Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Love and Death

Directed by Woody Allen
The United States of America

Editor's Note: I would strongly recommend for you to read this article with this playing in the background. When the music stops, just restart it from the beginning.

Boris: I have no fear of the gallows.
Father: No?
Boris: No. Why should I? They're going to shoot me.

Woody Allen’s films have always been relatively easy to categorize. You have your screwball romcoms (Annie Hall, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Dream, The Purple Rose of Cairo), your more subdued dramedies (Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose), and even starkly serious dramas inspired by his idol Ingmar Bergman (Interiors, September, Another Woman). And yet throughout all of these films, the persona of Woody Allen dominates. Even in films where he doesn’t act, you can feel him nervously twitching and wringing his hands somewhere closely off-screen. To see his films is to share in his neuroses, his thoughts, his anxieties, and his fears. Some of his films don’t feel like entertainments, but cries for help. But things were not always that way. There was a time when Allen didn’t bring his problems to the front of his work. There was actually a time when his only goal was to entertain and make the audience laugh.

In the late 60s and early 70s, Allen wrote and directed a number of comedic spoofs that represented the purest concentration of his comedic talents and acerbic wit. Inspired by the works of the Marx Brothers and Bob Hope, they were free-form comedies that didn’t so much have a plot, but merely a sparse storyline that allowed Allen to progress from joke to gag. The first, Take the Money and Run (1969), was a mockumentary of the life of a notorious, and yet painfully incompetent, petty criminal. The plot was straightforward enough and the humor seemed to come naturally (if not a tad surreally) from the subject matter. Then you had such notorious films as Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972) and Sleeper (1973) which resembled what might have happened if Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali ever did comedy. Overall, they were funny, but uneven, casually cluttered messes of one-liners and gags. The movies were entertaining, all right, but they felt like movies made by a comedian, not a comedic filmmaker. The movies worked as long as Allen’s gags held up. Perhaps that is why in hindsight they may not have aged quite as well as his later work.

Then came 1975 and Allen’s film Love and Death. Easily his best early work, it also is easily the funniest of his entire career. A calculated balance of gags, character and plot development, and emotional whimsy made Love and Death his first genuine masterpiece. It would later be forgotten when Allen released his next, and arguably his greatest, film Annie Hall (1977) which won him critical acclaim, Oscars, box office success, and an adoring fan base. But to those in the know, Love and Death was where Allen’s true career as a filmmaker started. It was the film that saw him embrace his role as not just a comedian, but also as a director.

Looking back over the film, I estimate that only about a paragraph is needed to explain the plot.

It follows as such: Allen plays Boris Grushenko, a cowardly Russian peasant who is forced to enlist in the army along with his brothers after Napoleon invades their country. Through a series of mishaps, he becomes a decorated war hero, marries his childhood sweetheart and cousin, the lovely Sonja (Diane Keaton), and settles down. But it isn’t long before he becomes involved in a plot to assassinate Napoleon. He is captured, tried, and executed. The end.

Do you feel like I spoiled the movie? Trust me, I didn’t. What matters are the jokes, puns, setups, and payoffs. As long as I don’t give them all away, your experience watching the film will not be diminished.

Those familiar with Allen’s oeuvre know that he is an avid fan of philosophy. This predilection shines brightly in this movie. The plot itself is a conglomeration of various philosophical Russian epic novels by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Allen indulges in several tongue-and-cheek conversations with Keaton where they spout off meaningless philosophical techno-babble like college professors on caffeine. Take the following exchange:

Sonja: Judgment of any system, or a priori relationship or phenomenon exists in an irrational, or metaphysical, or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract empirical concept such as being, or to be, or to occur in the thing itself, or of the thing itself.

Boris: [Deadpan] Yes, I've said that many times.

We aren’t meant to follow it, but simply to marvel. And what else can you do in such a film? Allen keeps the one liners coming as fast as he can think them up. Even Groucho would have trouble keeping up with Allen in this film. Take the following examples:

Countess Alexandrovna: You are the greatest lover I've ever had.
Boris: Well, I practice a lot when I'm alone.

