The Idiots Directed by Lars Von Trier
The death of film equals the decay of cinema?or its renewal? Though my generally skeptical and downbeat prognostications on this subject are a matter of record, I remain open to any emerging proof that we may be entering a bold new cinematic age. Which is to say that I don't think the latest two examples of digital cinema, Mike Figgis' Time Code and Lars von Trier's The Idiots, are necessarily silly and inane because of the technology they involve. It could just be that they come from silly, inane filmmakers. Yet the more realistic possibility, I'm afraid, is that there's some truth on both sides of the equation: at this early point in the conversion to digital, the technology tends to attract that kind of filmmaker?and then inspires them to new depths of silly inanity.
To give credit where a modicum is due, Time Code is by far the more esthetically ambitious and interesting of these two movies. Figgis understands that moviemaking is on the verge of tremendous changes with implications on every level of the creative and viewing processes. Phrased as an attempt to explore some of the new realities, Time Code may amount to little more than a stunt, but it's at least a purposeful, forward-looking stunt.
Watching the movie, what you see is a screen divided into quadrants, each containing an image that appears to have been shot simultaneously with the others. The four stories, all transpiring on an afternoon in Hollywood, occasionally intersect with each other, but mostly remain separate. Particularly striking for technically attuned viewers is that all four cameras seem to run throughout the movie without a single cut (something that's easily accomplished with video but impossible in film, where reels must be changed every 10 or so minutes). The movie's "editing," then, is accomplished by the viewer's eye as it roves among the images. That process is determined both by the dramatic interest that each frame offers at a given moment, and by Figgis' manipulation of the sound, which alternates among the stories and often overlaps two or more.
To give an idea of the intertwining narratives' content: When the picture opens, its northeast quadrant shows a woman (Saffron Burrows) talking to a psychiatrist (Glenne Headly) about her husband. The northwest pane observes two women (Salma Hayek, Jeanne Tripplehorn) as they leave a residence, get in a limousine and head downtown, occasionally snorting coke, making out and arguing along the way. The two southerly images, meanwhile, follow the action in and around the ground floor of a building on Sunset Blvd., where, among various comings and goings, a third-rate film director (Richard Edson) is attempting to cast a movie, and a philandering studio head (Stellan Skarsgard) tries to balance his erotic impulses and the demands of his busy office.
A title at the movie's end reveals that the satiric comedy-melodrama we've just witnessed wasn't scripted. Rather, it was improvised within a predetermined structure, the basic story idea having been concocted by Figgis. From a purely technical standpoint, Time Code's creative gamble is undeniably fascinating?and impressive. The occasional improvised movie that comes along (e.g., Blue in the Face) generally looks like what it is; the acting's patchy and erratic. Time Code, on the other hand, seems like it might have been scripted; the story and the performances flow much as they do in "normal" movies. Even granting that Figgis shot the movie more than a dozen times on consecutive days, finally choosing the last take for the end result, the work of the actors and the production's intricate logistical choreography are remarkable.
But, ultimately, so what? Intricate logistical choreography and actors who can improvise in character for 90 minutes have nothing essential to do with art. In fact, the nature of Time Code's "achievements" is sadly more akin to a tap-dancing horse or a guy who can keep 15 plates spinning at once than it is to any great film you might care to name. Is such elaborate but empty trickery the only promise the movies' new era holds?
Perhaps not. The problem with Time Code is that all its technical wizardry is deployed to convey little of real interest. The movie's characters are stock figures, its action a series of cliches. Phony showbiz types blabbing about the biz, screwing, doing drugs and acting vacuous?rather than being new, or in any way compelling, what we have here is a load of tired old dreck tricked out in a flashy package. But you can't really blame the medium for that, since it's so obviously in line with the general run of Figgis' work.
He is, after all, a moviemaker whose pretensions are matched only by his consistent banality. He fancies himself a musical as well as a cinematic whiz, so that when Time Code opens, you groan to hear the first noodling notes of yet another deeply vapid Figgis jazz score (which, in this brazenly postmodern context, feels ridiculously anachronistic). The high point of his career to date, the vastly overrated Leaving Las Vegas, provides a compellingly gritty, atmospheric surface to a story that might have been written by computer. His nadir, the risibly self-important Loss of Sexual Innocence, manages to be pornographic and tedious at once.
