Portrait of the Artist as Portrayed by the Artist:
Exploring Existential Quandaries of the Silver Screen with Trygve Luktvasslimo
Peter Stuart Robinson
Had an existential crisis recently? I hope your encounter with Trygve Luktvasslimo’s trio of films doesn’t trigger one – or then again, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing? The jury’s still out on the virtues of rigorous self-examination. Psychoanalysts swear by it, and yet we can’t help suspecting it only feeds the pathologies it purports to uncover and relieve.
What should a narcissist do? Reflect endlessly on who she is, succumb to an orgy of self-analysis in the ever-present mirror? The old question crops up in a new guise in Luktvasslimo’s work: Is it better to let sleeping dogs lie, or to wash our dirty linen to the max in every way possible, the more public the better? And isn’t the latter actually the way of the artist and especially the artist as film-maker?
Of course, the self-consciously artistic film-maker is a special case. She has eschewed the common or garden film, the type usually found in the cinema, in favour of that special variety known as the art film, more at home in the gallery. The distinction is nowhere clearer than in the approach to storytelling. The typical art film is usually much less focused on using its repertoire of moving images and accompanying sounds to tell a story. The ‘artistic’ – or artsy – film-maker often has other priorities, such as the creation of a visual-aesthetic effect, following in the footsteps of more classical media like painting and sculpture. If she tells a story at all, it’s liable to be told with a lighter touch, especially as measured in degrees of conflict escalation – the very lifeblood of dramatic plot structure.
Closer to More is certainly an art film (as are its companion pieces) but it’s also very narrative in form. Indeed, in presenting a story spanning three distinct works, the trilogy as a whole takes on positively epic proportions, though this is an ‘epic’ quality invariably tinged with irony. Luktvasslimo plays with the ‘epic’ in its more absurd variants, from melodrama to that quintessence of faux gravitas, the common soap opera.
Everything about these films is nonetheless ostentatiously cinematic, from the Hollywood-style posters heralding their arrival, to the occasionally lavish cinematography adorning their exposition. Aided and abetted by some delightfully portentous – if not pretentious – dialogue and music, they exude the air of cinema – and drip with self-referential irony.
Closer to More is the concluding episode in the story of Thor. We might more accurately describe it as the precluding episode, since each film successively turns the clock back to an earlier time. Thor, played by the artist himself, is a popstar, and he knows it – and there’s the rub! He’s all too conscious of his own existential challenges and, not least, his own self-importance. Over the course of three short films we share his spiritual and psychological journey, through his creative excesses and emotional reversals, that is, we savour with him the poisoned chalice of his success.
In A More Robust Sense of Identity we had found the protagonist set adrift in a rocky desert landscape. Clad in a kind of fashionista spacesuit, complemented by a riot of dreadlocks, he looks like an offbeat astronaut, the intrepid explorer of Planet Earth at its strangest. The emptiness of the landscape works as a simple yet strangely affecting metaphor for our hero’s existential crisis. He is an artist who has despaired of his audience, a leader gladly severed from his followers, a communicator with nothing to say and, in any case, no-one to say it to.
The message may be bleak but there’s nevertheless a sense of catharsis, a kind of cleansing annihilation. There is something distinctly uplifting, especially, in the final flourish of the piece. He mounts the metaphorical highest mountaintop and casts asunder his incongruous trumpet – with all its narcissistic associations.
The film highlights the banality of the public figure by taking him out of his natural element and marooning him in its near antithesis: the stifling privacy – and privation – of sheer isolation. His sense of self-entitlement and heroic visibility, expressed in a quaint attachment to the microphone and its powers of amplification, are thus rendered absurd and self-defeating, as he becomes the definitive voice in the wilderness.
In An Emotional Sherpa we witness the dissipation and disgrace in progress, which we now know leads ultimately to emptiness and despair. Here are all the comforts and trappings of the high life: the conspicuous standard of living, the busy schedule, the slavish attentions of underlings and media. We watch the day accelerate towards its predictable climax – a coming orgy of artistic attention-seeking and dutiful public adoration – until suddenly, unexpectedly, under the harsh glare of the studio lights and the watchful gaze of the TV cameras, the bubble bursts.
