The House That Jack Built

People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed—a knife—a purse—and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature. Mr. Williams has exalted the ideal of murder to all of us; and to me, therefore, in particular, has deepened the arduousness of my task. Like Aeschylus or Milton in poetry, like Michael Angelo in painting, he has carried his art to a point of colossal sublimity.”

– On Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts (Thomas de Quincey)

Serial or sex murder, like fetishism, is a perversion of male intelligence. It is a criminal abstraction, masculine in its deranged egotism and orderliness. It is the asocial equivalent of philosophy, mathematics, and music. There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.

– Sexual Personae (Camille Paglia)

 

[Spoilers ahead]

Lars von Trier’s new film, The House that Jack Built, opens on a black screen with an exchange between a husky-voiced man (Matt Dillon) and an elderly guide (Bruno Ganz) who seems to be walking him through a water body. Despite the guide’s declared indifference, the man recounts the story of his life in five key incidents, which also form the chapters of von Trier’s film. The man, who calls himself Jack, is a serial-killer and the bulk of this film is an overly elaborate visual description of his exploits. We will also learn that the guide is, in fact, the epic poet Virgil (rhyming with Churchill as Ganz would have it) as he appears in Dante’s Inferno, and that he’s descending into hell with Jack to show him his new place.

Taking Inferno as a narrative conceit serves two main purposes. Firstly, it allows for a perspective of the events different from Jack’s, which is otherwise the viewer’s only optic into the film. Interspersed between the “incidents” are illustrated conversations between Jack and Virgil in which the latter, standing in for the audience, acts as the sardonic voice of reason, countering, interrogating and ridiculing Jack’s justification of his murders. Jack, in turn, pre-empts Virgil’s objections, urging him to look beyond moral binaries. The self-aware dialogue between Virgil’s defence of higher impulses of the soul and Jack’s pseudo-Nietzschean materialism is intended to create a distance and produce a dialectical line of thought in the viewer, who is always a vital component in von Trier’s cinema.

Jack places the viewer constantly at the vanishing point of its polemics. Jack’s actions, as they are presented to us are progressively depraved. The first murder, that of a persistent woman with a broken-down car (an unrecognizable Uma Thurman), unfolds like a horror story, moving with an uncomfortable inexorability towards its gruesome climax. While this killing is set up as though the woman were “asking for it”, the victims in the subsequent passages, also mostly women, come across as increasingly helpless and foolish and the murders, increasingly arbitrary. However, as Jack’s discourse moves from belittling women to turning dead children into mannequins and justifying the Holocaust, the film’s pattern becomes clear: von Trier is trying to turn us (and Virgil) off by desecrating what he takes to be bourgeois sacred cows one by one. It’s supposed to be a challenge to the audience’s conception of art, but one that the film itself cannot sustain and must resolve conservatively.

It’s necessary, by the film’s logic, that Jack’s actions be arbitrary and impossible to explain without morally absolute concepts like “evil”. But the film itself strives to give Jack a history, an explanation for his actions. We see Jack as a child in the countryside, isolated from the adult world around him. Even an invitation for punishment, such as snipping off a duckling’s feet, is ignored, apparently instilling a lifelong desire in Jack to invite attention by way of violence. As all serial killer movies must, his incapacity for empathy is summoned. Jack’s audiovisual arguments with Virgil, which in the beginning have an internal consistency however repulsive, culminate in a montage of disparate dictators from around the world – Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin – as the subject of discussion moves to Holocaust and ethnic cleansing. It is at this point that the film drops all semblance of presenting Jack’s point of view without compromise or judgment: it’s impossible to speak of these historical figures collectively except in the negative.

