Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review: "Melancholia" and the Infinite Sadness

"Life is only on Earth. And not for long."

Lars von Trier is not an "in-between" director. You will either end up loving his films, or hating them to death. No one has ever finished a Lars von Trier film and said "Hmm, that was okay." You either say "Wow! That was something special!" or "Holy fucking SHIT, what a piece of SHIT film. If I ever meet that guy on the street, I will punch him the throat and then step on BOTH of his feet."

His previous film, "Anti-Christ", is a perfect example of this. If you haven't seen it, I'll sum it up briefly: It's fucking batshit insane. 

Okay, I guess there's more to it than that. But I won't go too much into that film. All you need to know is one of the very first shots of the film involves an extreme close up of a penis penetrating a vagina in a shower, and one of the last scenes of the film involves an extreme close up of a woman performing genital mutilation on herself. Right now you might be saying "Oh my god, I will never see that movie." 

Fair enough. But don't let that scare you away from "Melancholia", von Trier's latest opus to misery. 

After "Anti-Christ", I was expecting this film to be FAR more crazy and extreme. It wasn't. In fact, by von Trier standards, this movie is actually pretty tame. Well, tame for him at least--since it is about the literal end of the world.

And, as you can probably guess from the title, it is also about depression. 

I myself suffer from depression, and I can honestly say this film contains probably the most accurate portrayals of the infliction I've ever seen. 

Depression is hard to pin-down. If you try to explain it to someone who has--miraculously--never really suffered from it, they don't quite grasp it.

"Well, cheer up!" they might say. "Things aren't THAT bad!"

That's not the kind of depression we're talking about here. This isn't the type of depression you get when you lose your car keys, or your favorite sports team loses, or your burn the meatloaf. This is the type of depression that creeps up on you, slowly, like a thief in the night. It comes from no where. And it can be brought on by nothing. 

There doesn't have to be a trigger; no underlying, horrible even to set you off. One minute you are perfectly fine, and then the next minute, you feel as if the very sky itself is pressing down on the top of your head, and the simple act of moving your body is near impossible.

Von Trier understands this--he suffers from depression himself--and that is why he is so successful at capturing the malady. 

The depression in "Melancholia" presents itself in the character of Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst. I've never been a big fan of Ms. Dunst; she always strikes me as if she's, well, "acting." She always seems in on the fact that she is playing a character, and she seems even smug about it. 

None of that happens here. This is, without a doubt, her finest performance to date. Yes, even better than "Bring it On" and "Small Soldiers"...ahem...

The first half of the film involves Justine's wedding day to Michael, played by Alexander Skarsgard, who I am told is on the show "True Blood", or as I like to call it, "Porn for Women."

The wedding is nothing short of extravagant, being held at a huge mansion that belongs to Justine's sister Claire (the always fantastic Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Jack Bauer himself, Kiefer Sutherland). 

By all accounts, this should be one of the happiest days of Justine's life. And when we first meet her, it really does seem as if she is having a wonderful time; and she really does seem to love Michael.

All that slowly changes. Justine notices a red light high up in the sky before entering the wedding party, and begins to fall apart. Her mother Gaby (played with delicious spitefulness by Charlotte Rampling) is clearly not happy to be there, and gives a mean, devastating toast.  Her father (the seemingly constantly drunk John Hurt) seems oblivious, and apparently has three girlfriends.  Claire tries desperately to keep the wedding running smoothly (along with the wedding planner, played by Udo Kier in a scene-stelling, brief role). 

But Justine is disintegrating before our eyes. She loses all interest in the wedding, and, before the night is over, she loses all interest in her new husband--who leaves with his parents, seemingly ending the marriage just as it began.

This part of the film is all set up. It's introducing us to the characters (most of whom aren't even in the rest of the movie), and it's showing us just what kind of person Justine is. At a casual glance, one could make the assumption that she is just a total bitch. Maybe on some level that is true, but there is more beneath the surface. There is an underlining, uncontrollable sadness that she tries--unsuccessfully--to stave off. 

The second half of the film focuses more on Gainsbourg's Claire, and this is the real meat of the story.

We learn that a planet named Melancholia (who the hell would name a planet that?) has been discovered, and is heading on a possible collision course with Earth. 

Claire is very worried, but her husband John and her son Leo seem thrilled. John assures Claire that Melancholia will NOT hit Earth; it'll fly by, and all will be well.

Along with the danger of the arrival of Melancholia comes the danger of the arrival of Justine, who comes to live with Claire and John. The first few days she's there, she is near catatonic. Her depression has overwhelmed her so much that she can't even get out of bed, and when Claire tries to give her a bath, she collapses on the floor, sobbing.

The closer Melancholia gets, however, the more lively Justine becomes. 

In one particularly eerie scene, Claire catches Justine laying nude in the woods, bathing in the spooky blue light of Melancholia as it approaches.

Immanent doom is all but certain. Justine is positive that Melancholia WILL hit Earth, and she's perfectly fine with that.

Eventually the story whittles the characters down to Justine, Claire and Claire's son Leo, the three of them representing three different viewpoints of impending doom.

