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Memphis Flyer Vision Quests

By Chris Herrington

MAY 8, 2000: 

The Element of Crime directed by Lars von Trier (Home Vision Cinema)

The Element of Crime (1984) is Danish director Lars von Trier's debut film, and those familiar with him only through his recent "crossover hit" Breaking the Waves or his media status as leader of the "Dogme 95" minimalist movement might be quite surprised by it. A Danish production filmed in English (just like Breaking the Waves, a problematic masterpiece if there ever was one), the heavily stylized The Element of Crime is a huge departure from the spontaneous, "directorless" style that von Trier now espouses. Though a cult classic in Europe, the film is virtually unknown in the U.S., but this new video release, to be followed by a DVD release later this year, might change that.

The film is essentially a conflation of genres, equal parts neo-noir and midnight movie. Most often compared to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, another atmospheric, futuristic noir about a lone cop on a dangerous journey, The Element of Crime concerns a series of slayings called "The Lotto Murders," with children selling lottery tickets becoming victims of ritual killings. The film's protagonist is Fisher, a detective on some kind of hazily defined sabbatical in Cairo, who gets called back to his northern European homeland after 13 years in exile to work the case.

Upon returning, Fisher meets up with his mentor, Osborne, a deposed detective whose psychologically based criminology treatise The Element of Crime is out of vogue. Osborne's book proposes an investigative methodology based on identification with the criminal, and Fisher uses the theories in the book to track the suspected killer, a man named Harry Grey. Following Grey's exact trail from a three-year-old police surveillance report, Fisher meets up with, and beds down with, Grey's girlfriend and begins to take on Grey's persona, leading to a surprise twist ending that the viewer may or may not see coming the whole time. That is, if you're able to keep track of the plot at all -- a cumbersome task for a film whose primary "pleasure" is purely visual.

The Element of Crime is postmodern in the sense that it seems as much a riff on genre and other films as a creation of its own. Fisher's voice-over narration is in the trademark noir style, heard in films from classics like Detour and Double Indemnity to Blade Runner. There are echoes of Fritz Lang's German masterpiece M and of the mid-Sixties avant-garde cult classic La Jetée. And the setting, an undefined/alternative future rife with postindustrial decay, feels an awful lot like Terry Gilliam's Brazil, which arrived at roughly the same time. With its sepia-toned photography and odd, Wellesian angles, The Element of Crime is a visual tour de force that's actually a little dull to watch, but it's a surreal vision that stays with you. The film unfolds like the memory of a nightmare; it has the same psychic texture as such weird-cinema classics as David Lynch's Eraserhead and Luis Buñeul's Un Chien Andalou.

Coming Apart directed by Milton Moses Ginsberg (Kino on Video)

Rescued from oblivion by Kino, Milton Moses Ginsberg's 1969 black comedy/meltdown movie Coming Apart is pure stunt cinema. A young Rip Torn gives an impressive performance as a married psychiatrist who rents a sparse Manhattan apartment, sets up a secret camera, films trysts with a series of women, and ends up filming his own breakdown.

Coming Apart is formally interesting -- most of the film is shot with the camera aimed at a couch against one wall of the apartment. A large mirror behind the couch allows the audience to simultaneously see what's happening on the couch and what's going on in the rest of the room.

The spontaneous-feeling black-and-white scenes of middle-class subjects in a state of psychic disarray seem like hand-me-downs from John Cassavetes' far superior Faces, which came the year before. And, while the film's view of the limits of sex-as-therapy for its troubled male protagonist predates Last Tango in Paris by a few years, Coming Apart doesn't have that film's poetry.

In an essay for Film Comment, included on the DVD, Ginsberg writes of the commercial failure of Coming Apart in terms of his affinity for other "obscure, pretentious, and boring" films like Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore and Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. This is self-serving. Those two films really are "difficult" (or, rather, largely unseen) masterpieces, whereas Coming Apart is just sort of obscure, pretentious, and boring.

As late '60s/early '70s comedown films go, Coming Apart isn't as watchable or intriguing as Gimme Shelter or Two-Lane Blacktop, but it's still a worthwhile artifact.

Ordering info: Kino (1-800-562-3330); Home Vision (1-800-826-3456)

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