Sunday, July 31, 2005

#14: On Lars Von Triers’ DOGVILLE 9/16/04 The 2003 film DOGVILLE had its US opening in March in New York City, coinciding with a retrospective of Danish writer-director Lars Von Triers’ work at the American Museum of the Moving Image. Besides the European actors he works with often & his own stock company, Von Triers has attracted the likes of James Caan, John Hurt, Patricia Clarkson, Paul Bettany, Ben Gazzara, Lauren Bacall, Chloe Sevigny, & native Central New Yorker Siobhan Fallon Hogan. And Nicole Kidman stars as Grace, the mysterious fugitive who seeks refuge in the Depression-era Colorado Rockies town, only to have her protectors turn gruesomely against her before their final comeuppance. DOGVILLE didn’t screen in Syracuse, despite national media furor & an area native in a featured role. There was its unusual style & set, controversy over its plausibility & possible anti-Americanism, & Von Triers’ notorious treatment of women in what one reviewer called “his most recent provocation.” Von Triers is not yet widely known in the US. Locally, only Emerald City Video (ever reliable) carries his earlier films & they have just two, the 1996 BREAKING THE WAVES with Emily Watson, & 2000’s DANCER IN THE DARK, with Icelandic pop singer BJORK. But he’s likely the most influential filmmaker working today in Europe. In 1995, Von Triers & Thomas Vinterberg issued “Dogma 95,” principles designed to return movies to purer style by, for example, reducing use of props, lighting & soundtracks, & using hand-held cameras. While making just a single film strictly within these guidelines, Von Triers’ DOGVILLE is pervaded with Dogma 95. And Von Triers’ long-time choice of multiple hand-held videocams to shoot scenes, combined with his abandoning any visual axis as a reference point, makes you woozy until you’re used to watching it. Not for him the graceful virtuoso use of this approach as applied, say, in the musical HICAGO! DOGVILLE is shot on a black, bare set where chalk outlines on the floor indicate the details of the town. Props are few; a rock ledge, old mine timbers, a ghostly apple tree branch. The story occurs within what looks like a crime scene or a videogame schematic. Initially this resembles just filming a stage play, except that Von Triers’ design & camera work actually revive the 1930’s-era avant-garde style of filmmaking fairly accurately, including the mime work of characters opening & closing doors that literally aren’t there. Far from boring, this heightens the tension & makes the arrival of real vehicles in particular – a pick-up truck that Grace hopes to escape in & the gangster limos – momentous. This movie is three hours long! Even though DVD scene selection means you can take a break, chances are you won’t, because it’s riveting. In the annals of busting the myth of small town utopia – Grace thought this town would be substantially different from her father’s world than it proves to be – DOGVILLE joins Wilder’s play OUR TOWN, Durrenmatt’s play THE VISIT, Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” & - especially with the sarcastic voice-over – even THE GRINCH WHO STOLE XMAS. But the best companion I found was John Ford’s 1940 film THE GRAPES OF WRATH with henry Fonda as Tom Joad. As in his other films, Von Triers’ DOGVILLE is really more about what happens when you add a vulnerable outsider. Of course GRAPES OF WRATH depicts the way in which the Depression made huge numbers of Americans into outsiders in their own land. Steinbeck’s novel has been chosen for Central New York’s second annual community-wide reading initiative – there’s a kick-off at Barnes & Noble on Sunday, September 26th at 2 o’clock. And by the way, Ford’s 65-year-old film remains astonishingly fresh. It’s a searing portrait that quickly puts accusations against Von Triers in perspective, & links well with the use he made during DOGVILLE’s final credits of Dorothea Lange Depression-era photos, contemporary photos of mostly Black poverty, & David Bowie’s song, “Young Americans.” Some reviewers were offended especially by this final credits piece.’s ordinarily coolly self-possessed David Edelstein wanted to throw things at the screen, he said. Another, though allowing powerhouse performances & impeccable casting, recommended “washing it down with the John Wayne pic RIO BRAVO.” In fact, Von Triers embarked upon DOGVILLE, the first of his USA trilogy, in response to charges of anti-Americanism against DANCER IN THE DARK, set in 1960’s Washington State. Really, US sensitivity to this foreigner’s view of American life is – as DOGVILLE’s Tom Edison might say - but another “illustration” of the welcome an outsider gets here when times are tough. Of course US cultural symbols abound in DOGVILLE. The town meeting, Tom Sawyer, Tom Edison’s opportunism jostling uncomfortably with moral questions, apple orchards & the town’s main drag, Elm Street, suggesting both NIGHTMARE ON… & for the more politically literate, the intersection of Houston & Elm Streets in Dallas. As in DANCER, the theft of hard-earned money, scape goating & obligation gone wrong figure prominently. But both films transcend mere commentary on US capitalism. The USA trilogy eventually will encompass MANDERLAY, now in production & focusing on Southern slavery, & WASHNGTON, about the capital, all set in the 1930’s. How women are treated holds a key here. His reputation as a harsh, dictatorial director doesn’t help allay his parallel reputation for some of the most disturbing & insidiously cruel stories about women on screen today. Bjork swore off acting forever after working with him, calling him an “emotional pornographer.” But unlike BREAKING THE WAVES’ Bess, or DANCER’s Selma, Grace is not a simple-minded, golden-hearted victim. She’s bright, resourceful, compassionate, & displays what one reviewer calls “moral poise.” She’s risked everything for an examined life. In her final, pivotal conversation with her father, Grace clearly is a female Christ figure who declines crucifixion. This conversation snaps suddenly into focus as a modern Agony in the Garden as Grace & her father argue over whether compassion or vengeance constitutes the greater arrogance. In society, says Von Triers’ long-time producer, Vibeka Windelow, a woman, “Women are allowed to express more, emotionally & verbally.” Horrible things happen to Von Triers’ women. He has also elicited portraits of some of the most moving, complex, resonant & articulate women on any screen. In each of DOGVILLE’s three sections there is a tense & satisfying teeter-tottering that carries the narrative forward. The gravest mistake is to dismiss Grace’s gangster dad as a simple-minded fool. As political commentary on US life, what may sting most about DOGVILLE is its warning to progressives: our own worst, most arrogant habit is that we are prone to underestimate thugs in high places. (1110)