Aesthetics of Stupidity (2)

In May 2009 Mark Peranson, editor of Cinema Scope, wrote the following hilarious account of the situation at Cannes, in which he called it “the stupidest Cannes ever”:

A deconstruction of what was wrong must begin, I suppose, with Lars von Trier. It would be futile, and, in a way, pointless, in any year to cherry-pick ridiculous observations made during Cannes, but, to begin with a cliché to end all clichés: After the initial screening of Antichrist, a blogger (having read and physically ingested so much about this film I cannot recall who wrote this) stated that he felt he was present for a crucial moment not only of Cannes history, but cinematic history in general. One can only wonder which month of last year this person started to watch film. But, I digress. To discuss Antichrist in such terms—or, indeed, to seek to destroy it—is to play into von Trier’s game. Despite having nine of his ten features screen at Cannes (does anyone have a greater batting average?), he’s always struck me as an overhyped TV director—his best work remains the first Kingdom—so when he abandons storytelling for disjointed proto-Strinbergian-Norwegian death metal psychohorror, well, the wheels have fallen off Lars’ notorious bus. In the context of Cannes, it was hard to completely discount Antichrist: this was, after all, something, or so the argument went. And something is better than nothing.

Antichrist was certainly one of the most calculated ‘art’ films I’ve ever seen, though I have no idea if its auteur had much to do with that. The viewing experience remains inextricable from its neatly packaged behind-the-scenes narrative: Von Trier wrote the screenplay during a “deep depression” from which he hadn’t fully recovered by the time of shooting; he terrorized actress Charlotte Gainsbourgh (after famously having caused Bjork to claim he “destroyed my soul”) into one of the most abject performances of any actress ever; introducing the film at Cannes he announced, apparently in earnest, that he is “the best filmmaker in the world.” All this lives up to his reputation as a neurotic, egomaniacal, misogynist provocateur, while suggesting he might exceed it. Since he is well aware of his media presence and knows how to make films that polarize critical responses into a few predictable genres, he poses something of an existential challenge to critics, who are his target audience. It’s very easy to write about — the streamlined definition of ‘artistic genius.’

Like much recent non-‘art’ horror film, it tries to make outdated cliches effective again. There is no investigation into the issues superficially referenced: the persistent ideological pull of the Judeo-Christian genesis myth, medieval Christianity’s simultaneous demonization of paganism and women, gender roles in the wake of psychoanalysis and behavioral psychology, psychoanalysis as a ‘modern’ justification for the repression of women. Nor is it a treatise of the Godardian type on the cinematic history of these themes.

Instead, Von Trier imagines a world in which every patriarchal ideologeme feminism fought to repress has returned, through the body of Gainsbourgh’s “She.” Willem Dafoe’s hapless psychotherapist husband “He” mistakes the site of this return for her mind, when it’s ‘really’ her Satanic Nature. The ‘turning point’ of the plot — when she cock-punches him with a piece of wood, jerks him off, then drills a stone wheel into his calf — comes just after he concludes that his wife’s psychosis is due to self-loathing. But her slide into insanity, apparently predating their toddler’s death, is unstoppable. Even before arriving at their surrogate Eden (the name of their cottage in the woods) – at once a retreat from their lives and a confrontation with their suffering – it becomes ‘natural.’

There are two ways in which this deeply annoying film is nevertheless worth paying attention to. In both visual style and in the attempt to recreate for the screen what the movements of the ’60s and ’70s confronted and tried to overcome, it is a kind of summation of the U.S. Aughts’ various horror trends, especially J-horror and ‘torture porn’ (there’s a piece by Christopher Sharrett in the Winter 2009 issue of Cineaste that exposes the pretensions of the latter to recreate ’70s horror). This allows it to be be read as a coda in advance to Von Trier’s unfinished U.S. trilogy (Dogville and Manderlay) — America as an exotic locale, a computer-generated fantasy land. As infinite thought notes here, the forest around Eden looks as if it were always digitally rendered. The landscape shots are also reminiscent of recent photography, such as that of Martina Lindqvist and Simen Johan, where forests, animals, and coastlines are given a properly uncanny quality, their typical (and typically American) significance as reminders of timeless innocence détourned.

Martina Lindqvist, from Rågskär Island, 2008

Simen Johan, from Until the Kingdom Comes, 2006

The film’s inchoate aura of doom links it not only to the work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Kairo), Hideo Nakata (Ringu), and David Lynch (everything from Lost Highway on), but also American formalist doomsday films No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and The Road. But the distinctive thing about Antichrist is that America’s vision of nature, not just its capitalist culture, has become decadent; what at first resembles a Native American vision quest (the three creepy animals who might be spirit guides, Eden’s initial appearance in a hypnosis-induced dream) is revealed to be a regression in the wrong direction, away from settler Enlightenment and toward a distinctly medieval, European vision of apocalypse.

