III. The Black Leather Womb
Refn did two more films in the Pusher series – following first Frank’s sidekick Tonny and then his boss, Milo – and the films grow slowly but increasingly towards a dark kind of comedy (in Pusher III, Milo is simultaneously struggling with the violent mechanics of distribution territory and the domestic frustrations of his daughter’s birthday). But Refn’s next evolutionary stage came with Bronson. On one level, the film is of a piece with Sins of the Father and The Shawshank Redemption, films which spend decades in prison not so much as a means to an end (the end being the prison break), but to meditate on the parallel reality that prison becomes for its inmates. But while most prison films ultimately become about the prison microcosm (with its parallel politics and micro-economies), Bronson is about that brief rupture in Pusher, brought into full focus and dilated to a feature film in and of itself.
The film follows – at a quick clip – the young life of Michael Peterson and then slows down to take in the strangeness of the adult he becomes. Bronson – as he names himself during his early career as a black-market boxer – loves mostly to fight. Now, the film itself is almost too much fun to recount – and the point here is of course in part that you should see it if you haven’t yet – but here’s the important part: Michael Peterson is not a preternatural being, nor is he asexual or queer (he has a brief attempt at matrimony in the film, thwarted not by internal but external forces). Gay desire – although it certainly seems to titillate the Motion Picture Academy – is entirely too normative for Refn; he’s after something more rarified. In a sense, this film ostensibly represents a young criminal’s failure to acquire his own black suitcase. But as the film develops, it becomes clear that Bronson belongs in jail. Not for any of the usual punitive or reformative reasons, but because he turns the act of resisting imprisonment into an art form. For this art to be performed he needs the guards, the cell, the whole system. There is an amazing scene in which Bronson, preparing for a fight, cheerfully gets a lone guard to come into his cell and grease him up with soap, to make it more difficult for him to be subdued. Nothing Bronson does enables him to escape prison, certainly not for long, but he brings to each prison fight – or riot, as the case becomes – higher and more elaborate levels of aesthetic care. By the film’s penultimate scene, it’s become a burlesque of the prison film, a surreal (and deliberately Dali-esque) fugue from the biopic that Bronson begins as. At the very edge of metaphor where it ends, in the final shot, we see Bronson broken and crammed in a cage that appears, horribly, to be smaller than his body. He is still struggling.
On the one hand, this is the revenge of the suitcase. The prison, Bronson’s true life partner, operates in the traditional capitalist world, like all modern prisons concerned with overhead, personnel management, public relations and so on. Bronson finds a space to play-act a bizarre form of freedom, but ultimately the prison wins (the way prisons always win, by restricting a person’s movements to the point where they can no longer function). And yet, there is a scene where a prison official asks Bronson what he wants, and Bronson’s response – although not explicitly phrased as such – is that he wants to go fucking crazy. He doesn’t want a suitcase, he doesn’t want sex; he wants to unleash the same strange, joyous violence that we saw in Pusher, not for a few moments, but as much as possible. His near-autistic dedication to resistance for its own sake (l’art pour l’art), uncoupled from motives of finance, revenge or lust, is something we rarely see. Refn shows us, in beautifully orchestrated fight scenes, the birth of an anti-narrative (there’s an inverse parallel here to American Psycho: Patrick Bateman’s loses his identity through his compulsion for violence, Bronson finds it). In Bronson the rupture of and the antithesis to our familiar storylines are strikingly clear: this is not the story of money and sex – the traditional playthings of the Id – but a kind of madness incarnate, a kind of alternative life-force, neither Freudian or Marxist in its dynamics.
IV. We Built This City
Before I say anything about Refn’s Valhalla Rising, we should get a few things out of the way. First, if nothing else, this film is frighteningly beautiful. The Pusher films, especially the original, have some well organized shots, but they also have some naseau-inducing handheld camera work (alas, even with a million dollar grant there was apparently no room for a steady-cam in Refn’s budget). Bronson has some amazing shots, although you’ll feel the heavy influence of Kubrick in many of them. But Valhalla Rising has a devastatingly effective visual language all its own, repeatedly it does more with natural setting than other films do with pages of dialog. And I say this as someone who – by training –talks mostly about written works and – by inclination – thinks about visual works in terms of what you might import to literary fiction. But forget all that for two hours and watch the film, Refn makes his own world (and the New World, too) out of Scotland, and it’s amazing.
Second, this film is as ponderously self-important as the critics accused it of being, if not more (as Peter Griffin says of the Godfather, ‘it insists upon itself’). The repeated visual metaphor of One-Eye – the film’s quasi-protagonist – contemplating his own mirrored image for stunningly long periods of time is only one example of Refn’s film-school excesses. I don’t want to deflect or diminish that aspect of the film – to use the most enduring tautology of the streets: it is what it is – and you either have to accept it or walk away. Pros: you will see shit that very few directors with Refn’s skill are willing to risk trying. Cons: that shit will not always work (see ‘ham-fisted visual metaphors’).
