ANTICHRIST, Lars von Trier, 2009

7.-opening
Grief, Pain, Despair – Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and the Nature of Evil

It’s somewhat hard to watch, show, and certainly write about a film named by various reviewers as “the best movie I can never recommend”, an “art-film fart” and “the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world”.

Lars von Trier, a Danish director who also boasts responsibility for the first hardcore porn movie made by a mainstream production company, directed this film as a form of therapy, and this is somewhat how it should be viewed. The film is, however many critics respond to it, a work of art; a claim that had to be justified by Culliton in her work, Ethics, Aesthetics and Lars von Trier’s ‘Antichrist’ as Art. One of the items the film raises, no doubt on purpose, is the line between art and revulsion. The most natural, or perhaps the “easiest” and “accepted” response to the movie, as Culliton writes, is one of revulsion and the declaration that it is not art. This view is generally however one sparked from abhorrence, morally, about what is contained in the film. I should not want to be swayed into taking the easiest route by popular opinion however, and neither does Culliton. She uses the work of José Ortega y Gasset to support her view that one must work through the abhorrence to find the art:

The new art obviously addresses itself not to everybody…but to a specially gifted minority. Hence  the indignation it arouses in the masses. When a man dislikes a work of art, but understands it, he feels superior to it…But when his dislike is due to his failure to understand, he feels vaguely humiliated…Through its mere presence, the art of the young compels the average citizen to realize that he is just this–the average citizen… Accustomed to ruling supreme, the masses feel that the new art, which is the art of a privileged aristocracy of finer senses, endangers their rights as men. Whenever the new Muses present themselves, the masses bristle. (1)

So the chances are that you are likely to find this film morally abhorrent. This is a given. However the film acts as a challenge to us. We must overcome our ethics in order to realise the film as a work of art. If we disagree with the film being a work of art, we must ask ourselves the question of whether we believe the aesthetic and the moral to be inseparable. If you are not utterly convinced that they are, then press ahead. If you do, you are not going to appreciate this film, so you may as well not proceed with viewing it.

The title alone has a lot to do with the message conveyed by the film (a message often deemed a necessary component of a work of art). The term “antichrist” is often taken to mean a simple (or not so simple) spawn of Satan, mainly due to popular culture, however this is not what von Trier is getting at. Lars claims to have had a book of Nietzsche’s by his bedside since age 12, and if this is true, it certainly helps us understand the title better. Thomsen, in an essay on the event of violence and the use by von Trier of haptic imagery (a concept I shall explain later), writes how in the title imagery of Antichrist, the last t is replaced by the sign for Female. (2) This is a clue as to the film’s message. It also relates to the Nietzschean term “Anti-christ” in the book of the same name, meaning rather anti-Christian. Hence, one might propose that the film is both anti-Christian, and anti-nature, or rather in the Nietzschean sense a reversal of what is considered natural (but is in fact something completely natural), and in this sense anti-Satan (for one line in the film characterises Nature as “Satan’s church”). If woman too is nature, then she is Satan’s church. However,  Thomsen writes, Nietzsche’s antichrist is conferred with all the properties of Dionysus, and is thus opposed to order embodied in the Apollonian. For Nietzsche, Dionysus is the embodiment of the antichrist and is characterised as female, and so the theme continues.

In a discussion on the philosophy of the film in film quarterly, Nina Power, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University, discusses what von Trier’s film has to say about women. (3) The film grapples with ideas of the tension between woman and man, and of the wild, Dionysian nature behind woman. “She”, the female character in the film, is in the process of writing a dissertation on the evil committed against women. Von Trier alerts us to the Nietzschean quote, “When a woman has scholarly inclinations, then something is usually wrong with her sexuality”. Midway through, she states that women do not have control over their bodies, and that in fact nature does. She is seen to be internalising her research in the film, and this can be seen as Lars von Trier commenting on the state of society today and the internalisation and acceptance of the suffering of women. To reinforce this idea the film challenges our general conceptions of nature and the natural. Nature is turned on its head, and yet remains true, in a Nietzschean, Dionysian sense, to itself. We are presented with an image of an eagle eating its young, reflecting actions of “She” in the film, and it revolts us, and yet is at the same time natural. Von Trier’s use of Haptic imagery in this sense is entirely appropriate. Haptic imagery relates to the use of the graphic to convey sensory illusions and is used by von Trier, with an interesting employment of rotoscoping, to instil in us an uneasiness about nature. Haptic imagery is in a sense an embodiment of the Dionysian, and possibly of evil. It takes advantage of us and assaults our senses. Thomsen writes on how the texture of the imagery sits on the borderline of the psychic and demonic and relates its use with the Deleuzian concept of the “power of the false”. Von Trier misuses the camera and the medium of cinema – instead of his art revealing truth, to borrow and probably misuse a Heideggerian phrase, von Trier uses cinema to confuse, revile and bamboozle us by turning our preconceived ideas about nature and “what feels right” against us.

