Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lars von Trier, women, and chainsaws

Below is an essay I wrote for an Auteur Theory class on Lars von Trier at UC Berkeley.
It discusses his the various elements that go into creating spectator identification through the brutalization of female characters. Mainly, it focuses on his latest film AntiChrist (2009) and how it is similar as well as departs from his traditional female roles in his other films.

Lars von Tirer, women, and chainsaws

Lars Von Trier has a reputation to have the women in his films imbue a sense of purity, and frailty that creates a sympathetic identification with spectators. Our emotions are set up for the spectator to feel the women’s pain, and in this case grief, as brutal trials and horrific acts are performed against them. However Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character in AntiChrist (2009) complicates his traditional female relationship to spectators as we not only identify with her, but we also watch her slowly descend into a violent psychotic rage confusing our once established identification with her. Trier calls upon spectator emotions of the unique characteristics found in the horror genre by constructing extreme depictions of fear, anxiety, and gratuitous violence. Gainsbourg’s role in AntiChrist is different from the women in his other films because although we think we are being placed to empathize with her victimhood we slowly discover her villain like qualities. The fusion of the horror genre and Trier’s long established motif of melodramatic sympathetic females creates a dilemma in the our relationship to Gainsbourg thus producing extreme visceral responses in spectatorship by the end.

The opening of the film sets a melancholic and eerie tone for the entire movie. Trier begins it with a shotgun blast of emotion to spectators rather than a subtle blow. We see Gainsbourg and Defoe intimately having sex in a striking slowed down 12 frames per second before seeing their helpless infant fall to his death. Rather than gradually developing a feeling of sympathy toward for Gainsbourg, like we saw with Bess in Breaking the Waves (1996) and Selma in Dancer in the Dark (2000) Trier cuts to the chase by forcing us to immediately identify with the couple. Using the premise “there is no greater loss then the loss of a child”, we have no choice but to feel for them. Gainsbourg’s eyes have a look of an orgasmic release as the child slips from the ledge. It is as if Trier wants to confuse audiences with extreme depictions of pleasure and pain. While the baby falls we can’t help but feel terrible before being forced to cut to the couple enjoying their intimacy. As spectators we are helpless in being able to intervene just as the couple seems to be oblivious to the world around them. The juxtaposition is meant to invoke a simultaneous range of emotions in the spectator. He sets up a universal identification with her in a way that you won’t be conflicted to feel anything but utter sorrow and compassion for ‘her’.

Defoe treats her as his own patient, a reoccurring motif from the Europa trilogy, and attempts to help her cope through her pain. Rather than avoiding her pain he suggests that she face it. This is ultimately his downfall. It is incredibly unethical in the medical profession to treat someone close to you because it is difficult to review the subject objectively. For victims of trauma things that are associated with the event can trigger intense emotions and impulsive behavior as a result of shock. This trauma is a method for Trier to incorporate his horror film like aesthetic. Unless someone is knowledgeable about the ethics of therapy one wouldn’t necessarily question Defoes role of helping his wife. Instead, just as my initial reaction was, it seems Trier wanted to have people fooled into thinking he was doing her good by treating her. We are constructed to feel an affinity for him at first. It appears that he has grieved and moved on but as we later find out it is through his therapy that he channels his grief. For her the only thing that seems to be remotely helpful for her anxiety is sex. It now becomes a temporary relief which progressively seems to become more destructive. Gainsbourg comes to resemble the ‘Madonna and the whore’ complex. Women in society are stereotypically given two roles to fill; the Madonna (sexless, selfless and God fearing) or a whore (sexual selfish). To be the Madonna, there is heavy guilt for selfish and sexual impulses at the expense of being virtuous. The Whore role shows the woman feeling oppressed and stigmatized through her impulses. Women are also guilty of participating these gender dynamics and can be their worst oppressors, as I feel ‘hers’ was in AntiChrist. She punishes herself by embracing her ‘evil’ in thinking she is no longer worthy of motherhood. We also struggle with her grief as spectators as it becomes harder to identify with her through her primal aggressive behavior. Through the first half of the film we see a reminiscent mode of melodrama Trier has been accustom to creating in the Goldenheart trilogy before switching to a style more evocative of the horror genre.