Boris: Isn't all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o'clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to go at five o'clock, but I have a smart lawyer. Got leniency.

Sonja: There are many different kinds of love, Boris. There's love between a man and a woman; between a mother and son...
Boris: Two women. Let's not forget my favorite.

Anton Inbedkov: Shall we say pistols at dawn?
Boris Grushenko: Well, we can say it. I don't know what it means, but we can say it.

Sonja: Oh don't, Boris, please. Sex without love is an empty experience.
Boris: Yes, but as empty experiences go, it's one of the best.

Sonja: What are you suggesting, passive resistance?
Boris: No, I'm suggesting active fleeing.

Sonja: Boris is trying to commit suicide - last week he contemplated inhaling next to an Armenian.

But Love and Death does not merely rely on fancy wordplay. Five years before Airplane! (1980), Allen was inventing and perfecting the art of the spoof with witty one-liners, blatant historical anachronisms, and unrestrained absurdity. Whether he is ordering red hots from a vendor in the middle of a battle or watching a public service announcement skit on venereal diseases, Allen breezes through more comedic setups in fifteen minutes than most films do within their entire duration.

But remember, I said that this was more than just a comedic smorgasbord. It was the dawning of a new age of Woody Allen. Suddenly, he wasn’t just about the jokes anymore. Philosophy and insights on the human condition (some of which are startlingly beautiful) creep into the film. For perhaps the first time we see glimpses of Ingmar Bergman’s influence creeping into Allen’s work. Take an early scene where a child version of Boris is walking in the woods and has a holy vision of Death. Cloaked in a white robe and carrying a vicious scythe, the figure is an obvious tribute to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). But pay attention, dear readers. There are many other sly references scattered through-out. A duel scene between Boris and a rival play out like a similar scene from Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). And in one scene Sonja converses with a woman servant and suddenly positions her face perpendicular to the other, creating an unmistakable reference to Persona (1966).

But Allen did more than just homage Bergman’s work. For the first time, his characters began to suffer conflicts that arose from internal dilemmas. For example, it is well established that Boris is a coward and doesn’t want to go off to war. But notice that he spends his precious leave time going to the opera. Could it be that Boris does not fear death as much as he fears missing out on life and all its beauty? It’s not that he is afraid of dying (although he most certainly is). He is afraid of not living. When Boris wins a duel for Sonja’s hand in marriage, she is originally opposed to it. This provides many funny gags representing their early home life. But eventually Sonja develops love for Boris. In another comedy by another director, Sonja would hate Boris up until the credits. But not here. Although the situations they become involved in are absurd, although they represent comedic extremes, the characters here are Characters with a capital C. They are people, not just crash test dummies designed for bouncing joke after joke on.

At heart, Love and Death is a comedy of the highest pedigree. It represents Allen at the height of his comedic genius. His films would get more serious in the following years, and it is generally agreed that he became a better filmmaker for it. But Love and Death gives us a glimpse at a young director coming to terms with his own creative forces.

Let me leave you with one last thought. The last scene of the film has Boris returning as a ghost (he was executed, remember?) to Sonja. He is accompanied once again by the spectre of Death. Of course, Allen manages to pull some laughs from the scene:

Sonja: You were my one great love.
Boris: Oh, thank you very much. I appreciate that. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm dead.
Sonja: What's it like?
Boris: What's it like? You know the chicken at Tresky's Restaurant? It's worse.

That exchange alone is funny enough, but notice that Allen doesn’t end the film there. He ends it with this soliloquy:

Boris: The question is have I learned anything about life. Only that human being are divided into mind and body. The mind embraces all the nobler aspirations, like poetry and philosophy, but the body has all the fun. The important thing, I think, is not to be bitter... if it turns out that there IS a God, I don't think that He's evil. I think that the worst you can say about Him is that basically He's an underachiever. After all, there are worse things in life than death. If you've ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman, you know what I'm talking about. The key is, to not think of death as an end, but as more of a very effective way to cut down on your expenses. Regarding love, heh, what can you say? It's not the quantity of your sexual relations that counts. It's the quality. On the other hand if the quantity drops below once every eight months, I would definitely look into. Well, that's about it for me folks. Goodbye.

