Mar 17, 2020

Trouble in Mind

Sometimes I find myself appreciating a filmmaker and his craft, even though I sense an innate distaste, if not downright hatred, for their character and overall essence as an individual. For example, I see Billy Wilder as a subversive little semite that, aside from physically resembling a sort of kosher Jean-Paul Sartre, made films that reek of an intolerable venomous bitterness, primitive misanthropy, and covert anti-shiksa vile, yet there is no denying he made some fairly worthwhile films The Lost Weekend (1945) and Ace in the Hole (1951) that say something relatively profound about the (in)human condition. Additionally, while I like The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) and Paris, Texas (1984), I basically cannot watch a Wim Wenders flick without fantasizing about violently slapping the terminally tedious Teutonic auteur in the face for being such a meandering wimp that seems to have forgotten he has a pair of testicles. As for American auteur Alan Rudolph (The Moderns, Breakfast of Champions)—arguably the only true authentic protégé of great freewheeling American auteur Robert Altman—I would be lying if I did not admit that I also see him as a sort of wimpy weasel that would probably benefit from a gym membership and a steady dose of red meat but, unlike the spiritually comatose Wenders, he at least has something of a heart and has directed some truly romantic films that, quite unlike the typical Hebraic rom-com or historical romance à la Miloš Forman's Valmont (1989) and Pride & Prejudice (2005), actually manages to make romance seem cool and sophisticated.

The son of filmmaker Oscar Rudolph who directed the Lenny Bruce-penned low-budget sci-fi oddity The Rocket Man (1954), Rudolph may be of a certain dubious Hollywood pedigree but he is also an unequivocal artiste and cinematic auteur that, naturally, was always more respected in Europe than the United States. Despite being a pussy pothead of sorts, Rudolph has managed to assemble a fairly idiosyncratic oeuvre that pillages the best from film noir and melodrama (not to mention various European new waves) in style, as if attempting to demonstrate to Godard the proper way to shamelessly recycle certain genre conventions without seemingly like a pedantic poindexter with an undying contempt for cinema. Politically speaking, one might assume that Rudolph is a man of the left (and you’re probably right, though his films are fairly apolitical), but his arguable magnum opus Trouble in Mind (1985)—a film that seems to beg for a curious combination of lachrymose and awkward laughs yet ultimately inspires spiritual rejuvenation—would be considered ‘reactionary’ by today’s rather ridiculous standards. Indeed, in the film, cities are a seedy and soulless cesspool of sin that turn good men bad, nonwhite foreigners run most of the criminal realm, beta males get their women stolen by alpha males, art has been reduced to a primitive childish level, and an exceedingly effete evil fat queen portrayed by Divine of Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974) infamy in a rare male (yet nonetheless glaringly gay) role is the most loathsomely ruthless of underworld crime bosses.

More importantly, Rudolph’s film is the cinematic work that I originally hoped Godard’s Alphaville (1965)—a virtual tribute to German Expressionism and its masters like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang—would be as a superlatively stylish and genuinely romantic dystopian sci-fi flick where love conquers all in the end and not in a phony emotionally counterfeit sort of fashion (although Godard's film literally concludes with the words, “Je vous aime” aka “I love you,” it does not ring true like at the end of Rudolph's flick where no words are needed to express the life-changing love that the antihero feels).  Undoubtedly, more than just a sort of more stylish 1980s American Alphaville, Trouble in Mind is like an anti-Blade Runner as a relatively laid-back, laconic, and low-key film of the aesthetically understated sort that is more dedicated to somewhat hermetic melodrama and poetical pathos than a meticulous mise-en-scène and oneiric atmospheres that manages to, not unlike Ridley Scott’s film, completely swallow up the storyline (which, of course, is of secondary importance in the case of Blade Runner). Indeed, while Scott’s arguable magnum opus manages to provide the viewer with someone akin to a drugless high due to its overwhelming aesthetic allure and initially inexplicably foreboding atmosphere as a film that sincerely feels like it could be set in some dystopian future despite being released nearly forty years ago, Rudolph’s film is first and foremost a story about love and the power of love and its dystopian setting is largely symbolic and secondary to its story, or as the auteur once explained himself, “To me, love is always the turning point, the best hope for any future. And my favorite subject for a film. If nothing else, I hope TROUBLE IN MIND convinces you of that.” While I can only assume due to what I know about him that there is very little that the quirky auteur and I would agree on, I unequivocally agree due to sheer personal experience when it comes to his assessment of love and his film—one of the most leisurely and idiosyncratically romantic films ever made—certainly strengthens his argument. Featuring an ex-cop-cum-ex-con antihero, ditzy yet well-meaning dame with a baby and degenerate baby-daddy as the female love interest, and a violently misogynistic queer queen as the villain, Trouble In Mind might be an eccentric film with an eclectic collection of eccentric characters yet its insights regarding love and human motivations certainly ring true, as if the film was directed by a self-loathing humanist with an unshakeable film noir fetish that wanted to make a feature-length melodrama to accompany the latest New Order album.

For better or worse (and in true pothead style), Alan Rudolph has had one of the most uniquely uneven and less than ideally idiosyncratic filmmaking careers in cinema history and Trouble In Mind is certainly the crowning achievement of said artistically troubling career. Beginning his directing career with the personally disowned hippie horror flicks Premonition (1972) aka Head aka The Impure and Nightmare Circus (1974) aka The Barn of the Naked Dead aka Terror Circus, Rudolph did not seem to take the art of filmmaking seriously until he became the protégé of Robert Altman and acted as an assistant director on such Altman classics as The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974), and Nashville (1975). In fact, Rudolph’s first true auteur effort Welcome to L.A. (1976)—an Altman-produced production that does not coincidentally star such Altman superstars as Keith Carradine, Sally Kellerman, and Geraldine Chaplin, among others—is like a West Coast spiritual sequel to Nashville, albeit somewhat more romantic and, in turn, precisely narratively structured in a fashion that has been compared to Arthur Schnitzler's play La Ronde (in fact, it would not be an exaggeration to describe Rudolph as a sort of preternatural heir of Schnitzler and, in turn, Max Ophüls who of course cinematically adapted La Ronde (1950) and directed some of the most stylish (dis)romances ever made). While Rudolph is a clear protégé of Altman, by the time he was directing films like Choose Me (1984)—the director's sole hit film—he had already developed his own distinct cinematic worldview, which would only further evolved as the years passed in between occasionally accepting for-hire hack work (e.g. Mortal Thoughts (1991) starring Demi Moore).

Although Welcome to L.A. is undoubtedly the auteur’s first true auteur piece, Rudolph was still relegated to directing some passable hack work like the pseudo-horror-thriller Endangered Species (1982)—a film dealing with cattle mutilation conspiracy sans aliens (!)—and the Sydney Pollack-produced Songwriter (1984), which is an important yet artistically forgettable film in the director’s career in that sense that it introduced the auteur to singularly stoic Trouble In Mind lead Kris Kristofferson. While he might have started out as a singer-songwriter and demonstrated a natural talent for so-called revisionist westerns like Sam Peckinpah’s regrettably uneven Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and Michael Cimino’s watchable yet plodding box-office disaster Heaven's Gate (1980), Kristofferson—probably the only cowboy to get down with Mishima in the unjustly overlooked The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1976)—demonstrates in Rudolph’s flick that he was born to be the film noir antihero par excellence. As for his mischling costar and Altman/Rudolph regular Keith Carradine, he once again demonstrates that he is the vaguely creepy dorky weirdo par excellence.  Indeed, not unlike his buddy Altman, Rudolph has a knack for perfectly casting actors, even when it comes to against-type roles (for example, while Lori Singer plays a relatively innocent and naive girl in Trouble In Mind, she would effectively play the complete opposite in the director's later Equinox, which is also notable for Matthew Modine portraying central two roles in the form of long lost twin brothers that could not be more different in terms of character).

Naturally, as I have gotten older, my perspective of certain films—and the way I look at films in general—has changed drastically. For example, I once tried to watch Trouble In Mind about a decade ago before I was familiar with Rudolph's work and could not even get into as it seemed like cartoonish kitsch noir and apparently I am not the only one. Indeed, as Richard Ness explained in his text Alan Rudolph: Romance and a Crazed World (1996), “As much as CHOOSE ME seemed to excite critics, TROUBLE IN MIND (1986) appeared to alienate them. While the film received some strong notices and a few critics, including Roger Ebert, numbered it among the best of the year, many were unsure whether Rudolph intended the film as a serious revision of film noir or a parody of the genre. Although there are comic elements in the film (such as the increasingly odd appearance of Keith Carradine’s character), they end to grow out of the absurdity of the situations, whereas the humor in CHOOSE ME grew out of the honesty of the characters […] Although it anticipates a whole cycle of later new-wave noir films (producer Carolyn Pfeiffer described it as existing somewhere between Bogie and Bowie). TROUBLE IN MIND also serves as a summation of Rudolph’s work to date.” While the film is, to some degree, absurdly aesthetically goofy in a manner that would anticipate Rudolph’s later films like Made in Heaven (1987) where Debra Winger of all people appears in drag as a sort of neo-greaser guardian angel of sorts, it is also quite deadly serious when it comes to love and the ways of the world. Undoubtedly, it is no coincidence that Divine, in what is probably the most underrated role of his all-too-brief and unfortunately largely terminally typecast career, plays a murderously neurotic queer underworld boss that, owing to his hatred of his own mother and humanity in general, lacks the capacity to love, hence his erratically evil pussy-repulsed essence. Additionally, the film dares to demonstrate that it is much better for a woman to leave the father of her baby for a stronger man than to stay with him, especially if the baby-daddy is a despicable bitch of the constantly criminally bungling and dopey dope-addled sort that curiously resembles a New Romantic drag king.

