The end of the world – Now ‘prettier’ than ever?

The end of the world has never looked so good – at least that’s how you might feel if you’ve watched the recent string of apocalyptic movies. These films include something for everyone, from the highly stylised (Melancholia) to the ‘realist’ (The Turin Horse), although these distinctions cannot always be clearly made, and there is also the inevitable rom-com option. Exiting the cinema after watching ‘The Turin Horse’, having gone through the ‘Melancholia’ experience just a few days before, my companion joked that Béla Tarr’s film could be described as ‘Melancholia for the 99%’.

What I find interesting about many of these films, which include Another Earth and Seeking a friend for the end of the world, is that they seem to be more about the inner world (collapse of the human psyche) than the ‘outer world’ (collapse of the physical environment). The guiding question for Mike Cahill, the director/co-writer (with Brit Marling) of Another Earth, for instance, is about forgiveness: ‘Who needs to meet themselves the most?’ And how would they react? The only material destruction in the film appears to be that of one character’s body – whose reaction to a possible meeting with himself ends in self-mutilation to rob himself of his sensory perception. In Lars von Trier’s film, the ostensibly most stable, rational character turns out to be the most fragile, and the most fragile, irrational character’s state is revealed to bear the greatest strength.

Amongst all the celebratory and condemning reviews (there does not seem to be anywhere in between) only one article (in the New York Times) seems to touch on this theme. The quote, to me, could have been taken straight from Mikhail Bakhtin’s writings on ‘cosmic terror’:

‘There is a grim vindication — and also an obvious, effective existential joke — in Justine’s discovery that her hyperbolic despair may turn out to be rooted in an accurate and objective assessment of the state of the universe’.

One could argue about the differences between the ends for Bakhtin – to embrace chance, death and other disturbing features of the universe as a means of counteracting fear of earthly (political) power – and the ends for von Trier. According to A O Scott’s New York Times review, von Trier’s aim may be to show how the world ‘deserves its awful fate’. Indeed, the director himself comments that he intended to make a very pessimistic film. In an interview he mentions how he watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris in preparation:

‘Tarkovsky constructs all of his films as worlds. And each time, he gives the impression that this world explodes. It’s because of him that I believe in spirits, in phantoms. Do you remember the last plan of Solaris, which included this hallucinatory camera movement? This was really my source of inspiration for the end of Melancholia. I wanted the concluding moment of the film to be the most pessimistic that I’ve ever done, as, as far as I am aware, my films all end too nicely.’

In Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, the human-cosmic relations seem equally present, but they take a much more material dimension. In his book Béla Tarr, Le Temps D’Après, Jacques Rancière notes how The Turin Horse sees ‘cosmic relations’ taking the place of social relations. Instead of human characters putting obstacles in the protagonists’ way, the latter are pushed back to the house by extreme winds or become increasingly paralysed by dwindling resources. The story is centred around the very basics of life: matter and energy. This is not a film about individuals, but about infrastructure and about humans-as-infrastructure, supporting and perpetuating patterns. Béla Tarr sums it up as follows:

‘We are doing very little things, but every day we are doing the same things – you are getting weaker and weaker, you have less and less energy and you are getting older. You cannot live with anything in your life, you can do the same thing but in a different way and unfortunately, you are going down, and I am going down, and everything is going down.’

According to Tarr, this material commonality is also reflected in the casting process, in which the same characteristics are sought for in human, animals and the landscape equally. In fact, Tarr notes how the horse is more important than the human characters.

In terms of their sensory approaches, Tarr’s and von Trier’s films also move in opposite directions. Although they can both be described as beautiful, hypnotic and interested in transmitting the reality in which the characters live, there is a marked difference, which already begins with the different speeds at the films are shot. Tarr uses 30 cuts for 147 minutes to show the slow disintegration of his characters. Von Trier also messes with time, however his inspiration is less realism than surrealism, notably Dali’s soft clocks. In Melancholia, the apocalypse takes place in a spatially and temporally distorted, dream-like state, although this, for him, has not always worked to his aesthetic satisfaction. After previewing the first scenes of the film, von Trier found them too stylised: they looked too much like a perfume advert– ‘but I wanted apocalypse!’ Another inspiration seems to have been opera and its dramatic expressiveness, which, for von Trier consists of the condensation of strong emotion into short intervals of time. Every image was supposed to announce the end of the world.

By contrast, Tarr’s imagery, while also intensely sensually engaging, seeks to underline materiality and the absence of emotion – including the absence of the spiritual. Prompted about this fact, Tarr comments:

‘The god created this fucking shit, what we have. We just wanted to show you how we disappear, and I don’t know who is the god. But if you remember, Nietzsche stated, God is dead.’

Yet this focus on representing materiality does not only seem to be about the non-existence of God, but also about the non-existence of (productive) thinking and doing. The sudden monologue in the middle of the film appears to mark this lack, the impossibility of change. Not only, according to the deliverer of this speech, has there ‘never been and could never be any kind of change here on earth’, but ‘change has indeed taken place’. This change is being described as the dissolution of potentially resistant forces through their self-destruction after the realisation that neither god(s), nor good and bad exist. In Melancholia, the world, too, appears to have been lost already, as embodied in the character of Justine. Even before the planet is destroyed, she ceases to connect to it: food tastes ‘like ash’ and the earth ‘is evil’. The apocalypse comes as a much needed release.

Does this leave us with two unrepentantly hopeless films? Here, Rancière offers some rare optimism: while, in all of Tarr’s films, the characters never manage to break out of established patterns and always end back where they started off, the closure this implies also suggests openness. Not only is there an infinite variety of patterns and ways to explore these patterns, but with every repetition there seems to be room for something more, something that suggests that the ‘closed circle is always open’. As he aptly puts is: even ‘the last morning is still a morning before’.

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