This post is in direct response to David Edelstein’s 2011 Top Films on npr.org.
I would like to start off by saying that while I do not always agree with Edelstein’s reviews or critic picks (our taste differs), I have great respect for this work and his personal perspective. However, his 2011 Top Film picks had me scratching my head and shaking it, simultaneously (harder than you may think).
I was so happy to see that Beginners made the list – clearly one of the most touching and successful films of the year. Excellently acted, beautifully conceptualized by Director Mike Mills. My review for Beginners is to come, so more on that front later. I was additionally happy to see The Descendants on the list, but War Horse? And The Adventures of Tintin? Really? War Horse is an overworked, over-sentimentalized film. A compelling story, yes but successful portrayed on film, I’m not sure I agree. War Horse is a recent shining star of the Broadway stage, a production that was magnificently executed with stunning puppetry – a show that really stuck awe in audiences and critics alike. This film, to me, seemed like an attempt to profit off of the recent stage success, which was nothing short of breath-taking. David, we know you enjoy the epic of Spielberg, but out of all the amazing films from 2011 (Tinker Taylor, The Help, Beginners, The Descendants, Moneyball, Shame, Pina, The Iron Lady, Melancholia, The Artist – just to name a few), did you have to put two mediocre Spielberg’s on the list? Don’t worry, we forgive you.
However, this forgiveness brings me to the main point of this Edelstein opus – Melancholia.
I like to think that an element of objectivity that must take part in the successful review and the ability to admit one’s own zeitgeist, because it creeps in whether we like it or not. We want to hear the opinion of the reviewer but excessively, this opinion can become toxic to the review and the individual. Edelstein described Lars von Trier’s Melancholia as a “masterly film…”…one that “blew me away – twice,” yet Edelstein could not put it on the list and proceeded to proclaim this film and the performances as “hateful…poisonous even…you get beaten up by it.” It is understandable holding an opinion of two polarities about a film; I have felt much the same way about films such as Requiem for a Dream and Magnolia. However, Edelstein’s fixation on Lars von Trier and the effect of the film was what made this review rather toxic for me.
It is clear that Edelstein is not a fan of von Trier, as a person or his personal experience and life perspective but if a director is able to translate that into a successful film, is it necessary to berate him? Even after Edelstein had completed the Melancholia segment, he continued to jab at von Trier throughout the 26 minute interview. We do not care about your personal feelings toward von Trier, just your opinion regarding the art in which he produces, no matter how personal it may be to the director himself. Yes, von Trier’s film may make one uncomfortable, offer a strong emotional response but that does not negate its brilliance. Is Melancholia a film that is hard to digest at times? Yes. Is it severe and epic? Yes. However, it remains, at its core brilliantly crafted, beautifully conceptualized, magnificently filmed and profoundly epic. This is a film that leaves the audience with a complete spiritual and emotional experience. It may be hard to watch a film like Melancholia because perhaps we do not like to feel that way that the film makes us feel – it is not apart of our societal culture, we do not enjoy this empathetic devastation. Yet, art allows us to feel, forces us to feel and shares that which the artist (director, actor, painter, etc) longs to convey, despite the nature of the message. It is my belief that while Edelstein may have in a rather small way acknowledged the film’s success (though it seemed negated by his hateful attitudes towards the director), he could not digest the experience and was uncomfortable with the emotional vulnerability that this film exposes in viewers.
Additionally, I feel that Edelstein missed the mark with this analysis of the experience of the main character, about which he states is “utterly hateful and glad that the world is going to end.” First of all, it must be said, von Trier managed to pulled out convincing performances from actors that you would not consider capable, Dunst being one of them. Kirsten Dunst has a lovable quality that would make her an odd choice for this depressive, manic character (Justine), yet she pulls it off, especially in the executin of her non-verbals. There are certainly some spiteful components to Justine but overall, I found her sad and deeply troubled. The character’s hate is something reflected inward, not out – she despises herself far more than she ever could the rest of humanity. When finally, her own (and the rest of the world’s) fate is sealed, Justine does not delight in the fact that it is the fate for all human existence, rather she discovers solace in the end to her personal suffering, her disappointing and failed life. In contrast, Dunst’s sister, Claire (played flawlessly by the talented Charlotte Gainsbourg), a woman who usually has it all together, unravels in the face of “the end.” What von Trier does is capture a view of humanity in light of eminent destruction; some are able to find peace, solace and acceptance, while others flail, panic and fall apart. What von Trier accomplishes is not an opus to his own depression, as Edelstein suggests but rather a shockingly revealing message about humanity in the face of apocalyptic destruction.
Alright, alright….it might be onserved that my ranting about Edelstein is similar to his on of von Trier but what I’m hoping is accomplished is to offer Melancholia and von Trier a more enlightening perspective and respect. I do not always disagree so admittedly with Edelstein but this review troubled me to an extent. It doesn’t mean that I won’t keep reading his words and learning, only that…well, in this instance, I’m challenging his opinion.
Art should arose us, it should capture us and stir up. Additionally, so should the words written about it. Our opinions and ideas about art, society, culture and the likes are what propel us into the future. The written word is a powerful form of expression – I hope to add to and expand the power, just as Edelstein does.
Dear David Edelstein,
We do not always see eye to eye, but thank you for your perspective. Thank you for arousing my senses and challenging my intellect and taste. Thank you for encouraging us to watch, to observe and to write.