Blindspot: Breaking the Waves (1996)

Breaking the Waves (3)

Note: I go into extreme detail of the plot of this film, so be wary of spoilers below. If you have yet to see Breaking the Waves I highly recommend it. 

Belief is the key word I like to focus on when discussing religion. Like many people I see it as a troubling topic of discussion because it barely ever involves much discussion if people are disputing elements or it as a whole. I feel it’s almost as worthy as discussing the logic gaps in the mythology of Marvel superheroes. Both are fleshed out completely within books and ask the reader for complete belief no matter what is put in front of you. Don’t question why Iron Man’s atomizer allows him to life the world itself, just accept it and believe in the lore laid before you.

With that in mind it’s easy to scratch your head a few times and just know that it’s pointless to debate it, even though people continually try. The middle ground that I find fascinating is people discussing finding themselves in theology. Finding where the morals and of dogmatic law, honestly I’m not even sure if I’m saying that bit right, fall within their own and how and if they can change either themselves or their perception of those laws to suit their own all in the name of conforming or understanding another world. There is however the opposite of that aspect of life, and that’s either complete acceptance or dismissal.

Breaking the Waves isn’t Lars von Trier’s discussion of religion and morals of reality coming up against it but rather his own little middle finger to the conversation entirely. However, it never feels like he’s completely refusing scripture or discussion, but rather refusing those people who refuse to discuss and understand.

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I’ve found in my lifetime a lot of curious interpretations of religion and come to my own decision on the topic. However, this came after years of assimilation and after that more years of confrontation. I essentially was that person as I spoke of above, trying to reconcile my morals with that of religions’. I remain open to any and all theological discussions as I feel Lars von Trier is. However, this film feels like coming from someone who’s confrontational years were way too violent and his reconciliation was impossible. It feels as though he wanted to wave his middle finger not at God or any other religious iconography, but at the people who shoved that religion down his throat.

The film follows Bess (Emily Watson) after she marries Jan (Stellan Skarsgard) and the life that follows. Bess is a woman devoted to the church, while Jan remains unwilling to become a part of this radical following of scripture. Bess is also a seemingly mentally troubled person as she constantly is having conversations with God where she is offering answers to her own questions and continuing to believe that it is the God that is speaking through her. Jan is a worker on the drilling oils just off shore.

The film follows Bess as she consistently is finding solace in either the life that she’s just entered into with Jan or that relationship that she’s had forever with God.

Interestingly enough von Trier doesn’t discredit religion or God but rather the men that preach it. He does through firstly admitting their is a God through Bess. We begin the film certain that any and all scenes of this action are proof of something being wrong with Bess. However, slowly we come to recognize that it’s not Bess that’s wrong but the world. Lars von Trier has given us a protagonist who has a direct line to God. As she says, “I have the power of belief,” which means either he’s putting the men of God under scrutiny or the idea of belief itself. I am more for the former than the later, but then we’d be getting into theories and belief itself would eventually have to be entangled in it all — and wouldn’t we want to leave that out of this one.

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What pushes the film into that scrutiny of the system is that of Jan and Bess’ relationship and how it changes. After Jan leaves for stretch of work on an oil rig Bess becomes troubled and lonely, so during one of her chats with the man upstairs she asks for Jan to return immediately, as opposed to a few days from now. Coincidentally Jan has an accident that makes him return home, but the accident does a lot of damage and leaves him mostly paralyzed from the neck down. Bess feels guilty for this happening. Jan feeling that she must move on from him and not waste away her youthful years on a crippled man nearing death, as he looks to be everyday, asks something ludicrious of her that breaks most social norms of our world within not just day to day secular society but within the bounds of religious definitions of marriage. He claims that this will keep him alive. Bess enabled with not just her devotion to God, but her husband and belief in her duties she carries them out. AND IT WORKS!!!!

