There is a moment towards the end of Lars Von Trier’s unorthodox, inquisitive horror film Antichrist (2009) when Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character cuts off her own clitoris with a pair of scissors.
It is an incredibly upsetting sequence. I was pre-aware that the scene was in the film because, regrettably, some reviewers can’t keep their damn yappy mouths shut yet it was still one of the most distressing things I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen. I watched it with my hands over my face peeking through my fingers.
The second time I saw Antichrist it was less of a big deal. It was still a deeply dismaying sequence but (as with the infamous Reservoir Dogs ear-slicing scene in which no ears are sliced) a great deal more of it had taken place inside my head than in front of my eyes. On the second viewing it was easy to see where the edit is from Charlotte Gainsbourg to a jobbing porn star, and again where the edit is between actual genitalia and a prosthetic special effect. My suggestibility got played the first time around. Second time, however, I was looking rather than seeing.
It is still a scene of great impact, but it is not the whole film. It is a very tiny part of the film from which (in isolation) you cannot infer a great deal about the rest of movie.
Antichrist is different in this respect from, say, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, which I once heard referred to by a ticket-buying customer as “that film where that boy cuts his own arm off”. In the case of Antichrist the DIY clitoridectomy is a justifiable development of the film’s central ideas. For an hour and a half Von Trier has been asking questions about human nature. How do we reconcile our deep, selfish physiological needs with our apparently higher intelligence and morality? What does it mean when we seek pleasure in the face of grief? How in control actually are we in our post-lapsarian, civilised world? To what extent do we have some say in the way the world is? How in thrall are we to basic biochemistry?
In the case of 127 Hours you are watching a film whose central question is: When is the boy who’s going to cut his own arm off going to cut his own arm off? And the answer is: In about 127 hours.
(Parenthetically, I am sorry that this sounds rude about Danny Boyle. He seems like a genuinely lovely man and his films Sunshine and 28 Days Later are good, provocative genre pieces. Others in his oeuvre I find a bit confusing. Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, The Beach. They have the jumbled narrative through-line you’d expect from a seventies episode of Seaside Special and the philosophical shallowness of Tarby’s Frame Game. There is nothing remotely wrong in making a film whose sole raison d’être is spectacle I suppose. Sometimes I like a bit more is all.)
Having the view then that Von Trier is at least up to something worth thinking about with Antichrist I then found myself asking whether or not the explicit level of the scene was necessary. The best I could do was to accept that it is Von Trier’s work and he can express himself however he likes. I’m no expert on dramaturgical necessity and I concede the high ground to those who say they are. But to me it did look like he had overdone it a teensy bit.
There’s a scene in Talladega Nights in which villainous French racing driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen, coasting) puts some money in a jukebox in a redneck bar and selects a jazz track. The truckers and hillbilly types recoil as though they are under physical attack and round on the Frenchman saying that no one plays jazz in the bar.
“So why is the song on the jukebox?” he enquires.
“We keep it on there for profiling purposes,” the barman explains.
I wondered a little bit if maybe Von Trier had put his attention-grabbing scene in for similar reasons, to identify and isolate people who weren’t engaging with the film on anything other than a superficial level. Certainly I’ve never had an enjoyable discussion about Antichrist with anyone whose opening conversational move is “Oh, is that the one where…?”
Yes it is the one where… Also many other things happen, but that is the one you have fixated on. This is going to be a boring conversation.
Is it quite a new thing, this reduction of everything to its tweetable, textable minimum? I don’t remember people going on about the one where the giant ape falls off the Empire State Building, or the one where the woman gets a bit of grit in her eye. How about the one where the guy wakes up with the horse’s head in his bed? That’s starting to sound plausible. The one were the boat rolled over on New Year’s Eve? The one were the swarm of bees swarmed? The one were the inferno towered? Let’s say it started, but started slowly, in the seventies.
These days (he says, waving his walking stick at a passing new-fangled whippersnapper) it’s all fucking shorthand. All of it. Quick hits. No substance.
