As long as we’re on the subject–meaning Lars von Trier, source of endless fascination, or at least a lot of speculative noodling on my part (a temporary affliction, please bear with)–it seems what von Trier’s done in his latest, The Boss of It All, which engages a computerized thingamabob called Automavision to make all the director’s cinematographic choices, is apply to his own case the kinds of self-limiting demands he inflicted on Jørgen Leth in their 2003 collaboration The Five Obstructions. Leth, von Trier’s former film school mentor who seems–unaccountably, in retrospect–to have considered him a friend, was assigned the task of reshooting an old film of his five separate times under elaborately constricting sets of guidelines. Ever the honest craftsman, Leth seemed constitutionally incapable of creating an ugly frame, obsessively “improving on” and/or aestheticizing whatever passed through the conscious filter. All of which ultimately drove von Trier to fury: “How thick-wittedly clueless can you be?” seems his underlying attitude. “Can’t you see your ‘artfulness’ invariably falsifies, turns even the most reprehensible premises”–e.g., the formal-wear feast amid the red-light squalor of Bombay, the “most miserable place on earth” by von Trier’s own estimate, where hungry Dalits slavered behind a “tastefully” interposed scrim after a luxuriant spread forever beyond their reach–“into opportunities for ‘art’? Lemonade from lemons my bourgeois ass: even I’m disgusted by it, so why aren’t you? And why doesn’t it register in the kinds of films you do, always so exquisitely appointed and elegantly thought out? Better no art at all than that.”
Which is where von Trier’s been finding himself of late, confronting the “no art” option–through Dogville and Manderlay and assorted pornographic distractions, all slaps in the face of conventionality and taste, of craft embedded in a universalized context of disgrace. Because “art” can only lie, culpably misrepresent the “reality” it encloses … And yet: everything von Trier touches seems inevitably transformed, every idiotic pan and zoom turned toward crafstmanly ends, if only by default, since intentionality inflects it all, not ignorance or indifference or thoughtless oversight. Thus the dilemma of the “artiste” in spite of himself: how to escape the lies and fabrications when plain, raw consciousness defies your every attempt to do so?
Which takes us back to Automavision and the forlorn hope of resolution. A bit like the condition of the thief gone virtuous in Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert, hands lopped off so he can’t any longer steal for his supper. Well, behold the virtuously crippled filmmaker: take away his camera, or at least his control of it, and–shazam!–no longer just another lying shill for “art.” Except in fact he is, as David Bordwell‘s astutely pointed out (as quoted in my January 30 post). So what to make of von Trier’s self-purifying urge? Just another failed metaphysician, I guess … or–since it is Lars after all–pataphysician!