Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Chaos Reigns: Dissecting ANTICHRIST

I don't think I'm a particularly hate-filled fan of moving pictures. I watch several movies a week, on average, fitting in one or two a day if I'm lucky. It often takes just 90 minutes, and with Halloween just around the corner I've been mainlining horror movies like a junkie knowing he only has a week to live. Some of them have been good, some of them have been terrible, but I've found something to enjoy, or at least appreciate, in almost every one of them.

Some have been fantastic; The Ruins, Street Trash, and Dellamorte Dellamore in particular have left me very satisfied. I know, I'm about as current as a damned Circuit City flyer, aren't I?

Others have been middling; Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, Slaughtered Vomit Dolls, Book of Blood, and Premutos: The Fallen Angel were all fascinating in different ways, but were ultimately too flawed to be considered particularly much good.

Further still, some have been borderline unbearable; Texas Chainsaw Massacre The Beginning, and Le6ion of the Dead are the sort of films so terrible that I have to ask myself why I still watch them in the first place...

Eventually I stumble over something so awesomely terrible - like Exitus Interruptis: Death is Only the Beginning - that I start to remember why even terrible horror films are sometimes worth suffering through. I know that 'for the lulz' may not seem like a valid excuse for much, but I defy anyone to come up for a better explanation for Burial Ground, Eaten Alive By The Cannibals, or Nightmare City even existing - films so shockingly terrible, clumsy, and fun that the only reaction they cause in me is a sort of shame tinged ecstasy, one I don't think I'd feel without having seen the same basic films executed so much better beforehand.

By definition, I'd think, I'm a "fan" of horror movies. Have been since I can remember, watching Creepshow and The Toxic Avenger as a lad with my father. I put up with a lot of eye-rolling crap for the genre, be it contrived plot devices or goofy dubbed dialog or rubber masks that really shouldn't have been lit so well. But every genre has its flaws, its cliches, and its rewards; a good horror film will fill you with excitement, revulsion, and a certain unique sense of terror that's cathartic rather than emotionally destructive. Of all the genres to enchant Hollywood - musicals, westerns, thrillers, comedies, what have you - horror films are the only one to have remained in style for the last 80 years, without a single measurable lapse in interest from the general film audience.

We may gravitate towards zombies and serial killers rather than the Gothic hold-overs from the silent era, but the difference between Count Dracula and Hannibal Lecter, or Eric the Phantom and Jigsaw, are really minor the end. 'Legitimate' print and television critics love to pretend that the "Torture Porn" movement has destroyed the genre forever, but these people are, quite frankly, either full of shit or straight ignorant. Torture Porn has existed in film since the Joy of Torture franchise in the late 1960s, and the genre was spear-headed in Hollywood by none other than Mel Gibson. If anything the Jesus Biopic has been forever tainted harder than the slasher or monster movie... but I suppose that's a discussion for another day. Anyone who's failed to see any positive qualities what-so-ever in Hostel Part 2 or Wolf Creek isn't trying very fucking hard, and I'm sure the same assholes only now see what made Friday the 13th part 6 a fascinating inversion of the conventions the franchise itself had built... but what do they say? You can drag a sheep to the fountain of knowledge, and then not drown him fast enough?

Modern critic circles - by which I largely mean "The Internet" - tend to hate everything that isn't a sparklingly perfect masterpiece, incorrectly chiding anything less as a ripoff or complaining about a lack of anything original. Some websites are virtual hate machines, giving mediocre shrugs to above-par titles, and poorly constructed foaming bile more often than is really necessary on something that's legitimately middling. If nine-tenths of everything are crap, as most everyone these days seems so steadfast to believe, then why the hell do they bother watching any of it? Is getting paid to shit all over each and every new thing really worth the ulcers that their furious words imply?

Nobody pays me for my smart-assed opinion, so I doubt I'll ever know.

I'm not above these spiteful gut reactions from time to time... and yes, sometimes ripping on a film that pissed you off is incredibly cathartic. Still, I'm more prone to bouts of apathy rather than white hot nerd rage. In regards to the films themselves, anyway. Fuck up the presentation of that film, however, and I will rant and rave like a lunatic for everyone within earshot. But that's different.

With that said, I don't mean this lightly when I say that I absolutely I hated controversial Danish autuer Lars Von Trier's DOGVILLE. I sat through all 178 minutes, watching a legitimately clever concept and some stunning performances fall apart through excruciating tedium, pretentious over-explanation, and a gimmicky presentation that absolutely nothing was ever done with. The fact that it was a critical darling and was given praise at its Cannes' premier make me physically ill, and I literally don't think there's anything that I've sat through that I've liked less. There just aren't words in the English language to express how furious every aspect of the film makes me, and no, the fact that we see Nicole Kidman buried under a guy's ballsac for three minutes is absolutely no consolation.

That film is manipulative and smart enough to massage critics' subconscious into THINKING it has a lot to say, but it's frankly an essay on human nature written by an angsty teenager, turned into a crappy play, and shot by the very same immature broad-stroke storyteller in a manner that's so painfully masturbatory that I can't believe anyone actually fell for it. The word "Pretentious" gets thrown around a lot today, but the literal meaning of the word - something akin to 'pretending to be something it is not' - is rarely what people mean when they say it. A film can be complex or surreal without pretending anything. To explain that, the films of David Lynch aren't "weird" just to trick audiences into watching them. They're "weird" because Lynch is fucking insane, incapable of viewing the world from a rational and linear perspective, and so he presents a small bit of his own madness via celluloid to the audience, inviting them to take whatever from it they want to from it.

