How to stall the apocalypse?
Or What is the right question to ask regarding von Trier’s films?
The problem with some film criticism has to do with what questions the critics ask themselves. The patterns of analysis will follow a trend established largely by the kinds of genre films presented by film-makers, who, even if they intend to edify the audience by their dramatic stories, are mostly intent on entertaining. Entertained audiences are enwrapped in fictional illusions, transported into another world amidst characters whom they identify with and “live” through vicariously. With Lars von Trier’s films something else is definitely at work, much more on the scale of edification than of entertainment. David Denby in The New Yorker (Oct 4, 2004), in a prelude to I ♥ Huckabees (David O. Russel’s latest movie), discusses film disasters, and names von Trier as the maker of failed films because he intends to wash audiences’ brains out with pedagogic soap. Denby may be on the right track with “pedagogic,” but I don’t think he needs to be so dismissive.
Perhaps I have dealt too much with von Trier’s character types and a concern for the tragic element as one might consider it a matter of psychology and decision making, looking at the stories as they fit into traditional literary patterns. Certainly the characters in his movies are not going to conform to ancient Greek or Aristotelian tragedic formulas. Not even his Medea, based on Carl Dreyer’s adaptation of Euripides drama, is fully Euripidean in purpose. In the larger scheme, interesting though they might be, Von Trier’s young women are not perhaps important for their individual characterizations. Analysis focused on the individuals therefore overlooks the major thesis of the films. I suspect his thesis may well have to do with his overall aim to revolutionize modern cinema and to influence the social behavior of the audience rather than that of the individual viewer. His works, like those of many contemporary Scandinavian film-makers, particularly the Dogma group, are concerned with dramatizations of cultural crises among a disordered, confused family or community of people in a world in which the dramatic action tends to be irrational and sometimes incomprehensible. For example, consider Dogma #1, Thomas Vinterberg’s Celebration (1998) or Dogma #3, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Mifune (1999).
If I ask: “What is the purpose for Grace’s submissive pose among the Dogvillians?” it is also the same questions about his other films’ protagonists--”Why does Bess, maimed and humiliated, continue to seek dangerous liaisons? Why is Selma, lonely and meek, so obsessive? Why does she resist defending her vengeful action? Why is shy, lonely Karen willing to stay among the lively, play-acting Idiots?” These questions point to the social and cultural world in which the characters live and act. The overarching concern is really this: “What kind of society, what kind of civilized world, do these characters live in and suffer through?” A response might be that the protagonists are mainly catalysts who reveal the disconnection, the disparity, the dissonance and disorder between human nature and culture. Rather than continuing to produce a cinema of plots and characters, von Trier involves the audience in a discomforting cinema of ideas, presenting a difficult and embarrassing situation in which the recognition of moral choice, good and bad, is not something characters discover between one another, but a choice the audience is made aware of and must make a judgment of, essentially judging a problem that imitates a predicament of modern culture.
This is revolutionary stuff and a difficult kind of cinema at the present time when the world is undergoing catastrophic change through chaotic civil and international wars and rule of oppressive tyrannies, situations where the ordinary person is asked to submit to governments’ dictates, one’s own and sometimes those of another (as in Iraq), giving up liberties to authorities, and realizing the illusion or pretense of being a liberated and liberalizing society. The crisis of the family, atomized and disjointed through unpredictable employment, generational rifts and marital divorce, adds to the dissonance. It is no surprise that von Trier should look back to Euripides, who wrote his dramas for a nation losing its democratically civilized values in defeat against a lesser culture in the Peloponnesian War, a thirty-year downspiral from Athenian predominance in power and culture to mass confusion of ungovernable city states. Also von Trier hearkens back to Brechtian forms or Sartre’s existentialist anti-heroism and other types of theater of absurdity when society was torn apart by wars and economic depression. An age ripe for artistic revolution is one in which the rifts of communities and disintegration of cultural myths must be pointed out and audiences made aware of the crisis at hand. Such social disintegration is the tragic core of von Trier’s works. No heroes exist to save the day and no tragic flaw is to be blamed for breakdown of the old world order.
