Dead Man

Dead Man (1995)

Dir. Jim Jarmusch

Written by: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henrikson

 

I’m excited to finally write about another Western for this project, as the Western genre is one of my favorite types of film to watch and think about. One of my overarching interests in college was writing about depictions of masculinity in films, and I often found the Western genre to be rich with films that explored examples of classic machismo and also depictions of traditional masculinities in crisis. As a whole, the genre has often stood for Americana, and classical American mythmaking, but individually, Western films can serve as prisms to explore the underlying tapestry that makes up these unifying myths or as powerful critiques on the societies that produced them. My favorite Westerns to think about, like Dead Man or Blazing Saddles, are revisionist Westerns, ones that challenge and critique the accepted myths of Americana and offer up alternative narratives to the settling of the West. I love the films of John Ford and John Wayne, and we’ll get to a few of those, but I more appreciate the later films of the genre that used the existing conventions of the Western to deconstruct the genre and allow some light to seep through the cracks in the linear narrative of conquest and Manifest Destiny that the Western has come to represent. Dead Man doesn’t offer much overt criticism of the Western genre or social commentary, but it does inject mysticism, psychedelia, and some trademark Jim Jarmusch “cool” into the genre.

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The film opens with William Blake (Depp) onboard a train from Cleveland to the frontier town of Machine, where he has been offered a job as an accountant with the Dickinson metal works. Blake is instantly set apart from the rest of the passengers on the train, as they eye him suspiciously from beneath the brims of fur hats, clutching long guns tightly. The film’s surrealism is apparent from the opening scenes, as well, as the train’s Fireman (Crispin Glover) emerges, covered in soot, to engage in a strange conversation with Blake in which he warns the newcomer against going to the frontier. All the while, the passengers are shooting buffalo from the moving train behind the two men. Undeterred, Blake arrives in Machine, and sets off to claim his job, however, when he arrives at the metal works, his job has already been filled and he is driven from the property at gunpoint by Mr. Dickinson himself (Robert Mitchum). Without the job he was promised, and having just buried his parents in Cleveland, Blake finds himself with no money for a return ticket and no prospects, but he shows some kindness to a flower girl, Thel (Mili Avital), who in turn takes him back to her room at the local hotel. Their post-coital bliss is interrupted by the arrival of Thel’s former lover, Charlie (Gabriel Byrne), who tries to shoot Blake, but instead shoots Thel when she throws himself in front of the bullet. Blake, with some difficulty, uses Thel’s gun to shoot Charlie, and then realizes that he has been shot by the bullet that passed through Thel’s chest. Wounded, he jumps out of the window and steals Charlie’s horse, riding off into the desert. When Blake comes to, he meets Nobody (Farmer), a Native American who will act as a spiritual guide for Blake as they continue into the frontier, possibly into the afterlife.

I first became aware of this film in my Sophomore or Junior year of college in a class on Westerns. I don’t believe that we screened the film in its entirety in class, but we watched a handful of clips from it, and I saw enough that I was intrigued and purchased the film on DVD. I knew Jim Jarmusch, as my Wu-Tang obsession had led me to the RZA-soundtracked Ghost Dog in high school, and Broken Flowers had been one of my favorite movies of 2004, but I hadn’t explored much into the director’s filmography beyond these and a couple of other films. Even with this cursory introduction to the director’s style and having seen some clips from the movie, Dead Man was a very weird film to me the first time I watched it. I was used to modern Westerns that called into question ideas of national identity and American exceptionalism, but Dead Man is much more inwardly focused, raising questions of personal identity, life and death, and humanity. Critics, including myself earlier in this post, have called it a psychedelic Western, and it certainly is that, but perhaps it is more accurate to think of Dead Man as an Existentialist Western. It lends itself, with its moody score and monochromatic visual presentation, to the same sorts of reflection as Existentialist philosophy. Its subject matter, a dying man (who may or may not be actually dead already) being guided to the afterlife speak to these same concerns of being and nothingness, and of Man’s place in the spiritual and mystical realms. Dead Man has little time for inquiries into political or social commentary as it sets its goals on a higher level of exploration of the human condition. It was certainly a bit of an adjustment from what I had been expecting of the film at first.