This much can be said for Time Code: its hectic, four-things-happening-at-once flux does capture something of the current moment's media zeitgeist, with its atomized attention spans and vaunting of copious information over art's careful discrimination. Yet this accomplishment, if you want to call it that, is ambiguous at best, since it uncritically furthers the very qualities that a better film would bracket and question. And by implication?one which becomes explicit in the movie's press notes?it likewise furthers the preposterous myths that this new technology is leading us to more "truthful" and "democratic" moviemaking.
You keep a camera focused on an actor for 90 minutes without a cut and that somehow makes the movie more truthful? On the contrary, this is simply the pernicious lie that perennially attaches itself to naturalism. It can't be said often enough: actors and their emoting may be the sine qua non of tv soap operas, but they're the least important elements of true cinema, the real value (and truth) of which depends primarily on ideas, writing and directorial vision.
As for the "democratizing" canard, that's more laughable still. First off, there's nothing democratic about Time Code itself. Its essential content and final shape were controlled entirely by Figgis, an established moviemaker working under the auspices of a major Hollywood studio, Sony Pictures. Second, even if digital cameras eventually allow every democratic Joe to make his own movie, where can this lead except to a flood of undifferentiated mediocrity? Art, by its nature, has little truck with tepid egalitarianism. We all crave to bow under the tyrannical yoke of a Shakespeare, a Mahler, a whip-cracking Fellini.
Time Code and its publicity invoke all manner of storied precedents, from Eisenstein to Rope to Cassavetes. But the figure who looms most noticeably over Figgis' enterprise is Robert Altman. Much like P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, Time Code would like to be taken as a latter-day Nashville or Short Cuts, films dense with incident, idiosyncrasy and cool irony.
How did Altman become the patron saint and template-giver for vacuous posers like Anderson and Figgis? The answer, I think, begins with the fact that he's the director of the American cinema's modernist renaissance most associated with television, which gave him formal tropes that he ingeniously adapted to movies. Yet the sensibility underneath his televisual style always remained cussedly literary. Remove the foundations of content, feeling and analysis from his work and you get what Figgis and Anderson give us: movies that are essentially pretentious tv soaps, woozy with self-infatuation and the misguided sense that style is all.
It can be argued that television (including most digital movies) actively corrodes the content and substantial thought that we traditionally associate not only with cinema but also with theater and fiction. If so, Figgis appears not to have the first inkling of it. Lars von Trier does. His work consciously reflects?though it offers little to remedy?the European art cinema's crisis of meaning.
His last movie, the fascinating and deservedly acclaimed Breaking the Waves, adverted to Europe's great cornerstone of meaning: Christianity. Yet the film wasn't a wrestling-with-the-rigors-of-faith such as you would get in Bergman or von Trier's great Danish antecedent, Dreyer; it was more like an airy wish that such wrestling were still possible, here in the postmodern swamp of Whatever. And if the final certainties of faith evaporate, what's left? Only the acrid comedy of utter fraudulence, The Idiots seems to answer. Problem is, von Trier's movie?like Figgis'?ends up merely aping and augmenting the fraudulence it should blast.
The Idiots is the latest movie released under the banner of Dogma 95, a tongue-in-cheek manifesto cum publicity stunt that got accepted as real by the cinema world's equivalent of fairground rubes. (In a mark of our film culture's decline, the Film Society of Lincoln Center even devoted a symposium to this nonidea.) Though Dogma can't and shouldn't be taken seriously, its emphasis on style and shooting methods inadvertently betrays what it really is at its heart: a gnawing dearth of ideas, of solid subjects and authorial vision.
Content-wise, every Dogma film so far is the same bundle of cliches: inanely caricatured dysfunctional families, sluts and morons. The latter provide the narrative keystone of The Idiots, in which a bunch of very boring middle-class Danes form a de facto commune attempt to discover their "inner idiots" by acting with programmatic foolishness, even when their displays mock real-life retarded people. Some may find these parts of the movie offensive. I didn't. I found the whole thing so tedious that it was only through heroic effort that I managed to stay awake during the screening.
In effect, von Trier's video-shot jape is a movie by, about and for idiots: if you waste your money on it, you're one too. Intended or not, its one deep subject is the state of auteur cinema in Europe. It wouldn't have been made, with funding sources from all over the Continent, if von Trier weren't a famous auteur. Take away everything interesting and worthwhile about The Idiots?i.e., nothing?and that's what you have left: von Trier's fame, the overblown reputation of a moviemaker trying to eke laughs out of the fact that he has nothing to believe in.
How much does tv have to do with this willing surrender of seriousness and significance? Is "digital cinema" an oxymoron? Stay tuned.