As early as Breaking the Waves, he wrote and directed films that showed the frailty of the human condition through women in different film genres. Waves is set up like a melodrama and it is through Bess that we are shown her exceptionally ‘good’ qualities through her utter devotion to her husband and God. Spectators are put in a position to love and empathize with her as life perpetually gets more rigorous. We get a similar female identification in his more documentary style film The Idiots (1998) where we are also made to feel passion for Karen who seems to be the only rational thinker out of the group. By the end our perspective of her is conflicted when we find out her reasons for spassing were a form of escapism because of terrible events from her past. Selma from Dancer In the Dark, is most emblematic for a disruption of spectatorship and a sudden change through chance. Throughout the Goldenheart trilogy it becomes virtually impossible to feel nothing for these women through they’re hardships and the universal emotions he constructs for us to feel. All of these roles through the Goldenheart trilogy show a progressive decline for the women. However the women do not break out of this mode of a pathetic character nor do they unsuspectingly break from it to alter their outcome until Dogeville (2003). Although separate from the trilogy, Dogeville (2003) seems to have the only female character that is similar to Gainsbourg in Antichrist. Grace follows a similar melodramatic mode of a submissive and weak to the point of rape and slavery. However unlike Selma, Karen, and Bess, Grace ultimately gets her revenge on the people who have wronged her to such extremes that we are positioned to feel happy through her brutal vindication. According to Bainbridge’s Authenticity and Artifice all of these films remain similar on the basis of self sacrifice claiming, “each film examines martyrdom implicit in pursuing an ideal of goodness to its extreme”. (pg.136) However what separates Grace from the rest of the trilogy is by the end it is less interested in making spectators feel sad but instead give a sense of retribution for her with an uneasy guilty pleasure for viewers. Gainsbourg is at odds with this idea because it becomes more difficult to place our emotions in her as the film progresses and through her cruelty and delusional behavior.

Women’s roles in horror films often use this model of a succession of terrible acts that lead to a reprisal for them by the end. The idea of the ‘Final Girl’, coined by Carol Clover in Men Women and Chainsaws, embodies this idea saying “Every narrative and cinematic device is deployed to draw us into her perceptions-her pain and humiliation,” and later “her grim satisfaction when she annihilates her assailant.”(pg152) This is clearly reminiscent of Grace, but is not so easily applied to Gainsbourg. Although we are made to reconcile the bad things that have happened to her justifying her actions for ourselves because of the severity of her humiliation and dehumanization, she gradually becomes more psychotic and begins resemble a villain we’d expect to see in a horror film through her rage. It also complicates this idea because she ultimately dies (or sacrificed) and does not killer her ‘assailant’ Defoe. Similarly a growing distrust of her and the director begins to permeate due to rapid directions we seem to follow her in. Clover claims “the gravity of these films lies more in the reaction (the revenge) than the act of (rape).”(pg154) Perhaps Trier wanted to create a reversal, where spectators are meant to identify with ‘her’ revenge through brutally mutilating/castrating her ‘assailants’ genitals (Defoe), and becoming a martyr through her clitoral mutilations and death. Suddenly motifs from the horror genre such as intense dream states, unnerving diegetic/non-diegetic sounds, and a drab atmospheric tone take AntiChrist into uncharted territory.

In Alison Pierses’s article The Impossibility of Vision, she discusses Carl Dreyer’s technique of creating unease claiming, “The film as a whole has a decidedly uncanny and surreal air, where reality and the supernatural collide in a dream-like state.”(pg.167) Trier constructs a similar atmosphere of a struggle between rational and unexplainable. For example in Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) we do not get any explanation for the noises outside that our protagonist hears. For AntiChrist, nature starts to embody this irrational character of its own. Through strange cut aways and suggestive dialogue spectators are led to believe that nature is somehow going jump out and affect the outcome. Creating tension through the irrational and unexplainable is just a couple of the many ways in which horror films tend to generate suspense. There is also use of unexplainable off screen sound that adds to this idea of ‘the fantastic’ and also adds another layer of instilling fear of nature. Just as Gainsbourg feels vulnerable in the woods, we tend to feel vulnerable as viewers due to the irrational and mysterious sounds. At one point she recalls a time before her child’s death where she was deep in study at Eden to be unexpectedly awakened to hear crying. As she looks about through the forest she eventually finds her child in the tool shed playing while a baby continues to moan. This disturbing portrayal of an eerie use of sound creates a sense of distraught and distrust of what we see on screen to what we hear because we cannot match its source.