Claire represents the fearful viewpoint; Justine represents acceptance; and the boy Leo represents a sort of blind faith that no matter what, everything is going to be okay. The last shot of the film involves these three characters sitting in a circle--Claire sobbing, Justine calm, and Leo with his eyes closed, smiling and feeling secure.

This is not a movie for everyone. As you can tell from the title alone, this isn't the feel-good movie of the year.

But "Melancholia"--like the planet that bares its namesake--is hauntingly beautiful. It's one of von Trier's most accessible works--despite it's slow-pace and doom and gloom subject matter. The performances are beyond stellar. As mentioned before, Dunst does her finest work ever here. Charlotte Gainsbourg is always good, so it's no surprise that she's fantastic as Claire; she is essentially the most "feeling" character in the whole film. Kiefer Sutherland is very good too; it's nice to see him play this kind of role for a change, and prove that he is still a pretty good actor, even when he's not roaming the night with his gang of 80's teen vampires.

You will not leave the theater feeling happy, but you will leave the theater feeling SOMETHING. And for people with depression, feeling something--ANYTHING; good OR bad--is sometimes better than nothing at all.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Coffin

Two days shy of her sixteenth birthday, Mae caught the fever. It had been spreading through Hawthorne County faster than a brush fire, and everyone—especially people like Mae’s family, who were poor farm folk and could not afford the best medicines—was terrified.

Mae, being a bit too headstrong for her own good, had laughed at her Pa’s over-protectiveness.

“I’ll be fine!” she had insisted. But one night the fever walloped her like a horse kick to the head, and she was in such pain that even crying for help sent terrible agony shooting through her body. Her limbs ached and burned, and she was so hot to the touch that you’d near scald yourself if you felt her forehead.

Pa sent for Dr. Crawford, but the doctor lived almost twenty miles away from the farm. Mae was delirious—she insisted she saw shadowy figures in the bedroom, and once she swore she heard her mother singing to her, even though her mother had been dead for almost five years.

Pa wept at Mae’s bedside, and begged her to fight—to not leave him. Mae had tried to smile, to reassure him, but her pain was too intense, and she lost consciousness. Strange fever dreams took hold of her; dreams filled with slithering things from the darkness, and horrible blood-streaked faces with screaming mouths.

Mae awoke with a start, and an overwhelming feeling of confusion took hold of her. She no longer felt sick; in fact she felt better than she had in her whole life—rejuvenated. And while she was positive she had opened her eyes, she saw nothing—total darkness. Even when all the lamps in the house had been blown out, there was always a little light somewhere—from the moonlight shining in. But this was total, impenetrable darkness.

I’ve gone blind! she thought with sickening panic. The fever has made me blind!

She was laying flat on her back, and she quickly tried to sit up, and only banged her head against something solid above her. Mae cried out in pain, clutching her forehead and moaning. Confused, she reached her hands up into the darkness and felt rough, solid wood a few inches above her. Her heart began racing in confusion and fear. She reached down and felt her own clothing, and could tell from the material she was wearing her finest dress—the dress she only wore to church, or on those rare occasion when Pa would take the horse and cart into town.

The realization came screaming through her body: she was in a coffin. She had been buried—alive!

“NO!” Mae screamed, and began pounding on the lid of her coffin. She beat at it with her fists until her hands went numb. “Somebody help! I’m not dead! I’M NOT DEAD!”

She began to cry and hyperventilate. How long could she last like this—buried six feet beneath the earth? Already she could feel the air growing thick, and her lungs were struggling to take it all in.

“PLEASE!” Mae sobbed, kicking at the coffin lid now. “Please, somebody! I’m still alive!”

Mae paused, because she heard a sound, and it was like sweet music to her ears: digging. Someone above was digging into the grave. She was saved! They had realized their mistake, and were rushing to dig her up!

“Yes!” Mae cried with joy. “I’m here! Please, hurry!”

The digging sound increased. She heard the dirt being shifted; heard the sounds getting closer and closer.

Mae closed her eyes, smiling and weeping, relieved that she was going to be rescued from her premature burial. There were scraping sounds at the coffin lid now—the shovel was inches away!

“Oh, thank you, God!” Mae cried. A splintering, cracking sound followed her words—the coffin lid was being broken open. And it was then that her relief began to turn back into panic. No light was flooding into the coffin; neither from moon or sun. If the lid had been broken open, surely some sort of light would be coming in. And the air wasn’t changing either—there was no blast of fresh air; only the stale air scented with wet earth.

Mae tried to say something, and then let out a scream. She felt something crawling on her body. In fact, she felt several things crawling over her. A wisp of matted, dirty hair brushed against the bare skin of her hand, and Mae began to shriek in terror as she realized who her “rescuers” were: rats had found her coffin, and were ready to feast.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Witch Brains: A Romance

The cat was in love with the servant girl.

