conformity) take over, prompting a small group of slackers to find themselves by killing them. There’s an amusing running gag where the zombies keep getting mistaken for C.I.A.-sponsored dissidents. References to Cuban history are littered throughout, the biggest being the image of hundreds of Cubans attempting another great exodus from the island (presumably to the U.S.), some dragged to their deaths by underwater zombies. Here we have a different angle on the post-Soviet ‘end of history’ — a nation doomed to re-experience its war with the U.S. in increasingly absurd ways (in the Q&A Brugués revealed that a scene where ninja stars are used to dispatch zombies is based on an actual public lecture on preparing for Yankee invasion), stumbling through an uninspiring, futureless life (“It looks normal” is all one character can say upon seeing her neighborhood post-zombification). Brugués talked about the effects of the Special Period on Cuban society as an influence on the film, but it seemed odd to me, in 2011, to hold the U.S. up as every Cuban’s (slightly taboo) dream of escape — isn’t the American unemployment and poverty rate many times greater than Cuba’s? Though that dream is sympathized with throughout (and meekly affirmed at the end), it is never treated as realistic, nor as authentic. The only thing that really mars the film is its constant, vicious homophobia. I thought Michael Bay was bad.
Bullhead (Michel Roskam, Belgium)
This one beat the Dardenne brothers (snubbed again – the judges must know they’ll never win) for Belgium’s official entry for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. Aside from being a first film that puts anyone else’s first film to shame, its treatment of masculinity is interestingly literal. Nominally a gangster noir (the justification for including it, I guess), Bullhead is a character study of cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille, who was castrated with a rock as a child and became addicted to testosterone supplements. He is also part of Belgium’s locally infamous “hormone mafia,” a criminal network that traffics in the kinds of chemical enhancements that we take for granted in US livestock but happen to be illegal in the EU. Jacky’s troubled relation to his own masculinity is a bit Cronenbergian (before he went all conceptual in the ’00s) in the way it is reduced to a physico-chemical substance addiction, a hot commodity. His physical castration and physical juicing make a Freudian analysis irrelevant; Freud’s ‘unconscious’ themes are Jacky’s daily thoughts. Roskam described Matthias Schoenaerts’s performance as guided by breaking down rather than building up a psychology, a character of barely-concealed animalistic urges and instincts.
Beyond the Black Rainbow (Panos Cosmatos, Canada)
I count this one along with House of the Devil and Drive as a recent subclass of ’80s nostalgia film. House poses as an artifact, a trompe l’oeil early ’80s babysitter movie; Drive is all arch irony, unmotivated stylistic and musical borrowings for a story set in the present. BtBR tries to do what you’re not supposed to and explicitly historicizes its own fetish — 1983 is the date that opens the film and 1966 marks the flashback (Christian Thorne has an interesting take on Body Double as a pomo historicist film). Drawing on a nonspecific, half-remembered mélange of ’80s sci-fi TV and VHS cover paintings, BtBR recreates the ’80s as a gothicized remnant of ’60s utopianism. The Arboria Institute was devoted to the improvement of human life; now it is just a shell, Dr. Arborea near-mummified in the basement, his former protégé wiling away the hours tormenting their most promising subject, a preteen with psychic powers (?). ’80s futurism was indeed mostly dystopian, which at first glance makes it an odd object for nostalgia. But I don’t pick up any longing for happier times from most of these odd throwbacks (pop music is different). Instead it seems to be a way to represent contemporary feelings of dread and alienation, which has so far proved close to impossible to achieve with contemporary materials. The content of commodity culture hasn’t advanced much since then, so the complexes of today are easily projected onto that decade’s objects. And more usefully: in the networked 21st century, everyone could be consuming anything, everyone shares and borrows from everything, but nothing is held in common; an underground ’80s is the closest thing artists of a certain age have to a set of shared cultural references outside of infantilizing interface menus (the ’90s are coming back in as Gen Y grows up, but I have no idea how anyone is going to reconstruct the 100% recycled ’00s into anything coherent). And indeed, one thing all three films share is a fixation on ‘atmosphere’ that trumps narrative momentum. BtBR is the most extreme in this regard: the production design and the analog synth soundtrack are the real stars, plot is put off until the perfunctory and farcical final act. It’s a pure fetishist’s movie, with almost no concession to anyone else. I got off on it, but the whole thing bears an (unintentional?) resemblance to an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
Carré Blanc (Jean-Baptiste Léonetti, France)
