There is a famous scene in Gladiator where Russell Crowe’s character, Maximus, throws his sword at the pavilion and then yells at the crowd, “are you not entertained?” The arena is dead silent because, no, they are not entertained. Instead of dying slowly, Maximus has broken the rules and has killed everyone else—and quickly—taking from his audience the chance to linger over a spectacle of violence and death.
The power of that moment is not just that he has robbed them of their bloody sport, however, it is also that by flipping the rules around, Maximus has forced the observers ringing the arena (and by extension, us) to ask themselves just what sort of monsters are they, who would take such pleasure in the pain of others. The moment passes, though, and we go on to greater orgies of gore. This is, after all, Hollywood.
There are filmmakers, however, who will not allow us to be entertained—who orchestrate every moment, bringing the full weight of the entire film to bear to make us slow, pause, and then stop, completely, to ask ourselves just that question: what kind of monsters are we? The best of these filmmakers answer, tentatively, that we are beautiful monsters, and that if we will choose the path of love, there is hope for us yet.
One such man is director Lars von Trier, the prolific Danish filmmaker and screenwriter who is hailed within the industry as one of the greatest in the world. Privately, the dude is sort of a mess, the kind of guy who would (and did) break up with his pregnant wife to move in with their much younger babysitter. He says controversial, politically incorrect things in public and has struggled with clinical depression. Yet as an artist, he is a man of whom director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will be Blood, Magnolia, etc.) has said he would “carry [his] luggage anywhere.”
My first encounter with von Trier’s work happened years ago, in Canada, when my ex-wife and I were living for a time with the family of Christopher John, of the successful (but now defunct) Canadian folk-rock band, Stabilo. Christopher owned a copy of von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, but recommended that I wait and watch it some time when I could be with other people. I would need them, he said, when it was over.
Things were not going all that well with my ex at the time, though, and I think I wanted to suffer. So one drizzly British Columbia day, I sat down and proceeded to get pummeled, head-to-toe, by a work of incredible power… a movie that told the story of a woman who sacrificed everything to save her son from her own congenital blindness. When it was over, I sat silent—as I had been told I would—with tears running down my face as the credits rolled all the way through. I sat there for a while after, as well, watching the blank screen and wondering, “Where is that love in my life? Where is the grace? And what kind of man am I, in the light of such a story?”
Last week, after reading the review I wrote of the Swedish film As It Is in Heaven, an actor/director friend of mine in Los Angeles named Chris Crutchfield wrote to ask if I had perchance heard of Lars von Trier’s work. When I told him of my experience with Dancer in the Dark, he recommended that I also watch Breaking the Waves, a film that Martin Scorsese has listed as one of his top ten films of the ’90s. So last night, I did.
It was not particularly entertaining. The actors were brilliant, but it was shot low-fi, hand-held, documentary-style. The primary action was out of focus more than is customary, and the script did not bother to try to follow the rules of classical narrative structure. von Trier is famous for his impressionistic style, and it was out in full force here, making it difficult, at times, to remain interested in the film. Impressionism in film is weird, and distracting.