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Tag Archives: Lars Von Trier

Now Playing: Nymphomaniac Volumes One and Two

Nymphomaniac: Vol. One and Two
dir: Lars Von Trier, Denmark/Germany, 2013
Rating: 9.0

nymphomaniac

The bottom line: as my man Nick Fraccaro says, it’s “Kill Bill directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.” Whatever impression the sound of such an incongruous mash-up makes on you will probably be a good indicator of how you feel about this batshit-crazy movie.

Now playing at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema in Chicago as exclusive engagements — as well as via video on demand — are both parts of Lars Von Trier’s controversial four-hour epic Nymphomaniac. While the film generated positive critical notices in Von Trier’s native Denmark last year (where both volumes opened on Christmas Day), as well as at the Berlin International Film Festival in February (the site of the official world premiere of the full five-and-a-half-hour version), the response by both American critics and audiences alike has been strangely muted; the trade papers here have even referred to it as a “flop.” (Don’t blame me. I took a large class of college students on two separate field trips to see both parts.) Whether this has anything to do with prudish Americans being uneasy about the marriage of explicit sex and commercial narrative movies, as some commentators have speculated — at least as a theatrical experience; I have a hunch that the VOD returns on this are probably quite robust — the way the film has been curiously ignored in the U.S. is unfortunate: Nymphomaniac is, for my money, Von Trier’s best work since at least Dancer in the Dark in 2000. Among its many virtues, intellectual as well as visceral, Nymphomaniac is frequently hilarious. Well, at least the first volume is.

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The premise: in an unnamed European country (let’s call it International Co-productionland), a middle-aged sad-sack named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard) finds a bruised and battered middle-aged woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying unconscious in an alley and brings her to his home to recuperate. After Seligman has provided her with a bed and served her a cup of tea, Joe recounts to him her sad and sordid life story, which Von Trier presents as a series of flashback vignettes revolving around her sex addiction (Volume One is broken into five “chapters” and Volume Two is broken into three). While Joe feels that each of these episodes illustrates that she is a “bad person,” Seligman, a seemingly asexual bibliophile, frequently rejects her claims by using his vast storehouse of knowledge to pose counterarguments. These framing sequences allow Von Trier to, among other things, draw correlations between sex and fly fishing and explore concepts relating to everything from math to botany to the polyphonic music of Johann Sebastian Bach to the delirium tremens experienced by Edgar Allan Poe in his final days. Amusingly, Nymphomaniac is not so much about sex then as it is about finding patterns in the universe, the nature of storytelling, and the need the human mind has to impose order and meaning. Seligman’s disbelief at a coincidence that occurs in Joe’s story towards the end of the first volume is very clever — and self-reflexive — in this respect: she actually asks him if her story would be better or worse without such a narrative contrivance.

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Of course, this being a Lars Von Trier film, the second volume ends up meting out much punishment upon the already long-suffering heroine. (Neither those who claim Von Trier’s obsessive focus on female martyrdom marks him as a misogynist nor those who claim the same quality makes him a feminist are likely to change their mind about what he’s up to here.) But Volume Two also initially feels like an anti-climax (pun intended), largely because the surprising humor of the first part is gone: there is nothing in Volume Two, for instance, to compare with Uma Thurman’s hilariously melodramatic monologue as a housewife dealing with an unfaithful husband. (Was Thurman channeling some leftover/repressed rage from when former husband Ethan Hawke strayed? It’s certainly the best work she’s ever done.) Also, it must be said that it feels as though something in the film dies when the effervescent Stacy Martin, a British actress who plays young Joe in Volume One‘s flashback sequences, abruptly departs near the beginning of Volume Two, only to be replaced by the more dour persona of La Gainsbourg. And yet, in the days following my viewing of Volume Two, my appreciation for the achievement as a whole and its provocations has only increased. Have you ever heard a dirty joke with a very long set-up that leads to a very short, sick punchline? Nymphomaniac is a lot like that — only it gets funnier the more you think about it. The critic Keith Uhlich has rightly compared the denouement to that of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