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Of course, after consuming much, if not all, of Jarmusch’s oeuvre, these lofty thematic concerns don’t surprise me at all. His films often strike a balance between a perfect Zen koan and a late night, pot-fueled, dorm room philosophy session. They often provide deep truths about the human experience, but their presentation is a bit hazy and nebulous around the edges. From top to bottom, Dead Man makes for a great cult film. Like most of Jarmusch’s output, the film is just a little bit too strange to fully connect with the mainstream, but it has fared pretty well critically, and it has a fan base among critics and audiences. Its literary allusions, including a running gag in which Nobody believes that Blake is the deceased Romantic poet William Blake, and its philosophical context will satisfy the intellectuals in the audience, while its hazy, mystical presentation and brief moments of gore will satisfy the midnight movie crowd. The film celebrates the history of the Western genre with its casting of Robert Mitchum (in what would be his final role) as Dickinson, while also turning the typical Western narrative on its head. Like many Westerns, Dead Man depicts a great journey, but the nature of this journey is spiritual rather than physical, and it’s being led by Nobody, a Native American rather than a White cowboy. These type of inversions are typical of a revisionist Western, but Jarmusch pushes the genre to its breaking point, by merging the Western journey with a picaresque, peopled by strange, obtuse characters. The intended effect is to keep the audience off balance, unsure of whether Blake is really having these experiences or whether he’s hallucinating them, or if his journey is through some purgatorial space. What appears, initially, to be a stylish modern take on a classic genre turns out instead to be using that classic genre as a landscape upon which to project a rumination on life, death, violence, and human nature.

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These themes are primarily explored through the character of Nobody, played expertly by Gary Farmer, whose job it is to enlighten the dying Blake, whom Nobody often refers to as a “stupid fucking White man.” Nobody’s character walks between two worlds, having been captured by English settlers as a child and toured around museums as an attraction. In this way, Nobody has closely inspected and become educated by White culture, but as a result has been unable to fully assimilate into his own Native culture. Like Blake floating between life and death, Nobody, too, is pulled between two different types of existence. Farmer provides much of the film’s comic relief, though not in the typical Western style, with Native Americans and other marginalized characters serving as the butt of cruel jokes. Nobody is smarter and more cultured than Blake, and the film’s humor often stems from Nobody’s offhanded quips about Blake and White culture. Farmer, a member of the Cayuga Nation, brings authenticity and respect to his role, as does Jarmusch’s treatment of Native American culture in the film. The film employs several Native languages throughout, and it presents Native culture as more enlightened and sophisticated than the brutal, rapacious culture of the White characters. Though he’s capable of great violence, Nobody is full of joy and life, while Blake and the film’s other White characters are morose and associated with death. In fact, Blake becomes a sort of avenging angel over the course of the film. Though he is initially unable to shoot straight, Blake develops lethal potency during his journey with Nobody, who teaches him to let his pistol speak his poetry. Depp’s performance is worthy of praise, as well. He eschews the scenery chewing that will become his trademark later in his career, employing instead a laconic, trancelike performance style. It gives the sense that Blake is some sort of conduit, channeling the energies of the Universe as the mysteries of death are revealed to him in his spiritual journey.

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The rest of the film’s cast is excellent, as well. As is typical of a Jarmusch film, big names pop up in small roles throughout the film. Though this really is Depp’s and Farmer’s movie, several of these cameos are worth mentioning as they simply add to the overall strangeness of the film. Lance Henrikson is a standout as Cole Wilson, the deadliest of three bounty hunters that Dickinson sends to bring Blake in for the murder of Charlie, who happens to be Dickinson’s son. His performance is built around his quiet menace and the rumors that the other bounty hunters whisper about his sadism and depravity. His riding partners, Conway Twill (Michael Wincott) and The Kid (Eugene Byrd), hatch a plot to kill Wilson and split the ransom among themselves, but Wilson is too crafty for them and in a memorable scene, proves the truth in the rumors of his cannibalism. Alfred Molina has a brief but memorable cameo as a bigoted frontier missionary. Blake and Nobody come upon his outpost late in the film and the missionary feigns piety when dealing with Blake, but treats Nobody with disdain and malice. Finally, Iggy Pop and Billy Bob Thornton are fantastic as two thirds of a group of outlaws who plan to rape and kill Blake. Thornton is almost unrecognizable, covered head-to-toe in fur, but his distinctive drawl is hard to mistake, while Iggy Pop is very obviously himself, despite wearing a dress and a bonnet. Their brief scene is an interlude, and not particularly important to the film’s overall plot, but, like many of Blake’s encounters in Dead Man it deepens the sense of alienation and psychedelia that the film traffics in, and it enriches this offbeat world.

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Dead Man is a film that exists wholly within its own space. While it certainly comments on and dialogues with the Western genre, it is not wholly of that genre. The film offers up little in the way of concrete narrative resolution, but instead leaves the audience with a profound sense of mood. The film’s visuals, its idiosyncratic performances, and its spare, improvised, Neil Young score, all enhance the strangeness of the film, and help to build this mood. Viewers looking for a traditional Western action film might be disappointed by Dead Man, although the film does have plenty of action, but anyone who wants to immerse themselves in a cinematic journey would be well advised to check out this somewhat lesser-known movie. It’s often said that a trip is less about the destination than about the journey, and Dead Man is a perfect example of this. While the film ends without much narrative clarity, its presentation of a moody, psychedelic trip is as enjoyable as it is inscrutable.

