Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Dealing With Melancholia

I wasn't going to write a post about Melancholia, but after getting briefly involved in a discussion about it with Zac Little (blogger, youtube rebel & enemy of bad journalism), I suddenly realized I had a lot of things to say. Or a few things to talk about at length. Either way, this is long and this is personal. Fair warning.

For those of you not familiar, Melancholia is a film by Lars von Trier, who describes it as a psychological disaster drama, wherein a rogue planet (called Melancholia, duh) is drifting through space and is supposedly going to pass gloriously and harmlessly by the Earth, but in fact rams into us head on and destroys everyone and everything including our main characters, Kirsten Dunst, her sister Charlotte Gainsbourg, and the latter's young son. It may sound like I just spoiled the ending for you, but it turns out I did not! That information is all contained within not only trailers, but the opening eight minutes of the movie. Von Trier has said that he did not intend for any suspense related to whether the Earth will be destroyed, but rather in how the characters react to the knowledge.

Spoilers and greater details regarding the rest of the film and my complex hurricane of feelings about it after the jump.

I should start off by saying that I went into this with an intense dislike of Lars von Trier. I have a lot of reasons for this, which I'm not going to go into, because that's not the point, and ultimately it doesn't impact my ability to enjoy [THIS ONE PARTICULAR EXAMPLE OF] his work. I find that one is quite capable of deeply hating various people and begrudgingly respecting them at the same time (Quentin Tarantino, Roman Polanski, Ron Burgundy), and since those are really two different conversations, I am not going to defend or explain my feelings about Mr. von Trier right now.

Those feelings did, however, keep me from seeing Melancholia in the theaters, which is a bit of a shame, because damn if this is not a movie that should be seen as on big a screen as possible. But I watched it on Netflix, about a week ago, and I have been in recovery ever since.

Melancholia is part of a current trend toward End Of The World movies. Has anyone else noticed this? In addition to Melancholia there's been Contagiona thing with Eva Green and Ewan McGregor which looks like it is just full of emotional whiplash, and an upcoming similar thing with Steve Carell and Keira Knightley. More recently there was ALSO Another Earth, which is not about the end of the world at all, but IS about a mysterious and unexplainable cosmic event and how it psychologically impacts its main characters, which is extremely similar to Melancholia. (Though quite different in scope, focus and budget, Another Earth is also mightily worth seeing.)

This is not to say that we've never made end-of-the-world movies before, certainly we have. But I'm starting to sense a change in direction. Lately filmmakers seem to be trying to go hyperrealistic with it, or to focus less on the destruction and the action elements that are traditionally paired with such movies, and focusing more on the psychological effects, the human stories at the core. Which is good and more interesting to me! But it also annoys me for an incredibly petty reason, which I'll tell you briefly even though it is off topic: before all of this started, I had a vivid dream wherein I knew the world was coming to end through some unstoppable cosmic event, and we had known it was coming for a number of years, and this was the last day. Waking up was an intense relief that I have never quite felt before. All that dread and anguish my subconscious made me feel was very real, so I took the next natural step and started writing a story about it, to get those feelings on paper. I never finished the story, and within some months these movies started cropping up, and now what may have been a somewhat original idea looks like it's following a trend. This has been happening throughout my life and fuels me in my belief that I must get things done NOW NOW NOW or it will be too late because someone will unwittingly steal it from me, which in turn feeds into my obsessive perfectionism that makes everything very difficult for me. But more on that in another post, perhaps.

I'm not going to talk a whole lot about my interpretation of this movie or the artistry of it, because I think a lot of other people are probably talking about that better than I can, and what I want to talk about is in keeping with the general theme of this blog, which is about the depression, panic and fear that is depicted in this film, and also incited by it. As such you probably shouldn't look at this as a review. This is personal, a disjointed commentary on how this movie affected me.

The first eight minutes of the movie are cut off from the rest, and could almost be watched separately as a short art film. It depicts Dunst and Gainsbourg in a variety of surreal scenarios as the world comes to an end around them, all shot in super slow motion so it's sort of agonizing to watch, for more reasons than one. During this period you learn something about both of them: Dunst is grim-faced, unafraid, fascinated by what is happening around her. Gainsbourg is fucking terrified.

