22.01.17 – Be as Ourself in Denmark

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“Be as ourself in Denmark.
This gentle and unforced accord
Sits smiling to my heart, in grace whereof
No jocund health that Denmark drinks today
But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell,
And the king’s rouse the heavens shall bruit again,
Respeaking earthly thunder.”
– Claudius: Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 2
Following my inspirational visit to Switzerland earlier in January, I returned to Belgium with an even stronger resolve to explore as much of Europe as time and money would allow. I’ve been asked by friends quite often lately how I am able to afford these trips, and no I haven’t sold a kidney or anything like that. Most of my travel so far has been fueled by a combination of unchecked financial recklessness and careful consideration of flight and hostel room costs. I am a very low-maintenance traveler, and since these take up anywhere between two and four days, there is no need to pack excessively, spend much on a six bed hostel room, or worry about high-end cuisine. You may notice a lack of food references in this blog, not for my lack of enjoyment of a good quality meal, but instead because I’ve made it a priority to put social and cultural engagements higher on my spending list. What I’ve set out to do from this point on is to use skyscanner.net as a tool to find the cheapest flights out of Brussels and book the flight before I can change my mind. The result as you will see in this reflection and future posts, have so far been nothing but positive.
dogma-95-collage-1024x798After completing the latest draft of an article and also in the mood to celebrate a recent publication notice I had received, I decided to take a short weekend trip (one hour flight, 17 euro round trip) to Copenhagen. I did not plan much in the way of what I hoped to see, excepting for a Sunday excursion to Kronborg Castle, about an hour north of the city and best known as the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I also booked a tour of the Nordsk Studio in Copenhagen, which at one time was one of the leading centers of film production in Europe. Other than that, the opportunity to trek through the streets of the city and retrace the footsteps of Soren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Anderson had more than enough of an appeal. In terms of Danish cinema, my exposure has been relatively limited to aspects of the Dogme 95 movement led by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. The “vow of chastity” taken on the part of filmmakers involved in the movement is truly an inspiration in an effort taken toward artistic purity that was quite influential to my time as an aspiring independent filmmaker.
Of the Dogme 95 filmmakers, I must admit that I am only familiar with the films of Lars Van Trier. In fact the first film that I watched when I came to Ghent was his Dancer in the Dark – also my first exposure to Van Trier’s style. As a recent student of Derrida’s conception of deconstruction, I can certainly find and appreciate elements of such a philosophic approach from a filmic perspective in Van Trier’s films. This can be broken down into four key principles:
  1. The present is always complicated by non-presence. Derrida calls this form of “minimal repeatability” found in every experience “the trace.” The trace is a form of pre-speech and pre-writing, since language in its most minimal determination consists in repeatable forms.
  2. The origin of an object or idea is immediately divided, as if they fall into division, accidents, and empirical events which have always already taken place. Derrida calls this kind of origin “origin-heterogeneous”: where “the origin is heterogeneous immediately.”
  3. Whatever is given is given as other than itself, as already past or as still to come.  Faith, perjury, and language are already there in the origin.
  4. Every experience then is always not quite on time or, as Derrida quotes Hamlet, time is “out of joint.” Late in his career, Derrida will call this time being out of joint an “anachronism”. With this in mind the phrase “out of joint” by Derrida’s definition, alludes to the notion of universal justice: (i.e. being out of joint, time is necessarily unjust or violent.)

With these four components in mind, I’ll present this brief overview of Van Trier’s films and demonstrate how Derrida’s deconstruction applies in his work.

Another modern Danish filmmaker who I am also receptive to than Van Trier is Nicholas Winding Refn. Although in certain ways I feel that Refn’s style is less bold than Van Trier’s, there are elements of the deconstructive influence of the former Dogme 95 movement, in his highly stylized presentation of the human experience. Perhaps as a much needed palate cleanser after the very intense montage presented above, I’ll show one of the more low key moments (and personally my favorite of the film) from his landmark film Drive (2011). After seeing this movie I became obsessed with the band College and kept the soundtrack on constant repeat for much of the Spring 2012 semester.