The second way is as a visual example of structuralism. She” is not a proper name, a person with a psychology to be penetrated and rehabilitated, but the name of a set: all women, just as “He” is all men. Adam and Eve are figures of nostalgia when ‘Eden’ is a well-heeled couple’s private vacation spot. “He” and “She” are the archetypes of gender itself, artifacts of psychology’s quixotic (or cynical) and all too liberal attempt to describe in the jargon of personality what it has already determined to be better represented by the jargon of objects. Lacan derisively calls this contradiction ‘ego psychology,’ and the film is equally contemptuous of “His” CBT-inspired theorizing. But Nature rhetoric aside, the hysterical violence of Antichrist’s final act forecloses conservative nostalgia for ‘pre-modern’ gender relations. Something rather different is at work here. I’m reminded of the term catmint coined to diagnose Zizek’s op-eds, ‘structuralist pornography:’

The affectivity of structuralism is built around the logic of (pre whig era) conservatism. Structuralism isn’t selling conservatism but it does dramatically ask: what if conservatism is after all reasonable? It restates the idea of a mysterious quasi-divine social order, not as the basis of political commitment but as a horrifying possibility undermining political commitment. It’s surely of a piece with the vague politics of the middle class; predicated on a worried sort of liberalism. But again it’s not too far from conservatism proper, which was always an orthodoxy of absent arguments; the arguments of conservatives being nearly always bad (there’s also a relation to masochism).

One can hear this almost literally announced in the dialogue, which is that of archetypes talking to each other. As is typical of Von Trier, it would feel more ‘at home’ on the stage (and despite the woodland setting sounds as if recorded in a studio optimized for radio or musical performance), and this is what one notices before anything else. Take this typical exchange:

She: If human nature is evil, then that goes as well for the nature of…

He: Of the women. Female nature.

She: The nature of all the sisters. Women don’t control their own bodies. Nature does. I have it in writing in my books.

He: The literature that you used in your research was about evil things committed against women, but you read it as proof of the evil of women? You were supposed to be critical of those texts. That was your thesis! Instead, you’re embracing it! Do you know what you’re saying?

She: Forget it. I don’t know why I said it.

This dialogue is technically bad because it is too meaningful; both too clear about what it means and too abstract to be clear beyond the ‘domain of the signifier.’ Its transcendental dullness kills the possibility of subtext, reading it is a matter of plug & play. It’s up to the violence and delirious imagery to give affective force to what would otherwise be an unbroken string of banalities. However, Von Trier is unwilling to let horror fans ‘indulge’ in making sense out of the bloodshed, whether merely as visceral thrills, or aesthetic appreciation (like in Dario Argento), or as socially significant (like in George Romero’s zombie movies). Instead the intended audience of cinephiles, professional critics, and academics is made to feel the power of apocalyptic patriarchal mysticism, even to suffer from it (to feel physically sick, emotionally terrorized), all while being unable to interpret it in a way that isn’t repellent. In this way Antichrist is as emptily sermonizing as the rest of the director’s recent oeuvre.

“All determinations become bad and cruel when they are grasped only by a thought which invents and contemplates them, flayed and separated from their living form, adrift upon this barren ground. Everything becomes violence on this passive ground. Everything becomes attack on this digestive ground. Here the Sabbath of stupidity and malevolence takes place. Perhaps this is the origin of that melancholy which weighs upon the most beautiful human faces: the presentiment of a hideousness peculiar to the human face, of a rising tide of stupidity, an evil deformity or a thought governed by madness. For from the point of view of a philosophy of nature, madness arises at the point at which the individual contemplates itself in this free ground — and, as a result, stupidity in stupidity and cruelty in cruelty — to the point that it can no longer stand itself…Stupidity is neither the ground nor the individual, but rather this relation in which individuation brings the ground to the surface without being able to give it form (this ground rises by means of the I, penetrating deeply into the possibility of thought and constituting the unrecognized in every recognition).

— Gilles Deleuze, Difference & Repetition

The presence or absence of the self at the root of every bad thing, the ambivalence of bourgeois morals, rests on a certain spiritualized intransigence, something ostensibly disowned but in fact kept as close as a security blanket. Von Trier, quite knowingly, can only replay what he pretends to punish, in himself as well as his audience: yet one more complex, paradoxical, brilliant route to abject stupidity.


48 Responses to “Aesthetics of Stupidity (2)”

  1. very interesting.

    i saw it but on a small screen – so small the jerking camera is so intrusive that you can never forget it’s in someone’s hands, so what you actually see is two C list actors working hard at delivering performances and failing. You might strain to see through that to the diegetic plane, to the opportunity to suspend your disbelief, but that plane is so silly it doesn’t extend a hand to help you over to it.

  2. Did you write on the web about Dogville? (was it empty sermonizing in your view? I thought it reactionary but kind of tricky, not so stupid, and not stupid-making.)

  3. traxus4420 Says:

    thanks chabert —

    i’d have to see dogville again to recheck my initial opinion. i did think of it as sermonizing in a not dissimilar way — the feeling of being scolded without the tools to work out any implied ethics. if i remember grace and the townspeople cancel each other out morally speaking. her inevitable murderous vengeance as the culmination of her transformation into a nonperson at the hands of the town. which is also her truth, as determined by her off-screen history. almost like the female version of high plains drifter. but my memory of it is pretty hazy, i admit.

    i don’t think any film by von trier i’ve seen has been less than very smart. stupidity i felt was a central concern of this film; didn’t mean to include the others (the “yet one more” was intended to refer to other films not necessarily directed by lars von trier).

