Bad Cinema: Nymphomaniac (Dir: Lars von Trier, 2014)

“For me, love was just lust with jealousy added. Everything else was total nonsense.”

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For starters, I would like to address the notion of a Volume 1 and a Volume 2. There is no Volume I and Volume 2. These are not sequels. It is one long movie (between 4.5 and 5.5 hours, depending if you watch the Director’s Cuts or not) that was split into two films for theatrical release purposes (and for the sanity of the audience). Think of it like Kill Bill, only with lots of close up shots of hairy pussy.

Before we get into Nymphomaniac, I feel I must address where it falls within his body of work. Lars von Trier makes series of trilogies connected by themes: Europa (The Element of Crime, Epidemic, and Europa), Golden Heart (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, and Dancer in the Dark), and USA: Land of Opportunity (Dogville – von Trier’s masterpiece, Manderlay, and the unproduced Wasington).

Nymphomaniac is Part III of his Depression Trilogy, a very personal inflection for von Trier. Part I is Antichrist, a similar film in tone and superior in execution to Nymphoniac, telling the story of a woman who is so traumatized by the death of her child while she was having sex that she devotes her life to being sexually punished. Part II is Melancholia – for my money von Trier’s most indulgent, boring, and overrated film – which is about a woman whose depression over her husband’s disappearance is exacerbated by the pending destruction of the world.

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Nymphomaniac is the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, in yet another bold role) and how sex simultaneously gave her meaning and ruined her life. The film, like all of the director’s work, has a fairy tale quality, illuminated by its very over written dialogue, moralizing tone, and storybook structure.

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Joe is found bloodied and barely alive in a snow laden alleyway by Seligman (von Trier stalwart, Stellan Skarsgard). She refuses to allow him to call the police or an ambulance; as he learns when he takes her back to his house, she is “a horrible person.” The intimation is that she deserved her abuse. And for the next four plus hours, she is going to tell us why.

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What follows are a series of sexual encounters and experiences, ranging from “discovering her cunt” at two years old to abandoning her child for the daily beatings of a man she knows only as “K” to her time as a dominatrix style mafioso. Each chapter is heavily narrated by Joe from Selingard’s home and intercut with polemical conversations on the merits of faith, nature, love, and sexuality. It reminds one of the Marquis de Sade’s Conversations between a Priest and a Dying Man only not as eloquently written and even less necessary. These seemingly endless scenes, while setting up a well structured and inevitable ending, read as theatrical in the most negative of ways and not only slow up the action, but damn near bring the whole thing to a screeching halt.

Fortunately, there are another seemingly endless series of scenes both “pornographic” and dramatic (and dramatically pornographic) to make you want to start the film over and give it another chance. For me, these scenes are where the film really finds its wings. The acting by the amazing cast – notably Stacy Martin as Young Joe and Gainsbourg – is layered and daring not only for their physical nudity (although that would be enough for Hollywood standards), but for their emotional nudity. Unfortunately, not enough people will suffer through the quagmire to mine the diamonds buried at the bottom of the swamp when they are filling out their Oscar ballots. Other stand-out performances include Shia LaBeouf as Joe’s one true love, Jerome; Jamie Bell as the sadistic K; and Uma Thurman in a phenomenal turn as the jilted wife of one of Joe’s latest conquests – seriously, why do more directors not give her a chance?

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For all the sex in the film – and there is a lot of sex in the film – you begin to numb to it rather quickly, which is part of Lars’ point (lest you don’t glean this as one of the dominant themes, just wait for the didactic monologue at the end to wrap it all up…). Lars’ concern here is not sex, but depression and how this woman, despite all of her protestations, uses sex to fill the…uh-hum….void within herself, a void presumably created by the death of her father (Christian Slater), although her behavior is not as easily explained away as it is in Antichrist. Supplant sex for any other “accepted” form of addiction – booze, gambling, cocaine – and it takes a lot of the shock factor out of it.

