Friday, February 15, 2013

"The Idiots": An Emotional Conflict

The Portland International Film Festival has been underway for a week now. This is extremely exciting for me, personally, because I finally live in a place with the resources and interest to host such an event. I highly recommend checking it out to those who can. The PIFF is going on until February 23rd. More information can be found on their website.

But I digress! The arrival of the film festival coupled with my involvement with Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp got me thinking (again) about the disabled community as represented through film. As time goes on, it seems that the disabled are being more accurately represented in movies, which is great, but my thoughts were recently pulled back to a 1998 film by Danish director Lars von Trier. Von Trier is known for his typically bizarre, sometimes controversial, and often disturbing films. He directed, among others, “Dancer in the Dark,” a film about a young, working class woman who struggles to support herself and her brother as her secret visual impairment rapidly worsens. Like many of his films, “Dancer in the Dark” is emotionally jarring and thought-provoking. But the film I would really like to discuss is von Trier's “Idioterne”, or when translated, “The Idiots”.

The brief synopses of “The Idiots,” supplied by IMDb is as follows:

“The group of people gather at the house in Copenhagen suburb to break all the limitations and to bring out the 'inner idiot' in themselves.”

The term “idiot” comes off as crass and offensive when one learns that the movie is about a group of friends who pretend to be mentally disabled in order to challenge society and liberate themselves. Whether von Trier meant to offend or not (and to whom the offense was aimed), I am not sure, but his film is extremely thought provoking. The film is painfully raw and harsh in many ways, and on the surface it can be seen as a crude and disturbing story that mistreats the disabled. However, it allows the viewer to see the unfortunate reality of many people's reactions to the disabled community.

Steep yourself in cinema and feel your brain explode with ideas.

On the one hand, there is the reaction of the young slackers who act disabled for their own entertainment and treat it as a game, sometimes even as a competition. But below that, there is their interactions with the unaware people around them. In one scene, the group goes from house to house in a nice neighborhood, selling handmade crafts. One person slams the door in their faces, and another begrudgingly hands over some money, apparently out of moral obligation and a desire to get the group to leave her alone. At this point, one of the main characters “turns off” his disability and frustratedly laments the futility of their activity, showing the audience that these people are able to rejoin “normal” society whenever they want, whereas actual members of the disabled community don't have that luxury.

An article written in 1999 by Stefan Steinberg attempts to explain a possible motive behind von Trier's creation of “The Idiots”:

“On the basis of The Idiots, one concludes that [von Trier] is evidently motivated by a dislike, even a disgust for society as it stands. At the same time he is apparently blind to any way of changing society in a meaningful way. He has chosen the well-trodden and fairly threadbare path of individual self-liberation. There is something a bit provincial in all this, but von Trier seems to be espousing the notion, popular during the radicalisation of the 1960s, that mental disorder represents a higher and superior form of perception.”

I'm not sure what to think of this, and I'm worried that I will get little response if I ask you, dear reader, for your opinion, because I don't believe this movie has a widespread audience. If you are brave enough to watch the film, I would love some input. I feel I've not adequately expressed the conflict that comes with watching this movie or why I felt it necessary to share my experience with it. I must warn you, the movie is rather graphic and unconventional, but if you can go into it with an open mind, I think there is a lot that can be taken away from it.

What films have influenced you or changed your perceptions about people, situations, etc? Help me out! Did this gratuitously long post make any sense at all?

“It is impossible to say just what I mean!” - T.S. Eliot

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