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Thursday, May 01, 2003

Arts & Letters

A Mythic Screen

Medea directed by Lars von Trier. Written by Carl-Theodor Dreyer, Preben Thomsen, and Lars von Trier, after the play by Euripides. With Kirsten Olesen, Udo Kier, Henning Jensen, Baard Owe, and Solbjørg Højfeldt; photography by Sejr Brockmann; edited by Finnur Sveinsson; original music by Joachim Holbek.

One of the first clichés (self-justifications) that I confronted in my initial, self-conscious encounter with cinema over 35 years ago was that theater was intellectually and esthetically impoverished while film was so rich that it was almost impossible to plumb the depths of its imaginative wealth. I’ve never forgotten the analogy made by Ingmar Bergman that I first read when I was an impressionable teenager and newly impassioned — indeed (as we all were back then) obsessed — with the cinema. Although Bergman has never been one of my favorite filmmakers (in those days, I thought it was me and not him), I’ve always remembered what he wrote in an essay entitled, “Film Has Nothing to do with Literature”: “I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not via the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence” (Film: A Montage of Theories edited by Richard Dyer MacCann, p. 144).

The same volume in which those thoughts were published contained, ironically, another reflection on cinema by the only Scandinavian filmmaker who is even more of a revered figure in film history than Bergman: Carl-Theodor Dreyer. In his “Thoughts on my Craft,” the great Danish director asked, and answered, a fundamental question: “How can we define the film that is a work of art? First, let us ask what other art form is most closely related to films. In my opinion, it must be architecture, which is the most perfect art form because it is not an imitation of nature, but a pure product of human imagination” (p. 314).

The reader will have noticed an obvious point. Neither Bergman nor Dreyer made the connection with the art form with which the vast majority of people, both lay and “specialist,” have almost always connected film: the theater. (This is especially telling in Bergman’s case, as he’s basically migrated to the theater in the last 20 years.) In truth, anyone who’s ever seriously entered the cinema’s empire of the senses realizes very quickly that this connection is quintessentially fraudulent, which is why, among other things, film “adaptations” of theatrical works are almost invariably inferior to their sources. Film is many things, but it is not canned theater. It’s not a coincidence that so many movie-lovers absolutely despise the theater — precisely for all the reasons that they love movies. (I’m not extrapolating from personal prejudice, by the way; I happen to love theater although I, too, consider film to be a much more complex art — like music or architecture.) Cinephiles hate theater’s artificiality, its ostentatious (and, more often than not, ludicrous) talkiness, and, of course — and most ironically — it’s lack of “depth.” In a word — the one most often used by them — they hate theater’s “inauthenticity.”

Most actors, of course, prefer the stage to the screen for exactly those reasons, although they invent inane “artistic” rationalizations for what is simply and understandably a natural egotism. Indeed, it is theater’s inauthenticity that actors find most authentic about it: the freedom to strut and fret their hour upon the stage. Most theater might be a tale told by an idiot, but the signification of its sound and fury lies precisely there, in the actor’s histrionics (which is why they signify nothing to anyone who is not a fan of the hypocritical art). Actors, however, cannot control the screen the way they control — indeed define — the stage on which they perform. In film, the frame not only frames everything, but determines what is screened in or out, and to what extent. And the frame — in its infinite progression and complex registration — is not only out of the actor’s control, but out of everybody’s control, with the singular exception, obviously, of its unmoved mover, the director.

Myth to myth
There is, nevertheless, one kind of dramatic performance — or, rather, representation — that possesses a congruence with cinema, and for which cinema has a natural affinity. In the mythical formulas of ancient drama, the formulaic myths of film recognize an esthetic alienation and an emotional conviction that is familiar. The suffocating embrace of the innately indiscreet and charmless bourgeoisie led directly, as Nietzsche understood, to the death of tragedy. When ancient drama was raped by naturalist theater, it was irredeemably violated, at least for most “theatergoers” (an absurd concept for the social context in which Greek tragedy was created). It is no accident that even today, with all our scholarship on and knowledge of Greek ritual performance, we cannot get a theatrical production of ancient drama right to save our lives. And, from time to time, we bring forth what are, simply and literally, monstrosities.

That was recently the case with a production of Medea, horridly misconceived by Deborah Warner, which played the politically correct and oh-so-avant-garde Next Wave festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and then ended up on — where else? — Broadway. (Postmodernism’s eradication of “boundaries,” and its “transgressive” migrations, simply mean that the new black is…the old gray flannel.) The less said about this production, the better (see Natasha Prenn’s review, Mommy Dearest, October 15, 2002). Personally, I’ve never witnessed a more hideous example of pure and shameless corruption of ancient drama in three decades of productions I’ve seen (including the consistently egregious ones of the National Theater of Greece). I can honestly say I never saw a production of Greek tragedy that was so uniquely and grotesquely wrong in every possible detail. I thought about all this again a couple of weeks ago coming out of Lars von Trier’s Medea, a film that is so purely von Trier and yet so true to its sources (I’ll explain the plural shortly) that it made me shake my head at the almost perverse stupidity of the theatrical Medea I had seen several months earlier.