Although violence in Trier’s films isn’t uncommon, perhaps the most important way he borrows from the horror genre is through combining mutilation, perversity, and brutality. Suddenly the film uses its built up anxieties to change what we thought was originally the outside force of evil in the woods and creates the villain as Gainsbourg. We see her in an erratic and impulsive way knock Defoe onto the ground before fondling him. All our previous emotions invested in her are confronted with the polar opposite emotion of discomfort and distrust through her actions. Her sickness has reached its peak when she buries him alive only to then later show her with a look of regret by her uncontrollable rage. She feels so victimized by the cruel hands of fate and her husband that she sacrifices her thought to be cause of impulses by cutting off her clitoris. Her ridicule and humiliation from all the forces against her enables an even more visceral disturbing response then his other films through repulsive representations of castration.

However by showing the viewer that she recognizes her sickness it leaves a window for one to still feel sympathy for her because this force seems truly uncontrollable. Gainsbourg becomes a martyr for all the terrible events life has invariably thrown at her. Although Defoe appears to be the person who triumphs in the end by putting her out of her misery, it is largely because of him that her grief turned into madness. Regardless of her actions we are still positioned to sympathize with her, which remains consistent through all of Trier’s women. Even after she has been killed her vindication is seen through the unease of Defoe starting his new journey of grief, and the guilt of unwillingly bringing himself to kill. The film as a whole answers the question Trier posed in The Five Obstructions saying, “I have to punish you somehow. How do therapists punish?”. He shows us vivid depictions of violence redolent of the horror film and illustrates her descent from illness to villain while still maintaining previous sentiments spectators had invested prior to her rage. She remains a victim from beginning to end. Just as Gainsbourg went through a wide range of emotions, Trier’s AntiChrist is carefully crafted to have the audience feel them with ‘her’ in an extreme visceral way.

Work Cited Page:

Bainbridge, Caroline. The Cinema of Lars von Trier: Authenticity and Artifice. New York: Wallflower Press 2007.

Clover, Carol. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Pierse, Alison. The Impossibility of Vision: Vampirism, Formlessness and horror in Vampyr. University of Hull: Intellect Ltd, 2008.

Von Trier, Antichrist. Dvd /Criterion Collection interviews. Zentropa Entertainment, 2009.

-Emperor Vampirion

An essay about German Weimar Cinema

Below is an essay I wrote for the History of Silent Film class for UC Berkeley.
It's an essay about anxieties of the German people during the brief Weimar silent film era pre World War 2. Enjoy

Brave New Weimar

Germany’s defeat in World War 1 led the country to go through a series of radical social, political, and economic changes. Much of the male population blamed defeat on non-supporters of the war such as socialists, Jews, women, and homosexuals within the country. A new Weimar government was instituted after the Wilhelm Empire fell which gave more rights to citizens, particularly for women. This coupled with the destabilization of long standing social structures and hierarchies instilled fear in many men and posed threats to masculinity. The short-lived silent film era in Weimar Germany encapsulates these anxieties through underlying ideas and themes. F.W. Murnau depicted vivid portrayals of these worries through different characters and aesthetic techniques. Nosferatu: Symphony of Horror(1922) and The Last Laugh(1924) both addressed a displacement of gender roles in society as threats for modernity in different ways.