While the product of a pothead that used to share joints with the belated auteur of the comfortably dumb O.C. and Stiggs (1985) and even co-penned the insipidly anti-white celluloid abortion Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976), Trouble In Mind is also surprisingly red-pilled in many respects, as if the largely apolitical auteur unconsciously came to a number of truths and naturally could not help but disseminate them due to tackling the dystopian realms. Indeed, Teutonic philosopher Oswald Spengler might as well have been speaking of the dystopian ‘Rain City’ (aka Seattle) of the film when he once wrote, “Long ago the country bore the country-town and nourished it with her best blood. Now the giant city sucks the country dry, insatiably and incessantly demanding and devouring fresh streams of men, till it wearies and dies in the midst of an almost uninhabited waste of country.” As the viewer soon discovers as the film progress, the film’s antihero lead John ‘Hawk’ Hawkins (Kris Kristofferson)—an ex-cop that is released from prison after serving eight hard years on a murder rap that involved gunning down a bigwig gangster for his ladylove—might be a somewhat cynical killer, but his ugly urban environment forced him to become tough and ruthless and it is only when he discovers love in the form of a relatively innocent young lady that he is given a true chance at redemption instead the predictable figurative road to katabasis.  Aside from Hawk, the viewer witnesses how city newcomer ‘Coop’ (Keith Carradine)—a country boy that not coincidentally declares at the beginning of the film, “I’ve been to plenty of cities…And they ain’t nothing but trouble”—completely morally and psychologically deteriorates after reluctantly moving to the miserable metropolis at the behest of his young naïve wife ‘Georgia’(Lori Singer) who foolishly believes the city will provide a bright future for their baby son ‘Spike.’

Somewhat ironically, the young family’s move to the city ultimately leads to a bizarre love triangle the concludes with Georgia leaving Coop for Hawk in what is a bittersweet scenario where love conquers all but a baby boy loses his loser beta-boy father. Needless to say, had Coop never listened to his wife’s dubious advice and relocated the family to a big shitty city, he probably would have never hooked up with black criminals that deal in stolen goods smuggled by Koreans and turned into a deranged dope fiend dork that loses his entire family in the end.  Indeed, not unlike Blade Runner, Trouble in Mind is set in a grotesquely mongrelized multicultural realm where black neo-gangster speak Korean and curiously practice Buddhism and an overall lack of cultural and, in turn, moral, consistency (and, of course, racial homogeneity), leads to a gynophobic gay queen becoming both a powerful man and proud patron of the (rather entartete) arts.  Needless to say, the film hardly depicts so-called multiculturalism in a flattering light and the central dystopian city is something akin to H.P. Lovecraft's view of NYC, albeit nowhere as paranoically portrayed.  Not unlike his comrade Altman, Rudolph has a certain inordinate respect for audiences and does not dare to attempt to force the viewer to accept a sort of dichotomous perspective of completely ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in regard to characters as everyone of them displays a certain ‘humanity,’ not matter how vulgar or unflattering.  For example, when Coop's colored criminal comrade ‘Solo’ (Joe Morton of John Sayles's vaguely comparable Afrofuturist cult classic The Brother from Another Planet (1984)) spiritually foresees his own demise via being drowned inside his own car (!), one cannot help feel the character's pain.

Aesthetically speaking, the film can obviously be compared to Slava Tsukerman's kaleidoscopic sci-fi cult item Liquid Sky (1982) and Alyce Wittenstein's neo-Godardian hipster joke Betaville (1986), but it seems to be of a more artistically sophisticated pedigree than these two flicks. Indeed, aside from sharing some aesthetic similarities with Germanic cinematic works like Niki List's exceedingly eccentric cult flick Malaria (1982) and mischling dyke Ulrike Ottinger's collaboration with her then-muse Tabea Blumenschein like Bildnis einer Trinkerin (1979) aka Ticket of no Return and Freak Orlando (1981), the film demonstrates somewhat of an understanding of modern art history and its relation to the decline of the Occident. For example, numerous wholesome and romantic scenes in the film depicted from the outside perspective of a diner seem like they were dreamed up by American realist painter Edward Hopper.  Rather fittingly, much of the urban graffiti and art gallery paintings in the film, which certainly symbolize cultural and spiritual decay in a rather goofy otherworldly way, seem to be modeled after the Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke movements associated with German Expressionism. Additionally, the colorfully grotesque sculptures featured at the art gallery mansion of the film's gay villain bear a striking resemblance to those of debauched French-American feminist sculpture and occasional filmmaker Niki de Saint Phalle (Daddy).  While one could try to make the largely pointless argument that Rudolph is, to some extent, himself a degenerate artist, Trouble in Mind is hardly respectful to degenerate art and ultimately carries a fairly aesthetically and morally conservative message of the rather perennial sort.

As for Hawk, who more or less has the total opposite experience as his much younger rival Coop, it is only when he rejects the sickness of the city that he finally achieves his dream of discovering his dream girl and leaving the urban hellhole behind for good. To accomplish this dream love affair, Hawk agrees to save the mostly worthless life of the guy he is cuckolding as Georgia might be leaving Coop but she is a good girl and does not want her no-good-bastard baby-daddy to die despite it being his own fault when he becomes a marked man after robbing a powerful gangster. A blunt man of gristled honor with a stern chiseled face that practically screams indelible stoical strength, Hawk even matter-of-factly declares to his love interest Georgia in regard to reluctantly agreeing to save her worthless husband Coop but also keeping her as his beloved prize, “I’ll save the poor son-of-a-bitch but you’ll owe me something I want. And I’ve just spent too many years wanting and wanting and never having. So once I fix this up and send him on his way, you belong to me—completely. You’ll live with me…and I’ll take care of you and the kid and we’ll have something. Otherwise, let him get what he deserves. Let everybody get what they deserve.” In the end, practically everyone indeed gets what they deserve and luckily hardened cynic Hawk finds true love despite losing love in the past due to his criminal impulses.

In fact, Hawk lost his previous lover Wanda (Geneviève Bujold), who incidentally employs Georgia at her café, as a result of heading to the slammer upon murdering a criminal in cold blood and the two fuck soon after the antihero is released from prison at the beginning of the film but the long-awaited sexual reunion is short-lived.  Upset about their seemingly complicated tragic past that includes the antihero receiving a hefty prison sentence after killing a mobster named ‘Fat Adolph’ (Gailard Sartain) to defend his beloved's honor, Wanda refuses to continue the sexual relationship after their first fuck, complaining with the sort of fiery fury of a wounded woman that still loves a man but knows she cannot be with him, “It’s got nothing to do with hunger, Thickhead! It’s a matter of philosophy.” Needless to say, young, fertile, and relatively innocent Georgia is a much better choice for Hawk as she offers the sort of comfort and nurturing qualities that a bitter old bitch like Wanda simply can no longer provide.  A lonely little lady that has let her life slip away, Wanda is still a character of strength that, somewhat curiously, provides Hawk and Georgia with the ‘philosophy’ they need to start a healthy romance.  By the end of the film, Wanda has abandoned her café and disappeared, as if her one job in life was to hook up her ex-flame Hawk with a much younger dame.  Of course, as Otto Weininger noted, women first and foremost excel at being matchmakers.

If I was a bitchy queer, I might conclude that Alan Rudolph is some sort of hipster homo-hater after watching Trouble In Mind as the film's fittingly named antagonist Hilly Blue (Divine)—a sort of obscenely campy Sydney Greenstreet type—is arguably the most ravenously repugnant gay villain in cinema history as a sort of sod spiritual son of kosher carpet-muncher Madame Spivy’s similarly sleazily sexually sinister villain ‘Ma Greeny’ in Ralph Nelson’s Rod Serling film adaptation Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). While Rudolph’s film is littered with great highly quotable dialogue, Divine certainly steals the show with Hilly Blue with prissily pugnacious lines like, “People that say they care about other people are hypocrites. I prefer priests; they’re at least real hypocrites. I prefer two-faced people who show it.” Notably, Hilly Blue is a morbidly miserable character of the compulsively cynical and homicidally hysterical sort and although he spouts wacky womb-envy-oriented misogyny like, “Women are despicable…especially mothers,” he is not enjoying his life as an ostensibly all-powerful poofter crime lord and even displays glaring weakness by hysterically shouting in front of his entire entourage in regard to a criminal comrade as if complaining about a lover, “Everything between me and Nate is desolation, sadness, disappointment after disappointment.” Undoubtedly, Hilly is a sort of symbol of Hawk’s old immoral life and naturally he violently berates the antihero for wanting to go straight, stating, “You are capable of almost anything, John, but mainly anything bad. You have nothing but bad qualities and, yet, you think you have a heart.” When Hawk expresses his desire to spare Coop’s life, Hilly loses it and declares, “You’re so predictable. You make me want to vomit. The only way you can ever live up to this ideal you have of yourself is from a hole in the ground.” Naturally, it proves to be a symbolic act when Hawk kills Hilly by putting a bullet in his brain. Indeed, out of his love for a young mother, Hawk kills a homo that hates mothers.  Notably, Hilly's murder sparks an extravagant absurdist shootout-cum-riot in the villain's virtually magical mansion that is surely the centerpiece of the film and is comparable to the legendary climatic hall-of-mirrors shootout in Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai (1947) in terms of great film noir climaxes.

I am not the only one that has noticed the film’s somewhat idiosyncratic contra cocksucker subtext. Indeed, as Richard Ness noted in regard to the sexual and, in turn, moral degeneration of one of the main characters, “Coop’s increasingly androgynous appearance suggest that his loss of identity may owe in part to a sense of sexual confusion as he goes from a traditional family environment with Georgia and their child to consorting with male companions and attempting to reaffirm his heterosexual identity through liaisons with prostitutes. His androgyny is paralleled by the casting of transvestite Divine in the nondrag role of Hilly Blue. If Coop’s coif becomes a reflection of his search for identity, Hilly’s baldness suggests an emasculated state, and his need for power and control appears to stem from a lack of affection from his mother.” Interestingly, unlike his obscenely over-the-top and low-camp killer dookie-downing characters in classic John Waters flicks like Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), Divine, who was eager to finally play a male character and defy his drag stereotype, comes off as sincerely demented and disturbing to the point where his violent murder comes off as a relief to both the viewer and his character as if he was practically begging to be put out of his misery. Indeed, while Divine’s Hilly Blue declares, “Everybody wants to go to Heaven; nobody wants to die,” one suspects he wanted to die even though there was no way in hell that he would get into heaven.

