The Accursed Sovereign

Antichrist: Witchcraft, a Murder, a Return to Nature

Posted in Criticism, Feminism, Film by bradishn on March 20, 2011

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist remains one of the most complex films of our time, as well as a masterpiece of cinematography.  The film shocks the viewer so thoroughly that one remains helpless against the immediacy of the film.  Attempts to tease out the theoretical message in the film end up butting heads with a highly visceral reaction, a reaction that no doubt owes itself to its creator, Lars von Trier.  But von Trier’s Monster, the shock value of the film, guards a wealth of meaning, and the Monster defends this wealth through the misdirection of critical assaults.  Though I in no way believe that some blog post will accurately sum up von Trier’s masterpiece (I believe little more than a scholarly dissertation could), I want to put forward some points in the following passages that suggest more fruitful approaches towards Antichrist.  First, the common critics of Antichrist must be addressed.  Though they are not completely mistaken, their critiques end up doing a disservice to the film and, ultimately, to those critics themselves.  Only after that will it be possible to bypass von Trier’s Monster and reexamine Antichrist.  Immediately thereafter, it will be necessary to explain the metaphysics of Antichrist, as this film includes scenes of clearly unnatural occurrences.  Finally, two related topics will constitute the thrust of this paper.  First, I will argue that Gainsbourg’s character presents a feminist model that, though ruthless, empowers women.  Second, I want to reconceptualize Defoe’s sympathetic ordeal as a return to nature.

As a caveat, I understand that much interpretation has been geared towards the clear religious bent of the movie.  Roger Ebert, in a quasi-New Critic fashion, claims that “If you have to ask what a film symbolizes, it doesn’t. With this one, I didn’t have to ask. It told me. I believe “Antichrist” may be an exercise in alternative theology: von Trier’s version of those passages in Genesis where Man is cast from Eden and Satan assumes a role in the world” (Ebert, Roger.  2009.  “Cannes #6: a devil’s advocate for ‘Antichrist’.”  Roger Ebert’s Journal, Chicago Sun Times.  May 19th, http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2009/05/a_devils_advocate_for_antichri.html.).  Others have also explored the relationship between Antichrist and the Genesis myth.  I will not dispute the validity of these claims here.  I merely want to take a brief sojourn away from religious analyses to explore the film and its world in another manner.

*** SPOILER ALERT***

I. RECEPTION – PROBLEMATIZATION

Many have reacted to Antichrist as a misogynist’s movie. Antichrist divides audiences through the visceral cinematography, particularly with regards to the scenes of genital mutilation.  It is a movie of discomfort, and it comes as no surprise that the violence in the film elicits a feminist critique.  After all, the film culminates in images of female genital mutilation and murder.  Von Trier anticipates this response, listing a misogyny consultant in the film’s credits, and perhaps even precludes a feminist critique through a more subtle feminist message.  As we shall see later, Gainsbourg actually presents a feminist model, regardless of the visceral reactions von Trier elicits.

One problem with the film’s feminism is von Trier’s depiction of women as united with nature.  Gainsbourg’s character inhabits the world around her much more effectively than Defoe’s character.  She sleeps when Defoe cannot acclimate himself.  What Defoe finds shocking and disturbing, Gainsbourg has already familiarized herself with.  There are visual depictions of Gainsbourg lying in a green field, a green hue coming over the color of her body, skin, and clothes.  Nature even seems to take her side, as the crow gives away Defoe’s position when he is trying to evade her.  The message here is important: Gainsbourg, the only model of femininity that we are presented with, seems to have a close ally in the form of the natural world around her.  If one assumes that Antichrist presents Gainsbourg’s character in a negative light, the movie perhaps finds an enemy in ecofeminism (or perhaps lends itself more readily to the ecofeminist dialogue with a patriarchal capitalism).  Other analyses have pointed towards problematic underpinnings in ecofeminism, and for von Trier to conjure up an ecofeminist straw-woman as an antagonist to Defoe is a disservice to feminist thought.  This dialogue regarding nature will become more relevant as we touch upon Defoe’s character towards the end of this analysis.

II. METAPHYSICS – GROUNDWORK

How does the world that Defoe and Gainsbourg find themselves in work?  How does one explain the ‘Three Beggars’, that is, the immortal crow, the fox that eats itself, and the deer with the miscarriage.  The last of these three can be explained, though the other two make little sense.  They defy understandings of biology and reality that are fundamental to our worldview.  One interpretation, mentioned in religious analyses of the film, states that when Defoe and Gainsbourg cross the bridge to reach Eden, the family cabin of Gainsbourg’s character, they enter into an inverse reality, an inverse ‘paradise’ in which “Chaos reigns” and Satan permeates.  Given what little we know about the world Defoe and Gainsbourg depart from to reach Eden, it could make sense.  Unfortunately, this is not due to any understanding of the ‘normal’ world, but a lack of information, as the first segment of the film takes place largely between the personalities of Defoe and Gainsbourg, but not within any meaningful setting.  The only information we receive regarding the world they interact in comes from Eden.