In this sense the film is a very interesting piece of art. As Culliton writes, von Trier’s thesis is that women are the source of chaos and wild nature, and to us this is wrong, but it does not matter that it is wrong. The film both reminds us that it is wrong and also helps us understand why it is wrong, and in that way it may be seen as a work of art.

Matt Beckett


References:

(1) Betsy Walker Culliton, ‘Ethics, Aesthetics and Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” as Art’ <URL: https://www.academia.edu/284966/Ethics_Aesthetics_and_Lars_von_Triers_Antichrist_as_Art&gt; [Accessed on 11/09/14]

(2) Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen, ‘Antichrist—Chaos Reigns: the Event of Violence and the Haptic Image in Lars von Trier’s Film’, in Journal of Aesthetic and Culture, (2009): 1-10, 3.

(3) Nina Power and Rob Wright in ‘“Antichrist”: A Discussion’, in Film Quarterly (Dec., 2012)

Advertisements

GRAN TORINO, Clint Eastwood, 2008

Gran Torino


American Hero: Gran Torino and Genre Subversion

It is difficult to imagine Gran Torino without Clint Eastwood. This commentary on the American man, of action rather than words, prejudices rather than reasons and silent brooding rather than emotion, would play far worse were it not for the screen presence of the man so responsible for this image of masculinity. The Man With No Name, Dirty Harry, those screen icons which the audience for this film grew up with and perhaps hoped to emulate, are channelled through the face of Clint Eastwood, as impressive at 78 as it was fifty years earlier. His character Walt’s actions in the film confirm and reconfirm this image of a man. As he tells Father Janovich, having just threatened a local gang with a loaded rifle, he acted because no-one else would, or at least not in time. ‘Well you know,’ he says, ‘I prayed for [the police] to come but nobody answered.’ Walt is a primordial man, with a garage full of tools, a cooler full of beer and a lovingly cared-for 1972 Ford Gran Torino, which he helped assemble himself on the production line. The bigotry he expresses so frankly, and so casually, can only shock those middle-class audiences who would never use the word ‘gook’ but would never live next to a Hmong family either. Walt, however, is an equal opportunities bigot, making digs at his Italian barber and Irish friend and not flinching when they in turn take aim at his Polish heritage.

The hilarious scene when Walt tries to teach Thao, the young Hmong boy he reluctantly takes under his wing, ‘how men talk to each other’ shows the dissonance between this easygoing blue-collar repartee and the world in which the new generation of American immigrants live. Walt sees no contradiction between his insulting the barber for his Italianness, his prices, or his looks, and the shock he shows when Thao, emulating the old man, tries his hand at banter by demanding a haircut from ‘you old Italian prick’. The masculine identity Walt grew up with is something that not anyone can walk into, but requires initiation. Thao takes this to heart when he meets Tim Kennedy, who gives him his first job on a construction site. Thao is unsure of himself until he remembers Walt’s advice and makes up an easy lie about getting his car repaired. Everything is set up for Walt being an action hero, a man’s man. And indeed when he menaces the Hmong gang the words ‘get off my lawn’ take on an aura as threatening as anything he said as Dirty Harry.

This image of the man of action, and its limits when it collides with reality, is the great theme of the film. For, like many of Clint Eastwood’s later films, Gran Torino does not allow the action hero trope to go unquestioned. We are closer in tone to the 1992 masterpiece Unforgiven than to Magnum Force. Over the course of the movie we realise that Walt is no white saviour, no superman who can always save the day. He keeps himself to himself not because of a cultivated air of mystique but because he prefers it that way. His reluctance to get to know his neighbours isn’t caused by the repose of the retired hero but the unexamined racism of an old man. He is a war veteran who kept his guns and who isn’t afraid to brandish them, but he is also (it is implied) dying of lung cancer brought on by his nonstop smoking (another sign of American masculinity).