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In spite of all of Nymphomaniac’s excesses, and its deliberately sprawling and messy nature (Von Trier here is going Tolstoy-wide instead of his usual Dostoevsky-deep), neither volume ever feels overly long. This is perhaps because the film’s form, not just its nonlinear structure but its cornucopia of different visual styles, seems to take its cues from the unbridled and overindulgent personality of its protagonist. But what finally makes Nymphomaniac feel substantial, and not just an empty provocation like, say, Manderlay, is its obviously highly personal nature. While watching Volume One, I felt as if Von Trier had split his personality between Seligman and Joe and was having a long and brutally honest dialogue with himself about his sometimes-dubious status as Europe’s reigning provocateur-auteur. After watching Volume Two, however, I revised this opinion: the most fruitful way to approach Nymphomaniac, I think, is to view Joe as the stand-in for Von Trier and Seligman as a stand-in for Von Trier’s critics. (The tip-off, for me, came in the dialogue exchange about Joe’s use of the word “negro,” which Seligman cautions her is “politically incorrect.”) When viewed in this light, Volume Two‘s inevitably “shocking” conclusion resonates as more than a cynical twist: Seligman reveals himself to be a faux-intellectual wolf-in-sheep’s clothing — like the critic who feigns an air of fairness and objectivity but only to better position himself to fuck you in the end. I’m still chuckling just thinking about it.

You can check out the red-band trailer for Nymphomaniac via YouTube below. But first, just because I think it’s hilarious, I invite you to admire this poster of Udo Kier’s awesome “O face”:

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Filmmaker Interview: Fridrik Thor Fridriksson

Writer/director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson is almost single-handedly responsible for Iceland’s impressive movie boom of the 1990s and early 2000s. His breakthrough feature Children of Nature, about an elderly couple who flee from a Reykjavik nursing home to take a road trip to rural southern Iceland, was the only locally produced film of 1991 but went on to become the first Icelandic movie ever nominated for an Oscar. (For my money, Children of Nature ranks alongside of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story as the cinema’s most powerful statement about the predicament of the elderly.) Fridriksson sunk the profits he received from the film’s various international distribution deals into buying more production equipment and established the Icelandic Film Corporation, which produced dozens of distinctive films in the following years.

The following interview, in which we discussed the prolific filmmaker’s formidable career as well as several tantalizing projects he is currently working on, occurred in a Reykjavik coffee shop last August. Anyone familiar with Fridriksson’s work should recognize his trademark deadpan sense of humor: more than any other director I’ve met, he seems like a character out of one of his own movies (when my wife remarked that she liked his purple shirt, he replied without missing a beat that it was a gift from the pope). For more of my thoughts on Fridriksson’s films see my Cinematic Iceland Photo Tour post.

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MGS: I read that before you started making films you were involved in film exhibition. How did that come about?

FTF: Yeah, you know, (in the 1970s) we had like three colleges here in Reykjavik, so we had a film society and I was running the society for many years. And then I wanted to expand it, so I got an old theater . . .

Waitress walks over and sets down coffee.

MGS: Thank you.

Waitress: You’re welcome.

MGS: And you programmed that theater?

FTF: I programmed that theater and it was very, very well received. I managed to get the (Icelandic) University involved as well. We had more than 2,000 members so we could get almost every film we wanted to see. It was before the video revolution so we got most of the films on 35 or 16 (millimeter). And 16 was more common because of the transport cost. Yeah, so I was running that for many years before I started to make films.

MGS: And the attendance was good?

FTF: Yeah, absolutely marvelous. We were quite well off because we were able to buy a 16mm camera and a small editing table. So we offered our members (the chance) to make some short films.

MGS: So you were doing both at the same time, programming and making films?

FTF: Yeah. I was also running a gallery on the next corner. It was right here in the center of Reykjavik. So it was really handy.

MGS: Wow, that sounds like an exciting time.

FTF: Yeah, yeah (chuckles), when you’re 20, 20-something . . . And then I ended it in ’78 or ’77 because then I was asked by the government to establish the Reykjavik Film Festival. We only had the budget for one or two guests.

MGS: Who was the first guest?

FTF: Wim Wenders.

MGS: That’s a good first guest to have!