But what happens if we instead assume a contiguity in reality?  Rather than Eden being a place of disconnect from the rest of the world, what if the fundamental laws and axioms of Eden carry throughout the broader world that Defoe and Gainsbourg experience?  Given that the bulk of information we have regarding the world Defoe and Gainsbourg inhabit comes from their time in Eden, it seems the only productive assumption we can make without sequestering Defoe and Gainsbourg in a theoretical bubble where all is chaos.  Of course, von Trier primes us for sequestering Defoe and Gainsbourg with the few words uttered by the fox, “Chaos reigns”.  But if chaos reigns in Eden, maybe, just maybe, chaos reigns throughout the rest of the world.  As such, Eden gives us a window into the world, rather than a room without a view.  But continuity does not explain the metaphysics of the world von Trier presents.

One source of knowledge, however, does have answers: Gainsbourg’s dissertation project, “Gynocide”.  This study on witchcraft and the persecution of witches shows Defoe the Three Beggars, including the undying crow which appears to Defoe later.  It explains their part in a witchcraft cosmology and allows for the presence of otherworldly things in human experience.  This book, “Gynocide,” is the key to understanding the world of Antichrist; the film’s world is one in which witchcraft possesses an efficacy.  Gainsbourg’s character engages in a form of sacrifice through genital self-mutilation, which summons the Three Beggars to the cabin.  While she and Defoe make love outside the cabin, Gainsbourg mentions witches who were fabled to be able to bring down a hailstorm.  Perhaps the initial death of her child fits into some sort of a grand hex that is only actuated with the conclusion of the film.  Perhaps this gives us a way to make sense of the final scene of the film, where Defoe stands atop a hill on his way out of Eden.  A crowd of faceless women approach him, hiking up the hill towards him.  Perhaps through the act of human sacrifice, Gainsbourg has resurrected those witches who were persecuted in ages before her.  Perhaps.

III. MORALITY – RESOLUTION

Not only is “Gynocide” the source of Antichrist‘s metaphysics, but within it we also find the crux of Gainsbourg’s anger, violence, and frustrations.  What woman would not feel driven to violence after reading about the atrocities that were committed against women in the dark ages?  In the name of Christianity, no doubt.  These dark times for humanity, coupled with the inherent male fear of female sexuality, lead to very reprehensible outcomes.

“Gynocide” gives Gainsbourg more than just anger, however.  From her exposure to the source material she uses to write her dissertation project, Gainsbourg gains the knowledge necessary to perform acts of witchcraft.  After learning about the ‘sisters’ who came before her, Gainsbourg taps into that fount of knowledge that had been long since forgotten.  Old as the world around Gainsbourg and Defoe, the knowledge from “Gynocide” gives Gainsbourg an agency over the world around her.  That’s right; Gainsbourg is a witch.

Is that not akin to accusing Gainsbourg of being evil?  Is not Gainsbourg caught up in what is going on?  Does she not suffer initially from the death of her son?  One line, I feel, turns these concerns, every visceral reaction, every sympathy with Gainsbourg, and every disgust with Defoe in the movie on its head: “The crying woman is a scheming woman.”  From Gainsbourg herself.  How, after hearing this line, can we witness the first half of the movie and feel as though Defoe is emotionally battering Gainsbourg?  Is she not getting inside Defoe’s head as well?  And if she has been manipulating him, and the viewer, in some sense, this entire time, is she not morally reprehensible in some fashion?

No.  Return now to the basis motivating Gainsbourg.  She acts with the weight of history on her side, and in the name of the sisters that came before her.  Gainsbourg, in this light, becomes a paragon of feminism.  Everything comes second to her duty to her sisters.  Her husband, her doctoral dissertation, perhaps even her child.  She even subjects Defoe to acts of violence that imitate the tortures performed on witches in the Dark Ages.  In the end, she ends up sacrificing her own life (perhaps for the resurrection of her sisters, though that is a tenuous claim).  In sum, Gainsbourg is a witch.  But don’t worry.  It’s cool.  She’s doing it for all the right reasons, and her dedication is laudable.