How are we to make sense of Thor’s excesses and failings, and how might they cast light on the excesses and failings to which all of us are prone to some degree, simply by virtue of being human, as neither god nor beast? These are the questions gradually but systematically brought to the surface by the reverse chronology – and progressive psychological archaeology – of films one and two. This is where the explorations of the final work of the trilogy readily begin.
Closer to More is a study in human alienation. The dramatic device used to bring this to the fore is the recollection of a catastrophic event, which has driven an immovable wedge between everyone, and provided a metaphor for the hopelessness and emptiness of the protagonist’s existence. We learn that an extraordinary bolt of lightning has burnt out his motive force, his Being, his mortal soul. Call it what we will, it was the essence of the individual we know as Thor, the very seat of his identity, and now it is gone. Thus revealed is the central misfortune, which lies at the root of all his subsequent trials and tribulations.
The efforts to fix the problem are paradoxical. If there really is no Thor any longer, how can Thor somehow attempt to reconstruct himself? He is gone. There is no-one to do the reconstruction. This is worse than a futile task. It is a contradiction in terms.
Through the course of the three films, we have peeled back the layers of an ever more profound absurdity and hopelessness, which seem to penetrate the protagonist to his very core. The viewer thus experiences a strange kind of reversal. By the end, the absurd posturing in the desert, with which we began, seems like the most sensible behaviour we have witnessed, and the nearest Thor seems likely to come, as a pretty-much empty vessel, to a sort of redemption.
The trilogy as a whole is an accomplished piece of work. The viewer is drawn into an intriguing and engaging world, whose logic is unlikely and yet intelligible. Luktvasslimo has used the tools of film-craft effectively in this regard. The imagery is powerful, and moves with its own rhythm, in wilful disregard of cinematic pacing, and bearing the weight of its otherworldliness in perfect lockstep with a soundscape, which is somehow appropriately strange at all times. The unerring tone of natural oddness recalls the work of David Lynch at its quirkiest.
However narrative, these films are perfectly situated in some strange grey zone between cinema and gallery. Steeped in cinematic language and convention they may be, but they implicitly invoke the idea of high culture, which works as a distancing device, a pretext for destabilisation. This entails continual – though not continuous – invitations to the viewer not simply to submit to the internal logic of the narrative experience, but to stand outside it. The viewer is invited to reflect on that experience and, indeed, on the whole filmic process behind it.
Thor’s is a story of creative self-expression, as highlighted by some important peculiarities of film as a medium. Any piece of work expresses something of the artist who made it. Something of her identity, a trace at any rate, is necessarily present. What distinguishes film is the way it seems – in its magic lantern way – to show us the artist directly, even physically. The effect is accentuated in this case by the film-maker’s occupation of the lead role. He provides a constant, ‘physical’ reminder of his more general presence in the work per se.
Hence Thor as an artist of the most populist variety becomes an embodied metaphor for Trygve the artist. Here is the key to the ironical tone of the work, as Trygve seems to comment on his own practice through the exaggerated model of Thor, even to the point of pouring ridicule on himself. Moreover, by making us aware of the film-maker within his own creation, he gives us further encouragement to step outside the filmic experience and think, in particular, about the process of its creation. After all, the film-maker is right there before us, in so far as we suspend our suspension of disbelief and cease to view him as Thor.
And what of Thor the (pop) artist? He is clearly a huge success, a big star, and yet something is equally clearly wrong. His TV interview, the dramatic centrepiece (albeit suitably muted) of An Emotional Sherpa, is revealing. A kind of abstract, more or less quantitative, standard of excellence has become his lodestone, that each performance be somehow better than the last, as measured in the intensity of the audience response. One is reminded of the words of the legendary Stone Roses:
I don´t need to sell my soul
He’s already in me
I want to be adored.
Implicitly, popularity has become the only measure of worth. Content has become irrelevant. The idea that a work should have some intrinsic value of its own has effectively vanished from view. Art has become the empty vessel of ego and the social triumph it continually craves.
The narcissistic will to be adored is the natural bedfellow of reflexivity. Narcissus cannot tear his eyes from his own reflection in the water or looking glass. Visual media open up even more avenues of self-examination. The artist seems able to see herself more directly, as others see her, and thereby better evaluate her own performance as well as her audience reception. The opening of Closer to More pushes such reflexivity to deliciously absurd limits, heightened by the paradoxically unselfconscious gravitas of Luktvasslimo’s portrayal.