I think that quote speaks for itself. It contains an unbelievable balance of humor, introspection, and insight. Not content to leave us like that, Allen then dances down a lane surrounded by flowering trees to the triumphant tune of Prokofiev’s Troika. Truly, this was a man who had not yet been consumed by the neuroses that would trouble him for the rest of his life. He knew that his whole career was ahead of him and that he could afford to be optimistic. Never again would Woody Allen be so charming, so delightful, so funny, and so hopeful for the future.


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bad Day at Black Rock

Directed by John Sturges
The United States of America

The last thing you would expect to think of while watching a Western would be an Eighteenth century Irish statesman. And yet, for the entirety of Bad Day at Black Rock by John Sturges, one thought dominated my mind. It was a quote by the great Edmund Burke that went, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” How relevant was that quote, how relevant was that piercing statement on morality while watching this phenomenal film. For the main theme of Bad Day at Black Rock is a common one in Westerns: one man must stand alone against insurmountable evil. We have seen it dozens of times in countless varieties in films as varied as High Noon (1952), Rio Bravo (1959), and The Magnificent Seven (1960). Yet the evil in Bad Day at Black Rock is not the average fare for Westerns. Instead of evil being represented by bad men with guns, it is chiefly represented by good men who refuse stand up for what is right. Complacency, resignation, and denial are the true villains in this film.

Bad Day at Black Rock
starts like so many other Westerns: a lone law man comes riding into a desolate, near deserted town. But something is different here. Instead of riding in on a horse, the law man rides a Southern Pacific passenger train. Instead of a dashing and handsome champion, we get a one-armed, handicapped veteran named John J. Macreedy. Instead of a ruthless masculine bravado, he operates using a calm, almost absent-minded listlessness. And finally, instead of a rough-and-tough personification of the Wild West like John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, or James Coburn, we get soft-spoken Spencer Tracy. Yes, the man whose claim to fame was playing Catholic priests and Portuguese fishermen is the hero of this picture. But don’t be fooled. In Bad Day at Black Rock, Tracy creates one of the greatest heroes that the West has ever seen.

Immediately, Macreedy senses that something is…amiss…in the town. The people are all surprised to have a visitor. The train hasn’t stopped in the town for four years, one of the townsfolk tells him. It appears that they preferred it that way. Here is a town with a dark secret. Macreedy seems dead-set on discovering it. He bums around town like Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade as he searches for answers and explanations. The comparison to film noir is not unwarranted. Indeed, Bad Day at Black Rock is nothing less than a synthesis of the Western and film noir genres. Like film noir, dread and gloom permeate the people and setting. Like all classic film noir protagonists, they have something from their past that they are running from. Macreedy too, has his own secrets which motivate him. After all, why would he come to a hell-hole like Black Rock in the first place?

Much like in film noir, Macreedy starts to make acquaintances with the local color. There’s Pete Wirth, the young hotel desk clerk who always seems to have something on the tip of his tongue burning a hole in his mouth. Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) plays the incompetent authority figure. Blurred with alcohol and scared of his own citizens, he advises Macreedy to leave. Liz Wirth, Pete’s sister, is the resident dame (possible femme fatale?) and indeed appears to be the only woman in town. Ernest Borgnine plays the local neighborhood bully named Coley Trimble who at one point assaults Macreedy by trying to drive him off the road. The great character actor Walter Brennan plays Doc Velie, the town’s resident physician and undertaker. And then there’s Reno Smith, played by the indomitable Lee Marvin. Although he carries no badge, it’s obvious that he is the de facto ruler of Black Rock.

