Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Perfect Human

Deeply stirred, disturbed, stimulated by a viewing last night of Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth's The Five Obstructions. I was attracted to it as an unusual example of constrained filmmaking, and the movie provides example after gorgeous and haunting example of how arbitrary constraints can liberate an artist from his or her own intentions in unexpected ways—even as it also proves that there is a core of subjectivity or at any rate sensibility that will not let itself be erased. It's thrilling to see art actually being created in front of your eyes; the emotion is much more intense here than it was in Ed Harris' Pollock, a collection of cliches abou the tortured artist except for the remarkable sequences in which we see the painter painting. The movie raises many incidental questions: the role of privilege in artmaking (vividly demonstrated in the Bombay sequence); questions of race and gender (the oftend dark-skinned women we see are usually overtly sexualized, the men much less so—though it's interesting how male and female get collapsed into the asexual "human" by the narration); and of course the Oedipal relation between artist and mentor, with the latter seemingly bemused by the former's urgent need to cut him open and look inside. I found myself identifying strongly with Leth's formality, his melancholia, his wry humanism; von Trier is a repellent individual (I can't bring myself to watch movies like Dogville or Dancer in the Dark, though I loved Europa and Breaking the Waves) but if I'm honest with myself I can recognize his sadism and insecurity as akin to my own. And I was totally agog at the high seriousness of the project, playful as it is; there is simply no American context for this kind of thing except maybe for the hundred-yard radius around David Lynch's head. Just to witness a conversation about art in which the stakes are matter-of-factly assumed to be high is enough to move me to tears. There is a kind of European art-esteem that buoys these men up, however acute their self-loathing might otherwise at times be. It may be an extension of the social safety net that we are also lacking in this country: a pervasive message from your society that your life and what you do with it is important. (Surprised at this juncture to remember the Richard Hugo line that is the motto of the University of Montana's MFA program: "A creative writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters.") But there's no escaping the American grain; if I were to realize my occasional dream of exile (in Paris, in Vancouver, in Copenhagen, in Budapest) I'm sure I would only end up feeling more "American" than ever. I might go deeper into my formalism, my rage for order, whereas I think the real challenge for me as a writer now might be to get messy, to risk bathos, maybe even to write a story. But it's hard to let go of form in an era that seems to be slipping toward formlessness.

What I'm trying to say is: see this movie.

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