  4. traxus4420 Says:

    i saw it on my laptop too — i wonder what kind of difference that makes.

  5. @Chabert: I was looking for your post on The Wire, but it seems you’ve taken down your blog. Any chance of finding it, still?

  6. Thanks traxus – didn’t you find it hard to suppress awareness of the camera crew?

    With Dogville, I see what your point, and agree, but I thought the film was very triangular in the way it was meaning, rather than just displaying a narrative that is self contained and signifying to a witness audience- meaning that instead of the two dimensional fable of grace and the townspeople, the audience is strenuously solicited to join (more strenuously than in most films, in a very overt way) and so the audience becomes this third term. So when there is a turning point when the audience ceases to “root” for the townspeople to be good to grace and starts to desire the full exposure of their depravity and their punishment, it sort of turns the two dimensional thing on its head. The real individuals in the audience are probably progressively alienated from their position, but the film I think makes clear where the Audience as the third term is supposed to be.

    Alex, yes I have the wire posts from the wordpress blog, there were two. If you want I can email them to you. Some of the argument, with different selections from the text, is rehashed on qlipoth:

  7. Surely all of Von Trier’s films are ‘about’ stupidity? Either his suffering idiot child/women, or his semi-pathological concern with retardation (the cheapest route to festival notoriety)? He’s so self-absorbed (and childish) a film-maker, I often suspect his films are mainly about his own stupidity, and how well this ‘plays’ with the imagined audience he folls into thinking he’s smart.

    Some of the criticisms about Antichrist could be applied to ‘Synechdoche New York’, I thought – I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this other big Cannes ‘divider’ that strained for stupidity/profundity.

  8. From everything I’ve read about Antichrist, that isn’t a film I’d like to see. But I can’t agree with Mark Perenson or the way he makes his argument – presupposing that everybody must agree with his opinion of the film, as a sort of unargued apriori, and on that basis deciding critics are stupid or mendacious because they don’t share that opinion seems like the methodlogy of a high school clique, not of a film critic.

    I quite liked Hospital, until the birth of the giant baby, when the series seemed to have run out of reasons to continue. But mostly, I think Van Triers is not a horror director, but a maker of weepies – in line with Douglas Sirk. I wept over the fate of poor Bjork and – though I have a dimmer memory of it – of poor Emily Watson iin Breaking the Waves. The tears were the same flavor as those I’d shed over Annie Johnson, the black maid, when her daughter renounces her in order to pass. Sure, the central woman character in Van Trier’s movies are always tortured in one way or another, but it seems to me that this is the content of the sermonizing. Like many sermons I’ve heard, at least, the point is to break your resistance, as though, just past the tear line, Jesus will save you cause he loves you. But in Trier’s films that I’ve seen, you get past the climactic of weeping and that is the end of the film.

  9. ” presupposing that everybody must agree with his opinion of the film, as a sort of unargued apriori, and on that basis deciding critics are stupid or mendacious because they don’t share that opinion seems ”

    But he doesn’t do that – he judges someone ignorant for supposing the film innovative. and that’s an inarguable judgement – the film is not innovative. It’s not really a matter of opinion. It is heavy handedly presenting what it is constantly reminding the audience are the oldest clichés there are and for the oldest ruling class motive which is to peddle idealism. The thing is constructed so that it is difficult/impossible even to discuss it except as a christian/neoplatonist, conceding the ideological content of the terms. you can’t even describe it really without repudiating materialism, accepting a reified “nature” demonised as “female”, and declaring oneself supernatural or accepting the role of the supernatural because possesssed of intellect deified as male and masterly. this is not new stuff, this is the oldest stuff there is, and how old it is, and how many times you’ve seen and heard it all before, is an unsubtly forefronted topic of the film.

  10. wedge, what did you think of Synechdoche? I found it interesting that that film and that book Remainder with a very similar gimmick coincided. Even people who don’t know what historical materialism is are tempted to deploy it to explain these things, it seems so obvious to ask why now for this and to compare how the central trope is deployed in these really different media and how they manage to suggest something so different than the modernist antecedents of the trope were assumed to signify. In the film, the simulacrum is made possible by a MacArthur Grant; in the novel, the financing comes from a tort settlement whose conditions impose on the recipient a silence regarding the back story. Pondering that contrast seems to generate the whole interpretation and explanation, anyway to highlight the reactionary aestheticism of Synechdoche and everything attached to it (like Baudrillard).

  11. My personal take on Synechdoche had nothing to do with stupidity. My instant reaction was, whereas allegory typically tries to create individual stories and turn them into a trope for the social world, Synechdoche takes the social world and turns it into a gigantic allegory for one person’s misery. If we wanted to read Synechdoche as a sign of the times, then, we would have to detour from stupidity and delve into the expansion of narcissism.