Appropriating Dante, secondly, helps Jack foreground its autobiographical aspirations. Throughout, the film hammers in a parallel between the serial-killer and the artist. Beginning the exchange that follows the first murder is an archival clip of Glenn Gould at his piano. “He represents art”, says Jack bluntly, as if to forestall the film’s critics. The smashed face of the first victim is dissolved into a cubist painting, before Jack goes into an illustrated lecture on Gothic architecture. He speaks of the Gothic architects’ capacity to listen to the “will of the material”. Jack is an engineer, but considers himself an architect and his killings, works of art; but how he makes a living, we don’t know (just as we never know which country he is in). He photographs his victims with a film camera, strings them up and arranges them in expressive tableaux. As he commits more crimes, his OCD – the compulsion to forge order and beauty out of chaotic material – disappears and he learns to improvise.

It’s a parallel taken too far of course. Clearly, von Trier sees his own work as one involving physical and mental exploitation of human beings. In the dialogue about crimes against humanity, Jack talks about art and murder belonging to the same rarefied realm, and von Trier cuts to a montage of violent scenes from his films. Just as his own craft is about working with actors and improvising, the scenes of Jack’s murders have no meaning, they are all about process: we see in painstaking (and pain-inducing) detail the way Jack fumblingly goes about negotiating, manipulating and blackmailing his victims. And just as Jack’s primary interest is in the final photos his killings yield, von Trier, it appears, is appealing to look at his films rather than what it has taken him (and others) to finish them. Björk, singer and lead actress of his 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, recently came out about her traumatic working experience with von Trier. A couple of years earlier, the director was declared a persona non grata by the Cannes Film Festival for his backfiring joke about Nazism. So, Jack is perhaps von Trier explaining himself to the world, an apology by way of self-flagellation. It’s also a non-apology, placing his personal mistakes on par with Jack’s crimes and in effect diminishing them.

To be sure, The House that Jack built, is a formally potent film that derives its power not from its lurid descriptions of murder but from the associations it weaves in and around them. The protracted scenes of strangulation and dismemberment are followed by sober, dignified discussions about art and morality, accompanied by images and sounds that embody the highest achievements of humanity (or dead white males, if you please). In a parody of Renaissance still life paintings of game, von Trier continuously associates violence and death with bounty and health. Jack stores the corpses in a cold storage with deep-frozen pizzas, he compares his stocking up of dead bodies to wine-making, a reverse shot of him sniping a child is nauseatingly cut to close-ups of picnic food. This alternation of higher and lower spiritual impulses – the Apollonian-Dionysian duality that Jack and Virgil incarnate – lends the film a provocative dynamism hard to be indifferent to. But it’s a self-defeating project, over-determined as a metaphor, incomplete as psychological portrait. In an overlong, jokey coda, Jack and Virgil take a visual tour of hell up till the inner circle. It’s a redundant passage on any level, narrative, conceptual or emotional. All that you sense here is Lars von Trier nailing himself to a cross and offering it to us as an art installation.

Unknown (2011) 
Jaume Collet-Serra
English

 

UnknownJaume Collet-Serra’s Unknown (2011) is the kind of movie that typifies straightforward PG-13 Hollywood thriller – star-driven, homogenized visuals with a strong primary color scheme (with a dominance of metallic blue, as usual), elaborate set pieces that could be moved around within the film, a pulsating score that vies with the boisterous sound design, with allegros of action separated by adagios of emotion, unapologetic about its generic nature with a plot detailed enough to claim seriousness and sketchy enough to avoid offending anyone and, of course, the solitary cuss word. Liam Neeson, who looks aptly like an ex-secret agent coming out of retirement, with his haggard appearance, wrinkled skin and receding hairline, is an American professor whose identity is stolen during his trip to a bio-conference in Berlin. With the rug of reality pulled off his feet, he must find a way to get back into the original social order with the help of a gorgeous working class sidekick (Diane Kruger), who knows all the seedy localities in the city, and an ex-Stasi officer (Bruno Ganz, also serving as the home star), who believes that Germans are very forgetful about history. Unknown channels wrong-man thrillers such as North by Northwest (1959), as well as Polanski’s Frantic (1988), but strips them of their psychosexual dimension, presenting a work that is solely concerned with mechanics of the genre and craft of the profession (the central car chase is sort of inspired, with its heady interleaving of vertical, horizontal and deep-space movements). The bunch of passages that pique your interest (the ostentatious scene at the museum, the confrontation between Langella and Ganz, both of whose best-known roles are infamous historical characters) are also the ones entirely superfluous.