The two finest Medeas I’ve ever seen, in fact, are those of Pasolini and, now, von Trier. Pasolini’s 1969 version is now mostly — and unfairly — remembered for Maria Callas in the title role. La diva’s performance, however, while extraordinary, is actually the film’s least compelling aspect. What makes this particular retelling of the myth so remarkable is the unrelenting physical context that informs — and, to a certain degree, determines — the story.

It is an astounding vision of the primal revolt of the repressed (and exploited and forsaken). Shot mostly in Cappadocia (as well as in Syria and Italy) — with a script that owes as much, it seems, to Levi-Strauss and Frantz Fanon as to Euripides, and with unusually sparse dialogue, a decidedly non-Western mix to the cast, and an evocative soundtrack based on secular and sacred Asian modes that anticipated world music by 20 years — it is the definitive statement of Medea as Other, the alien whose “barbaric” integrity reveals, and avenges itself against, the moral emptiness at the core of (what passes as) “Greek civilization.” Continuing his examination in all his films of the time of the relations of domination and dependence between the West and what was then called the Third World, Pasolini took this central aspect of Euripides’ tragedy and transformed it into an extended reflection on what separates “them” from “us,” and, more precisely, white from black — and brown, and yellow, and red.

It’s hardly coincidental that von Trier’s Medea, although radically different from Pasolini’s, shares two salient aspects: relatively little dialogue and a defining physical ambience, albeit this time dark and cold (shot in the heaths, wintry seascapes, and, yes, caverns of Denmark), as opposed to the blinding, searing, white heat of Pasolini’s mythic Mediterranean and Anatolian world. Both von Trier’s and Pasolini’s physical universes, however, are cruel and — very important this — seemingly haunted. They are worlds in which love almost innately leads to betrayal, and sentiment is a direct road to abuse and violence. In von Trier’s case, this is especially so because, as opposed to Pasolini, he has little faith in the capacity of “society” to mitigate the fundamental self-containment of the human psyche. In this, he is very much in the moral tradition of fellow Scandinavians Bergman and Dreyer. Indeed, one of the many rewards of his Medea is that one not only gets the benefit of von Trier’s art, but also (albeit in a diffuse and almost ghostly manner) that of Dreyer, on whose script von Trier based his film.

Undogmatic and unchaste Medea
Medea was made in 1988 for Danish television. (That it took 15 years for it to open in New York — the self-proclaimed capital of civilization as we know it — is proof once again of the depressing solipsism into which the cultural life of the United States has degenerated.) In an introductory title, von Trier states that his script is based on that of Dreyer, who died in 1968, and that, while it is not an attempt to make Dreyer’s film, it is von Trier’s homage to the director that many consider not only Scandinavia’s greatest filmmaker but one of the cinema’s supreme artists. (In his study of Dreyer, David Bordwell rightly wrote that Dreyer’s “unfinished projects…are more famous than many director’s completed films” [The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer, p. 9].) The very first shot of Medea (sublimely underplayed by Kirsten Olesen) in von Trier’s film is in fact an immediate visual echo of Dreyer’s iconic close-ups — in this case, the most iconic of all, those of Falconetti in the title role of Dreyer’s masterwork, La passion de Jeanne d’Arc.

As Von Trier states, however, this is definitely his film, and not Dreyer’s. Visual resonances notwithstanding, his own esthetic is clearly present from the very first frame, which, like the entire film, unfolds in a dense, cinematic version of impasto that creates a filmic (and mythic) environment so thick that you feel you can indeed cut it with a knife. Von Trier originally shot Medea in 3/4" video, then transferred it to 35-millimeter film, and then finally transferred it again to 1" video: it is an impressive process of visual accretion (or, contrarily, distillation) that creates a final image that transcends any notions of filmic “graininess” and becomes, as I said before, an almost painted-on thickness, whose very density bespeaks a world of such natural and existential “layeredness” that the spectator knows from the outset that what is seen and what is do not necessarily — perhaps cannot ever — reconcile. As the reader can gather, this film was made long before von Trier joined with fellow Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg to issue their Dogme ’95 manifesto, with its famous (infamous to many, especially in Hollywood) “vow of chastity,” which declares that:

I swear to submit to the following set of rules…:

1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).

2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)

3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place.)

4. The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera.)

5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.

6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)

7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)

8. Genre movies are not acceptable.

9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.

10. The director must not be credited.

Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work,” as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.

Thus I make my VOW OF CHASTITY.

