Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Year in Hate: A Multipart Series

Join us for The Year in Hate, a multipart series honoring the most destructive people, films, albums, and events of 2009 with homages of inconsistent length. The series will expire on Feb 14, the Chinese New Year, the only New Year that matters any more.

The Year in Hate: Cinema Selection #1

by Lars von Trier

Philosopher Nina Power, who for my penny has written the definitive criticism on the film, calls von Trier’s much-needed polemic against touchy-feely "green" ecological sentiment
so transcendentally misogynist that it fails to be applicable to any empirical woman that could ever exist… Antichrist is disturbing because ultimately there is no separating the natural from the unnatural, right from wrong. There is trauma because there is life and then death, and none of it means anything.

We would be remiss, however, to take all this as cause for despair. Afterall, von Trier has said that he made Antichrist as something fun to do to help pull him out of a crippling bout of depression, and Antichrist is nothing if it is not, in addition to being a metaphysical horror film, a really entertaining comedy. Any one who’s ever been truly nihilisticallydepressed (that is, depressed as much as a result of intellectual reasons as hereditary/biochemical ones--alas too few!) knows that such episodes vacillate between agonizing bouts of melancholy, disgust, and inarticulate aggression on the one hand, and an even more nihilistic state of dry bemusement on the other, whereby ones own suffering begins to appear to one as a pathetic spectacle, a bad joke. It’s a question of distance, identification, and alienation. One can only take seriously such sentiments as “Life is meaningless!” or “I hate everything, most of all myself!” for so long until they become hilarious, until one has achieved the a sufficient level of self-alienation to regard such thoughts as soft-headed, self-indulgent, adolescent, and useless. This distance towards ones own suffering (“No one cares about your feelings, so why should you?”) can often functionally improve the health of a depressed person, even as drives them further down the rabbit hole in terms of their thinking, and it is just a matter of time until this alienation from one’s troubles sours into self-hatred “My suffering was only a burlesque of real suffering, a parody of life's real troubles, and yet since it afflicted me so then I must be truly, rationally, and rightly contemptible.”). The whole cycle replays itself.

This entire affective economy, which trades in blackest hate and self-mockery, plays out in a single, infamous scene in Antichrist, [[SPOILER ALERT: AND REALLY, ANTICHRIST DESERVES NOT BEING SPOILED, NOT THAT ANYTHING ISN’T ALREADY IRREDEEMABLY SPOILED TO BEGIN WITH]] in which Willem Defoe stumbles upon a talking fox in a forest. The Fox, which has just been devouring its own intestines, snaps at at Defoe and declares, in an ominous booming voice, “Chaos reigns!”. Then--and here's the punchline--the sky opens up with rain. We are not at all mistaken to laugh at this, nor is the scene ironic or meant to be enjoyed in a so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. This scene is nothing more or less than a very good joke. One can picture von Trier tossing and turning in his bed, tortured by the revelation that "chaos reigns" until he cracks up with self-mocking glee over how fatuous and vacuous this sentiment is, how adolescent he is for allowing himself to be so affected by it, and deciding to debase his own suffering by putting this thought, the maxim of a vulgar cosmology, it into the mouth of a poorly rendered talking animal. The film has been criticized for its sophomoric use of Jungian mytho-dream imagery, which has been perceived not as the result of genuine naivety but as a cynical and lazy abortion of a potentially fruitful creative impulse. In fact the self-undermining stupidity of Antichrist’s allegorical flourishes is part of what gives it its power: the film does not just represent nihilistic depression, it induces it in its audience, or at least simulates for the audience a crucial and overlooked part of its self-cannibalizing affective cycle.

Is there a fundamentally subjective dimension to the universe other than humanity, or is the universe completely indifferent and alien to us? The sorrowful music of Tuva conjures in one’s imagination the expanse of the Siberian desert, the enormity and sparseness of which seem almost designed to symbolize the indifference of Nature to human suffering, and this indifference is itself sad. Sad for whom? To us, for sure, but also necessarily for some absent third party who can witness and thus fully appreciate this tragedy of missed connections. But since as materialists we have to insist that there is no possible third party, no God in Heaven to weep for is, this sadness can only be a feeling which nobody feels, and is for that reason all the more sad. This sadness is the mediating term or messenger particle between object and subject, the crack in matter through which sprung the hell of experience, and its name is Disaster.

Looking at the film we could say either Nature is complicit with the human horror (Women really are evil, gynocide is Natural, etc), or fundamentally indifferent to it, as Defoe’s scientific-rationalist psychologist asserts. The first is mere superstition, but the latter is not quite right either, since it may be the case that the indifference of nature to the human horror is itself horrific, the index of an even more ancient, primordial horror at the base of all Being. But this cannot be. This primordial horror is only a projection onto the world of something that can only be felt by people, and therefore, since it is only a feeling, can only exist in, through, and because of humanity. Humanity gives birth to horror, though we could not have conceived it alone. This is the true original sin to which von Trier's Eden bears witness, the sin of which Nature is the cause but for which we are to blame.

And this is all only the half of it, for the metaphysical horrors of the film’s second half are nothing in comparison to all-too-familiar domestic hell of the first, the exquisite and hatefully-rendered realism of which makes Antichrist the most damning allegory of heterosexuality since Miss Julie.

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