So what aspects of Danish life and society have influenced this urge to challenge typical genre conventions? Whether it be Van Trier’s bare-bones approach to cinema, or Refn’s over-stylization of classic cinema archtypes? From the outside, we can revisit Shakespeare’s outsider perspective of time in the far north as existing “out of joint.” With my visit to “Elsinore” (Helsingør in Danish), I hoped to shed further light on these elements. This can further be deconstructed by looking at the contrasts in which Kronborg Castle, the real life inspiration for Shakespeare’s Elsinore, has been represented on film and how it compares to the way it is presented to tourists and visitors today. It is unlikely that Shakespeare himself ever visited Kronborg Castle in person, but in Hamlet he does refer to Kronborg Castle as the location of Elsinore. So with this in mind, the actual sense of place presented in film adaptations of Hamlet have had a varying degree of differences in the way the castle itself is presented. I’ll start with a few pictures from my behind-the-scenes tour of the reconstructed 15th century castle.

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Now let’s compare this polished and High Renaissance/Early enlightenment era rendition of the historic Kronborg with the smoke and fog of Lawrence Olivier’s Elsinore in his version of Hamlet (1948).

But the castle’s size, once established, could have been taken for granted. The long tracking and dolly shots down stairs, around pillars and along corridors only slow down the tempo, with the result that Ophelia’s mad scene, for one, is less effective than in the more congested traffic of the stage. The model ships, too, are both unconvincing and superfluous. It may sound an odd and ungrateful thing to say of a man who had made two superb films running, but the truth is that Olivier still uses the camera to achieve effects that a stage producer might aspire to if his stage were big enough and money no object. His work will gain a great deal when he learns to forget stage entrances and the slow gathering of players, and cut or dissolve from one scene to another in full course. A drama of enormous vitality and excitement is played out in a museum.

Let’s contrast this to Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet (1996), which perhaps more so than any other Shakespeare adaptation has attempted to not only bring the play’s full four hour length to life, but by creatively resetting the play in 19th century Denmark, had set out to reproduce the actual splendor of Kronborg Castle.

My second and (sadly last) full day in Denmark involved an even deeper search into the essence of Danish “out-of-jointness.” What about the way in which the Danes themselves have examined their history and constructed their identity through a shared past? The answers to my question came to me at the National Museum of Denmark.

For a crash course in Danish history and culture, spend an afternoon at Denmark’s National Museum. It has first claims on virtually every antiquity uncovered on Danish soil, including Stone Age tools, Viking weaponry, rune stones and medieval jewellery. Among the many highlights is a finely crafted 3500-year-old Sun Chariot, as well as bronze lurs (horns), some of which date back 3000 years and are still capable of blowing a tune. There are also  sections related to the Norsemen and Inuit of Greenland and an evocative exhibition called ‘Stories of Denmark’, covering Danish history from 1660 to 2000. Among the highlights here are re-created living quarters (among them an 18th-century Copenhagen apartment) and a whimsical collection of toys, including a veritable village of dollhouses.

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With this broader overview of the history of Danish life and culture, I feel that we can perhaps get closer to the sense of rebelliousness that comes from existing on the edge of continental European ambitions and the Scandinavian frontier. Perhaps the story that best represents the dual natural of forward thinking and repression that Danes have often made the effort to come to terms with can be found in Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair (2012). The film tells the incredible true-life story of the relationship between the mad Christian VII of Denmark, his wife Caroline Matilda and their royal physician Johann Friedrich Struensee. Struensee attempts to impose an coup from within the government and for a brief 14 month period introduces a series of reforms and progressive changes to the regressive and superstitious ridden Danish society of the late 18th century. It is a useful allegory in which again the ideas of identity and history can intersect onto the screen in an engrossing fashion.

As the sun began to set and with only a few hours left before I had to take my red-eye return flight back to Belgium, I thought I would take advantage of the suprisingly warm and sunny evening, and take a stroll to Assistens Cemetery, where I was able to pay pilgrimage to one of my favorite thinkers, Soren Kierkegaard. When reflecting on his life an experiences in a society that was both progressive and regressive in the same manner that destroyed Struensee a generation before, Kierkegaard’s proto-existentialist musings are also a product of his own place and time. So I’ll sign off with this quote from him on the identity of the individual, a quote and perspective that I have attempted to present in different fashions throughout this blog and one I hold very close to my own beliefs:

“Most people are subjective toward themselves and objective toward all others, frightfully objective sometimes – but the task is precisely to be objective toward oneself and subjective toward all others.”

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