Undoubtedly, one of the things that makes Trouble In Mind such an organically romantic film despite its tendency towards artifice and preternatural pageantry is that, unlike many films—be they romantic-comedies, film noirs, or otherwise—it actually depicts what a couple needs for a healthy love affair. Indeed, when Georgia reveals her reason for leaving her husband by stating in regard to Hawk, “Him and me feel safe together,” she is expressing what every woman instinctively wants and needs. While Georgia's young husband Coop goes from being an unemployed loser to erratic egodystonic dork that tries in vain to be a cool criminal yet fails in every regard, Hawk—in his impenetrable stoicism—radiates strength and demonstrates through deed and demeanor that he can be the real strong man that she so desperately needs. Like any good woman, Georgia also inspires Hawk’s greatness and goodness with remarks like, “I think you’re a good man that’s had bad luck and I think all that can change. The luck, I mean.” Although a man that sincerely believes, “A little bit of everybody belongs in hell,” Hawks also discovers heaven through Georgia and the two even symbolically enter romantic nirvana by leaving Rain City at the end of the film (though, to be fair, said ending is somewhat ambiguous, but their strength of their mutual love is unquestionable).

While I am not sort of moron that believes that people can sincerely change in any meaningful way for the better, Trouble In Mind rightly reminds the viewer in a refreshingly understated way that certain good qualities of a person are deeply buried and sometimes it takes love and the right inspirational lady to dig up such long submerged qualities. In that sense, Trouble In Mind is a rather hopeful film despite being made during what its director felt was a rather hopeless time. Indeed, as Rudolph stated in regard to the metapolitical influence for the film during the 1980s, “My opinion at the time was that despite the warm rhetoric and political smoke screens, our society’s increasingly cold blood could easily turn to ice […] What’s important and desirable would soon be hidden, forgotten or missing altogether. Escape would mostly come through daydream reality, memory imagination. Whether our fictional replica appears more within reach now compared to the soothing form of avarice of the 1980s is for someone else to decide. Where, you might ask, would human affection fit into this bizarre and harsh environment? Would it be worth searching for? Or even possible? To me, love is always the turning point, the best hope for any future. And my favorite subject for a film. If nothing else, I hope TROUBLE IN MIND convinces you of that.” To my surprise, pothead Rudolph’s film—and, of course (and obviously more importantly), real-life experience—has certainly convinced me of that.

While most of Rudolph’s post-Welcome to L.A. output is mostly comprised of highly watchable auteur pieces, Trouble In Mind is probably his only film aside from his later romance neo-noir Love at Large (1990) that I would dare to describe as a personal favorite of sorts and something I could re-watch at least on a yearly basis, even though I would probably stop short of describing it as a masterpiece. Beyond my personal taste, the film represents Rudolph at the height of his auteur powers as a film that, totally transcending the Altmanian influence, could have only been directed by the filmmaker who, naturally being an idiosyncratic auteur, has never really gotten his due and is largely best remembered today among cinephiles as a loyal compatriot of Robert Altman. While the auteur would turn to more ambitious art faggotry the ‘Lost Generation’ flick The Moderns (1988), which is dripping with bohemian chic style and attitude, and even an unconventional biopic on red mischling Dorothy Parker entitled Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) starring Jennifer Jason Leigh in arguably the greatest performance of her rather eclectic career as the titular lead, these films fail to capture the shameless romantic resonance and dazzling oneiric aesthetic allure of Trouble In Mind. While his playfully preternatural fantasy flick Made in Heaven (1987) is undoubtedly romantic to the core, it is just too gimmicky, silly, and full of too many wussy rockers like Tom Petty and Neil Young to be taken as seriously as his great romances.

 In terms of aesthetics, positive approach to romance, and successfully subversive genre-tweaking, Trouble in Mind strangely reminds me of a sort of counterpiece film to Peckinpah’s masterpiece Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) which, incidentally, features Kris Kristofferson in a small but unforgettable role as a rapist that gets his just deserts. While I typically subscribe to the Peckinpah School when it comes to patently pessimistic depictions of life and romance, Trouble In Mind is just pessimist and culturally nihilistic enough for one to reasonably accept its unconventionally hopeful happy ending in regard to love. Notably, Rudolph was not so optimistic about love’s healing capacity and ability to save the sick and broken in his subsequent work Equinox (1992) where the quasi-autistic hero loses his chance at serious romance when his would-be-lady-love regretfully fails to flee with him for the Grand Canyon upon being forced to make a split-second decision about the future of their relationship. Of course, the antihero of Trouble In Mind is older and wiser than the lead of Equinox and thus does not waste time in securing his future.  As Rudolph's own filmmaking career demonstrates, oftentimes with age comes wisdom, but pain and regrets regarding love can sometimes last a lifetime and Trouble In Mind seems to organically express that while remaining optimistic in regard to the quest for love in a seemingly loveless world of softcore authoritarian asininity where society is shit and culture and art are crap.  In that sense, the film is more hopeful and inspiring than when it was originally released some 35 years ago.

Throughout his career, director Alan Rudolph has made no lie about the fact that his unique utilization of absurd humor and equally atypical aesthetics reflects his belief that real-life society is absurd and should symbolically depicted as such, or as he once stated in a 1993 Film Comment interview recounted by Richard Ness, “Once I realized I was going to take the leap with Divine, this was not going to be a conventional film.  When Keith got involved we started talking about how this guy should go through these transformations.  I never realized we would take it to such an exaggerated level, but then it seemed to be the way to do the story without taking it totally seriously.  If you do these retro story plot ideas and take them terribly seriously,  then you've made another exercise.  The times seemed to be going through that culturally, with Reagan and all that; it just seemed to be an unfamiliar terrain that we were living in.  There was an absurdity to the whole film that I kind of enjoyed—people talking funny languages, all the gangsters were inarticulate people who don't even use words so they growl. . . . What it really is is this thing that gets me in trouble all the time, which is this simultaneous serious-humorous.  If you ask me to make a film that is the most accurate reflection that you see of our condition right now, I'd make a version of TROUBLE IN MIND or EQUINOX.  I see it—it's absurd.”  Undoubtedly, in his tendency toward taking an absurdist approach to our putrid (post)modern milieu, Rudolph is practically sugarcoating cyanide, thereupon making the intolerable at least tolerable enough to be eccentrically engrossing in a way where the spiritual and cultural morbidity of modernity is at least recognized but thankfully not embraced in what is ultimately a sort of form of anti-escapism that manages to entertain even the exceedingly alienated and/or ludicrously lovelorn.

Of course, in an absurd society, there is also a morally ambiguous blurring between cop and criminal as completely personified by antihero Hawk who, due to the degenerate world he lives in, had to learn to be a little bit of both and does it well. In that sense, I could not help but reminded of the Ernst Röhm quote, “The soldier turns away from this kind of false morality in disgust. What mattered to me in the field was not whether a soldier measured up to society’s morals, but only whether he was a dependable man or not. An immoral man who achieves something is far more acceptable to me than a ‘morally upright’ fellow who accomplishes nothing. So-called society commits no greater sin and inflicts no greater harm than it does in this way. Suicides of the best people speak only too eloquently here.”  In his sort of neoclassical historical fiction play My Friend Hitler (1968), Yukio Mishima speculated that Röhm foolishly stayed in Nazi Germany despite the high probability that he would be killed—as he ultimately was during the infamous so-called the Night of the Long Knives—out of a gay love and romantic allegiance to Uncle Adolf. Of course, cop or criminal, Hawk is, probably unlike tragic rectum-reamer Röhm, a great man and that is why he gets the girl in the end and he does not allow moral questions to get in the way of that fact, but both Trouble In Mind and My Friend Hitler demonstrate that the only truly timeless and respectable sacrifice is for love and death—or at least a willingness to dance with death—is a more worthy route than to betray said love and succumb to soulless mediocrity. 

-Ty E

Feb 21, 2020

Medea (1988)

For all of my cinephiliac life, I have been pondering whether or not I think Danish auteur Lars von Trier (Europa, Melancholia)—undoubtedly one of the most interesting and relatively original filmmakers of the post-Fassbinder age—is a great artist, determined dilettante, and/or a downright fraud that simply thrives on trolling in a super sophisticated way and not much more. While I find that Howard Hampton tends to be an obnoxious writer that is oftentimes absurdly wrong, if not downright delusional, in his assertions, I could not help by agree with him when he argued in an essay featured in the writing compilation Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses (2007) that, “There’s something about Lars von Trier’s prodigiously assured films that elicits indignation, as though their labyrinthine descents into the undermined of movie history were affronts to the sanctity of cinema itself.” Indeed, there’s oftentimes something unbearably insufferable about von Trier’s seemingly ambivalent, if not autistic, cinemania, as if the auteur enjoys nothing more than giving himself—and only himself—an extravagant masturbatory massage to his own cinephilia while presuming the viewer is just not on his passive-aggressively megalomaniacal level, but this is not the only problem with much of his work. After all, with his various patently pretentious manifesto/declarations—most of which are a rather loathsome combination of pretension and utter meaninglessness—and curiously drastic changes in style, it is hard not to assume that von Trier is terribly bored with cinema and that he is now mainly just engaging in a self-satisfying game of covert cinematic onanism and that he does not even take his own work that seriously, hence my suspicion that much of what he does is, at best, artistically prestigious displays of trolling and, at worst, completely emotionally counterfeit con-jobs. While von Trier even demonstrated a certain aesthetic aptitude as a child with shorts like Why Try to Escape from Which You Know You Can't Escape from? Because You Are a Coward (1970)—a film that briefly appears in The House That Jack Built in a somewhat cryptic (and ultimately incriminating) fashion that connects the auteur's childhood to that of the eponymous serial killer—his Weltanschauung has always been weak, shallow, and seemingly disingenuous, as if it would be too much of a struggle for the auteur to reveal anything about himself aside from being a morbidly depressed degenerate that makes superficial (meta)political statements because he lacks the capacity to commit to anything aside from acting like a little twat. 

