The knee-jerk impulse, which I'll make an effort to resist for at least a few paragraphs, is to salute the late John Cassavetes for his many gutsy, painful explorations of human behavior and denigrate Lars Von Trier for a cinema of cruelty bereft of insight or compassion. Such a simplistic assessment of two unique film artists is clearly nothing more than personal preference masquerading as expert insight. And we can't have that, can we?
This mini-chest beating is occasioned by the Bay Area release of the Danish director's latest depiction of joyless existence and existential malaise, Melancholia, in conjunction with the brief revival of Cassavetes' penultimate adult drama Love Streams (1984). The seemingly disparate directors are more similar than one might guess at first blush, starting with an interest in plot and incident only so far as the twists of the story increase the pressure on, and expose the fissures between, the characters.
Von Trier and Cassavetes find the human animal pretty fascinating under all circumstances, but are drawn particularly to the extreme moments when the animal is cornered. In Melancholia, Von Trier places depressed newlywed Kirsten Dunst, her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland) in an especially tight spot, setting the titular planet on a potential collision course with Earth. Stranded together on a palatial estate, their possibly final hours are a slo-motion melange of rehashed baggage, unspoken regrets and the most profound aloneness-slash-loneliness.
The failure of civilization grieves Von Trier, but its end doesn't particularly bother him. The dark night of the soul, however -- the void within each of us -- rattles him to his Scandinavian core. Yet he adopts a coolly measured, distant aesthetic as the apocalypse approaches in Melancholia's second half. You may find his approach beautifully, unbearably devastating; it struck me as unnecessarily protracted and limpid. (Your reaction to Terence Malick's The Tree of Life may be a useful reference point, as both films illustrate the slender line between banality and profundity. And both begin with lovely, lyrical and wordlessly mysterious sequences that respectively suggest the birth of our world and its end.)
Von Trier consciously set out to make a film about Big Ideas, and his philosophical ambition casts a shadow upon the wedding reception that takes up the needlessly long first half. I'm loath to toss around the words "pretentious" and "self-indulgent," for I'm well aware that every filmmaker, and every artist, necessarily has pretensions. (The greatest, of course, is that their work is worth our time.) It's only when the film doesn't work, or bores or angers us, that we haul out the pejoratives.
In contrast, that sainted seeker of naked truth and emotional honesty on camera, John Cassavetes, evinced no grand pretensions. I jest, of course. His fidelity to reality was an illusion fostered by an air of improvisation, handheld camerawork and a parade of regular-looking people behaving badly. His technique, however, makes for a viewing experience as harrowing as that of a documentary shot in an asylum. To operate at that level entails a level of commitment and sacrifice that most fiction features don't begin to approach.
It's quite possible that I'm so enthralled by Love Streams, and the rest of Cassavetes' films, because I'm aware of the demands he made of himself and his fellow actors. I'm merely being candid; it would be foolish, obviously, to value the process more than the result. What always comes through so palpably to me, though, is a sense of integrity. After a week or two of contemporary Hollywood output, a Cassavetes movie is akin to a facial, a colonic and a root canal, rolled into one.
That doesn't qualify as a recommendation in your book? Well, check out Love Streams anyway, with its straight-ahead study of a cocksure, hard-living writer (Cassavetes) reuniting with his troubled sister (Gena Rowlands) after her marriage (to Seymour Cassel) crumbles.
"Everyone in the world is very screwed up," says Cassavetes' chain-smoking lothario, intending it as a pick-up line but voicing a sentiment that Lars Von Trier would second -- perhaps with the same twinkle in his eye as he gauged the listener's response. The search for love, or at least sex, or at the very least recognition in the face of another, with death somewhere in the always-approaching distance, is powerful enough to have fuelled the careers of two pretty gifted directors.
Love Streams screens November 17 at 7:30pm and November 20, 2011 at 2pm at Yerba Buena Center For the Arts Screening Room in San Francisco. For more information visit ybca.org. Melancholia opens November 11, 20001 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco, the Albany Twin in Albany, and the Cinema Guild in Palo Alto.