All of these characters react uneasily to Macreedy’s presence. He shouldn’t be there. He especially shouldn’t be asking so many questions. Like film noir, motivations are not immediately revealed. It is only after a sufficient amount of prodding that Macreedy reveals that he is searching for a Japanese-American farmer named Komoko. Being 1945, the townspeople are quick to say that Komoko was interned in a camp shortly after Pearl Harbor. But Macreedy isn’t so sure. After all, it wasn’t the policy of the United States government to burn down Japanese-American property after they were interned…

With all the timing and execution of an expert thriller, Macreedy lets on that he knows that the townspeople are lying. Even worse, he knows that Komoko wasn’t interned. To the townspeople’s horror, he lets on that he has guessed Komoko’s true fate: that he was lynched in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. It turns out that Macreedy had a reason to sport a missing arm: he had lost it invading Italy. And while he was in Italy, his life was saved by none other than Komoko’s son. Sadly, he was killed in combat. So Macreedy had planned to return his son’s medal to Komoko. Now that he knows Komoko’s fate, Macreedy plans on having those responsible arrested and brought to justice.

But the townspeople think otherwise. As soon as they discover that Macreedy knows about their past, they no longer want him to leave. In fact, they now want nothing other than for Macreedy to join Komoko. See, Komoko’s death did something scary to the townspeople: it revealed their own cowardice. Most of the townsfolk literally stood back and did nothing while Komoko was killed. And now, the idea that they will not only be punished, but be forced to confront their own actions, proves to be too much. The answer to the townspeople is simple: kill Macreedy, act like nothing ever happened, and pray to God that everyone will forget that there was ever a man named Komoko.

One by one, individual members of the community stand up with Macreedy. Eventually, they tell him the story of Komoko’s death and reveal the name of his killer. They even try to help him get out of town. Call the police, they say. But the operator says the lines are “busy.” Take another train out, they say. But the next one isn’t scheduled until tomorrow morning. Take the spare jeep, they say. But somebody has ripped all of the wires out of the engine….

Folks, I’d love to divulge more of the plot to you. I really would. But it would be like giving away the ending to a Hitchcock or Clouzot thriller. Rest assured that once Macreedy realizes that he can’t leave the town alive, the movie morphs into a suspenseful powerhouse. Suddenly, every person is a potential killer, every plot of earth or abandoned well a potential grave. All that keeps Macreedy alive is the sun. Once it disappears beyond the horizon…well…I don’t think I need to go on.

Bad Day at Black Rock is a film of the highest caliber. A film noir dressed like a Western, it combines genres and breaks stereotypes. It plays with all the intrigue of a thriller of the finest caliber. In a time when Westerns dealt with moral absolutes, where good guys wore white hats and bad guys wore black hats, here is a film that dares to delve into the foundations of right and wrong. Submerged in moral ambiguity, in the town of Black Rock, nobody is innocent. And they don’t like being reminded of it.


Saturday, September 11, 2010


Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
The United States of America

I can literally point my finger to the exact moment when I knew that Sugar would be a great film. It was a scene about 20-30 minutes into the film where the protagonist, a Dominican baseball player named Miguel “Sugar” Santos, sits alone at a diner in the wee hours of the morning. Equipped with only a few clumsy words of English, Sugar tries to order eggs. The waitress asks how he would like them. Fried? Scrambled? Sunny side up? Not understanding, Sugar bows his head and quietly asks for the only item on the menu that he is familiar with: French toast. Having worked in the food industry for several years, I thought to myself, “A real waitress would understand and bring him eggs anyway.” And what do you know, she did! Gobsmacked, I sat and watched as she brought Sugar three different kinds of eggs and taught him how to order them. It was as if the film had literally read my mind.

It was right there that I realized that I was not watching an average film. From there on I started watching a little bit more closely. I was amazed to realize that not a single character, no matter how small, was one-dimensional or flat. These were real humans with genuine motivations, hopes, dreams, and fears. They were not just mannequins designed to spout dialogue or progress the plot. The people in this film were not characters, they were human beings.

