Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Danish Poet

The Danish Poet (Norwegian: Den danske dikteren)
Torill Kove, 2006.
Norweigan Film Institute (Europe) / National Film Board of Canada (world)
15 minutes

Academy Award Winner for Best Animated Short Film
Genie Award Winner for Best Animated Short Film
This is the second Norwegian film to win an Academy Award

Films that win awards gain a certain type of recognition and specialization that catches people's attentions. When people browse through a list of films, they'll go to the ones that won awards. The mentality is if the film won an award, especially something like the Oscars, it must be good. And what makes it good? It's subjective, as all art is. And yet people are drawn to award-winners. I'm drawn to them. There are so many good and bad films out there that award-winners narrow the field down to the potentially good ones.

So what standards would I make for an award-winning short film? Here goes: strong plot, emotional tie with the characters, good dialogue, and a "poignancy" that places it above the rest. What that "poignancy" is depends on the film itself and what it is trying to say. But not everything the Oscars chooses is particularly good. However, the only short film Norway won the Oscar for is a more-than-worthy choice.

The Danish Poet (2006) exemplifies how coincidence and chance can change people's lives, and set course for the way things are now. The poet Kasper Jørgensen leaves Denmark for Norway to meet his favorite author Sigrid Undset in order to gain inspiration. When he arrives in Norway, he meets Ingeborg, a farmer's daughter who is engaged to another man, and they fall in love. A series of chance events occur -- such as Ingeborg's husband dying, the letter Ingeborg sends but never reaches -- that keep them separated for awhile, but a coincidence meeting at a funeral reunite them again. Another coincidence meeting between two other characters in the short happens, and it parallel's how Kasper and Ingeborg met.

"On the surface it is quite a simple tale about the coincidences that bring two people together... that happiness can come from completely coincidental circumstances," Torill Kove explains in Animated Magazine about the extremely positive audience response to the short film. "[But] there's a few subplots going on." These subplots are what make the film great and add "poignancy" to the short.

One subplot that Kove talks about is the theme of artistic inspiration and the human self. Kasper seeks to find inspiration for his poetry, but instead finds the inspiration he needs in himself. It is a touching message about searching and discovering that the help you need was inside you all along, and the message was delivered well in the short. It's also a type of "poignancy" I mentioned earlier -- it's relatable and touches us all no matter where or who you are.

The one I find interesting is the subtext she cites "about nationalism and how much emphasis we in the western world put on stereotypes on which country we're from, although we often have the toughest time telling each other apart." There are Scandinavian jokes inset into the short film that are familiar and hilarious to those of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish descent. One happens to be the drunk ferry goers that come in-and-out of the boat every time a character leaves one place and go to another. Drunk ferry-goers are a common sight in Norway. Another is the constant jabs made to both Norway and Denmark. "Maybe we're all Danish," one character says in the short. "But as always in Norway, it never stops [raining,]" the narrator says one time.

If you do not know about Scandanavian culture, each country likes to make a snipe against the other. One such example: In the 1600s, the Danes tried to reclaim the country three times and failed -- the running joke is that Denmark still wants to reclaim it. And Jokes like these have the potential to be lost in different countries, like France, Spain, or the United States. But there is an absurdity, as Kove explains, to this jokes that resonates with people across the world. People do stereotype according to where they are from, and can relate to the stereotyping made in the short film.

Here's an American example that has happened to me before many times: California is a liberal blue state with weed-smoking tree-hugging wannabe actors/directors/models who have tan lines and surf. But when people meet those from the state, they are surprised they do not fit the stereotype. Some even assume that the Californian is from their side of the state. It's this type of situation that is relatable in any country in the world -- the snarking of another countries yet assuming the other is from your own -- and adds, again, a "poignancy" to the story.

