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Critical Consensus: J. Hoberman and Amy Taubin Discuss "Melancholia" and "J. Edgar"

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire November 9, 2011 at 10:39AM

Welcome to the first installment of Critical Consensus, a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn.
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CANNES REVIEW | With "Melancholia," Lars Von Trier Delivers a Dark Apocalyptic Masterpiece
Magnolia Pictures Lars von Trier's "Melancholia."
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of Critical Consensus, a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network (currently in hibernation while we prepare its new design) discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman and Film Comment contributor Amy Taubin take on Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” which earned a B+ average from Criticwire critics, and Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar.” More details on Criticwire grades for films opening this week follow after the discussion.

ERIC KOHN: On Friday, moviegoers finally get a chance to see a film we're all rooting for, even if we can't root for its director with quite the same passion: Lars von Trier's "Melancholia." Jim, you praised the film after its first screening at Cannes for the way it made you feel "light, rejuvenated and unconscionably happy" despite having just watched a movie about both depression and the end of the world. Does that feeling linger for you? And you do you think this is von Trier's best film, or simply a maturation of his sensibilities?

J. HOBERMAN: A great (or even a very good) movie is never depressing, no matter what the subject matter. When I saw “Melancholia” at Cannes, I was enthralled from the first images on; when the movie ended, I was amazed that von Trier had carried it off; it was a tour de force. My second viewing, in a screening room the week before last, was less ecstatic, mainly because I was watching to see if the movie was as great as it first seemed. I'm not prepared to call “Melancholia” von Trier's best work, but I do think it's up there with “Idiots” and “Dogville” as one of his top three.

He's pretty uneven (or should we say "unstable"), but when he's on, he's terrific. I teach “Dogville,” so I've seen it six times or so, and the ending still works for me -- there's a sense in which the whole movie is just a prologue to the final "Young America" montage. In the same way, “Melancholia” has a stunning opening and a beautiful, lyrical last movement. I found the drama a bit sub-Strindbergian and sometimes somewhat trying on second viewing, but the framing material is more than enough -- it's a wonderful movie. Is it more mature? Von Trier, as we know, is a punk who loves to shock. His press conference meltdown struck me then (and still does now) as a response to “Melancholia”'s naked emotionalism. He was embarrassed for himself.

Amy, you wrote in ArtForum that "this is the first movie by the director I haven't loathed." And yet it's still very much in sync with von Trier's sensibilities, as you note in your review. What did he do right for you this time compared to everything he did wrong before?

Jim and I agree about the work of many directors, but von Trier is not one of them. I loathe most of his movies, “Dogville” included, primarily for their misogyny. Von Trier’s central female characters are tortured nonstop until they either achieve beatitude through suffering or take bloody revenge on their torturers. But it’s not only the misogyny that makes the movies unbearable. I loathe the empty Brechtian distancing devices, the slippery send-ups and self-satire, all the sophistry. Not for me. So I was certainly surprised that “Melancholia” got to me from first to last when I saw it in Cannes and again just as powerfully when I saw it in New York during the summer. It isn’t just the beauty of the slo-mo images in the prologue but the audacity of scoring the fatal kiss of planet Earth and the errant heavenly body, Melancholia, to the “Liebestod” from “Tristan and Isolde.”  For the first time, von Trier doesn't put romanticism in quote marks. The movie is, as Ken Jacobs would say, "a felt work." And for the first time, the female character (Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst) isn’t the other. She’s so clearly von Trier’s female double.

I also am dazzled that the movie can be read consistently as a disaster-from-outer-space flick and a psychodrama about how people with bipolar disorder can feel depression bearing down on them and are helpless to ward it off. I was talking about “Melancholia” with my ex-husband, the experimental theater director and writer Richard Foreman. He was irritated by the first act (the wacky wedding comedy) but he was as knocked out by the second act as I was. Oddly, he and von Trier have the same obsessive fear – of looking up and seeing a huge foreign body blotting out the sky and about to collide with the earth. And then there is the unexpected catharsis of the ending, that when the dreaded thing finally arrives, the release is exhilarating.

EK: I’ve also seen “Melancholia” twice: Once at Cannes, which was a particularly tense environment to watch a movie that makes you want to take a long walk and unwind afterwards. The movie’s tone is so unique that it’s virtually impossible to follow it at every turn, which is what makes it so true to life. My second viewing, at the New York Film Festival in the cavernous Alice Tully Hall, was something close to transcendent. That deafening finale does feel triumphant, a genuine celebration of the inevitability of chaos, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone pull off in such a spectacular fashion. The particulars of the situation might seem absurd, but in the abstract they’re extremely true to life.

Speaking of being true to life, let’s talk about “J. Edgar,” also opening this week. Clint Eastwood’s biopic of the iconic FBI director has been described as an elegantly restrained survey of J. Edgar Hoover’s career, which is not what experts on Hoover might expect. Amy, since I know you’re a fan of the movie, you can take the lead. Has Eastwood been “fair” to Hoover and both his accomplishments and failures? And is it reasonable to consider “J. Edgar” a political film or merely an intimate portrait?

AT: To take the second question first, “J.Edgar” is a brilliant depiction of how the personal – in this case, Hoover’s relationship with his mother and the fear she instilled of homosexuality and his consequent frustrated, closeted  relationship with Clyde Tolson is political. As for the first question, I’d say “Fair! Shmair!” As someone who was politicized by working for the Black Panther Defense Committee around 1970, I should be among the first to criticize the movie for not, among other omissions, describing explicitly what Hoover’s 15-year-long Cointelpro policy was and all the organizations and lives it destroyed. Where, one might ask, are the murders of Fred Hampton and Bobby Hutton and many others? But I don’t expect a movie to be an exhaustive political history. And I was satisfied that the film opens with Hoover railing against SCLC and that by the end of the film his smear campaign against Martin Luther King is so outrageous that even his closest associates take issue with it. Whether his insane hatred of King suggests that he might have gone further than merely defaming him is up to you.