Of course, he hadn’t always been a cat. He had once been a boy named Edward, on the cusp of 16, full of hope for his life, working in his father’s cobbler shop. Then as misfortune would have it, the boy had come across a witch’s cabin in the deep dark forest, and the Witch had turned him into a sleek black cat. This was bad enough, but to add insult to injury, he could not leave her cabin. The spell held him captive within the crumbling walls.

The Witch was a terrible old crone, with two glass eyes and a mouth full of rusty nails. She had feathers coming out of the back of her head, giant spiders for hands, and what little hair she had on her tiny head was comprised of squirming maggots.

But the Witch also had a servant girl under her spell. The girl was beautiful; fair haired and fair skinned, with eyes that shimmered like reflecting pools. All day and all night she did back-breaking chores for the Witch. And the cat who was once a boy named Edward would sit perched atop a book-shelf made up entirely of femur bones, and watch her—and his heart would swoon.

The girl never spoke; this was part of her enchantment—or so said the tea kettle, who had once been a tax collector named Brutus.

“If only I could get away from here,” Edward sighed.  “And take her with me.”

“It’s hopeless, lad,” said the tea kettle.

“He’s right,” agreed the taxidermy boar’s head that was mounted on the wall. “Best not to think of such things.”

One fall evening, a wagon came cluttering through the woods, and out of the wagon stepped a particularly ridiculous looking man. He stroked his huge beard and demanded an audience with the owner of the cabin.

The Witch came out, her broom in hand, her glass eyes gleaming. Edward slunk along the ground and peeked his head out to watch.

“I am a salesman,” the man said in a bawdy, theatrical voice. “Specializing in potions and tonics. Would you care to see my wares?”

“I would not,” the Witch barked. “Get away from my property, lest I turn you into a field mouse.”

The ridiculous man laughed. “You think too highly of your powers, woman.”

The Witch pointed her broom at the man and spoke words in her own dead, guttural language. A bolt of lightning exploded from the handle of the broom and struck the man dead-center, but the man didn’t flinch. He rolled his eyes.

“You may have your magics, Witch,” he said. “But mine are made of stronger stuff.”

The Witch snorted and spat on the ground, and her glob of black phlegm turned into a hoard of cockroaches that scattered into the brush.

“Be gone with you,” the Witch said, and stomped back into her cabin. She disappeared into a back room, cursing the man.

Edward hopped up onto a windowsill and called to the man. The man approached.

“What can I do for you, talking cat?” the man asked, lighting a humongous pipe. The smoke that rose out of the pipe took on the shape of a crow, and flapped it’s smoky wings and flew away into the autumn wind.

“I’m not really a cat,” Edward said. “I was once a boy; the Witch put a spell on me! Can you help me break it?”

“Sorry, lad,” the ridiculous looking man said. “I’m afraid the only way to break a witch’s enchantment is to kill the witch, and eat her brains.”

Edward stuck out his cat-tongue in disgust.

“It’s the only way, young master,” the man said. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I must be off. I have potions to sell.”

The man climbed onto his wagon, gave the horse reigns and tug, and was gone.

The thought of killing the Witch was not an all together unpleasant thought to Edward—but eating her brains? But in his once-human heart he knew that it would be worth it if it meant breaking his spell--and the spell of the servant girl. They could go away together--far far away from this place. And maybe she could love him.

But there was the problem of how he would kill the Witch. He was only a cat, after all. The most he could do is give her a few scratches and bites before she kicked him across the room.

Then an idea came to him. He crawled down into the basement, where the beautiful servant girl was asleep in her giant cage. Edward called to her, waking her. She looked at him with her beautiful eyes.

“I know you can not speak, but you can listen,” Edward said. “I know a way we can break our enchantments.”  And he told her all the gory details.

The next day, the Witch ordered the beautiful servant girl to go out and chop some wood, for the nights were getting colder. Now was their chance—instead of chopping the wood, the servant girl took the ax and in one fell swoop lopped the witch’s head clean off. It struck the floor and rolled into a wall. The glass eyes in the head shattered into shards, and the witch’s black-colored blood oozed out in a viscous puddle.

“Quickly!” Edward cried. “The brains!”

The servant girl took a cleaver and hacked the top of the witch’s head open, spilling her runny green brains. Edward hopped down from his perch and gagged. The brains smelled awful, but he knew it was the only way. He gobbled up a good portion of them, trying hard not to vomit at their taste—which was a little like moldy bread mixed with whale blubber.

His cat body began to shake and shiver, and in an instant he was returned to his true, human form.

“It worked!” he cried. “You next!”

The servant girl hesitated.

“I know it’s disgusting, but it’s the only way!” Edward said, wiping brain-residue off his lips.

The servant girl picked up a handful of the brains and began to eat them. Edward smiled, eager to have the spell broken so he could finally hear her voice. He imagined it would sound as sweet and pretty as she looked.

The servant girl began to shake. There was a blinding flash of light, which caused Edward to shield his eyes for a moment. When he looked back, he let out an anguished cry. The servant girl had been transformed into a large, gray, filthy rat—its tail cut down to a nub and its mouth foaming.

Which is what she had always been before the Witch enchanted her.