Björk's Bathos

Björk's Bathos

Björk's Bathos

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Sept. 23 2000 12:00 AM

Björk's Bathos

Movies

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Dancer in the Dark (Fine Line Features). This movie comes with a tortured back-story: Director Lars von Trier clashed with singer Björk, who starred in her first acting role, and she is said to have completely and unhealthily immersed herself in the part of a factory worker slowly going blind while desperately trying to save money for an operation that will save her son from the same fate. (A murder and an amateur production of The Sound of Music also factor in.) Some reviews vilify the film, others exalt it, and a few do both. Those who love it call it an "astonishing and triumphant musical melodrama. … This is the stuff of grand opera and magnificent movie fantasy … in opera, as in musicals, heroines can never be too tragic, nor pathos too outsized, while the more lavish the musical number, the more satisfying" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). Those who hate it describe it simply as "a crock—a very pretty, deftly executed crock. … At once kitschy and contrived, Dancer in the Dark is a grandiloquent exercise in holier-than-thou martyrdom" (Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly). And then there are those who say, "The movie is both stupefyingly bad and utterly overpowering; it can elicit, sometimes within a single scene, a gasp of rapture and a spasm of revulsion" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). One thing all reviewers share is a sense of astonishment at Björk's performance: She "hurls herself into this role with the ferocity of a wounded animal. ...You watch her with a mixture of awe and concern, almost wanting to avert your eyes from a performance so nakedly emotional" (David Ansen, Newsweek). (Björk describes her experiences making the film—"I'm only [Lars'] tool in this movie. I give up all my will to him"—on the official Web site. And scroll down on this page for the "Summary Judgment" of the movie's soundtrack, also created by Björk.)

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Urban Legends: Final Cut (Sony Pictures Entertainment). Did nobody warn the makers of this tired serial-killer-on-the-loose sequel that the slasher genre was pronounced dead with the arrival of the spoof Scary Movie? The plot isn't even worth summarizing; all you have to know is that a bunch of kids at a film school get picked off one by one and that someone wakes up one kidney short in a bathtub full of ice. Critics describe it as "exactly the kind of flat-footed stalker film that the recent trend-setting hits in the genre have been making fun of" (David Chute, the Los Angeles Times). The final word: "[I]t's about as funny as the Yellow Pages" (Desson Howe, the Washington Post). (Find out more about real urban legends here.)

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Woman on Top (Fox Searchlight Pictures). Bland reviews for this wannabe spicy "skimpily scripted, hot-to-trotsy food/sex farce" (Rita Kempley, the Washington Post) starring Penélope Cruz as a Brazilian chef who ditches her cheating husband in Brazil and moves to San Francisco, where she starts a popular cooking TV show. Some find the lighter-than-air film fun: "the summer beach read of foreign movies" (Andy Seiler, USA Today). Most are less enchanted, claiming, "Cruz is bewitching all through the movie, but her beauty and charm have to pull a heavy train of clichés," and that although "the formula seduces us for an hour or so," the film eventually "sinks under the weight of its dim-wittedness" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). (Click here to check out some steamy photos of Cruz.)

Books

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Robert Kennedy: His Life, by Evan Thomas (Simon & Schuster). Solid reviews for this biography by the assistant managing editor of Newsweek: "a useful corrective after decades of tearful hagiography from people who should know better" (Philip Terzian, the Wall Street Journal). Three main factual points are addressed in most reviews: 1) RFK did not have an affair with Marilyn Monroe; 2) he knew about, and possibly arranged, an attempted Mafia hit on Fidel Castro; 3) he was not a shoo-in for the presidency in 1968. (The Economist draws out one more tasty nugget from the book, regarding how Kennedy treated his aides as personal servants: "Not only were they expected to get his shirts laundered and his shoes cleaned, they had to cope with such tasks as holding the head of a vomiting dog out of a limousine window.") Though the book's not perfect—"Thomas every now and then falls into Camelot prose, the elegiac, mock-heroic blather about bright promise and fate and doom and how the gods have it in for the Kennedys"—overall it is deemed "superb" (Lance Morrow, Time). (Read the first chapter.)

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Pagan Babies, by Elmore Leonard (Delacorte). Everyone agrees that Leonard's so talented, he could have written this in his sleep: "Even when Leonard is just spinning his wheels a bit—and Pagan Babies feels that way at times—he still manages to do it with more style and wit than most crime writers ever muster" (David Lazarus, the San Francisco Chronicle). The biggest source of complaints is that the opening, which follows a priest and his parishioners in Rwanda, is strange territory for the author, who is known best for his hardboiled petty-thief types. It's only when the story returns to the states that he kicks into high gear: "[T]he pieces of this crime tale begin falling into place so handily that Mr. Leonard might as well have hung a 'Virtuoso at Work' shingle on his door" (Janet Maslin, the New York Times). (Leonard's Web site includes an excerpt from the book as well as biographical information and quizzes on his past work.)

 

Music

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Selmasongs, by Björk (Wea/Elektra Entertainment). Excellent reviews for the soundtrack (filled out with numbers not included in the movie) to Cannes best-picture winner Dancer in the Dark: "[T]his album, although short, represents a particularly accessible career highlight for Björk" (Barry Walters, Rolling Stone). But more than the quality of the songs, reviewers dwell on the gossip surrounding the behind-the-scenes drama between Björk, who starred in the film in addition to writing the music for it, and director Lars Von Trier. Were Björk and Von Trier at each other's throats during filming? Did Björk really eat her clothing? (Yes, they were, apparently; and no, she didn't.) Once they drag themselves back to the music, they claim that "although the singer-songwriter affects [her movie character] Selma's emotional voice, a guileless blend of optimism and fatalism, the music is pure Björk, a delightfully inventive mix of industrial dissonance, melodic dance and techno bits, and traditional movie-musical orchestration" (Natalie Nichols, the Los Angeles Times). Nearly everyone agrees on the album's best song: "The clincher is the ballad 'I've Seen It All,' a duet with Radiohead's Thom Yorke about blindness and resignation that is so West Side Story in its Technicolor soul it could make Stephen Sondheim cry. And probably you, too" (Walters). (Click here to listen to samples.)