parable and a desperate need for joy
victory for the human spirit
by Mark Anderson
scratch of a pencil, the industrial din of machinery, the skipping
of a phonograph needle, a train on the tracks -- glorious music
is sparked by all these things and more in "Dancer in the
The Lars Von Trier film, last year's 154th-highest-grossing,
was released to sudden death in September, and only five people
attended a Sunday afternoon showing at Portland's Hollywood Theater
during the March second run. But recent DVD release, including outtakes
and a pair of how-did-they-do-that documentaries, makes a persuasive
case for the newfangled format.
in the Dark" tells the glum story of Selma, an immigrant single
mom going congenitally blind while working two jobs to save money
for an operation that might save her young son from a similar fate.
Selma's salvation is vivid imagination, which takes over whenever
things become especially grim. That's when the sounds of life give
way to the music in her head, and washed-out colors from a solitary
hand-held camera give way to the vivid colors of 100 cameras, which
capture exuberant full-blown song-and-dance production numbers from
every conceivable angle.
The film's overall effect is extreme: ugly and beautiful, well-acted
and pretentious, upliftingly sweet, harrowingly repulsive and melodramatic
beyond belief. It's both the Mona Lisa and the hideous accident
from which you can't look away.
The extremes began with the three-year span it took Von Trier to
finish the film, which then won the 2000 Palme d'Or -- the big prize
at Cannes -- along with Best Actress for the incomparable Icelandic
pop sprite, Björk.
Wrote film critic Roger Ebert: "The first press screening at Cannes
was at 8:30 a.m. That's the screening where all the real movie people
attend -- the critics, festival heads, distributors, exhibitors,
film teachers, other directors, etc. (the evening black-tie audience
is far more philistine). After the screening, the auditorium filled
with booing and cheering -- so equal in measure that people started
booing or cheering at each other."
"Love it" and "Hate it" are the choices greeting visitors at dancerinthedarkmovie.com.
Simple-souled Selma works in a rural Pacific Northwest sheet-metal
factory, circa 1964, and moonlights by attaching hairpins to cardboard
for pittance. Music is the respite from her downtrodden existence;
she rehearses a role in the local production of "The Sound of Music"
and attends screenings of classic Hollywood musicals with her devoted
friend, Kathy, in her minimal spare time.
At one poignant point, Kathy, played by an understated Catherine
Deneuve, walks two fingers across her increasingly blind friend's
palm to describe the dancing on the screen. At another, Selma recounts
her Czechoslovakian childhood habit of leaving the theater before
a film's final number -- that way the show, at least in Selma's
mind, never has to end.
But when a couple wicked plot-twists kick in, hold onto your popcorn.
Sure, it's pure parable that demands wholesale suspension of disbelief.
But we don't need to know why Snidley Whiplash ties Nell
Fenwick to the railroad track to appreciate the subsequent examination
of the human condition.
"It took me two years to become Selma," Björk said at a post-Cannes
press conference, "and one year to become me again. After reading
the script, very quickly, I wrote the songs for her with a lot of
pain. I have never felt that kind of pain in my life. I'm very lucky
-- I've had a very good life. All of my dreams have come true and
more so. None of her dreams come true."
The 35-year-old Björk Gudmundsdottir's star hit these shores
in the late 1980s, as a member of the charmingly eccentric Sugarcubes;
she still proclaims herself a punker, although her songs for "Dancer"
betray nearly anything but. Björk began recording in Iceland
at age 11; her 14 albums include jazzy torch, cockeyed rock and
modern-day dance to rival all comers. And, despite her reported
insistence that she'll never act again, that we've yet to see the
full flower of her off-kilter gifts is a better bet than any futures
Wall Street can proffer.
As legend has it, Björk demanded her songs be put into the
film at full length, which only helped ensure that the film is as
long in duration as the lines to see it have been short -- despite
an Oscar nomination for her duet with Thom Yorke.
"It was time someone could speak out for loners and introverts
who are in kind of a fantasy bubble," Björk said. "I spent
most of my childhood on my own, and I was in heaven in a spiritual
high. Our society tells us that people who are on their own are
sad losers. But I think that these people are very self-sufficient.
If I had to pick out of the 100 peaks of my life, 90 I had on my
Left unsaid is the film's underlying insinuation: a break here
or there, and Selma's life might have been so much more. But Selma
doesn't get a break.
"Maybe that's one of the reasons I wanted to do the music for Selma,"
Björk said. "When people are that dark, the need
for joy is so desperate that when they get those flights, they are
not artificial -- they're real. And that's the victory of the human
spirit. I think it is very easy to love her, she is so pure."
Sometimes art imitates life, sometimes life imitates art. And sometimes
we get lucky and can't tell which is which.