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Thread: DOGVILLE: An American Parable by Lars von Trier

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    DOGVILLE: An American Parable by Lars von Trier

    "The film DOGVILLE as told in nine chapters and a prologue."

    Done with opening titles, an aerial view reveals the curious topography of a small town, drawn onto a stage, with chalk lines standing for walls and a minimum of props. John Hurt's voice intones: "This is the sad tale of the township of Dogville, in the Rocky Mountains, up where the road came to its definite end near the abandoned silver mine. The residents of Dogville were good, honest folk and they liked their town."

    Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), an aspiring writer and self-proclaimed town leader, returns home after visiting his childhood friend Bill (Jeremy Davies) and Bill's sister Liz (Chloe Sevigny). Suddenly he hears gunshots coming from the valley below, and later, Moses' frantic barks. A stranger appears begging for protection. Tom hides Grace (Nicole Kidman) and lies to the armed trenchcoats who come in pursuit. Tom holds a town meeting to inform the residents of the events of the previous night. They vote to let her stay, for the time being. In order to win their trust, Grace agrees to provide any service or assistance the residents may require. The townfolk gradually warm up to her graces and the fugitive integrates into the community. But not for long. Police come to Dogville to pin up a wanted poster, raising fear and suspicion. Greed, jealousy, envy and the baser instincts will soon become manifest.

    Dogville comes complete with a narrative twist giving Grace opportunities not available to the female victims in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. The film comes into focus as a parable, as moralist in its intentions as primo Kurosawa. The residents of Dogville can be said to embody different reactions to the possession of power over another human being ( one of many possible readings the film allows). The actions of Tom were of particular interest to me, given how he is introduced as a compassionate, well-educated, perhaps altruistic man. Trier's script becomes quite sophisticated when laying bare the way each character justifies his/her abuse of power over Grace. The stellar cast includes Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson and Bergman-veteran Harriet Andersson.

    Lars von Trier refers to Dogville as the first of a trilogy titled USA: Land of Opportunities. He does not object to the label "filmed theatre" (more accurately, a staging turned into a film). Trier readily offers a variety of influences ranging from the BBC's Nicholas Nickelby, to the works of John Steinback, to the song "Pirate Jenny" from Brecht's The Three Penny Opera (http://pithuit.free.fr/FAITHFULL/LYRICS/twen03.html). As a cinema correlative, I'd propose Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street, a bare-bones, post-modern adaptation of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya". Rarefied company indeed.

    In case of any doubt as to whether he intended an analogy between Dogville, Colorado and the USA, Lars closes with a collage of pictures of poor, homeless, addicted, disenfranchised Americans. A lot of Graces.
    Last edited by oscar jubis; 04-06-2004 at 10:46 PM.

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    This film moved me to such a degree that when I walked outside I no longer felt sure about my immediate surroundings. The affect that is achieved by staging the film in a typically theatrical space is remarkable. I would say that it's effectiveness is as much a function of the editting and cinematography as lack of physical space as we know it. Von Trier has a way with the camera that is immediate and distant at once.

    I am awaiting the second in the series. Any ideas on that one's themes or production schedule?


    solang

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    Lars von Trier is currently shooting Manderlay in Denmark and Sweden. "Grace's journey takes her to the American South as she encounters slavery for the first time" is the only plot summary I've found. (Do they mean "segregation" or "racism" since it takes place in the 1930s?).
    The character of Grace will be played by Bryce Howard, who will debut in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. Willem Dafoe replaces James Caan and Danny Glover and Isaac de Bankole(Ghost Dog:The Way of the Samurai) are added to the cast. World premiere likely Cannes or New York FF 2005. North American premiere likely Dec. 2005.

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    You present the basic outline of "Dogville" with clarity and one can only admire your positive attitude and openness to so many films of an offbeat and challenging nature, but your presentation is rather misleading, and certainly can't be considered a "review" -- just a teaser, with little hint of the ordeal to come for many those who watch the whole three hours.

    The actions of Tom were of particular interest to me, given how he is introduced as a compassionate, well-educated, perhaps altruistic man.

    You don't choose to comment further. Isn't it also obvious from the start that Tom is egocentric and inefffectual? I would have at least inserted the word "ostensibly."

    "Vanya on 42nd Street" with its humanism, its theatrical sophistication (the direction of the actors in "Dogville" is spotty at best), its warmth and richness of social content, seems a very odd comparison to me. "Vanya" is "bare bones" theatrically but it's more like a final reading of a play that's been very well rehearsed; "Dogville" seems roughly improvised and many of the readings are awkward. And there can be no comparison of the writing.

    I'm also surprised you don't mention Wilder's "Our Town," to which many think von Trier is alluding. I also mentioned Brecht in my review because both writers have a schematic and didactic approach.

    I cringe to think of America being dealt with in two more brutal movies in the von Trier style. Or should I say "America" since he has never been here?

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    Post written by oj. I didn't realize Chels had logged in.
    Originally posted by Chris Knipp
    You present the basic outline of "Dogville"

    I present a rough sinopsis of the first hour, just enough to give the reader an idea of the content involved.

    your presentation is rather misleading

    What makes it misleading?

    certainly can't be considered a "review" -- just a teaser, with little hint of the ordeal to come for many those who watch the whole three hours

    I am one of those who watched "the whole three hours" several times with pleasure, at the theatre and at home. Why should I even hint of an "ordeal" I didn't experience?

