30 January, 2012

Too Late to Matter: A Review of Melancholia

Too Late to Matter: A Review of Melancholia
How Being Rich and Pretty Will Kill You Right Fucking Dead

James Kislingbury

I'm really trying extra hard to not sound like a smart ass when talking about Meloncholia. Besides being an ostensibly portentous film and is directed by Lord Jag Hole, Earl of Fuckwad-upon-the-sea, the movie deserves better than that, not only because even shitty films deserve some level of serious attention before they're thrown down the well, but this film is actually pretty good. Pretty darn good, in fact. It even ends with a big explosion, which is nice to see after the appropriately named dirge that is Melancholia.

Let's get started with the rambling, shall we?

This movie made me think of the great "Cultural Vegetables"

(or your "Cultural Vegetables", or whatever) argument. The argument itself is a more or less bullshit and I've always felt that it was invented by people who didn't want to admit that movies without robots fighting made them dumb, but it's one of these things that loom large over the whole medium. It's not a terrible argument, at all, and I've certainly encountered the exact opposite of the robot-movie pride crowd at film school (which is guys who think that scenes of somebody driving from Barstow to Mexico in real time is the height of artistry and not just boring, pretentious nonsense).

The vegetable argument stems from this idea that movies are either supposed to be fun and critically bulletproof or boring and built for the elites (read: snobs). In this world films are only meant for popular entertainment and anything that deviates from that must be the opposite (and again, for snobs). That isn't the whole argument, it's just that for the most part I've only ever seen morons press for this worldview.

It's a crock of shit that wouldn't have flown back when people like David Lean were making blockbusters about Russian poets. It speaks of something else besides the content of movies. Of course there are boring movies and there are intellectually vapid movies and every other kind of movie on other. The fact remains, though, that just because something is serious, it doesn't mean that it has to be boring. The whole point of Melancholia is to make you feel bad-- and it completely succeeds for all of the right reasons. How is a movie being compelling and emotionally engaging a vegetable? There is value in a movie being as successfully unpleasant as this one.

A great example of this is The Seventh Seal which I just re-watched on glorious Blu-Ray. While watching it, I realized even the most infamously sullen film makers of all time, Ingmar Bergman, is capable of making light and funny scenes juxtaposed between, well, scenes of a knight playing chess with Death. It's not all chess and death is what I'm getting at. This bares on Melancholia, because, like Bergman's masterpiece (or one of them), this gloomy and existentially horrific story doesn't get in the way of it being a good film and, I dare say, an entertaining one. While The Seventh Seal is far and away a better film (which doesn't need to be stated, but here we are), I think this film falls into the same class of "movies that are explicitly about the end of existence, but are still kind of fun in a weird way."

With all of that said, Melancholia doesn't have any of the irony or even mirth that Bergman's movie does, as instead of being divided among an entire troupe, it's divided in two halves, "Part One: Justine" and "Part Two: Claire," which could be negatively described as "Catastrophically Poorly Thought Out Wedding" and "Catastrophically Unlucky Celestial Event." I don't think I'm out of line in saying that the first half, with its passing resemblance to Festen, offers the most laughter and mirth (I mean for catastrophe).

There's an entire worthwhile film in the reception alone. It has ancient drunken poon-hound John Hurt dancing with a fat chick, a rageaholic Kiefer Southerland, and Udo Kier doing his Udo Kier act. Oh, and it also has Stellan Skarsgaard and Alexander Skarsgard, which nobody else finds as funny of a pair as I do.

The second half starts sometime later with the sudden discovery of a massive doom planet that is (apparently) headed directly for earth. It’s a strange shift in content, but not one in tone. There is just as much of a looming demise on the horizon in the first half as in the second half, it’s just that at the wedding it’s not literal. There’s a lot more going on in the first half, which is odd because, again, there’s a giant metaphor headed for the Earth and you’d think that would be enough to keep one’s attention.

