Monday, January 07, 2008
For the love of Lars
It was while on-stage in a comedy improv show that I decided to learn more about Ibsen. (You didn't see that comin', did ya?)
Based on an audience suggestion, my improv mates and I were supposed to imitate his playwriting style in a scene. I had no idea how to do it, but faked it and got a mild laugh from the audience. A lot of improv is just faking it, so no big deal. But, post-show, I felt it was my responsibility to find out more about the celebrated Norwegian. So I went online to the lazy-assed researcher's choice, Wikipedia. Luckily the entry on Ibsen was thoughtfully presented.
As I read through it, the similarities between Ibsen's work and that of my favorite filmmaker, Lars von Trier, fell into sharp relief:
"[Ibsen's] plays were considered scandalous to many of his era, when Victorian values of family life and propriety largely held sway in Europe and any challenge to them was considered immoral and outrageous. Ibsen's work examined the realities that lay behind many facades, possessing a revelatory nature that was disquieting to many contemporaries."
Aha! As von Trier did in his eviscerating masterpiece Dogville and its less magnificent, but no less moving, sister film Manderlay.
"Ibsen largely founded the modern stage by introducing a critical eye and free inquiry into the conditions of life and issues of morality. Victorian-era plays were expected to be moral dramas with noble protagonists pitted against darker forces; every drama was expected to result in a morally appropriate conclusion, meaning that goodness was to bring happiness, and immorality pain. Ibsen challenged this notion and the beliefs of his times and shattered the illusions of his audiences."
Hmmm. Brings to mind von Trier's Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark—two dramas so emotionally devastating, I don't think I could handle a second viewing of either.
Having stumbled upon this Ibsen/von Trier similarity, I Google'd the two blokes' names to find out if anyone else had made this comparison. Humorously enough, good olde von Trier included a tongue-in-cheek Ibsen joke in his recent office comedy The Boss of It All. In a very funny scene, one of his characters "outs" Ibsen as being an idiot. Reading that brought a grin to my mug. It was like Lars and I had shared a little inside joke.
Yes, despite the somberness of most of the films mentioned above, von Trier does have a wicked sense of humor. It revealed itself a bit in the documentary The Five Obstructions (a great film exercise any creative person should see). But now his twisted sense of play has unfurled itself in all its snide glory with the subdued, but brilliant office farce The Boss of It All.
This quietly clever comedy is set in the dimly lit halls and conference rooms of a Danish software corporation that has a fictional president at its helm. The real president, a man named Ravn, has created a "fake president" in a foreign country. Upon this ghost executive Ravn is able to blame all manner of unpopular business decisions. A habeas corpus situation occurs and Ravn must scramble to produce a "live" faux leader. So he hires an actor to impersonate "the boss of it all." Lucky for us, the actor he handpicks decides to take this role—as he would any role—very, very seriously.
The slow simmer of the story asks for some patience, but the plot of it all pays off swimmingly in the climatic meeting showdown. The dialogue is superb throughout. I'd say von Trier's finest skill is his ability to dissect and reflect human behavior with uncanny—and, OK, usually unflattering—precision. The acting is terrific throughout the ensemble cast, but especially in the faking-stoicism-to-perfection performance of Jens Albinus as the hired thespian in question.
Upping the ante, von Trier creates interludes in the action with bitterly self-mocking bits of narration. He also does a kind of jump cut hiccup trick in certain scenes—stuttering from one take of a moment to another—while the dialogue continues seamlessly. This editing sleight of hand creates a kinetic feeling of imbalance and subtly mimics the redundant patterns of office life.
You know, I've tried to talk friends into seeing von Trier's films and it's an uphill battle. I suppose it's because his films seem like so much work to watch. I remember years back convincing a Taco Tuesday movie night crew to see Breaking of the Waves when it was first released. They loathed it on exit. One of my friends actually gave me the finger as the credits rolled. BUT a day or two later, they were all gushing about it. See? See?!
So for those of you who've been leery of Lars, perhaps The Boss of It All will be a nice way to dip your toe into his genius oeuvre. To paraphrase the lady lawyer character in the aforementioned comedy, the words in dogma films are sometimes hard to hear, but that doesn't make them any less important.