There are still unanswered questions, however.  For example, when Gainsbourg attaches the millstone to Defoe, she throws the wrench under the house.  But later, when digging him out from having buried him, she goes back to look for the wrench in the toolshed! Why!?  Has she forgotten what she did moments prior!?  Has she brainwashed herself, or developed multiple personalities, or been possessed?  The possibility of her having planned her son’s death is also an interesting consideration.  She systematically deformed the feet of her child, who in turn dies from slipping.  Defoe discovers this later in the film, but does not start to piece together what might have been the perfect murder setup.  And finally, if we can, using the metaphysics of Antichrist, draw a cause-effect relationship between Gainsbourg’s actions and encounters with the supernatural, what do we do with Gainsbourg’s death within the final ceremony, in which ‘one must die’?  I believe that this ceremony explains the final scene in the movie, that is, the resurrection of all the women who were killed for witchcraft.  But these are just postulations.

IV.  ADAPTATION – ENVIRONMENTALISM

Gainsbourg’s perspective, though elusive and more complicated, also hides Defoe’s experience in this movie.  Defoe begins as a fairly mild-mannered individual.  He is perhaps arrogant, but in his arrogance, a devoted husband.  From the beginning we can tell that he distances himself from certain external stimuli, such as pain.  His wife biting him in lovemaking shocks him, and he pulls away.  Even the trip to Eden puts him out of place, as he wears a button-up shirt on the hike in.  He is preeminently a man of the city, a man of society, a man of the polis.

Defoe’s ordeals bring about a change in his understanding.  When Defoe encounters the strange wildlife of the forest, he comes to learn that the natural world is not necessarily a happy place.  The animals of Disney films are replaced instead by such creatures as the talking fox and the deer bearing a miscarried fetus.  Even then, Defoe does not appreciate the gravity of the situation he finds himself in until he reads his son’s autopsy report.  We watch him stare at the camera as the perspective zooms out, and then we know how truly alone he is, with a woman who he does not know.  When Gainsbourg drills a hole in Defoe, fixes a foreign object to him, nearly buries him alive, drags him, weight and all, across the forest, and attempts to stab him to death, the similarities between what she does to him and what has been done to women in the past are striking.  There is even the unholy still-birth that is the millstone, this abject item, brought to bear on Defoe through the initial penetrative action taken by Gainsbourg (perhaps if the millstone’s weight had been fixed about Defoe’s gut he would have had the capacity to bear it).

Defoe even comes to the capacity to take a life when he attempts to kill the crow so as to save himself, a task that few men of his social caste must perform.  This moment is critical to understanding what kind of man Defoe has become.  In dealing with the barbarity inflicted upon him by his wife, as well as witnessing the grim realities of nature, Defoe becomes hardened.  But this hardening is not pessimistic, regarding nature.  Rather, he returns to a more natural state through understanding pain and his capacity for causing it.  Some of the final scenes of the film even show him foraging berries from nature, one of the few consumptive acts in which he engages.  Most importantly, Defoe turns at the end of the movie and gains the capacity to murder his wife.  This act consummates his return to nature while reestablishing what could be seen as a patriarchal resignation to the film.

In sum, nature is not a happy place, but a hard place.  It is violent, it is filled with death, and very little is sacred in it.  But this should not make us scared of it.  Rather, we should be aware.  It is a naive and sterile environmentalism that seeks to protect the trees but is afraid of a few bee stings.

V.  AFTERWORD – ENCAPSULATION

Of course, this entire understanding of the film could be rooted within a patriarchal logic.  It’s entirely possible that Defoe, through and through, is a morally repugnant character.  He systematically demeans his wife and her opinions and ideas throughout the movie.  Further, is it a laudable feminism that justifies torture and attempted murder?  Or is Gainsbourg even a feminist to begin with?  This reading also takes the movie to be simply linear, with each scene logically flowing from the previous.  If this is the case, I also believe that every action committed by Gainsbourg is ultimately with an eye towards murder, which is certainly a tenuous position.  But I believe this does justice for her character.  She is not a fickle creature, but rather an intelligent woman (PhD track, no less) with an eye towards designing and plotting.  Defoe, on the other hand, is left trying to keep up throughout the film.  He doesn’t even realize what he’s gotten himself into until it’s too late and he can’t drag himself away.

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Tron: Wikileaks – A Legacy of Fear

Posted in Criticism, Film, The Awesome by bradishn on December 21, 2010

WARNING: SPOILERS!

