Lars Von Trier

REAL MEAN CRITTER

MEDEA

1969

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In White Trash the historian Nancy Isenberg writes about social class in the United States. Somewhere in the book she mentions a Hollywood film that used authentic working class people from the rural south. The director wanted to be realistic. When the producer saw the hillbillies, he had them replaced with actors. Not because the hillbillies were required to act and failed. The producers thought that the unkempt appearance of these deprived people would disturb and repel American cinema audiences. No doubt Pier Paolo Pasolini had his production problems but his films are distinguished by the presence of the poor labourers of southern Italy.  The rural poor may have bad teeth and wrinkles but Pasolini needed them for his pastoral vision. In the introduction to Medea the centaur proclaims that ‘there is nothing natural in the natural world’. There is no reason to believe that a centaur understands the natural world but he has a point. What exists and what we ignore are wonder and mystery. Our true inheritance is a planet complicated by billions of years of history. That environmental change was not designed. What happened to the oceans and the land before industrialisation was both inevitable and authentic. Pasolini argued that this magic and wonder could only be appreciated by humans unspoilt by modern society and crass capitalism. His centaur reveals that the corruption began before industrialisation. He claims that everything is sacred but holiness is a curse. This we realise is how the hierarchy began. We surrendered to people who had no idea of what made us blessed but who could impose discipline and pretend it was piety.

Medea is a visual feast. The landscape and costumes are fabulous and exotic but Pasolini does not ask his audience to admire his imagination. Compared to Medea the designs in modern movies, although often impressive, feel like excess decoration intended merely to add inconsequential distinction. In the tribal community imagined by Pasolini theatre and performance are not something that exist as separate entities. Together they are an essence that was tasted in everyday existence. Pasolini was a Marxist. He bought the dialectic version of history and believed in his own didactic responsibilities. The exotic imagery in Medea is a reminder that history books or trips to monuments can inform but they will never reveal the splendour of the past. Life and people were different then.

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The main plot in Medea begins with the sacrifice of a young man. His head and limbs are removed. His blood is shared amongst the people in his community. They all take a couple of sips. The blood is then used to fertilise the ground and invoke a good harvest. As the great bluesman B B King almost said, we are talking about the primitive here, don’t you know? The narrative that follows in Medea is fanciful but simple. In the original play by Euripides all the scenes were two handers, Medea talking to someone else. It may have been this dialectical construction that attracted Pasolini to the play. Euripides emphasises the clashes between Medea and others. Pasolini retains some of the personal conflict but he also compares societies as well as individuals. As well as being betrayed by Jason, Medea is also a victim of history and the imperial ambition of Jason and his followers. Medea resists and fights the intruders. Her resistance, though, does not translate into heroism. Instead the actions of Medea make her corrupt, and she loses human feeling.

Medea lives on Colchis, an island that has primitive rituals. Despite fathering her three children Jason abandons her for the daughter of the King Of Corinth. The daughter is younger, and Corinth is a more advanced and materialistic civilisation. Before the film is finished Medea will have killed her brother, her own three children and caused the death of the King of Corinth and his daughter. There are two cinematic versions of Medea that are important. In 1988 Lars Von Trier filmed a script by the great ascetic aesthetic Carl Dryer. The version taken from the Dryer script emphasises the personal tragedy, the impact of betrayal and the need for revenge and to have the last word against an enemy that was once loved. Dryer also had his polemical moments and he could be critical of the attitudes of authority but he was no leftie. If Dryer adds a modern perspective, it is Freudian rather than Marxist. For Pasolini the tragedy of Medea includes not just the loss of a love but also seeing her world and the primitivism that gave her power and worth being destroyed. Although Medea uses her magic to destroy the woman that Jason wants to marry, her actions require a visit from her dead father to convince Medea that she can still be destructive, magical and potent. Medea has her vengeance but she is reduced, as is her world. The violence that she had known before Jason was not wilful aggression but acts that honoured her land, gods and existence. The final scene confirms what we suspected from the beginning.  Medea and Jason and their two different worlds are lost to each other, separated by an uncontrollable fire. This violence is not part of a narrow ritual but wanton and out of control.

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The motives of Medea are vindictive and inspired by a hatred of Jason and a physical connection that cannot be destroyed.  She also realises that because of the alternative world of Corinth and its seduction of Jason there is no place for her children to now exist. Or in other words Pasolini has his ideological cake and eats it. This fusion between what could be two opposing interpretations of not just the play by Euripides but human nature is what makes the Pasolini version of Medea fabulous and a classic movie. Since the play by Euripides we have had the modern world and urban discontent when the poor have destroyed the homes of their neighbours and the prospects for their children. It might hurt but it is a way of denying a conquering world the expected triumph.