  12. Oh, Chabert, you can email me at

  13. stupidity. there is a fashion for this, for returning every morning to square one, no accumulation of knowledge or wisdom, general ban on synthesising (for rodney king trial approach to reality, we see it in the ‘explanation’ for the events in Haiti that revel in and enjoy this ‘fragmented” storytelling, this wild coincidence of a hundred different little accidents a la Coen brothers that are brought forward as explanation). Professional film critics cultivate this stupidity I think. Consider that one of the popular defences of Antichrist from the charge of misogyny was that von Trier “identified with” “She”. I mean duh. That is what a scapegoat is, the object of identification of the chastiser. If you asked these critics they could explain what a scapegoat is and quote you Girard, but they just forget, they get stupid, to do their jobs. In modernity, women are scapegoated principally for consumerism. It goes back to Mandeville and the Augustans. Consumerist acquisitiveness, the desire for finery and impatience for immediate gratification (thus debt) is the sin of Woman, and all the social ills of capitalism can thus be attributed to the rapaciousness of women. Capitalists insatiable acquisitiveness is thus cleansed by shifting the sin to Woman, just as the othering and queasification of lactation allows for ejaculation to be treated as as “clean as grass sap”.

    Antichrist is rehashing this scapegoating of woman as consumer in a consciously old fashioned way, to remind us that woman the Consumer of fashion and cosmetics and home furnishings, who is to blame for the global financial crisis, is the heiress of woman the Consumer of everything living, the insatiable devourer of male eternity, who is to blame for the loss of Paradise. Cutting up the credit cards is not drastic enough to control Her. There was a thread on my old blog where this was so bare – men ripping into sex and the city for it’s consumerism and neoliberalism while defending dark knight. We have Carrie Bradshaw’s loathesome relish of her penthouse as an evident social evil, Bruce Wayne lands in a helicopter on his own skyscraper but this is just invisible or meaningless. Dark knight’s consumerism and neoliberalism became invisible because sex and the city, the women, carried these vices away when they were driven off with hoots and whistles. American Psycho tried to expose this in a way, but it actually was scarcely intelligible to an audience which really accepts the designation of the vicious Consumer as female and consumerism as a consequence of female nature – which is, time out of mind, superficial, flightly, vain, shallow, egoist, sexually insatiable, narcissisitc, irrational but calculating and deceitful – no change since the era of Pope – and of course especially in the movies generally fatale. This misogynist mythology is all but completely recovered from the blows it took from feminism.

    Alex I will send

  14. traxus4420 Says:


    “Surely all of Von Trier’s films are ‘about’ stupidity?” – you’re probably right, poor wording on my part — antichrist is i think closer to a performance of stupidity than his other films, which is an effect of a) a much simpler and more obvious thematic structure b) and less distance between auteur, character, and audience — it is more clearly “his own stupidity” that is on display here, it’s much more transparently a therapy session.

    chabert, i’m going to look at some parts of dogville again and get back to you on that….

  15. traxus4420 Says:


    i agree with chabert about peranson’s attitude toward antichrist — the audience he lampoons is saying plainly false things about this movie and that’s the subject of his critique — the rest of his comments in that article, the glosses on noe (though my guess is i’d agree with him if i saw it) and the less noteworthy fare like fish tank (which i saw and think he’s being unfair to) are, you’re right, high school-level snark, and irresponsible. maybe i’m a bad person but i still found it funny.

    really like your characterization of von trier as a maker of weepies. that’s maybe what antichrist is — torture porn as melodrama. or melodrama as torture porn, whichever.

  16. traxus4420 Says:

    “…popular defences of Antichrist from the charge of misogyny was that von Trier “identified with” “She”…”

    yes, and i’m pretty sure that’s the only defense on offer. and the dark knight’s defense for its regressiveness is that it’s ‘self-critical.’ at the end of antichrist when the army of faceless females chase willem dafoe down, he’s cast as pathetic, stupid, etc. but the horror and thrill of the scene (the monstrous, interchangeable female race) is indulged in anyway, can even be interpreted as ‘her’ just revenge.

  17. traxus4420 Says:

    oh wait, roger — doesn’t this: “in Trier’s films that I’ve seen, you get past the climactic of weeping and that is the end of the film” mean the catharsis is without content? just the affect is left. masochistic suffering with an open-ended interpretation that’s ‘up to you.’ or you can just not interpret it at all.

  18. re Dgville – when she is offered help escaping, and the audience doesn’t know what to expect, where that could go, and then she’s back in the town. I thought it was kind of clear (we see her from above in the truck) von Trier is suggesting that’s the audience – the audience desired her rescue and sent this rescuer and desired the rescuers benevolence but then realised that was just inconclusive, so the desire of the audience brought her back to the town because the audience now is invested in finishing what is underway, which is the full exposure of the nature of the townspeople, to the point where grace has to stop being gracious, and their punishment. I think before that the film treats the audience as benevolent in its desires, as sensitive and not to be tormented, and the return of the truck to the town is the moment when the film is now treating its audience as malevolent, and the film’s logic is to please and gratify this malevolent audience.

  19. traxus4420 Says:

    i like this idea of batman as arch-consumer — in both nolan films wayne hardly does any work. his finances are taken care of by a pair of daddy figures (rutger hauer and morgan freeman) who i think use the word “stocks” once. they play up how wayne is ‘above’ all that messy financial activity, his real work is to acquire a set of ‘wonderful toys’ and fly around beating up ‘bad guys.’ critics even praised the fetishism of batman’s technology (which takes up the whole second act of the first movie) as part of the franchise’s realism.