FTF: Yeah, because at that time there was hardly any filmmaking in Iceland. So he encouraged people to . . . I mean, politicians he met, because he met everybody, the President and everyone. So he encouraged people, politicians especially, to establish a film fund and to support the filmmakers. And then people started to roll.

MGS: The earliest of your films I’ve seen is Rock in Reykjavik (1982), which I just watched on YouTube without subtitles. I was riveted by the whole thing even without subtitles because the musical performances were so great. I understand you made that for television. Were you commissioned to make that or did you initiate the project?

FTF: No, I didn’t get any grants to make the film. And it became like a political thing because they (state-run television) wanted to cut three minutes out of the film. It was a terrible experience. We lost a lot of money because I suspected that I would get support from the Icelandic Film Fund that was already established. But I didn’t get any support until my first feature White Whales (1987). So I made like six documentaries before that without any incentives.

MGS: So Rock in Reykjavik you made independently and then after you were done you sold it to television?

FTF: Yeah but they cut it, with the censorship, so it was . . . I disliked it a lot at that time. But I also made a film that was like a sketch for Children of Nature (1991): it was 35 minutes, a documentary. Even the President of Iceland wrote a film critique, very positive, about that one. (chuckles)

MGS: Wow. So if Rock in Reykjavik was your concept from the beginning, were you a fan of the bands in the film?

FTF: Yeah, some of them. You know, we had made (another) project with one of the groups, Theyr. And then I was old friends with Bubbi Morthens who was probably the most popular rock star at that time. So then I just was scouting for groups and I saw Bjork when she was performing with her group Tappi Tikarrass. And I was fascinated (chuckles), absolutely fascinated. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears when I saw her. I remember it just like it happened yesterday.

bjorkBjork (aged 14) in Rock in Reykjavik

MGS: Did you have a premonition that she was going to be a big star when you first saw her?

FTF: No, I thought many . . . at that time I thought Theyr, this group, would be world famous, and they became world famous for a while. I mean, world famous in Italy, Japan, and, you know, (for) people who were interested in the punk rock at that time. You see, you have to imagine it’s before video, so it was difficult for them to go through. And also, Iceland was not well known. It was like making rock and roll in Afghanistan or something (chuckles). It came out of the blue. But I was also trying to tell the story of rock and roll music that was through the American NATO base here in Iceland . . .

MGS: Which is also a big part of Devil’s Island (1996).

FTF: Yeah, yeah. So I wanted to tell the history. And then some of the bands were really good bands but they were doing so much with synths. They were very . . . what shall I say? They were very clean-cut boys. Good music but I had to cut them out.

MGS: You liked it more raw? (laughs)

FTF: No, I liked more, like, people who have something to say, you know?

MGS: There’s one band in that film — it seems like they’re just kids. A kid with a mohawk is the lead singer and he destroys his guitar with an axe. It’s one of the most punk rock things I’ve ever seen. Who were they?

FTF: Just people coming from split homes. They stayed at this bus station that I was filming. They had a terrible life. The lead singer passed away after he was sober for many years. Nice boys but they went through all this shit like what people go through — you know, in America, it’s more crack but here they were sniffing gas, gasoline, to get high. It was a very tough time for those kids. I could have made just a documentary about this group ’cause they were very fascinating guys, you know? (The name of the band is Sjalfsfroun – MGS)

MGS: Absolutely. One kid is being interviewed and he’s smoking a cigarette. Even today that was strange to see. (laughs)

FTF: Yeah, yeah. And that was the funny thing, that censorship here wanted to cut that out.

MGS: Of course!

FTF: (laughs) And then the journalism — the headline of my newspaper: “Why Are you Cutting It Out of the Film?” There were very few films being made in Iceland at that time. So people were afraid, I think, of me as a person because I was on the left wing and I think they were afraid I would do more political stuff. Because Iceland has been very corrupt even though on the surface everything is fine.

MGS: Right. They thought you were dangerous.

FTF: I guess so. Or film was a dangerous medium. Because young people were flocking to see it — about 25,000 people — and we were thrown out of cinemas when we had 800 (admissions) a day. So there were many people against me at that time. And also after I made this film Cowboys of the North (1984). They felt I was making fun of Icelandic culture.