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Pasolini chose Maria Callas to play Medea.  Photographs of them working together and enjoying the company of each other still exist. The opportunity for them to discuss Marxist theory would have been limited. Callas was a jet-setter and she enjoyed the company of the rich. Pasolini, though, did not seek friends amongst those on the left. The Italian Communist Party expelled him in 1949.  In 1969, when students and the police faced each other across the barricades, Pasolini sympathised with the police. He said the policemen were poor folk doing a job for people who told them lies. Pasolini described the students as left wing fascists. The man has to be given credit for prescience.  In Britain most of those students welcomed Thatcher and neoliberalism. They were also seduced by the technology that Pasolini felt was destroying human experience. Today it is difficult for young people to understand the vehemence many in the 60s felt for the modern technological world. Something happened and, rather than think about history and what may have been lost, people turned to geography and looked at the poorer parts of the world. If that was the past, they were not interested. In 1969, though, people like Pasolini remembered abandoned community and a natural world that was being treated with contempt. At the end of the film we hear Medea scream that it is hopeless now. What was lost cannot be reclaimed and that applies to the natural world, Medea and us.

Callas is good as Medea. Her iconic status, celebrity and strong facial features make her an imposing presence. She is believable as the powerful wronged woman. The clash between her and Jason has to have consequence. The behaviour of Royalty to each other through the centuries has been often violent and appalling. This is how rulers operate when their power and status are at stake.

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There are fine moments in Medea.  Neither the landscape nor the music has anything to do with Greece but together they persuade us that we are watching and hearing an unknowable world. The villagers chase Jason off the island. This is marvellous, as is the sea journey when we see a bored Jason being anything but impressive.   Medea kills her brother, and in the legend and the play this makes sense but in the film the point of the slaying is lost. The murder of the three children, though, is very effective. Medea loves these children. She cannot see a future for her or them.  Anger has been replaced by resignation. Unable to nurture she is obliged to destroy.

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Pasolini was murdered when he was 53 years old. The initial reaction was that it happened because of his gay sex life. He was, though, killed by a violent gang. They may have been gangsters or right wing fanatics who objected to his politics.   By the time of his death Pasolini had become celibate. Pasolini had said that modern man did not appeal to him. They smell different, he said. He meant from how they should smell. His most popular films were based on bawdy and historical tales. They made him money but also provided some therapy. Pasolini was able to imagine people as he thought they should be – lusty, unashamed, a little smelly and not bored by comfort and relentless indulgence, people able to go outside and fill their nostrils with fresh air.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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REAL MEAN CRITTERS

PUSHER

DENMARK, 1996

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Since the election of Donald Trump the phrase Man Baby has appeared often. Baby is perhaps an exaggeration. Man Boy is better. A Man Boy, we have discovered, is an impatient bully who has an exaggerated sense of entitlement. Man Boys, which may or may not be the plural, think they are entitled to everything their mothers promised them and everything that their inferior mothers lacked the ability to imagine. Man Boys do not regard women as their equals. They cannot. They have feelings of superiority to most human beings. So far the term Man Boy has been used by left wing critics to puncture the reputations of greedy and vulgar businessmen and coarse right wing politicians.  But Man Boys are everywhere. Working class gangsters are Man Boys. This should be no surprise. Gangsters are violent and unpleasant but they have the same interest in money as businessmen.   Man Boys, though, are not just interested in money.   Writers and filmmakers include a fair number of Man Boys.   Bohemia, the cultural homeland and not the place, is full of Man Boys and even Women Girls.   The creative Man Boy witnesses chaos and suffering and rubs his hands at the prospect of an idea for a film.   Twisted violence and torture can make Man Boys giggle.

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Nicolas Winding Refn is the other famous Danish filmmaker and not the one everyone knows.  Like Lars Von Trier, he is talented but a little odd. Although we had seen it all before somehow his film Drive impressed the critics. Winding Refn is a stylish director and he has a sense of character and destiny.  This strength undermined a film about an existential loner and his motor car but what the hell.  Camus has been long dead, more the pity. The films of Winding Refn and Von Trier are bold but also self-important. People give them millions of dollars to spend, which means that there are more than a few people who can live with self-importance. Valhalla Rising was an attempt by Winding Refn to match the epics of the equally odd Werner Van Herzog.  Valhalla Rising cost nearly $6m and made $31,000.   Even money launderers would baulk at that but perhaps that film was more self-important than bold. Winding Refn and Von Trier may just be the challenging filmmakers that audiences need if we are to survive jaded modernity.  Or they may be Man Boys, adult versions of the kind of children who giggled when they were asked to wipe their noses. To the surprise of no one Winding Refn directed a film that was based on the life of Bronson the violent criminal. Now incarcerated in Broadmoor amongst the violent and insane the troubled armed robber Bronson has assaulted an awful lot of people. Sometimes he holds his victims hostage. He also paints and writes poetry. Bronson is a role model for Man Boys everywhere.  Donald Trump may be a fan.

