Wednesday, 23 March 2011

'Dogville' (2003)

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany
Music: Antonio Vivaldi, David Bowie
Director: Lars Von Trier
Screenplay: Lars Von Trier
Director of Photography: Anthony Dod Mantle

"And they asked me which heads should fall, and the harbour fell quiet as I answered 'All'."
(Berlot Brecht, trans. Marc Blitzstein, 'Pirate Jenny')

Internet summaries of the film's plot are plentiful, but I'll add my own re-cap to start things off in any case. On the run from gangsters, Grace (Nicole Kidman) is taken in by the citizens of tiny, dead-end town Dogville, in return for doing (paid) manual tasks. After a honeymoon period (capped by her guest-of-honour status at a Fourth of July meal), the town’s kindness turns to distrust and abuse, as they shackle her, repeatedly rape her, and force her to work as a slave. Eventually, they call her gangster father to come and take her off their hands; he does, but, with his daughter’s permission, also massacres the whole town in the process, thus contributing yet another of Von Trier's head-scratching 'happy endings'. So that, in broad outline, is what happens during the film's three hours: talking points and moments of controversy aplenty, as you can imagine. Let's begin our exmination of the film proper, then, with what has been perhaps the most controversial of the many controversial issues dogging Von Trier throughout his career: namely, his attitude to women, his supposed misogyny. Well, the way Grace bears her sufferings does uncomfortably play into the stereotypes of woman as suffering saint (not only because she refuses to give up her virginity, but because she persists in doing so (rebuffing Thomas Edison Jr.’s advances) even as it is repeatedly taken from her by all the other male inhabitants of the town; at once virgin and whore, have your cake and eat it). And her turn to avenging angel at the end is no better: it seems that the only option she has is to be a victim and to rely on 'daddy' to over-react to the bully when the time comes. (Yes, she shoots Edison Jr. herself, but only because daddy's gangster thugs give her the ‘manpower’ to do that). Consider briefly: what if the victim figure in the film were not a white woman at all, but a man of colour? Or even a white man? Would the things that happen to a female character be allowed to happen to a man? Or can they happen as they do only because Von Trier is following in a long tradition of exploiting and even glamourising female suffering, albeit with a twist of apparent knowing irony? It's unlikely, for example, that a male character would be repeatedly raped with a look of winsome resignation on their face (and then there's the whole S&M aspect of Kidman's collar (joined as it is with her fur-lined coat)). In addition, the sexual violence takes place in a way that doesn't really feel violent at all - like much of what happens in the film, it seems somehow to be veiled with a certain knowingness, a caustic and dispassionate knowningness. It's almost as if we, the viewers, are supposed to be in on some sort of joke, of which rape is a part. Von Trier, then, does not really intend to convey a wider point about the status/treatment of women in American society, or any society – not that he's above trying to make (quite heavy-handed) political points, just that he's got a blind-spot in his view of women which doesn't enable him to give even the remotest justification for their exploitation.

