Björk...versus reality

Dazed & Confused n°65, 1er mai 2000

Björk is about to die. She is under arrest for the accidental murder of a police officer and is facing trial in Denmark. She will be found guilty and sentenced to death. Yes, Björk is about to die, but not before one last song.

This is a story of the making of Dancer in the Dark - the most bizarre film you’re ever likely to see - and a journey through the last nine or so months of Björk’s out-of-the-public-eye working life. This is also a story where fantasy and reality collide, where Björkworld meets Land-of- Lars, a story that gets serious and then before you know it a cute finger is placed over an even cuter mouth and we hear a "shhhhhshhh"...a flare of trumpets...and out of the ether a certain kind of magic is let loose. Another big riot ? Wow... bang...

Scene 1 : On set at Zentropa, outside Copenhagen, Denmark. July 1999.

Slow zoom into boot camp Zentropa, an ex-army base and now Lars von Trier’s production headquarters and the main location for the filming of Dancer In The Dark. Pan past the parade ground where the Danish flag still flutters in the late summer breeze and over the two-storey buildings that once served as barracks and army offices. Jump-cut inside one of the large storage-hangers now constructed to resemble a 60s’ prison, and sneak in to meet Björk.

The on-set atmosphere is noticeably tense as producers and technicians hurry to prepare the final scene. Björk is being strapped to a restraining board, held by two prison guards. A noose sits limply around her neck. This is Björk as Selma ; granny styled and nearly blind, exhausted and nearly dead. Björk sings her last song at one with the fact that her life is to end and her mission to save her son’s fast- fading eyesight is complete.

Dazed & Confused : In some respects Selma is similar to you. Music is a salvation for her, and it’s where you feel most comfortable. Was that strange to act ?

Björk : About 60 to 70 per cent of my head space is music always, and even though I’m talking to you now I’m only 30 per cent with you. It’s as if I’m DJing in my head unconsciously. It’s not like I’m really noticing and fitting different songs to the situation, it’s more like this is my little temple, my survival kit. It was also the first time in my life that someone burst in there and demanded that space and that was painful to give up. Also, to a certain degree, it has always been my secret. Everything can go haywire and my heart can get broken 50 times, but it’s all right because I can always escape. So suddenly I was getting terrified because I was finding myself in situations where I was surrounded by hundreds of people and cameras and I was supposed to be in that state of absent-mindedness, in my own world, in my tune and suddenly the world was invading what I’d been able to get away with for 33 years.

D&C : But you were acting ?

Björk : (Laughs) I wasn’t really, but that was another thing that was quite sort of...interesting... Yeah, I’m getting shy now, I’m saying too much too quick.

D&C : Did it feel like you were acting or did it feel like the character was more of an extension of you ?

Björk : I don’t think I really acted. I think I became her for two years. As far as I’m concerned, last summer I killed a man, and I was executed, and it’s a bit naive, but it is just the way I am, and Lars is the guy who got me to become a murderer. So I don’t think my acting was that intellectual, I think it was just really instinctive. The sort of pain the character in the film goes through, I’ve never felt that pain. I think that’s one of the reasons why Lars chose me because he knew that by taking me to that pain, I would be going there for the first time and he was going to be standing there with a camera.

D&C : Are you looking forward to people seeing it ? Are you nervous ?

Björk : I’m very proud of the music. It’s not that I don’t care about the film, the acting and all that, but I have no ambition for it, it’s really weird.

D&C : Would you care if you never made another film again ?

Björk : I’m never going to do one ever. It’s just not for me. Respect to the people who are doing it.

Set in the mid 1960s in a leafy suburb of Washington DC, Dancer In The Dark is the part-musical and part-narrative story of Selma, a blind, impoverished Czech immigrant, obsessed with musicals and coming to terms with life in the capitalist, fully automatic US of A. Lars von Trier, director of The Idiots and Breaking The Waves and co-founder of the infamous Dogme95 manifesto, mixes the aesthetics of Danish handi-cam realism and the magic of an all-singing, tap-dancing Björk pop promo.

We see the selfless Selma navigate through blindness, poverty, betrayal, accidental murder, imprisonment and finally death, but not before she leads us through her musically triggered, all-singing, all-dancing subconscious. Björk brings a graceful beauty to her tragic anti-heroine role, proving both the power of understatement and the providence of her instinctive approach to acting.

