Long-time visitors to the site will know that I have something of a love-hate relationship with the films of Nicolas Winding Refn.The relationship began in 2008 when I went to see his singular and yet problematic biopic Bronson. Soon after that, I was completely blown away by the viciously gritty realism of Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy. A few years later, I was going through something of a ‘viking’ phase during which I read several books about the period. Upon hearing that Winding Refn’s next film Valhalla Rising was a Conradian take on vikings, I immediately dragged my partner to a film festival where it was screening. The result was something of a disappointment. Winding Refn had won my devotion by crushing the bones of modern life and sucking the marrow from them without using the increasingly hide-bound techniques of european art house film. Indeed, you are more likely to see someone get shot to death in a Winding Refn film than you are to see them staring meaningfully into the distance. When the time came for me to review the film, I voiced my extreme ambivalence and disappointment in a post over at Videovista:
This is art with the creative impulse kept in chains and passed back and forth between worn-out chieftains. This is the kind of film that makes you strain to remember the last time you were genuinely shocked or surprised at the cinema. This is art that leaves you yearning for a gust of fresh air that will blow away the cobwebs. This is the revolutionary corrupted into the familiar. The transgressive repackaged as the formulaic. This is what creative stagnation looks like and I find that almost unbearably depressing. As someone who is not only a huge fan of Conrad but also of Malick, existentialism and Vikings, Valhalla Rising should have been my ideal film but instead it left me feeling that I had seen it all before just one too many times.
This is basically the art house intellectual equivalent of nerd rage. My annoyance at the film was such that I even felt obliged to unpack my feelings even further in a piece inspired by James Woods’ extended critical essay How Fiction Works and Thomas Clay’s Soi Cowboy. Valhalla Rising left a deep wound in my appreciation of film, it marked the point where I stopped celebrating art house film and began questioning its methods and its metrics of success. Valhalla Rising is not the work of a free spirit, it is the work of someone who is reaching out to the art house establishment in search of recognition and legitimacy. Valhalla Rising is the work of an outsider who wants to come in from the cold and the exact same thing can be said of Thomas Clay’s Soi Cowboy, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights and Steve McQueen’s Shame. All of these films bend the knee to the European art house establishment and so come off looking like genre pieces. The problem is that the techniques that once revolutionised European filmmaking in the 1960s have become ossified and so European art house film is now little more than a genre that talented directors attempt to move beyond. As Woods puts it:
When a style decomposes, flattens itself down into a genre, then indeed it does become a set of mannerisms and often pretty lifeless techniques
Winding Refn’s willingness to bend the knee was amply rewarded when his next film Drive became one of the most widely celebrated films of 2011. Full of violence and exploitation film tropes, Drive seemed built for the US market and yet it managed to convince art house fans as well as critics. Had Winding Refn not made a film as conventionally arty as Valhalla Rising, I suspect that Drive would never have won over art house critics. It is too American… too violent… too exciting… too plot driven. The Imp of the Perverse that sits on my shoulder decided that I should hate Drive on general principle and yet I did not. In fact, as I said when I reviewed the film, I consider it to be one of the greatest films of all time… if only for this scene:
I could watch it all day: The dimming of the light, the way he starts to pull away before she does and the way he steps back before exploding into action in a way that pleads ‘just give me one more second of this feeling… one more second before I have to do something horrible’. There is genius in that scene and there is genius in Drive as a work of cinematic art. It is a thousand miles from the sterile art house nonsense of Eugene Green’s Portuguese Nun and Carlos Reygadas’ Stellet Licht.
Given that I adore the work of Nicolas Winding Refn, I was delighted to discover a documentary about his work. Filmed as Winding Refn scouts out locations in Bancock, Laurent Duroche’s NWR is a wonderfully candid piece that reveals a lot about how Winding Refn works and how he thinks his way through particular projects. Particularly interesting is the fact that Winding Refn actually turned down the chance to go to a prominent Danish film school and chose instead to use the money to make Pusher. The film, and many other fantastic films like it, are made available for free online and are collected at the absolutely awesome Cinephilia&Beyond Archive.
I am particularly enamored with the film as it opens with some fantastic comments in French by the great surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. This opening section, sadly devoid of English subtitles, translates as:
You have to understand one thing. Cinema has arrived at a disappointing stage: Complete industial degeneration. With this pulp… this cancer that is American cinema has infected the entire planet. It has political power… it has economic power… it is a pile of spiritual excrement. Then, when we had lost absolutely all hope, when we saw that all films were lit in exactly the same way… with that degenerate Spielberg… When we find ONE artist who can survive (despite having to earn a living) and who BREATHES… it is a moment of supreme joy. The boy Nicolas saved me from my cinematic depression