 

Post-script:

I missed a post last week for the first time during this project. My plan at the outset was to post once a week. The film that I had planned on writing on for my post on the 22nd of October was George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, however when I opened up the case, the disc was missing. Rather than replacing the disc, as I had with Better Off Dead, or advancing my schedule by a week, I decided that my project would be better served by me taking a week off to catch my breath. I have a demanding and time consuming job, and I also devote a good portion of my free time to volunteering and community service, so I needed to take a brief break to get my writing back on schedule and to ensure that I could continue providing the quality of content that I have striven to maintain throughout the life of this blog. I hope to not miss any more posts going forward.

Dave

Dave (1993)

Dir. Ivan Reitman

Written by: Gary Ross

Starring: Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Ving Rhames, Frank Langella

 

Dave is one of the movies in my collection that I have the least amount of personal history with or connection to. I’ve only owned it on Bluray for a few years, having purchased it for a few bucks to get an Amazon order above the purchase threshold for free shipping. I can vaguely remember the movie being released when I was a young kid, seven or eight years old, but I had never seen it until I was an adult. This fish out of water story is definitely an “adult” comedy, with little that would have appealed to me when it was released. It isn’t a landmark film or a masterpiece, but Dave is a better than average studio comedy, the kind of feel-good, family-friendly fare that Ivan Reitman was known for throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Solid comedic performances from a deep, star-studded cast and a somewhat fresh take on a very old narrative trope make for a pleasant viewing experience. Dave doesn’t offer any profound platitudes on the state of American politics, and it isn’t the most memorable viewing experience, but it’s a perfect light comedy to put on in the background of a lazy weekend afternoon.

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Dave takes a classic story trope, the everyman thrust into a position of great power, and modernizes it. The titular Dave is Dave Kovics (Kline), who runs a temp agency in Georgetown and who is the seeming embodiment of human kindness. Dave is well liked and respected by everyone in his community, and is presented as a genuinely kind-hearted and well-meaning person. He also happens to bear a striking resemblance to the President of the United States, Bill Mitchell (also played by Kline). As such, Dave is tapped by the Secret Service to pose as the President’s body double during public events. However, when the President suffers a massive stroke while having sex with a member of his staff, White House Chief of Staff Bob Alexander (Langella) hatches a plan to replace the President with Dave, avoiding the sex scandal, and possibly setting himself up for a run at the presidency. Dave is initially, understandably, overwhelmed by his new position, but he eventually begins to acquit himself to the job. He brings his natural charm and kindness to the seat of power, befriending the First Lady (Weaver) and the head of the Secret Service (Rhames) along the way. While Dave tries to use his power to help people, he is beset by beltway insiders like Alexander, who wish to use this fortuitous situation to depose the neophyte and gain power for themselves.

Though it’s become more and more common, in 1993 the idea of a complete outsider to the political system being placed in the seat of ultimate governmental power must have seemed unusual. There are examples of course: the sitting President at the time of the film’s release, Bill Clinton, and before him Jimmy Carter, both emerged from outside the established Washington scene, but both had also served as state Governors leading up to their runs for the Presidency. Billionaire H. Ross Perot had emerged as an outsider’s voice in early 1990s Presidential politics, but he was widely viewed as a joke candidate, only afforded the legitimacy of a platform due to his extreme wealth, and rarely considered outside of the context of how many votes he could and would syphon from Republican candidates, allowing Clinton to upset incumbent George H.W. Bush in 1992. But of course, we’re talking about a pure fantasy, and, as such, Dave’s outsider politician is cut from a different cloth. He is a true everyman, more reminiscent of the protagonist from a Frank Capra film than any actual Presidential hopeful. He’s imbued with inherent goodness and a sense of patriotism that is devoted to the idealized American values of basic decency, hard work, and kindness. Dave Kovics is portrayed as a good man who is doing good work in the shadows, and positively affecting his community in ways that aren’t recognized by those who influence and enact policy. His politics are populist rather than partisan, and the film is careful to create a political fantasy where actual politics and party affiliations are largely ignored in favor of vaguely humanistic “Good vs Bad” arguments. Dave’s greatest political strength is that he spends the majority of the film steadfastly refusing to engage in actual politics. In this fictional government, Dave is able to balance the budget and save a critical human services program not by reaching across the aisle to fellow politicians, but by inviting his CPA friend, Murray (Charles Grodin), to the White House to crunch the numbers. It’s a quaint vision of a national government being run like a small business, and it’s quite at odds with the reality of American politics some 25 years later.

