BRECHT'S DOGPATCH

Lars Von Trier, the 47 year old ditsy Danish director, once dubbed the enfant terrible-- as he directed his first film at the age of 21, has placed into the mainstream of celluloid a film that miraculously manages to be anti-film, anti-humanity, anti-art, and anti-artifice, and it passes itself off as artistic endeavor. Some feel that Trier is anti-American, as well. Though he may not be a Yankee booster, I doubt that he is an America basher. The film was placed in a small town in Colorado during the Depression, but it could have been a small village in France or India or Afganistan. The message of the film, as John Huston's character said in CHINATOWN," Given the right situation, any one is capable of anything...even murder." But the question remains on the lips of all who stagger out of a tedious screening of this opus... is this film a religious allegory, a morality play, or just the germ of an idea that messily aborted as it came to full term ? Yes, comes the thunderous reply, and more, and less. But one thing is abundantly clear to me," Something is rotten in the State of Denmark."

Watching the film, like Roger Ebert, I found myself constantly glancing at my wristwatch, and wondering if it had stopped. I worked very hard to stay with this three hour stillborn pedantic snoozefest. Ebert stated, "Von Trier exhibits the imagination of an artist, but the pedantry of a crank, like a raving prophet on the street corner...it's a good idea that went wrong." He rated the film with 2 stars.

The choice of the minimalist set, a sparse world for the tepid word play, just fat chalk lines and small assorted props, was not innovative; rather it was enervative, actually sapping the vigor of the piece and substantially reducing its vitality. It has been suggested that Von Trier, a guiding force behind the Dogme Movement, feels that as an "artist", it is his job to alienate, to shock, to outrage, and to confuse his audience. Like his demi-God Bertolt Brecht, he seems to try to purposefully break the illusion that comes from developing feeling for a character.

Oh, young Lars...how clever, how existential, how obtuse, how complex and confusing, and how very much like Sartre and Genet thy labors try to be. Von Trier, as a writer, creates dialogue the would drive an insomniac crashing into slumber; flat non-sequiters that lead lethargically from one dead end thought to another.

This film outraged me. But oddly, I also treasured the excruciating experience. I was a witness to both a travesty and a pivotal sad form of greatness. Von Trier is so arrogant that he seems to believe that he really needs to pummel down the conventions of film, and create a whole new form. But he works fitfully, like a mentally deranged amateur, who somehow miraculously keeps getting the financial backing and the critical acclaim necessary to persevere, to continue insulting, titulating, and outraging his audience.

Von Trier's basic premise is a workable one. I just felt that his hubris prevented him from creating something cohesive. I do not question his imagination, or his creative instincts as an artist; but I do question...I do confront and challenge his alledged skill as this holy trinity; writer, director, and camera operator. His Dogme principles of natural lighting, incoherent dialogue, no through lines, poorly planned and poorly executed unflattering camera angles, and his hand-held jerky documentarian utilization of his camera, are all leagues short of any level of successful composition or cinematic closure. When I saw DANCER IN THE DARK, at the Grand Theatre in Tacoma, the theater had to post a sign warning of the possibility of audience motion sickness during the first thirty minutes of the movie. It was the only movie I have ever seen that should have issued barf-bags at the door. My wife had to leave and walk around the block to clear her head. Admittedly, in DOGVILLE there is much less of than arbitrary jerkiness, but even so his POV shots were completely sophmoric and claustophobic. He shot the film on a sound stage in Copenhagen. A stage, I am certain that came fully equipped with state-of-the-art cranes, stedi-cams, gyros, tracks, and mutliple cameras. He did open, and include a couple of overhead establishing shots, but the miseenscene seemed arbitrary and sparse beyond measure.

Perhaps the crux of my criticism comes down to Von Trier's lack of respect, his veritable lack of love for his audience. As an audience member, I felt disrespected and unloved. Yes, a good film can be philosophical, instructive, or moral, without rigorously disrespecting either its characters or distancing its audience. Further...perhaps Von Trier needed to present this concept as a theatrical piece, in an actual theatre. It might then strike some absurd innovative chord if it was experienced live. As a piece of film, though, and as a cinematic experience, there was no blending of the two genre...there was instead just an irritation, a discomfort for me because my sense of "place", the world of the play, was left nebulous. Therefore there was not even an inkling of a state of suspended belief, nothing presented that could be sustained as applicable to the human condition.

Many of us that attend movies, do so to be stimulated, to learn something new, to travel to exotic locales, to hear the lilt of clever dialogue, to observe the raw beauty of flawless cinematography, and to be moved emotionally...and possibly to be entertained as well; but in this day and age there is so much "entertainment" outside of a theater, I long for something significantly more when inside one. Clearly before one can respond emotionally, there has to be an investment of caring. If you are not allowed to get acquainted with a character, and then something tragic happens to that character, you are adrift and non-vested...it is happening to a stranger and does not affect you; there is no sting, no sense of personal identification, no connection to our hearts and minds. And this vapid state is the pervue, the barren mad landscape of Lars Von Trier; a virtual netherland of wandering zombies who demand our attention, but who resist our overtures for clarification of thought, plot, and action. His dialogue is flat, uninspired, preachy, colorless, and monotone...gray, gray, gray. His actors are forced to mouth it like month old bread; stale, dry, and tasteless. There were some exceptions, tiny ones, but three hours of conversations is a lot to endure without even the hint of cleverness.