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For those inspired by the Danish record on economic equality and education the term Copenhagen Underworld may sound like an oxymoron. It is not. Winding Refn and Von Trier may be Man Boys but, because they have neither illusions nor moral aspirations, their films can sometimes benefit . The people in Pusher are unpleasant, and their immorality is convincing. These people want the freedom to be better but not in the way Camus imagined. They want more money, status and gratification.

Pusher is the first of a trilogy.   All are set in Copenhagen. Some of the characters appear in more than one film.   Winding Refn was reluctant to make sequels to Pusher but he needed to earn money because he was in debt. Valhalla did not rise.   When potential film projects are mentioned, the name of Winding Refn is often mentioned. Film directors who survive know what it is like to be a desperate hustler. Winding Refyn has also talked about how the second in the Pusher series reflects his own complicated relationship with his father.   This may be why that film is the best of the trilogy.  The series began, though, with a frantic search for money.

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Frank buys drugs from Milo.  Frank intends to sell them to someone else and make a profit.  Frank will pay Milo for the drugs he has bought after he sells them.  The economic model is simple. There is a distributor, wholesaler, retailer and customer, and something supposedly marvellous called credit. Frank is the wholesaler. Pusher may be a criticism of capitalism or it may simply be a tale of chaotic lives. It does, though, expose the network of exploitation and abuse that develops from commercial contracts, profit and the advantage of economic power. Mix in male authority, and somehow people have to survive. This means that dependencies are established. Thanks to the the films of Michelangelo Antonioni we all know the thin line between dependency and prostitution. The girlfriend of Frank says, ‘I’m not a whore. I’m a champagne girl.’ She is confused about how she earns her money but so are the rest of us. When Frank attempts to sell the heroin supplied by Milo, the police intervene and Frank loses both the heroin and the money Milo was expecting to be paid.

After the 2008 financial crash there has been debate about whether risk should be proportioned amongst creditors and debtors. The progressive argument is that creditors should be expected to take some of the risk if they expect to make profit or interest. They are exercising a judgement that may or may not be rewarded. The progressives argue that moral hazard is important to all economic decisions. In 2008 the bankers and their friends in government felt otherwise and were happy to make people homeless. Milo thinks like the bankers. He wants his money, and, if it is not paid, Frank can keep his apartment but he will lose a kneecap. This is life on the edge. Money or the lack of it can mean obliteration. Filmmakers must have similar feelings when their deals go sour. We suspect that some of the film, like the sequel, is inspired by the personal experience of Winding Refn.

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At the beginning of the film we see drug dealers Frank and Tonny relaxing.  Winding Refyn researched the film. He spoke to Copehagen criminals and he attended Narcotics Anonymous. Pusher impresses because the scenes of Frank and Tonny having fun are just as disturbing as the violent confrontations that follow. Men like Frank and Tonny need to impress other men.   Reassurance is essential for these aspiring gangsters, and they make exaggerated demands of their friends. Bravery and loyalty is challenged, and in the moments they can afford to relax the drug dealers insist on bear hugs. Empathy is important but complicated by performance and a need to shock.  Of course, it distorts their relationship with women. Frank and Tonny take comfort over what they regard as their superior status to their girlfriends.  The locker room talk between Frank and Tonny is not inauthentic but it is overwritten.  It feels as if a shopping list of sexual activities has been crammed into one conversation.

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Kim Bodnia is the actor that plays Frank. He has played gangsters and sensitive husbands hurt by unloving wives. He has a range. In Pusher he combines violence and vulnerability, the spot of innocence that is, according to Camus, at the heart of everyone.  Pusher reveals how self-destruction in people without hope is informed by not just irresponsibility but fantasy. It becomes the final tool for demonstrating defiance.   By the end of the film we have a sense of how violent and destructive hustlers lack the ability to imagine either the future or life in another place. The criminals in Pusher are trapped in dependency, powerlessness and bravado. Frank and Milo, like most drug dealers in the movies and perhaps real life, are men without a contingency plan. The easy options they use to make money and their willingness to settle arguments with violence leave them with undercooked imaginations. This was what happened to Lee Marvin in the classic thriller Point Blank when he was obliged to retreat in the shadows around him. He only understood what could be achieved through his own violent power and ruthlessness. Frank is the same. He is cunning but unable to comprehend why his lack of culpability in the drug deal that went wrong is no protection against the wrath of Milo. This is a failure of imagination. When a proposal for peace is made by Milo, we watch the imagination of Frank become incoherent. The amoral hustler who thought people could be pushed aside is unable to distinguish between salvation and damnation.   Again, like the champagne girl, Frank is not that different from the rest of us.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.