It’s almost as if the film was assembled from two entirely different scripts. Disconnect would be a good word for it, but both halves work on their own. It’s almost like complaining that Kill Bill Vol. 1 was all over the place. That’s kind of the point. In Melancholia it does work as this bizarre split as they’re tonally and thematically similar. With that said, if the first half of the movie was dragged out to be ninety minutes long and the arrival of the planet was ignored entirely, I’d be fine with that. In fact, I might prefer it.

With all of that said, as enjoyable and technically well put together as the movie is, there are hiccups within the story that go beyond the splitting of the two halves. The script is the primary hiccup and I can't tell whether it's because the script is purposefully overwrought or because this isn't von Trier's native tongue (at least Bergman was allowed to hide behind translators for the most part). Those moments of distraction are minor and even in the scenes they occur in it doesn't interfere with the overall tone (which is, in most scenes: Deep-seated psychological gloom teetering on sudden violence). The problem with the screenplay isn't that it’s a mess it’s that it has to compete with how everything else in the movie is so incredibly well composed. It sticks out more than it should as a result. So, even if it doesn’t ring true to the ear, it does ring true to the emotions.

If there's a weak link in the cast, I regret to say that it's Skarsgard (again: The hot guy from True Blood, not the sort of doughy guy from Thor—who are apparently father and son). For whatever reason he's played as somewhere between "affable dope" and "actor who isn't sure of his lines." I can put up with a lot of ambiguity (the fact that I liked this movie sort of proves that), but that's a distracting one as it just leads to me not wondering about the character but if Skarsgard is a good actor. He probably is. Looking at the rest of the cast I would find it odd for him to sneak through as a shitty actor. All of that said, it's an odd experience to watching a scene where a husband explains to his newly-minted wife that he bought them an apple orchard and having the sudden realization that he might just be Lenny and we're two steps away from owning a rabbit house.

It's that twilight area between normal guy and full-blown retard that I seem to be getting hitched up on. Maybe, though, that's the point as who in their right might would marry a woman that distressed and, well, sort of a bitch.

There are a few other, minor hiccups along the way. Or, maybe interrogative hiccups (like, the hiccup has a higher pitch at the end, somehow). Like, what exactly happens with her husband? And if she's this depressed and fucked-up why not just put her in a fancy mental home? And why would this dope marry her in the first place? The mind boggles.

If we had an answer, though, he wouldn’t have a movie. The entire movie hinges on poorly thought-out relationships. That and a planet colliding with the Earth. I guess the basic premise does require a little bit of leeway and in the movie’s defense, it handles these things pretty well. They are just hiccups after all.

Though that can of worms makes me start wondering why this movie exists. What is this movie's purpose? If it can’t handle something as basic as why the relationships exist, then either it’s missing something or I am.

As I said I enjoyed it, I would recommend it if you want a bummer movie, but I still don't know what the point of any of it is. "Being sad is shitty and it will kill you" is not the lesson we go to movies for. We go to be told killing the Nazis was great and that nice people bag the right member of the opposite sex and that black men in fat woman suits is hilarious. Sad semi-European people, though? Well that fucking escapes me to be honest.

I guess it's a worthwhile movie in that there isn't any apparent rhyme or reason to the work other than that idea that melancholia is not goddamn good. It's either a sign of excellent direction and vision to make a movie with no real answer to it or it's a sign that you have no fucking idea what you're doing. I'd like to think it's more the former than anything else.

Maybe the lack of a satisfying answer is somehow a reflection of depression itself? Too far? Sorry. I'll take that one back.

I'm lucky that the moment I gave up on was about ten minutes from the end and at the end I felt a kind of relief that I almost exclusively reserve for movies that suck (like Outrage, which I saw about a week later in the same theater. God. What a stinker). In this case I felt it because it succeeded in the task it set out to do, which was make a horrific, brooding meditation on depression. Mission accomplished. Melancholia works exactly how it should. It’s a well acted and well made movie and yet it’s not one I would recommend anyone to rush out and see. I’m glad my friends asked me out to see it because otherwise I would have spent the night dwelling on my own home-made misery instead of someone else’s on the silver screen.