Perhaps you may think that I am over-reacting. I disagree. As I look out over the state of popular cinema these days, I am disappointed to find that more and more films are content to let stereotypes and archetypes define their characters and their actions. It has gotten to a point where you can predict how characters will react to certain situations. But in Sugar, we don’t know what the characters will do next. They aren’t preordained to succeed or fail. Instead, we are given the pleasure of watching them interact with their world, make decisions, and develop.

We first meet our protagonist Sugar as a young Dominican baseball pitcher trying to get signed by an American baseball team. Dreaming of one day playing for the New York Yankees, Sugar attends a baseball training camp where he learns such essentials as how to say “You’re out” in English. But Sugar is not alone. He is surrounded by dozens upon dozens of other hopefuls with dreams of purple waves of grain. After all, to the young men of the Dominican Republic, getting signed represents one of the only guaranteed sources of upward social mobility. One wonders if half of them even enjoy playing baseball. For Sugar, the siren call of the United States is a piercing shriek. Miraculously, Sugar is invited to spring training in the states, courtesy of the Kansas City Knights.

It isn’t long before Sugar gets noticed for his devastating knuckle curve and is signed for a Single A affiliate in Iowa. The wide plains of Middle America are as foreign as the surface of Mars to Sugar, having grown up in crowded, urban squalor. Even more bizarre is his foster family who takes him in, the Higgins. Sugar would be hard pressed to find a more red-meat-and-potatoes, salt of the earth American family even if he dived into a Norman Rockwell painting. While they desperately try to be loving and accommodating, the language and cultural gap only serve to increase Sugar’s uncontrollable sense of isolation.

Indeed, in his pursuit of the American Dream, Sugar falls into the American Wasteland. He watches as one by one his friends are cut from the team and sent back to the Dominican Republic. When he injures himself during a game, a new Dominican pitcher almost immediately pops up to take his place. He finds himself attracted to the Higgin’s grand-daughter, who encapsulates everything that American women are renowned for. But her staunch conservative values prevent her from pursuing a pre-marital relationship. He comes to rely on drugs to give him the edge needed to overcome his injury and pitch.

Eventually, he realizes that he is living the American Nightmare. So one day he jumps off the team bus and travels to New York City. As he careens from one hotel to another, he slowly starts to rebuild his life, first taking a job at a dinner before gaining a better job as a carpenter. As he reconstructs his life from the ground up, he comes to realize true personal fulfillment. Is it any surprise that at the end of the film he picks up baseball again? He joins up with a league of immigrants who had all come to the States with dreams of playing baseball, only to be cut. He becomes one more face in the crowd of baseball’s rejects. And yet, in doing so he finds a new place in life. This time, he plays because he wants to.

Sugar is a true gem of a film. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who both wrote and directed the film, based the film off the experiences of real Dominican immigrants who came to the States to play baseball. They said, “The stories we heard were so fascinating that it became what we were writing before we'd even decided it was our next project.” Perhaps that is why the universe of the film feels so real and alive. Or perhaps it has something to do with the design of the film itself. Much like Bresson and Ozu, the film seems interested in the character and inner humanity of its titular character. It seems to almost disregard the plot in preference of focusing on his inner struggles and turmoil. The film is more interested in how difficult it is for him to order breakfast in English than it is for him to succeed in the Minors. And much like Bresson and Ozu, Sugar is not afraid to take its time. The film is two hours long and let me tell say, you feel every one of those minutes. But that isn’t a bad thing. Here is a movie that is unafraid of boring its audience. It has a story to tell and it is going to tell it on its own terms. If you don’t like it then you can leave.