Mostly improvised, Björk’s heart-wrenching performance is superbly supported by both Catherine Denueve, who plays Kathy, her somewhat maternal best friend, and David Morse, who plays Bill, the policeman she murders. It’s a long way for Denueve since her 1964 breakthrough in the musical The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, but in Dancer In The Dark she is the perfect foil, a fittingly accomplished accomplice for Björk’s acting debut.

D&C : How well do you feel you know yourself ?

Björk : Well, most of the time. When I was a kid and now, apart from the four years I lived in London, I spend a lot of time on my own, and I would say that if I had to pick 90 of my top 100 climaxes of my life, I had them on my own...

D&C : That’s very unusual...

Björk : ... and it’s a very happy thing. I didin’t really communicate with people when I was a teenager until I was about 20. I was a really introverted kid and so I think I know myself pretty well. But when I start comparing myself to other people, what they’re like, it gets a bit scary, because then I find out that I’m really different. After doing this film I realise that a lot of people don’t want to be on their own, they want to be with someone and talk and they don’t remember their dreams when they wake up, and all these things, you know ? I find that really fascinating.

Scene 2 : Björk’s home from home in Copenhagen, Denmark. July 1999.

Subtle techno beats echo inside this typically-Scandinavian, pink-coloured house. It is sparsely decorated with a few creature comforts : a set of turntables, candles, piles of books, videos, CDs and a recording studio set in a room overlooking the sea. This has been Björk’s off-set sanctuary for the past three months of filming.

As the sailing boats glide by, Björk closes her eyes and gently releases a guide vocal for another song. "Secretive" is the word she uses for these potential album tracks. She plays a tender heartfelt ballad titled "A Different Kind Of Love", a playful uptempo song titled "Lost Keys" featuring an electric keyring solo, and a song without a title that is based on an e e cummings poem. This is the sound of a humble, unsure Björk, writing without grandiose statements, scripting from her subconscious, songs recorded for salvation and joy - a seductive Björk blowing you kisses and then hiding her face behind her hands.

D&C : How did the film affect the music you were recording for the album ?

Björk : All the songs I did then were like silk scarfs...almost like the opium of the film. All my vocals were whispers, and it was like the most peaceful lullaby calmed down, sort of stroking the wounds. Now I’m finishing mixing the film, and it’s really interesting because I could see the end of the project, and instead of just having the microphone and tiptoeing and whispering into it, I am grabbing it again and doing what I used to do before this film. So it’s changing.

D&C : Are you making them more aggressive ?

Björk : They were selfless, almost like little hymns, to cure you, to make you feel better. And now they’re a lot more energetic and a bit more selfish.

Scene 3 : Union Chapel, Islington, London. December 1999.

It may be a desecrated church, but the Gothic wooden carved interior and ornate decorative ceiling illuminated by a hundred or so candles makes Islington’s Union Chapel feel like hallowed ground. Björk stands barefoot, backed by the Brodsky Quartet’s classical reinterpretations of her songs, and without microphone, state or lighting rig.

She is about to give one of the most memorable performances of her career and one of the most original live gigs London has seen for years. Few other figures in pop could pull off something so daring, so innovative and bold. Metallica with cellos this isn’t. Björk’s ethereal voice mixing with Brodsky’s understated yet charismatic arrangement is pure divinity. The true magnitude of her charisma, her ability to captivate and hold an audience as she fights, jumps, screams, scrunches, tiptoes and whispers her way acoustically through her back catalogue, is acknowledged.

D&C : Were you surprised how well the gig worked ?

Björk : Sometimes when I was a kid, some of my most memorable moments were walking on the tops of mountains, singing with no microphone and no limitations. Something in the back of my mind decided that if all my dreams could come true it would be to share these things. So being lucky, after my first tour and second tour, I’m slowly working my way towards that.

D&C : You managed to break through the gap between the audience and the performer, by using less power, less noise, less amplification ?

Björk : A side of me wants to prove that the magic is right there with you and you don’t need outside tools to move you.

Scene 4 : Reykjavik, Iceland. New Year’s Eve 1999.

Thick cartoon snowflakes are carpeting Reykjavik and turning Björk’s home city into a magic winter wonderland.