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Of course the overwhelming optimism that the film presents is largely the product of Kline’s performance as the wide-eyed, grinning Dave. Kline plays two roles in the film, but he really doesn’t have much screen time where he’s portraying actual President Bill Mitchell. Instead, he devotes his energies to fleshing out the character of Dave Kovics, and in a way that role is a dual role in and of itself. Kline subtly adjusts his performance as the film goes on and Dave becomes more comfortable in his role as impostor President. Initially presented as outwardly emotive, expressive, and gregarious, Kline reigns in his energy as the film goes on, and Dave’s impression of the more reserved President Miller gets better and better. Still, though, Dave can’t hide his infectious goodness and sense of wonder, and Kline allows these qualities to shine through his character’s attempts to appear more professional. He keeps a small smile lingering at the corner of Dave’s lips, ready to burst wide open at the first sign of a joke. Typically better known for his comedy, Kline certainly brings a bouncy physicality to his role, and he plays up Dave’s initial discomfort with his new job as President, but he also slots in comfortably as a leading man. By film’s end, he cuts an imposing figure that communicates authority, while still maintaining the soft kindness that had earlier defined the role. I’m not overly familiar with Kline’s body of work as an actor, but in Dave he reminds me of some of Hollywood’s classic leading men. It might just be the Capra-esque qualities of the film, but watching it I was reminded of Gary Cooper.

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The rest of the film’s cast is also very enjoyable to watch. Ving Rhames’s no-nonsense Secret Service agent, Duane, is hilarious as a foil for Kline’s Dave. His deadpan line delivery and massive physical presence are used to great comedic effect as he observes and silently judges the impostor President. Langella’s scheming Chief of Staff and his underling, Alan (Kevin Dunn), are appropriately slimy. Langella is the cast’s elder statesman and his characterization of Bob Alexander is reminiscent of some actual shadowy, older political string pullers who would emerge. Unfortunately, both Charles Grodin and Sigourney Weaver aren’t given a lot of material to work with. Grodin is only in a couple of scenes, but I would have appreciated more of his trademark manic anxiety as a counterbalance to Kline’s more laid back characterization of Dave. Weaver is the film’s second lead, but she’s largely reduced to a love interest for Dave. I don’t expect her to reprise her alpha-female role of Ripley in Alien, but I would hope to see some more of the verbal sparring that she’s been so adept at in her comedy work. She does get a handful of fun scenes that allow her to show some range, but it’s a shame that such a great actress doesn’t get to show off her chops in what could be a potentially meaty role. Laura Linney, Ben Kingsley, and Bonnie Hunt all show up in small roles, and have funny moments, particularly Hunt as a White House tour guide. The film is certainly not an ensemble cast, but a comedy is largely built on the performances and chemistry of its supporting cast, and Dave’s delivers admirably.

With the type of news coverage and media access that the public now has to political figures, I don’t think a movie like Dave could be made today. Its tone of wonder and whimsy definitely seems retro when compared with the modern political landscape. I don’t see very many contemporary studio comedies, so maybe the prevailing cynicism I’ve witnessed in so many people lately hasn’t crossed over into light entertainment, but I still feel that Dave is a relic from another time. It feels warm in a way that the comedies that I have seen over the last decade don’t, lacking their bite and acerbic wit. Dave’s humor is broad but also intelligent, and though it’s a movie clearly pitched towards adults, there’s almost nothing risqué in it that would make it inappropriate for kids. It’s a product of a rapidly dying monoculture. Still though, Dave’s enjoyable two hours. It will never be a go-to for me, but I like having it on my shelf. It’s a great movie to put on when you want to have a few laughs and feel good for an afternoon. Dave probably won’t make you think too hard, but it will certainly make you smile. Sometimes that’s enough.

Dancer in the Dark

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Dir: Lars von Trier

Written by: Lars von Trier

Starring: Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare

 

It isn’t exaggeration to say that Dancer in the Dark is the most impactful film that I’ve ever seen. When I first introduced myself to the movie around 2002, at the age of 16, I hadn’t yet experienced a film that could be so heart breaking, so emotionally overwhelming. I had seen brutal horror films that inspired revulsion and fear, and a handful of films that were dripping with pathos like Roberto Benini’s Life is Beautiful, but nothing that had left me feeling as hollow and tired as that first time I saw Dancer in the Dark. The film is a portrait of human suffering, but it also examines the desire of the human spirit to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds and the desire of a mother to provide a better life for her son. Even though that first viewing was an emotionally devastating experience, the film very quickly became a favorite, and a film that I have returned to over and over again through the years. From Lars von Trier’s unique vision of a musical fairytale, to Bjork’s riveting, one-of-a-kind performance, I was fascinated by the film. Its soaring moments of fantasy and its sobering examinations of cruelty drilled their way into my brain, opening my mind to new possibilities of film style and of filmic representation. I’ve since seen films that more thoroughly or accurately examine emotion through cinematic art, but you never forget your first one, and Dancer in the Dark is a film that I owe a debt of gratitude to for changing my expectations of the cinema.

