Sunday, November 27, 2011

Lars von Trier, Melancholia

For a guy who says some pretty stupid things sometimes, Lars von Trier is a pretty great artist. I have loved just about all of his films, going back to the Dogme days and up through his previous work, Antichrist. Melancholia does not disappoint — it too is a spectacular film. But I hope we don’t have another Ezra Pound-like figure on our hands, and that von Trier will give up his fascination with Nazism, no matter how “amazing” their aesthetics may or may not have been. It would be nice to be able to fully embrace such a great artist (and there are many one can), instead of (often) having to constantly make that life/work distinction, you know?

But back to the film. Briefly, Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, one of two sisters, the other being Claire (Charlotte Gainsoburg). In the first half of the film, Justine has just gotten married but can’t seem to fully go along with this state of affairs. The reception, at a lavish country manor house, is a disaster due to family issues and especially due to Justine’s own severe depression, and, even though she and her husband (Alexander Skarsgård) have apparently already tied the knot, he leaves her in the wee hours because she just won’t get it together. “I tried,” she later tells her sister, who is bitterly disappointed in her.

Clearly, none of this is real. I would say that the whole thing is deliberately contrived in order to explore the emotional interactions between people in fraught circumstances. Part two of the film concerns the impending doom of planet Earth, which is about to be swallowed up by a formerly hidden planet called Melancholia — the allegorical aspects here are obvious. Justine, severely depressed to the point of barely being functional, has arrived at the same manor home of Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). As Melancholia approaches, Justine’s frame of mind seems to lighten somewhat, while Claire becomes desperate with the anxiety of impending doom.

Such is the plot. I don’t think we are supposed to care very much for any of the characters. If this were meant to be a realistic film, we would probably be exasperated at everyone: Justine (at the very least why not try Prozac or something?), her newlywed husband (he leaves her because she’s having a hard time, and on their wedding night no less?), Claire (yes, the world is about to be swallowed up by a rogue planet, but what can you do?), and John (who commits suicide instead of remaining with his family as the end approaches). However, identification with his characters is not what von Trier is after either.

What von Trier seeks to accomplish, instead, is to instill emotion and wonder in the viewer through the poetic deployment and juxtaposition of his images. And while there is a kind of realism in his Dogme-style use of handheld camerawork throughout, much of Melancholia is composed of surreal imagery that at times is reminiscent of David Lynch or the photography of Gregory Crewdson. Indeed, the opening sequence is a series of still or almost still scenes, and it is one of the most beautiful parts of the film (director of photography Manuel Alberto Claro deserves mention here). Von Trier has called it an “overture,” and it anticipates the motifs of the rest of the film in a brilliant manner. These are a series of moving paintings almost, which, taken on their own, initially seem strange or bizarre, but whose meanings are revealed in the context of the unfolding work.

There are too many dazzling scenes in Melancholia to mention, certainly not only in the opening “overture.” I will note just a few, though, which particularly stand out for me. One is the recurring scene of the manicured lawn/garden of the house with its two rows of trees, one row of which appears to lean in at an awkward angle while the other grows straight. The lawn looks out onto the sea, and when the planet rises there on the horizon, it is quite spectacular. Another is the aerial view of the sisters riding horses together through the grounds of the manor, through mist, through trees. These aerial shots reminded me a bit of certain similar shots in the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Finally, as the planet approaches, Justine has disappeared one night and Claire goes off to find her. She comes upon her in the woods, basking naked in the light of the planet, as a witch might do under the full moon — it is as if Justine is reveling in the world’s impending destruction, as if her fatalism somehow redeems and allows her to conversely embrace life, even if only for these brief moments before it ends.

Thankfully, von Trier is smart enough not to give us a twist ending. If everyone had somehow survived, or if the credits came up before the collision, it would have been a huge letdown. However, the earth does indeed end, and we see it, and it is a great filmic moment.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Maurice Scully, A Tour of the Lattice

Veer Books has published a selection of Maurice Scully’s work titled A Tour of the Lattice (Veer Publication 039, ISBN: 978-1-907088-30-8), excerpting portions of Scully’s gigantic poem Things That Happen. I like the book’s spare black-and-white design, and the listing of Veer’s catalogue which comprises the last few pages is a good introduction to this British press which I was not heretofore familiar with. (Scully is, of course, Irish.) Veer describes itself as “publish[ing] a range of unconforming writing in poetry and poetics, including some texts that other publishers might view as experimental.” It looks like it would be worth checking out more of their list in the future.

But, to Scully’s work: Most readers of this blog will know that I’m something of a Scully fan, having written about him many times now. So in a similar spirit to this new “selected” volume, what follows are excerpts from my previous engagements with Scully, which have appeared in a variety of different venues, arranged in the order of the work as it comes in A Tour of the Lattice.