 If I were to judge Herr von Trier on his latest feature The House That Jack Built (2018)—a mostly sorry Socratic serial killer flick where the auteur merely rehashes his old tricks and does for the art of murder what he did for sex in NYMPH()MANIAC (2013), albeit to a noticeably considerably less ambitious degree—I would certainly have to go with artistic fraud. After all, von Trier, who was clearly spiritually castrated after his ostensibly infamous 2011 Cannes press conference incident where he made some benign Nazi jokes, even decided to sell his soul to promote the film by following the insipid script of the Hollywood mainstream and declaring without even the slightest hint of irony, “THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT celebrates the idea that life is evil and soulless, which is sadly proven by the recent rise of the Homo trumpus – the rat king.” While Trump has certainly proved himself to be a Zionist shabbos goy stooge of sorts that talks big yet not has accomplished a single one of the nationalistic promises he originally campaigned on, von Trier, in his clear political retardation, has clearly revealed he is completely drunk on the cashmere commie Kool-Aid by expressing sentiments worthy of dumb twats like Alyssa Milano despite once being the provocative enfant terrible that directed truly subversive films like Manderlay (2005), which does a brilliant job exposing the hyper hypocrisy, racial fetishism, and disgusting disingenuous of white leftist women like Milano.  In that sense, von Trier is undoubtedly more like Trump than he would like to think as they are both supreme bullshitters that talk big but really have no strong principles aside from stroking their own ludicrously inflated egos.  Of course, whereas Trump has the insipid spirit of a fat fuck drag queen, von Trier is like a depressed emo girl that just wishes her parents would at least notice the superficial wounds on her wrist from another failed phony suicide attempt.

Rather intriguingly, even when he still wrongly believed that he was Jewish during the early part of his filmmaking career, von Trier dared to depict a Nazi in a sympathetic light in Befrielsesbilleder (1982) aka Images of Liberation, thus one has to question his motivations which seem to be nothing more than a childish desire to provoke as if he has a pathological self-destructive need to be a twat. Featuring totally tasteless torture porn scenes that are clearly a cheap immature attempt by the auteur at shock value (when he’s already done much more maturely shocking scenes in previous films), crappy CGI imagery worthy of some shitty C grade video game, Elvis Presley’s borderline homely granddaughter having her tits chopped off, and von Trier arguably revealing his own petty resentment of handsome masculine American men by having Matt Dillon portraying a psychopathic serial killer (while also arguably attempting to live vicariously through said character despite his typical tendency towards living vicariously through bat-shit-crazy female characters, hence why the film does not work), The House That Jack Built is ultimately a pointless film where the auteur tries in vain to attempt to say about life and its supposed evil banality what Emil Cioran already said more intelligently and elegantly many decades before. Of course, I have other reasons for thinking the film is an exceedingly empty piece of shit that cannot be saved by the shock of butchered tits and dead children, as I have been recently revisiting von Trier’s earlier films and cannot help but notice the difference in terms of aesthetic maturity back when the filmmaker had more of a legitimate reason to consider himself the cinematic heir of fellow Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer. 

 In fact, von Trier was so arrogant about seeing himself as a sort of new Dreyer that he once dared to cinematically adapt the master auteur’s unused screenplay adaptation of Euripides' play Medea, thereupon forever linking himself to his artistically superior cinematic countryman. Luckily (and somewhat surprising), the film is one of the filmmaker’s soberest and most aesthetically alluring, ambitious, and successfully experimental cinematic works to date, as if even a total troll like von Trier realized it would be nothing short of cinematic sacrilege to defile Dreyer with his typical masturbatory digressions and apathetic cinephiliac references. In fact, Medea (1988) looks, in many ways, as old as the long-dead director that inspired it despite being plagued by an anachronism or two in regard to the wardrobe, as if the film was recently discovered in an ancient bottle on some remote island for future generations to discover. As to why the film has such a distinct ‘timeless’ quality that seems to even transcend cinema history, Jack Stevenson explained in his book Lars Von Trier (2002) in regard to the auteur’s filmmaking method, “He shot the film on ¾-inch video tape, readjusted color and light, transferred it to 35mm film and then copied it back to 1-inch video tape. The result of this laborious experimental process was a train of images that seemed on the verge of dissolving in murk and graininess. The classic dialogue, sounding a bit inappropriate in Danish, was then laid on post-sync.” Aside from the somehow strangely enthralling Boardinghouse (1982)—supposedly the first shot-on-video horror flick ever made—I cannot think of many films that were shot on archaic video and then blown up to 35mm film, but somehow von Trier manages to make this work as Medea, quite unlike the director's Dogme 95 flicks, looks more ancient and archetypal then artificial and artless. 

 While it is no surprise that von Trier wanted to pay tribute to Dreyer—his nation’s unequivocal cinematic master and a filmmaker that he has routinely quoted throughout his career—the genesis of the film is somewhat less personal. Originally planned by the Danish TV channel DR-TV in 1985 as a fairly normal adaptation of Euripides' play, von Trier did not even get involved in the project until after the original director Søren Iversen quit the production and the auteur was offered the project. Of course, von Trier completely changed the project and basically started from scratch, or as Stevenson explained, “Instead of faithfully adapting Euripides’ tragedy for the screen, he chose to use Carl Th. Dreyer’s script of the same name which the director had written in 1965-6 but had never found financing for. Dreyer’s script was not a straightforward adaptation of Euripides’ play, but rather an attempt to re-create the original story which might have inspired Euripides. Von Trier’s film, in turn, as he states in the prologue, was not an attempt to make Dreyer’s film, but rather was his personal interpretation of the manuscript. In any case, MEDEA was not purely based on von Trier’s own material, and this was exceptional.” Undoubtedly, von Trier’s film is about as far away from The House That Jack Built as far as artistic and ideological purity is concerned as it mostly rings emotionally true, does not wallow in the provocative for provocative’s sake, and arguably has the most seemingly organic and timeless aesthetic of all of the auteur’s films. Despite this, the film received mixed reviews (that leaned towards the majority being negative) from Danish film critics and von Trier has himself criticized various aspects of the film.  Indeed, only Danish filmmaker and film scholar Christian Braad Thomsen—a personal friend of Rainer Werner Fassbinder that has paid tribute to his cocksucking kraut comrade with both a great book and documentary—seems to have realized the film's virtual genius.

 Notably, von Trier had nil interested in Euripides’ play and was merely obsessed with paying tribute to his filmic forefather, or as the auteur explained to Stig Björkman in Trier on von Trier (1999), “The subject didn’t fascinate me at all! I’ve never been interested in classical drama. I was more interested that it was something Dreyer had been involved with.” Yet, according to Jonathan Rosenbaum—one of the few American film critics worth reading—von Trier’s film is far from an even remotely faithful adaptation. Indeed, as Rosenbaum explained in a brief September 1997 review, “Pay no attention to the claims that this 1988 Danish video feature by Lars von Trier (BREAKING THE WAVES) is a faithful or even remotely respectful realization of the late Carl Dreyer’s unrealized script, cowritten by poet Preben Thomsen. For starters, the Dreyer script, based only loosely on the Euripides tragedy, features a chorus that is omitted here, its lines grotesquely converted into printed titles when they aren’t simply dropped; many of Dreyer’s scenes are eliminated, scrambled, or placed elsewhere in the overall continuity, and some of von Trier’s scenes and sequences are strictly his own invention. That said, this is well worth seeing as a visually inventive and highly dramatic version of the Medea story, with strong performances by Kirsten Olesen and Udo Kier. In some respects it’s as striking as anything von Trier has done, but Dreyer could never have accepted this florid piece of showmanship as even a remote approximation of his intentions.” While Rosenbaum review is mostly favorable, he would later take a much harsher view of the film in his anti-Trier/anti-Trump diatribe ‘“Sad!”: Why I Won’t Watch Antichrist’ featured in the compilation Unwatchable (2019) where he somewhat venomously argues, “…my opinion of the filmmaker himself steadily plummeted as I saw the postmodernist hash he was making out of my favorite filmmaker (and his alleged role model) Carl Dreyer […] MEDEA claims to be based on Dreyer and Preben Thomsen’s unrealized screenplay adapting the Euripides tragedy, but reading the Dreyer text is all that’s needed to expose von Trier as something of a con artist.” Of course, to truly respect von Trier as he really is and not have any deluded expectations, one must accept that he is a sneering con artist, albeit a very talented and aesthetically enterprising one who, rather unfortunately, is unquestionably one of the most interesting filmmakers working today.  Undoubtedly, Medea is arguably most notable in that one forgets while watching it that it was directed by film history's foremost #1 troll, so it does not surprise me that von Trier himself is not fond of the flick, as if it pains him to be reminded that he exposed too much of himself by not succumbing to the temptation towards shock value and dark irony.

 Although Rosenbaum complains that von Trier excised a supposed ‘radical feminist’ subtext from Dreyer’s script, it would be absurdly deluded to somehow see von Trier as more ‘right wing’ than Dreyer. After all, despite directing subversive cinematic works like Michael (1924)—a silent film with fairly blatant gay themes—and having a troubled childhood as the adopted bastard son of a Scanian maid that he never got to know, Dreyer was a lifelong right-winger that once stated, “Even when I was with Ekstrabladet, I was conservative...I don't believe in revolutions. They have, as a rule, the tedious quality of pulling development back. I believe more in evolution, in the small advances.” As the product of insanely deluded commie nudists, including a Jewish (step)father and self-described “whore” mother that let him do whatever he wanted to as a kid, von Trier hardly received any discipline as a child, let alone, a sort of traditional pre-counterculture Danish upbringing involving Christian teachings and a traditional upbringing, so it is only natural that he would dedicate his filmmaking career to virtually ‘acting out’ like a debauched problem child that, not matter what he does, still cannot get the attention he craves from his self-absorbed and drug-addled parents. Of course, this is why von Trier can never be great like his hero Dreyer as he still has the emotional maturity of a teenager and, as Rosenbaum noted, has glaring maniac-depressive tendencies, which is a good way to describe the behavior of the titular anti-heroine of Medea who, as a scorned cunt that cannot believe she was tricked by a man, decides that the most despicable of revenges is more important than the lives of her two young sons. While Rosenbaum has complained of von Trier’s excising of Dreyer’s ostensible radical feminist subtext, there is no question that the auteur sympathizes with the titular (anti)heroine as her husband is portrayed as an arrogant and idiotic fool that more or less gets what he deserves, at least in the oftentimes hysterical director’s mind. 