Dancer in the Dark is the final film in von Trier’s “Golden Heart” trilogy, and it operates as a fairy tale, similarly to Breaking the Waves. Another period piece, this time set in Washington State in the early 1960s, the film follows a similarly naïve protagonist, Selma (Björk), a single mother who emigrated from Czechoslovakia hoping to find better opportunities for herself and her young son, Gene (Vladica Kostic). Selma suffers from a hereditary vision condition, in which her eyesight has worsened to the point of near-blindness, and her only concern is saving up money so that her son can afford an operation that will reduce his chances of succumbing to the same dark fate. Selma’s devotion to her son is such that she is willing to work double shifts in a stamping plant and put together sets of bobby pins that she then sells for extra money, forgoing any creature comforts, simply on the hope that Gene will be able to enjoy a normal life with perfect vision when he grows up. Selma’s only pleasure in life is music and dancing, and she enjoys going to the movie theater to see classic musicals, which her friend, Kathy (Deneuve), must describe to her because her failing vision doesn’t allow her to see the screen. Selma wishes that her life were a musical, and is prone to childish flights of fantasy in which her friends and coworkers join her in elaborate musical numbers, bringing light into her dark existence. Selma’s pitiable fate is worsened when her neighbor and landlord, Bill (Morse), takes advantage of her disability and steals the money that she had been saving for Gene’s operation. Desperate, Selma is forced to go to extreme lengths to try to recover the money, and she pays the ultimate price for her devotion to her son and his future happiness.

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Being bookends of a trilogy, it’s natural that Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark should explore much of the same thematic ground. I’m not particularly interested in comparing the two films or discussing the merits of one versus the other, but watching them close in succession for this project, it’s difficult for me not to think of them together. When I wrote about Breaking the Waves, I wrote that it was a film that, although I admired it, I didn’t watch frequently because of its difficult and depressing subject matter. I have never had that problem with Dancer in the Dark. Though it could be considered a bleaker, more unforgiving, viewing experience than the earlier film, it’s one that I’ve returned to every couple of years, actually searching for the visceral emotionality that the film imparts upon me. I don’t know if it’s Björk’s performance as Selma, full of life and vivacity in the face of extreme hardship, that helps me to connect to this film in a way that I don’t with Breaking the Waves and Emily Watson’s more staid performance. Perhaps it is von Trier providing his take on a classical Hollywood musical through Selma’s fantasies that helps to break through the heaviness of the film, giving us glimpses of light throughout, while Breaking the Waves has the structure of a descent into Hell. Maybe it’s simply the fact that Breaking the Waves arrived on my radar much later in life, whereas Dancer in the Dark was a seminal film for me, and one that I discovered shortly after its initial release, allowing me to approach it in a much fresher context. Whatever the reason may be, I’ve clung to Dancer in the Dark for some 15 years, re-viewing it when I want to be broken down by art, when I want to feel deeply and painfully, when I want to be reminded that even though the world is a savage and cruel place, the love that we choose to hold inside of us is only extinguishable if we allow it to be so. It’s one of my favorite films ever made and a testament to the power of the cinema as an art form uniquely capable of depicting and inducing profound emotional and psychic experiences.

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That being said, Dancer in the Dark is not a film for everyone. I have showed the film to friends over the years, and often I’ve been met with the same response: “Why would anyone want to watch something so unrelentingly depressing?” It’s a criticism that I can only partly understand, because I don’t really feel that Dancer in the Dark is a depressing film. It’s a heavy film. It’s packed with moments of genuine trauma, and it doesn’t shy away from depicting human suffering and cruelty of a heartbreaking magnitude, the whole time inviting the viewer to engage with it on a similarly heightened emotional level. It asks its viewers to cry and feel along with the characters, using techniques of suspense, pathos, and spectacle to produce immense waves of feeling, and I understand that that can be a difficult experience for some. Many people would rather see films that help to distract them from the pressures or troubles of their day-to-day lives, and I like to enjoy light entertainment, as well, but more frequently, I would like to engage with art that challenges me and helps me to explore facets of myself that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to engage. Art can and should be a means towards self-reflection and it should also help to build empathy. I have written often about using films as a window into life experiences and cultures that I don’t have firsthand knowledge of and I think that the same can be said for emotional experiences. While it might be difficult to watch a two hour film in which the protagonist is conned, robbed, commits a murder, and is, ultimately, executed, all while rapidly and tragically losing her eyesight, I find it to be a valuable experience as it helps me to learn about and engage with that suffering, ultimately becoming a more empathetic person. Watching the film is a traumatic experience, but I feel that having vicariously lived through Selma’s suffering, I come out of the experience as a better person.