Inside, the intimate atmosphere of excitement is shared among friends and family as the clock beats ever closer to the Millennium. It’s been a difficult year of filming for Björk and at this juncture between reflection and expectation she seems calm and confident.

Outside the occasional wind whips the snow into freak blizzards as pedestrians walk with their faces covered, hats pulled down to cover backs of necks. Fireworks begin to pop, slowing at first and then building to crescendoes all over the city. The children run outside first, followed by the adults. Björk’s mum, dad and son Sindri are here. Ex-members of the Sugarcubes and friends mingle with recent acquaintances from Dancer In The Dark. Catherine Deneuve has flown in from Paris. As the collective look to the sky, Denueve and Björk stand with beanie boppers on their heads that spell out 2000 and the stars and fireworks collide to obliterate the night sky.

D&C : Are you happier in Iceland or in London ?

Björk : I think my nature is more to be in Iceland but as soon as I get too comfortable I get a hunger to surprise myself. Going abroad for the adventure element, the shock treament of the cities : I think that is very balanced.

D&C : A lot of negative things happened between 1996 and the end of 1997, before you moved back to Iceland : you lost your voice on tour in America, a bomb was sent to your home in London, you split up from a high profile relationship. Was that a very difficult time for you personally or was that just a media point of view ?

Björk : Life is much more complicated than that, thank God. I shouldn’t say this, but right now there are two Björk’s that exist. One is me and one is this fictional character that people are writing about and it’s got a separate life. A lot of things happen to this fictional character that don’t happen to me and 50,000 things happened to me in 1996 and 1997 that nobody knows about and I like to keep it that way. One thing that is quite definite is that my introvert is Iceland and my extrovert is England. So when I’m feeling extrovert and I want to meet a lot of people and talk, I get very restless in Iceland and when I’m feeling very introvert I can’t stand London, so it represents that schizophrenia in me to a degree. In 1997 that extrovert in me got bored. One more party, one more paparazzi, it didn’t do it for me. I would stand at a party thinking about my sofa at home.

Björk brings a sense of wonder and danger to the landscape of pop, an unpredictability that is missing from the extremes of contemporary culture. It’s almost as if she isn’t meant to fit in anywhere. She comes unfashioned, as a fluid, unhomogenised force that has always inflected pop with a taste for the avant garde.

Björk has made the necessary transformations from outsider to insider and back outside again and has proven beyond doubt to be unafraid of change, of trying on new masks, of reacting to stereotype. As mistress of reinvention and master of collaboration, Björk has few challengers to the title of high priestess of pop.

Perhaps it comes from her background as part of the co-operative, multi- tasking Bad Taste collective that spawned the punk-infused Sugarcubes. Or even further before that, from her childhood as a 13-year-old Icelandic pop star having the piss taken out of her at school, or even from her father, a strong, active trade unionist leader. Perhaps all of these influences have blended together to provide the strength and change-the-world attitude that is manifested in Björk’s creative make- up.

Scene 5 : On set at Zentropa, Copenhagen. July 1999.

Lars von Trier walks a few paces away from the assembled cast and crew. He turns his back on them, casually undoes his belt buckle and loosens his trousers. He pulls out his dick and pisses on the daisies and buttercups springing from the grass at Zentropa.

Infamous for filming Idiots partly in the nude, von Trier has up until now been keeping his clothes on. "I’m in def con one," says von Trier, aptly using military terminology to reply to questions about his film. "It’s hard to have a conversation with me at the moment," he says, "I’d be better in a few weeks, when the film is done."

Von Trier is a complex man whose films are an elaborate map of his psyche. There were rumours of fierce on-set clashes between von Trier and Björk, stories about control and authorship that culminated in Björk walking off the $15 million production, barefoot. Filming was delayed for two days until she came back with her own manifesto, a short list of demands to protect her music that included her final say on the mixing and editing of the songs. "He makes my chest vibrate sometimes," says Björk, "when I am in the same room as him. He has this inner pain, this instability inside him. He once told me, ’you are too emotionally pure for me.’ I think he wanted creative tension on set, to somehow offset that side of his personality, to clash with it."

