Is every day like the perfect wedding or is every day the end of the world?  And which is more accurate?  (No, you can’t say it depends; it’s somewhere in the middle; or why are you asking me this question).         

Survey says..... NO

We’re talking choice here.  And not just by me.  These are the questions asked (literally!) in the new Lars Von Trier movie “Melancholia” – a film that doesn’t leave your brain easily and, unlike most of what we see nowadays, deserves some sort of response other than, as they used to say in my grandmother’s native language, “Oy vey” (translation:  Oy).

For those who hate, are annoyed by or are simply not fans of the crazily brilliant or just plain crazy Danish director, rest assured this is not a mad recap review of the film (I stopped doing those in 1983 when I left Daily Variety – probably because one of the last movies I had to review was Chuck Connors’ horror extravaganza, “The Tourist Trap” at a 12:30 afternoon show on Hollywood Boulevard.  But I digress).

Where was I?  Ah, yes, “Melancholia.”  Though I happened to be floored by the film, which doesn’t necessarily mean I loved it, or I think it’s flawless or can even recommend it (God knows my parents would HATE it!!!), I will tell you that it affects audiences like few movies do nowadays – simply BECAUSE you (actually I) still can’t get it out of your mind days after seeing it.

This is a great thing for a filmmaker though perhaps not so great for you as an audience member since “Melancholia” does not evoke a particularly pleasant world.  In truth, it makes “On The Beach” and “Testament,” my former two most depressing movies ever made, seem like “His Girl Friday.”   But even those who would rather have their wisdom teeth removed than sit through any film of this genre ever again, would have to admit that Mr. Von Trier does, if nothing else, have a strong, distinctive point of view.  He makes very specific choices, even outrageous and perhaps indulgent ones – never shying away from alienating or thrilling you often managing to do both at the same time.

Spending the last day on earth with Mr. Skarsgård... Not. Too. Shabby.

How many filmmakers or any artists nowadays approach their work with the intensity he does?  Okay, let’s count………………….

How many do you have?  My list is, well, paltry.

Baa! Baa!

And that’s the point.

I said publicly this week that I’m not sure if “Melancholia” is brilliantly depressing or depressingly brilliant.  The latter because it reminds me of classic films – the kind that aren’t really made anymore  – sort of Ingmar Bergman by way of Fassbinder (or vice-versa) with a little plain old post millennium nastiness thrown in.  The nasty, clinically depressed heroine, one might say, is actually the writer-director surrogate, by his own admission.  Mr. VT has done some brilliant and some controversial and some thoroughly misfired movies over the years but the one thing you can say is that he often gets his borderline (again, literally), nihilistic POV on screen.  I say that with admiration,  and will tell you it’s such a cop OUT to dismiss this with lines like, “well, he has all this power, talent, financing,” blah, blah blah, blah. I know that because I say this all the time. (Though never in front of my students, and hopefully none are reading this.  And if you are – stop right now.  Oh, and I better also take this off the school website – that is if I knew how to do that – but hey, that’s another story).

As for POV, if you’re going to work as any kind of communicator, that IS the story.  Sadly, it’s not always what you’re saying but if you have a commitment to not only say it – if you’ve chosen and staked out a position and ran with it.  (For example, look at the popularity of various political candidates right now, okay, sorry, I know that is even more depressing than “Melancholia.”)

Well... we're screwed.

I’ve been talking to a lot of people on television writing staffs recently and it seems the greatest challenge is to write in a voice so universal that you won’t actually be able to tell it apart from any other member of the writing staff – in other words – the voice of the show (while keeping something of yourself).  This is certainly financially and sometimes artistically quite profitable.  But it is light years away from what you have to do in the kind of film I’m talking about.  Or even what you have to do to be noticed as a writer.  The irony is that almost all writers – film, TV, theatre – have that kind of voice.  It’s actually what gets you noticed.  Only to then get tempered by reality.

Much like how you wake up in the morning, you can choose to see that either as depressing as the end of the world or as fantastic as your dream wedding.  Fantastic because a) you’re getting paid handsomely to be creative, b) you get your take in on the material in some small way, and c) months after your shows get aired receive these cool checks in the mail for nice chunks of money called residuals.  Depressing because , well, if you want to be yourself and can’t fit in, it’s goodbye, Buster.  This is not much different in the film world, where studios seem more and more bent on some bizarre cookie cutter version of film-a-tainment to form the hub of a cottage industry that produces simultaneous Happy Meals, theme park rides and distinctive movie star roles guaranteed to draw in audiences from 6-60. If you’re past that age, let’s face it, you’ve died.  But don’t tell that to, oh – Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, Helen Mirren, Sylvester Stallone, Diane Keaton or any number of big time movie stars you’re used to consistently seeing on the big screen.