Of course, empathy is only generated if the art is true and if the artists involved are pouring a great deal of themselves into the project. If this weren’t the case for Dancer in the Dark, it truly would be a depressing slog, akin to exploitative emotional pornography, however, largely due to Björk’s powerhouse performance as Selma, the film rings true and proves emotionally relatable. I can’t imagine anyone else but Björk in this role. I know that she is a divisive persona, and that her music and public image are often hard for people to digest, but I am an unabashed fan of her work and I wish that she would do more acting because her work in Dancer in the Dark, while unconventional, is devastatingly raw and true. von Trier takes advantage of Björk’s idiosyncratic voice and performative style in the film’s musical scenes, but he also draws an unforgettable dramatic performance out of her. As a nonprofessional and largely inexperienced actor, Björk’s performance is more defined by intuition than by technical acting chops, but that allows her to fully tap into the range of emotion that she has to portray as Selma. There is no critical distance between the actor and the role, and it’s clear that Björk is pouring every bit of her emotional self into the work. It’s obvious that she is fully invested in the performance, and, in fact, she found the experience of working on the film to be so traumatic that she has largely sworn off acting since. This is truly a shame, because the range that Björk shows in Dancer in the Dark hints at a natural aptitude for this type of performance, with her obviously shining in the film’s uplifting and uproarious song and dance numbers, but also nailing scenes of intensely personal emotional distress when von Trier chooses to strip away the film’s artifice and present us with a glimpse at a character truly in crisis. Björk is equally dynamic when portraying Selma’s quiet determination and her histrionic emotional responses, whether they be of fear, joy, or sadness.

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The rest of the film’s cast is admirable as well. Their relationships to and with Björk’s Selma help to further audience identification and further heighten the sense of emotional empathy that the film strives for. Deneuve is a natural foil to Björk, providing a stability that is critical for both Selma and for the audience. Her Kathy is matronly, strong, and determined to protect her friend at any cost. In many ways, Kathy acts as an audience surrogate, informing the way that the viewer should react to Selma’s idiosyncrasies. She recognizes and celebrates the inherent goodness in Selma, looking beyond the unusual persona that she projects onto the world, and encouraging the audience to empathize with her, as well. Peter Stormare’s Jeff is another fount of empathy towards Selma, though his romantic desires for her largely go unrequited. Jeff is stoic and dedicated, showing up to pick Selma up from work at the factory each day, despite her repeated refusals of his offers for companionship. Though Selma is never cruel to him, it’s hard not to feel badly for Jeff, as Stormare’s typical hangdog performance style grants the character a great deal of pathos. Because he and Kathy so openly show a great deal of love and care for the unusual and sometimes inscrutable Selma, the audience’s bond with all of the characters is heightened. The film creates a web of emotional relations between these characters that feels real. It isn’t falsified, romanticized, or cheapened.

Dancer in the Dark is also the film that awakened my interest in the films of Lars von Trier. I wrote briefly about my relationship to the filmmaker when I was writing about Breaking the Waves, but I don’t feel that I really did justice to the way I feel about him as an artist. von Trier is frequently referred to as an “enfant terrible,” but I don’t think that this moniker really does his work, or his persona, justice. The director often makes headlines for his films’ perceived sadism and misogyny, or for his frequent controversial statements or gaffes in interviews, but I think that often these claims overshadow the true provocation that he provides through his art. I take the accusations of misogyny by his leading women very seriously, including by Björk shortly after filming Dancer in the Dark, however, more often than not, his actresses are the first to defend the filmmaker’s passion and vision, and even Björk has since walked back her stance. The superficial controversies in which von Trier often finds himself embroiled only serve to obscure the fact that though his art is challenging and controversial, he is one of the few filmmakers who seems interested in deeply and meaningfully exploring mental health, sexual power dynamics, and female identity through his films. Whether it is his place as a man to devote his work to these themes is a valid question, but I do think that his films are true, at least to the extent that I can personally relate to them. It’s important to remember that von Trier does not depict only female suffering, even in the “Golden Heart” trilogy. In Dancer in the Dark, Selma’s rich interior world, devoted friends, and boundless love for her son all serve as reminders that her existence is not just one of suffering. In fact, Selma’s death is even more heartbreaking because she is a fully formed character whose demise is snuffing out a vast world of potential beauty and love. von Trier’s treatment of his female characters may be somewhat problematic, but I do think that his representations are almost always respectful, and I truly believe that he feels with and for his protagonists, being far from the sadist he’s sometimes portrayed as.

