What if the idea of Utopia was possible? Would it really become dystopia? Do we live dystopian times now? Many movies, series, cartoons and books have attempted to answer this question. We have seen it in 1984, The Stepford Wives, Metropolis, Aeon Flux, Brazil… The list is interminable. But this time, I will compare and contrast two screen works: the movie Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1998, USA) and the film The Bothersome Man (Jens Lien, 2006, Norway/Iceland). Both works got my attention because the perspective is mainly told from the perspective of outsiders, who see what lies beneath the apparent utopia. But their reactions and the results of them are different in each of these works.
Both Andreas in Bothersome and the twins David and Jennifer in Pleasantville are transported to “perfectly harmonic” yet colourless towns. Andreas is surrounded by neutral and pale colours, while the siblings are surrounded by black and white. The pleasantness lack passion and emotion makes both towns feel even cartoonish. But Whereas Jennifer, and later David, are set to change the circumstances surrounding them, Andreas’ situation presents more hopeless, and he tries to escape.
The people who live in both towns are afraid of change. However, passion grows and changes people in the Hollywood version of “Pleasantville” and the way to resist change is, initially, through violence, and then, toward totalitarian rules. For a while, the violence in Pleasantville against people who have emotions and knowledge, which is expressed in colours, is stated, making Pleasantville much less disturbing than its Scandinavian counterpart. It is precisely the lack of violence (aside of the few scenes involving suicidal attempts) what makes The Bothersome Man all the more unsettling. They don’t need violence because they never allow themselves to get angry, or to show any emotion for that matter.
I don’t think there is a better example of this than the opening scene. For all the intensity of the kiss here, there is a complete lack of passion, making it perhaps, the most disturbing kissing scene in the history of cinema. I should also highlight the moment when Ingeborg, Andreas’ lover’ reacts indifferently to the fact that he left his live-in girlfriend for her, confessing that she has been seeing other men; and the apathetic smile that the man’s girlfriend in question shows when he is alarmingly covered by blood as a result of his violent, attempt of suicide.
By contrast, Pleasantville has splashes of emotion and knowledge bringing both color and new elements to town. Even the scene in which Betty Parker and Bill Johnson fall in love with each other shows all the tenderness, passion and soul that brings the colours to Pleasantville without them even kissing in a single scene. We see the characters gaining colours through that and through self-awareness. And although this change is met with resistance by some of the town’s inhabitants, there are many others accepting and embracing this change, as well as David and Jennifer’s presence. David returns to his own world not because he wants to escape, like Andreas, but, as I understood it, he wanted to applied what he learned in his own world.
Andreas meets another person, Hugo, who has discovered that colorful, soulful, flavourful passion that the “pleasantville” they inhabit is missing. Andreas decides to dig farther to escape to the place where such sweet music and aromas are coming from. We see the colours in the house where he almost arrives. But the guards of the town drag him out before he manages to escape, and, instead of being seduced by the colours or flavours of the other side of the hole, the guards seal it!
Both films end, to some extent, in uncertainty. In Bothersome, Andreas gets thrown to a frigid and snowy landscape. But, while the ending is nicer in Pleasantville, Betty, George Parker and Bill Johnson acknowledge that they are not sure about what will happen in their future.
While I find The Bothersome Man superior to Pleasantville, it was interesting to seeing both works within a short period of time and compare and contrast the fascinating takes each had to offer about the Utopia/Dystopia question.
I am not exactly crazy about the Oscars, and you will not see me tune in to watch an Academy Award ceremony any year soon. I subscribe to the popular point of view that it is more about the hype than about real quality (although I admit that many quality actors, directors and films have been justly recognized). The following is a reaction to a list from the Film Comment magazine.
1. Crash Paul Haggis, 2005: Despite of the fact that I derisively call it the “everybody-is-a-little-bit-racist” film, and has stereotypes that annoy me more often than not, I don’t think the film is bad. However, I do agree it did not deserve to be “best picture of 2005” either. It was well acted and directed, but the message was lacking something and made the whole racial prejudice message sound superficial while ignoring the systematic source at the bottom of these prejudices.
2. Slumdog Millionaire Danny Boyle, 2008: I love Danny Boyle and I love Indian cinema that does not recur to formulas. But this is not the best in either case. It bugs me that this film won Best Picture, when the far superior Trainspotting was not even recognized by the academy. Again, another proof of the Hype-based nature of the Oscars.
