Tag Archives: environment

Melancholia (2011)

9 Dec

Lars Von Trier is a provocateur in the grand tradition of European martinets; continuing the lineage of wilful creative tyrants who revelled in furthering their mythology, bridled against the restrictions imposed on them, posed awkward questions and relished the discord, disquiet and discomfort they created. While his comrades in the pseudo-movement that was Dogme ‘95 have floundered, Trier has managed to remain a vital, divisive figure. Love him or hate him, he’s an artist who continues to evolve. Winner of Best Film at this year’s European Film Awards, ‘Melancholia’ is disarmingly beautiful; displaying an elegance that Trier abandoned in favour of the studied harshness that characterized his Dogme films, and the Brechtian rigour of his as-yet-unfinished ‘America’ trilogy.

On the day of her wedding, ad copyrighter Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is in the throes of a full-scale manic episode, retreating to her room and struggling to maintain her thin veneer of composure. As Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), struggles to help her through this breakdown, Claire’s stentorian husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), is watching the skies in anticipation. A planet called Melancholia that had been previously been hidden behind the sun is due to pass by Earth; and though the scientific calculations confidently state that the planet will leave Earth unscathed on its journey, creeping doubts remains as Melancholia draws closer.

This existential disaster film features a bravura opening sequence: loaded with gloom and foreboding, it encompasses Resnais’ surrealism, Dreyer’s pictorialism and Kubrick’s epic scope to create a heady melding of celluloid depth and digital crispness. This effect, moving forward while cognizant of the past, is achieved with the help of Manuel Alberto Claro’s stunning cinematography, Jette Lehmann’s detailed production design and Kristian Eidnes Andersen’s stirring arrangements of Wagner. But Trier hasn’t totally jettisoned the stark neo-realism of old; he uses natural light and handheld cameras throughout to track events in the imposing mansion straight out of ‘Last Year in Marienbad’ (1961).

For all his alleged misogyny, Trier treats his female characters with the utmost compassion; conversely, their male counterparts are callow, craven, pompous and overbearing. From Udo Kier as the comically highly-strung wedding planner, to Stellan Skarsgaard as Justine’s hard-nosed ad exec boss, to John Hurt as Justine’s raffish father, to Sutherland as the uptight social climber; they serve to embody the worst male traits, and their performances border on caricature when placed next to the complexity of Dunst and Gainsbourg’s contributions.

Like Hitchcock, Trier takes pleasure in putting the starlets of the day through the emotional ringer; working with Trier is an endurance test, a battle of wits that is a gateway to instant credibility if it works. Dunst is an actress in the process of transition; no longer able to portray the all-American girls with which she made her name, she must spread her wings or face an uncertain future. Dunst throws herself into the maelstrom of Justine’s mania, laying herself bare without recourse to overheated theatrics: in the context of Trier’s universe, performances work best when they are unadorned, and Dunst rises to the challenge with assurance and maturity. Charlotte Rampling, whose career trajectory provides the perfect model for Dunst, plays Justine’s iconoclastic mother with her usual poise, and Gainsbourg provides understated support to Dunst’s mercurial turn.

 The ‘doomsday writ small’ scenario is not a new one, but the majority of films that explore cataclysmic events from a single perspective or confined environment often feel like the story is subservient to the conceit. ‘Melancholia’, on the other hand, is a fully formed dramatic work, imbued with the Animistic spirit that first found its voice in ‘Antichrist’ (2009) and has much in common with Terrence Malick’s recent work, albeit laced with Trier’s usual sly humour and grandiose gestures. Trier deals with the subject unencumbered by mawkish sentiment, asserting that the prospect of impending doom won’t bring out the best in us, but serve to expose us for who we really are.

A warning issued by a Toronto cinema.


‘Collapse’ Review Link

20 Mar

Collapse (2009).

Darwin’s Nightmare (2004)

6 Mar

Films addressing the perils of globalization approach the subject from a variety of angles – there’s the broad satirical sweep of ‘The Yes Men’ (2003), the ideological rigour of ‘The Corporation’ (2003) and the hot-button populism of Michael Moore’s broadsides against corporate hegemony. A companion piece of sorts to ‘Life and Debt’ (2001), which explores the impact of IMF/World Bank edicts on Jamaica, ‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ takes to the streets of Tanzania to find the reality behind the statistics.