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I had a conversation recently with a coworker about movies in which the topic of favorite films came up. This is always an impossible question for me to answer. I have a stock answer, which we’ll eventually get to in this project, but really picking a favorite film, for me, would be like picking a favorite child. Instead, I gave him a list of a handful of films that I would be really interested in screening and giving a lecture on. I didn’t mention Dancer in the Dark, but it was in the back of my mind. Aside from Au Hasard Balthazar, it would be my obvious choice for a class or lecture on film and emotion. The films are radically different, although there is a bit of Bresson’s minimalist tradition in von Trier’s modified Dogme aesthetic. I’d likely have to give the nod to Balthazar if I were choosing, simply because of Bresson’s ability to muster the heights of human empathy in a film about an animal, but Dancer in the Dark remains the most emotionally moving film I’ve ever seen. Even after 15 years and more than a dozen screenings, it’s shockingly frank final scene never fails to leave me utterly devastated. I think that Björk’s performance as Selma should be remembered as one of the most unique and emotionally affective performances by an actor ever put to screen. It’s my favorite musical, and despite its imperfect fit alongside the other great films of the genre, it deserves a mention whenever classic musicals are brought up. It’s a film that I know not everyone will enjoy or appreciate, but I do think that it’s an indispensable film that anyone who wishes to educate themselves in the cinema must see at least once.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Dir. Ang Lee

Written by: Wang Hui-Ling, James Schamus, Tsai Kuo Jung (from the novel by Wang Dulu)

Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi

 

Ang Lee’s wuxia epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a film that I feel should be more foundational in my early film-watching history, but upon some reflection, I’m realizing that I don’t have nearly as intimate a connection to it as I do to some other martial arts films that I was getting into around the same time. Released in 2000, when I was just entering high school, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came into my life as I was just starting to discover classic martial arts cinema. I believe that I saw the film for the first time at the West Virginia International Film Festival in 2001, after its initial release to universal acclaim and subsequent nomination for 10 Academy Awards. I remember being impressed by the fight choreography and, obviously, the film’s incredible visual beauty, but it lacked the viscerality of the Bruce Lee films that I was starting to watch. At the time, the film’s deliberate pacing and intricate plot weren’t what I was looking for in a martial arts movie, and I’m pretty sure I even dozed off for sections of the film on that initial viewing. Of course, at the time I didn’t have the cultural or filmic context to understand the differences between the wuxia genre in which Ang Lee was working and the more straightforward kung-fu action films that I preferred. Eventually, I’d come around on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon after expanding my knowledge and experience with martial arts films, but I think that my preference has always led me to gravitate more towards the classic style of the 1970s kung-fu action films. However, for wuxia, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is probably the gold standard.

The film is set in a fictionalized historical China, during the period of the Qing Dynasty. At the film’s opening, retired Wudang master swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow) has asked his friend, bodyguard Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh), to deliver his sword, the Green Destiny, to their friend Sir Te (Shihung Lung), as a token of his service to Sir Te. Shu Lien’s visit to Sir Te coincides with the arrival of the provincial Governor, whose daughter, Jen Yu (Zhang), is betrothed to be married. Shortly after Jen’s arrival, Green Destiny is stolen, and Shu Lien tracks the thief to Governor Yu’s compound, which leads she and Mu Bai to discover that Jade Fox, a female warrior who murdered Mu Bai’s Wudang master, has been posing as Jen’s governess and training her in the teachings of Wudang martial arts. Though Shu Lien and Mu Bai attempt to stop Jade Fox and Jen, with the help of local police and Sir Te’s private security detail, the thieves are able to escape, and Jen leaves the city with Green Destiny, posing as a man and challenging townsfolk to duels. Shu Lien and Mu Bai pursue Jen, hoping to regain the Green Destiny, avenge Mu Bai’s master’s murder, and also to prevent Jen from going down a path of destruction. The film’s final duels between Shu Lien and Jen, Mu Bai and Jen, and Mu Bai and Jade Fox are thrilling and beautifully shot, with its denouement providing both satisfying narrative closure and a few genuinely touching emotional moments.