Around two-thirds of the way through Tron: Legacy, the strangest thing popped into my mind: Wikileaks.  Is it only coincidence that these two should occur within such a close window of time?  Perhaps these are condensation points for views regarding the control of information flows in today’s society.  The Wikileaks incident shows how a lack of control regarding information (arguably) threatens political legitimacy (especially as regards Julian Assange’s work previous to the recently-leaked State Department cables), yet there is a strange democratizing element to it.  By making government transparent, it might be argued that it renders it more logical, and thus more easily understood by average citizens.  Conversely, Tron shows us a world where information is coalesced and controlled by the government, but only individual subversion helps humanity.  Tron‘s depiction of government’s goal, however, is a noble one, and assigns a humility to the Grand Human Project.  There will be no perfect society, regardless of how information is structured.  That these two events crystalize nigh-simultaneously cannot be other than the crystalization of new political battlelines in the age of information politics.  Regardless of the simultaneity of events, I think we can definitely examine the world-views of information politics in very different ways using these two examples. 

What of data’s value?  Tron presents a world made up of data, some of which is critical in cases of life and death.  Data both sustains, as the meal that Flynn and his son enjoy after finally meeting.  Data also kills, a la the data disks that each individual is equipped with in the Tron world. 

 Tron shows us this vital nature of data, but also data that possesses a maleability.  Flynn, as the creator of the Tron world, possesses the ability to hack parts of the world.  He cannot completely unmake or remake it with the limited time he has, but he can work on it and adjust it to his needs.

In contrast, the Wikileaks cables are firm; once released, they are set in stone.  They cannot be altered.  They are as Hannah Arendt’s notion of politics; they cannot be unmade, and what they will do in the world is uncertain.  It is that uncertainty that makes the released cables dangerous; where data in Tron can immediately kill someone, the data released by Wikileaks threatens something unknown.  If Wikileaks is what actually happens, and Tron is what we fear will happen, then we as a society are much more scared than we probably should be.

Wikileaks data might jeapordize particular human lives, but it is not as immediately vital as data in the world of Tron.  But what if we believe that data, information always possesses the same vitality, the same life-or-death determination as in Tron?  Perhaps we as a society have mystified what exactly information is and have invested data with an agency it does not possess. 

Ultimately, we must understand these events as related.  Though the Wikileaks cables show us something about information flows and what kinds of control there are, or could be, on information, Tron: Legacy gives us a glimpse into our own psyche as a culture.  If we are truly as frightened as pop culture makes us out to be, we need to stop letting a politics of fear control us.  The Wikileaks cable release has been described as reckless, dangerous, etc.  Do they really throw into question the legitimacy of the state?  Does a lack of control of information threaten us with some great, unknown catastrophic event?  Or are we unnecessarily scared.

Acephalic Capitalism

Posted in Criticism, Film, Philosophical Anthropology by bradishn on February 15, 2010

Though I only just saw this interview with Zizek for the movie Examined Life, I was struck by the imagery of the interview, as well as its interplay with Zizek’s topics.  He truly illustrated his point through the location in which he was interviewed.

However, I was reminded of Georges Bataille, probably the most influential thinker in (and for) my thesis.  In La Part Maudite, Bataille claims that the keystone to understanding a society lies within what it does with excessive energies (such as the potlatch in certain American Indian cultures, or certain ritual festivals in Aztec society).  Capitalism differentiates itself from other societies by reincorporating excessive energies into its productive capacity.  That is, excess energies are subordinated to the creation of capital. Superfluous labor hours are spent creating more factories, which in turn enables the creation of additional superfluous labor hours.  It is a feedback loop of labor energy.

But what about consumer capitalism?

Perhaps certain avante-gard art forms have captured the image of acephalic capitalism.  Pure consumption, with no subordination to capital, has resulted in a society which unthinkingly consumes everything it produces, regardless of whether the produced item is gold or feces.

To put it crudely, what if it breaks down like this: archaic societies consumed indeterminately, but knew exactly how much they needed to shit.  Capitalism reincorporated as much shit as possible, and by eating shit also increased its capacity to create shit.  But finally, consumer capitalism weaned itself off anything but shit!  Stripped of all nutritive value, the consumptive processes in consumer capitalism can no longer be distinguished from defecation.  When we watch television we are crapping into our own mouths, and when we flush the toilet we are all writing the next Hollywood blockbuster.

In a classical analysis regarding production and consumption, Marx does an excellent job of showing the interconnectedness of production and consumption (Marx, Karl.  “The Grundrisse” in *The Marx-Engels Reader,* edited by Robert C. Tucker, 2nd edition.  W.W. Norton & Company, New York: 1978, pp. 222-46).  Once again, everything that can be done has been done; it’s merely a matter of recycling it, incorporating it, and then cycling it out of our system only to be recycled once more.