MGS: And that was another documentary?

FTF: Yeah, that was another documentary. It went to cinemas and did very well.

MGS: Let’s talk about your fiction features. I think my favorite is Cold Fever (1995). I read that you were a fan of Japanese cinema and I was wondering if that was your inspiration to make a film about a Japanese businessman visiting Iceland.

FTF: No, we had invited Jim Jarmusch to come here with Mystery Train (for the Reykjavik Film Festival in 1989). He couldn’t come so he offered us the producer Jim Stark and he came. He saw my first film White Whales. He said he liked it and he wanted to work with me. He said “Can you come up with some ideas for this Japanese boy in Mystery Train (Masatoshi Nagase) because he’s eager to work again with me?” So I went to Japan to scout, you know? And in the beginning I wanted to make a film connected with whaling because Jim Stark hated people who were whalers (laughs). So I went to Japan and I was concentrating on whaling stories and selling whale meat and things like that — the same issues as today because now we are whaling again. We were not whaling in ’89. But anyway, it ended up that there was an accident here in the Highlands of Iceland: two Japanese scientists drowned. So seven years later — that was ’84 — seven years later, in ’91, people from Japan came and were performing the same ceremonies you see in the film. So I said, “Now I have an idea for a film.”

MGS: Oh, yeah, that’s perfect.

FTF: Yeah, so me and Jim wrote the script together.

MGS: I see. So he brought you the actor and then you came up with the concept?

FTF: Yeah.

MGS: But I think the film still reflects your love of Japanese cinema because you cast the great director Seijun Suzuki as the protagonist’s grandfather.

FTF: Suzuki, yeah!

MGS: I don’t think he had done much acting before. How did you approach him about acting in your film?

FTF: Masatoshi Nagase knew him and I asked him to. He was extremely nice, you know, and it was beautiful. It’s one of my favorite moments in my career.

vlcsnap-2013-08-13-11h21m46s7Seijun Suzuki and Masatoshi Nagase in Cold Fever.

MGS: It seems like a lot of your films have an ambivalent attitude towards American culture. You know, we were talking about the influence of rock and roll earlier. Devil’s Island and also Movie Days (1994) . . .

FTF: Yeah, my childhood . . .

MGS: I think those films express a love of American rock and roll of the 1950s and also classic Hollywood films. But at the same time I also feel like you’re being critical of American imperialism . . .

FTF: Yes, of course.

MGS: Is it safe to say you have a love/hate relationship with American culture?

FTF: I would say it’s love but (laughs) . . . but I have been misunderstood. Because I think it was the actor Elliot Gould or someone . . . Movie Days and Devil’s Island were both Oscar entries from Iceland — when the people came out, they said “Fridrik’s turned into an anti-American . . .” (laughs) But it’s mainly love because, you know, if you are under imperial threat like Iceland was — because when I was growing up there was only one T.V. station from the NATO base, without subtitles, of course, and the only radio station young people listened to also came from the NATO base — so, of course, it was something that woke us up, but we had to protect our culture, our cultural heritage. And so it was very important, so that’s why it’s pure love. (laughs) If someone put a gun on you and said “You have to beware of where you’re heading,” you’re just grateful for the guy who has the gun. (laughs)

MGS: (laughing) That’s a good analogy. That’s a very good analogy.

FTF: I have been joking a lot about Hollywood cinema but there are people who take me too seriously. We were taking the Marshall Plan (the American program that provided economic support to Europe in the aftermath of WWII – MGS) and part of that was to have one cinema for each major (Hollywood) studio. So we got hardly any European films here but we were really well educated in literature and our literary heritage from the Icelandic Sagas. It is very strong in your heart and mind. So you can’t really compete that with American films. Like I put it in Mamma Gogo (2011), my last feature film, it (Hollywood) is just like fast food. When you watch an American film you are just killing time — on an airplane or something. I love those films but I’m always waiting to see them on an airplane — instead of going to the cinema — when I’m flying to Japan or Korea. But I like it, you know? I have nothing against it.

MGS: Well, fortunately, there’s a lot of good independent American cinema.