What strikes me as odd though is that this is the second film that Norway has won an Oscar for. The first one is Kon-Tiki (1950), a 77 minute documentary about a man and his crew whom set sail from South America to the Polynesian islands in a small wooden raft to prove a scientific theory stating that the Islands were populated from the east (Perú) rather than the west (Asia). The need for scientific truth in the face of dangerous peril has the inherit "poignancy" for an award-winning film on my standards. But why are these two the only ones who have won for the country? Are the films there not as good as these two? Should we judge Norwegian films on this fact?

Award-winning films do narrow the field of films distributed, yes, but it also hinders people from going out and trying films that aren't winners. Winning something means you beat the rest. But just because you beat the others doesn't mean it isn't the best one of the lot. The winners are chosen by a differing set of standards to mine, and another person's standards are definitely different from my own. It is intrinsic to watch the highly acclaimed films that won something. But I would take that chance rather than sticking with just award-winners. There are too many great films out there that never won an award, and I refuse to paint my perception of movies solely on those that win festivals or competitions.


Mike said...

The point that stuck out to me was the concept of nationalism portrayed in this short. This sense of cultural unity based on ethnicity and ensuing ideas of superiority over others is a major issue of international relations. The unity it creates in one group causes a disunion between multiple groups. Historically, nationalism has been a source of conflict many a time. Basing one's perceptions on prevailing stereotypes is a dangerous habit and the blog address this issue very well.

Phantom Lord said...

I thought it was an excellent little film that did have a good message about how tiny little coincidences can dictate the path of one's life. The author also makes a good point about perceptions. How we tend to think all Californian's are liberal hippies. The same can be said as a resident of New York City. Most people outside of the city seem to think its filled with criminals and riddled with crime. Overall it was a good piece and she is right in saying just because it won an award doesn't mean it's the best.

Sketch said...

Beautiful film. I stand by the opinion that it wouldn't have been as much of a success if it didn't have that sort of sweetness to the narrative.

There's not much of a central drive to it, which I don't think the film could have gotten away with in either a longer format or a non-animated format. The animation style, and the narrator's beautiful voice, make it really charming. As for central drive. . . it's more of a mystery than a real conflict, but it's entertaining enough.

sandra dee said...

The film is really cute and that the soft tone of the story and the music is awesome, which all adds to the beauty of the film. To paraphrase another commenter: Basing one's perceptions on prevailing stereotypes is a dangerous habit, but, sadly, we all do it.

Scandanavian culture is a lot like Eastern European culture (probably because of how close we are) because Poland, Russia, Little Russia (excuse me "Ukraine") and Belarus have all been mocking and sterotyping the other countries for centuries as well.

Jeremy said...

I love that the simple style of animation - solid colors, simple lines and figures - matches the simple dialogue and simple plot. It's easier to lose yourself in a film when every element seems to be working towards the same goal.

If there is no cohesion, the film falls apart and you lose interest.

(Michael Bay, stop with the explosions.)

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a delightful film, a welcome contrast to all the violence and expensive effects of most popular movies.

She Who Shall Not Be Named said...

very interesting

Anonymous said...

What struck me about this film, is not the film itself, so much as the perception of greatness conferred on it by the awards.
The greatness of all art is of course subjective, yet numerous people have all come to the same conclusion about the merit of this piece.
How much of this can legitimately be said to be appreciation of the work itself, and how much is the desire, explicit or implicit, to join into a cultural experience with fellow viewers? An experience that sacrifices individual judgment, for strengthening of the community.

Nighthawk Moonshadow said...

Beautiful little film; touching despite the short length. The artwork reminded me a bit of the old Madeline books I used to read; very soothing and pleasing to the eye.

jacksfilms said...

Yes, the animation and narration both had a very "storybook" quality that gave the film warmth. But what really got to me was the music; the piano theme especially. It added a bitter-sweetness to the story that you don't see enough in animated shorts.

the vacant mind. said...

I really enjoyed this film, not only for the message behind it, but because of the soft, soothing voiceover and the coinciding animation. You can tell that everything about it was chosen to create a certain mood, and that, in essence, is filmmaking.

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