But don't just take my word for it!

Alright, let me get my Melancholia jokes out of the way (ahem):
1) I'm really surprised that they had the budget to attract and crash an entire planet into the earth.
2) When I go to a Scandinavian wedding movie I damn well expect some laughs.
3) I can't decide which lame title is funnier to me "Melonbowlia" or "Cornholia." Both suck. Both almost make me want to giggle.
4) Watching The Seventh Seal immediately before this movie was not a great choice for a number of reasons.

Good. It's all out of my system now.

SIDE NOTE: Here's another article about defending "boring" movies. Unless I already posted it. Which is likely.


Shirley McLaine cast in the third season-- I mean third series-- of Downton Abbey.

20 January, 2012

Just a Thought

I like to collect things. It's a gene that, like my nascent alcoholism, I have been given by both sides of my family. My grandfather, as a product of the Great Depression, had a big enough house that, when he finally passed away, he couldn't be considered a hoarder and my dad-- well-- my dad is a professional collector. I would have this roof over my head if it wasn't for his proclivities when it comes to buying shit.

One of the things I collect are heroes. It helps me figure out what the hell is going on with my life. Or the world. Or whatever. They give me goals and guidelines and they give me the kind of counseling that usually costs a lot of money.

So, as an exercise, I wanted to list my heroes, the people I look up to, the people I try my best to model myself after. They're also the people I feel inferior to and in my more sober moments, feel horrible about not measuring up to.

Here we go, my heroes:
John Huston
Cormac McCarthy
Graham Green
Alan Moore
Teddy Roosevelt
George Carlin

I cut a bunch out, mostly because I didn't want to pad it out. I try to be a person who values quality over quantity. That doesn't happen all the time, though. Ack! I really wish I could write more! Now I just feel like an idiot who doesn't know what the fuck he wants in life! That's no good.

19 January, 2012

Even the Jawless Love Downton Abbey

But don't take my word for it, take Pulitzer Prize winner Roger Ebert's word for it.

And, I guess, Phil Noto's word for it, as well. That man can draw the world, if you ask me.

18 January, 2012

Aw, yeah, that's the juice

Nice to see Bogey cuss. Real nice.

13 January, 2012

Who Knew This Could Even Exist?

Well, somebody. And it makes me angry at writers. And to be a writer. And at everything, really.

One Hundred Seventy Years Ago Today

Dr. William Brydon arrived in Jalalabad, the sole survivor of the British expedition to Kabul.
All in the 'Ghan, though.

11 January, 2012

The Art of Biffing

I finished the first installment of the Sword of Honor trilogy, Men at Arms, tonight.

The Brigadier himself lectured. Booby traps, it appeared, were proving an important feature of patrol-work on the Western front. the Brigadier spoke of trip=wires, detonators, anti-personnel mines. He described in detail an explosive goat which he had once contrived and driven into a Bedouin encampment. Seldom had he been more exuberant.

And here's another good one--

This war had begun in darkness and it will end in silence.

Neither of these quotes are a great review of the book's content or tone. If I had to describe it, I guess I'd say it's something like a British Catch 22, which is to say: More polite and, I don't know, British. Anyways, thanks to the book it reminded me of Lt. General Adrian Carton de Wiart and taught me what a thunder box was.

My next task is to move through my BFI Blade Runner book, another book on lost South African gold, and this reading companion on the above quoted book.

So there's that.

10 January, 2012

Happy Bowerthday!

Hey, that almost works!

Let's celebrate David Bowie turning 65 years young with these photos of him just being a normal human being. . . which is kind of weird when you stop to think about it.

08 January, 2012


Alright, so the second season just premiered over here. Two solid hours of Downtonin'. It's a pretty solid premiere and thankfully there hasn't yet been a drop-off. It's still Downton Abbey. There's still lots of frocks and people in hats, but now there's a lot of olive drab and khaki. Also a dude got shot in the head. He got shot in the head because he was lighting a cigarette and he was on television and that's how everyone on earth has ever been shot by a sniper in WWI. I guess he couldn't known that at this point in history.

