Mas Tortas Para Los Trabajadores

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Austin, Travis, Rep. of Tex.
March 05
Born in the oil and gas deposit-rich region of North Texas, on the fraying edge of the Permian Basin, my mother was a special ed teacher, my father, a “pumper,” a far more glamorous job among the petroletariat than the name would indicate. I managed to escape the small town that spawned me promptly after High School graduation, a modicum of sanity still intact to ride shotgun with my generous portions of anger and resentment. Some five years later, I copped a BS degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Said institution and I gladly parted ways. In the intervening 20-plus years, though my only ambition has been to have ambition, I have miraculously coughed-up a boatload of freelance articles, a couple of books of dubious merit, and a metric ton of songs of occasionally inspired quality, not to mention a paralegal certificate, 11 years of experience as a legal underling, and tens of thousands of bicycle commuter miles.


JANUARY 27, 2012 4:55AM

Misanthropia: Grappling with the Von Trier Virus

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  Attention film fanatics: Spoilers ahead. Of course, I'm sure most of you have seen it by now, or have at least heard all about it.

It has now been 2 weeks and change since I finally surrendered to my dark whims after almost two months of trepidation and witnessed Lars Von Trier's apocalyptic vision, Melancholia, with my own two eyes, rather than merely reading about it secondhand and watching every trailer and video clip I could find floating throughout the innumerable galaxies of cyberspace. During my stroll to and from the cinema, some 2 miles each way along Lady Bird Lake,  I kept my eye on the night sky, looking into space, searching for rogue bodies - planets, meteors, comets, humongous motherships operated by tentacled creatures not unlike H.G. Wells' vision of Martians in War of the Worlds: primitive in physique, but brilliant beyond all human comprehension in intellect - capable of rendering all earthly species and the earth itself but faint memories in the cosmic mind. It was as if I wanted it to end, this acrid little world, as though it would be a welcomed relief from all the daily pain and stresses. But isn't there no relief without pain , and vice versa? Is not paradox the very basis of the human psyche and the human condition, as C.G. Jung would argue? I think Von Trier and Dr. Jung would have an interesting conversation if only it were possible on this mortal plane.

Perhaps my obsession with Melancholia had rendered me vulnerable to infection by the Von Trier Virus, the main symptom being a sado-masochistic desire to punish humanity, including, and especially, myself,  for its innumerable sins, a mental condition that fails to see the necessary balance between light and shadow and sees human existence possible on only one side or the other: either all good or all evil. It had me doubting the existence of a cosmic mind, or even the human soul. It was if we were nothing but meat running about on two legs eating and being eaten. I shuddered at such a cold, indifferent universe and endeavored to Von Trier think of puppy dogs and lollipops. But the Von Trier Virus is a virulent strain, one that tenaciously grips one's consciousness and squeezes out almost every last bit humanity, leaving just enough to instill a lingering disturbance at the sight of your tangible surroundings and your own consciousness. If it were a physical microbe, it would be as destructive as Ebola, but not as lethal.  VTV does not kill you. It tortures you. It makes you suffer, and two weeks later, though it waxes and wanes, I am still firmly in its grasp.

Indeed, I managed to survive the apocalypse, if only in body, and since I was miserably failing to conjure candy and canines on my way home I had to think of something, so I asked myself, "Just which of Mr. Von Trier's films are not an apocalypse in microcosm?" It was then that visions of Bjork danced in my head and it finally hit me. I am still traumatized by Dancer in the Dark some 11 or so years after the fact and that Dancer is but one of the only two Von Trier films I have seen up until now, the other being a condensed version of his creepy, yet strangely humorous, Danish TV mini series, The Kingdom. Indeed, as it turns out, my VTV had not been recently acquired, but had lain dormant for more than a decade.