Another debut film, this future dystopian take on corporate life presents that world as a series of sadistic psychology experiments. A man is ordered to give himself an electric shock for as long as he can endure it; a woman is ordered to remain within a small ring on the floor while her interviewer hits her over the head with a bamboo stick. Their purpose is to separate the strong from the weak, so that the weak can be processed as food for the strong. The funniest part of the film is how everyone maintains the enforced attitude of corporate civility even in the most abject and humiliating situations (the closest thing to ‘villains’ – a pack of testosterone-laden, ultraviolence-dispensing suits – don’t last long). All the mind games are ostensibly are to demonstrate the fairness of this post-resource population control scheme. Philippe, the Obama lookalike protagonist (almost everyone else in the film is white), is repeatedly told that his high rank is “proof the system works.” He and his boss cluck over the ‘obvious’ solutions to the games that no one else picks up on — the small ring on the floor can itself be moved, for example, and the bamboo stick avoided. But we see how the demand to constantly prove loyalty to the regime destroys creative thought, making selection for the games a virtual death sentence, albeit a self-justifying one (to the administrators, the players ‘choose’ to destroy themselves). This is a world where the unfit are invisible because they are consumed, everything has been consumed, where there is nothing but Brutalist concrete and white people in suits. We see the population numbers slip into decline, and a big part of the plot is Philippe’s passive refusal to reproduce out of despair and self-loathing — the ‘sustainability’ plan is not sustainable. Léonetti imagines what would be left of capitalist society after the market runs out of resources and comes up with something between George Orwell and Michel Foucault.*
Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark)
I hated Antichrist, heard this was similar, and so only went because nothing else in its time slot seemed worth it. One common criticism of both films I don’t agree with though is that the genre elements are gimmicks or ‘stunts.’ That’s just realist snobbery, a depressing thing to find in the most spectacular visual medium ever but there it is. The problem with Antichrist wasn’t that it was a horror movie (with over-the-top gore, talking animals, etc.), but that it was a bad horror movie; its allegorical premise was stupid and wasn’t carried off in an inventive or even competent way. Melancholia is almost as thin in terms of character and just as thematically extravagant — it juxtaposes a rich white woman’s clinical depression to Earth’s apocalyptic collision with a larger planet named ‘Melancholia’ — but is much better executed. It’s actually a good companion piece to Tree of Life, both lavishly photographed, elliptically edited, epic-length films linking a realist drama about ‘white people problems’ — and Americans, no less — to the movements of the cosmos. Von Trier takes the added step (whether forward or backward I leave to the reader) of putting both events on the same diegetic plane: it’s a science fiction film in a way Tree of Life was not. The film is split into two halves, each focusing on one of two sisters. The first half, on the depressed Justine (Kirsten Dunst), shows her ruining her expensive wedding to her boss’s son, a powerful ad executive, and in style hearkens back to Von Trier’s ‘Golden Heart’ melodramas. The second half focuses on family woman Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who helps Justine pick up the pieces as Melancholia barrels toward them. The parallelisms are pretty obvious: two parts, two sisters, two planets. Life vs. death. That death gets the stronger case should be no surprise, though I found the end much more satisfying than Tree of Life‘s hokey walk on the beach, and really not that cynical. The relation to more conventional science fiction apocalypses is interesting — SF usually uses the moment of The End to expand its scope to society as a whole (it’s only afterward that stories in this genre return to the personal), while Melancholia rather cheekily uses it as an opportunity to heighten an already heightened melodrama. It sometimes seems anti-science fiction, as in the way it shamelessly indulges the cliché of the male rational optimist who turns out to be totally wrong (take that, climate change). But I think a better way of putting it would be to say it embraces what in most SF figures as weak responses to crisis that have to be overcome in the name of action: emotional withdrawal, cynicism about the value of ‘life’ in the abstract, putting the family unit and social convention over broader social agency, etc., and genders them female. Thematically similar to Antichrist, yes, but with a better integrated, less emotionally distancing use of kitsch. Despite the overall more careful construction, Melancholia feels rawer, less defensive.
One day I want to write something on the proximity Malick’s and Von Trier’s films share with advertising, but that will have to wait.
*the whole film could be read as a parody of Foucault, come to think of it — the end of capitalism due to resource depletion provides the only conditions under which his analysis of biopower could be universally accurate: totalitarian liberalism.