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This month’s blindspot selection begins with an abstract prologue. Before any of the action truly begins, we listen to lilting notes and watch as painterly splotches of colour bleed into one-another.

It’s a beautiful way to inspire us to retreat in upon ourselves to zone-out and let our minds wander to somewhere beautiful. It’s an elegant way of putting us in the mindset of the lead character we are about to meet, and a cinematic gift of beauty and joy.

What makes this moment stand out all the more is that it will be one of the few times we experience beauty or joy for over two hours.

I’m relatively inexperienced with the work of director Lars Von Trier (which is to say that this is only my fourth watch from his filmography), but it strikes me as though if one were looking for an entry point into the man’s canon, this might be the place.

The film is about Selma (played by Björk), a blue-collar single mum who is quickly going blind. While her job becomes increasingly difficult, and her simple joys become increasingly scarce, she manages to find herself in the centre of some unfortunate circumstances. It’s here that she must stand and be judged…and even though she is a kind soul (generally speaking), the judgement on her will not be kind.

Oh, and did I mention it’s a musical?

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As a fan of musicals, I’ve long understood that the genre is actually off-putting to some since it so drastically splinters from reality (and so often at that). As it happens, Selma’s suitor Jeff (played by Peter Stormare) even drops a self-aware comment about this, saying how he doesn’t understand the way people just start to sing and dance in musicals. He’s not the first to ask such a question, but it will never fail to confound me how singing and dancing strains credibility so. Nowadays, we live in a world where so much of the population has earbuds in and is turning something as simple as a walk to the coffee shop as an action that must be soundtracked. How is listening to the music an understandable action, but singing the music some grand mystery?

What’s wonderful though is the way the film explains this: all of the musical moments happen strictly in Selma’s head. The reality of this world does not include people swaying rhythmically on moving trains, nor does it involve people pirouetting on factory floors. However, the reality of this movie does include a protagonist who more and more is living inside of her own head. In there, when things get too dull or too tough, a musical number breaks out.

The same way we all talk to ourselves…the same way we all daydream…Selma becomes the centre of imaginary musical numbers. A full two years before CHICAGO would go on to become one of the best received musicals of the modern era using exactly the same trick, DANCER IN THE DARK proposed this very elegant solution.

Of course, the wonderful twist on Jeff’s thought I mentioned earlier, is that he too will eventually sing and dance…if only in Selma’s head.
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Of course, what really might make this film stand apart – and what certainly makes it rank as a great of the modern era is the way it’s unafraid to go to dark places. It draws a red circle around the Busby Berkley musicals of Hollywood’s golden age by having its characters attend screenings of them, as if to say “See, this is what we’re not!”. It then proceeds to test our heroine at every turn, and seldom allow her to pass a test. We love her so dearly, because she looks like Björk and sounds like Björk, but her boisterous attitude wouldn’t be enough to help her get by in the real world, and it’s not enough in this world either.

She is punished; early, unfairly, and severely. She just wants to live a simple life, sing her songs, and be a good mom. It’s such a simple desire that it almost doesn’t seem worthy of a musical. Routines like the ones that dot this film are written for adventurers, lovers, and dreamers. Hearing them means that everything is beautiful, and everything will be okay…but not in this film.

No, this film feels like it wanted to take an Amelie-esque character (a year before we’d know who Amelie was) and tell her “No, darling- it’s not enough that you’re happy”.

In that way the film is truly unique within the genre: It turns off all those coloured lights the second the song is over and makes the actor move through the rest of the bleak story under the cold harsh work lamps.

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To say that this film knocked me on my ass would be putting it mildly. It’s a film I’m happy I watched at home when I could not only give myself an intermission, but soak up the bleak trace of daylight coming from the grey November sky outside my window.

If I’d been forced to endure all two-twenty of this in a pitch black theatre with no escape as many of you did, I might not have made it. The film is amazing, beautiful, and brutal…

…but…

Not to re-open a discussion of semantics, but there was some talk earlier this week of just how long something needs to linger sight-unseen to be considered a “blind spot”. While I will always yield to the argument that the most important thing is to deliberately seek new material, I feel as though there’s something to be considered with the older selections that isn’t as present in the newer ones and that’s a deeper legacy. Don’t get me wrong, at the end of the day a great film is a great film, but there’s something special about seeing where certain thoughts, tricks, and techniques began. That sense of legacy is missing in newer selections…unless the film is a cultural touchstone like THE MATRIX or AVATAR (which this movie is not).

DANCER IN THE DARK is the newest film I’ve covered in almost three full years of running laps on this track. It challenged my notion of what a musical is/can be, and made me even more curious about the enigma that is Lars Von Trier. However, in many ways, I believe that it’s legacy is still being written…and that my trip back in time was premature. It feels like it could have been released today, which makes me think of it less as a blindspot and more as a movie that I just hadn’t watched yet.

Still – I’m happy as hell that I was finally able to scratch it off the list…and think I’ll have to re-examine its legacy in a few more years when its legacy is cemented.

 

Blind Spots

I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.

Here’s the round-up for November so far…

Beatrice watched THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION

Josh watched UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES

Fisti watched STRAY DOG

Ruth watched REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE

Shane watched BUTTERFIELD 8

John Hitchcock watched NOTES ON A SCANDAL

Jay Cluitt watched 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

Dan Heaton watched WAGES OF FEAR

Brittani Burnham watched MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO

Will Kouf watched ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES

Sean Kelly watched DR.STRANGELOVE

Steve Flores watched THE GENERAL