FTF: Yes, yes, yes. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about Hollywood. Because, when you’re Oscar nominated like I was for Children of Nature, all the agencies are after you. But I was not interested in working in a hamburger joint, making fast food. Because they are so good at it, also. I am not good at it. I know my skills.

MGS: Good for you.

FTF: You know, it was money, but I would probably have made one or two films and been sent back home. Because with White Whales I got over this, what shall I say, shoot-out and things like that? Have you seen that film?

MGS: I’ve not seen that one.

FTF: Because there’s a lot of fast cuts, shoot outs . . .

MGS: You got it all out of your system early on. (laughs)

FTF: It’s just like a kid, you know, “I want this toy.” (laughs) And then you get bored with it.

MGS: Absolutely.

FTF: But, of course, you know, Coen brothers and many people have made those films so beautifully.

MGS: My wife and I were at the Lebowski Bar last night (laughs). You were just talking about Icelandic culture and the Icelandic Sagas being so prominent in your life, it seems to me that you are a very Icelandic director — even more so than a lot of other directors whose work I’ve seen who are from here. You make films about Icelandic history and Icelandic identity: Devil’s Island and Movie Days, for example, are very much about Iceland in the 1950s but even in a more contemporary film like Angels of the Universe (2000) it seems like the protagonist, Paul, is meant to represent Iceland in a way. He was born on the day that Iceland joined NATO and there’s a hilarious line where he says that growing up he felt like the Communists were protesting his birthday. Do you consciously explore what it means to be Icelandic in your films?

FTF: Yeah, of course. I have made films abroad but I feel I’m not . . . let’s put it like, “I’m not sure what I’m doing when I’m doing films here.” (laughs) So that probably makes me more Icelandic than some directors that can easily do international cinema. But also the films I have made here are much more popular. Like, for example, when you show your films in Iran or China, you feel they have similar humor. That’s so great. Because Angels of the Universe when it was screened in Bremen, it was a big distribution company in Germany, and people were just silent. They were not laughing. And here (in Iceland), people were laughing their heads off. And in China people were laughing their heads off. And Iran also, in Tehran. And so I said “You never know really what is going to travel between countries.” Of course, you can do local humor here but if you make your characters human and, of course, you have to be in love with your characters and have empathy and all these words that can describe what a filmmaker should do with a character . . . you have to respect your characters. That seems to be the best way to make a film travel.

MGS: Because if you respect them then other people will too?

FTF: Yeah, if they have a similar human touch.

MGS: Are you a fan of Ozu?

FTF: Ozu? Yes, yes, yes.

MGS: His films didn’t really play in America until the 1970s because it was felt that they were “too Japanese.” But when you watch his movies today they seem so universal because they’re about family and everybody can relate to that.

FTF: Yeah, that’s true.

MGS: I want to ask you about The Boss of It All (2006), the Lars Von Trier film that you acted in.

FTF: I was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the Danish Oscar.

MGS: Oh really? Your performance was my favorite part of that film. It was hilarious. I didn’t know you were nominated for an award. In the movie your character is always angry and yelling. But, talking to you now, I can see you’re a mild-mannered person. Was that hard for you or . . .

FTF: No!

MGS: It came naturally?

FTF: I’m a soccer player! I still play soccer.

MGS: Did you play today?

FTF: Yeah.

MGS: When you told me you were playing this morning I thought you meant you had to watch a soccer match. (laughs)

FTF: No, no, no. I play three times a week. Always outdoors, even minus 20, all the guys show up. That’s beautiful. It doesn’t matter how the weather is because the pitch is always heated up. So it’s always nice.

MGS: So you yell a lot while you’re playing? (laughs)

FTF: Yeah, well, I can easily put myself in that situation.

MGS: Had you ever acted or played a role that prominent in a film before?

FTF: No, no, no.

MGS: Did being directed by Lars Von Trier change the way you think about directing actors yourself?

FTF: No. He used very similar methods I use: just follow his instincts, you know, when he’s hiring actors. Like the boy in the autistic film (A Mother’s Courage, 2009), he was looking for a job. And he typed (on a “letterboard” specifically designed for autistic people) “Maybe I could become a film director.” And I said to his parents “Why?” “Because I heard that Fridrik is not communicating with his actors.” (laughs)

MGS: Oh my God, that’s hilarious. Did Lars give you a lot of freedom then to do what you wanted?