It was with this realization that I began to understand why  I so willingly spent $11 for the privilege of seeing Von Trier's  macro-apocalypse.  It was simply a matter of the VTV rearing its nasty little pustuled head, seeking to replenish itself.  I began to wonder if something had happened, something in the recent past that had made me pliant, made me vulnerable to its  reassertion. From whence did this trauma come? I had no idea. Sure, I had had some small emotional setbacks in the last month or so, but nothing major. There were the usual internet-based insults, but that is all part of the game, a matter of course, nothing to get overwrought about. There had been no BPD women projecting their weirdness upon me or members of the demimonde casting aspersions or demonic spells upon me, at least none of which I was aware so as to bring about consternation. I was a bit flummoxed, to say the least. No matter the cause, the virus had found its opportunity and had well taken advantage of it. I had bought my ticket in advance, printed it in full color, and there was no stopping me now. Perhaps my emotional immunity is weakening as I advance onward into middle age.

Melancholia would turn out to be the most veracious form of VTV replenishment short of murder and mayhem. Von Trier finds doomsday so nice, that he must show it twice, as the cataclysmic climax of the story bookends the film. At the outset, we see the Earth's demise from the perspective of space. Melancholia, a perfidious planet of our own solar system that has poor little earth out-massed by a good 10 to 1, collides with and pulverizes our little blue marble into so much space dust. 6 billion souls silently scream into the void, or maybe just whimper. Von Trier, film's supreme nihilist, will have no mercy for the lost, and we are all lost. The end brings neither catharsis nor horror, but a benign shrug. For all the sturm und drang of the Wagnerian soundtrack, the rumbling approach of Melancholia, and the brilliantly colorful stop-action photos of our "protagonists" bracing themselves for the their final breathes, we may as well have witnessed a man scraping gum from his shoe. Von Trier's tone is all "Good riddance, humans. Yawn."

When the end of the film rolls around, we again see the the world's last gasp, but this time from the perspective of a gleaming verdant forest inhabited by the three main characters:  Gainsbourg as Claire, Dunst as her sister Justine, and Cameron Spurr as Leo, Claire's little boy who looks to be about six years old; who huddle for protection from the apocalypse in a "magic cave" built of spindly tree limbs. Though we don't see the results as fire engulfs the scene and the film fades to its end credits, it is pretty much obvious that the magic cave wasn't all that magic. The latter view of the end is a tad warmer- at least in regards to physical temperature. The psychic temperature? Still somewhere around absolute zero.

How Gainsbourg's Claire puts up with Dunst's Justine's bitter pill of a character is a tribute to the fidelity of sisterhood for Justine is not only resigned to the fact that the world is going to end, but seems glad that the odious species known as the human race will finally meet its demise. Claire is treacly and sentimental. When she asks Justine to join her on the terrace for a glass of wine as the world gets creamed, Justine tells her quite flatly that she thinks "the idea is shit," doubtlessly channeling her noxious mother played by Charlotte Rampling who appears in the first half of the film not only to demonstrate that Claire and Justine's family is dysfunctional, but that humanity is quite the pernicious piece of shit that deserves its impending fate. Pretty much everyone aside from Leo, Claire, Justine's new hubby Michael, and Justine about half the time, aren't worth a dog turd on hot shingle, their capacity for empathy being so far gone as to be  off the planet by now.

It is all too obvious from these characters that there is more than a bit of psychoanalytic projecting going on. When Justine, trying to justify the cleansing aspects of Melancholia's descent to the tender hearted Claire, says that the world is evil, I just wanted to scream, "No! The world isn't evil! You are!" Indeed, I should have my own look in the mirror. Hence the projecting within the film and without. The audience's dark aspects are well cared for in the milieu of John's (Keifer Sutherland), Claire's husband, fancy estate that features a small castle and, as he likes to constantly remind people, an 18 hole golf course. To say that pretty much every character in this film is someone you want to punch in the nose would be an understatement. Even Udo Kier's wedding planner is a shit who finds the event more his than that of Justine, the actual bride. At the reception to which Justine and Michael arrive some two hours late, Kier covers his eyes every time he and Justine cross paths. "She ruined my wedding. I will not look at her," he keeps reminding the reception's attendees in a condescending Northern European mumble.  I think punching would be too kind for the director, but of course, that is exactly the sort of rise the film is going for. Like the best of Hitchcock, everyone is guilty, including the audience. But at least Hitchcock gave his characters and the audience a fighting chance.