  20. men must be encouraged to consume, esp big ticket items, this consumption must be glamorised of course, but if you want to condemn consumerism, it is in women only – in women, consumerism is a vice. Even when celebrated, as in sex and the city, it is selfindulgence – a woman consumes for vanity and selfish pleasure, a man is portrayed consuming but for the commonweal. But as Mandeville explains the private vices of women lead to public benefits; the public benefit derived however does not mitigate the personal viciousness of the consuming woman. The vice must be tolerated and encouraged, of course, for the social good, but male control and guidance is required.

    if you were to criticise bruce wayne for his shopping, his obsessive consumption of new toys specifically, it would sound like an accusation of effeminacy, wouldn’t it? Consumerism as a vice is female. As a vice it arises from female luxury – she reclines immersed in her own pleasure while the baby goes out the window. like Hogarth’s gin drinker.

  21. Since you, Traxus, and you, Chabert, have seen The Antichrist, I don’t want to say too much, or definitely see the film!
    On the other hand, I just think this is bad critical practice: “to discuss Antichrist in such terms—or, indeed, to seek to destroy it—is to play into von Trier’s game.”

    What could “play von Trier’s game possibly mean? If you grant the autorial idea of the film – which I’m not completely happy with – then, of course, seeing any film, from October to Debbie does Dallas, is playing the director’s game. If you don’t want to play the game, don’t see the film. It bothers me when I see pop critique, intermixed with heavy theory, that never gives the art object a chance to mean – it always competes with its meaning, tries not to “play its game’ by meaning before the film does. That is not refusing the role of the passive consumer, that is simply competing an infinite prestige competition with the film. The only way you could not play von Trier’s game, or Eisenstein’s, or Spielberg’s, is to watch it with your eyes. closed.
    To my mind, this betrays a parti pris. Since I detest “spielberg’ films – authorial intent, I have to say, in a movie often simply becomes a sort of stylized product placement, okay, here we will make this Spielbergian – I would probably not want to play his game or see his movie, but that would foreground anything I had to say about it. Not wanting to play his game means that no matter what content that is signed by von Trier, Pieranson would hate it. The critique is pre-made, the movie, whatever it is, is just the variable in the exercise. Well, I hate that kind of thing. I must admit.

  22. traxus4420 Says:

    peranson is saying that to praise it or condemn it in these terms:

    “present for a crucial moment not only of Cannes history, but cinematic history in general”

    is to play into von trier’s game. i don’t know if von trier really has a ‘game’ per se, though his films (and those of many high end film directors) are often treated as if that is the case, and at any rate it seems a reasonable guess.

    earlier in the piece peranson fleshes out what sort of ‘game’ he doesn’t want to play:

    “At Cannes, stupid critics lose sight of the goals of film criticism—instead, their function becomes the need to make over-the-top, egregious generalizations and pronouncements with as little critical thinking and reflection as possible. Part of this surely stems from the ceaseless waves of projections, one “masterpiece” giving way to another “abomination.” Thus, what otherwise, in a different context, might seem acceptable becomes plain-out stupid; what may be a mediocre effort by an always talented auteur—as great filmmakers never make bad films—becomes a high masterpiece.”

    you have to take into account the form of the piece as well — he’s not really writing movie reviews or doing analysis here. it’s a biz article, a festival overview he was overall dissatisfied with, he doesn’t really have the space to open himself to each film and respond to it fresh the way you want him to.

  23. roger, don’t most consumers of film criticism want critics to produce interpretations, not act as spokespersons for the fillmakers (“nature is evil and woman is controlled by nature”) or reporters (this then this, this was nice that was scawee, this was pretty and then it gets eerie, i didn’t like that but I liked this….). Criticism is booming because even the most vacuous film, like Antichrist, can be a pretext for not-vacuous critical production. This post is very engaging, isn’t it? And semiosis is occuring in it. You could enjoy it even though for you Antichrist is literally nothing, unseen, unheard, unknown.

  24. “But Nature rhetoric aside, the hysterical violence of Antichrist’s final act forecloses conservative nostalgia for ‘pre-modern’ gender relations”

    i”m thinking about this – isn’t it expressing this nostalgia? And the christian justification?. He is the protag of a cautonary tale: he, Human, with divine element, immortal soul, spark of divine intelligence, is seduced by She, loses vigilance, takes her off the drugs other men have wisely sedated her with, takes her to her turf fallen nature, and then its a mess, violent chaos. But this is all due to his (fleshly) weakness and neglect of his duty to master her (She complains of this explicitly, he’s distant, he’s never there, he’s not controlling her vigilantly enough); had he been a firm master, not seduced into irresponsibility and feminist delusion, she wouldn’t have to cut her clitoris off. He would have been husbanding her nature for its fecundity and productivity profitably, instead of letting it run wild unruly unmastered and the having to try to shove it back in the bottle.