FTF: No, you only had two chances for each shot, then he asked the computer to change the angle. (Von Trier shot the movie with a cinematographic process called “Automavision,” in which the compositions were determined at random by a computer – MGS) So sometimes your face was just half . . . (Fridriksson holds his hand in front of his face to indicate an awkward, fragmented composition) So there was no camera movement. He asked the computer, “Okay, 8mm or 25mm?”

MGS: For the lens?

FTF: Yeah. (chuckles) So it was quiet, quiet, quiet, quiet (on the set).

bossFridrik Thor Fridriksson (right) with Jens Albinus and Peter Gantlzer in The Boss of It All.

MGS: What are you working on now?

FTF: One film is granted already. I’m not producing — usually I produce my films — but it’s a lesbian love story. I wanted to do something completely different. And then I’m working on a film based on a book called Black Cliffs. Hemingway was very fond of this author, Gunnar Gunnarson. He passed away a long time ago. He was actually a guy that was supposed to get the Nobel Prize but I think, in his life, he was not a Nazi but he met Adolf Hitler . . .

MGS: Right.

FTF: It’s just like I would go to (North) Korea now and meet Kim Jong-un. (laughs) Then I would never get an Oscar.

MGS: That’s true.

FTF: But the book sold many, many copies in the States. All his books are very popular in the States.

MGS: So is that going to be a period piece?

FTF: Yes. It’s a murder case that took place in Westfjords. It’s the most beautiful spot on earth where this tragic story took place. Then I’m doing a documentary about a painter who passed away. You can buy his books at the gallery around the corner. His name was Georg Gudni. He was a friend. And that’s a feature. Then on the 28th I have the premiere of a film I produced for a first-time director. So I’m going to produce first-time directors again.

MGS: So you’re making two fiction features and one documentary?

FTF: Yes.

MGS: Which one are you going to do next?

FTF: I think it’s the documentary — this summer. And then I’m going for the lesbian love story. It’s called Staying Alive.

MGS: A good title.

FTF: Yes. That was my title. Then Black Cliffs. Black Cliffs is a period piece, which takes place in 1803 so it’s a very, very expensive story. So I might wait with that and maybe make three films from the same period.

MGS: A trilogy?

FTF: Yeah, well, I will not direct them all. I will only direct probably this (first) one. But I have an option on two other books.

MGS: It sounds like you’ll be very busy for the next few years.

FTF: No, no. I’ve produced maybe 60 features in my life. So I like a lot to help first-time directors because we have a terrible landscape to work in here because nobody wants to support first-time directors.

MGS: I know the film industry here was hurt by the economic crisis . . .

FTF: Yes.

MGS: But that was about five years ago. Has the situation changed at all?

FTF: Yeah, it’s better now. They started by cutting down the Film Fund heavily. Because they were a leftist government and most of the filmmakers are leftists so . . . (laughs) but then they corrected it. For example, me and many people were hammering them because all this tourism now is because of us. And now more and more American films are made in the country . . .

MGS: I think it’s great that you’ve done so much to build up the industry here . . .

FTF: No, I was just the lucky one. I was the first to be (Oscar) nominated and that’s just pure coincidence. So I just bought cameras and stuff so I could participate. Now it’s so easy to make a film. (laughs) I mean much easier than with film. Just to go through raw stock and cameras and lights and trucks. It was a heavy task.

MGS: Well, best of luck to you in the future with all of your films. I look forward to seeing them.

cold

This interview first appeared in La Furia Umana.


A Decalogue of the Dopest Dylan References in Movies

Bob Dylan turns 71 years old this Thursday. Following last year’s birthday post on Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, today I will pay a different kind of tribute related to Dylan and the movies. Below is a list of my top ten favorite Dylan references in cinema, excluding films that are actually about Dylan (e.g., Don’t Look Back, Eat the Document, I’m Not There), movies in which Dylan himself appeared (e.g., Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Renaldo and Clara, Masked and Anonymous) or films to which he contributed original songs (e.g., Wonder Boys, Gods and Generals, My Own Love Song). Instead, what you have is a list of great movies that just so happen to make significant references to Hibbing, Minnesota’s favorite son through their soundtracks, dialogue, set design or props.