Vera: I believe smashing them is less a crime than making them. I am going to break two of your figurines first, and if you can demonstrate your knowledge of the Doctrine of Stoicism by holding back your tears, I'll stop.

Later in the film, Grace says to the Big Man: There's family with kids. Do the kids [ is this an '30's depression era expression? ], and make the mother watch. Tell her you'll stop if she can hold her tears. I "owe" her that.

I found myself pining for the words and writing of Faulkner or Horton Foote, for a real sense of the Great Depression lapping over and imprinting on this story. I think the film needed to be in black and white, and there needed to be realistic sets, and there needed to be movement and scope, with a hint of reality; like in the film TOMORROW (1972) with Robert Duvall, or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), or to run the roads with the Joads in THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1939). For I wanted to, I needed to care for these characters, so that when they met their tragic fate, I would be allowed a modicum of empathy. If you want to teach me something, know that I learn best when my heart is touched. I wanted Dogville, Colorado to seem like a real place, where actual people lived out their lives of leaden-eyed desparation.

Art does not give a license for the creation of bad work, and someone needs to cry out against the pernicious promulgation of that bad work as innovation, or God help us as...masterpiece. All around us Street Theater abounds, and most of it is pretty amateurish, and some of it is just bad, barely watchable; but one has the choice to walk on by, or to turn away from it. You could have your baseball team play their games naked while on pogosticks...but the purity of the game, that is almost an art form, an American institution, would be soundly violated. One could smear feces on a canvas, and pass it off as modern art...yet it would remain forever solid intestinal waste. As my grandfather was fond of saying, " Please don't piss down my back, and try to tell me it's raining.".

The cast was a powerhouse, albeit mostly wasted on the mundane material; a whirlwind pastiche of bankable stars that were willing to take chances for their art, and veteran stars that were just glad to get the work. It has been reported that Von Trier usually feels paranoic while filming, and he feels that his casts conspire against him. There is supposed to be a documentary extant that is about the "Making of Dogville", in which the cast members could ventilate, and express their true feelings. There was a "safe room" created, where they could speak frankly and honestly. I firmly believe that phantom film would easily be twice as engaging and interesting as this maniacal epoch.

Nicole Kidman as Grace, the gangster's daughter, the sacrificial lamb, was very effective. She seemed willing to do anything, regardless of how degrading it might be, to please her Master, the director. Her role will be memorable, more for its outrageousness than for its integral value or artistic merit. Her performances in THE HUMAN STAIN, THE OTHERS, THE HOURS, and COLD MOUNTAIN, all outshine and eclipse this one. She was fine as Grace, better than most actresses would have been. Those disturbing images of her passiveness, her acceptance of her brutal rapes as penance and that dog collar around her slim neck chained to that massive steel wheel as she dragged it around after her, and her lethal transition into righteous glee after she decided on .45 caliber retribution for her tormenters...all stick with me, haunt me, and nestle deep within the iconography collected from other films I covet, and carry with me.

Paul Bettany was appropriately enigmatic, shallow, hypocritical, and self-serving as young Tom Edison. He is presented as possible protagonist and probable hero; but he soon emerged as a weakling, a coward...just a loudmouth who was lusty, opportunistic, self-inflated and lonely. As Grace became a thing abused and she was raped repeatedly by every man in town...Tom was conspicuously left out of the carnal loop. When he broached the subject with Grace, she spoke from deep within her exhaustion, telling him to pleasure himself if he really needed to, but that in her heart she had hoped for something better, something cleaner and honest from him. This stopped Tom cold. He knew what he was, and still tried to hide it from her.

Stellen Skarsgard, who played Chuck, the keeper of the orchard, was quoted as saying," Von Trier is a hyper-intelligent child, who is slightly disturbed, playing with dolls in a doll house, and cutting their heads off with a nail clipper." His character, Chuck, was pivotal to the patchwork plot. He was the cynic, hiding in plain sight, procreating beyond his ability to care for his prodigy, and it was he that first lusted openly for Grace, and it was he that brutally raped her first, with the police outside in the street, molesting her when he knew that she dare not scream or struggle. Actually that scene was the only one for me in which the minimalist set worked. There, upstage right, was Skarsgard's bare derriere rising and falling on Grace in cathartic copulation, and juxtaposed to it were the fine folk of this almost-town, going about their business, talking to the cops, completely oblivious to the horror and tragedy being perpetrated right under their ignorant noses. This single strident note of supreme apathy seemed clarion to me, midst all the other muddle and mayhem.

[After Chuck sees Grace teaching his children]

Chuck: How is it going otherwise with the fooling act?

