Dancing Through Kensington, Composing, 06/12/2014

One of the essays in Cary Wolfe’s What Is Posthumanism collection that I loved, for both philosophical and personal reasons, was his analysis of Dancer in the Dark, the Lars von Trier film from 2000. Wolfe examined the film in the context of the tradition in Western philosophy that makes a problem of our sensory and perceptual relationship with the world.

There are two pretty remarkable ideas I had when I was reading this essay. One regarded Wolfe’s intriguing reading of the philosophical implications of the film. He uses it as a springboard to examine a key epistemic problem of modernism, and how his own perspective (a post-humanist and post-modern perspective influenced by systems theory and Jacques Derrida’s philosophical encounters with the impossibility of any certainty that doesn’t subvert itself at some level) engages with modernist models of knowledge.

The terrifying ecstasy of a Björk whose world falls apart.
The central analogy through which we typically understand knowledge today is the imagery of vision. This in itself isn’t controversial, and Descartes is the usual reference point here, with his continual talk of the importance that knowledge be clear and distinct, at least in most people’s introductions to philosophy in university classrooms. But the general modernist account of knowledge also depends on knowledge’s inaccessibility. This is where Kant’s idea appears, that the world we experience are the appearances of a thing-in-itself as our encounters are conditioned by the apparatuses through which we experience the world. 

Further explanation of this model comes with Wolfe’s account of Derrida’s distinction* of voice and noise. For us to gain knowledge from sound, we make sense of it, sensible noise being regarded as voice. But sound without this conditioning of our interpretation is just noise. We wouldn’t even be capable of understanding any sound as pure noise, because the mere act of going to work on sound to make it somehow comprehensible is making some manner of voice from noise. And since we don’t experience noise without interpretation, the sense of hearing better explains this notion of the thing-in-itself. 

* You like my recursivity here?

Another aspect of Dancer in the Dark that this essay helped me see regards my own artistic work, which is why I gave this post my Composing label, even though most of its content is better suited to research time. Wolfe is also doing some genre analysis in this essay, to make sense of what weird kind of narrative and film Dancer in the Dark actually is. 

To do that, he discusses the nature of opera, particularly the aria, and compares it to the Hollywood musical. Musicals are an important element of Dancer in the Dark’s story: Björk’s character Selma’s favourite type of film is the musical, and Wolfe’s essay walks you through a conception of the Hollywood musical sequence as an attempt to impose an ethical sensibility on a world that is otherwise chaotic, terrifying, and hostile. Her musical sequences see her subjectivity itself taking control of the film: the disparate noise of realistic cinema becomes the sensible clarity of choreographed music and dance.

The shaky handheld camera of the film’s realistic sequences contrasts with the steadily shot, immaculately composed and coordinated musical sequences when Selma begins to sing. As her situation grows increasingly desperate, her musical interruptions of the realism likewise grow more difficult to succeed, as when she desperately searches for some sound to morph into music in the oppressive silence of her death row jail cell and when her last attempt to sing is cut off by the fall of her neck into a hangman’s noose.

Sam Nemeth played an excellent
Vicki, but I didn't notice until after
our first production wrapped that I
made a Lars von Trier lamb out of her.
The musical sequences function as arias: operatic attempts to impose a moral order that prevents disaster on a world that resists conformity to best action. It’s a perfect element around which to focus a Lars von Trier movie, as his narrative often revolve around taking a female protagonist to the absolute breaking point in her suffering and actually breaking her. 

This is why I sat in shock for a long time after I saw Dancer in the Dark for the first time (and in the sensory immersion of a cinema too, not the relative distance of a television or a computer screen); watching this story of Selma being tortured and essentially flayed alive until she was dead, even though she always tried to do the right thing, was paralytically horrifying to me.

I realized, on reading Wolfe’s account of the aria, that I did this in You Were My Friend, despite my own general discomfort with von Trier’s styles of narrative. Vicki and Madison’s solo scenes, whether monologues or realistic explosions, are their arias, their expressions of yearning for a world where their compromises and terrible circumstances can be avoided. But whether it’s in their own natures or the natures of their world, they can’t avoid their worsening situations. Without even knowing I was doing it, I gave them a von Trier plot, even though I hate those plots when I see them.

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