There's a particular shot which was used in the trailer and haunted me then, and haunts me now: Gainsbourg running (well, in the motion of running) across a golf course, carrying her son. It looks like she's screaming or crying (there is no sound in this sequence, just a relentless clip of Wagner music which recurs endlessly throughout). The thing that gets me about this shot is her footprints. They're pronounced, muddy -- it's hard to tell, but it looks like they're deeper than they should be. Is this supposed to be an effect of gravity caused by one planet hitting another? I don't understand enough about physics/astronomy to know, and I'm quite certain that von Trier didn't really research shit like that, because it wasn't important to the story (I get that, I do). In any case, her positioning is odd, there's almost an uncanny valley look and feel to this whole sequence, how abominably slowly everyone is moving, and let me tell you: it fucking terrifies me. Once you watch that sequence I sort of defy you not to watch the rest of the film, but I also understand if your reaction is "FUCK no" at that point. I sort of doubt you'll follow through -- well, unless the "fuck no" is a response to the high-artistry of it, and that kind of stuff just turns you off. I'm talking about the deep stomach-turning dread of this scenario, world ending, nowhere to run but running anyway. I feel like the slow motion is almost meant to give us a sense of helplessness -- they're not going anywhere, there's no time to do anything, this is happening. And maybe it's also meant to show us some calm (those are definitely the conflicting responses of Gainsbourg and Dunst, respectively). In any case, it's beautiful and grotesque, and at the end of it this giant planet hits our little one head-on and that's the END OF THAT. Then the movie starts.

That sequence is supposed to be viewed like the overture to an opera (of course the Wagner music is FROM the overture to Tristan and Isolde): setting up visual motifs and sort of introducing the characters and telling us the ending, so we know what's coming and we know the significance (or lack thereof) of all actions that follow. Then the movie starts.

The film is divided into two parts, each focusing on the two sisters: Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Gainsbourg). The first half is mostly about Justine's unbearably awkward wedding going horribly, quietly awry -- she becomes increasingly depressed and withdrawn, the ceremony goes hours and hours over schedule, tensions are high, etc, finally leading to Justine having sex with some stranger and her husband the vampire from True Blood calling it off just as soon as it's over. WELP. There's some stray focus on the night sky throughout this sequence, lots of fancy telescopes in the background of shots, lots of Dunst gazing up at the stars, and it's sort of maddening because the viewer knows what's coming and is forced to wait it out, instead watching this dreadful occasion fall apart. There's a lot to be said about this, but I'll leave that to someone else. I want to talk about the second half.

In the second half, Claire and her husband Kiefer Sutherland (I know, right) are receiving Justine at their estate, where the wedding took place -- so time has passed, but we haven't moved. Justine is now in a state of severe depression. The kind where you can't get into a taxi cab that's waiting for you because you're too scared to go anywhere. Where you don't get out of bed for literal days. Where you won't even take a bath, even that is too hard, even when your sister has undressed you and is trying to help you into it.

I have never had those three experiences, but holy fuck, I have been there. I know what that is. I know what it is to revert to this sort of childish state of being because you're too afraid, too ill-equipped to face your life. I know that fetal position, that limpness, that scream, that way of sort of drifting through the day. I expect that everyone who knows these things suffers the same pangs of shame and embarrassment at seeing this accurate depiction of emotional turmoil, and I know that Lars von Trier was drawing from personal experience. If you have ever been seriously depressed to the point of incapacity this is going to hit you. Even if you haven't been THAT seriously depressed, it'll hit. If you're already depressed on the day that you decide to watch this movie (as I was), it is going to drag you down further. Not least because of where it's headed.

Justine starts to recover bit by bit, and the focus shifts to Claire. Her husband (Jack? Joe? John? I don't remember, I just know I hated him) is an amateur astronomer and he is very excited about this exciting phenomenon of the planet Melancholia drifting by. Claire, a sane human, is not really excited and more obsessively googling to see if they're going to be all right. Which of course annoys unsympathetic control-freak husband Sutherland to no end. EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE, Claire. YOU JUST LISTEN TO ME, EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE.

Obviously, we know he's wrong. Everything is not fine.