Despite the ongoing cruelty heaped upon her older sister, not to mention what she does to her beloved horse, Abraham, as well as everyone else within her grasp, there is something all too human in Dunst's lapse into melancholia as Melancholia approaches. It is a sort of mourning for humanity's lost humanity, an indication that Justine is not completely beyond redemption. To Justine, the human race is already dead. Melancholia is merely sweeping away the remains. Justine, after all, works in the field of Public Relations, and is apparently quite good at it, and daily sees the vain, manipulative side of people and, most of all, herself. The depiction of PR professionals in the film is one so callous that those of us who are not in such a line of work must hope that it is only an over the top portrayal. Justine's boss, who was also the best man at the wedding of Justine and Michael,  actually hires an underling, his nephew, Tim (Brady Corbett), to follow her around on her wedding night in hope that she will magically divulge the hallowed tagline for an important ad campaign their PR firm desperately needs to finish. He even publicly announces such intentions during his toast as the best man. Oddly enough, and encouragingly enough, Dunst, after leaving her new husband in an aroused, yet unfulfilled state in the wedding suite, proceeds to force herself upon the Tim, in one of the oddest sex scenes in cinematic history, on one of the greens of John's much ballyhooed golf course, wedding dress and all. It is a desperate and depraved act, but one that is all too human, no matter how ugly it may be. It is Von Trier giving us a glimpse of those distant moments we'll miss about humanity, that grappling to feel alive. Dare I say it is a glimpse into the director's own humanity? Let's not get carried away.

Aside from her interactions with little Leo, this is the most human we see Justine. Of course, I must admit, I did want to stand and cheer when she tells off her boss during the wedding reception, calling him a small, power-hungry little man. The boss then storms off, as does the groom and his family, and Justine manages to get married and destroy the marriage in a single night, thus fulfilling her mother's prophetic wedding reception toast, "Enjoy it while it lasts," which, if you've seen the trailer for Melancholia, has a double meaning: neither the marriage nor the world have much time left in Von Trier's bitter tale.

Maybe this is how Von Trier sees the human race: a bunch of petty little bipeds trying to make the end - the end of civilization as we know it or whatever, as pleasant as possible as we do everything we can to transcend our numb little lives and actually feel alive. Even if we are honest with ourselves, we know we are getting what we deserve and should face the full brunt of the end's force without the slightest hint of ameloriation. The characters, as well as the audience, should get no slack. As stated beforehand, like  Hitchcock, Von Trier makes the audience complicit in all the evil-doing. Only this time we are a planet once and for all putting the evil-doing to an end, wiping the slate clean.

But can we start over when it (civilization) has all been wiped clean, or will we be wiped clean with it?

It makes me wonder about our fascination in ending it all. Rather than a sense of tragedy at the end of Melancholia, there is a sense of relief, a relief that, thanks to my VTV, I had just enough humanity left to feel shitty about it. I fear for us all. That was just a little too much resolution. Von Trier may be the first dramatist to end not just the foibles of his characters, but the whole of humanity. However, though a clever idea, this is hardly the resolution we need. This is hardly real drama. It is an easy way out. The resulting film is not so much a struggle of living, learning, breathing humans, as that of lab rats trapped in a maze. It sees no redemption despite recognizing its possibility. Only perdition is realized- perdition for us all. Of course, would we expect anything less from our rotten Dane? His misanthropic track record remains intact. Now that a man who obviously despises the human race has destroyed it in his own hermetic way, how will he top it? The misanthrope in me is curious. The human in me is screaming, "No mas!" The optimist is hopeful that he'll put the misanthropy aside and use his talents to bring humanity up rather than down as he as been doing for far too long. If he continues on his present path, may we all find a vaccine for the virus before it is too late.

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