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January 1997, Week 3


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
"Edward R. O'Neill" <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 19 Jan 1997 18:34:30 -0800
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
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        I would like to write a more thoughtful response to the fans of BTW
on this list, but I haven't the time.  Instead, I'll mention all too briefly
how I responded to the film.  Sadly, this involves questions of aesthetic
evaluation and taste which are not the subject of much contemporary
reflections on film.
        I found the movie horrifying.  Yes, I found the whip pans nearly
nauseating at a purely physical level, but what's most shocking is the
absolute banality of Von Trier's thinking.  The script could have been
written forty years ago, and the lead actress gives us more pop-eyed
grinning and mugging than any actress since Jennifer Jones.  The whole thing
is without the slightest novelty or interest, on the level of the scenario.
        As in the kind of folk tale Propp analyzed, Bess is given a warning
(not to ask for too much or to let her love run away from her, not to be
selfish), she violates the warning (by her Prayer for Jan's return), and is
punished for it (by Jan's accident).  She then goes through a series of
three tests in which she will prove her love.
        True, no one gives her a magic carpet or sword, but otherwise the
structure is quite familiar to anyone who goes to current Hollywood films,
as this structure is the one suggested in every elementary book on how to
write a screenplay.
        We even get the doctor and nurse standing up and speaking for Reason
against Bess's advocacy of Faith.  (Again, I cannot underscore enough the
unspeakable banlity of the way this opposition is presented.  Everything in
the film is flat flat flat, especially the churchgoers all dressed in black.
The dialogue is similar.  If you imagine any of the lines in your head, you
can hear how stupid they are.  What's Bess's talent, the doctor asks.  "I
        Von Trier's novelty is to have combined Cassavetes' camerwork with
disjunctive editing and a painterly visual sense borrowed from Antonioni.
The images are certainly impressive in their austerity, although in the
images which punctuate the film and act as chapter titles--in case anyone is
really so slow that they can't follow the plot, Von Trier spells it out for
you--we get a kind of treacly picture-postcard watercolor effect, which is
as tasteless as the rest of the film is austere.
        Actually, although I quoted Rafferty as saying the film uses
theology as a coverup for sex, I don't find the film in the least bit
arousing (except for Udo Keir, who still looks great), and I don't think
this is exactly right.  This, in fact, is a problem.  The sex is a minor
concern, since the film's goal is to make Bess suffer for her wish (as in
"Careful what you wish for, you might get it.").
        But if Bess is ordered to have sex for her husband's sake, why is it
all so painful?  Isn't she suppoed to be loving him?  (Or is it Him?)  For
me, the film would at least alleviate its own tedious laboriousness if the
sex had some degree of detail, nuance or meaning.  It would be a different
film if Bess were satisfying *herself* in some way.  But no!  She's all
noble suffering, even dying for her husband's sake.  (It would be a great
Tarts with Hearts of Gold in Lauded but Horrific Art Films:  BTW and Leaving
Las Vegas.)
        Von Trier not only forces Bess to debase herself, but he won't let
her (or us) have any fun along the way.  (He's really not so different from
the grumpy old men in black, about whom he's basically saying, "Damn you to
        As for the two final 'miracles,' again I think Von Trier's vulgarity
wins out.  (To my mind he's a great visual stylist, and his films are always
concepts, but his conception of plot and character are incredibly flat.)
Again, it would be a different film (and, I think, a better one) if Bess
sacrificed herself but it had not effect.  Or, even if Jan's miraculous
recovery occurs, can't it be coincidence?  No!  Von Trier has to let us know
in no uncertain terms that it's a Miracle.  Not only do we get a second
miracle, but he has to actually show us the way God's holding the bells over
the oil rig.  Couldn't we even use our imagination?  At least he waits for
the last shot for the film's nadir, so we can walk out of the theater
feeling really sick.
        To me Von Trier's "discovery of grace" is an odd excuse for making
yet another bad film.  (Actually, he doesn't need an excuse.  His talent is
for making bad films.  He's that paradoxical creature, a good filmmaker,
maybe even a brilliant one, with no imagination, no wit and no depth, just
as Paul Verhoeven is a great filmmaker with no taste.)
        Again, I must emphasize that these comments are about how I read the
film.  In part, this involves putting the film in the context of mainstream
Hollywood film, from which, as I've said, its narrative doesn't differ
drastrically, as well as in the context of its stylistic appropriations,
which I think are supposed to distract us from the film's shallow meanness.
        But these comments also draw attention to what I see Von Trier
trying to do in the film, and how he tries to do it.  I can't accept that
the film is about religious revelation, or I don't see this as a good means
by which to make a film about that topic.
        For me what Von Trier needs is not a religious revelation but an
artistic one.
Edward R. O'Neill
Los Angeles
At 07:37 AM 1/18/97 -0500, you wrote:
>my thanks to all who have responded so far to my requests for info on
>I believe the film is deliberately playing with kitsch conventions in aid of
>advancing Von Trier's discovery of grace. He's apparently a recent convert to
>Catholicism; one senses in interviews a reasonably wild, tormented past, and
>a current process of settling down. It's not unlikely that Jan is his avatar
>(have not been able to discover info about his Bess, family life, children,
>so forth). This is not so simplistic as it sounds, or so I hope to prove.
>Rafferty had a real skeptical postmodern jones about BTS; I suspect he cannot
>grasp the authenticity of the director's conversion and how this has been
>elaborated; using kitsch as a vehicle to transcend kitsch; much the way the
>conventional pieties of the village which Bess has embraced cannot contain
>the opening out of her deeper religious experience (and eventually Jan's).
>The citations of Dreyer and Fellini are honorrable, meaningful. I thoroughly
>concur with Mike Frank's acute remarks about the un-pornographic register of
>the sexual scenes. We're not looking at DeMille "sermons and tits" here.
>Scoffers would do well to take a second look.
>I gather no one out there had my experience of motion sickness from the combo
>of swish/whip panning and closup?
>Thanks again for your help; the review when it's finished will eventually
>appear in PROJECTIONS, the recently organized journal of the Forum for the
>Psychoanalytic Study of Film. Anybody who doesn't subscribe and wants a MS
>copy, please give me your snail mail address.
>Von Trier's conversion.
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