Now then… the film –for all its similarities to our man Herzog and particularly Wrath of God – tells an old story with a strange twist. Again, plot recap ruins some of the fun – and Wikipedia does a handy job of summarizing what there is of a plot – but the central idea is, again, this insane and driving life-force. We see, at the opening of the film, ‘One-Eye’ chained to a pole and fighting to the death as what appear to be a Roman centurion and a Celtic Chieftain place bets (the opening sequence will make you cringe, if you don’t already, at any film that opens with text or voice-over exposition). This is the slightly more brutal, but essential analogous, story we saw with Bronson: One-Eye is imprisoned and subject to the whim of capital, yet he thrives (indeed, Mads Mikkelsen has morphed from the cheerful thug in Pusher to a force of nature and Refn takes great aesthetic care to capture the precision and power of his violence).
One thing worth nothing: Refn plays fast and loose with history and geography but what is striking about the film – for all its surreal and proto-mythic levels of abstraction – is the brutal realness of the film. When One-Eye joins up with a group of first-generation crusaders we can feel how tactical, how provisional the conversion from Celtic to Christian ritual is for them. We also see how delusional the more steadfast believers are: first when they plan to sail to Jerusalem (from what is either the pre-Saxon British Isles or the Norwegian coast), later when they end up – after drifting through one of those sea-fogged doldrums that always seem to occur around folded space-time – on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean. This of course is delightful mythmaking but it is also, in many ways, consistent with history: Vikings, as ill-prepared (or worse) as One-Eye’s semi-hostile shipmates, made their way to Newfoundland in much the same. The film, operating at the edge of – but not quite past – metaphor, puts the essential madness of pre-modern travel on screen. You really do get the sense that, by comparison, the most daring proposed trips to Mars or Titan are largely a matter of logistics and funding¸ a difficult but doable family vacation. What the Norse and other early sailors did has virtually no modern analog unless we discover a wormhole that we can jump into, having no idea what is on the other side or if we can even come back through it.
This particular kind of realness is how Refn makes his point. When the crusaders reach the New World they decide – a few hundred years ahead of the Puritans – to build a city on the hill and to bring Christ to the locals. Refn has a good time with the landscape, as the crusaders are barely able to penetrate the shore line before they are slowly picked off (shades of Conrad, a de rigueur reference which Refn unfailing touches on) by the aboriginals. The crusaders then decide to partake of a psychoactive brew and fall into assorted reveries – there is rape, violence, a ‘true believer’ is fixated on a roughly-built cross, and One-Eye mournfully builds a cairn. The latter is both visually stunning and overkill; it’s a heavy-handed but effective way of pointing out that the Celts and Vikings have more in common with the aboriginals than they do with the Christian hordes that would eventually occupy most of the globe. In fact, Refn’s finest scene in Valhalla Rising has – ironically – nothing to do with the rise or the (imminent) fall of Northern European paganism, and everything to do with ‘New Jerusalem Rising’. In my favorite scene, the nameless Christian general imagines building a miles-long chain of massive crosses, to guide ships from the mouth of the estuary to the upriver banks of the New World. One last time, the realness of Refn’s New World is what staggers the mind here, first in one direction, and then in the other.
First: here they are, a few desolate, hallucinating men, barely clinging to the edge of a million square miles of unknown land. Their expedition – unplanned and poorly executed – is going about as well as we would imagine: they are starving and being efficiently killed off by the local population. To top it off, here is their leader, imagining the construction of a holy empire, when he is unlikely to live through the day (he dies, in fact, shortly after his soliloquy). And all of this for a religion which they have just recently converted to – they have never seen a Holy Roman church, they have never read (if they are even literate) or even seen a bound bible (despite Refn’s sketchy time frame, it is definitively pre-Gutenberg). Their resolution, no longer bordering on but exceeding insanity, defies – as with Bronson – any sort of easy Freudian or Marxist rationale.
Second: in spite of how overwhelmingly insane it seems, this is not an inaccurate mythic model for the founding of the United States. Again, though we have to give Refn a lot of parabolic wiggle room here, Valhalla Rising shows us an alternate United States. It is not built on the crypto-cultism of Masons (i.e. Dan Brown), or the old-world Protestant money machine (e.g. Pynchon), or the international financial syndicate known as them (nine out of ten conspiracy-theory films). Instead, it is built on absolute fucking insanity, which – when it finds a creative outlet – is the most powerful drive in the world. This is Refn’s point – both on the specific and philosophical scale.
[Benjamin Schachtman lives in Chinatown with his wife, his dog and thousands of books.]