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An unfunny review of an unfunny movie

There will be no jokes today. Last night, I watched Dancer in the Dark, and now I feel like I need to unleash some thoughts. It might seem weird to review a movie 8 or so years after it came out, but Dan loaned it to me a year and half ago and I only just watched it, so I feel I owe him something. At some point in early 2006, I enthusiastically borrowed Dancer in the Dark from the Fullerton Multimedia Library, as Dan had described it as “one of the best movies I’ve ever seen”. I didn’t know what it was about; just that Bjork was in it, so it was probably pretty weird but would at least have a good soundtrack. As it sat on my coffee table for a few days before I prepared to watch it, friends would see it and comment “man, that’s one sad movie”, or “I don’t usually cry, but that movie was brutal”. Hearing these “reviews”, my enthusiasm began to fizzle. I don’t really understand the point of sad movies – why sit down and watch something that will only make you feel terrible? And so it sat on my coffee table, unwatched… until I moved into a new house, where it then sat on my new coffee table, still unwatched. Dan recently reminded me that I had his movie, and I debated returning it without actually seeing it. He wouldn’t hear it, though – he wanted it back soon, but I had to watch it first. So I did. And now I’m sad. I won’t really go into a plot summary, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s about a poor hard working immigrant woman who works in a factory. She has a degenerative disease that’s making her go blind. Her son also has the disease, so she secretly saves all the money she earns so she can pay for corrective surgery for her son. The man that she rents her trailer from steals all of her surgery money because he’s too much of a sissy to tell his wife that he’s broke. That’s only about the first 20 minutes. It gets sadder from there. And sadder, and sadder. Then, just when it seems like there’s a glimmer of hope and everything will turn out sort-of ok… more sadness. Don’t get me wrong, this movie was pretty amazing. Brilliant performances. Great music. Believable dialogue. Bjork was amazing. 5 stars, all that jazz. But man… it made In the Bedroom seem like the feel good hit of the summer. Everything about this movie is heartbreaking - the settings, the wardrobes, the lighting. I imagine the director's most pressing concern was finding the saddest camera angle for every single scene. Towards the end of Jerry Seinfeld’s I’m Telling You for the Last Time, someone in the crowd asks him if he’s ever thought about making a Seinfeld movie. He responds that he probably won’t because most movies are terrible – if you go see a bad movie, it’s 2 hours; if you’re in a bad movie, it’s 2 years. I immediately thought of this quote after watching Dancer in the Dark – not because the movie was bad (at all), but just because the actors and actresses had to deal with this story every day for months, if not years. It must have been totally draining. I'm pretty sure that every single remotely significant character in the movie cries. And not just a few tears and a runny nose - I'm talking full-on wailing. I read that Bjork has said that she will never make another movie, and I can understand why… she doesn’t want to go crazy (too late). Anyway, it was a great movie, but I hope I never see it again. I think that’s about as good of a review that a movie this sad can get.
June 1, 2007 - 11:16 am

dan - Yay Mark! I’m proud of you.

One of the themes in American Beauty was that there is beauty everywhere, like a dirty plastic bag caught in turbulent winds on your driveway in the suburbs. Similarly, something can be impressive or qualitatively good even if ugly.

Dancer in the Dark is one of my favourites exactly because it is such a punch in the gut. It makes you want to press stop, not in the same way that a formulaic Hollywood crapchunk makes you want to stop watching out of boredom, but that you almost can’t bear to see what misfortune the characters will experience next.

It’s also a musical, and you’ll never think of Sound of Music the same way again.

Movies are at their greatest when they evoke emotion, whether that is joy (As Good As It Gets), awe (Sin City), or empathy and sadness (Dancer in the Dark). One of the symbols of excellence in art is when you get pulled in and forget that you are watching, or reading, or listening. It’s rare, but very cool when it happens.

June 1, 2007 - 11:37 am

Shannen - I couldn’t bear it…I pressed stop right after the money stealing scene and haven’t gone back since (and not just because the movie has been sitting on Mark’s coffee table for a year and a half).

Congrats to Mark for finally watching the saddest movie I almost watched.

June 1, 2007 - 1:33 pm

Kel Parsons - My husband and I are both big von Trier fans. He’s not for everyone, but this film is quite brilliant (although it can’t touch _Breaking the Waves_, which you almost certainly don’t want to see–it is very disturbing in parts). Von Trier’s work always deals with redemption at base–which, incidentally, is the theme at the bottom of _American Beauty_ as well (the title is, to a good extent, ironic). It’s a particular taste, and he doesn’t always execute it well (his “student” film, _The Element of Crime_, is basically a stylised failure), but when he’s on his game (as both my husband and I thought he was in _Dancer_), he’s breathtaking. _Breaking the Waves_ made me weep at the end–it’s heartbreaking, and heartbreakingly hopeful.

You may want to see _Europa_ (which is usually called _Zentropa_ here). Haunting and quite beautiful, but not as wrenching as _Dancer_ or _Waves_.

June 1, 2007 - 2:40 pm

contibutor mark - Dan, why do you own it? I can’t think of a less re-watchable movie.

June 4, 2007 - 7:37 am

dan - I encourage art I like. Hopefully a penny or two of the DVD price made it to people who will be able to make another, and won’t have to resort to asking for government money to produce culture.

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