Nosferatu has an emphasis on threats to masculinity seen through the relationship of Hutter and his wife Ellen. The film opens with Hutter looking into a mirror grooming himself. This identifies his concern about appearance and symbolically suggests a larger concern for the film as it relates to his status to women and within the community. It then cuts back to a medium shot depicting him as dwarflike and through his flamboyance portrays his role as a man yearning for something he lacks. The mirror also sets a stage for how little Hutter actually sees in the film in relation to his wife. It then cuts to a medium shot of Ellen playing with a kitten in a windowsill. Instead of a dove seen in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation (1915) to connote an idea of feminine childlike innocence, Murnau uses a kitten as a form of ‘expressive plastic material’ to shape ideas in the spectators mind. The mise’ en scene with pouring light shining down on her face is set up to depict her as angelic embodying all things feminine through her appearance and actions. However the peculiar portrayal of Hutter’s non-traditional male figure compared to Ellen’s stereotypical female qualities sets up a contrast and dilemma immediately between male and female relationships as it relates to Weimar. We then see Hutter showing his dedication to Ellen by giving her flowers and a kiss on the cheek. She accepts but then has an odd look of dissatisfaction. Her portrayal shows a desire in a new kind of masculine figure that could perhaps be linked as a result anxieties in Weimar to the newly appointed status toward women. Richard M. McCormick explains this transformation in Gender and Sexuality in Weimar Modernity claiming, “it [Weimar constitution] also offered German women the promise of complete legal equality for the first time in history”(pg.16) Hutter’s over attentive affection toward her could then be seen as a reaction to compensate for his discontent with equality to firmly re-establish his dominance. He also can be seen as the male searching for his identity and longing for maturity despite leaving his community and wife behind. His excited reaction to leaving for the Carpathians we can approach differently as not simply parting with Ellen but rather a man leaving his once established power to find himself while at the same time unknowingly empowering women with his lack of presence. Through their relationship we can see Hutter’s fear of the once submissive female reversing roles in society to the point where he himself becomes feminized to signify this change. In Sabina Hake’s Who Gets the Last Laugh, she discusses the idea of the feminized man as liberating for women claiming it, “ offered a point of identification for a female audience searching for figures on which to project their own desire for freedom from patriarchal domination”(pg124).

Count Orlock is not just the antagonist of the film but is used as a way to a resemble a conspiracy-like fear of the foreigner and through Ellen’s desire in him to simultaneously represent women’s impulsive sexual desire to aid and welcome the enemy. This shows men’s fear of the dangers of giving women power. She becomes infatuated with Orlock becoming an extreme symbol for women’s lack of values. Richard W. McCormick’s Gender and Sexuality in Weimar Modernity claims, “the city can only be saved by a ‘pure woman’ who will keep Nosferatu at her side until the light of dawn destroys him,”(pg.27). Although it would appear this ‘pure woman’ idea liberates the town from evil through her sacrifice, it also suggests punishment because of her adulteress desire in Orlock. We can then see her as representative of all women as villainous and like most antagonists must be punished, even if it means death. Although clearly being in a trance by Orlock’s spell, her lust exemplifies a fear of women’s inclination to leave their men as a result of this empowering new set of laws set in place by Weimar.

Ellen’s character shows that Orlock represents what Hutter lacks. The vampire’s gargantuan proportions, monstrous features, and dominant demeanor not only separate him vastly from Hutter’s submissive and oblivious nature but also distinguish him as radically ‘different’. His strongly stereotypical anti-semetic appearances and uneasiness shows him as someone who can only viewed as evil. Punishment plays a role in Nosferatu to suggest a struggle of reconciling anxieties about the foreigner and gender roles. For Example, toward the end of the film we see Orlock telepathically control Ellen’s mind forcing her to stare at him through a window. Before she goes to the window she looks at a picture of Hutter. The reaction on her face shows a look of guilt. Despite this she pursues him out of desire. By making it clear to spectators of her acknowledgement of disregard to Hutter it implies women’s uncontrollable urge for devious sexual behavior. Her sexuality can then be deemed as detrimental to the town as well as ultimately destructive to Germany. It then cuts to a long shot of Orlock in a far away window with a death like stare as if dominating and raping as a form of punishment on Ellen. For Murnau sexuality establishes women’s true self as evil. Orlock also represents desire that cannot be concealed through Ellen’s impulses even with his vastly ‘different’ foreignness. Her emotions and curiosity are characteristic of patriarchal norms when depicting female sexuality and are stereotypically played out to make her pay for her actions. As Robin Wood suggests in Burying the Undead, Ellen becomes ”the antagonist and the destroyer”(pg.177). Orlock’s cravings soon change into a search for identity through his lust for Ellen. His only option to relieve himself from torment is to colonize the system. Murnau suggests that the foreigner is more easily able to overthrow German modernity due to women’s unfit ability to handle becoming a stronger woman.