OK, so what about the Christian angle? Well, it would be a mistake to view ‘Dogville’ as too overt or direct a Christian allegory – not only because Von Trier hasn't emphasized that interpretation in his interviews, but because the Christian elements in his films seem to me more window-dressing than thought-through theological tussle. This is hardly a surprise given statements such as: “I don't know if I'm all that Catholic really. I'm probably not. Denmark is a very Protestant country. Perhaps I only turned Catholic to piss off a few of my countrymen.” Like everything else that his perplexed interviewers scribble down, this is designed to shock, without necessarily having a specific programme behind it – if he contradicts himself, so much the better; who said that he should be the conscience of society? (“I also don't want you to think I'm a moralist. I want you to think that I'm cruel, hard and manly” is another eminently quotable line from the same occasion, in which he also proclaimed: “I am an American woman. Or 65 percent of me is.”) Still, even with all that deliberate contradiction and provocation taken into account, the statement about Catholicism does capture something about the way his films unfold – hinting at, even blaring in your face, a certain type of symbolism, or allegorical reading, or horrific/absurd shock-image (remember the talking fox in ‘Antichrist’? or those more famous moments of sexual violence in the same film?), but never connecting these fragments into an cohesive overall picture. (In that sense, one thinks of Jodorowsky’s mystical-psychedelic kaleidoscope of symbols in ‘El Topo’ and ‘The Holy Mountain’.) He's good – very good, in fact – at general effects (in ‘Dogville’, the combination of John Hurt’s snide faux-story-book narration, the bare Brechtian backdrops, subtle jump-cuts within scenes adding a kind of fluid discontinuity to their flow, ranging camera-movements around the studio set giving an efficient sense of the community as pervasive, invasive, looking in, looking on, spying, complicit), less so on sorting through the specific points he wants to hammer home (the credit sequence at the end, in which David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans' accompanies photos of poor US citizens, both white and black, is caught between being wilfully ambiguous and wilfully didactic – it ends up awkwardly placed between the two). Nonetheless, that Christian element is undoubtedly there: Grace (yes, a loaded name) as female Christ figure, come to earth to be taken into our community, her good nature abused, persecuted; yet maintaining an attitude of acceptance despite all the suffering. (The shedding of tears, like Christ's shedding of tears on the cross, happens not because of his own pain but because of how far others have stooped – well, ok, both because of others’ sin and because it’s actually quite painful to be crucified.) But here comes the twist away from the traditional resolution of the Christian story; 'Dogville' doesn't end with the redemptive, sacrificial death of the lone victim, but switches to the rather different moral territory of the revenge climax. Grace does not utter the words, 'forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do', given that, in this case, 'Father' is mob boss James Caan. No, after a chat in his car, she comes to believe that they know very well what they do, the moral hypocrites; they are unredeemable, and therefore it’s only right to have them all killed as payback. So that is what happens. Grace's attempt to bear suffering with, yes, grace, and to always give people the benefit of the doubt, to think the best of them, comes a-cropper, and the only alternative is just to exterminate the scum, the dogs. In that sense, we're really meant to go along with Caan's speech in the car about not trying to understand rapists or murderers, just blowing their fucking heads off. Social explanations – pah! – who needs those?; just kill them all. Here is where Von Trier's social sense falls short, because, although he wants to present a vision of nasty small-town America and its intolerance, he himself has an intolerance for poor Americans that doesn't just condemn their racism or ignorance or whatever else he wants to attribute to them, but refuses to listen to any justification for it, refuses to think, for example, about the way that poor whites were set against poor blacks as a distraction against their own exploitation by governing classes (as documented in Howard Zinn's 'People's History of The United States'). Dogville is such an isolated community – at the edge of the wilderness, the limits of what is acceptable – that it could be considered a rogue, extreme or distorted version of small-town America, with all of its flaws and none of its virtues; trouble is, it's this very isolation that prevents it from being very effective as the wider allegory that Von Trier wants it to be. For all their dialogue, then, the townsfolk end up not all that far from the nightmare-cartoon-rapist hillbillies of 'Deliverance'.

