Thursday, April 30, 2015

Birthday Take: Lars Von Trier in "Dancer in the Dark" (2000)

Bjork in Dancer in the Dark
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Lars Von Trier
Born: April 30, 1956 (59 years old)
Nomination: Best Original Song - Dancer in the Dark (nominated) with "I've Seen It All"

The Take

For fans of the Oscars, the name Lars Von Trier isn't one that likely comes close to being a noteworthy name. For fans of world cinema, the Danish filmmaker is one of the most polarizing yet aggressive names out there. With his most recent film Nymphomaniac being an explicit four hour sex epic, there's very little crossover appeal to voters. Even his more recent work such as Melancholia and Antichrist aren't necessarily films that you'd ever expect to get Oscar nominations for. They're all very depressing and challenging films both in visuals and in narrative. To even have small hopes that he'll get recognized is to have a hearty laugh, especially as the Academy doesn't recognize edgier content.

Which is why his only nomination is a very peculiar one that is kind of funny considering what he is known for (directing). In 2000, he released one of the more confounding musicals of the 21st century with Dancer in the Dark. Lead by the already divisive Bjork, the film chronicles the journey of a blind woman who escapes her perils through song. It is very lo-fi and very Bjork, which makes it an acquired taste of a musical more than the polished American films that came out at the time such as Moulin Rouge and Chicago. However, its biggest attribute and why it works is that Von Trier didn't just make a musical. He made the anti-musical in which he uses song to show the disassociation that Bjork has from society and that it doesn't always lead to happy things.

To explain the appeal of "I've Seen It All" is to try and explain Bjork to an audience familiar with mainstream pop vocalists. While she became an icon in the 90's for her mix of pop and experimental style, she has since ventured into her own landscape with each album being its own challenging packet of ideas and styles. Her voice is also a little youthful and with a Swedish accent, seems to waver between innocence and grandiose passion. It makes sense why Von Trier would team with her and produce a song whose basis starts with the sound of a train grinding along tracks and ends up with the familiar strings that turn the ruggedness into beauty as she describes having seen everything despite being blind. To an outsider, it just sounds like another Bjork song, but the deconstruction is the perfect example of how it tears apart the ideas of a musical and leaves behind its appeal. We use music to escape problems, which is the point here.

It would make sense to believe that this song is more great because of Bjork,but Von Trier is not to be underestimated. He is after all the mastermind who thought to make this film that won him the Palme d'Or. Yes, the stories of his treatment of Bjork and how she quit acting shortly after are notorious, but he definitely puts his love of misery and complex narration into effect at probably his most lucid in this film which is as far removed from his recent style as could be. For those questioning his ability to create something challenging, Dancer in the Dark is a film that will leave you either finding rejuvenation in the genre or reaffirming your disinterest in Bjork. Either way, this song is probably the most accessible point into the film and one that captures the vibe perfectly.

Being 15 years removed from the film, it has that familiar odd reputation especially as its central figures have only gotten more bizarre. Von Trier, as stated, has only gotten edgier. Bjork just released her odd yet brooding album "Vulnicura." They both remain outcasts to what the Oscars stand for, and it is kind of admirable that they bombarded the awards show with an anti-musical and the famous swan dress that overpowers Dancer in the Dark's actual legacy. However, its subversive style and forceful nature shows Von Trier at his most accessibly aggressive state and serves as a reminder that art doesn't always have to be convenient to be interesting. Sometimes it just takes tricking the audience.

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