Von Trier’s tight, close-cropping creates a sense of claustrophobia for the narrative driven, improvised scenes. The frequent use of jump-cuts and fast editing further heightens their emotional intesity. It all fittingly jars with the wide angle, 35mm, strictly choreographed musical sequences that lift the film.

Dancer In The Dark is an ambitious film that is consolidated by brilliant acting and inventive choreography : ultimately a film that is not afraid to take on big questions and complex themes. The result ; no justice, no redemption, no happy ending and no easy answers. Pure, unfettered von Trier.

D&C : What made you decide to make this film with Lars ?

Björk : When I did the video for ’Oh so Quiet’ I got really excited. Me and Spike [Jonze] were talking about doing a musical together and then Spike did Being John Malkovitch and Lars came up with this idea. At first I was just going to do the music. It then took him a year to convince me to be in it, because I never felt completely right about acting.

D&C : In a recent interview with Catherine Denueve an interviewer asked her about Lars being difficult and pushy and she said she treated it like a game - was that how you treated it ?

Björk : No, I did not treat it as a game. It’s a question of life and death for me and that’s one of the reasons that Lars fought so hard for a year to get me to do it. I won’t play at things. I don’t necessarily look at it as a strength in me, that’s just the way I do things.

D&C : I heard a rumour that you, like Selma, also worked in a factory.

Björk : Both a fish factory and a Coca-Cola factory.

D&C : When you were working did you sing ?

Björk : At the Coca-Cola factory, with all the bottles clattering, you kind of sing at the top of your voice to the rhythm, and no one can hear you because it’s so loud in there.

D&C : How old were you ?

Björk : I was 15 and I was underage. It was illegal.

Scene 6 : Olympic Studios, Barnes, London. February 2000.

The freeze-frame image of Björk’s face hangs on a small wall-mounted video monitor. Tape operators digitally rewind vocal sequences through banks of electronic switches and displays in this dark studio.

Along with Mark Bell, her beats-and-squiggles collaborator on Homogenic, and Mark "Spike" Stent, one of the world’s premiere mixers, Björk is overseeing the final adjustments to the film’s musical score. There is talk of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke dueting with Björk for the soundtrack’s first single. Recorded in five point one surround sound and running a enormous 100-plus channels of sound, this technological feat of engineering should make cinema audiences’ earlobes dance with excitement. The idea at work is that during the narrative sequences the sound will all be played in mono and when you hit the singing scenes the auditorium will come alive with the sound of Björk-music. Audio versus video, vibrations versus pixelation, queen B versus king von Trier again.

D&C : What’s your greatest fear ?

Björk : Boredom.

D&C : That’s too easy...

Björk : ...maybe that I won’t be able to do all my tunes before I die. I have a sense of a clock ticking. The film gave me a real sense that I was having an affair from music. Spending that time away from music created a fear in me. A fear that I was wasting my time and that I might not be able to write tunes again. During the period when I was doing this film it felt like I was holding my breath.

D&C : Did you really feel that writing music was something you could lose ?

Björk : For the first time in my life, because of Lars. Suddenly because that space in me was being demanded, my dependency on music was taken away.

D&C : Do you think we are living in a culture that is emotionally vibrant or emotionally sterile ?

Björk : I think emotion will always win. I think the more technology, the more the younger generations see through it. They see through the commercial aspects. Like getting into MP3.

D&C : The major record companies have come together to sue MP3 because they are so frightened of copyright infringement.

Björk : I think the record companies have ruled for too long. The people that are writing and swapping music on the net are the people who love music. That will be the structure that survives and it may well mean that the record companies collapse and people like me who in the last few years have got a ridiculous amount of money for what we do will not get it, but I think that people who want to do it as badly as I do don’t care about the money anyway.

D&C : So what’s happening now is the major record companies are using all their power to popularise the advertisement, the jingle. They want to make the popular song, the one that they control and own and even write. The Spice Girls are an example of that - a collusion between management, marketing and record company.

Björk : The reason why the Spice Girls exist is because people need them. I think what they do is a service and I think it is very self- sacrificial. At the end of the day it’s generous, they are sacrificing their lives. They are filling a gap that people want.

D&C : So if they are there to give people what they want, are you there to give people what they don’t want ?

Björk : I’m for the eccentrics. I’m there for the weirdos.

publié dans Dazed & Confused n°65