Digital Video Dogpatch The king of a false movement directs his ice queen.
Dogville Directed by Lars Von Trier
Emperor's New Clothes isn't a tight-enough fit for Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier. Better to call him King of the Know-Nothings. The Jupiter of Cinematic Three-Card Monte. Expect historians to one day look back on the launching of Von Trier's Dogme95 (the manifesto that brought filmmaking closer to amateur porn) and laugh. That overhyped, low-fi creed made it possible for naive film buffs to think that by trading celluloid for video they were welcoming the arrival of a great artistic millennium. Some people can't wait to be duped, and Von Trier's Dogme trick fit right into the market for new technology and cultural amnesia.
Von Trier's latest thing?film? video??is a hi-def pseudo-epic called Dogville. As always, it boasts his ambitious, show-offy technique. The opening is a wide overhead shot of a soundstage interior that presents the layout of the town of Dogville as if it were a board game?a portentous esthete's Candyland. Videographer Anthony Dod Mantle's camera slowly cranes down onto the set, its obviousness becoming part of Von Trier's panoply of alienation effects. Dogville's second-biggest device is a mysterious female stranger sarcastically named Grace (Nicole Kidman) who shows up in Dogville and becomes the victim and slave of its inhabitants. This plot is certainly moralistic, but Von Trier isn't simply making a fable. He wants to dismantle "fable" by deconstructing the paradigms and archetypes that we customarily use for ethical and emotional instruction.
Never a cultural curator like Coppola or Techine, whose formalist works (One from the Heart, French Provincial) synthesized the trends of different eras, Von Trier is antagonistic toward the cinema's traditions. He makes debased references to art styles that have lost popular currency. His sour take on Dreyer in Breaking the Waves kept spirituality at a distance. The brutal imitation of Fellini in Dancer in the Dark deliberately mangled the pleasures of musicals and melodramas. This perverse method probably seems inventive to the uninitiated, yet Von Trier very cannily courts an audience of smart-ass cynics.
It's hard to think of another director so caught up in wrangling with cinema's past who then dares to offer that disrespect as if it were a breakthrough. Pasolini, Derek Jarman and Alex Cox were iconoclasts; Von Trier's revelations about human cruelty are standard if anything. Instead, his foregrounding of actresses in maudlin, masochistic roles proves that he is in fact well aware of offering new-era icons?Emily Watson, Bjork and now Kidman. Dogville reaches its visual peak after Kidman's Grace is mistreated and she wearily falls asleep in the back of a farmer's truck. Von Trier overlaps the image with a textured shot of the truck's apple load. That's the film's only hint of realism. (Its autumnal beauty is ravishing?but pointless.) Von Trier is after something akin to the same old art-movie sentimentality, yet he uses superficially tough storylines and disruptive, irritating narrative tropes rather than pinpoint and clarify an emotional truth. Dogville's theme is the beast in mankind (Mondo Cane) but it's never convincing, because it uses an overly studied artifice (including a pompous voice-over narrator). Von Trier's method is similar to Todd Haynes' in Far from Heaven. Both charlatans have won acclaim for dramas that postpone catharsis while encouraging the audience to feel smugly superior to conventional (and more adroit) narrative practices.
Dogville itself is a less interesting place than Dogpatch, the back-country holler that 50s graphic artist Al Capp used to focus his then-topical social satire in the comic strip Li'l Abner. A better-informed culture (or one with longer memory) would scoff at Von Trier's pretenses. We should at least have the confidence to question them. Nervous laughter is all you hear in the audience at Dogville, because Von Trier lacks wit. He doesn't know enough about American life to satirize small-town foible or marvel at its eccentricities (qualities that made Neil Young's Greendale remarkable?and a necessary antidote to this). Von Trier has cooked up Dogville as a love/hate letter to America's cultural preeminence. Set in a cosmetic past where the performers use antique props, wear old-time costumes and putter about as on old Playhouse 90 tv dramas, Dogville essentially takes place in an eternal present. It's a predominantly white town with only several black characters. Thus, the film is a relentless and phony condemnation of American archetypes. (When I first saw Dogville last year, I faulted Von Trier for his anachronistically servile blacks. But then Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain opened, confirming that European elites misperceive American history.)
As Von Trier slogs through Grace's demoralization and assorted arty effects (mixing gangster-movie and crackerbarrel motifs), he does little more than gloss his own confusion about Amerika. The period details in this board game suggest that Depression-era hard times might be the reason for the citizens of Dogville's spite, but the game's rules (its logic) are not fun or credible, just bleak. They are drawn pretentiously from Franz Kafka and Dashiell Hammett. Grace is first welcomed by the townspeople then literally abused (through rape, hard labor, concubinage). Finally, she is convinced by a character known as the Big Man (James Caan) to move from martyr to madwoman and take her bloody revenge?a veritable Red Harvest.
Walter Hill's Last Man Standing (an unofficial version of Red Harvest) distilled both the western and gangster genres into a kinesthetic essay on American violence. Difficult to grasp as a story (Bruce Willis made a lifeless protagonist), it was still a fascinating, abstract, blood-red meditation on moral decline. Hill, a filmmaker of superior talent and philosophical precision, has never received Von Trier's critical eclat. You simply have to appreciate Hill's evocation of the ineffable for yourself?feel it through his vivid presentation of American male custom and temperament. Hill may be genre-fixated, but Von Trier's hodgepodge of genres is crazily inconsistent. To buffer his imprecision, he sends mixed signals with female protagonists who are always passive victims. Von Trier expects them to provide a direct line to universal sensitivity rather than cultural authenticity. But with an icy actress like Nicole Kidman, Dogville becomes further remote. The international cast of "little people" (including Harriet Andersson, Ben Gazzara, Jeremy Davies, Patricia Clarkson even Lauren Bacall, who pantomimes doing farm work) doesn't make any recognizable cultural connection; the film is just annoyingly fanciful. When James Caan makes his film-noiry appearance, it's one of the most laughable scenes in modern cinema. That puffy, craggy Sonny Corleone face, as Caan dispenses a hard choice to Grace, becomes even more laughable when you realize that a has-been movie star is Von Trier's personification of a pitiless dog (which is "God" spelled backward).
That means Grace represents our corrupted selves?humankind as an aggrieved supermodel. (Some people want Nicole Kidman to be for English-language films what Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve were for French cinema. Trouble is, Kidman keeps choosing bad scripts.) No doubt Von Trier is aware that Grace's circumstance recalls Frederic Durrenmatt's The Visit, which put a wronged woman's personal and social dilemma into the form of modern classical drama (recently well-adapted in Djibril Diop Mambety's The Visit). Grace's punishment also recalls the high school literature classic, Shirley Jackson's The Lottery (which even an episode of The Simpsons has absorbed).
These reconfigured and bowdlerized legends are capped by Dogville's traducing of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, an authentically American work of universal sentiment that has fallen into disrepute among the cognoscenti. (No less an authority on profitable trash than Roger Ebert recently dismissed Our Town as irrelevant.) Von Trier's condemnatory version of Our Town cuts out the sentiment in order to seem newly relevant. He empties a familiar theatrical form to its bare-stage, board-game skeleton just to deny audiences any familiar satisfactions. The point is to preclude self-examination and emphasize disdain. In a final repellant move, Von Trier closes the movie with a still-photo montage of historical American tragedies like Warhol's Disaster series. Timed to David Bowie's "Young Americans," it seems designed to flatter self-hating hipsters. Dogville is one of the most fatuous movies ever made. It's an anti-American art project, but it is also anti-art.
The Lars Von Trier retrospective at the American Museum of the Moving Image begins Sat., March 13.