When to Quit

After seeing and hating Dogville, my third Lars von Trier film, I wonder if I should add this director to a ban list? Which begs the question: should I have a ban list? If I do, who should be on it? At what point do I decide that an artist is no longer worthy of my time? When do I finally, for lack of a better term, quit a director?

First, I should offer a bit of context to my experience with Lars von Trier. My first von Trier was Antichrist. I watched it because a number of people were interested in my opinion since it straddled that line between arthouse and horror and I enjoy both types of film. I found Antichrist trite. There were moments of amazing artistic care, but even more moments where I felt that von Trier was trying to be offensive and shocking simply for the sake of being offensive and shocking.

While my next von Trier, Melancholia, wasn’t nearly as abrasive, I found that as I got a better sense of his views and ideas about the world and his confrontational and abrasive film style failed to appeal to me. Once again, he shows his promise as a craftsman, but he tries too hard to lecture me on his existential view about the world through some heavy-handed means. The whole film smacked of a kind of preachiness that I found tiring and annoying.

Yet I still found myself willing to give von Trier another chance. I’ve never made a strikeout system for an artist, but it seems like three would be a good number. And Dogville was a strikeout for sure. From the heavy narration, stilted dialogue and the barren stage, it was clear to me that Dogville is a novel masquerading as a play masquerading as cinema. It’s contrived, it’s on the nose, it’s trite and it’s grating. It’s easily the most unenjoyable movie I’ve seen so far this year.

And yet I don’t feel like I’m done with von Trier yet. I’ve seen and hated three of his films, I’d place them pretty high on my worst films I’ve seen list, and yet I’m still curious about Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. After three experience I’ve absolutely loathed, why can’t I just call it quits and move onto other directors that I’m more likely to enjoy?

Am I that much of a glutton for punishment? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times and I’m left asking myself if I’ve gone insane. Do I really expect the next time to be any different? This isn’t the first time I’ve done this. I watched a stint of Ridley Scott films that I absolutely hated before I finally threw in the towel with only a couple films left unseen in his body of work.

Part of me thinks then my interest in watching films might have more to do with education, exposure and importance than enjoyment. It’s clear that I don’t enjoy von Trier’s films, but they’re films that have been heralded and discussed, so I feel obligated as someone interested in films to watch at least his most important and discussed works.

Another factor is that I want to believe I would be able to appreciate at least one of his films. First impressions aren’t always the best, but sometimes second impressions aren’t, either. My initial exposure to Woody Allen with both Annie Hall and Manhattan left me with little desire to watch any more of his work. Later, I ended up seeing Crimes and Misdemeanors, which I loved, and Broadway Danny Rose, which I enjoyed. If I had added a ban list, I would have never seen and enjoyed these films.

Therefore, I still want to believe that Lars von Trier might make a film I can enjoy and appreciate. It hasn’t happened in the first three times, which might be enough for most to quit, but I’m willing to continue. It’s quite possible I’m a glutton for punishment; I have seen every Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th film. However, maybe next time it’ll click. Maybe it won’t. There’s only one way I’ll know.

© 2014 James Blake Ewing

  • Steve Kimes

    I had a similar experience with two acclaimed filmmakers: Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky. I watched a few of Bergman’s most acclaimed films: Fanny and Alexander, Seventh Seal and Winter’s Light and they had good moments, but overall they did nothing for me. Then I watched Wild Strawberries and it just clicked and Scenes from a Marriage was masterful. For Tarkovsky, Solaris and Stalker seemed overlong, purposefully dull although they were intellectually rich. But Andrei Rubeliev was an almost perfect film.

    I had almost the same experience with Allen as you. I just don’t think his comedy works for me. But Crimes and Misdemeanors is a great film.

    From this, all I learned is that if a director is acclaimed, it is for a reason. That doesn’t mean I’ll like the same films as others, but if I haven’t “clicked” with an auteur, perhaps I just need to try again.

    As far as von Trier, I thought Dogville was okay and Melancholia billiant, but that’s because I really appreciated what he was saying about depression in that film. Antichrist is just hard to get through, no matter whether one likes it or not. I would highly recommend the passion story of Dancer in the Dark to you. In fact, I’d love to hear your take on it, knowing your desire to look at spiritual cinema.

    • James Blake Ewing

      Yes, I’ve had a similar journey with Bergman. I’ve disliked a lot of his films, but a few I adore so I’m glad I stuck with him. I’m also finding that with some acclaimed directors, it’s the offbeat films that click with me more than the well-regarded classics.

      Glad to hear your endorsement of Dancer in the Dark. Makes me look forward to seeing it more now. It does sound more like my kind of film.

  • John Kloosterman

    You didn’t like Ridley Scott? Aw. I’ll admit Robin Hood is weak and I’ve never seen Alien or Prometheus, but I did enjoy Gladiator.