But for those of you who wish to stay and watch, you will be treated to one of the greatest films of the last ten years that nobody has seen. Perhaps its unwillingness to compromise its artistic integrity in favor of audience-oriented flair and style was responsible for its poor distribution. Outside of a few film festivals, almost nobody has heard of it. And that is a true shame. Sugar hearkens back to a time when directors and storytellers actually had something that they wanted to say. It single-handedly defies the concept that they don’t make them like they used to.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Dancer in the Dark

Directed by Lars von Trier

In a dark theater, a pair of middle aged women sit and watch the classic Busby Berkeley musical Gold Diggers of 1933. In the midst of the infamous Pettin’ in the Park sequence, one of the women leans over and takes her friend’s hand. She starts to reenact the dancing with two fingers upon her friend’s open palm. For her friend, this is the closest she will get to experiencing the wonders illuminating the screen. Almost completely blind, she relies on her friend to narrate the film. One may wonder why bother? The answer is that the music and dancing is the only comfort that this woman can find in the cruel world of America. It’s getting harder and harder to do her job at an industrial factory when she can’t see which machine she is working at. A Czech immigrant, she is finding that the American dream is more elusive than she ever could have imagined. And to her horror, her only son, already constrained by a pair of coke-bottle glasses, is having more and more trouble seeing…

Such is the world of Selma Ježková, the tragic heroine of Lars von Trier’s devastatingly powerful Dancer in the Dark. A bizarre departure from the majority of Trier’s oeuvre, Dancer in the Dark is a harrowing film of unimaginable depth and emotion. One may ask what could possibly differentiate this particular film from the rest of Trier’s eclectic catalog. The answer is simple: for all his diverse exploits, this remains Trier’s only musical. Let me say that again. Lars von Trier, founder and poster child of the Dogma 95 movement, creator of some of the most shocking and challenging films of the late 20th and early 21st century, directed a musical. As in, a film where the narrative is broken up by songs and choreographed dancing numbers.

Surprised? Confused? Don’t be. While the film may look like a musical and quack like a musical, it is a singular, independent entity among the ranks of musical productions. The songs aren’t particularly catchy (they are usually dominated by one or two musical themes that are repeated over and over again). The lyrics are choppy and irregular (many times a single phrase is repeated for almost the entire song). And the dancing frequently looks robotic and artificial. But to understand the film, you must first understand that the nearly amateurish music and dancing were designed to look that way. And to understand why, you must first understand the character of Selma Ježková.

Selma is an occupant of two different worlds. In the first, she is a poor single mother who must work grueling shifts at a factory. In time, she will get fired because she almost cannot see her machines anymore. She finds solace by going to the movies with her friend Kathy (whom she nicknames Cvalda) and participating in an amateur production of The Sound of Music. The other world is a land of fantasy. As the film progresses, she delves into fantastic daydreams where the people around her break out into song and dance. Much like the Academy award winning musical Chicago (2002), all of the grand song and dance numbers take place inside the character’s mind. Location and circumstances are irrelevant to Selma. When the urge to escape hits her, the world explodes into song. When she is on a train, a band of hobos stealing a ride becomes an impromptu dance company. When she is toiling away at her soulless job, the machines start to beat in time and the workers begin to jump in frolic to their beat. And finally, on death row, her own footsteps as she makes that final, solemn march to the noose count out the time to a final swan song.

It occurs to me that I have perhaps gotten a little ahead of myself. Maybe I should explain the plot before I give the ending away. But in retrospect it doesn’t really matter. This is a film by Lars von Trier. Would you expect anything else? But perhaps an explanation is in order. After Selma gets fired from her job at the factory for breaking an expensive piece of machinery, she is beseeched by her friend Bill for a loan. She declines, as she saves every penny that she can spare for an operation that will save her son’s eyesight. Desperate for money, Bill steals Selma’s savings. When she confronts him at his house, a struggle breaks out as he pulls a gun on her. In the ensuing chaos, Selma accidentally injures Bill as his wife, Linda, flees the house seeking help. In his final moments, Bill begs Selma to finish him off. Clearly in a state of shock, a terrified Selma complies. After the deed is done, Selma slips into a trance where she imagines Bill’s body coming back to life and dancing a slow dirge with her. He encourages her to run for freedom. After the last note dies off, she complies. She rushes to an Institute for the Blind and spends every last cent on paying for her son’s operation.