So, inter alia, Doctor Who reduces to ideas rather than stories. The girl who waited. The madman in a box. Timey-wimey. Wibbly-wobbly. Please don’t be scared. There’ll be no patient examination of character or motivation, no careful, consistent extrapolation of what happens subsequent to a set of initial conditions. Just a frantic succession of shiny novelties each shinier and more novel than the last like some ghastly, high-speed, colour-saturated Generation Game conveyor belt.
This is not the fault of Steven Moffat or any of his team. They still turn out peerless entertainment of a wit and quantity I find staggering. They just have to do it within a structure that doesn’t allow for audience patience or intelligence, even though the audience in this instance palpably has both.
Not Moffat’s fault then, but it is the fault of each one of us who has allowed our national intellect to dwindle to this level. The level at which any developed, analytical thought processes are seen somehow as “gay”, and the word “gay” is seen somehow as an insult.
Harry Hill’s TV Burp was poking fun this weekend at a BBC4 programme I haven’t seen. In the extracts shown Jonathan Meades appeared to be talking about a period in French history during which it was difficult to question matters of faith because there was a cultural predisposition towards accepting precedent. Things that had gone before had an undeserved authority just by virtue of having gone before. I am simplifying (and possibly misrepresenting) Meades’ assertion grotesquely, but my point is that he was using the English language effectively to make a point that was easy to apprehend.
This was intercut with Harry Hill pulling silly faces and culminated in Hill saying, effectively, “What ARE you talking about?”
Hill is a qualified doctor. His writers are generally bright, satirical, observational people. This, though, was militant thick-ism. One of the few remaining refuges of didactic TV was stormed and one of its blinking, bespectacled occupants was dragged out into the courtyard for an unnecessary kicking in front of a howling Saturday night crowd.
Do the fans of Take Me Out and Red Or Black really feel threatened by the knowledge that somewhere, someone is having consecutive, related thoughts?
Such educational TV as is allowed on the main channels tends to be pretty puny fare.
I have been watching episodes of Planet Earth on Blu-ray lately and whilst there is a part of me that is grateful to be able to see this footage of frankly amazing things in a way I never could on my own resources there is a slightly bigger part of me that winces at the presentation. A troop of baboons (or flange of baboons as we Not The Nine O’Clock News rememberers say) is depicted living in isolated heights in Ethiopia. Their daily routine is described fascinatingly (by David Attenborough, who is reading the script but surely, surely had no hand in writing it) and all is well until dusk when some predatory foxes appear. My problem with the presentation is that the musical cues and portentous narration clearly prompt the notion that the baboons comprise a happy community and that the foxes are somehow evil.
This is a perception of ecosystems that most school children and even the writers of The Lion King would regard as being a bit on the embarrassing side. The foxes and baboons exist in a stable relationship. Without the baboons the foxes have nothing to eat. Without the foxes the baboons will over-proliferate and run out of vegetation. It’s not a question of goodies and baddies or victims and perpetrators. Morality – and let’s not even start on whether or not morality actually exists other than as an expedient survival trait – morality plays no part in this at all and to suggest that it does, explicitly in the language of the narration and implicitly in the use of music, is completely unhelpful. Counter-educational even.
Another failure of Planet Earth is that you can watch the episodes in any order. Any order at all. Doesn’t matter. This suggests to me that it’s not really a learning experience the way The Ascent Of Man or The World At War were. This isn’t a course of study in which each episode builds on the previous one. This is simple spectacle. You ooh and you aah and after it all you know nothing you didn’t already know.
Let’s talk about Brian Cox for a minute. Not that one. The other one. Professor Brian Cox is great. He’s a real scientist with real degrees and a real job at a real particle accelerator. But I bet all the money in my pockets that that is not the reason he gets to present every single fucking thing on telly to do with what we used to call natural philosophy (back in the 1600s when I were a lad).
I bet the Professor Brian Cox list of ranked attributes goes like this in TV people’s heads:
1) He is very pretty.
2) He used to be in a band you know.
3) He’s got a gentle northern voice like Simon Armitage or Jeremy Dyson.
4) He knows a shit load of synonyms for the word “big”.
5) He is a scientist.
Not his fault, and as with Steven Moffat on Doctor Who, his ability can only roam as far as the broadcasters’ expectations will let it and the broadcasters’ expectations are insultingly low.
