Videovista have my review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising.
Valhalla Rising is a beautifully shot and darkly existentialist riff on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which, in the grand tradition of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), moves the action from colonial Africa to the age of Vikings.
It is a densely symbolic and beautifully shot film and… it bored the shit out of me. My main problem with the film is similar to the problem exposed by Emmanuel Carrere’s La Moustache (2005) and demonstrated by Thomas Clay’s Soi Cowboy (2008).
I’ll expand my thoughts n the problem in the post linking to the review of Soi Cowboy but the three posts kind of interlink.
In 1975 the Nigerian author and critic Chinua Achebe gave a lecture that sent shock-waves through the literary community. In this lecture, he suggested that the depiction of Africans in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) was more than sufficient to label not only the text but also its author as racist. While Achebe would later soften his position by suggesting that his interpretation was only one of many and that his reading in no way invalidated all of the laudatory readings cooked up by admirers of the work, the damage was done. Over thirty years later the spectre of racism still hangs over Heart of Darkness, provoking the feeling that however glorious the novella might be, it may well be a reflection of a by-gone age with values not quite the same as ours but which we are willing to put up with for the sake of what is good in the work. In fact, introductions to contemporary editions of the work bend over backwards to stress Conrad’s anti-colonialist credentials.
However, Achebe’s “An Image of Africa : Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” actually addresses this issue by discussing Conrad’s layered approach to narration. Conrad gives the story not one but two narrators; Marlow who recounts his curious experiences in the Congo and a shadowy figure who is telling us about Marlow telling the story. By insulating himself so carefully, Conrad seems to be insulating himself against the language and the opinions of the story. It is not Conrad who speaks of ‘buck niggers’ but Marlowe and his chronicler. However, Achebe’s critique stretches much deeper than merely cataloguing all the uses of racist language and stereotypical depictions of Black people. In fact, his piece is at its most powerful when it is talking in the abstract about the technique that Conrad uses to project fears onto an entire population. This is a technique that is still in use today and it is just as problematic as can be seen in films such as William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002).
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I recently re-read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) for the first time since taking up criticism as an activity. I originally read the novella as a very straight-forward conceptual breakthrough story in which a Victorian comes to realise the literally horrifying nature of existence. However, upon further reflection it strikes me that, while sticking to this interpretation of the novella, there are three possible insights to take away from the book :
- Firstly, that existence outside of the confines of civilisation is horrific. Under this interpretation, the desiccated world of doilies, influential aunts and ancient men we see in the opening section of the novella are a price we have to pay in order to protect ourselves and escape from the Horror of the Hobbesian state of nature.
- Secondly, that existence is whatever humanity makes of it. Rather than building a new world or exporting the values of the European elites, colonialism has in fact opened the way for the rapaciously greedy to create a sort of hell on Earth. A hell in which a man’s capacity to kill elephants and enslave the local population makes him a great man. When Kurtz dies, he groans not for the horror in the world, but the horror he and his imitators have unleashed.
- Thirdly, that Kurtz’s groans are a moment of conceptual break-through. Under this view, humanity is trapped between the anguish and misery of being and the terrifying nothingness of non-being. Whether a Dutch merchant or a Congolese fisherman, the dilemma is the same even if we do not necessarily realise it. Kurtz, by venturing far outside the confines of his native culture, has realised the truth about existence. A truth that horrifies him even as he dies.
These three different interpretations represent different solutions to the question of why existence is so horrifying : Is existence tainted by our actions? Is it something that is present in the world but escaped from thanks to civilisation? Or is it something that permeates all of existence, but which we only catch a glimpse of from time to time when we are paying attention?
Critically panned at the time of its release, Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover (2002) is an attempt to provide an answer to this question by considering not only the ways in which humans treat each other but also the ways in which human civilisation deals with the savage nature of existence through its media and its institutions.
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