She is then picked up by the police and taken to jail. A kangaroo court awaits her as she is mercilessly accused of being a Communist. I’m sorry, did I forget to mention that this film takes place in the Fifties? Well, it does. But you would never guess that from watching the movie. The entire film seems timeless as it is bereft of period clothes or any other indicators of the era. In fact, the only time when we are reminded of the year is when Selma is accused of being a Godless Commie. Does it come off as a bit random? Perhaps. But maybe that was the only way that the Dutch von Trier could think of creating a situation where his character couldn’t escape a conviction within the American court system.

Her fate sealed, she rebukes one last effort from her friends to help her escape her fate. They take the money that she tried to spend on her son’s operation and hire a big city lawyer. The second that she finds out, she fires him and demands a refund. In a stunning scene, she is confronted by her new lawyer who bluntly asks her if she realizes what will happen to her if she fires him. She smiles weakly and responds that she does. And so we find her walking the Green Mile towards her doom. I could tell you how the film’s most powerful moments play out at the end of the film, but that would be tantamount to theft. Let’s just say that you cannot imagine the horror and the power of the film’s closing scenes.

Some may scratch their heads and wonder how such a bizarre film could work. To them, I raise my hand and simply answer, “Björk.” In Dancer in the Dark, Selma is played by Icelandic superstar Björk Guðmundsdóttir. To watch her is to witness a revelation of true, unbridled talent. Never once do we fail to believe in Selma’s character or feel anything but the utmost love and sympathy for her. Björk seems to channel a beaten puppy as she navigates her way through an uncaring society. And yet, her painfully introverted performance explodes in a phantasmagoria of energy and emotion during her musical numbers. Remember how I said that the songs weren’t particularly well written or well composed? I think that von Trier did that on purpose. After all, they are the extensions of a foreigner’s mind. Selma probably doesn’t know how to construct shimmering lyrics or pleasing melodies in her adopted language and culture. Instead, they cut right to the core of what Selma thinks and experiences. And Björk makes them work, transforming each note into a devastating scream of beauty and each lyric into a trembling cry for recognition and acceptance.

Watching her perform, it seems only natural that she would have won so many accolades for her performance, including the Cannes Film Festival award for Best Actress. So it is a tragedy that afterward Björk swore never to appear in another film. Apparently, working for one of the most demanding and innovative directors in the world was a taxing and emotionally devastating experience. Don’t mistake that last sentence as a statement born of cynicism or sarcasm. It was a serious observation. It must have been next to impossible to channel so much energy into each shot. And so, we must be eternally grateful that Björk blessed the world with even one performance. I would almost feel greedy asking her to commit to another role…

Critics and audiences must have agreed with me that Dancer in the Dark was one of Lars von Trier’s greatest works. After all, the film won the 2000 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Some might be surprised that I would mention a winner of the Golden Palm on a site designed for under-appreciated films. My answer is simple: yes it won one of the most prestigious awards that a film can receive in the world. But really, how many people know about it? When people talk about Lars von Trier, they tend to think of his earlier work when he was involved with Dogma 95 or his more recent films that have redefined the terms “visceral” and “shocking.” Few have seen, or even heard of this great film. And so I write about it. It deserves not only to be seen, but to be cherished. Is it difficult to watch? Yes. It can be a grueling experience that yanks at the exposed nerve endings of your comfort zone. But I would argue that many great works of art do the same. The original performance of Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring caused fights to break out. During an author’s reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl the audience almost revolted. And let’s not forget that Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin literally compelled its audiences to riot. And so I return to Dancer in the Dark. It is not just a good film. It is not just a great film. It is a transcendent film. It provides one of those rare experiences that shake you to your core.

Just thank God that at least you got a couple of musical numbers out of it.


Here is a clip of the Academy Award nominated song "I've Seen it All."