As the film ends and Bess dies carrying out her duties for her husband he manages to make a miraculous recovery. She’s outcast by society as now becoming a deviant and a sinner in order to save her beloved husband. However, just as the film is about to wrap up and we’re still allowed to theorize of the validity of her beliefs and coincidence we’re treated to one of the most blatantly opinionated forcing moments ever put in film that I can recall. Our characters, currently on an oil rig and in the middle of nowhere, are inexplicably hearing the sounds of church bells. Lars von Trier even lifts us up to the sky to see the bells of what we can only imagine is the heavens ringing down on the world as God himself is supposedly celebrating the life of Bess as the one true believer of these group of ants that reside on this earth judging and condemning.

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It’s spectacular. It is not so much an argument as much as it’s a complete dismissal of the religious system as we know it in the eyes of this Danish filmmaker.

In recent years whenever I find myself in religious and moralistic discussions that tend to be about social changes happening in the world today — more times than not it ends up being something about sexuality as we see more and more of the world start to hand out equal rights to other sexual orientations – I tend to listen keenly and respond in a way that I feel is the most correct. That being, “I find my favourite thing about religion as it stands is that it makes it perfectly clear that while it has a set of rules that it asks us to guide our life by it never asks us to judge. It intently knows that the judgement is not that of man’s decision but that of God. And I look forward to hearing his decision on me when the time comes, if that’s what happens.”

Lars von Trier, thank you for this unendingly intriguing perspective on systems that men continue to claim knowledge of when in truth we’re just following blindly.

What do you think of Breaking the Waves?

Fail-Safe (1964)

This is part of my Sidney Lumet Syllabus

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In January of 1964 if you lived in the US of A you would’ve been treated to a cinematic satire that we’re still trying to equal today without success with Stanley Kubrick‘s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Even the title itself is so ridiculously long that the moment you walked to the theatre and saw it on the marquee you probably asked the cashier weather “Worrying and Love the Bomb” was a different film entirely. Nine months later you would be treated to Sidney Lumet‘s discussion of the same topic in Fail-Safe.

Fail-Safe follows multiple perspectives of an ongoing system of pre-emptive preparations that America has made to react to an attack from the Soviet. This is shown through not only the chain of command, from President (Henry Fonda) to the General (Frank Bogan) to the Advisor (Walter Matthau) to the bomber pilot (Edward Binns) but also through the machine that they have entrusted the task of monitoring and managing all their communications through within this system. A multi-tiered system that has it’s own fail-safes checked and rechecked to check the checkers and uncheck those re-checkers and such. So what happens when a point of failure is so catastrophic that we’re unsure as to whether it can be fixed?

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The film follows that exact idea. With this tense situation of being deeply in fear of nuclear subatomic warfare we have all of these systems in place to give the American society a sense of safety, or at the very least solace in the fact that if the world went to hell they wouldn’t be the only ones going there — linking back to the ideas of the supposed “Doomsday” machine. Here however, on this particular day there’s a fault in the machinery and a bomber is accidentally given a go code to enter Russian airspace and attack Moscow. One failure leads to another such that the bomber cannot be recalled and now America must find a diplomatic way to resolve the situation which was once hypothetical is about to become real.

With academics immediately talking about they should use this mistake as a tactical advantage to wipe out communism and let the history books tell how it inspired victory and the politicians talking about how at no cost should they be the instigators of war to the pilots who’re following their orders and left in the dark with only their direct tasks and directives that help them be unwavering in the execution of those tasks no matter what, Fail-Safe attempts to show the importance of transparency and disarmament. Even today with arms being at the stage that they are now we still discuss whether disarmament is a plausible idea. Now we no longer need to have a bomber or a submarine off the coast awaiting the reception of a kill code but rather are a button press away from having drone strikes — queue up Sloan from Newsroom gif – do all the heavy lifting for us without having to endanger an actual soldier, from the attacker’s side that is. Has the world’s military standing changed much since the 50s and 60s? Is America still afraid of the next attack? Do they still have everything connected to a single button press?