Grace: I wasn't trying to fool anyone.

Chuck: I mean Dogville. Has it got you fooled yet?

Grace: I thought you were implying that I was trying to exploit the town.

Chuck: Wishful thinking. This town is rotten from the inside out and I wouldn't miss it if it fell into the gorge tomorrow. I see no charm here. But you seem to. Admit it, you've fallen for Dogville. The trees, the mountains, the simple folk. And if all that ain't got you fooled yet, I bet the cinnamon has. That damned cinnamon in those gooseberry pies. Dogville has everything that you ever dreamed of in the big city.

Grace: You're worse than Tom. How did you know what I dreamed of? You're from the city yourself, aren't you?

Chuck: That was a long time ago. I'm not that stupid anymore. I've found out that people are the same all over. Greedy as animals. In a small town they're just a bit less successful. Feed 'em enough, they eat till their bellies burst.

Grace: That's why you want to get rid of me. Because you can't stand that I remind you of what it was you came here to find.

John Hurt as the narrator, as the omniscient omnipresent entity, droned on in a theatrical monotone all about the "good people of Dogville". Was he chorus, demon, or godhead? Perhaps some of all three. His presence, though, strengthened the sense of religious allegory. But I longed to see him, to meet him in the flesh. To be like the narrator in OUR TOWN, letting us see him interacting with the others, having some position, some vocation within the community.

James Caan as the Big Man, the enforcer, played his scenes quietly, draped behind black curtains on the windows of his tall black sedan, dressed all in black with a white scarf prominent...conjuring up imagery of priests and confessionals, as Miss Grace experienced her dramatic transition from victim to vindictive force. Caan was very effective, emulating his roles of the past effortlessly, creating a solid presence with the minimum of effort.

Lauren Bacall as Ma Ginger escaped the spotlight. It was grand to see the veteran actress there in the mudcake mileau, but she was given nothing to do; and just about any other older actress could have been exchanged for her. Ben Gazzara as blind Jack McKay performed well as the randy grizzled loner, who soon tired of Grace just reading to him, and reached for her bruised thighs along with the rest of the men. Blair Brown as Mrs. Hanson, quite portly and matronly these days, was hardly recognizable as that svelte energetic actress who played the romantic interest with William Hurt in ALTERED STATES (1980). Patricia Clarkson as Vera, fresh from her triumphs in THE GREEN MILE, and FAR FROM HEAVEN, did an exceptional job, and she fully created in quick professional strokes a real person, a weepy mother of seven, who was probably frigid...only willing to copulate to create children; flawed, ignorant, fearful, vindictive, and very emotional. Her seven children contrasted to the seven Hummel figurines was a nice literary touch, almost a motiff for the film. Jeremy Davies as Bill Hudson is no stranger to off-center roles,[ view HOLLYWOOD HOTEL, THE LOCUSTS, THE LARAMIE PROJECT, or catch him in the latest TV remake of HELTER SKELTER ]. His performance as the town Dummy remained mostly in the dim peripherary of the plot. His eccentricity as an actor served him well. But this role, and this director asked little of him, and he responded in kind. Zeljko Ivanek gave us a dark unwashed disturbing performance as Ben, the truck driver. His was one of the only links the town had to the Great Outside beyond the city limits, into the glare of the oliveddies and reflectors and extension cords. Ivanek is a fine actor, evidenced by his work in films like MASS APPEAL with Jack Lemmon, and catch him in reruns of the first season of Keifer Sutherland's "24". Philip Baker Hall sat and walked through his role of Tom Edison Sr., barely making a ripple in the big pond. He, too, was underused, and thus he aspired to underachievement, to become another faceless component in the fabric of the weave of this murmering mosaic of townsfolk.

Peter Travers of ROLLING STONE magazine wrote,"This film is lightyears from the formula doggerel at the multiplexes, and it delivers something rare these days; a film of ideas." Reading this, I can only revisit the notion that defines the very nature of mankind. Man as an organism, coexisting and cocreating on this plane of existence, can only process the environment through his individual perceptions, and those specific perceptions are colored and influenced by our life experiences, and possibly our past live's experiences, into the guts of our DNA genetic memory.

One value I find in film discussion, or reading film criticism, is that someone else's perceptions might alter our own, and their naked passion might override our natural cynicism and lethargy. Personally, these days, I try not to recommend a film to a friend. For sometimes after they have seen the film, they end up disliking, or even hating the movie. In response, I used to puff up and counter with," For Christ's sake, do you have eyes? Did we see the same film?". Well, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, I am beginning to understand that no two people are capable of viewing, or perceiving exactly the same film, in the same way. Doesn't happen. That is how it is, and artistically how it should be. So attend on, and rave on, you steaming masses of film lovers, and I will continue to search for my place at the table.

This film's ratings have swung from 2 stars to 3.5 stars.
I gave this movie a rating of 2.5 stars, worth the watch if one has the energy.
Glenn Buttkus
Actor, Writer, Teacher