 As a stripped-down adaptation of Medea that was further stripped-down by the director from Dreyer’s original screenplay, von Trier's film naturally contains a very simple storyline, but of course the film is, not unlike F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)—another film that manages to create a great sense of the foreboding via foggy wetlands—largely notable due to its singular aesthetic approach and atmosphere. While the eponymous lead is technically not in every scene and we briefly encounter the perspective of other characters, the film is largely an uncompromising tribute to Medea’s lovelorn anguish and pathos as a brutal bipolar bitch the opts to destroy her virtual entire world and all those that wronged her once she discovers that her husband—a man whose dubious intellect is, unfortunately for him, totally overpowered by his ambition and arrogance—has betrayed her. While scant on dialogue, the film is inordinately quotable in a thankfully non-Hollywood-esque fashion as virtually every single word carries heavy meaning and manages to completely expose the essence of each character, which is rather fitting in a moody little art movie where the actors move around with a certain slow somnambulistic intrigue as if von Trier was attempting to reconcile the very different acting methods of Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman. Indeed, from the carefully stylized acting to the amount of fog in the area, every aspect of the film seems perfectly calculated in a cinematic work that basks in the intentionally imperfect—whether it be character, cinematic technique, or historical accuracy. 

 To von Trier’s credit, he makes his intentions perfectly clear at the very beginning of the film in an inter-title where he declares: “This film is based on a script by Carl Th. Dreyer and Preben Thomsen after Euripides’ drama MEDEA. Carl Th. Dreyer never realized his script. This is not an attempt to make his film, but due with reverence, a personal interpretation and homage to the master.” From there, we are introduced to Medea (Kirsten Olesen) as she meditatively marinates in a shallow pool of water on the shore as she grasps at the sand beneath as the tide begins to cover her as she is on the brink of some sort of life-changing psychological break. As another inter-title then reads: “Jason built his vessel Argo and sailed to Colchis to fetch the Golden Fleece which he won with the help of Medea, the beautiful and wise, who gave him her love. Her love has now turned to hatred. Jason betrays Medea and the two sons she has borne him. Together they fled from Colchis and arrived in Corinth as outlaws. Medea left her distant country. Jason left her here.” Indeed, a powerful, albeit somewhat evil, woman that practices the dark arts, Medea sacrificed everything for her selfish husband Jason (Udo Kier in probably the most ‘butch’ role of his career) and even plopped out two sons for him in the process but he’s already decided to throw everything away because he has an unquenchable thirst for power and the female protagonist has no place in his future life.

Unfortunately for virtually all parties concerned, King Creon of Corinth (Henning Jensen) wants to secure his throne and he decides to do this by having his beloved daughter Glauce (Ludmilla Glinska)—a rather nubile dame that enjoys exposing her unclad body, as if she sincerely believes that she is god's great gift to humanity—marry powerful warrior and hero Jason. To add insult to injury, King Creon banishes Medea and her sons from his kingdom because he is rightly afraid that she will use her evil powers to get revenge against him and his daughter. Unfortunately for him, King Creon naively agrees to give Medea one day to get her affairs in order before she leaves, thus giving her enough time to perfectly plot her rather ruthless revenge. Needless to say, Medea is success as she not only kills King Creon and his daughter, but also brutally hangs both her sons so that Jason will live with the pain and shame for eternity. Before hatching her pernicious plot, Medea secures her getaway by agreeing to help King Aegeus of Athens (Baard Owe) with family infertility problems. In the end, Jason loses everything and seemingly suffers a mental breakdown while Medea—a hard bitch that rarely expresses any emotions—weeps while sailing away on King Aegeus’ ship after exposing her hair for the first time in the film as if self-induced grief is the only scenario where she can express her sense of femininity. In short, everyone loses at the conclusion of this brutal tragedy, especially Medea, hence the vicious circle that accompanies being a bipolar bitch. 

 While the characters in Medea do not say much, the very few words that are expressed certainly reveal a certain mutual disappointment when it comes to the opposite sex and biology. For example, while the mother of two boys, Medea is not very proud of her ability to give life and even proclaims she would prefer the life of a warrior to the womb, stating, “I’d rather bleed behind a shield than bearing a man’s children.” As for Jason, he seems willing to forsake women altogether, declaring, “If only men could have children without the agency of women.” Certainly the sort of cold cunt that would give her son autism due to her lack of nurturing qualities, Medea—an assumed closet-romantic—seems to have only had children out of her love for Jason, hence her proclivity towards prolicide. In fact, Medea hints at such a motivation when she declares, “There is no greater sorrow than love,” especially after coming to the bitter conclusion that her husband’s “only ambition was to be the king’s son-in-law.” To Medea’s credit, Jason is such a cowardly self-absorbed piece-of-shit that he dares to proclaim to the heroine that his betrayal was done to benefit her and their children, thereupon also insulting her intelligence in the process. When Jason declares to her, “Your pride is your misfortune,” one cannot help but sympathize with Medea when she replies, “And your pride, Jason…is your good fortune. My weakness and blindness led me to encourage your vanity. You want it to look as if I have left you. You are betraying your own children.” In the end, both parents not only betray their own children, but fall victim to their own pride, thereupon causing mostly relative innocents to die in the end. Undoubtedly, if there is anything that one can learn from the film, it is that no one in a relationship is innocent as shitty people tend to choose shitty partners.  Additionally, Medea and Jason are the couple from hell and it is almost fitting that the former executes sort of post-birth abortions by killing her son as if to rid the world of their demonic genes. 

 Notably, as the decades have passed since the film's over thirty years ago, auteur Lars von Trier has had very few good things to say about Medea. For example, in Trier on von Trier he confesses, “. . . I don’t feel very happy with the film. I think that’s because of all that Viking crap that I never really got a grip on. No matter what you do with things like this, the result is always a sort of fancy-dress party. It’s bloody difficult to get it to look at all sensible. I don’t think we’ve really got enough distance to all this Viking business. But when you look at what Kurosawa does with similar things, it looks impressive. Like THE SEVEN SAMURAI. But if you look at the film more closely, you can see that the helmets they’re wearing are terribly badly made. Maybe Kurosawa thought his films were insubstantial. But both time and geographic distance have eroded that, so you go along with it.” Aside from being someone that has always considered Kurosawa’s films, especially The Seven Samurai, to be absurdly overrated, it is easier for me to embrace the ‘period costumes’ in von Trier’s film than in big budget pseudo-prestige TV bullshit like Game of Thrones (2011-2019) and Vikings (2013-current) where mostly candy ass modern actors preposterously pretend to be medieval bad asses.  Not surprisingly, at the end of the same interview, von Trier would ultimately sum up his feelings about the film as follows, “MEDEA doesn’t say much to me these days. It’s got some nice scenes, but only on a superficial level. MEDEA was possibly a precursor to BREAKING THE WAVES in some of its usage of melodramatic form.” Of course, Breaking the Waves (1996) suffers from contrived pseudo-Dreyer-esque flourishes, an absurdly off-putting utilization of pop music, and a ridiculous pseudo-transcendental ending that completely contradicts the film’s entire tone. Personally, it is somewhat hard for me to take von Trier’s opinion of his own work completely seriously as he apparently regards Epidemic (1987)—an abortive mess of a movie of the masturbatory metacinematic sort—as his ‘personal favorite’ of his films while distancing himself from most of his other fair superior early films like his debut feature The Element of Crime (1984). I think what separates Medea from much of von Trier’s oeuvre is that, out of respect for Dreyer, von Trier demonstrated some sensible restraint for the first (and probably last) time in his filmmaking career and did not succumb to the seemingly self-destruction compulsion towards juvenile troll tactics. In that sense, it is arguably the auteur’s most subversive and idiosyncratic work to date and von Trier's sort of equivalent to David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999) as an understated oddity in the filmmaker's oeuvre that benefits from a sort of quasi-Bressonian simplicity. 

 Of course, von Trier is not the first filmmaker to tackle the timeless Ancient Greek tragedy of Medea, which is a myth that, in general, seems to appeal to more experimental and subversive filmmakers. In fact, von Trier is not even the most subversive or iconoclastic auteur to adapt it as Dutch auteur Frans Zwartjes—undoubtedly one of the most idiosyncratic filmmakers that has ever lived—directed a rarely-seen minimalistic version simply titled Medea (1982) where two actresses play all the roles.  Taking the tragedy to a totally different extreme, fellow Dutch auteur Theo van Gogh’s posthumously released six-episode miniseries Medea (2005) updates the story for the degenerate world of Dutch democratic politics. Arguably even more unconventional than Zwartjes' film, obscure Italian female experimental filmmaker Pia Epremian's Medea (1969) seems like the sort of film the eponymous anti-heroine might directed if she was a full-blown schizophrenic. In subversive guido auteur Marco Ferreri’s delectably debauched The Story of Piera (1983) aka Storia di Piera—one of the Italian filmmaker's countless criminally overlooked films—great frog mischling beauty Isabelle Huppert portrays a young girl that learns to play the role of Medea in high school and later plays the role as adult actress in a particularly perversely preternatural film that, among other things, features the novelty of borderline mother-daughter incest, among other things. Of course, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea (1969) starring Greek-American opera diva Maria Callas as the brilliantly cast titular lead is probably the greatest and most revered adaptation of the Greek tragedy. Personally, in terms of sheer rewatchability, I prefer von Trier’s version despite my perennial mixed feelings about its auteur and my general preference for Pasolini over the Danish auteur. 

 Notably, von Trier himself seriously doubts that his Dreyer tribute is actually Dreyer-esque as demonstrated by his words, “The film was supposed to be a bit Dreyerish. I felt very connected to his aesthetic. But a lot of the film is too insubstantial. And we had that model of the Viking castle where Medea lived. I can’t stand that sort of thing. It looked terrible. The problem was that the budget didn’t let us film the whole thing on location. We came up with several Fellini-style solutions instead.” I have no idea what von Trier is alluding to as Medea is one of the least Fellini-esque films that I have ever seen, but I digress. As far as Dreyer’s influence, Medea has an almost fiercely foggy oneiric and ominous essence that is vaguely comparable to Dreyer’s truly nightmarish masterpiece Vampyr (1932). As far as the eponymous heroine’s passion and pathos are concerned, von Trier’s film sometimes feels like a sort of apocalyptic nod to The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) with strands of Gertrud (1964).