10. “Blowin’ in the Wind” playing at Emily Watson’s wedding in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996)

Breaking the Waves is a shamelessly manipulative but undeniably effective spiritual melodrama that probably still stands as Lars Von Trier’s finest hour. Set in rural Scotland in the 1970s, it poignantly depicts the relationship between Bess (Emily Watson), a woman from a deeply religious community and Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), an oil rig worker and “outsider” who is paralyzed in an accident shortly after their wedding. Here, Von Trier eschewed the formalism of his early work, showing a greater desire to collaborate closely with actors (before his obsession with female suffering started to seem dubious) and a then-novel use of handheld cameras and grainy video textures (before such aesthetics became old hat). The film also has a superb period soundtrack featuring the likes of Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Roxy Music, et al. but Dylan fans might be especially pleased by the instrumental bagpipe version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” that plays at Bess and Jan’s wedding.

9. Jeffrey Wright singing “All Along the Watchtower” in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000)

Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet is a brilliant film adaptation of Shakespeare’s best loved play that keeps the Bard’s original dialogue intact while updating the sets and costumes to present-day New York City. The inspired casting includes Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius, Diane Venora as Gertrud, Bill Murray as Polonius and Dylan’s old pal Sam Shepard as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. My favorite scene features Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet delivering the famous “To be or not to be” monologue in a Blockbuster Video store. My second favorite scene sees Jeffrey Wright’s Gravedigger singing “All Along the Watchtower” in a trench. Perhaps because the lyrics to “Watchtower” already sound like they could be from a Shakespeare poem, this touch feels ineffably right.

8. Dennis Hopper reciting a lyric from “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977)

Wim Wenders’ film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel revolves around Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), an American con artist living in Berlin. The plot concerns Ripley’s contracting of a picture framer with a fatal disease (Bruno Ganz) to commit murder, but story ultimately takes a back seat to characterization in this slow-paced, moody, atmospheric neo-noir. A good example of Wenders’ existential bent can be found towards the end when Ripley half-sings/half-talks the opening line to a gem of a song from Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album: “I pity the poor immigrant who . . .” and then Ripley’s voice trails off. Any Dylan fan knows that had Ripley kept singing, the lyric would have described his character’s predicament exactly: “. . . wishes he would’ve stayed home, who uses all his power to do evil, but in the end is always left so alone.”

7. Myriad references in the films of Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino has said that when he was a video store employee, long before he became a director, he aspired to be “as important for cinema as Dylan is for music and songwriting.” Since then, the two have become mutual admirers and occasional sparring partners. Some of the myriad references to Dylan in the films of Tarantino: in Reservoir Dogs, Steven Wright’s DJ introduces “Stuck in the Middle with You” as a “Dylanesque pop bubblegum favorite,” single-handedly causing the song to be misidentified as an actual Dylan number on countless mp3 download sites. (This begs the question, if Tarantino had a bigger music budget at the time, would “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” be the song forever associated with Michael Madsen torturing a uniformed police officer?) Death Proof contains two very interesting Dylan references, which is hardly surprising given that Tarantino was listening to Dylan’s then-new album Modern Times while driving to the set every day; the jukebox in the film contains no less than six Dylan songs, including “George Jackson” (which, let’s face it, is Dylan’s blaxploitation song), and the magazine rack in a convenience store scene features the 2006 Rolling Stone magazine with Dylan on the cover. In Inglourious Basterds, the title characters are all Jewish American G.I.s, one of whom boasts the name of Zimmerman(!), while elsewhere Brad Pitt attempts to end a standoff by telling a German soldier “. . . you go your way and we’ll go ours.” For his part, Dylan’s only known public comment on QT was a nice acknowledgement on his Theme Time Radio Hour radio show that Bobbi Womack’s “Across 110th Street” was prominently featured in Jackie Brown.

