Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Back to the Grindstone

The Nazis used to perform all kinds of outrageous medical experiments during World War Two, using Jews as their guinea pigs, so to set The Human Centipede in modern-day Germany is just downright stupid.

Or maybe Dutch filmmaker Tom Six was being mischievously vengeful. If so, he didn't do a very good job of it. His film isn't funny, like the classic Shaun of the Dead is; nor is it even remotely sexy, as Zombie Strippers is.

Even more stupid is the fact that, if you were to be captured by some crank who had obviously gone over the edge, the first thing you would do is try to get away. If your friend was passed out on Rohypnol, as one of the women in this film is, the last thing you'd try to do is drag her dead weight out through a large house containing a maniac. You'd try to escape and get help as soon as possible, and you'd try to whimper a lot softer.

Ominously subtitled First Sequence, I would rather not say what happens in this piece of junk, as much for your sanity as mine. Suffice it to say that this is just another lousy torture film, or pornography posing as art.


Someone who should know better, however, is Danish auteur Lars von Trier. He uses Willem Dafoe in a film that is almost as hilariously pretentious as the one sent up in Mr Bean's Holiday - which stars, of course, Dafoe. It's probably a little postmodern in-joke.

There are quite a few pluses to Antichrist, on second viewing. Von Trier likes forcing us to slow down and even breaking up the film into episodes, which is fine. Slow is not necessarily bad. The film is also exquisitely shot.

But it's the premise that's problematic. More about that in a minute.

The plot is simple. A couple are making love in the shower while their son goes walkabout and sweeps the three miseries of Pain, Grief and Despair away. Then he rather joyfully jumps to his death. Obviously mama is wracked with guilt and her callous husband, He, a therapist, is more interested in healing her as a patient than loving her as a wife.

He will get her back to health, but in order to achieve that they must go to the place where she feels the most fear. That place is the not-so subtly named Eden, their cottage in the woods. Now the film may be ostensibly set in America, but they take a train and taxi to the woods, which is a completely European notion. The point is we all know what happens when you go down to the woods today, don't we?

It is in Eden where She wrote and abandoned her thesis on the persecution of women in the 16th century. Why did she give it up? Because she found herself guilty of being glib; it was too easy. In fact, she came to the conclusion that "nature is Satan's garden" and, women being at the mercy of natural cycles, are therefore evil.

Presumably it was this bit of amateur reasoning that caused the controversy and not the various pornographic images - penis in vagina, ejaculating blood, big close-up on self-induced cliterectomy with rusty scissors, a naked Gainsbourg masturbating out on the "evil" grass.

Christian and Muslim fundamentalists will agree wholeheartedly with Von Trier and evolutionists will laugh at him: nature doesn't give a hoot about us; it just does its thing.

Things get even more silly when She knocks Him out by crushing his testicles and proceeds to screw a metal rod through his calf and attaches a grindstone to it. He doesn't bleed much from it, so this might have a mythical angle to it, but He understandably has problems walking for a while.

Things climax (pun intended) when He strangles Her to death and then sees the reincarnations of all those women who were tortured walking through the woods, which seems like a bit of a copout. Why can't he just say he hates and fears women and get it over and done with? It would certainly be more truthful than this bit of intellectual masturbation.


On a more elevated level is The Road, based on author of the moment Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-prizewinner of the same name.

A father and his son have to negotiate a post-apocalyptic landscape that is truly terrifying. The cities are broken, the sky and ocean permanently grey - and everywhere there are roaming gangs of cannibals, rapists and murderers. A father is forced to possibly kill his son rather than let the marauders do so.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee are perfect as the film's two leads; after a while one almost feels the dirt under their nails and collars.

But if the horror of this possible future scenario is astutely portrayed and contrasted with a time when all was "normal", as signified by the man's wife in flashback, played by a wholesome-looking Charlize Theron, who nevertheless commits suicide, then some pretty old fashioned notions are still embedded in its coding.

For example, it takes all the boy's persuasive power to convince his father not to kill a black man who stole from the child when he could have slit his throat. But for that the man must be stripped naked in a Max Ernst-like landscape and only later will the father agree to let them return the man's clothes and leave him a can of food. By then, of course, the man is gone. Just a little white-on-black humiliation to pass the time of day?

Presumably this isn't a nuclear landscape because then the tale's affirmation of family values would be kind of twisted. I mean, what would the Boy produce for future generations? Six-legged mutants?

On the other hand, exactly how did this environmental disaster happen? We are not told. We must therefore assume that McCarthy is merely stating a very basic Darwinian truth, which is that fathers die and their sons go hang out with who- and whatever profits them, whether emotionally or materially.

Penetrating stuff.

Neil Sonnekus

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