Not surprisingly, Jonathan Rosenbaum is less convinced of Dreyer’s influence and sees the film as being more Wellesian, or as he stated in his review, “In fact, apart from patches of Dreyer’s dialogue, MEDEA is not at all like Dreyer, occasionally a bit like Ingmar Bergman, and mostly like Orson Welles — the Welles, that is, of MACBETH and OTHELLO. I hasten to add that the two films have very different styles, starting with the studio sets and long takes of MACBETH and the disparate ‘found’ locations and splintered montage of OTHELLO. But von Trier, like many a postmodernist music-video maestro, never lets stylistic consistency get in the way of his stockpile of effects. Insofar as there’s any kind of dramatic logic at all, Medea is usually framed like Lady Macbeth in MACBETH and Jason (Udo Kier) like Othello in OTHELLO.” Indeed, von Trier’s Medea is quite comparable to Welles’ pleasantly peculiar adaptations of classic Western texts as experimental and even borderline avant-garde takes on these all-too-familiar stories that bring new lifeblood to the narratively necrotic. Not unlike Welles’ Shakespeare adaptations Macbeth (1948), Othello (1951), and Chimes at Midnight (1965), Medea does what great cinema should do by adding something to the ancient tragedy that could never be accomplished in theater or any other medium. Of course, the fact that the film features very little dialogue yet is atmospherically hypnotic throughout underscores this fact in terms of cinema's artistic singularity. 

 Whereas Medea is big on aesthetic and sparse on words, von Trier’s later celebrated ‘USA – Land of Opportunities’ trilogy films Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005) are absurdly aesthetically barren and overly talky as if the auteur went through a nihilistic Godardian phase where he was obsessed with destroying cinema. Indeed, these two films (the projected third and final film in the trilogy, Washington, has yet to enter production) are not much more than glorified filmed theater where von Trier virtually attempts to duplicate what Fassbinder did with his somewhat experimental obscure TV plays Das Kaffeehaus (1970) aka The Coffee Shop, Bremer Freiheit (1972) aka Bremen Freedom, Nora Helmer (1974), and Frauen in New York (1977) aka Women in New York. While it is only natural that Fassbinder would direct such films due to his theater background and experience as both an actor and playwright, von Trier has always been most focused on cinematic technique and cultivating a distinct aesthetic, thus Dogville and Manderlay seem like expressions of a tired old auteur with a contempt for cinema who has gotten incredibly bored with the medium and I say that as someone that finds these to films to be somewhat enjoyable. Of course, Medea and Dogville have one very important thing in common in that they conclude in a rather incriminating way that reveals von Trier’s sort of feminine rage. Indeed, while his latest failed film The House That Jack Built plays out like some murder fantasy fetish piece, it does not ring true the way Medea does where a hypnotically harrowing deluge of resentment, hatred, and misanthropy spills out in the end, thus it is quite fitting that the titular heroine begins the film lying in water as the tide begins to engulf her body. Naturally, considering von Trier’s recent uncharacteristic affliction of Trump Derangement Syndrome, I would not be surprised if he came out as gender fluid or even followed in the step of his virtual artistic nemeses, Wachowski brothers, and came out as an a full-blown autogynephile. Indeed, it is probably no coincidence that von Trier’s greatest films like Medea and Antichrist (2009) involve crazy cunts that make men miserable, especially since the auteur is himself a crazy cunt that likes to make men miserable.

Undoubtedly, it is somewhat ironic that von Trier's anti-Trump turd The House That Jack Built is largely is largely about death, as it feels like the creation of someone that believes in nothing and is totally afraid of death and the uncertainty that surrounds it, especially if one considers things that von Trier has said in the past.  Indeed, demonstrating once again that Dreyer is surely one of his most imperative influences, von Trier stated in a manner that even almost borders on nationalist pride, “...people are always sacrificing themselves completely in Dreyer's films—and in mine.  It must be a particularly Danish characteristic!  So what can we say about sacrifice? [...] someone who sacrifices himself or herself is at least giving their existence some sort of meaning—if you can see a meaning in doing something for others, for an idea, a belief.  The characters in these films are struggling to bring meaning to their time on earth.  It must feel easier to die if you're doing it for something you believe in.”  Of course, as a clearly intelligent and oftentimes iconoclastic individual, von Trier reveals that he believes in nothing, especially sacrifice, when he parrots retarded conformist anti-Trump twaddle and he will probably never become a true cinematic master until he dares to direct a film that he is willing to sacrifice his life—or some aspect of his life—for.  After all, at least with Medea he at least sacrificed his ego and exposed a certain vulnerability that he has yet to duplicate in any of his other films, hence the source of its striking emotional potency.  After all, I cannot think of another film where I managed to feel sympathy for a sick evil bitch that kills her own children whereas I could not wait for the painfully banal and pedantic serial killer fuck in The House That Jack Built to die so I would not listen to his pathetic pseudo-philosophical pontificating anymore.

-Ty E

Feb 9, 2020

Diary of a Country Priest

I honestly do not know much about the Catholic Church aside from the fact that it is now seems to be controlled by evil antichrist types that seem more interested in phantoms like climate change and the shoah and protecting serial child rapists and other castration-worthy perverts than the teachings of J.C., but I also have to assume that most modern priests are closet homosexuals, pedos, autistic, and/or sociopaths as I cannot imagine any even remotely normal man taking the cloth in our spiritually retarded age. Indeed, I might think Otto Preminger was a culture-distorting piece of shit that was largely dedicated to dismantling traditional white Christian values with his innately subversive films, but I cannot help but feel that his failed epic The Cardinal (1963)—a film inspired by the dubious life of hardcore closet-queen and Baby Doll-hater Cardinal Francis Spellman—exposed some hard truths about the lack of masculine fortitude and hypocrisy associated with the clearly spiritually and morally declining priesthood. Needless to say, I was not prepared to see a film where I came to believe a young wine-addled priest of the socially retarded sort achieves sainthood as is depicted in Diary of a Country Priest (1951) aka Journal d'un curé de champagne—a film based on the 1936 Georges Bernanos novel of the same name—but this cinematic masterpiece was directed by French master auteur Robert Bresson who is one of the few filmmakers that achieved a true sense of the spiritual in cinema, as opposed to simply depicting contrived (yet oftentimes curiously homoerotic) biblical bullshit à la half-chosenite Cecil B. DeMille, and I say that as a largely apathetic agnostic that could not be a believer if I wanted to. While oftentimes associated with the heretically Catholic moral rigor and asceticism of Jansenism, this did not exactly inform the filmmaker's singular aesthetic, or as Paul Schrader—a lapsed Dutch-American Calvinist that has modeled much of his films after Bresson's, especially Pickpocket (1959)—wrote in his groundbreaking text Transcendental Style in Film (1972), “Bresson, the artist, received no aid or comfort from Jansenism; he had to look elsewhere for his aesthetics.”  Luckily, Bresson, quite unlike far too many modern filmmakers—both good and bad—looked far beyond the cinematic realm for aesthetic influences.

 An anti-modernist that, on an inspirational level, did not give a shit about modern trends—whether they be spiritual, cinematic, or political—Bresson might seem like a right-wing anarchist of sorts to some people (myself included) and his aesthetic interests were neither vogue nor wholly traditionalism, but that is largely why he was such a pleasantly preternatural filmmaker, or as Schrader also wrote, “Bresson cannot be tied down to any one heresy; he is a heretic all his own. His techniques of portraiture come from Byzantium; his theology of predestination, free will, and grace from Jansenism; his aesthetics from Scholasticism. To each tradition he brings the virtues of the other, and to cinema he brings the virtues of all three. Perhaps this is why no religious denomination has ever embraced Bresson’s seemingly religious films; they haven’t figured out what sort of heretic he is yet.” Indeed, religion or not, Diary of a Country Priest is as heretical as films come as a flick that even makes Pasolini’s biblical flicks and sardonic (anti)Catholic satires of Luis Buñuel seem like immaturely and inelegantly rebellious pussy posturing by comparison due to Bresson’s singular devotion to the strikingly transcendent in a world plagued with the positively putrid and material. As someone that lost ‘faith’ (or whatever) as a young kid, Diary of a Country Priest at least made me feel like a believer during its 115-minute running-time and even caused me to momentarily consider that there is much more than life and the shitty people in it.  One could even say that, not unlike many of Bresson’s other films, it is a merrily morbid cinematic work that celebrates death to the point where Christianity—or at least the auteur’s splendidly curious version of it—is centered around the worship of death, which is beautifully underscored by the priest protagonist’s final dying words after asking for absolution: “What does it matter? All is grace.”  Indeed, Bresson wants the viewer to know that the body is a temporal prison and thus one should never fear death as life is the real hell.  In fact, as Bresson's pitch black yet singularly subtle understated humor reveals, life is largely a sick joke at the expense of the good and sensitive like the eponymous protagonist of the film.

Although Bresson’s previous and second feature Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) is a highly worthwhile dark gothic (anti)romance where a scorned bourgeois bitch played by Spanish beauty María Casares dedicates her life to getting a disturbingly intricate revenge against her ex-lover simply because he falls in love with another woman from a less prestigious class, it was not until his third film Diary of a Country Priest—a cinematic work so precisely and immaculately constructed that it makes most films seem like they are layered with lard—that he created the template for the singular ‘transcendental style’ that he is best known for. Indeed, one could argue that the film created a complete paradigm shift in the art of filmmaking as it was surely an imperative influence on the filmmakers and intellectuals associated with the La Nouvelle Vague and later American New Wave masterpieces like Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) and Schrader's Hardcore (1979), yet no filmmaker—be it Michael Haneke, Carlos Reygadas, Bruno Dumont, Dietrich Brüggemann or countless other examples—has come close to capturing Bresson’s style or aesthetic rigor. In short, Bresson lives in a world of his own, which is fitting for a man that once wrote in regard to his cinematic philosophy, “The CINEMA did not start from zero. Everything to be called into question.” Undoubtedly, Diary of a Country Priest offers the first serious glimpse of the singular Bressonian cinematic world where typical movie ingredients like entertainment, star power, psychological motivation, and sexual magnetism, among other things, are scant, if not totally nonexistent, and a rare spiritual experience in celluloid form is offered to those viewers bold enough to embrace it. Undoubtedly, the film is the first good example of why Schrader was right when he wrote, “Bresson’s characters, his movies, and Bresson himself all become icons. . . . Bresson has transcended himself: he is blazed in mosaics in some moss-grown temple.” Indeed, like most of his cinematic works, it is somewhat hard to believe that a single man conceived of such a film, but of course Bresson was not your typical man or filmmaker as one of the greats in the top tier class of cinematograph masters that includes F.W. Murnau and Carl Theodor Dreyer, among few others.