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My plot summary doesn’t do justice to just how well written and densely-plotted Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is. It’s mostly remembered for its breathtaking visuals and wire-assisted fight choreography, but the film’s script contains deep symbolism, nods to classical Chinese legends and proverbs, and two believable, naturalistic love stories. I think that on my initial viewing as a teen, I had trouble reconciling the film as a martial arts movie with the film as a fully realized motion picture. My experience with martial arts movies to that point was largely limited to seeing the “beat ‘em ups” of Jean-Claude van Damme or Steven Seagal on Saturday afternoon television. I didn’t have a concept of a martial arts film that could go beyond the basic “good guys beating up bad guys” tropes that I was familiar with, let alone one that had the narrative scope of a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As I’ve written before about other movies, I just wasn’t ready for this one on my initial viewing. However, I did enjoy the film’s fight scenes and I filed it away as a movie to revisit, which I would often as I continued to indulge my interest in Asian cinema throughout my teenage years.

Watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as an adult, I’m struck mostly by the very things that I was turned off by on my initial viewing. The fight choreography as still incredible, especially when compared to the slate of early millennium wuxia offerings that were inspired by this film, but what I was able to appreciate more on this rewatch were the film’s deep emotional themes and the extraordinary, nuanced performances from its principal cast. At the heart of the film are its twin love stories, that of Jen and Lo (Chang Chen) and of Shu Lien and Mu Bai. Jen and Lo are youthful and headstrong, with Jen running away from her arranged marriage to be with the man she truly loves. Shown mostly in flashback, their relationship is innocent and playful, with Zhang playing Jen as coyly enigmatic, both pursuing Lo and allowing herself to be pursued. Though she’s always had the upper hand in the relationship, she depends on Lo’s devotion to make her whole. This power dynamic is revealed subtly in the film through small gestures and glances, with Zhang allowing for small slivers of vulnerability to break through her performance when she shares scenes with Chang. Similarly, Chow and Yeoh portray the complicated, frustrated relationship between Mu Bai and Shu Lien beautifully. Though he doesn’t openly admit his love for her until his dying moments, Mu Bai’s affections for Shu Lien are expressed through the soft way that Chow looks at Yeoh and the gentle way that they interact in their private moments. Both characters are warriors who are honor bound, and they know that to give in to their love could potentially put both of them at risk, but they can’t truly hide the feelings that they share for one another deeply. Their history is only hinted at in the film, but Chow’s and Yeoh’s performances make it clear that they have a long and deep connection. These subtle performances ring true, emotionally, and help to elevate Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon above standard genre fare. Ang Lee is well known for culling heart wrenching performances from his leads, and he certainly does that in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

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Of course, the true calling card of any martial arts film is its combat, and, as I’ve alluded to, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon doesn’t disappoint in that regard. The fight scenes were choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, a legendary Hong Kong film director with credits that rank among the classics of the kung-fu genre, but who was perhaps best known to American audiences at the time for having choreographed the fight scenes in 1999’s The Matrix. Aided by the use of wires, Yuen and Lee, craft some memorably exciting and beautiful fight sequences, featuring both hand-to-hand and weapons combat. Although he had been a huge action star for some time in China, this was Chow’s first actual martial arts role, and he acquits himself admirably to the genre. His Mu Bai is graceful and powerful, appearing capable of dealing great damage with relative ease. All of the actors performed most of their own stunts, with Yeoh suffering a torn ACL during filming. The dedication of the cast to faithfully and accurately performing their movements must have made for a grueling and difficult shoot, but the end result is an exhilarating blend of combat, dance, and sheer visual splendor, provided by Lee’s shot choices and fantastical settings. No one who has seen the film can forget Mu Bai’s pursuit of Jen through the bamboo forest, as they lithely leap from tree to tree, stopping only to exchange a few quick parries before making their next graceful bound. Though it may stray from the kung-fu film traditions that I am a bigger fan of, there’s no denying that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a martial arts classic.

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I’m not really sure why I haven’t revisited Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in such a long time. Before watching it for this project, I probably hadn’t seen the film in its entirety in a decade, although it is a film that I had grown to enjoy quite a bit after the mixed reaction I had it initially. In general, I don’t watch the martial arts films in my collection nearly as much as I used to, with Enter the Dragon being the only martial arts DVD that I own that I have watched within the last two or three years. I haven’t lost my fondness for the genre, and when I get into the mood I like to seek out modern kung-fu movies on Netflix, but as my tastes have evolved and grown, martial arts films have become something of an afterthought. I don’t know that I’ll return to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon any time soon, but I am very glad to have taken the time to rewatch it. It’s a film that can be enjoyed by a wide audience, as evidenced by its near-universal appeal, and it really has something for everyone. Lee’s careful treatment of the film’s emotional love stories, breakthrough performances from its principal cast, and incredibly memorable combat and visuals are all contained herein, and add up to a uniquely rich film viewing experience.