We can also see Murnau depicting threats to masculinity in a different way by emphasizing concern on social mobility in the Last Laugh. Unlike Nosferatu, which used a woman as a device to show insecurities about masculinity, Murnau uses the protagonists uniform to signify these fears. The original German title of the film Der Letze Mann translates to the “the last man”. This clearly shows Murnau wanted to address ideas concerning men’s role in Weimar and through the porter’s alienation he depicts this as symbolic as the last good man in the Wilhelmine Empire in a rapidly changing society. Unlike Hutter, Janning’s has a large body, burly facial hair, and a military like uniform signifying a strong hard working German man. His uniform indicates his status within society, his identity, and his obsession.

Unlike D.W. Griffith who relied heavily on using inter titles to explain the unfolding story, The Last Laugh uses almost entirely images to tell its tale. This allows one to imbue a more personal relationship to the character letting Emil Janning’s expressive acting tell the story. Jannings portrays a doorman, who is prideful of his position and his work. One day the manager passes by, misunderstands what he sees, and decides that the doorman is too old. Later a new doorman appears, and the porter is then reduced to working in the bathroom. The new doorman, who looks much more like Hutter in physique, could be seen as a castrator of the older generation. He is emblematic of the complete disrespect to the old ways of Germany by not only taking his job but also stripping the him of wealth, class, and dignity.

His major loss of identity is revealed when the porter has to give up his beloved jacket. Janning’s unwillingly struggles to let the younger man have it. A medium framed shot encapsulates Janning’s unwillingness to succumb to his demotion as we see him hunched over with glassy eyes as if on the verge of crying. It resembles turning himself over to the enemy, and is through purely imagery depicts uncertainty for his future. Sabina Hake explains these anxieties in Who Gets the Last Laugh claiming, “the porter personifies typical war and postwar experiences from the trauma of political and military defeat,”(pg124). The Treaty of Versailles was also largely disliked at this time because many Germans felt as if they were forced to sign it, verifying blame be given solely to Germany, thus handing itself in and admitting guilt. This scene becomes representative of this idea through his dehumanization after he strenuously resists losing his coat. Janning’s is able to illustrate the psychology of the porter and imbue emotion onto spectators, in a way that is reminiscent of what one might expect in theater through his overly dramatized actions. The event is a state of defeat and abandonment like he’s been stripped of everything rendering him virtually impotent shown in his newly decrepit physique. Janning’s role represents a man who won’t submit to the dominating new class of society. Although he refuses these new ways, he is forced to submit to the inevitable new ways of modernity and Weimar.

He longs for the respect of his neighborhood that showed him gratitude as if being a general in his prestigious uniform. The only way for him to cope with his loss of dignity and pride is by stealing the jacket back in order to keep appearance in his surroundings. Spectators are positioned to think that his community superficially judges him by his occupation alone and becomes symbolized as a new society who ridicules his lack of identity. After the he steals his jacket back he leaves the hotel before reaching a climactic crossroads. He looks behind himself at his once towering sparkly hotel that came to be everything he stood for, before hesitatingly looking forward at an unpredictable future. We are shown a dichotomy risen in Weimar between the old and new and the harsh reality of a man giving into it. Looking on hoping for a brighter future, the winds violently hold him back, as if now static, in a world where he once flourished.