We finally witness a performance by our star, in classic music-video form. The images delight in the conventions of MTV-style unreality, while the lyrics provide a masterpiece of gently twisted pop cliché:
In a world full of water
And thunder and hair
I feel born again
I am through with the past
I life with no echo
I feel virginal
And there’s no turning back
To feel what’s beyond the screen
To see what isn’t there
It smells burnt at the core
I’m closer to more.
Then comes the existential, quasi-dramatic dénouement. We pan out to see Thor watching his own music video at the very instant he raises his hand in perfect unity with ‘himself.’ It’s a religious rite, it’s a political salute, but most of all it’s a gesture of the utmost absurdity, halfway between jaded narcissism and a touching child-like desire to imitate for imitation’s sake. Do we raise a hand in our own gesture of solidarity? When the film-maker reviews the work on some screen of his own, as he surely must, does he do the same?
The dark humour lies in the film’s equation of the transcendental longing for ‘what’s beyond the screen’ to the conjuring made possible by means of modernity’s favourite magic lantern. Not only that! The desire for a transcendental love and human fellowship, expressed in one form or another in most religions, is here reduced to a pure (or impure) impulse of self-gratification. At the same time, self-love now seems like a mild failing compared to the self-worship our hero would now appear to be embracing.
The susceptibility of artistic self-expression to vanity and hubris raises a deeper, existential issue of how we human beings connect with the world around us. Great artists tend to be less narcissistic because they are less interested in demonstrating their cleverness and more in connecting to and enriching the lives of those around them. The artistic monument, at its best, follows from the imperative to speak (or cry) out to our fellows, not from a desire to demonstrate one’s mastery of its principles of construction.
We might underscore the point with an example from another domain. Upon completion of The Atonement I had to commend the author’s storytelling skills. Ian McEwan had sketched believable characters and convincingly embroiled them in a plot, which would conclude with an astonishing twist. It turned out that ‘real events’ had been distorted by the intervention of an insufficiently disinterested narrator. Near the close of the novel we learn that it was Briony Tallin, the false accuser herself, and the cause of all the misfortunes described, telling the story. She had taken the opportunity to smooth over the worst consequences of her own treachery. The ‘happy ending’ we had savoured was just a balm for her conscience, a mere ‘fiction.’ What did I take away from that experience? Belief in the cleverness of the author, and resentment that he been clever enough to steal so many hours from my life – hours that I could never get back.
Compare this with an encounter with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. What did I take away from this experience, apart from those unforgettable lines I would almost rather forget, ‘The horror! The horror!’? A sense of having been spoken to, called out to, in anguish and defiance. I feel a fellowship with Conrad that I will never feel with McEwan. Conrad calls to me from the bottom of a deep, inescapable well of lonely human existence much like my own.
Trygve Luktvasslimo’s films are nice to look at but they are not simply beautiful. They tell a story but not only for the sake of the yarn. Like other good gallery films, they borrow from but also violate cinematic conventions in an attempt to speak to us in a different way. There are nevertheless parallels and even deliberate, ironic references to the more traditional dramatic arts, both theatrical and cinematic.
It is impossible to consider the resort to prequels without recalling that most ostentatious example, George Lucas’s Star Wars, episodes 1-3, but there’s a much more interesting parallel to be drawn with the work of the late Harold Pinter, a writer for theatre with a soft spot for cinema. Pinter approached drama in an unconventional way. He tended to start with a situational conundrum that would turn out to be the expression of a not immediately apparent social-psychological issue. Obscure sufferings or losses might gradually loom from the depths, then suddenly appear, as if overcoming a literal aquatic surface-tension.
In The Caretaker, for example, a burgeoning and ominous conflict builds to the point when the character Aston abruptly recounts how his life had been blighted – or at least reached a nadir – in the wake of a nightmarish encounter with electric-shock therapy. This is less important as a plot twist than as a psychological revelation, which prompts a thoroughgoing reappraisal of characters and action alike.
The drama here, in keeping with art-film conventions, is much more muted but, as in the work of Pinter, the important revelations are psychological and historical, assisted in this case by the chronological reversal. Through a study of an identity crisis, coloured by narcissism, the pretentions of the artist and, for that matter, the human being per se – are cast in a sharp, ironic light. There is a truth and a beauty in these films that transcend the failings of the ‘artiste fatale’ whose story they tell. ‘Closer to More?’ I don’t think Thor is going to get there – but Trygve just might…