Some have accused von Trier of anti-American bias in the last two films, Dancer set in Washington State, Dogville in a “little town” in Colorado. Why, then were his other films not called anti-German, anti-Scottish, nor anti-Danish? If I’m right, all his films aim at the same problem—disordered society and culture in chaos. Rather than anti-humanistic or anti-art in his approach to subject and form, as some have claimed, von Trier is merely anti-traditional in his desire to confront his audience, to urge diagnosis of social and cultural crisis, and to push us towards a realistic recognition of human nature in all its nakedness, its abnormality, its incompleteness, its violence. I believe he is humanistic and artistically innovative in that exposure of cruel life. He wants to teach in an ironic way how the age of innocence has passed; the old world order with its sense of soulful integrity and fine humanity is dead and gone. Then beyond that acknowledged loss of innocence, we must ask ourselves how we are going to reconcile incongruities and change the human condition. The crisis of culture will continue to get worse if we continue to behave the way his characters do. He is not showing fine examples of humanity but rather desperate acts of troubled characters.
One lesson von Trier presents a lot: How much submission is necessary to be accepted as a member of society? In Zentropa, when Leopold Kessler returns to Germany to help society to reintegrate, he finds himself torn apart by (1) the cruel, authoritarian bureaucrats, including his own uncle, maliciously intent on degrading and upbrading him, (2) the Americans who want to use him for spying and (3) by Nazi patriots, “Werewolves,” working a saboteurs. Because of his alienation in a society working at cross-purposes, he does not know to which camp he belongs and in a mad quandary he acts out of anger to blow the impossible state up. Part of the problem is his submissive nature to all sides, his inability to make a moral choice out of his own values. Such wishy-washy behavior results in a passionate act of violence against an unjust society when all recourse to reasonable methods of integration has failed.
In his current work, Dogville, von Trier is presenting the same dilemma. Alienated Grace arrives in a disintegrating social system looking for an honorable community. Dogville at first seems a placid town of people struggling to make a purposeful life--a community of ordinary humble people. Upon arrival, it seems fitting that Grace is accepted on probation as an outsider by the suspicious town, who as we learn are not happy in their ways and quite separate in their endeavors. Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany) has trouble gathering a town hall meeting and no amicable consensus is obtained on accepting Grace as a new member. However she behaved before she came, Grace succumbs to others’ authority, doing whatever they ask, in order to stay in their good graces. In time, after she shows humility in performing servile tasks, she’s accepted by all, but held to a subservient role. She does not object, and even after many acts of grievous submission--scolded harshly for minor errors or accidents, belittled by a child she’s schooling, subjected to heartless fornication--Grace continues to submit to worse cruelties until she sacrifices bit by bit the very morality that makes her human. As with Leopold, Grace does not resist; she acts without conscience, dull-witted and half-hearted, growing as stupid and weak as the Dogvillians. The audience must ask itself at what point does it become necessary to resist humiliation and retain one’s humanity. Without a god, without a preacher, without a worldly teacher, without decent authorities, human beings are together the makers of their morality and culture. Neither Grace nor the Dogvillians know where the limits are and ultimately violence and chaos will reign supreme when all have shared in mutilating that specifically human skill of practical common sense.
How quickly Grace is able to return to her former nature when she is rescued from the dog-collar, chain-and-wheel shackle with which she was enslaved. Rescued by her father, once she is disabused of the idea that she should remain innocent and merciful towards the community that chained her in slavery, Grace turns her mind to see the justice of the violent solution her mobster father has come to mete out. Back in her former nature, acting in a manner compatible with the laws of a cruel justice, she adds gross torture as just vengeance upon the particular individuals who most offended her humble self. She acts with passionate resolve to destroy wholesale the incorrigible society. With unlimited forgiveness Grace allowed herself to be reduced to an inhumane state; without mercy she exacts horrific punishments that rival Medea’s barbaric vengeance against her wrongdoers. How on earth can these opposite poles can be reconciled? This is the quandary the audience is left with. Questions need to be raised.
Such questions arise from a cinema of ideas. One day it’s my hope Lars von Trier will make the unforgettable film, an artistic masterpiece we credit Shakespeare having created in some of his tragic theatrical plays. Then, perhaps, he will be respected by audiences for helping to raise consciousness about the need for change in this 21st century new world disorder.
I rated Dogville 4 stars.