a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Five-and-One-Quarter Hours of Martyr Movies

You heard me. Lars von Trier's three-hour Dogville, one hour break for piddling sustenance (you don’t know what chicken is, do you, Salad Works?), and then John Lee Hancock's two-hour-and-change rendition of The Alamo. Yippy.

[Spoilers await you. Tread carefully; skim if necessary.]

Predictably, I have very little to say about the latter. The first half occasionally threatens to turn into something interesting, not unlike a Richard Lester revisionist history where great deeds occasionally come out of dumb accidents and incompetence. (Read: everyone’s a drunk. Except for the guy who sleeps with whores and ditched his wife and kids.) What a tease. The second half is your expected cavalcade of falling bodies, delusional patriotic speeches and good old American boasting -- all of it fetishizing the act of dying for a country that kinda sorta fucked up and left you to be slaughtered en masse. Here’s to propaganda!

Then again, perhaps it wasn’t fair to take it in after the von Trier, about which there’s loads to say (though it is, in a different way, also a tease). In case you hadn’t heard, Dogville’s the most controversial, most perfectly dividing movie in a month -- and whaddaya know? It’s also a messiah movie. (If of sorts.) The difference (apart from the fact that I liked it) is that von Trier’s hero(ine) -- a mysterious babe escaping from gagnsters who comes to a mountain hamlet, engenders herself to its denizens, then finds herself being the paradigm of forgiveness as she’s increasingly imprisoned, humiliated, raped, etc. by them -- gets her revenge...and we’re not supposed to be cheering for her when this occurs. Misanthropic, cynical and generally paranoid as von Trier is, he’s also not that evil -- or at least it is my belief that no artist fully supports genocide. Call me naive, call me optimistic, but I refuse to believe that a writer always supports the deeds his protagonist enacts. Sometimes, surely, but not here.

Because it takes place in America -- and has less than optimistic things to say about our population’s treatment of immigrants -- it was inevitable that it would receive much tut-tutting from critics about its ostentatious anti-Americanism. Von Trier’s apparent thesis is that Nicole Kidman’s Grace -- an outsider who hopes to gain the trust of the townfolk who have put her up -- is a stand-in for illegal immigrants, and that capitalists will always be quick to exploit those over whom they have superiority. A bit bleak, maybe, but it’s tough to argue against this with a straight face, even though very few of us are complicit in this act. (Which is probably what gets the goat of many of its detractors, who have been -- how shall we put this? -- on the defensive.) Naturally, these critics, combing for an easy way to get people on their side, have wielded the inevitable “von Trier’s never stepped foot in our county” argument -- a piece of rebuttal so cheap and pointless that it of course has been working gangbusters. Obviously, though -- in fact, completely transparently -- von Trier is working with the idea of America. His America is viewed entirely on a soundstage, with houses and objects represented by chalk outlines on the stage, Thornton Wilder-style. And then, do you really need to have stepped foot in the states to make a point about a place, a thing? His thesis is pin-pointed -- he’s attacking one small if important problem with the states, if not also expressing the reason why he hasn’t come here. (And, after this and Dancer in the Dark, what a welcome he’d receive.) We are, when you get down to it, the most self-reflexive, self-critical country on the globe. But when others do what we do, we get uppity. (And if they’re European, they’re a cliche.)

The good news is, if you look in the right places, you can find this petty argument eclipsed. The bad news is the way that has come about. Two of my favorite critics -- Slate’s David Edelstein and Salon’s Charles Taylor -- have been the most vocal, or at least the most vocally eloquent, in their derision, which has in both cases moved from “anti-American” to “anti-human.” Edelstein compares it to the work of Jean Renoir and Robert Altman, both of whom were misanthropes but also humanists -- they were fascinated by finding the vileness as well as the redeeming facets in every one of their characters. (Rules of the Game is basically the last word on the subject.)

But Edelstein’s evisceration of von Trier’s tactics is a rave compared to Taylor. But of course. In his usual ranting, spewing way, Taylor picks the film apart for three whole pages, adding W.C. Fields to the comparisons and wildly alligning himself with the defensive. To wit:

“An American critic who slams "Dogville" opens him- or herself up to the usual charges of Americans being unwilling to face the ugly truths about their country (no matter how facile or smug or uninformed those "truths" are). But any critic who rejects the film is open to being told they can't accept dark, pessimistic art, that they'd prefer nice movies. That's a very macho vision of the arts, in which the "hissing naysayers" (as one critic called those of us who reject the film -- and let me own up: When I saw it at the New York Film Festival last fall, I hissed) should just go back to our nice humanist movies and leave the heavy lifting to the tough-minded.”

Most of which is true, except for this: why draw a line in the sand? Isn’t it possible to be a misanthropic humanist and still be able to take in art that coldly and with great exactitude points out ills in our society? If a piece of art does posit a worst-case scenario -- which Dogville inarguably does -- isn’t it worth something if what it says does in fact hold water?

The two are clearly not aligning themselves with, say, the powers-that-be, who will undoubtedly grow red in the face should they ever see it. (Unlike Battle of Algiers, screened for the Pentagon last summer, it doesn’t offer any nifty tips to battle terrorists.) But they’re attacks do nothing but offer a reduction of what von Trier has done here. More than a political pundit and still more than a provacateur, von Trier is an excellent dramatist -- he clearly loves himself some Euripides, Sophocles and all the other Greek tragidists of yore. On a purely primal level, Dogville builds slowly and methodically. Much of what is so entertaining about Dogville -- and it is in fact an entertaining film -- is how he focuses minutely on the way this society works: the woman with the job of ringing the bell; the fact that every man has the hots for Chloe Sevigny’s sole-attractive-young-woman-in-town; the reluctance they have for Paul Bettany’s poorly-assembled town meetings. With a couple all-too-convenient exceptions, von Trier does a fine job of showing how their boredom, routine and myopia leads to the horrific deeds they bring about.

Most people seem to be ignoring the subtle touches. When Grace is being first shown around the town by Bettany, he, like John Hurt’s narrator, reveals the vile nature of each person. Grace’s response is that he’s been, of course, cynical. She will come to renege on that statement by the end, but she, unlike, Bettany has a good reason. Like Blue Velvet and Clouzot’s Le courbeau before it -- as well as Randall Jarrell’s Pictures From an Institution -- it likes to find the underbelly of good deeds, the way that chivalry and selflessness is almost always of the double-edged sword variety. Who can argue with that? Do you have to be a cynic to see this?

Of course, and again, Altman and Renoir managed to do this kind of thing better, and I wouldn’t trade Dogville for most of their takes on similar themes. But rather than get defensive -- and, as Edelstein did, evoke Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men -- it would be more admirable, not to mention more accurate, to say that it is, when you get down to it, a humanist film. It’s hard to believe that some of the stronger people in the movie, like Ben Gazzara’s blind man or even Paul Bettany’s idealist, deserve that they get. Bettany in fact is little more than a prioner of his own wit, having done little but try to rationalize everything without taking in account Grace’s primal suffering. The finale is not what von Trier thinks should ethically or morally happen; in fact it demands that we ask if this is what they deserve, and if Grace hasn’t stooped to their level -- way below it, in fact. (Is there anything worse than misplaced passion?) The tip-off is here: when Grace asks the goons to kill two of Patricia Clarkson’s kids and only off the rest if she can’t compose herself. “It’s only fair.” Uh-huh. Fuck this woman in my opinion. Forgiveness and restraint are overrated. That seems to be the very original thesis of Dogville.


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