Where Nosferatu uses Ellen’s desires as a catalyst to reflect Hutter’s masculine insecurities, The Last Laugh uses the porters uniform to symbolize a different kind of anxiety about the toll modernity has taken on social mobility. Although both address different modes of exposing Germany’s fears of Weimar, The Last Laugh is much more abrupt in its presentation because of its seamlessness through the use of imagery, camera techniques, and expressive acting. Through Janning’s extremely vivid portrayals and little to no inter titles, it becomes more simplified to understand what Murnau’s symbolic intentions were. For example, after the porter is stripped of his uniform he continues throughout with a hunched, feeble, and frail visual to suggest a crippling of his presence in the world now that his occupation has been replaced. It personifies the idea of an utter lack of manhood and impotence as a result of change. The impotent male figure seen in Nosferatu isn’t as exemplified with Hutter in comparison. His flamboyance and physique resemble a more feminized symbol then that of castration. Murnau’s conflict of old and new is made clear through the vast contrast between the porters’ sympathetic identification constructed for him while the new porters lack of respect depicts an obvious dichotomy of the films larger dilemma between old and new generations. Nosferatu seems to blur lines between what is being conveyed about gender roles in society. Similarly it becomes conflicting when both Hutter and Ellen do not exemplify the most ‘good’ qualities for spectators to identify with. While Hutter’s unmindful absence from Ellen complicates him as the protagonist, it is also through Ellen’s sexual impulses that make her deviate from that role as well. The conflicting protagonist’s roles complicate our identification with both of them allowing little to no trust to be taken with either by the end. Unlike Nosferatu, which largely bases its film around a female character, there are almost no women in the film to suggest any implications of anxieties toward female sexuality and liberation. The film is told through purely images that allow the viewer to assume a degree of the story and use imagination. Janning’s expressions and tormented gestures show us the pain that he feels and inflicts them on the audience invoking anxieties of a much larger undercurrent at play. Nosferatu tells a story through a barrage of inter titles, which guide us and allow little room for one to imagine without getting caught up in the narrative. We also get innovative point of view shots that construct a more sympathetic identification through the protagonist’s humiliation. This never happens in Nosferatu because we are forced to be tied up with the static camera. Murnau and his assistant cinematographer Robert Baberske use the camera in innovative new ways in The Last Laugh, which enable spectators to embody the character through the subjective ‘unchained camera’ thus giving birth for a much less static narrative and an ability to tell more vivid stories through imagery. For example, a shaky camera and its magical movement suggest a point of view and transcend spectators to take the role amidst the porters dream where he performs unbelievable acts. This creates an even more sensational visceral aesthetic because it transcends spectators with the porter and makes one deeply invested in his character feeling as if we are in his world.

Although both films suggest anxieties about modernity, it is ultimately The Last Laugh that is able to coherently address an issue of a threat to masculinity through the simplistic form of the porter’s jacket and symbolically suggest a larger theme of Germany’s social problems in new Weimar. It is through the ‘Cinema of Attractions’ of watching the frailty of the human condition that we identify through the porter’s hopelessness and downfall that make Murnau able to easily address larger issues during this transitional period in Germany. We can then apply the anxieties Murnau depicts in his films to what Sigfried Kracauer claimed in From Caligari to Hitler that, “films are never the product of the individual”(pg.5)

Work Cited Page:

Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari To Hitler. Princeton and Oxford. Princeton University Press. 1966

Wood, Robin. Burying the Undead: The Use and Obsolescence of Count Dracula. Mosaic. 1983

Hake, Sabine. Weimar Cinema: Who Gets the Last Laugh?. Columbia University Press. 2008

McCormick, Richard. Gender and Sexuality in Weimar Modernity. Palgrave Macmillan. 2002

Kaes, Anton. Weimar Cinema: The Predicament of Modernity. Oxford/ New York, 2004.

-Emperor Vampirion

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Monday, November 8, 2010


they will be mine, oh yes.

Friday, October 29, 2010

This shit is really really intense....

VBS never ceases to amaze me with everything they create.

If someone asked me what site have you frequented the most over the last 5 years I'd probably say

No joke. I spend at least an hour or so everyday on it.

They are consistently bringing something new to the realm of documentary and are never afraid to put something out controversial or taboo. Right the fuck on!

I need to see what I can do about maybe interning for em'.

-The Vampyr

Monday, October 18, 2010

George Meliez-A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Smashing Pumpkins-Tonight, Tonight (1995)

Almost a hundred years later and we still love the classics.
-The Emperor

Sunday, October 17, 2010

T and E!!! Merry Crimbus!

On Jimmy Kimmel! They look a little different...
Part 1

Part 2