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I’ve been trying to process the opening scene and I’m still unsure of where it truly was going, if it was at all related to the narrative of the film itself. As the film opens with General Black (Dan O’Herlihy) having a nightmare — as he says he’s had before — of a matador killing a bull with himself in the crowd. He watches, frightened, as the bull continually goes after the matador and the matador evades and plunges another blade into the bull’s body. Is the threat of war the bull? Is America or the General the matador? Is America continually dodging the threat of nuclear war? Or are they merely holding it at bay while it continues to lunge? I don’t know. I’m not even sure if it was even meant to be metaphoric. I do however note that it plays well as a frightening tone to begin a film like this which preys so heavily on our fears.

What do you think of Fail-Safe?

The Fugitive Kind (1960)

This is part of my Sidney Lumet Syllabus

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The film revolves around the world of Val Xavier (Marlon Brando) as he seems to stumble across a small town and manages to get job at a convenience store. Being a former entertainer his life is about to go through an intentional shift from the hustle and bustle of town to town goings to seek the extra dollar just so he can keep playing his guitar.

The Fugitive Kind is about how this supposedly grand character of Val is really not that. When you hear a person is an entertainer by profession you imagine so many exotic and crazed things. This comes mainly because the regular everyday folk’s life and work environment is so trite and understood that when we see something else, something new, something that looks fun we glorify it and fawn over it to the point of desire. So when we see someone from that desired lifestyle decide that our boring trite living is what he wants it puts a spin on everything that makes us sit back and wonder, “Why?“. 

The Fugitive Kind (2)The problem I have with The Fugitive Kind is that I don’t feel like it ever attempts to address this question of why. Why does Val leave his life on the road? Why is it that Lady Torrance (Anna Magnani) is that weirdly drawn to Val? Why is Carol (Joanne Woodward) this crazy?

I almost want to do something I find myself doing more often than I should. I want to blame myself. I want to say that I just wasn’t in the mood for a Tennessee Williams play turned film to give me that intimate southern hospitality of how a snake skinned jacketed man could turn this town upside down, or not really. And yes, I was thinking of Nicolas Cage in Wild at Heart all while watching Brando with his jacket in this film, it’s hard not to.

When entering the world of cinema a name that is received with the smallest amount of vitriol in any capacity is that of Marlon Brando. However, I find myself weirdly criticizing the beloved actor in this film. Something about his whispering tones as he delivers lines I wonder what part of it is acting and what part is just him. While he remains one of those personas that when it works it works I just thought in this regard it didn’t quite work.

Overall this a film of “it didn’t work” for me. What do you do when nothing lands? You admit it wasn’t for you and hope at the very least that one day in five to ten years you’ll forget you saw it and be able to give it a fair shake then.

What do you think of The Fugitive Kind?

 

Movie Review: All About My Mother (1999)

This is a part of my Pedro Almodovar Marathon.

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I honestly didn’t know I could plan this better. With the weekend past being mother’s day and this month’s upcoming Blindspot (still preparing to watch) being All About Eve this film was somewhat perfectly placed to buffer between all these things.

Manuela (Cecilia Roth) is the single mother of a film/art obsessed teenager, Esteban (Eloy Azorin), who on his 17th birthday when attempting to get a famous actress’ autograph after seeing her in a play is run over by a car and dies. This event prompts Manuela to leave Madrid and return to Barcelona to see her now deceased son’s father and confront the life she left behind eighteen years prior.

All About My Mother (3)During that first chapter where we’re introduced to Manuela and her son it kind of sets up the film perfectly. More than believing this is a story of Manuela dealing with the grief of losing her son I see it as a fantasy concocted by her son as he claims he wants to write a story about her. Esteban looking longingly at his mother who he loves deeply and continually scribbles notes into his book, watching All About Eve and A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as seeing her ‘perform’ in a simulated conversation at her work — as a nurse at a transplant hospital — with a pair of doctors practicing asking the bereaving to give consent to allowing their loved ones who’ve just past to donate their organs for transplants.