  25. Chabert, if we go into what is wrong with film criticism, we will never come out!

    But to get back to what Traxus is saying, if the question of the game is really about whether this is a moment in cinema history or just a movie, there might be some substance in the snark. It still is not self-evident substance. I can easily think of movies – the Exorcist, Psycho – that are moments in cinema history (which I’m going to generously believe is not mere rhetorical ratatattat, but means had some effect on the films that came after them), and yet don’t present themselves as ‘masterpieces’. There’s a nice phrase of Lydia Ginzburg’s – genre consciousness – which would imply that there are internal restraints, given by the genre one is working in, which one can either respect or chose to violate – but the latter course is more difficult, and prone to disaster. To make a western on the cheap that seems to speak to the whole Western mythology is one thing – to decide to speak to the whole Western mythology and squeeze that into a Western is another thing. The Exorcist is probably a good reference, here, since – as I vaguely remember – it was received as some statement about the return of religion, or something like that. Does anybody think of the Exorcist in those terms anymore? I think the reputation of the Exorcist now is that it mainstreamed projectile vomiting. I’m really hoping the Antichrist doesn’t mainstream do it yourself clitorectomy, (that was the kicker for me – I’m not up for watching do it yourself clitorectomy. Le Sang des Betes is as far as I go in the violence field).

  26. “I can easily think of movies – the Exorcist, Psycho – that are moments in cinema history (which I’m going to generously believe is not mere rhetorical ratatattat, but means had some effect on the films that came after them), and yet don’t present themselves as ‘masterpieces’. ”

    How would anyone know this at the time of the film’s release? The foolishness of the blogger’s remark is only underscored by a reminder that the Exorcist was a sign of things to come. I do think that people who think about ideology and pop culture politically do think of the exorcist and the omen as films that heralded and indeed even assisted in the advent of Reaganism and the rise of fundamentalist right wing christianity and christofascism in the US, as well as the backlash against feminism and progressive social democracy and the general irrationalisation of public discourse; certain kinds of film buffs and film geeks would be more interested in the vomiting, but this is a result of this unfortunate history, not a more advanced state of knowledge achieved through progress of the science of film criticism.

  27. “(that was the kicker for me – I’m not up for watching do it yourself clitorectomy”

    yes the film works hard to create the urgent necessity of Her death; its the only possible end, just get rid of this thing. from the first minute it’s working on getting the audience to just want to scrape this thing off its shoe and incinerate it, just put it out of its misery and get it out of your face.

  28. traxus4420 Says:

    chabert –

    “isn’t it expressing this nostalgia?”

    i thought no, because i can only read the flatness and insipidity of “His” attempts to normalize her through therapy (where he is constantly vigilant, determines her location and most of her actions) as parodic. the film is borderline contemptuous of his healthy grief, which is then sublimated into a desire to solve the problem of his wife. i didn’t detect any suggestion that successfully mastering her would be possible while also letting her live. childbirth itself seems to be what first made her crazy. the (medieval) christian solution — the subject of her research and what make the film legible as horror — is to match her natural destructiveness by destroying her first. but this fails to eradicate her evil because it is also inside him, the poisonous remainder of the gender split for which the witch trials are presented as a kind of primal scene (and so he is swarmed by identity-less women at the end, where the film completely breaks with realism). i think you’re right that She is just this disgusting thing and impossible to reform.

  29. traxus4420 Says:

    roger –

    i think the clitorectemy is the logical next step to two trajectories – u.s. ‘torture porn’ — think Saw, Hostel, the various remakes of ’70s and ’80s slasher flicks, all of which are responding to challenges from Italian and Japanese gore exploitation genres (Hostel 2 had a similarly shot scissors castration scene that wasn’t the first of its kind) — and the ‘new european extremity’ of recent years: see gaspar noe, the aja brothers, alexandre bustillo and julien maury, david moreau and xavier palud, fabrice du welz, michael haneke arguably, which are in gore competition with the u.s. primarily, and for whom home invasion and torture of bourgeois couples is a popular theme.

    which is just to say i don’t think it’s enough of an ‘innovation’ to count. of course you never know — it WAS directed by lars von trier, after all.

    i personally think le sang des betes outdoes anything mentioned in this thread — but then once i know the violence is real i become a complete pushover. i can hardly watch youtube clips of riots.

  30. traxus4420 Says:

    which is just to say — obviously we can’t predict the future of any film’s reception ahead of time — but we can criticize arguments that try to do that using specious or nonexistent means of justification. and that is part of a film critic’s responsibility.

    i think an argument could made that, aside from the soundtrack, the most interesting thing about the exorcist is the projectile vomiting.

  31. thanks traxus. yeah okay i see. I just felt that in the beginning there is this old style horror film tone of watching him make the fateful mistakes. Like “let’s split up”, in this it’s Dafoe making all these “typical” mistakes. Oh no! Check on the baby first! Oh no don’t try to headshrink your family! oh no don’t take her off the drugs! don’t go with her out there all alone!