The film should perhaps have been titled “The Fever Dreams of J. Edgar Hoover.” Working from Dustin Lance Black’s brilliant and very complicated script, Eastwood has couched the entire movie in the first person with Hoover as an unreliable, self-aggrandizing, paranoid narrator. Thus the public aspects of Hoover’s life are depicted through the device of a book on the history of the FBI which Hoover is
dictating to a series of junior officers. From time to time, Hoover’s version of history is questioned  by both allies and enemies, but the most stunning challenge comes at the end of the film when Tolson, Hoover’s loyal second in command and constant personal companion for five decades, throws his boss' lies in his face and in doing so shreds the reality, or rather, the truth of the movie we’ve been watching for two hours. To complicate this first person narrative even further, the sequences of public life segue with increasing fluidity to private memory sequences and back again – all this framed within Hoover’s subjectivity.

After I saw “J. Edgar” a few weeks ago, I wrote that it’s a late, kick-out-the-jams masterpiece.  After a second viewing, I feel the same. What Eastwood does to the conventions of realism is wild. There are bits of “Kane” and bits of “Psycho,” but a lot of the movie is reminiscent of an amateur production of Tennessee Williams where the actors are 20 years too young for the roles they are playing, but nevertheless their struggles move you to tears. It’s disconcerting to see the pound of latex on DiCaprio’s face and hear his wooden vocal delivery and wandering regional accent until those artifices become the correlatives of the cover-ups of the character. This is DiCaprio’s best performance as an adult. He gives you room to hate Hoover’s deeds and yet to pity him as the twisted paranoid he was. When I left the theater after both viewings, the world outside looked as insane as the world in the movie. More important than any enumeration of the “anti-American” deeds of the FBI that the movie might have provided is the overwhelming sense that power corrupts and the people running our lives are utterly mad.

EK: 

Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay prompted Larry Cohen, who directed 1977’s “The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover,” to circulate an essay decrying it for inaccurate assumptions about Hoover’s alleged homosexuality, calling a scene in which Hoover tries on his mother’s clothes after her death “unsubstantiated, irresponsible and exploitive.” And this is Larry Cohen we’re talking about!
Jim, I have to ask: With the exception of “Gran Torino,” you haven’t been particularly fond of Eastwood’s recent directorial efforts. Where does “J. Edgar” fall on that scale? And how does it compare to Cohen’s film, which you called “pulp of the highest order” in 1980?
 
 

JH: I liked “J. Edgar” quite a bit. It was much better than I expected, really ambitious and certainly Eastwood's strongest movie since

"It warms my heart to see an 80-plus Dirty Harry driving another stake through Hoover's." --J. Hoberman On "J. Edgar"
“Letters From Iwo Jima” and maybe even “Unforgiven,” despite a dead spot in the middle. (Surfeit of Lindbergh cheese, I'm afraid.) Anyway, I haven't seen “The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover” in many years, but I sure did love it back in the day - -my favorite Larry Cohen film (up there with “Gold Told Me To”), the sort of gutsy, funny, scurrilous tabloid expose that Sam Fuller would have been proud to have written. Having been made post-Oliver Stone for a big studio, “J. Edgar” is unavoidably "classier." I'm not sure I understand Cohen's beef. As smart (and Oscar-deserving) as Dustin Lance Black's script is, I don't feel that “J. Edgar” supplants “Files” or even tries to; this is a movie that's hyper aware of its place in movie history and even positions itself as a kind of prequel to “Files.” (I loved all the blatant movie references -- not just “Kane” and “Psycho” and Cagney and John Garfield, but “The Matrix.”)

There have been a half dozen terrific Nixons (really, the only actor who couldn't play him was Anthony Hopkins) and, as evil as Hoover was, there's room for more than one impersonation. Broderick Crawford in “Files” was born to play the part, but DiCaprio is really first rate. It's close a career performance. Casting him may have been Eastwood's greatest inspiration (his presence alone makes the point that the young Hoover was a star), aside from taking on the project itself. I have to say that it warms my heart to see an 80-plus Dirty Harry driving another stake through Hoover's.

***


“Melancholia” opens Friday in New York. It’s the pick of the week, according to grades submitted by members of Indiewire’s Critiwire network, where it received a B+ average.

Magnolia Pictures opens the film at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Angelika Film Center, and will follow with other major cities in the coming weeks. Cable subscribers can also find it on HDnet. Indiewire’s review is here.

More takes on “Melancholia” and other films opening this weekend, including “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” and Werner Herzog’s “Into the Abyss,” are available at the links below.

IW Film Calendar:
Opening This Week | Coming Soon | All Films A-Z
Criticwire: Films Opening This Week

J. Edgar (IW film page)

Melancholia (IW film page)

London Boulevard (IW film page)

Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within (IW film page)

Into the Abyss (IW film page)

Cook County (IW film page)

Dog Sweat (IW film page)

This article is related to: Reviews, Critical Consensus, J. Hoberman, Amy Taubin, Melancholia, J. Edgar, J. Edgar Hoover, Clint Eastwood, Dustin Lance Black, Lars von Trier, Kirsten Dunst, Larry Cohen, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cannes Film Festival