I hate him, and I think you're supposed to hate him, for a few reasons. This everything-will-be-fine attitude extends to his having no patience for Justine's depression, which, fuck you, man, seriously, fuck you. He shows himself again and again to be nothing but a greedy rich husband who likes being in control of his wife, her sister, everything around him. And NATURALLY, because there is no other ending for a guy like that, when he learns he is wrong after all, and that his doom is coming and there is nothing he, even he, this control freak, can do -- he kills himself. He kills himself with pills CLAIRE BOUGHT, possibly to kill herself with. He doesn't say anything to her. He doesn't tell her the truth about what's happening. He just vanishes, leaving her to discover the truth on her own, and to find his fucking body in the stables. GOOD JOB, ASSHOLE. I mean, it's a perfect ending to his arc, but oh my god do I hate him. I hate him for not being there for Claire. Because oh my god, if Justine was me before, it's nothing compared to how much Claire is me. I can't deal with how much Claire is me. Literally, I'm not saying that like they say "I can't deal" on the internet... I actually, earnestly can't really deal with it. It upsets me. It upsets me how true her reaction to oncoming inescapable destruction feels. I am sure it's a reaction many people could expect of themselves in such an event, but that doesn't matter, if you've ever felt down on yourself you know it doesn't matter that others feel the same, are going through the same hardships. Not really. The viewing experience is personal, intentionally so. I watched it and didn't see Claire as a representation of a greater portion of humanity: I saw her as me. I am a coward. I would run. There is nowhere to run but I'd run. I'd want to attempt to do something meaningful or comforting with my last hours (as she tries to suggest, an idea brutally shot down by the now totally zen Justine), even if it's stupid and won't help. I'd cry and scream and refuse to accept it down to the last minute. Maybe that isn't true, maybe I'd react differently. But I don't think so.

I don't really like that about me.

On Wikipedia it says Lars von Trier came up with this idea after talking to a therapist about his depression -- evidently she told him that depressed people react calmly to great disaster because they already expect the worst. Makes sense, I guess. Justine reacts with total calm, even happy to know that the world is ending, that humanity is about to be snuffed out, because fuck humanity. Which is a pretty disturbing sentiment. Also disturbing is her seemingly clairvoyant assertion that they are alone in the universe and this marks the end of life AS WE KNOW IT. We're sort of given to believe that this is in fact true, that Justine has some sort of power that allows her to know things. I think Lars von Trier probably wants us to believe her. I don't entirely know why this was so important to him, that this marked not just the ending of humanity but of all life. Actually I guess I do know: because of the finality. The emptiness of the black screen that comes when the planet is finally destroyed. That is it. There is no hope. There is no reassurance. That's just it.

Afterward I called this movie the ultimate nihilist experience. It is almost masturbatory in its nihilism. And it made me angry that I had watched it. It made me angry that Lars von Trier had evoked all these fears and feelings in me, angry even while I recognized that he had done his job as the filmmaker, and that any movie that affects you that way is worth your attention. But still it made me angry. That's about me, not so much about the movie. About me desperately afraid that I'm going to die young, or that the world will end somehow, or that one day things will get so bad that I'll be too afraid to get out of bed. This movie showed me all the worst things about myself. Justine's drift into darkness that keeps her from enjoying her own wedding. Kiefer Sutherland wanting to be in control of his life to the degree that when he sees the inevitable hurtling toward him he pussies out and takes pills. I see both of those in me (that's why I hate him so much). Mostly there's Claire, though. Wanting it to be a bad dream, like the bad dream I did have, wherein I behaved more or less like I expected. I don't want to be that person, I don't want to be Claire. But I am. I'm Claire.

I guess that's sort of all I have to say, and it's abrupt, but that's kind of fitting in a post about this movie, isn't it?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Meditations in a Rational Moment

That last post was a doozy, and while I think I needed to get that it off my chest, I didn't like having it sit up there at the top. Time to cheer up. Time to move on.

First things first: I know a lot of people found that last post by searching the depression tag on Tumblr, which, if you've ever done that (TRIGGER WARNING), you'll know is about the most devastating thing you can do. If you've been led to this post in the same way, then I hope you read this too: I know that when things seem hopeless, it's hard for someone to make you magically feel better - there's no switch to get flipped, there's no way to just force yourself back into a happy mood. Know that these things take time, life will not always seem awful, and there's no sense in punishing yourself for what you perceive as your shortcomings. Just saying that doesn't make much of a difference, I know; but knowing it intellectually, just telling yourself that you don't deserve the sadness or the pain, even if you don't believe it at first, is an important first step. Take note of your emotional state, and don't do things to yourself or make big decisions when you're not doing well or thinking rationally. Everything seems so much worse and more apocalyptically bad when you're upset. Take it from me, in a rational moment: a good period will always turn into a bad one, and a bad period will always turn back into a good one. You gotta learn to ride the wave of your emotions, to use a slightly ridiculous but apt metaphor. And talk to people. Find people who will listen to you. Call a hotline if you don't know anyone who will listen. Get it out of you. Don't feed it into the unsatisfying echo chamber of your Tumblr. Channel it into something productive (wash the dishes, clean, go for a walk) or creative (write stories, draw pictures, make music). Or put it somewhere where you'll hear something back.