Most importantly, his actions are not consequence-free. The film narrative strongly suggests – Walt certainly feels – that the drive-by shooting of the Vang Lors and rape and assault of Sue are the consequence of his attempt to defend them. It is at this point, at the climax of the movie, where the tropes break down most strongly. Thao speaks for an audience raised on action movie violence when he urges Walt to take swift revenge, to shoot the gangbangers with him at Walt’s side. This is what heroes do, after all. A hero swoops in, kills the bad guys, rights the wrongs and then is lauded to high heaven by the people who doubted him. The story repeats itself time and time again, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to The Dark Knight Rises. And when Walt menaces the gang to keep them away from the Vang Lors it looks like we are seeing it play out again.

But Gran Torino is not this film. Walt has already seen where his heroics got him. He refuses to go in guns blazing, and instead gets his hair cut and buys a tailored suit. He goes to confession, where Father Janovich announces that he will not allow him to go through with his presumed plan of revenge (and at this point we, the audience, may well also assume that this is Walt’s plan). Eventually, he returns home and sets off alone to confront the gang. With the neighbours watching like a saloon fight in the Old West, and with all guns on him, Walt castigates his opponents and finally makes to pull something from his jacket, where he has kept his handgun throughout the film.

And he is shot. And he dies. And in his hand is no gun, but his treasured regimental lighter.

We now finally recognise that this was Walt’s plan all along. The crux comes when he locks Thao in his basement to prevent him coming. Walt tells Thao that he does not want him to carry killing on his conscience, as he has had to. He confesses what he could not even tell the priest in the booth, that he killed a young Korean boy, ‘just like [Thao]’, who was looking to surrender. That he has not stopped thinking about it since. That there is nothing worse than killing a human being in cold blood.

This is not the moral you might expect. As a movie audience, we routinely find ourselves with Thao, hoping for violent justice to be meted out to criminals, for the law to be replaced with a .44. For it to be Clint Eastwood who delivers this moral can be even more unexpected. But this jolt is just what it takes to force us to reassess movie morality. As he did to the Western in Unforgiven, Clint now does to the action thriller. Justice is done, and there is a death, but it is not an expendable goon or a caricature villain who dies, and this death is as tragic as it could have been avoidable. Masculinity, the film suggests, is not about guns and cars and banter but about making amends for your mistakes and putting right what you can. His death recreates his murder of the young Korean, a vulnerable person gratuitously killed by a stronger force, but invested with the knowledge that he will be setting the Vang Lors free. His death is meaningful in a way that his Korean victim’s was not, being both a sacrifice and a symbolic act of resurrection.

Gran Torino is thus ultimately not about overcoming prejudice, or about personal redemption. The film is about violence and the effects of violence, in all its forms. For Walt, the man he became is inseparable from the brutality he witnessed and caused in Korea. For the Vang Lors, the deprivations, hardships and gang culture for modern-day immigrants in America slowly drags them into a violent confrontation. Indeed, the unsuccessful attempt by the Vang Lor children to avoid violence suggests that it is an inescapable part of American life.

Violence, however, is not overcome by violence. Just before the climax we have a ‘happy ending’ of sorts, with a barbecue in Walt’s garden, where he is ‘surrounded by beautiful women, good food, even Thao’. It is a Detroit Arcadia, and like all Arcadias does not last for long. This scene occurs at a pivotal moment in the film, just after Walt believes that his confrontation with the gang has got them out of the Vang Lors’ lives. It therefore occupies the place in a traditional narrative where the hero has overcome the enemy and peace reigns. Everyone is in good spirits, and the future looks bright. But we have seen already that this does not hold. Walt’s recklessness has not solved the struggle, but made it worse.

This fragile Arcadia can never be reattained. At the end of the film we are left with loose ends. Thao and Sue are not healed by Walt’s death. Walt never manages to become close to his family, even preferring the Vang Lors in his will. There is no reconciliation; all we get is a lingering shot of Thao and Daisy the dog driving the Gran Torino down the highway. The only thing that we can say is that the cycle of violence which escalated through the film has come to a temporary end with the removal of both protagonist and antagonist. But the effects of that cycle have not. Violence might fix things temporarily. It might get the girl out of a scrape, or the gang off the lawn, but it does so only to beget more and worse violence. Walt’s failure throughout is to believe he can solve a violent problem with violent means. It is only when he finally rejects this way of doing things that he finally manages to free his friends from their enemies, and does so at a great cost. The final inversion in a film of inversions is this: in Walt’s heroic showdown he refuses to shoot – even to arm himself – and allows himself to be killed. And, as it has been observed, greater love has no man than that.

Jack Price