Yet the fact that it would be construed as shocking is precisely the reason Lars used sex as the drug of choice. Known for always pushing the most controversial of buttons, tearing up any envelope on the table, Nymphomaniac at times reads as forced and contrived, particularly because Lars’ signature tone is an unrelenting brand of ironic melodrama, always on the cusp of humor and devastation; The Lost Weekend, this is not. Lars somehow succeeds in poking fun at the ridiculousness of sex being taboo by precisely using the idea that sex is taboo as his raison d’être.

A note on the sex: Nymphomaniac is full of some of the most realistic sex you will ever see. There is a very good and impressive reason for that. It is real. Now before you get too excited that you have seen Shia LaBeouf’s erect penis (perhaps that was just me…), none of the “actors” in the film had sex. Interestingly, Lars von Trier, a man known for very gritty realism, has turned in some of the greatest CGI this side of Avatar. The scenes of fellatio are done with prosthetics and the hardcore sex shots (penetration, severe spankings, and close ups of genitalia) were painstakingly digitally altered by merging the upper bodies of the stars with the lower bodies of porn actors. The result is absolutely seamless. (To wit, Lars von Trier produces a line of pornography geared toward feminine pleasure, which if you have seen his oeuvre is most ironic…)

The more I think about Nymphomaniac the more I begin to reassess its merits. My healthy bias for Lars von Trier is clouding what I thought to be objective criticism and is causing me to wonder if I am properly categorizing this as Bad Cinema – a column that unquestionably includes epic turds like The Greatest Show on Earth and Heartbeeps

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‘Tis the joys and burdens of being a von Trier fan. No other filmmaker tests your stamina for melodrama, your threshold for female mutilation (physical and emotional), and your commitment to sticking with a film whose pacing unfolds like real life; von Trier’s greatest asset and liability. In totem, Nymphomaniac, while a bloated mess in need of a pair of scissorsis worth a viewing. Perhaps I should give Melancholia another go…

***CAR CRASH, albeit a fender bender…***

Good Cinema: Seconds (Dir: John Frankenheimer, 1966)

I discovered this movie on accident by strolling the selections at the Mar Vista Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. Rock Hudson + John Frankenheimer + Black and White thriller? I was in.

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Seconds tells the story of Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph – Roseanne’s dad on Roseanne), a bored middle aged banker whose life is going nowhere. His days are routine and his nights are spent sleeping in a separate bed from his long suffering wife. One evening while boarding the train, a mysterious man slips a piece of paper into his hand with an address on it. Could this be connected to the ominous calls he has been receiving? The calls from his dead friend, Charlie? Arthur folds the paper, puts it in his breast pocket, and takes his seat on the train.

That night, Arthur receives another call from the man claiming to be Charlie, the caller even going to the extent of describing Arthur’s study. Charlie begs him to visit the address. Arthur says no and Charlie hangs up on him. Arthur returns to bed, disheveled and confused. His wife Emily (Frances Reid – long time Alice Brady from Days of Our Lives) tries to comfort him with sex, but he refuses, numb to her caress. Arthur knows he needs a change, but what? And how?

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The next day he decides to visit the address to see what this is all about. Before he knows it, he is drugged, video-taped “performing” a faux rape, and coerced into cooperating. Arthur is then informed on the particulars of his death. His body – or a body that looks like Arthur – will be found ablaze in a hotel fire. Emily and their daughter will be well taken care of financially from his new life insurance policy (the one the Company has had the liberty of drawing up for him) and Arthur will be given a new identity. A new look, a new profession, a new life. For a man who is essentially dead anyway, this sounds like a golden opportunity at starting over. The Company takes pleasure in giving unhappy people a second chance at happiness – and the life insurance money they skim off the top doesn’t hurt either.

A still from Joel Frankenheimer's 1966 film "Seconds."

After an extensive surgery, Arthur becomes Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson in one of his better performances), an established painter, complete with a respected body of work, degrees from legitimate universities, and a gorgeous house in Malibu. The Company even sets him up with an assistant John (Wesley Addy) to help him with his transition.

One day on the beach, he meets Nora (Salome Jens). She takes him to a wine festival, a Dionysian celebration full of frivolity, transformation, and nudity. As the grapes become wine, Arthur sheds his own skin and embraces Tony’s. He laughs for the first time probably in years.