    The therapy is the example of the mistake – its like a soft gesture at the kind of control he needs to exert and its also based on what is presented as the feminist myth of her equal individual rational humanity. The assumption of the therapist is the patient is like him and can be a self governing individual. This is the error He makes, that men have made in accepting the basics of feminism. He has foregone the protections of the whole patriarchal social order constructed to control her which could control her, the man is the head of the wife, and christ is his head, etc.. He foolishly allows her to abolish all that. He thinks she is like him; he doesn’t believe in psychoanalysis or witches. His error. She’s necessary, she is life force and reproductive power, but she’s dangerous. In modernity, her dangerousness is treated as a myth vulnerable to criticism, so that’s his error. (that’s in the point about the structuralist porn’s conservatism, I take it.) But he only finds himself in the desperate situation of having to annihilate her, only finds himself with only extermination as an option, because he made all these fateful errors, of allowing the social apparatus that controls her to wither, of allowing her a degree of liberty (to study, to parent the kid – to be alone with the kid on her turf), thinking she had a psyche like his. It’s not just this one particular He but He, Man, has made these early-in-the-horror-film errors of lapsed vigilance (so have lost their authority and allowed the female menace loose) and as a result She, out of control, is killing off boys to keep them from becoming men and of conquering nature and death and regaining paradise etc..

  32. traxus4420 Says:

    chabert — i think all that’s exactly right, and the misogynist content of the film, but i don’t think it adds up to nostalgia because his error is at the same time his destiny. as you say, there’s a generic logic behind the series of mistakes that lead to the horrific climax, just like the sorority girl running up the stairs instead of out the door. antichrist, like structuralist pop culture criticism of the zizekian type, suggests a homology between the logic of genre and what catmint calls a “mysterious, quasi-divine social order.” it presents this as tragedy, as a insoluble problem. the “accepting the basics of feminism” inherent to the ‘ego psychology’ dafoe’s shrink practices, his assumption of her individual rationality, is conflated with the older patriarchal expectation that she is at least an emotionally invested, caring mother and productive in that way. but there’s nothing to “husband” – her sin against independent manhood isn’t overmothering, it’s actively destructive and ‘nihilistic.’ he is the social apparatus, there’s nothing he could have done differently, just like she, as the embodiment of feminine nature, is chaos, and so their relation is necessarily chaos.

  33. traxus4420 Says:

    no, you’re right, he’s not the same as the social apparatus — the main thing he could have differently is listen to her and the medical student early in the film and drug her up. but that would be to deny his masculine identity aka admit his failure to overcome symbolic castration (as the film makes clear with his cliched defense of his actions – I know best, I have more personal experience). he heroically but foolishly defies society’s constraints when its ‘feminizing’/castrating tendencies threaten his independence and ideal of self-control by usurping his dominion over her as his responsibility/property (and this is conflated with his mistaken belief that she can be rehabilitated into rationality like him, aka that she has accepted castration). but that means there can be no nostalgia for an earlier era of patriarchy, because man and his defiance of a universally ‘feminizing’ modern social order is part of the problem.

  34. thanks traxus; I get it now. (the drugs also treat her as a body, as “matter”; as you point out He’s error is locating the problem in her “mind” as a distinct realm)…I guess it just seems that the context is a movie, so if men keep making this same movie, in which he shows what She is and then puts her down, it implies there are ways of exploiting her and dealing with her as always. At first glance it seems the hopeful vision of the tamed woman that is usually supplied alongside – as in fatal attraction or hand the rocks the cradle, etc – seems to be missing except reading the reviews you realise she is there, and is the actress charlotte gainsbourg. Her submissiveness and obedience, loyalty and productivity, are there as visible as, and far more poignant than, her ‘character’s’ violence, and so these two sides of Woman are there distict but united even more perfectly to express the ideology than usual; they are split clearly but are also clearly inextricably fused.

  35. traxus4420 Says:

    sorry for the lag — that’s a good point and one i overlooked.

    the cliff’s notes to a study of misogyny in and around art films here:

    “Underneath the projection of the female body where we in turn project our fantasies in the dark is the corporeal female, a malleable dough where filmmakers mold their fantasies of torture, assault and degradation and present them as art. Gainsbourg won the best actress award at Cannes and wanted to share the prize with Lars von Trier. “I had trust in him and he is a great artist”, she revealed at the press conference following her award. Gainsbourg thanked Cannes for being courageous in taking in a film “like Antichrist” and said that her role was “the strongest, most painful and most exciting” thing she had done in her life. She announced that her father Serge Gainsbourg would have been “proud but shocked” and that her mother Jane Birken was her “confidante” on the set. Sharing her prize with the creator gave the picture a legitimate seal of approval. And so the question of misogyny must fall. The approval by the actress ultimately “liberates” the director. That is how misogyny becomes invisible.”

  36. thanks traxus

    I think von Trier has only one “game”, really, which is to see how far his audience will go in pretending not to know anything about abu ghraib and the rest of the torture gulag and torture policy. Very far, judging from the reviews – all the way to the furthest, oldest abractions. They will all indeed convert to pre-modern Christianity to avoid mentioning or thinking about these petty nasty current events. So the scapegoating seems just sort of routine. So here’s an hour of pictures of this woman torturing this guy but the audience – the imperial core middle classes are so pure of heart and innocent it is incredible – sees nothing but the most timeless tropes or the mightily bewailed ‘trauma’ of its own encounters with its own normal bodily fluids. The rewards it offers for this see-hear-speak no evilism are what makes the film loathesome and not just thrills for kidsendummies.

  37. the funny George Romero line ‘I don’t get the torture porn films. They’re lacking metaphor.”

  38. The region 2 DVD of Antichrist looks just like Saw or Hostel – the cover is scratchy lettering and a close-up of blood-dripping sciccors.