As far as I can tell, Medea violates Commandments 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 10. It also flouts the Vow’s forswearing of art, craft, esthetics, and — my favorite — good taste! In the event, von Trier creates a version of the myth that, in its precision and astuteness, is about as authentic a recreation of the Euripidean drama as we can get given the cultural, ritual, intellectual, and moral realities (or lack thereof) that separate us from Athens in 431 BCE, when the play was first performed.

Von Trier also restores the quintessentially mythic quality to the story — just as Pasolini did, albeit very differently, although both films are equally true. It is precisely in this mythic quality that the “tragedy” of ancient tragedy inheres, by the way, which is why the contemporary theater has found itself at sea in its vain attempts to “update” or “modern-dress” the ancients. Tragedy is not melodrama; and this is not a moral judgment — or not simply a moral judgment — but an esthetic one, based on the self-evident variety of generic narratives. As someone whose primary critical focus has always been movies, I have nothing against melodrama: I love Griffith and Sirk and Fassbinder (admittedly three very different filmmakers creating three very different kinds of melodrama); I also like much of the work of Frank Borzage or Leo McCarey (to limit ourselves to more “conventional” cine-melodrama). However, I wouldn’t particularly trust any of these directors — not even Fassbinder — to contend with ancient tragedy. Tragedy requires a deep sense not only of the other — which Fassbinder had in spades — but of the otherly imagined. (I could well see Werner Herzog translating tragic narrative into film, however, as his vision of the world has always been “metaphysical” — not in the sense of being “beyond nature” but of having a different perception of “nature” entirely. I don’t think it’s coincidental that Dreyer made Vampyr and Herzog made Nosferatu, despite the obvious homage to Murnau.)

The fact is that Greek tragedy without myth is a contradiction in terms; the quotidian subverts the very nature of ancient tragedy. In the process, it also undermines its ethics, which are, of course, based on a social definition whose moral context was the heroic, not simply as “gesture” but as existential inevitability. Once again, von Trier is utterly faithful to Euripides. The film’s Jason — and, of course, Creon and Aegeus — are not men, but living embodiments of power, and of a destiny that is clearly beyond any notions of rationality, let alone will, and, as a result, recognizes no authority or constraint outside itself. As for Medea, she is who she is, literally: daughter of the son of the Sun, which is to say granddaughter of a god; princess, sorceress, and — before arriving in Corinth — murderess of father and brother; “a strange woman,” of whom it is not “…easy/To make an enemy…and come off best” (ll. 44-45); “…a clever woman, versed in evil arts” (l. 285); worst of all, according to Jason — and to all who’ve shared his sentiments over the last 2,500 years — “A monster, not a woman, having a nature/Wilder than that of Scylla…” (ll. 1,342-1,343, this and all quotes from The Medea translated by Rex Warner).

Medea is not a woman — or, rather, she is not simply a woman. She is a force of nature — of a meta-nature, actually, and, in that sense, of the meta-physical. She is woman as a force of nature — which is precisely why she is so frightening and “monstrous.” She has killed father, brother, and sons, and, in committing her ultimate crime, destroys her husband. To consider such a “person” — in truth, such power, such physical authority, such an instrument of the divine — as a mere “woman” is worse than absurd, it is blasphemy, a denial of the way, and of the justice, of the world, a world that, not at all coincidentally, is invested in its most minute and unseen atom of life by the inspiriting (and often, since that is exactly the point, vengeful) breath of the sacred.

We’re not in Kansas anymore — or in Scarsdale. This is not the world of actually existing social mindlessness in the Year of Bush’s Lord 2003. This is a world in which the mind and the heart have to contend continually with what the French have always called “the force of things.” In a famous passage in the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx put it more poignantly: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” This is actually a pretty succinct, and very good, description of the moral function of myth in ancient Greek society.

Pasolini, of course, was a famously Marxist filmmaker (and poet). Von Trier is the son of communist parents. What is most interesting about these two (old European) artists is that they both prove that Marx and metaphysics are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, in the work of both of them, the appreciation of the world beneath the world comes directly from an understanding that, as in the world of the ancients, we see very little of what is actually there. I suspect that understanding is what drew both of them to Greek drama. In Breaking the Waves, probably von Trier’s best-known work, the main character, Bess, speaks to God and, by film’s end, has sacrificed herself for her husband in an act of insanely austere love. Her husband is not as bad as Jason, but it’s only Bess’s sacrifice that transforms him into a man genuinely worthy of her. The movie’s ending has divided many who’ve seen it (including those who otherwise admire the film): Bess dies as the result of a brutal rape; as soon as she’s buried, the Heavens — and the world itself — burst out in peals of bell-ringing in celestial acknowledgment of her sacrifice, and of her devotion and fidelity to a truly meta-physical love. I think von Trier sees Bess’s sacrifice and Medea’s crime as mirror reflections of the same truth: that the “good” or “evil” consequences of human judgment are easy to denounce but difficult to explain — especially because we are all, women and men, daily haunted by the “nightmare” of those infinite dead who inhabit the world with us, the (temporarily) living.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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