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Later on (days? weeks? months?….time is somewhat relative in this film), Nora and Tony throw a neighborhood party. Tony gets drunk and does the unthinkable: he mentions his former life to the guests. Some of them are confused and think it is just a drunken game; others know all to well that what he says is true. They are the ReBorns, other men who have been through The Company’s program. And Nora? She is a woman assigned to make sure he keeps his mouth shut. The next morning the phone calls from Charlie resume. He warns him to stay put and not say anything else until he can get there. But Tony has had enough. It’s time for him to go home.

Reminiscent of Damn Yankees’ interpretation of the Faustian legend, Tony decides to visit Joyce under the auspices that he and Arthur were co-workers. But what Tony really needs to know is how he (Arthur) let his life slip away so poorly, how he let the woman he loves become a stranger, and how he could make such a devastating decision to leave her for selfish gains. With this knowledge in hand, he returns to The Company with a new plan. He knows he can’t go back to being Arthur Hamilton, yet is tired of being Tony Wilson. What he wants is another chance. Another identity to take the lessons he has learned and to get it right this time.

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The Company is amenable to his demands; they have had their fair share of “failures” over the years. All they ask is that he refer them to someone else. Their business is word of mouth, after all. In fact, Charlie (Murray Hamilton – Big Daddy Devereaux from The Golden Girls) recommended Arthur to The Company in the hope of getting his own transformation reversed. But Tony/Arthur refuses to play ball. He will not be bullied. Little does he realize how powerless he actually is. Will he be left to languish in The Waiting Room? Or something more sinister…

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As the plot intimates, Seconds was not typical 1960’s Hollywood fair. Despite being helmed by the acclaimed director of The Manchurian Candidate, starring Rock Hudson, and getting an Oscar nomination for its cinematography (James Wong Howe’s work is exceptional, reminding one of Gilbert Taylor’s claustrophobic work in Repulsion), it tanked with the critics. It later found a solid cult following, culminating in its inclusion in The Criterion Collection (and library shelves everywhere).

Check it out!

*Read up on my other Good Cinema selections here.

Bad Cinema: The Greatest Show on Earth (Dir: Cecil B. DeMille, 1952)

What an unfortunate title.

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Believe it or not, this elephant turd of a mess was once the “greatest” show on Earth. Or at least Hollywood. Yes, this terrible, bloated, boring piece of shit won Best Picture in 1952. I guess it shouldn’t be that shocking. Bad films have won before. And no, I don’t mean “I didn’t like it; therefore, it is awful and should not have won.” I know Oscar films are chosen in large part due to politics. But a film this bad has rarely passed the golden threshold (I would cite Grand Hotel in 1932, Going My Way in 1944, Around the World in 80 Days in 1956, Platoon in 1986, The Last Emperor in 1987, and Dances with Wolves in 1990 as further examples of choosing illustriousness over quality….) But I would put The Greatest Show on Earth below them all for two reasons.

1) It beat High Noon AND the un-nominated Singin’ in the Rain (clearly one of the Academy’s biggest mistakes)

2) It is made so shoddily by a legend.

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DeMille was one of the founding fathers of cinema, mentioned in the same breath as Griffith and von Stroheim. Before he became synonymous with epic productions, DeMille made domestic dramedies – some great, some awful. The Cheat is a masterpiece (and features the first interracial story on film), yet his streak of work with Gloria Swanson (homaged in Sunset Blvd.) was very hit or miss (Don’t Change Your Husband shines while Male or Female really flatlines). The original version of The Ten Commandments is impressive for its grandeur, but lacks in its emotion; whereas, the remake is the culmination of his greatness: over-the-top spectacle mixed with glorious melodrama and heart. THIS is the film that should have won him Best Director and Best Picture. But instead Hollywood honored Around the World in 80 Days. The worst film to win since…well, The Greatest Show on Earth.