    When it comes to contemporary films, I judge them as much from their marketing as ‘authorial intent’. Von Trier is clearly aiming for ‘desensitized’ teens – big bucks and ‘yuck factor’ repeat viewings. That the theatrical release played to critical attentions just belies his insecurity and (‘depressing’?) awareness of the con trick that he plays with dumbed-down critics.

    I liked Synecdoche – not least because its nostalgaic pre-911 postmodernism, and lack of 00s sadism/distance/allegory was strangely comforting. But then I’ve always preferred films about death as opposed to just killing. Im actually hoping they try to base a TV show on it!

  39. “the con trick that he plays with dumbed-down critics. ”

    but he gives them the real cawfee tawk topic – all you americans got from feminism is lynndie england – i think clearly assuming american critics would bite, and say, you know yes finally someone tells the truth! it’s misogynist but it’s true! feminism has released the empire of satan! but you know, then they didn’t. they turned out to have better manners, to have been better brought up culturally. like the critic quote here expresses, the critics have rumbled him really; there was all the trained seal response to dogville and manderlay but to this people said oh enough already. zzzzzz. maybe though just because it is not very engaging in a viceral sensual way, kinda boring, ugly, and with that jolting of the handheld camera crossing a threshold to where it’s just drawing all the attention away from the fictional illusion.

  40. I thought ‘enough already’ by act 2 of Breaking the Waves.

    As for cawfee tawk topic – the combo of teen-friendly ‘extreme’ with critical discussion (even ultra-negative reviews of Antichrist got the lead in the press film pages) appears to be the dominant trend of Euro ‘art cinema’ now (or at least the kind marketed to English-speaking audiences).

    Or perhaps the promise of extreme violence/rape/torture/mutilation has replaced the promise of sexual tittilation that once sold Euro movies to the US in the mid-20th century? Compare the roles of Isabel Huppert with Joanne Moreau for a crude comparison. Ugly, drawn out rape scenes seem de rigeur for any ‘crossover’ Euro actress these days….

  41. traxus4420 Says:

    i might as well post this here —


    According to one source, the game will include “dead babies, psychological terror, mutilated genitals, and ultra fear.” And if that didn’t all sound ambitious enough, it will apparently “download grotesque news from the Web,” manipulating game play based on real-time, real-world events.

  42. traxus4420 Says:

    wedge – i didn’t think synecdoche was pre-9/11 at all – i mean building a constantly expanding replica of his life to keep out the dirty reality? it’s kaufmann’s earlier themes blown up to epic proportions, or ‘updated for our post-9/11 era.’

    also let’s not slam the whole continent for one lousy movie. have you seen any of arnaud desplechin’s work? it’s really good. sometimes i can even be in the mood for the dardenne brothers. this ‘extreme’ stuff is one trend. it’s true about the u.s. marketing though — the business for the more conventionally horror films is all US, the french aren’t that interested and it’s hard to get funding.

  43. traxus4420 Says:

    chabert – the camera crew was only noticeable to me in an eye-rolling ‘oh that again’ way. the pseudo-verite thing is so conventionalized now (and it’s always been a von trier convention), especially in horror. it was more jarring for me when he used formal long shots during the computer-enhanced dream sequences — it’s not like him to all of a sudden go for a music video look. the cinematographer also did the seminal ’00s horror flick 28 days later, and its follow-up, slumdog millionaire, and it resembles in a way the work done on children of men and district 9 (the desaturated colors, harsh highlights, shaky faux-documentary camera, yet high-def) — the look genre films go for when they want to be seen to address important issues. here instead of the sweep of society in chaos von trier’s trying to do friedkin meets oshima with trippy ‘art’ imagery thrown in, and maybe the elements don’t quite gel.

    it’s the critics who fancy themselves philosophers who like it the most…

    but back to horror, i think romero’s got it wrong. the torture porn films are swimming in metaphor! at the same time they need the gore to be, not quite ‘realistic’ but definitely hardcore, detailed, ‘an experience,’ and one that doesn’t make the same gestures toward its fictionality that the ’70s horror always did. it’s not a stable or especially coherent mixture.

  44. Well, I did emphasise the kind of Euro ‘art’ aggressively marketed to English speaking audiences (taking cues from the marketing of Japanese and Korean sadism)

    Like their spiritual godfathers Tarantino and Rodruiguez, the torture porn film-makers (along with less sadistic super-geeks like Zak Snyder) may be swimming in metaphor, but have no grasp of context or historical meaning. This is what differs them from Craven, Hooper, Romero, Cronenberg or even Lucas and Spielberg. Current geekdom is all detail, quantification and sensation for its own sake – their interviews focus on what they find ‘cool’, not what they’re trying to ‘say’.

    The makers of the first Superman movie were fully aware of what Superman would mean to audiences in 1978. Snyder couldn’t even grasp the (very blatant) metaphors and satirical aspects of Watchmen’s source text.

    Nolan and Raimi are somewhat more savvy about what their franchises ‘mean’ than the mini-Tarantinos – which may be why their superhero franchises, for all their flaws and uncertainties, were so much more successful than others.

  45. […] A provocative series on ‘The Aesthetics of Stupidity’ starts here and continues here, at American […]

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