Lake Victoria is the largest tropical lake on earth; the source of the Nile, it is the heart of Africa. In the 1960s the Nile Perch was introduced to the lake, a voracious predator which destroyed all other species in the lake but proved to be ‘good economically’ – its fillets are a valuable commodity. Planes fly constantly into the Mwanza airfield, ostensibly to be filled with fish but also allegedly being used to smuggle weapons to war zones in neighbouring Angola, Liberia, Sudan and DRC. While more than half of its thirty-four million inhabitants live on less than a dollar a day and two million are affected by famine, the planes transport the country’s primary resource to Europe.

‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ presents lives on both sides of the divide – from Eliza, a young woman who sells her services to businessmen for ten dollars a night but yearns to return to school, to Dina, a radio engineer on a plane crew who travels to danger zones around the world but never questions his role in the suffering he sees. Of particular poignancy are the tales of Jonathan, Rafael and Mkono. Jonathan is a talented artist who documents the squalor of the slums, guiding the crew through the townships where children melt fish packages to make glue for sniffing. Raphael is a security guard working at the National Fisheries Institute for a dollar a day; an ex-soldier who yearns for the opportunity another war would bring. Mkono is the camp leader at Ito, an island populated by fishermen and prostitutes. A former teacher, he is the film’s voice of wisdom, commenting that ‘poverty is a vicious cycle and ‘only the strong survive’. To see such talent squandered is the film’s ultimate tragedy.

Writer/director/producer/cinematographer Hubert Sauper dispenses with the usual adjuncts used to prettify the medium; there is no narration and his camerawork has an immediacy that feels almost surreptitious at times – its grainy dimly-lit digital photography lags, judders and blurs on multiple occasions. He captures unfiltered a society where the church discourages women forced into prostitution from using contraception, where fishermen die on a regular basis for want of a doctor, where those in power line their pockets at the expense of their citizens. ‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ is rife with powerful metaphors – the crashed planes lining the runway of the airfield, filled with so much fish they were unable to take off, children fighting over a bowl of rice, the flourishing market in fish carcasses discarded by the factories, the huge inflatable Coke bottle rising out of the slums.

‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ conveys the truth in a way that no amount of figures and sophisticated arguments could ever do, by simply showing the rampant AIDS and alcoholism, the milksops of the ‘ecological panel’ prevaricating while faced with a looming environmental disaster, the complete lack of any kind of infrastructure for the poor, the palpable sense of hopelessness and desperation that hangs in the air, the Russian fish pilot who says in dead earnest that ‘black people don’t want to work’.

Sauper paints a bleak picture of a people in thrall to the whims of the market, dissecting a system whereby the developed world imports natural riches and exports chaos. ‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ is a devastating indictment of the ‘structural adjustment programs’ imposed on debtor nations, a stellar piece of investigative journalism castigating the high-level corruption and inequality fostered by this homogenous model. Sauper succeeds in forcing us to confront our own complicity, asking us to question why it is we enjoy such a cheap and plentiful supply of goods, showing the consequences of a delicate ecosystem thrown out of balance, imploring us to see Tanzania’s problems as our own.

If you're not angry, you're not paying attention.

Herzog Double Bill

12 Dec

A pioneer of New German Cinema, Werner Herzog has enjoyed creative peaks and overcome commercial troughs to settle on a duel artistic life, operating a ‘one for them, one for me’ strategy that allows him to parlay his work on commercial fare like ‘Rescue Dawn’ (2006) and ‘Bad Lieutenant’ (2009) into a slew of personal projects delving into the deepest, darkest recesses of human compulsion. A common thread in Herzog’s work is the exploration of existential, geographical and physical extremes.

From ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’ (1972) to ‘Grizzly Man’ (2005), Herzog presents characters driven by inexplicable desires and consumed by implacable urges that place them outside the bounds of conventional behaviour, ignoring the portents to forge ahead to their doom, swathing their folly in divine purpose. His reputation in Hollywood’s portals of power as a feral merchant of ‘chaos, hostility and murder’ has been rehabilitated in the last few years by a series of remarkable films that guided the syntax of cinema into new and strange directions.

The Wild Blue Yonder (2005)

Billed as a ‘science fiction fantasy’, ‘The Wild Blue Yonder’ is a difficult film to place within any accepted parameters, taking a fanciful subject and presenting it with such unerring immediacy and plausibility that it feels like a Von Daniken novel adapted by Errol Morris. Carried with admirable gusto by Brad Dourif’s central performance, Herzog delivers a requiem for a dying planet that is at turns playful and earnest.

