In The Musicals

June 11, 2007 at 8:04 pm Leave a comment

Considering the movie is supposed to be, in part, a homage to Hollywood musicals, Dancer in the Dark is probably one of the most obnoxiously condescending commentaries on Hollywood (and America in general) I’ve ever seen. Even worse, its creaky, manipulative plot is not even comparable to the Hollywood movies it ostensibly pays tribute to/criticizes. Proper melodrama or tragedy is not great because the events are violent or depressing. Instead, it is entertaining because the events are so unexpected. You spend three hours loving the melodrama of Gone With the Wind because you have no idea what the fuck is going to happen next to the seemingly impossible-to-destroy Scarlett. Or, when the tragedy is presaged, you keep watching because it feels like everyone is doing everything rationally possible to avert it: Romeo and Juliet could have been happy if Juliet had woken up five minutes sooner.

But Dancer in the Dark doesn’t try to do that. Selma is presented as some sort of retarded saint who keeps doing the exact wrong thing. In fact, it doesn’t feel like she’s operating as any sort of free agent. Throughout the movie, it feels like she’s doing exactly what Lars Von Trier is screaming at her to do, no matter how messed up it is. Lars Von Trier said that Bjork ate parts of her costume while filming because she couldn’t handle his direction. Whether this story is true or not, it does indicate that the man who would be willing to retail a story of his emotional abuse as a funny anecdote is kind of a big fucking jerk, and maybe eating your dress is the only rational response to it.

All of this is unfortunate because Von Trier has an impressive visual sense, and the songs in the movie are more successful than the film itself at what Von Trier claims he wanted to do. Bjork obviously has a fondness for show tunes – she redid Betty Hutton’s “Blow a Fuse” as “It’s Oh So Quiet” – and her populism ensures that she is more in line with the spirit of musicals than Von Trier’s sour European nihilism.

“In the Musicals” is, appropriately enough, probably the most musical-y of the movie’s songs: after all, it is about how joyous musicals can make you feel. It has the catchy and singable chorus melody that a good showstopper should have, and it has a peppy, bobby-socks rhythm. Even with its unconventional samples of pencil sketching and balls bouncing, it doesn’t try to stray too far out of showtune conventions, and has the right silly, overdramatic strings that busily build and abruptly fall away to create the song’s emotional arcs.

It is, in fact, probably a little too conventional. It’s more of a quotation of a showtune than a real showtune, and doesn’t capture the instinctive knowledge of Tin Pan Alley traditions that, say, Stephin Merrit achieved for his showtunes. But this is a minor quibble. In a better world, Von Trier would have created a movie that more accurately reflected the importance of the song’s vividly expressed love for musicals. As it is, the movie around it seems to have decided that anyone who is uplifted by them – uplifted by American art in general, I would argue – is a “tragic” retard sucked in by empty illusions.

The song in the movie. The dancing is actually fun (although it totally has that clammy Nordicness that Bjork seems to have successfully exorcised). Bjork’s voice is more strained in this version and she sounds like she has a cold. It’s actually quite nice – I kind of wish this version was the album version. Also, note to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie: the judgment was not read in Spanish, although maybe it should have been.

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Entry filed under: Selmasongs.

Enjoy Dull Flame of Desire

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