    • James Blake Ewing

      I was talking more about his ’90s and early ’00s output. I hate Gladiator. I quit watching his movies after Body of Lies. Never seen Robin Hood. You should see Alien. One of the best sci-fi films ever made.

      I should say that I have seen The Counselor. Forgot Scott directed that one.

  • There was a time when Lars von Troll (as I call him) made films rather than just fairly empty provocations… which time has, sadly, long since passed. Personally I still remember Zentropa, The Kingdom and Breaking the Waves with a certain degree of fondness, and of his later films I quite liked The Five Obstructions, which is mostly by Jorgen Leth anyway. Once he started the Dogme thing he seemed to run out of things to say, and frankly I’m afraid to revisit those earlier films I did like in case my low regard for his later work makes me think less of them.

    But the question of if/when to give up on an artist is a vexed one, and I’m the first to admit that I’ve done so with some people (von Troll, Ridley Scott, Cassavetes)… but there are some cases, like Werner Herzog and Powell & Pressburger, who would’ve been on my own ban list when I was younger, but years later I decided to try them again and now they’re among my favourite filmmakers. I’d have missed out on a lot of good stuff had I not given them that second… but knowing when to give someone a second chance, and how many second chances to give them, is the hard part.

  • In regards to Lars von Trier, he’s become kind of a joke between Jason and I due to how pretentious and difficult his movies are. We’re actually planning on doing a Joint Review for both halves of Nymphomaniac when it’s all released. Otherwise, I’ve seen three of his movies. The first was Dancer in the Dark, which I pretty much just turned off halfway through (or maybe a little more). Then I read about the ending, put it back in, and watched the last 15 minutes or so and still hated it. Next was Antichrist, which made me feel dirty for about 2 weeks after I finished. I hated that one as well, but for different reasons. I actually quite liked Melancholia, though. That’s probably the only one I might revisit some day. Oh, and I actually watched Kingdom Hospital when it was on TV. I did actually like that.

    As for the topic at hand, I’m not sure if there’s any director I’d straight-up give up on. There’s definitely ones I struggle with or don’t like, but I’ll still see them for entertainment’s sake (if it’s painful, the entertainment comes in the form of my review for others). For example, I loathed Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre and absolutely know his style of film-making is not for me, but I’ll be going back at the end of this year and watching The Holy Mountain with Jason and Nolahn for entertainment purposes.

    • James Blake Ewing

      Yea, LvT is one of those easy targets if you want to make fun of arthouse. It’s just too much some times. As fun as it can be to rip on movies, I guess I’d rather do that for films I at least find somewhat watchable, like bad horror flicks. Antichrist was just painful to endure because it tried way too hard to be profound, deep and artsy. At least something like Jason takes Manhattan is fun to watch because of how silly and dumb it is.

  • OK, I think it’s time for someone like me who is a von Trier fan to finally speak out. OK, you didn’t like Melancholia (which I think is his most accessible film so far and an accurate portrait on depression based on my own experiences), Antichrist (which I love because of its portrait on grief and for being very uncompromising), and Dogville (which is controversial but I enjoyed it).

    I don’t think you should quit… just yet. If I was going to give someone a primer on von Trier. I would start with Breaking the Waves which is a film that doesn’t play by the rules. It is a melodrama but has these visuals that makes it far more unique. Then there’s Europa which I think is the best of his Europa trilogy as it has elements of film noir and the post-war drama to showcase what kind of filmmaker he was and the change he would make with Breaking the Waves.

    If neither of those films have worked for you. Then you can say that von Trier doesn’t work for you at all.

    • James Blake Ewing

      Noted. I do think Breaking the Waves would be the next one I would watch.

  • I’ll chime in with the “don’t quit” chorus. If you genuinely hate watching his films – not dislike them, but feel miserable as a result – than it certainly makes sense to prioritize other films and filmmakers on your watchlist. But if you feel compelled at some point to check out another of his films, you should definitely allow yourself to follow that impulse. For the following reasons:

    1) as you said, you’re curious about movies for reasons other than entertainment/enjoyment and Von Trier is certainly a culturally important artist, 2) as others have noted, Von Trier’s work is varied (while distinctive) and you’ve watched 3 of his more challenging works – you may like some of his other films, particularly the earlier ones, more, 3) truth be told, I’m a big Von Trier fan myself (Dogville even made my top 100) so I’m a biased party!

    By the way, as long as we’re discussing controversial, challenging, intense works of art…when does the Fire Walk With Me piece go up? 😉

    • James Blake Ewing

      Right now I haven’t watched much of anything in the past couple of weeks.

      My Fire Walk With Me piece is long overdue. I wrote it weeks ago. I’ll try to have it up this week.