Another new year, and just about time for another of Lars von Trier’s antinomian gifts to the world–which in the case of the recent Palm Springs International Film Festival (January 4-15) happened to be The Boss of It All, a feature von Trier shot (or that shot itself) in something called “Automavision,” a computer-driven technology that purports to eliminate the need for a human cinematographer at all. As von Trier explains it, the director (in the present case, himself) decides on the “best possible” setup for the camera, then lets the computer zoom, jump, and/or whip around as it haphazardly chooses. “For a long time, my films have been handheld,” he told Geoffrey Mcnab in a September 2006 interview in the Guardian. “That has to do with the fact that I am a control freak. With Automavision, the technique was that I would frame the picture first and then push a button on the computer. I was not in control–the computer was in control.”
Well, maybe … though as UW-Madison film prof/scholar David Bordwell points out, there’s inarguably a kind of “method to the madness, although the method, granted, is a bit mad. … Let’s just say that von Trier’s famous 100-camera technique of Dancer in the Dark has been repurposed in a pretty unexpected way. And don’t believe what he says about surrendering to chance; the cuts are often very careful.” Which might be said as well of last year’s Manderlay, where apparently spastic camera swoops and hiccups and zooms (albeit noncomputerized) and raggedly mismatched shots were wedded to a voice track that functioned with an almost clocklike precision: as lean and purposive in its design as the visuals were all over the place … which, not coincidentally, created a lot of interesting (or at the very least eccentric) formal juxtapositions.
But apparently not satisfied with one new gimmick per movie, von Trier in The Boss has decided on a second–an audience-participation puzzler called “Lookey,” which invites the viewer to discover “mistakes” deliberately planted in the film. “For the casual observer, it’s just a glitch,” he explained to Screendaily.com (as quoted in the Guardian), but “for the initiated, it’s a riddle to be solved. All Lookeys can be decoded by a system that is unique.” While some folks wonder if Lookeys won’t simply distract the audience from the film they’re supposed to be watching, I’m wondering instead if the film itself won’t become the ultimate MacGuffin, a kind of ROSEBUD writ large–like all those Renaissance nativities shoving the main event into the background, the better to admire the sumptuous foreground je ne sais quoi. Too late alas, poor Lars, it’s all been done before!