Food for thought. Maybe this isn’t bad either.  You (we?) might not belong in that world, compellingly wedding-like though it might be.  You might belong in Mr. Von Trier’s world.  Or in Arianna’s Huffington’s blogosphere (perish the thought of starting a blog!).  Or in the realm of someone like Henry Jaglom. For those who don’t remember – he’s a writer/director who outside the studio system on his own did, oh, 15 movies and often made a tidy profit from them, getting to say EXACTLY what he wanted in indie rom coms in the seventies long before they became cool again.  Mr. Jaglom once had a nasty thing or two to say about Hollywood and Steven Speilberg, criticizing the latter for his work on “The Color Purple” and how he reduced a gritty book into what he considered Hollywood pabulum.  It was sort of a low blow from a fellow director.  Yes – you could argue that Steven Spielberg is probably the only one who could have made a film about the Nazis killing Jews and still come up with a sympathetic non-Jewish hero and a happy ending – but what is wrong with that?   “Schindler’s List” was a terrific film and manages to still have Spielberg’s POV.  In pretty much the same way as “The Color Purple.”  Had Woody Allen tried to direct either of those well, I guess you might have gotten something else.  “Interiors?”  “Another Woman?”  With Alan Pakula would it have been “Sophie’s Choice?”  Roberto Begnini  — “Life Is Beautiful.”  Jerry Lewis – a still unreleased rumored Razzie for the notorious “The Day The Clown Cried?

The point of all this is that in order to get in a position of REAL power in anything you need to BE PRO-CHOICE.  Not in the same sense as in the issue of abortion (for the record, I’m for a woman’s right to choose – like you couldn’t surmise that), but on the issue of –- you.  There’s nothing worse than not making a choice because you’re marching to someone else’s drummer.

To put it in another perspective – I think of choice this way – take a stand, any stand, any stand at all.  I don’t care if you’re as bleak as Ingmar Lars Fassbinder Von Trier or as happy go lucky as a Sandra Bullock rom com (Isn’t it about time for a new one?).  The worst punishment is to be “Michael Bay’d” to death with Transformers 4 6 863.  That is anything but fun and actually pretty depressing itself because it will mark the end of a certain kind of world as we know it.  The one Mr. VT, in his perhaps very small way, is trying to bring back in full force.

6 thoughts on “Pro-Choice

  1. Stephen, absolutely loved this blog. I’m watching Melancholia tonight and you certainly got me very excited for it. Von Trier has fascinated me because I feel he really does nail in his films what clinical depression feels like. Antichrist (and I know a lot of people label that as a misfire) in particular did a wonderful job of showing just how backwards and topsy turvy your perception of reality, of nature, etc becomes when you let that depression completely overcome you. I’m not sure I’d call it even a good film, but it certainly nails that psychological “reality.” As someone who has struggled throughout my life in the past with clinical depression on and off, there’s a certain amount of comfort in seeing and feeling that someone else has been to those bleakest points of emotion. I feel maybe that many viewers can’t even truly grasp what Von Trier is conveying unless you’ve been to that place yourself.

    Also, your words on having your own writing voice, and feeling pressured to meld within a system, they were comforting as always. I often feel discouraged looking at the formulaic, soulless and derivative Hollywood films that are forced at us 90% of the time. And I often wonder if my talents were ever discovered and appreciated, if I would find myself losing my identity in a show where I can no longer express myself the way I want.

    You have such a wonderful perspective Steve, and always make things so clear, and often cheer me up when Hollywood realities frustrate me. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks Patrick. And know that the only reason I can make the comments I do is that I am feeling or at one time felt all of the things I’m saying – that’s the only way I know how to write – so – you’re not alone. I also believe many more people relate to the kind of stuff LVT does than let on, but a lot of audience members just really don’t want to “go there.” Which I can certainly understand. Keep plugging away! And make sure you stop by at our IC holiday party!

  3. it makes “On The Beach” and “Testament,” my former two most depressing movies ever made, seem like “His Girl Friday.” HAHAHAHAHA! Not sure I will make it to Melancholia – I hated Breaking the Waves too much – but after reading your thoughts I might just give it a chance. Who of us (of a certain age, ahem) doesn’t want to be challenged by a movie again!!

    • It’s definitely challenging and those who are of that, uh….age, can remember that world of moviedom. And it’s playing at the Nuart. A throwback to that time. Other than that — you’re on your own!!! …Though I promise it will make you feel good about your life…

  4. I might see Melancholia over the holiday weekend. I also have the entire first two seasons of The Partridge Family lined up. Choices indeed.

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