While only a highly intelligent artistic genius could dream up a film like Bresson’s, it is hardly an intellectual exercise, or as the great frog critic André Bazin once wrote, “If THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST impresses us as a masterpiece, and this with an almost physical impact, if it moves the critic and the uncritical alike, it is primarily because of its power to stir the emotions, rather than the intelligence, at their highest level of sensitivity.” Indeed, one would do best to embrace the film like one should embrace death without fear or hesitation as it is a film that bleeds into the soul as it progresses to the point where it feels completely right and hardly dejecting when the young priest—a man that has sacrificed his mind and body for his faith—dies in the end. While the priest technically dies of stomach cancer, which is fitting since he cannot stomach life (not to mention food), one gets the sense that the true source of his death is a spiritual malady and that he is no longer fit for the ‘prison’ of his body. Indeed, there is no doubt from the very first shot of the character that the young ‘Priest of Ambricourt’ (Belgian-born Swiss actor Claude Laydu in his first and most well-known acting role)—a forlorn figure that, not coincidentally, appears framed behind a fence at the beginning of the film in a manner that underscores his status as a virtual inmate in an ‘earthly prison’—suffers greatly with mere existence and is pretty much socially retarded (read: proto-autistic), but he is also a ‘true believer’ and not in the negative pathological sense as he is willing to sacrifice what little health he has to help a small village with an oppressive atmosphere as inhabited by mostly coldhearted and petty people that immediately despise him just due to his mere presence as a character of a sort of simple untainted Dostoevskian good. In fact, even the eponymous donkey of Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) seems to be treated better than the priest as at least the animal is beloved by the kind and innocent but, quite unlike the ass of Bresson's later film, the young Catholic brother makes it quite clear to the viewer how he feels, though his internal pain always feels like a total necessary part of his journey. In fact, one could say that the young Priest’s faith is ostensibly morbidly masochistic as an anxiety-ridden prole that is incapable of praying who attempts to spiritually counsel people that would rather spit on him and write him threatening anonymous letters demanding that he leave the village (which actually happens), yet there is a certain undeniable nobility and purity in his ‘passion,’ even if it arguably contributes to his seemingly unavoidable premature demise.

While it would not be sensible to describe Diary of a Country Priest as a ‘realist’ film, there is certainly an inordinate realism of spirit and essence, as if Bresson personally examined the soul of each ‘actor’ (or ‘model’ as Bresson would say) to see if they were right for the role. For example, Nicole Ladmiral, who plays a troubled young aristocratic girl that threatens suicide, committed suicide in real-life at the age of 28 by throwing herself under a subway train some years after the film was released (to make matters more morbid, Ladmiral previously provided narration for Georges Franju’s abattoir documentary Blood of the Beasts (1949) aka Le sang des bêtes). As for lead actor Claude Laydu, he was borderline brainwashed by Bresson for a year in preparation for the role and he would ultimately take an extreme method acting approach to his ‘performance’ by living with a group of young priests for many weeks, intentionally starving himself to make himself look ill, and sporting an authentic priest cassock and matching boots. As for the priest protagonist’s mentor ‘Priest of Torcy,’ he was actually portrayed by Bresson’s own doctor Adrien Borel who only agreed to do the role so long as he could use a pseudonym (he is credited as ‘Andre Guibert’ in the film). While the acting might be a tad bit more ‘melodramatic’ than Bresson’s later films where the models just act like virtual somnambulists, Laydu’s performance is arguably the most memorable of the auteur’s films aside from possibly Nadine Nortier in his subsequent Georges Bernanos adaptation Mouchette (1967) where a poor young girl chooses death over life before she even reaches full womanhood. Indeed, Laydu plays a pathetic priest but you cannot help but respect the passion behind his, well, passion.  Another ‘realist’ aspect of the film is Bresson's utilization of oftentimes grating off-screen noises (e.g. squeaking of a wagon wheel), which helps to subtly intensify the contrast between the everyday and spiritual.  Indeed, while Bresson makes great use of chiaroscuro as seemingly influenced by the paintings of Dutch Golden Age painters like Johannes Vermeer and Godfried Schalcken, the film does not utilize special effects or garish pageantry to express the spiritual like so many idiotic Hollywood films.  After all, as Bresson once wrote, “It is in its pure form that an art hits hard.”

Beginning with a shot of a sign of Ambricourt—a real-life commune in the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France—the viewer arrives just as the new ‘Priest of Ambricourt’ (Claude Laydu) arrives to the area for his new parish where he soon catches the local rich Count (Jean Riveyre) being a little too intimate with his dejected daughter Chantal’s (Nicole Ladmiral) rather beauteous governess. As the rather literal title of the film indicates, the Priest oftentimes writes in his diary and as his first entry reads, “I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong in writing down daily, with absolute frankness, the simplest and most insignificant secrets of a life actually lacking any trace of mystery.”  Undoubtedly, the diary is one of the priest's few sources of solace, as if he needs it to remind himself of his very existence lest him succumb to a sort of self-dissolution.  As demonstrated by the fact that the action and drama of the film is oftentimes echoed by his words in what is ultimately a cinematically ingenious use of pleonasms, the protagonist is an honest priest—even maybe too painfully and autistically so to the point where the viewer is forced to suffer silently with him as he routinely puts himself in the most miserable of situations. When a grumpy old fart named ‘Fabregars’ (Léon Arvel) bitches about having to pay for aspects of his wife’s funeral, the Priest is left completely “distraught,” as if it is the end of the world or something, thereupon underscoring the protagonist's complete and utter incapacity to deal with everyday assholes. Aside from adults not respecting him, the Priest is also mocked by the children he teaches. For example, a young girl named Séraphita Dumonte (Martine Lemaire) pretends to be keen on the Scriptural basis of the Eucharist to get his attention, but then embarrasses him for the enjoyment of her classmates by mock-flirtatiously stating in regard to the root of her ostensible biblical prowess, “It’s because you have such beautiful eyes.” When the Priest meets his new mentor, the Priest of Torcy (Adrien Borel), the older and wiser brother instantly berates him for being a sensitive pussy by stating, “You young priests! What have you young men got in your veins these days? In my time they made men of the church, leaders of parishes, real masters!” While the Priest of Torcy is certainly somewhat of a resentful old prick, his heart is in the right place and does provide the young priest with helpful dictums like, “Keep order all day long” and “A true priest is never loved.”  In the end, the young priest proves to live and eventually die by these words as he is never loved and rarely even liked, but he does earn the respect of some of his most aggressive and cynical detractors.

Although everyone hates the priest, including little kids, that does not stop him from idealistically attempting to inspires his seemingly impenetrable haters with his own special idealistic Catholic philosophy. To the young Priest's credit, his idealism is pure and his desire to ‘save’ is as equally pure, hence his handful of notable successes. Indeed, the young Priest manages to convince the local Countess (Rachel Bérendt) to get over her deep-seated hatred of god as a result of the premature death of her young son who she practically worships (for example, instead of a rosary and religious paintings, the Countess sports a locket necklace featuring a pic of her dead son and has decorated her room with pics of said dead son). In fact, the Countess is so inspired to let go of her hatred and resume her communion with god after an intense spiritual argument with the young priest, who she initially does not take seriously, that she actually destroys her beloved locket necklace her dead son. In fact, the Countess even writes a heartfelt thank-you letter that concludes with, “I hope I don’t hurt your pride by calling you a child. You are one, and may God keep you so always,” but she soon dies as if her hatred was the only thing keeping her alive. Despite being a sickly wimp, the viewer never doubts the intense sincerity of his words when he sternly warns the countess, “God will break you,” so there is a certain heartwarming irony in her unexpected death, which naturally disturbs her dysfunctional aristocratic family, as if her bodily demise was god's greatest gift. To make matters worse, the Countess’ daughter Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral), who hates her mother for being a pathetic cuckquean, hatefully attempts to blame the priest for her death, thereupon further tainting the protagonist’s local reputation.

While the priest fails in his attempt to get Chantal to give confession, he does somehow magically suspect a suicide letter in her pocket, which he forces her to give it to him and then subsequently burns it without even reading it. Although seemingly half-autistic, the priest was able to read terrible thoughts of suicide in the troubled teenage girl’s unsettlingly penetrating eyes and thus acted accordingly without even the slightest hesitation. In what is probably the most humorous moment of the entire film, Chantal tells the Priest, “You must be the devil” after asking for said letter as if she, as the unloved sole surviving child of bitter old blueblood, is shocked that someone could actually feel her great internal pain for the first time in her entire life. In the end, Chantal seems to believe in the Priest's power and when she asks how he was able to do the seemingly impossible by calming her hateful mother, he replies, “A lost secret. You too will find it and lose it in turn, and others will pass it on after you.” In the end, the Priest dies but his crucial influence on seemingly hopeless people like Chantal lives on.