Dourif is an unnamed alien, an intergalactic refugee from the ‘Wild Blue Yonder’ of Andromeda whose forebears settled on Earth in an attempt to lead the indigenous population in the right direction, occupying roles of influence in government and intelligence agencies. With the Earth now barely habitable, humanity seeks to escape the planet and colonize Andromeda. The Alien must watch in despair from Earth’s desolate husk as his home world is ‘adapted’ to humanity’s rapacious demands, delivering an impassioned monologue on the background to such a development.

‘The Wild Blue Yonder’ is a remarkable example of taking footage without any apparent connection and from it assembling a narrative arc, expounding grand theories from the sparsest of starting points and utilizing a charismatic actor to unify the disparate elements. The film casually throws out ideas that could provide material for a number of films – from re-examining the Roswell Incident to positing that breeding pigs marked the beginning of the end for humanity.

Dourif delivers a tour de force as the forlorn ET, narrating the ten chapters into which the film is divided with a barely concealed anger and bitterness, railing against our hubris and lamenting the neglect of our most valuable resource. Herzog slyly plays with the nature of truth, presenting us with a number of phoney experts who present their ideas with a veneer of authenticity and conviction that would lead some to believe they were credible sources if viewed outside the context of the film.

‘The Wild Blue Yonder’ is quite unlike anything that has preceded it. A particular highlight is Henry Kaiser’s footage from the base of the ocean, which is used to replicate the conditions of Andromeda. Kaiser captures the manifold life forms that reside there with stunning clarity, detailing an environment so eerie and otherworldly that it outstrips anything the human mind could create, a world where beauty and brutality have learned to co-exist. Herzog’s intentions are as unclear as ever; but whether consciously or otherwise, ‘The Wild Blue Yonder’ presents an argument for environmental responsibility more persuasive than all the PowerPoint presentations in the world.

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

Inspired by Henry Kaiser’s underwater footage in ‘The Wild Blue Yonder’, Herzog set off to Antarctica at the height of the Austral Summer; keen to understand the sort of person who would live in a place with five months of permanent daylight and determined not to make a mawkish anthropomorphic film about penguins. Herzog travels to the McMurdo research centre, where his romantic notions of Scott and Shackleton are shattered by the base’s prosaic environs, with its modern amenities and resemblance to a construction site. Stifled by the cosy modernity of McMurdo, Herzog sets off into the heart of the planet’s most inhospitable terrain, providing narration in his breathy, mellifluous timbre.

Along the way Herzog encounters all manner of striking scenes that repudiate the Disneyfication of nature and highlight the creeping homogeneity that is eroding our planet’s diversity – the Teutonic fatalist in Herzog comes to the fore as he details the cruel realities of a landscape that is brimming with life above and beneath the surface. The ultimate rebuke to those who seek to dull nature’s sharp edges and manipulate it for their own ideological purposes is the sight of a penguin breaking from its group, heading towards the mountains and certain death without any apparent motive.

‘Everyone who’s not tied down falls to the bottom of the planet,’ says William Jirsa, a linguist at McMurdo. Herzog meets a succession of ‘professional dreamers’, restless, obsessive souls who must keep moving, searching for something in the stillness and silence they failed to find elsewhere. There is the driver who was accused of kidnapping a child in Guatemala, the plumber whose fingers signify he belongs to the Mayan royal bloodline, the Iron Curtain refugee who is always packed to leave at a moment’s notice and the woman who travelled to Peru in a sewage pipe. That such stories are commonplace tells us much about those who are drawn to Antarctica.

Herzog laments the dilution of our adventurous spirit, how our innate curiosity and desire for personal glory has transmuted into fatuous pranks and ludicrous record attempts, using footage of Shackleton performing an unconvincing recreation of his quest on a soundstage to illustrate this adulteration. ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ is a celebration of those hardy souls who remain on the fringes, enduring the hardship out of a desire to mitigate human damage and gain a deeper understanding of their surroundings.

‘It’s a horribly violent world,’ says Sam Bowser, a biologist studying life beneath the ice. We are treated to the full majesty and menace of the primordial environment that the Tetrapods clambered to the surface to escape. Equally primal is Mount Aribus, whose lava lake sends jets of magma shooting above the crater rim. A dedicated team studies the volcano, risking their health and sanity in an attempt to understand her awesome power and potential impact on humanity.

What is abundantly clear in ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ is just how precarious our existence is, that if we wish to escape the fate of the dinosaurs or humanity in ‘The Wild Blue Yonder’, we must respect nature and fear its capacity to inflict catastrophic damage. Herzog’s ambivalence is unmistakable; he shrinks from the sunlight but marvels at the callous configuration of it all, but even this most lugubrious of voices sees that it isn’t all chaos, hostility and murder.

Beautiful, isn't it.