So he is allowed to front programmes on the wonders of the universe and the audience sit and gurgle and feel like they are being educated, but as the credits roll, what can the audience tell you about what they have seen? What knowledge do they now possess about the solar system? What do they understand about the structure of the universe?
Find a Brian Cox fan. Ask her (or him, could be a bloke) how far away the sun is. What order the planets go in. How many stars in the galaxy? How many galaxies in the universe?
If you like ask what the difference is between astronomy and astrology, and then reflect on how educational this educational programme has actually been.
Want embarrassment? Want embarrassment on a squirming, toe-clenching, wishing yourself inside-out kind of scale? Then watch a “science correspondent” trying to explain the Higgs boson at teatime.
It is known as the God particle, they may intone as if that means anything at all. If you are very lucky (or it’s Newsnight or something) there may be a graphic of E=mc2 in a futuristic font wobbling behind the luckless BBC arts graduate who is having to read all this crap off an autocue until a proper story about princesses or politicians turns up.
Higgs boson? We live in a country where the average person (whilst enjoying a frame or two of snooker) has no knowledge of Newton’s laws of motion. Nor do they wish to know, because gad they might end up on the ducking stool.
It’s OK not to know stuff I suppose. A bit unnecessary given the easy availability of information in this era, but OK if you’re happy that way. But I have higher hopes of people than that. We are an amazing species but we are currently selling ourselves short. As a society we in the west, particularly the UK, seem to undervalue complexity, demonise it even. Superficiality, distraction, vanity, coarseness and a remorseless pursuit of the base run amok.
Learning, thinking, teaching, tolerance, empathy and compassion all feel like they are in retreat.
Or maybe I’m getting old and cranky.
But that’s not likely.
Happily I have recently watched or re-watched four movies from last year which completely undermine my argument:
Tree Of Life – Terence Malick’s transcendent movie requires a conscious act of surrender on the part of the viewer. If you think you aren’t going to enjoy it then you really aren’t. Find a bit of faith however and you may find your way of living changed. A woman’s life of being is contrasted with her husband’s life of doing. It’s spirituality versus temporality. Except it’s not a fight. And at the end, Malick seems to suggest, aren’t we all doing the best we can with what we’ve got anyway? A humble blockbuster if such a thing is possible.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Somehow, without the novel’s or BBC TV adaptation’s length (and indeed with out even their commas in the title), this movie version of the well-liked spy novel seems to miss nothing out. It’s a master class in tight scripting and disciplined acting. Huge plot details are told with mindbogglingly delicate flourishes. Director Tomas Alfredson distinguishes between two potentially confusing timeframes for instance by having a neat bit of business in an opticians with Smiley choosing new glasses. Old frames = flashback. New frames = present day. And a minor change to the character of Peter Guillam (an on fire Benedict Cumberbatch) brings out some barbaric truth about the seventies, all shown rather than told. Quiet, powerful and overwhelmingly affecting.
Drive – Nicolas Winding Refn’s contemporary tale of a movie stunt driver who moonlights as a criminal getaway driver is closer thematically to his previous film the epic, stark-staring-mad Valhalla Rising than I would have thought possible. And like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy it is a dramatically convoluted action movie that expresses itself through the twin media of stillness and silence. I’m still not quite sure how it manages it. Ryan Gosling’s brilliant negative-space style of acting asks a lot of the audience, but please go with it. He is superb at the disjunction that comes from a desire to be civilised in conflict with the basic impulses we need to keep us alive. The guy is acting with his autonomic nervous system! It’s very impressive. Stellar support and a killer soundtrack too.
Melancholia – In which Lars Von Trier shows us what George Pal’s 1951 movie When Worlds Collide would have been like if it had concentrated less on the mundane matter of worlds colliding and more on the thrilling prospect of the inability of depressed people to get worked up about it. This is worth your time if only because of the extraordinary lengths Von Trier seems to be going to to make you hate it. Hey, he’s only the director. He’s not the boss of you. Also this is hilariously, almost sarcastically, far away from his Dogme 95 manifesto in its intricacy of composition. Beautiful, cultured, ugly and extremely defiant. Nice one, Lars.