Aside from learning from the misery of everyday life, the priest also learns a thing or two from the Priest of Torcy, but even he cannot provide the protagonist with any sort of solace when a certain Dr. Delbende (Antoine Balpêtré) assumedly commits suicide because he “lost his faith” as a result of losing patients due to dubious local rumors.  Indeed, as the priest complains in regard to the suicide, “I was in no condition to listen to his confidences just then. They were like molten lead poured on an open wound. I have never suffered so much and likely never will again, even when I die.” In fact, the suicide seems to perturb the priest more than when he finally learns that he is dying of stomach cancer, but of course Dr. Delbende committed a mortal sin which is one of the worst things a Catholic can do.  Naturally, as the victim of local rumors himself, the young priest certainly sees a kindred spirit Dr. Delbende who even expresses a sort of spiritual kinship to the protagonist before he commits self-slaughter.  In fact, the Priest even takes no offense when Dr. Delbende informs him during a medical examination that his poor health is the degenerate genetic consequence of generations of impoverished alcoholics in his family.  In that sense, it seems Dr. Delbende is a fan of the writings of Cesare Lombroso and Émile Zola.

Notably, the Priest’s only moment of reprieve is when he receives a ride on the back of motorcycle as underscored by the words in his diary, “By some premonition I can’t explain, I understood that God didn’t want me to die without knowing something of this risk. Just enough for my sacrifice to be complete when it’s time came.”  While a simple motorcycle ride where nothing particularly interesting happens, it is obviously a moment of complete bliss for the protagonist as demonstrated by the shockingly large ecstatic smile on his face.  Luckily, before he dies, the priest is able to convince an old friend, Priest Dufrety (Bernard Hubrenne), who has lost the faith and is living in sin with a woman, to hook up with the Priest of Torcy so that he can get back on track with God and the Church. In the end, Priest Dufrety sends the Priest of Torcy a brief letter revealing that the young priest was vomiting up blood before he died and then asked for absolution, but then stated with his last dying words, “What does it matter? All is grace.”

Simply put, I don’t give a fuck about Catholic fathers or the Catholic Church, but Diary of a Country Priest made me feel like a believer, especially in regard to the titular protagonist becoming a saint, at least in the spiritual sense. While later filmmakers like Carlos Reygadas and Dietrich Brüggemann have attempted similar things in regard to transcendental, their cinematic works are, at best, mostly deluded expressions of epigonism, especially when contrasted with Bresson's films. Undoubtedly, the same can be said of Paul Schrader’s most recent film First Reformed (2017), which is like a more subversive and less spiritually sound Americanized reworking of Diary of a Country Priest where the American auteur reveals more about his own spiritual sickness than any sort of innate understanding of the somewhat mysterious forces that compelled the no less mysterious French master auteur (who, despite revealing his cinematic philosophy in his classic text Notes on the Cinematograph (1975), still remains a largely enigmatic figure). Still, Schrader’s film is a worthy watch and one of the best films of 2017, yet it also demonstrates the aesthetical and metaphysical degeneration of cinema since the release of Bresson’s masterpiece, as it is clearly the expression of a spiritually lost and emasculated leftist type who no longer believes in himself, let alone the faith of his forefathers.

 Speaking of Schrader, he provided an important insight into Bresson’s true power as a filmmaker in Transcendental Style in Film by contrasting him with Carl Th. Dreyer—one of the few filmmakers on the same level as the French master auteur—and ultimately argues in a manner that makes sense of the titular priest’s death in Diary of a Country Priest that, “Bresson, on the other hand, is the artist of the resurrection, the artist of stasis. The cross for Bresson is a means to a resurrected end, and he is careful not to confuse the cross and the resurrection. Like Dreyer, Bresson uses suffering through the prison metaphor (the ‘symbol of the Cross’), but unlike Dreyer, Bresson transforms the prison into a symbol of resurrection. In this manner Bresson is like the Byzantine Christian who, as theologian Henri Daniel-Rops writes, ‘preferred the theology of Glory to the theology of the Cross.’ Suffering for Bresson is never more than a stepping-stone to stasis.” Indeed, the young priest might be barfing up blood in the end, but his premature death, which is not even actually depicted in the film, is among the most joyous, if not the most joyous, in cinema history. Additionally, only in underrated French auteur Maurice Pialat’s sort of neo-Bressonian masterpiece Under the Sun of Satan (1987) aka Sous le soleil de Satan—the third and final of three masterpiece films based on a novel by Georges Bernanos (of course, Bresson directed the other two)—comes as close to Bresson’s film in terms of successfully depicting a particularly perturbed priest’s passion towards sainthood, albeit in a somewhat more fucked fashion.

Notably, in a top ten list of his favorite films, Russian master auteur Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev, Solaris) actually ranked Diary of a Country Priest as his #1 favorite film of all-time. While I personally rank Tarkovsky as one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time, I would be lying if I did not admit that I consider Bresson to be the superior auteur and Diary of a Country Priest to be superior to anything that the Russian director ever directed, even if it does not quite compete with the atmospheric aesthetic allure of films like Stalker (1979) and The Mirror (1975). After all, whereas Tarkvosky brings us religious imagery and great pangs of spiritual doubt, Bresson even provides cynical agnostics like myself a sort of cinematic spiritual experience that feels both timeless and perennial as a film that, somewhat inexplicably, feels like it could have been created before the birth of film. As to what separates Tarkvosky from Bresson and other master practitioners of transcendental style like Ozu and Dreyer, Schrader provided a worthy answer when he argued, “To my mind, Andrei Tarkovsky was not interested in the transcendental style per se. He had religious themes, obsessions, and characters. He was austere. He employed distancing devices. But his intent was different. A transcendental guide or guru or film director self-effacingly seeks to escort the respondent to another level of consciousness, a Wholly Other World. The transcendental film director is a ‘spirit guide.’ Tarkovsky was more interested in passing through the portal himself than he was in escorting his viewer.”

Indeed, Tarkovsky's The Mirror is one of my favorite films of all-time, but it seems like an experimental exercise in masturbatory nostalgia when compared to Bresson’s great ‘(anti)coming-of-age’ flicks like Au hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967). Arguably more importantly, at least to me, Bresson is one of the few filmmakers that, despite the oftentimes deathly dark subject matter of his films, gives me hope as he proved that great timeless and spiritual art could still be produced in the post-Spenglerian age. Indeed, as Richard Roud argued in his excellent text Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (1980) in regard to Bresson’s penultimate masterpiece The Devil Probably, “Even though Bresson has painted a dark picture of wasted youth and beauty (Truffaut called it Bresson’s most ‘voluptuous film’), one came out of the film with a sense of exaltation. When a civilization can produce a work of art as perfectly achieved as this, it is hard to believe that there is not hope for it.” Indeed, take that Spengler.

One of the reasons I found Christianity to be so revoltingly impotent as a child is due to the obsession with prayer and the sort of mindless docility and acceptance of misery it inspires, so I could not help but feel quite strongly when the young priest declares, “Never had I felt so violently the revolt of the body against prayer.” Instead of praying like a pussy, the priest takes action in, somewhat ironically, an arguably Nietzschean sense and puts both his body and mind on the line while just getting by on cheap wine and stale bread to the point where it results in self-obliteration and he finally escapes from the prison of his body. Indeed, even after getting his terminal cancer diagnosis, the priest does not stop in his seemingly completely genuine acts of Catholic idealism to the point where he gets another priest, who has sinned with a woman and now styles himself as an enterprising intellectual, to replace him in the end. In that sense, the priest is a highly inspirational character like a fanatical artist not unlike Bresson himself. In fact, I could not help but think of Rainer Werner Fassbinder of all people and how the singular workaholic auteur was even working on a Rosa Luxemburg biopic script entitled Rosa L when he overdosed on cocaine and barbiturates. Diary of a Country Priest is not just the passion of a young priest, but also the passion of Bresson who revolutionized cinema in a way that the likes of contemporary pseudo-Bressonian art fags like Bruno Dumont and Gus Van Sant can only dream of.

Undoubtedly, film critic André Bazin probably paid the greatest tribute to the film when he argued at the end of his Cahiers du Cinéma essay on it, “It is hardly enough to say of this work, once removed, that it is in essence faithful to the original because, to being with, it is the novel. But most of all the resulting work is not, certainly, better (that kind of judgment is meaningless . . .) but ‘more’ than the book. The aesthetic pleasure we derive from Bresson’s film, while the acknowledgement for it goes, essentially, to the genius of Bernanos, includes all that novel has to offer plus, in addition, its refraction in the cinema.”  In short, Bresson accomplished what very few filmmakers do by totally transcending his source material and ultimately demonstrating the true potential of cinema as an artistic medium.  In fact, Bresson proved with his rather idiosyncratic Jansenist Weltanschauung and assumed Byzantium and Gothic influences in his adaptation of a ‘modern’ novel that, despite most movies being mindless trash that is meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator, cinema is the fullest and most advanced art form with the most potential for both aesthetic and thematic evolution.  Indeed, while Schrader made a great point when he argued, “Motion pictures were not born in religious practice, but instead are the totally profane offspring of capitalism and technology.  If a religious artist in cinema attempts to go back to his origins, he will find only entrepreneurs and technocrats.  When the Holy tries to enter into the cinema, the intrinsically profane art, there are bound to be some unusual consequences,” he was ultimately underscoring Bresson's singular genius as an artist that brought transcendence to a commercial medium and with Diary of a Country Priest, which somewhat ironically was a commercial success, he created one of the greatest pieces of art of the twentieth-century and one of the rare films that deserves to be revered to the same degree as great Gothic architecture, Byzantine icons, and other great artistic pieces associated with the Occident.

While Nietzsche was probably mostly right when he wrote, “The Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad, has made the world ugly and bad,” Bresson's films would have probably at least make him reconsider.  After all, as Roud soundly recognized, “By the end of the film, even the non-believer is forced to acknowledge that the little country priest is a saint—whatever that word may mean.  His final liberation comes not only from his acceptance of his approaching and painful death, but from the knowledge that his conflicts have not really been with the Countess, or Chantal, or Seraphita, but with himself.  And these conflicts are resolved: tout est grâce.”  Of course, Nietzsche also might a good point when he argued, “What do savage tribes at present accept first of all from Europeans?  Brandy and Christianity, the European narcotics.—And by what means are they fastest ruined?—By the European narcotics,” but somehow I doubt these savages could embrace the truly Christian Diary of a Country Priest even if they wanted to.  After all, the film is the opposite of a narcotic and Europeans, not unlike Bresson, do Christianity best when coming from an ascetic angle as opposed to a pussy proto-humanist prayer version.

-Ty E