Dogville presents the world with a film utterly devoid of location, and all of the distractions of basic cinematic conventions, forcing the audience to view the character relationships directly... and then has an omnipresent narrator tell them not only what they're seeing, but exactly how it should make them feel. He also makes us suffer through this shit for three endless hours. If von Trier had, as the narrator, just shut the fuck up once in a while and let the story tell itself, maybe we'd have had something... unfortunately the only good thing to have been spawned by the miserable "epic" is that Takashi MIIKE re-used the 'negative space' style to make a good movie; JUVENILE A: Big Bang Love, which proves that the problem in Dogville is the execution, not the attention grabbing style itself.

So, imagine my shock when my favorite horror film of the year (thus far...?) turns out to be from Lars von Trier... the film is called ANTICHRIST, and it lives up to both its' title, and the inevitable controversy, winning both a "best actress" and a special "anti-award" from the Cannes premier, and splitting critical reaction wide into people who love it or hate it just as passionately.

Starring Hollywood regular Willem Dafoe and fearless French cutie Charlotte Gainsborough as a nameless couple who are wallowing in the grief of losing their infant son to a tragic accident, the film opens with a five minute long checklist of "arty" film conventions, at once distancing itself from the tropes of "genre" pictures, and proving that he's capable of embracing them as well, framing a tragic scene of an infant plummeting to his death whilst his parents make love in slow-motion black and white, while opera drowns out their passions and the sound of the child's skull splattering on the pavement. What sets this apart (besides having nothing to do stylistically with the rest of the film) is the presentation of its' subject matter; erections, barely hidden penetration, and only a thinly veiled view of the young child going *SPLAT* are all there, playing the "high class" scene in what could well be the most exploitative manner humanly possible.

What's telling is that, after 5 minutes, von Trier pulls off the veil of "legitimate art" and lets his miserable couple tell their story from a pseudo-documentary point of view, without any direct intervention in the way of style to distract us from their personalities. (This seems to be a fetish of Trier's... one he clearly shouldn't have abandoned for his America Trilogy.) Their pain, their anger, their fear, and their eventual destruction at each other's hands is played out in full view of a hand-held camera watching their every move, not romanticizing or pitying their fates, merely observing them for posterity.

This is a film which - like few others before it - create horror and suspense from the notion of human nature. Oh sure, that's the root of virtually all modern horror films, in the sense that it's exaggerated into a masked serial killer or a supernatural force of evil. Here, the actions of two people who deeply love each other are the only truly terrifying things on the screen, and the reasons why they perform them make them all the more hideous... and personable. What scares us, really? Being alone? Hurting and being hurt by the people we love? It's rare that a horror film can directly address these issues without being either completely retarded or turning into a "thriller" - a distant cousin to the genuine horror film - but von Trier and his two capable performers have made it work, thrusting them (and by default, the viewer) into the darkest and most human depths of man's injustice to himself, leaving no stone in the couple's most intimate affairs unturned.

Love, dear friends, is scary.

The mocking appearances of The Fools, nature reflecting what resides in She and He's own hearts, are visually striking and, yes, a little bizarre, but only seem to underscore what we have already seen. If - as I interpreted their presence - they aren't "really" there at all, it changes nothing. Like the flashes of surrealism presented in dreams, and to personify the reactions the human body has to external stimuli, these physical manifestations are merely illustrations to the gradual unwraveling of the two leads.

The film has been called misogynistic, and I won't try to deny it; it even directly addresses femicide, and the guilt that She feels is the direct result of her both neglecting and satisfying her most feminine qualities, those of the wife and mother. These attributes are a natural part of the limited narrative, a filthy and unreal secret that leads her further inside of her own dangerous mind, and thus when these misdeeds are punished, it's as a potentially justified act of contrition. This shocking act of self degradation - no, perhaps it's one of transformation? - is the first and only time I'm aware of a sequence like it being put to film, and while I'll admit that it's one for the ages the eroguro crowd to beat off to for generations to come, it's still a beautiful piece of extreme cinema, right up there with the playful voyeurism in Saló, the pure selfishly romantic finale of Nekromantik 2, and the hoarse cries of "Let Jesus Fuck You!" in The Exorcist. Sadly, the dense and slow-boil "arty" nature of this film will prevent it form ever getting the sort of recognition among general audiences that it deserves, and so I ask that anyone within earshot take a deep swig of something comforting, and give this a shot on Halloween night.

Antichrist may or may not be a "horror" film by typical definition, but it is terrifying, and grueling beyond compare. It's a film designed to leave you shaken and wanting not to stare at your own inate penchant of inflicting suffering on others, or in others on yourself. Boogeymen and spooks in the night don't scare me, but my fellow man is worth being afraid of. Antichrist, better than any so-called horror film I can remember, shows me exactly why. Don't misunderstand, though; this review is not an act of contrition. Dogville still sucks, and nothing he or anyone else says will change that fact. I may not be able to forgive him for that 3 hours of my life now behind me, but I'm still not such a bastard that I won't commend him for scaring me for the first time since I can remember.

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