On “Adherence” and “Steps”:

Scully has been called a “Heraclitean” poet, and this description is not off the mark. The ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus is probably best known for his aphorism “All things are in flux,” and Scully’s world is indeed a constant flux — he has been said by Robert Archambeau to write “out of an aversion to the idea of the poem as closed system.” Vast and ambitious, his work is composed of long, ongoing sequences… While his is a huge undertaking, there nonetheless remains the sense in Scully’s work of a singular consciousness, the only possible unifying factor available in such a sprawling corpus. From section C of “Adherence”:
A fly cleaning itself precisely
by the window in the sunlight
forelegs back (rest) head eyes
shadows wings brittle-quick & quite
like writing really. Out there. That.
These lines do not truly attempt to convey an image of a fly in itself. Instead they observe a mind observing a fly, and it is from such a fundamental shift that much of Scully’s poetry proceeds.

There is with Scully too an overt critique of the received tradition. For example, a stanza from “Steps”:
Valleys, villages, coastline. A map
of a stain on the wall. Alive & living,
not a crammed glasshouse of pistillate
verba. Grass bends back. The book
is fat, contains code. The world,
the water planet. The code contained in
this thing in the world, the book, changes
the things, the world....
By retaining a rural subject matter this is a pastoral poem, technically — but a poem that explodes the Heaneyan lyric from the inside. It is only in the consciousness of writing (“the code,” “the book”) that transformation is possible, not in a fossilised way of life or in a represented landscape. In this sense Scully can loosely be called postmodern, the self-reflexivity of the writing being a characteristic of postmodernism. Yet Scully’s work remains utterly vigorous, highly autobiographical, and fully situated in the material world. It is work, in fact, which examines the minutiae of the world (and the human comprehension of it) much more deeply than the romanticising action of the traditional lyric poem can allow. [from Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde under “Post-” Conditions, ed. Louis Armand]

On “Tig”:

“Tig” opens with an image of a butterfly migration, an “immense blizzard of wings,” but Scully, as always, wants to get under the surface of the image. It is not only the beautiful forms and colours one sees, but also “...light exuding // over the visible / light intruding...” and there is a comment on the evolution of insect wings, and a rectangle representing a window, “rain on glass to the side of yr face...” Then comes what is more or less the [section]’s central (and recurring) image, a leaf falling from a tree … again seen from a windowpane, a windowpane that is the lens through which the poet sees, at a remove:
different (or) touching a windowpane where
drops gather ( ) difference ( ) &
or different
The window implies a house behind it, which is a central concern here too. A couple of sections have the title “A Place to Stay”: a space where one lives, or from where to engage with the wider world, as in a society, how one approaches society from one’s own space. In Munster Irish, the word tig means “house.” The themes are simple, but the actual process may be complex. The section “Backyard” gives us a crisp picture, “on still pools oakleaf / folded in a muddy crevice” and wonders, “are we just / photographs talking...?” Life is “one elong- / ated crisis (with / modulations)....”

But it is the modulations that are of crucial importance here, otherwise why put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. The falling leaves suggest age; there is an oblique reference or two to death. And modulations in writing. The best thing about Scully, for me, at the moment, is his style, which he’s really honed at this point. It’s got clarity and precision, even the way it looks on the page is made for particular effect, the use of certain marks, and the occasional use of the Irish language and Gaelic literary tradition totally makes it.... Book two opens (nearly) with an observation: “essentially a poem is a flat surface covered in part by groupings of twenty-six quite well-known symbols.” Later an ironic joke:
All that these able writers have said on language has been challenging, provocative, & generally very helpful.

Thank you.
And that’s where it starts to get really good, I mean really turned up a notch. All the images from the first half of the book are reconstituted, repeated, cut up in a sustained burst of energy, like watching a fireworks display, which keeps getting more and more spectacular till the end. [from Fortnight]

On “Prelude”:

Archambeau places particular emphasis on Maurice Scully’s Heraclitean world-view, quoting him as saying, in a paraphrase of the ancient Greek philosopher, “There is nothing static in the world.” Even seemingly impervious stone yields to a vine plant in “Prelude”’s “The Pillar & the Vine”:
the tendril travelling
& the leaf with it
hacks at the

pillar [...]
Most of this piece is written in three-line stanzas, except in two places where the lines break up in disorder, serving to shake the reader out of pattern-induced complacency. “Stone” exhibits an even stronger sense of intentional randomness. “Prelude” is the first book of the five-book Livelihood. Judging by the extract of Book III which appeared in Metre 5 a while back, Livelihood becomes more personal — autobiographical even — than its Book I. Like most of the Wild Honey poets, Scully prefers to work on an epic scale, not only in reflection of the complexity of life, but also, as Archambeau says, “out of an aversion to the idea of the poem as closed system.” [from The Burning Bush]