If TGSOE had been conceived as a documentary, it could have been really engaging. To follow the Barnum and Bailey Circus for a year, interview the acts, understand the carny life, and see the blood and sweat that goes into not only being a touring show, but a touring show that builds its own theatre in the middle of a field in the heartland of Nowhere. It could have been a 90 minute thrill ride that brought out the kid in all of us.

But what we got was a two and a half hour “narrative” crawl – and I put that in quotations because there really is no story here – that is really just a documentary set adrift on a creaky tilt-a-whirl.

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Apparently, Ringling Bros. is on hard times and everyone is worried if they will get to perform a whole season. The brass wants to shut it down after 12 towns; the manager Brad (Charlton Heston in his sexiest Indiana Jones drag) demands that they stick it out. The small towns are where they really matter, bringing joy to the faces of every child. And laying off 1200 people so the suits can keep their shirts isn’t his style. He agrees to get them to stay the course as long as they remain in the black. And with The Great Sebastian on board, they are bound to be standing room only.

The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde, with abs to give Nick Jonas a run for his money) is the best trapeze artist in the country. He is also a notorious womanizer, swinging from headboard to door knob before the girls can even catch their breath. But once he spots trapeze up-and-comer Holly (an obnoxiously phony Betty Hutton), he decides that there is no one else for him. There’s only one problem. She is Brad’s girl. But Brad is boss first, lover last. He kicks her out of the center ring because the audience is paying to see a star. Sebastian gives her the center ring, presumably in exchange for her pussy. But she is not that easily swayed. She is going to make whatever ring she is in the center ring! Screw Brad. Screw Sebastian. Screw safety. Holly is going to be a star on her own terms.

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They have this faux-rivalry competing for the spotlight, although Sebastian seems ambivalent for it. He has nothing to prove and she has everything to earn. They play this game of one-upmanship on the ropes, standing on their head, balancing on a chair, and performing without nets. Their acrobatics, which go on for a significant amount of run time, are impressive – especially because it looks like Wilde and Hutton are actually performing these stunts themselves – yet in a post-Cirque de Soleil world, their stunts seem quaint and somewhat mediocre. Naturally, they fall in love.

Sebastian is obviously a distraction, a subconscious diversion to get Brad to be more interested in Holly. Although Brad doesn’t seem to be that jealous. Maybe it’s because you don’t really buy Holly and Sebastian’s romance. (Hutton is schmacting for the peanut gallery and Wilde’s phony French accent constantly takes you out of the film…). But in the end, Brad and Holly confess that they are the only one the other has truly loved. Of course, this is after Brad almost dies and Sebastian no longer can perform because he mangled his hand in a stunt – not saying Holly was a star fucker, but…

I may be painting this is a lot more juicy than it actually is. This “drama” is a very small part of the large run time. The other two story lines involve the circus’ finances, which are not really mentioned again after that initial scene (obviously they are doing OK because they remain on the road) and some shady dealings with gangsters who want to muscle in on the circus by rigging some of the games played outside of the tent (this storyline is not really developed and also comes and goes without rhyme or reason). The Greatest Show on Earth is really just an excuse for DeMille to film the circus, although his cinematography is not that engaging. There is actually a scene with the gangsters that has not one, not two, but three unintentional jump cuts. Truffaut this ain’t. Merely a case of not setting up the depth of field properly between takes. This is a gross mistake from a man who had been making films since 1912. Then there is the very overly written narration, performed by DeMille himself, that is unnecessary and tedious (somehow this conceit works in The Ten Commandments – maybe it’s the nature of being a period piece…) What’s worse are the attempts from the carnies at acting. In fact, even the “actors” are pretty awful. The only one who is passably engaging is Gloria Grahame (and Betty Hutton in a camptastic kind of way).

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Oh, and lest I forget there is Jimmy Stewart as a clown who never takes off his make-up for fear that the police will find out he is some famous doctor who killed his wife. Um…ok. It’s like the writers knew they didn’t have a story so they just threw in every kind of nonsense they could imagine. Bob Hope even makes a cameo for no reason other than Bob Hope making a cameo.

The film ends with this elaborate train wreck.  I leave you with this as a metaphor for the movie.

***CAR CRASH***