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Reviewed by:
  • Lars von Trier
  • Ben Bigelow
Linda Badley . Lars von Trier. Contemporary Film Directors. Urbana: U Illinois P, 2010.

In the introductory section to her book, Linda Badley makes the sobering observation that Lars von Trier is "an auteurist critic's dream subject and worst nightmare," since his "image is so overtly self-constructed and publicly staged, and ... contradicting previous statements is integral to his game" (6). This is an important acknowledgment to make at the outset, since von Trier himself is always quick to situate his films in the context of his own personal phobias and psychiatric traumas and is prone to link his cinematic technique to explanatory biographical anecdotes (thus the laxness of his upbringing becomes an explanation for his penchant for rule-making and self-punishment, for example). It is altogether too easy for the critic [End Page 108] approaching von Trier's films to take his statements—many of which have been solemnized as published manifestoes accompanying the release of his films—as authoritative written texts that elucidate and explain the filmic texts. But the eagerness with which von Trier courts public controversy should give pause to any critic wanting to take von Trier's statements at face value. Whether originating in a press conference (such as his most recent Cannes fiasco, in which he jokingly professed sympathy for Hitler), in a one-on-one interview, or in a published manifesto, von Trier's statements about his life and work should be understood as highly performative and often ironic gestures intended to develop a public persona as Lars von Trier, the international filmmaker and provocateur.

Unfortunately, at many points in her study, Badley fails to heed her own sensible warning and instead betrays a willingness to take von Trier's statements rather uncritically at face value. A case in point comes near the end of the book in her discussion of Direktøren for det hele (2006; The Boss of it All), a relatively lighthearted comedy that would appear to be a departure from the rest of his oeuvre. As was the case with several of his previous films, the marketing apparatus that accompanied Direktøren emphasized not only the thematic content of the film, but foregrounded von Trier's latest self-imposed technical "obstruction." Relinquishing the hand-held camera that had been his "crutch" since Riget (1994; The Kingdom), von Trier "outsourced" the cinematography to a computer-controlled system he called Automavision, a process that entailed choosing an appropriate fixed camera position for each shot and then using a computer program to generate random numbers that dictate how the camera will tilt, pan, or zoom. In a typically Trierean move, the shift from the handheld camera to a computer-controlled camera is described as a therapeutic one: an effort to overcome his own desire for complete creative control by "handing over the reins" to a machine. To listen to von Trier's explanation is to believe that the director's own aesthetic vision gives way to the random numbers generated by a computer program and that the director's authorial control of the image has truly been relinquished. Von Trier goes so far in his anti-auteurist rhetoric as to officially credit Automavision as the Director of Photography at the end of the film. The question is, does this official credit indicate a real sense of relinquishing aesthetic control, or does it underscore the irony with which von Trier promotes his latest anti-auteurist game?

Anyone familiar with von Trier's career will recognize echoes of earlier efforts that professed to curb the auteurist desire for creative control (the Dogme "Vow of Chastity" chief among them), and the use of Automavision should thus be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. Although the framing of individual shots in the film does seem to have a certain [End Page 109] arbitrary quality to it, von Trier admits on a dvd featurette that many of the shots generated by Automavision were deemed completely "unusable" and scrapped. What precisely the criteria for determining "usability" are von Trier does not specify, but by asserting that some shots are unsuitable to be included in the film, von Trier reasserts...


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