Photo: Kira Perov. From Bill Viola's Tristan.
The other night I subjected myself to Lars von Trier's film Melancholia, whose soundtrack consists largely of bits and pieces of the prelude to Tristan und Isolde (with the Act III prelude added during the credits). I'll leave the fisking of the filmmaking to the New Yorker's Richard Brody and say just a few words about the use of Wagner, which manages to be at once clumsy, unoriginal, and perverse. Clumsy, because von Trier dwells so relentlessly on the opening of the prelude that it turns into a kind of cloying signature tune; repetition robs the music of its capacity to surprise and seduce the listener. There are horribly inept cuts and rearrangements. (The explanation that "it's supposed to be vulgar" is for me insufficient.) Unoriginal, because the slow-motion effects at the beginning seem borrowed from Bill Viola's sublime Tristan video, and because the Wagner-plus-explosion ending recalls Buñuel's immeasurably superior That Obscure Object of Desire (where the music is from Walküre). Perverse, because von Trier's aestheticized vision of the end of the world — "visually splendid and sonically romantic," as Brody says — buys into a cheap conception of Wagner as a bombastic nihilist. The fall of the gods in Götterdämmerung is a quick epilogue to a superbly detailed political, psychological, and spiritual narrative of their decline. The music isn't glorying in their destruction but anticipating the approach of a better world; it marks a change of regime. As I wrote in an essay last spring, Wagner gives us hope, however vague. Von Trier gave me little more than an infinite yearning that the credits would soon roll.
Previously: Björk on the hatred of originality.