This enables the revenge aspect to seem more uncomplicated; yes, OK, the gangsters shoot kids and a baby, but we'd only seen the baby as a rocking cradle prop anyway, the only kid with dialogue was a nasty brat who's getting what he deserved, and Kidman spares Moses the dog at the end anyway (‘Gee, I do hate it when animals are killed, don't you? I can watch a hundred people blasted away quite happily, but I blub like a baby if one animal is harmed.’) I had a similar problem with the Coen's ‘True Grit', a film which was much more about efficient story telling and nice period-atmosphere touches than about grand narratives, allegorical dimensions, but still…Like the original novel and the John Wayne film, it rendered its villains ill-drawn, not exactly pantomime baddies, but not exactly characters anywhere near as fully-drawn as the three protagonists either. We end up accepting revenge as 'just the way it was back then', revelling in it, going along gleefully with the simple law of 'an eye for an eye'. That's partially to do with the whole western genre, which so often turns on that element – though of course the notion that the hero must lose this bitterness and forego their revenge is also a part of that tradition. (Even if they do manage to have their cake and eat it when the antagonist tries to kill them, so that they've no choice but to fire back. Yes, you did kill them, even though you’d foresworn revenge; but, don’t worry, your conscience may remain clear; you only killed them ’cos you had to, not because you were hunting them down for any selfish motives.) Often, a pretended moral grapple with the whole notion of revenge is simply window-dressing for the violent denouement we knew was coming – at least the spaghetti westerns were less hypocritical than that in their straightforward revenge narratives. Even 'Unforgiven', one of the most thoughtfully considered views of violence and revenge clichés within the genre, turns on its head at the last minute – all the talk and demonstration of the griminess of violence, its ingloriousness, the toll it takes on lives, is swept aside for a western gothic shoot-em-up, Eastwood then riding, almost literally, into the sunset (not when he leaves the town, heading into the portentous raging storm, but over the final credits, as he stands silhouetted by his wife's grave). I’ve always wondered: was this Eastwood playing on the audience's demand for revenge, only to reveal its disgusting reality? Or was it something more unresolved, simply a re-tread of Pale Rider’s atmospherics, a cloak of style disguising a sudden lack of substance? The difference in 'Dogville' is that we're not in a western, the bloody revenge shoot-out is not what we've been waiting for/ expecting/ dreading/ enjoying in equal measure (à la any number of Peckinpah movies, ‘Straw Dogs’ (a western in all but setting) in particular). So is Von Trier lulling us into a false sense of security? – not so much that we don’t expect the harmlessly eccentric townsfolk to turn nasty, and are suitably shocked when they do, but that we expect the process of the innocent saint's abuse to lead to her martyr's death (perhaps then leading the townsfolk a realisation of what they've done, or to another hypocritical moral justification revealing their essential meanness). Instead, not only are we given the revenge we weren't expecting, but we can enjoy it all the more for its unexpectedness (urging Kidman on as she ponders whether or not to spare the townsfolk). Is Von Trier doing a Haneke (Funny Games)? Well, not really, he hasn't thought it through that much – essentially, what I get from it all is: small-town hick, dirt-poor America is nasty and mean, full of people grasping for what little money and advantage that can be extorted from their desperate situation, and from people in that situation even worse off than themselves (e.g. immigrants, which Kidman’s character isn’t exactly (in fact, she comes from a far wealthier milieu than the small-town hicks and pretenders into whose midst she is cast), but for whom she could easily be taken as a metaphor). Not only this, but said abuse is ‘backed up’ by all sorts of sentimental/sanctimonious cod-philosophical/religious justification. Such moral hypocrisy means that the aforementioned small-town, dirt-poor America thoroughly deserves what’s coming to it. Chickens coming home to roost / the glamour of gangster violence (all 1930s cars, hats and tommy guns; if the small-town milieu is America is seen/filtered through the perspective of stage plays (Brecht, ‘Our Town’), this gangster element is America as seen through the movies) / this glamorous violence as an efficient solution? I wouldn’t have a problem with this if it was so obviously within the moral context of a movie – Tarantino’s ‘Inglourius Basterds’ isn’t pretending to be anything other than a ludicrous fantasy, the ultimate WW2 entertainment – but Von Trier seems to be consciously trying for a wider moral high-ground (particularly given the fact that he decided to make his ‘US trilogy’ at around the time the whole business of American intervention in Iraq was rearing its head), and thus forces himself into a corner, where provoking liberal do-gooders turns dangerously close to espousing view such as the following: “Rapists and murderers may be the victims according to you, but I call them dogs and if they're lapping up their own vomit the only way to stop them is with the lash.” So “Shoot them and burn down the town.” These are the words given to the mobster father, but Von Trier himself seems to endorse them: “I liked the idea that the father, this hard-nosed gangster who's not particularly likeable, brings a sort of truth to the story. He has a healthy understanding of people. His daughter wants to be good to everyone and only causes damage.” We know that VT delights in making provocative statements (“Until that point I thought I had a Jewish background. But I'm really more of a Nazi” (he’s referring to his genetic background, in case you’re wondering); still, how much slack can you cut? How many pinches of salt can you...etc. Maybe it’s the Zizek syndrome: because you’re expected to be a good leftist, you constantly try to provoke your own audience (who lap it up and love it – treat me wrong, Slavoj, treat me wrong), by making points about cowardly liberals and honest fascists, and, consequently, you end up valorising racist working-class violence against gypsies. Not that you really believe all that, but your own status as a provocateur has driven you to a position where you can’t back down, where everything that you say has to be controversial, even when that position of constant controversy becomes little more than a stylistic tic which often misses the mark (that well-worn strategy: ‘this well-known fact is often trumpeted; but does it not mean the opposite of what it is commonly thought to be saying?’ recurs throughout Zizek’s writing, but, especially in the recent work, one often ends up thinking, ‘well, no, it doesn’t. You’re just saying that for rhetorical effect.’)

But, following that off-topic wander, I’ll leave it to someone else to lay down a better final word on ‘Dogville’ than I could:

“The sequence in Dogville that inspires the strongest reaction is the closing credit sequence, which is accompanied by a montage of photographs of American poverty and misery — Depression victims immortalized by Dorothea Lange, dead bodies lying in the street, miserable inner-city images of hungry children and unsteady adults. (It’s jauntily scored to David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” [Interpolation: I’m not sure that ‘jauntiness’ of the song isn’t belied by its lyrics, actually, which one might read as linking into what’s just happened in the film, bringing out an analysis of female exploitation – on those grounds, though, I think Bowie’s analysis in three minutes is actually more thoroughgoing than Von Trier’s in three hours…] Looking at these faces right after you’ve spent three hours seeing America as it looks through von Trier’s eyes has the most extraordinary effect: whatever feelings of respect or sympathy or righteous anger these faces might have inspired before, now they look like the denizens of Dogville, and it would be natural to make the next leap and conclude that wherever they are in life, they’ve gotten what they deserve. (The conclusion of Dogville, like that of Unforgiven, is likely to make you feel that way even as your brain dutifully recognizes that you’re meant to see the horror in it.)”

I think that gets it spot-on.

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