As for me, my life is moving along at a better pace already. Sometimes it takes that incredible despair to get you up out of the pits, moving again, whether to spite yourself for feeling so low, or just because ENOUGH already. That's been my experience, anyway.

So the prospect of living life is a lot closer, and that's still moderately terrifying, but as pieces fall into place I feel more or less okay about it. It's easier to move when you already have momentum, it's starting to move that is terrible. And the waiting. The long, awful period of waiting and wondering what's going to happen in my life. Maybe that feeling never fully goes away. Maybe it's something you just have to live with. Sometimes you have to live with your sadness. And that's okay.

Today's Rilke reading is wonderfully apt. From Letters to a Young Poet, which is required reading for every aspiring writer/artist:

It seems to me that all our sadnesses are moments of tension that we
feel as paralysis because we can no longer experience our banished
feelings. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has
entered us, because we feel momentarily abandoned by what we've
believed and grown accustomed to; because we can't keep standing
as the ground shifts under our feet. That is why the sadness passes
over like a wave. The new presence inside us, that which has come to
us, has entered our heart, has found its way to its innermost chamber,
and is no longer even there—it is already in our blood. And we don't
know what it was. We could easily be persuaded that nothing
happened, and yet something has changed inside us, as a house changes
when a guest comes into it. We cannot say who has entered, we may
never know, but there are many indications that the future enters us
in just this way, to transform itself within us long before it happens.
That is why it is so important to be alone and attentive when you are
sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when
our future steps into us is so much closer to life than any loud and
accidental point of time which occurs, as it were, from the outside.

Saturday, April 7, 2012


When you were a kid you were going to be somebody. A household name, a world-changer, a paradigm shifter. Big deal. Kids think this of themselves. Kids of your demographic are raised to believe they have it all and can be anything they want. Everyone has heard the same tired arguments that children should not be raised to believe they are special, should not be sheltered to the point of grand disillusion when they get out there in the horrible world, but that doesn't really matter to you right now. Those arguments are systemic and do not reflect your individual situation. Your parents did not spoil you, did their best to prepare you, which is all any parents can ever do. They encouraged you to get a job, and when that did not work, when reason failed, they begged you or fought with you. No small successes made much of a difference in the long run, and that is okay. You know that is okay and you've come to terms with it. You were a kid; you had no idea it would be this rough.

When you were in college you were going to be somebody. You were on your damn way. Making movies, writing stories, surrounded by the like-minded, the strong-willed, the ambitious and the clever. It was never a paradise but you loved it, even on sad days you berated yourself for wasting your incredible good fortune on being sad, and in moments of great happiness you took care to look at your surroundings, to reflect on yourself, to remind yourself that very soon this will all be gone, and you made sure to remember. You have these moments logged away, collecting dust, already hazy, so little time later.

You were a force to be reckoned with there, a small reputation gathered among your peers and certain of your professors for being wildly engaged and perhaps psychotically productive (while others noted that your work for their classes was slipping gradually to the wayside; but those classes did not matter, they were filled time, necessary credits, bare essentials of academic life, small concerns because you were making things). When it came time to leave, you were ready for it to be over (they always are) and you had plans - nothing concrete, mind - to continue on this path to greatness and glory, no matter what it took, no matter where you were. Your mentor advised you not to go back home, to stay here, in the city, where everything was happening, but you could not do this, for personal reasons and practical ones. This too is okay. You did nothing wrong. You had no idea it would be this rough.

For three months and then for one year you lived with friends and then with family, happy and unhappy, busy and not. After five months you got a job. After two months they fired you: you did not work hard enough, did not excel quickly enough. They fired you right before Christmas, just after you finished your shopping, after you decided to spend more than usual on your family because hell, they deserve it, and look at you, actually making money! Mistakes were made; but you couldn't have known they'd fire you. Fuck them, anyway. It was a restaurant. You do not belong in restaurants, with your weak limbs and your quickly-tiring feet and your soft voice and your awkward, easily overwhelmed nature. It does not matter. You will find something else. Hell, you will start that novel you always wanted to start. You can put it online to share with anyone who will read it, to keep things moving, to get into a rhythm. You're going places. Some days you have to struggle to persist, and sometimes you let it all slide away. At the back of your mind you know you've got to take the rest of your life off hold; but you'll be fine. Someday you'll figure it out; someday you'll know. Something is bound to turn up.