3. Chicago Rob Marshall, 2002: I have yet to watch it, so jury is out.
4. Forrest Gump Robert Zemeckis, 1994: This is one I disagree with. It was original enough; Zemeckis did a wonderful job with the story and Tom Hanks did a great performance. One of the few films I think deserved the recognition it got.
5. A Beautiful Mind Ron Howard, 2001: I enjoyed the movie, but other films have tackled the subject of mental illness a lot better and with less formulas and clichés than this one.
6. Gladiator Ridley Scott, 2000: I have yet to watch this one as a whole, but I have seen parts and I am not necessarily seduced by it, so I am inclined to agree.
7. American Beauty Sam Mendes, 1999: Another disagreement. It was quality and Sam Mendes put his personal mark in it. A mixture of great imagery, terrific acting and a wonderful juxtaposition of dark humor and poignant drama make this film a masterpiece.
8. Shakespeare in Love John Madden, 1998: Totally agree! It’s too saccharine and the acting ranged between mediocre and just-above-average (Sorry Gwyneth!)
9. Braveheart Mel Gibson, 1995: It is better if I don’t comment on this one. I endured boredom while watching this film. It is not even historically accurate!
10. Titanic James Cameron, 1997: What can I say about this film that has not been said before? Too long for what it had to offer in content; too clichéd; too saccharine, too overproduced… OK I better stop!
11. Driving Miss Daisy Bruce Beresford, 1989: I have yet to watch it, so I have no opinion.
12. Dances with Wolves Kevin Costner, 1990: Another favourite cliché from Hollywood that a friend of mine rightly calls “Whitey Saves the Day” complete, with the guy romancing a variation from Woman Of Color (white woman raised by people of colour). We have seen it before, and we will see it again for centuries to come!
13. The Greatest Show on Earth Cecil B. DeMille, 1952: I have yet to see it.
14. The King’s Speech Tom Hooper, 2010: It was not the best picture of the year, that’s true, but I would not list it as one of the worst winners either. It was well done.
15. The English Patient Anthony Minghella, 1996:
16. Amadeus Milos Forman, 1984:
17. Around the World in 80 Days Michael Anderson, 1956:
18. Chariots of Fire Hugh Hudson, 1981:
19. Gandhi Richard Attenborough, 1982:
20. Mrs. Miniver William Wyler, 1942:
Jury is still out in all these 6 last films, as I haven’t seen any of them.
Lessons: Lists are subjective, but so are the academies that give awards. While it is nice to be recognized, I think quality is not often as appreciated as popularity. The Oscars, in this sense, fell in the same trap than the Grammys.
The sad thing is that the lesson is obvious.
The first time I watched David Cronenberg‘s Crash, I was 15 years old, an age that was considered too immature or innocent to watch a film like this. I was already familiar with a few of Cronenberg films (Videodrome and, his most famous one, The Fly, in particular). I was also aware that there were things I might, however theoretically, not be able to handle. But I gave it a shot anyway. However, at the end of Crash, I was left wondering: “Is that all there is?”
Seventeen years later, and with more knowledge about the film, I decided to give it another shot. I had always dismissed it as Cronenberg’s excuse for porn, and my initial reaction, as published on Facebook, was that I still felt that way. Nevertheless, I gave myself time to digest and reflect upon the film.
While my rate of the film remains the same (5/10 or 3.5 over 5); I can’t help acknowledging its probable influence on other films that, in my opinion, did a better job at communicating the subjects Crash attempted to tackle. Anti-erotic sex as a reflection of a frustrated search for human connection were better represented in Steve McQueen‘s Shame and in Lars Von Trier‘s Antichrist; the later perhaps being as cerebral as Crash had the undelivered potential to be. If we talk about our obsession with technology and its impact on human interactions, the Norwegian film The Bothersome Man and even the mainstream Terminator movies deliver the subject more poignantly. I commend Cronenberg for his effort in conveying difficult topics in a bizarre way, but he has done better in most of his other movies.
Perhaps the emptiness of the film was supposed to have a point; to reflect our own existential emptiness and how we go on to fill such voids. We see this in the sex between the characters; the interactions between James and Catherine Ballard (the protagonic married couple), and even in the closing scene. But ultimately, this emptiness proved to be more unsatisfying than unsettling to me.
All that said, the saving grace of the film was in the good acting; the emphasis in shadows and dark colors and the stoic expressions of the characters when having sex. I can’t deny that there was an effort at creating an eerie atmosphere with these elements. Unfortunately, they were more effective many years later in the aforementioned Antichrist and Shame.