Der Himmel Über Berlin (1987) (aka Wings Of Desire)
Wim Wenders
Germany

“When the child was a child, it didn’t know that it was a child, everything was soulful, and all souls were one…

 

Wings of Desire (1987) takes off with a dedication to cinema’s three great stalwarts – Truffaut, Ozu and Tarkovsky. Indeed, elements of all the three directors’ works are present in the film. However, Wim Wender’s decidedly mood piece, released months after the Tarkovsky’s demise, is a film that is to be felt and not seen, much like the latter’s films. To quote Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) – “Your eyes, your ears, your senses, will be overwhelmed”.

Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) are two angels living in Berlin whose mission is to “assemble, testify and preserve” reality. They keep documenting the happenings in the city, going through the minds of its citizens in the process. Damiel meets a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) and falls in love with her. After the suggestion from an ex-angel Peter Falk (as himself), he decides to shed his wings. Seemingly plotless and enigmatic, Wings of Desire makes a lasting impact on the viewers who watch it using their heart rather than their brains.

Damiel and Marion are a single soul separated by the ethereal skies (similar to Berlin itself where brethren of a single blood are divided by the ideological wall and humans have become no more than one-man islands). Both of them go through the same trauma. Both are strangers in spite of being around for a long time. Both have grown emotionless and are desperate to experience true feelings. Damiel acts as if he is one among the earthlings whereas Marion plays the part of an angel in the circus. Damiel wants to shed his omniscience, immortality and super-mobility in exchange for the mystery, fallibility and restrictions of human life. Damiel’s pining for petty human experiences holds quite an adversarial relationship with Cassiel who quietly and helplessly observes human suffering and even feels a bit hostile at the “conversion”.

The angels in the film represent everything that is both ancient and nascent, much like the city itself, which is a juxtaposition of culturally iconic structures (the Berlin Library, the Wall) and vignettes of massive reconstruction and renaissance (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, its skyscrapers). They have been around even before the appearance of the first creature on the planet, yet are mere infants, unable to differentiate between the emotional and sensual shades and colours. Like an infant, Damiel sees plain monochrome – he cannot discriminate between various souls (“everything was soulful, and all souls were one” ). But as the child grows up and as Damiel sheds his wings, they are no longer cherubic and recognize the harsh colours of humanity and become skillful (and even wily) enough to look at various hues and dimensions within people.

Cinematography is easily the first thing one notices and veteran Henri Alekan ensures that the camera velocity is neither too slow to contradict the dynamics of the scenes or too fast to prevent one from sinking into the ambience. The sepia tinged monochrome immediately enhances the already mellifluous verbal poetry. The film’s imagery and sound shuttle between subjective and objective realities, aptly sustaining the heavenly cinematic journey. The editing also suitably employs POV shots to compare and contrast the lives of people above and below the skies of Berlin. Bruno Ganz, who would ironically deliver the chilling performance as Hitler in The Downfall (2004), is out of the world, literally, and his childlike innocence emphatically emphasizes his emotions.

Wings of Desire is more than a yearning for preservation of humanity. It is a celebration of it. It is a celebration of sensitivity – of rubbing your hands during a cold winter day, of feeling pain due to a wound. It is a celebration of perceptibility – of sipping hot coffee while reading newspaper, of the occasional amusement at sight of red blood. It is a celebration of human life, its mortality, its diversity and its vulnerability. Each of its character is a poem, each image, a verse and each sound, a melody. Strongly recommended for anyone who loves mankind, reality and life.