Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Among The Dogs
(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2004)
I can’t think of a recent movie that divided critics as cleanly as Lars Von Trier’s Dogville; it’s either a triumph or an abomination, with almost no one standing in the middle. Locally, Now magazine gave it one and a half stars; Eye gave it four. Here’s J. Hoberman in The Village Voice: “For passion, originality, and sustained chutzpah, this austere allegory of failed Christian charity and Old Testament payback is von Trier's strongest movie—a masterpiece, in fact.” Contrast that with David Edelstein in Slate:
I'm sure Lars von Trier would regard me the way Col. Jessup regards the lieutenant in A Few Good Men—I can't handle the truth. But it's more like I can't handle selective half-truths by a preening, misanthropic bully who wouldn't recognize an act of decency if it bit him on the ass. On the other hand, maybe von Trier is right that we Americans are dogs: His movies seem to call to me like fire hydrants.
Missive From Hell
I first saw the film on a plane, flying home from Australia. This was on one of the tiny Qantas screens, with tinny headphone sound. Under these conditions, in the darkened cabin, it was like staring into the bottom of a bucket – an effect intensified by the film’s stark minimalism. But it was mesmerizing, like a light beam from hell. I went to see it again when it opened locally (at three hours long, having gained thirty minutes over the version that played on the airplane) and that second viewing confirmed that I’m firmly in the masterpiece camp.
This wasn’t entirely predictable. I loved von Trier’s The Kingdom, and saw some great things in both The Idiots and Dancing In The Dark – still, he’s not a filmmaker who’s key to my view of things. And I wouldn’t strenuously disagree with the common list of faults identified in Dogville: pretentiousness, repetition, lazy point scoring. Even so, the film is stylistically so fascinating that a reasonably minded viewer should be able to stay with it through these challenges. And it’s clearly a major piece of political cinema, even if one’s assessment in that regard is inevitably going to be coloured by personal preconceptions.
The film is set during the Depression in a remote, dirt-poor town, with twenty or so inhabitants squeezing out a borderline existence. One day a beautiful woman (Nicole Kidman, in a nicely restrained, allusive mode) arrives in Dogville, on the run from gangsters for unexplained reasons, and one of the townspeople (Paul Bettany), who fancies himself the local philosopher, convinces the others to give her shelter. Earning her keep by performing odd jobs for the town, Grace becomes popular and seemingly almost indispensable, but then the pendulum swings and their treatment of her coarsens, then becomes cruel. In the end the gangsters (led by James Caan) arrive in town, and the film builds to a wrath-filled conclusion.
The film has no sets, and was shot in its entirety inside a large warehouse in Sweden. The action plays out against a variously black or white background. The town’s buildings and landmarks are denoted by white markings on the studio floor; props and furniture are minimal. Von Trier even denotes the town dog by a drawing and a label reading “Dog” (and by a disembodied barking). Von Trier moves around the set with his customary jerky, hard-held camera style. In the aggregate, this all clearly eschews any normal notion of realism and works against any easy mechanism of identification. In addition to the actors noted, the cast includes Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, Chloe Sevigny, Patricia Clarkson and Jeremy Davies – like a cross-section of American culture torn out and put in the dock.
The film’s anti-Americanism, if it is such, lies in the deliberately reductive presentation of the country’s complexities; in the wretched behaviour and motives of the Dogville citizens toward Grace, and in the price they pay for it. Their pious self-congratulation on their initial treatment of her, and the speed of its erosion into exploitation and corruption, incisively captures the special pleadings of an America that swings from a fortress, anti-“nation building” rhetoric to a reckless exercise of its global resources. Von Trier suggests that the heart of America is venal and delusional, so superficial in its constructions and positions that it barely deserves to be represented by real bricks and mortar. Whatever might be going on in the frame’s foreground, we literally “see through” it to what lies beyond (in this case, something as untrustworthy as what we’re seeing through).
Of course, set out in those terms, it seems obvious and heavy-handed, and it’s true that von Trier’s lack of humour works against him. Actually, that’s not quite right – the recent documentary The Five Obstructions, in which he sets a fellow filmmaker a series of challenges, subject to escalating constraints, showed that he has a certain puckish demeanour and sensibility, but also that he’s a bit of a weasel. One of Dogville’s most-discussed ploys is the closing credit sequence, which runs a long sequence of photographs of America’s underbelly (as well as one of Richard Nixon) under David Bowie’s Young Americans. After the film’s quasi-Brechtian artifice it’s a jolt simultaneously of specificity and incoherence. But then, von Trier never purports to be presenting a clinical thesis. Near the end, despite everything that’s happened, Grace insists on seeing the best in the people, then a mere shift of the light changes her mind and sets her on a different path. So much for America’s vaunted values and identity, the film seems to say.
Onto Its Shores
Its small town premise evokes the likes of Thornton Wilder, and the film’s pseudo-archaic trappings – it’s divided into nine portentously titled chapters, with a plummily written narration by John Hurt – bolster its fire-and-brimstone preacher qualities. The casting throws off echoes in all directions. Of course, the film is a deliberate provocation – von Trier has never even been to America. Todd McCarthy in Variety, normally a levelheaded analyst, is another critic who took the bait, culminating his review with the following much-quoted passage:
Through his contrived tale of one mistreated woman, who is devious herself, von Trier indicts as being unfit to inhabit the earth a country that has surely attracted, and given opportunity to, more people onto its shores than any other in the history of the world. Go figure.
I imagine von Trier must have loved that, for it shows the exact inflated self-perception that his film mocks. Of course, for every person “given opportunity” on America’s shores nowadays, you can find multiple stories of exploitation and poverty, if you know where to look. But only the derided liberals concentrate on stuff like that. For now the American dream still holds in place, but with increasing neurosis. If there’s a reckoning ahead, Dogville will have got there first.