Once upon a time, in a decidedly pre-Dogmatic age, Lars von Trier was an electrifying image-smith, and so it is that the 1987 version of Medea he made for Danish TV, which has been floating around on cable and in retrospectives for years, is also his best film. It is certainly his most vivid and least indulgently snarky; students of his influential faux-doc video-realism should receive this banshee cry from the depths of classicism as a revelation. Not that von Trier mutes his confrontational pomo proclivities—shot either on video with a post-production mutation to celluloid or vice versa, Medea is grandly expressionist, judiciously employing solarized shadow, shifting video backgrounds, and visual degradation. But perhaps because von Trier was working merely with a few simple locations (barren Danish plains, beaches, and catacombs sub for Greece), a TV-movie budget, and a bloodletting tale as elemental as subsoil, the film achieves an abrading, intimate, primal force his later films only hint at. It’s difficult to imagine the Euripides original ever being more eloquently adapted.
Which is to say, it’s a film that stings your corneas. A substantial slice of the credit goes to the specter of Danish cinema demigod Carl Dreyer, who co-wrote the original screenplay; as the opening titles claim, von Trier is trafficking heavily in homage. Although the script remains faithful only to the sparsity of Dreyer’s dialogue, von Trier’s stark tableaux evoke frames from The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, and Day of Wrath. He makes it look easy—images of wind-buffeted grass and figures stalking over waste-scapes, all of them layered with a gauzy haze, have the grim chill of an atavistic delirium. Medea (Kirsten Olesen) walks through sun-shower rainbows, talks in a whisper with soldiers across a vast lake, and collects charms in a foggy bog evoked with Maddinesque economy.
Following Dreyer’s lead, von Trier artichoke-peels Euripides until virtually all that is left is the clenched core of feminist fury—namely, Medea’s deranging spite over the abandonment by Jason (a remarkably robust Udo Kier) as he marries a royal nymphet despite the two sons Medea has borne him. For options, the woman is left with exile, death, or revenge.
Once Medea speedballs toward its famous and horrifying climax, which von Trier shoots in panting close-ups with only wind and bird chirps on the soundtrack, the movie seems likely to be the nearest he’ll ever come to a masterwork. (Pasolini’s 1970 version, comparatively, ends in a meek and tasteful elision.) It’s a rare thing indeed—a movie that reveals itself in lucid and unsettling ways we haven’t seen before.
Another unforetold career acme: Christopher Guest’s seductive and brilliantly modulatory A Mighty Wind, which trains its laser-sight on the decaying legacy of Peter, Paul and Mary-style pop-folk. The third of Guest’s American-microworld mock-documentaries (or fourth, if you count This Is Spinal Tap), Wind gingerly avoids the cruel patronizations of Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, reserving open-faced mockery for showbiz Gollums like Fred Willard’s tanning-salon-blanched manager-cum-ex-comedian. The relative surplus of affectionate respect allows for a sly deepening of character all around, and an unexpected upkick from satire to poignance. The sick comedy of aging out of one’s sense of self without realizing it—a distinctly Elvisian spectacle—is one of Guest’s preoccupations, and the film exploits that most ludicrous of fading-boomer-culture manifestations, the one-hit-wonder reunion concert.
The players include the Disney World-inflected New Main Street Singers, who despite having not a single member of the original ’60s group among them, disinter the old songs (like “Potato’s in the Paddy Wagon”) at Orange Belt carnivals, and the Folksmen, a banjo-pickin’, novelty-number B side to Spinal Tap, with lead doofus Michael McKean, warblin’ nerd Guest, and Amish-bearded, bass-thumpin’ Harry Shearer. Guest’s secret weapon is Mitch and Mickey, a lovey-dovey duo played by graying SCTVers Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara. After having their video-clip history traced and their breakup pondered (the faux-vintage album covers are dead-on), the two meet again, Levy’s Mitch having dissolved into an institutionable basket case of gray locks, stunned eyes, and spastic speech. Never less than hilarious, Levy somehow sneaks a tragic dignity into this sinkhole of an ex-celebrity, and it is surely one of the year’s best performances. A Mighty Wind is glutted with inspired details—from Guest’s Peter-and-Paul male pattern baldness to Swedish programmer Ed Begley Jr.’s appropriated excess of Yiddish, to aggressive bimbo Jane Lynch’s brutal Florida smile—but it all boils down to Mitch and Mickey, whose culminating performance onstage verges on the transcendent.
Jacques Perrin’s Winged Migration is merely about birds, and though you learn less about the various species Perrin circled the globe to document than you might from an afternoon with Animal Planet, you become intensely chummy with the process and labor of flying. Using various high- and low-tech gadgetry, airborne apparatuses, and camera modifications, Perrin flew with flocks of geese, albatross, grebes, cranes, and pelicans, and achieved a stunning intimacy with the animals—you can hear their muscles heave and their feathers flap as they arrange themselves in perfect compositions. Perrin only occasionally indulges in anthropomorphical chicanery, but relies heavily on Living Desert-style montage drama, often left unresolved. (Did we need to wonder about the grain combine grinding up the stranded hatchling?) In any case, there’s little of the berserk poetry seen in Perrin’s Microcosmos. Perhaps only bird-watchers will kvell despite the redundancies.