And then gradually you realize that you don't want the same things you did a year ago; you don't know where you want to live or what you want to be doing, and, aghast, you mourn for the loss of that kid, that student, that wild thing who could be anything she wanted. What has happened to you? You've become thick and lazy and bent out of shape. When those rare occasions do come for you to make things again, you barely remember how; it is something like riding a bike, but just as you always were with bikes, you are clumsy, you forget how to operate your camera, must relearn all your tricks. You realize, with a slow onset of deep internal fear, that you are getting worse, bit by bit, that if this continues you may lose yourself entirely. Your friends barely think of you anymore, and why should they? They are far away, living lives no easier than yours, but perhaps more active, more surrounded by others, even if they do not realize it and do not take advantage of that fact. Occasionally you visit them, but it grows harder every time, and more and more you find reasons to back out of it: lack of money, lack of incentive, lack of floors to sleep on. This is becoming a habit for you, isn't it? This "who are you kidding" mentality. You're not qualified for that job. You don't have the money for that visit. You aren't good enough to write that story.

And it's almost two years now, almost two whole years, and who are you? What happened to that kid, that student, that wild thing? What have you got to show for yourself? A thousand unfinished projects and that novel, still going strong, it has its ups and downs and no one is paying you and hardly anyone is reading it, but that doesn't matter because you're doing something, right? At least you're doing something. Your first desperate plans to get the hell out have folded, and now you have more, another destination, another strategy. It's better this time; you're making the right decisions, forcing yourself to apply to more jobs, forcing yourself to walk the dog on occasion, forcing yourself to do things, see people, ask for help when you need it. It's okay to eat: your parents can afford to buy food for you, they don't mind doing it, they don't want you to starve. It's okay to have dark days, and days where you do nothing but lie on the couch watching TV on your computer, all those shows you always meant to watch. Look at you, rereading the books you loved when you were a kid, maybe to remember those times a little better - you've never been a good reader, and look at you reading! But you realize as you sit on this couch at 3pm in your pajamas, sweating under this blanket and turning the pages of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wind in the Door, still so good as it was in 1995, that reading is just like watching TV, just another time waster, another excuse to lie around and wait for the future to happen. And you lay the book aside and you apply for a couple of jobs on a couple of sites, and one of them sends you some helpful data about your competing applicants: shows you their average years of experience, their average distance from this job that you have applied for in a different state. And you realize as you sit on this couch at 4pm in your pajamas, stomach hungry for lunch, dog needing a walk, still sweating under this blanket, that you aren't that girl anymore, that person you described in the first few paragraphs.

What you are is weak and useless, you with your worthless degree, your pathetic lack of real world experience, your nonexistent bank account (closed long ago for lack of purpose), your homelessness, joblessness, your lonely life in your parents houses with so few remaining friends and your girlfriend far away. You put on sad music (Ben Folds' Still Fighting It, Guster's Come Downstairs And Say Hello) and examine your tendency toward melodramatic bouts of ennui, your childish regression each time the world seems too hard, too scary to be handled. Little baby, crying and wanting someone to make it better, too afraid to deal with it yourself. Whining about how hard your life is, poor you, you lucky fucker, pretty, healthy middle-class white girl with supportive parents and loving girlfriend. The audacity, you sneer, how dare you describe your life as "rough," how dare you wax poetic on something so abysmally mediocre, when there are children starving and dying all over the world? Just because you can't get off your ass and find a job? Pull yourself together, you pathetic little shit. But why would anyone hire you? Why would they want you, so lazy and dreamy and emotionally unstable? Even if you made it somewhere, would you last? Would they reject you again, as others have, for your "lack of work ethic," your "lack of initiative", and would you believe them, as you did the others? Would they be cruel, implying that you are not good enough for them, as others have, others that you still blame for making you feel this way, as petty as that is? Would you let them break you - or worse, enfold you? Would you forget yourself entirely, lose every bit of that kid who dreamed about winning Oscars instead of doing her homework like she was supposed to, and become some feckless machine drifting out of the prime of her life with a million ideas and nothing finished?

It's 4:57pm. You wipe your face dry again and perfunctorily tap out some nonsense with numbing fingers. When it's over you'll put some clothes on and take the dog out and treat yourself to a bath and have a healthy late lunch of salad and hummus (this will justify you in ordering Chinese food later on your parents' dime). You look at what you've written, the horrible things you say to yourself, and wonder if you should post it, if people will think you're crazy, if people will try to make you feel better by telling you "but you're so talented!" You'll post it because this is one thing that doesn't scare you: this is who you are, this is what you deal with every day. It's horrible and it's painful, and you want to learn how to stop. You'll learn. Putting it down always helps, releases it into the ether, out of your system. Cleansed for the time being, you think you're ready to face the evening with composure. Things aren't so terrible. You'll be okay. You'll be okay.