As the film progresses from it’s opening scenes and takes Manuela to Barcelona we find her embroiled in a fight in a prostituted area, meeting with a nun, becoming assistant to a famous actress (and eventually perform an stage next to her), and play a surrogate mother to many other wayward souls in this world. Remembering the mystic glances that we see Esteban look at his mother with it makes sense that he would write a story where she’s basically the hero to everyone we meet.

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This film is the realistic kind of fantastical that with each element being grounded in reality the fact that all these things happen to one person over such a short period of time it compounds itself in unbelievable nature and coincidence that it’s hard to not allow the possibility of fantasy to enter the discussion.

With the direct references to Bette Davis in All About Eve (and with the film titled All About My Mother; obvious connections) and A Streetcar Named Desire we see multiple instances of femininity rising above all outside forces. Even with the connection with Gena Rowlands in Opening Night, with the scene of Esteban trying to get Huma’s (Marisa Paredes) autograph outside the theatre the film wants to highlight the notion of these strong female archetypes. We have the prostitute who’s not afraid to admit her nature, the woman who’s become pregnant and wants to see it through regardless of the social boundaries she expects to meet, the actress who’s having career trouble and her friend being the drug addict, added to that the woman who’s lost her child; these are all stories told through the film and through the varying characters presented, the great part about this is that none of them every feel overbearing. Almodovar isn’t afraid to take that mixture of insane and let them stew for a while in small scenes where they can admit to one another that things aren’t great but still enjoy the moment (i.e. the drinking/ice-cream moment).

What do you think of All About My Mother?

1001 Films: How Green Was My Valley (1941)

This film is part of my small John Ford Marathon. How Green Was My Valley (3)

This is my fourth film in the John Ford marathon, and if there’s one thing I can say in praise of How Green Was My Valley in comparison to the rest of the films involved thusfar is that it is one of the best filmed movies of the lot. While I hold nothing against the films previously discussed, it seems that a level of detail and production went into this film that surpasses anything previously handed to me and it’s much appreciated.

It’s hard to watch a film like this and not see how it possibly influenced a favourite of mine, There Will Be Blood, to show the passage of time through the eyes of a boy as well as the discussion of religion and business and how it affects a man’s soul to be pulled between the two. We see the story — as told by Huw (Roddy McDowall) — of the Morgan family over the years  in a small Welsh mining community.

The opening fifteen minutes is a period of time in the film where we as an audience are uncertain what we’re about to get. We’re introduced to an unseen narrator — later discovered to be an older Huw — and he begins to tell How Green Was My Valley (1)us this story; however the film seems to be entering a visual feast that is unlike what we’ve come to expect from Ford. We see the hoard of men coming home from a day’s labour in the mine filling the street and singing their songs which creates a moment that while we’re privy to a few more times before the film is over, is so striking it’s difficult to run out of your mind.

The film, when you think of it’s beginning and end, almost feels as if we’re watching the writers play out what would be torture cinema on the Morgans as we watch them — the happy family — be taken through the ringer of life, but somehow I’m left wondering what it all meant. Is the film one in a long line of movies that prove that education is the only way up in life seeing Huw refuse the opportunity for a ‘dignified’ profession only to be drawn into this pitiful life which seems to only end in family turmoil and death. Or if you look at the life that a lot of the Morgans’ live — from the opening scene to the end — it’s a life of many pleasures which is simple but rewards one in ways that no ‘dignified’ profession would seem to.

Even the title of the film How Green Was My Valley is one that brings on nostalgia. As the film opens with a narration which cues us into the fact that we, along with Huw, are reminiscing. We even see in that opening scene — before we are transported back — Huw packing his things to leave his home as if to say that after all is said and done there’s nothing left to keep him here. All those pleasures and simple things have dried up, like the valley that was once so very green.

What do you think of How Green Was My Valley?