6. Stephen Rea as a Bob Dylan impersonator in Lance Daly’s Kisses (2008)

One of the most Dylan-centric films ever made, this delightfully dark Irish fairy tale concerns two working class pre-adolescent kids who run away from their suburban homes at Christmas and spend a long night on the mean streets of Dublin. Along the way, the kids repeatedly encounter the music of Bob Dylan (including being serenaded by a barge skipper with “Shelter from the Storm”), a series of events that climaxes with them running into an Australian Dylan impersonator whom the kids mistake for the man himself. Ironically, Stephen Rea, wearing a cowboy hat, smoking a cigarette and wryly speaking in a low-pitched voice in his un-billed cameo, comes closer to nailing the essence of the real Dylan than any of the actors in I’m Not There.

5. Teenagers smoking hash and slow dancing around a bonfire to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water (1994)

My favorite film by formidable French helmer Olivier Assayas is this 400 Blows-esque ode to juvenile delinquency that apparently draws on the director’s own childhood experiences. The movie’s highly emotional climactic scene involves troubled teenaged lovers Gilles and Christine running away from home and attending a party where they smoke hash and slow dance around a bonfire to an incredible vinyl playlist that includes Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche” and Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Dare I say that the use of “Knockin'” here is even more effective than in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (the film for which it was originally written)?

4. Nick Nolte painting to a live version of “Like a Rolling Stone” in Martin Scorsese’s Life Lessons (1989)

The undisputed highlight of New York Stories, an omnibus feature film comprised of shorts by Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, is Life Lessons, the Scorsese segment about an abstract expressionist painter who falls in love with one of his models. And what better song for Nolte’s volatile character, Lionel Dobie, to use as the soundtrack for an intense painting session than the angry, cathartic live 1974 version of “Like a Rolling Stone” from Dylan’s Before the Flood album?

3. Jean-Pierre Leaud asking “Who are you, Mister Bob Dylan?” in Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin-Femninin (1966)

Jean-Luc Godard’s zeitgeist film about the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” captures the spirit of what it meant to be young in the turbulent 1960s perhaps better than any other movie. At one point, while reading a French newspaper, Jean-Pierre Leaud’s character, the boyfriend of a pop singer named Madeleine, has this exchange with a friend:

“What are you reading?”
“An article on Bob Dylan.”
“Who’s he?”
“He’s a Vietnik, you know.”
“What’s that?”
“It’s an American word, a cross between ‘beatnik’ and ‘Vietnam.'”
“Who are you, Mister Bob Dylan?”
“Madeleine never mentioned him? He sells 10,000 records a day!”

Dylan and Godard have spoken of their mutual admiration for each other over the years and two of Godard’s films from the 1980s (Grandeur et décadence d’un petit commerce de cinéma and Puissance de la parole) feature Dylan’s Slow Train Coming classic “When He Returns” on their soundtracks.

2. A black and white photograph of Dylan from the mid-1960s hanging on the wall in the central location of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000)

Edward Yang’s masterpiece, one of the great final films of any director, is an almost impossibly rich, tragicomic, multigenerational family saga that also functions as a vivid snapshot of Taiwan at the dawn of the 21st century. Taipei’s unique East meets West culture is illustrated in ways both obvious (N.J., the protagonist, leaves a wedding early so that he can take his son to eat at McDonald’s) and subtle (a framed black and white photograph of Bob Dylan is prominently displayed in N.J.’s home). Since N.J. is a businessman and music lover who abandoned his youthful idealism in the late ’60’s, the latter is a very nice touch indeed.

1. A vinyl LP of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as an important prop in Jacques Rivette’s L’amour Fou (1969)

L’amour Fou, Jacques Rivette’s four hour improvisational film about the construction of a play and the destruction of a marriage, is one of the high points of the entire French New Wave. Jean-Pierre Kalfon plays Sebastien, a theater director who cheats on his actress wife, Claire (Bulle Ogier), with another actress named Marta (Josée Destoop). In one key scene, Sebastien is in Marta’s apartment helping her sort through vinyl LPs that she could potentially re-sell in order to raise some quick cash. He holds up her copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which she declines to sell on the grounds that she still listens to it. Good girl!

Dylan fans reading this should feel free to chime in with their own favorite Dylan references in the movies in the comments section below.


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