Though, I have these observations:
1) What is this bullshit about O'Brien being some sort of a human we should feel sorry for? That can fuck right off.
2) Poor, poor Mr. Carson.
3) Poor, poor Mr. Bates.
4) I feel like this Robert Carlyle guy has killed people before. Personally.
5) What in the fucking ghost of St. Hubbins in Edith doing? What the fuck is this shit?
6) Thomas can still go fuck himself.
7) When will Colonel Blimp appear and make my life complete?
8) Poor, poor William.
9) Alright, I've officially had enough of this Irish fella. Sybil is nursing wounded veterans, you Hibernian jag-off.

07 January, 2012


I knew I should've bought it for the PC. I just knew it!

05 January, 2012

This is Why I Got Into Movies

At the risk of being too reflective or too effacing, this is what I got into movies for--

I got into them for "Ode to Joy" playing as a leitmotif. I got into it for crazy women and gay men playing romantic leads. I got into the kind of magical madness that only magic turned into light can bring. I love movies. I love the artifice. And as much as I complain and whine about what's wrong with movies (I won't stop the blog to go into all that, don't worry) I do this out of a real love for the medium.

There's this old Patton Olswalt essay* about this exact sort of thing. It was so long ago that I think I read it on MySpace (so, like, maybe five years ago, whoopee) and I have no desire to look it up. If I remember it correctly, people were complaining about how much he was complaining about movies. The reality is that they didn't get why he was being such a stick in the mud. The reality was that he loved movies. He was being a dick because he loves movies so much. The kind of particularity that comes out of movie fans-- real serious movie nerds-- appears as serious dicksmanship. In reality, it is a form of affection that can never be read by the thing it is aimed at. There are more efficient forms of prayers than fanhood.

To state the obvious: I am no Patton Oswalt. I'm not saying this as a revelation, I am saying this as insurance against people saying "Oh that James thinks he's a regular Patton Oswalt" as they chew their tobacco and watch their Jerry Springer, no doubt**.

My point is that I love trash. I love ridiculous films. I love Written on the Wind and All That Heaven Allows (and its remake) and it isn't simply because I had to watch these in college. It's a chicken or the egg type of situation and I can only dwell on it for so long before it turns into a soggy, over-fried mess.

Not to say I'm opposed to self-destruction.

Movies should be true to their form. As much as films are built around lies and tricks, they should be in the service of truth. I can't remember where I got this idea from-- Ideally someone will correct me on this account-- But films are pieces of fiction that tell the truth. If this weren't an entry simply on a semi-campy 1950's "Women's Picture" and where I more sober, I would go into detail on this. Nobody wants that, though, including myself, so I'll add this as my conclusion:

Films should be true to what they're trying to be. An action movie shouldn't make airs towards being a political drama and a romance shouldn't feel the need to include horror elements. Or whatever. Nobody wants to see a musical sequence in a court room potboiler unless you're Indian, in which case everything is a musical and nobody kissses.

All of that is grammatically horrific and horrifically vague and, you know what, in terms of art I think that is pretty goddamn succinct. It's certainly the best that a snob who loves garbage can do.

With all of that said, there is a factual error in the trailer of Magnificent Obsession--The stone cold reality is that the "greatest romance in cinema" is, in fact, Black Narcissus, a movie where no one kisses, no one has sex, and everyone leaves because they're failures and they hate themselves. Also: Deborah Kerr. Your move, Douglas Sirk.

*It's really a blog entry, but why denigrate his words by attributing such a horrible word to his poetry?

**How bad did all of you want to watch the Jerry Springer Too Hot for TV VHS tapes when you were a young 'un? Bad? Really bad? I think it was between that and the uncensored sections of Blind Date. Thinking back on that time of my life, it's crazy to imagine I was that willfully restrictive about what I wanted to get a boner about.