    Isn't it also obvious from the start that Tom is egocentric and inefffectual? I would have at least inserted the word "ostensibly."

    I certainly would never say that Tom is introduced as "ineffectual", not when he manages to get everyone behind his plan to give Grace a 2-week trial period. His egocentricity wasn't central to the point I was making, that Tom is presented initially as one trying to help Grace, first by hiding her from pursuers, then by convincing others to accept her.

    "Vanya on 42nd Street" seems a very odd comparison to me. "Vanya" is "bare bones" theatrically but it's more like a final reading of a play that's been very well rehearsed; "Dogville" seems roughly improvised and many of the readings are awkward.

    I've seen a lot of films and Vanya is the one that most approximates my experience watching Dogville. A cinema correlative.
    There are a few scenes in Dogville that don't work as well as most. Trier himself states in the commentary to the dvd that he wishes he had re-shoot the scene of Tom and Grace's first meeting. The film was shot "in continuity" and he feels Bettany's performance improves thereafter.

    And there can be no comparison of the writing.

    I don't mean to imply that Trier is Chehkov's equal as a writer. We shouldn't compare a piece written for the stage to one that accompanies film images.

    I'm also surprised you don't mention Wilder's "Our Town," to which many think von Trier is alluding

    Trier states the springboard for his film is the song "Pirate Jenny" from "A three Penny Opera". Americans' familiarity with "Our Town" and the common use of an outsider-as-narrator has resulted in multiple mentions of Wilder in reviews by American crits. The narratives and what each aims to accomplish are quite different.

    I also mentioned Brecht in my review because both writers have a schematic and didactic approach.

    Trier mentions Brecht, and Steinback, as sources of inspiration.

    I cringe to think of America being dealt with in two more brutal movies in the von Trier style.

    I look forward to Trier's take on race relations: Manderlay, with new actors in the roles played by Kidman and Caan. Quite a challenge.
    Last edited by chelsea jubis; 05-13-2004 at 02:59 AM.

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    We clearly differ sharply on Dogville. Earlier in this thread, I critiqued your summary. You respond to various points, but I don't see a refutation of my critique in what you've written in this reply. I will try again to show what I meant when I said that your presentation was misleading and incomplete. I will inevitably be repeating myself at many points.

    The most damning weakness in your description of Dogville is your bland and incomplete characterization of Tom, the Paul Betanny role. You first introduce him (without qualification) as "an aspiring writer and self-proclaimed leader" and then later say that "The actions of Tom were of particular interest to me, given how he is introduced as a compassionate, well-educated, perhaps altruistic man." Sure, Tom makes a good impression at first, before we see him in action; but while not overtly wrong, your description is beside the point if not utterly blind -- and therefore misleading. It's very important to note (though you claim not to see it) that Tom is ineffectual; that he betrays Grace, that he represents the liberal whose path to hell is paved with good intentions. That's the essential import of the character. You fail to acknowledge that; and if you don't see that he is ineffectual in a dangerous way, that he respresents the failure of the intellectuals (what Julen Benda called the "trahison des clercs"), I have doubts about your understanding of the story.

    Or, alternately, if you do see this, you have simply not put your perceptions into words where it was important to do so. I can only go by what you've said.

    Overall, I don't know where you're going with your remarks about Dogville, but you don't get there, and don't seem to care. But I know you do care about movies and are passionate about them, so I don't understand why you don't mount a stronger defense of a movie you evidently like.

    If this is it, if this is all you have to say about Dogville, then I don't see what's to admire. Comparing it with Kurosawa seems a curiously tone-deaf remark, given Kurosawa's enormous physical and visual sensuality, his intensely cinematic style; how can one compare Kurosawa with any dogme filmmaker? You don't describe the ordeal because you don't see an ordeal. What do you see?

    Surely you know that von Trier has strong detractors. How do you answer them? I can see that you, like others, find von Trier serious and full of import. Why can't you see how people would find his films an ordeal to watch? Surely you know that I'm not alone. What are the compensations? You don't acknowledge the opposition or reply to it.

    Your justification that you summarize only the first hour and that you're only talking about Tom as he appears at first doesn't answer my objections to your "review," nor do you respond to my comment that what you wrote is more an (admiring) summary than a review.

    You say Vanya on 42nd Street is comparable to Dogville because it's the most similar thing you know--not a justification of comparing it in a review; maybe you need to know other things so that you can compare things that are more germane. Wilder's Our Town at least is very similarly structured as a minimalist theatrical production. Vanya on 42nd Street not only isn't a filmmaker's script but a famous play; it's not a minimalist inactment (like a Beckett production) but a reading of a play, by seated actors -- different from Our Town and different from Dogville.. Then later you say I shouldn't compare a play with a movie. But that's what you yourself have done. And you also cite von Trier himself as saying he is doing "filmed theater."

    As for Our Town, given his obvous hatred of this country which he has never deigned to visit, I wonder if von Trier would be willing to admit his debt to such a famous American play if there was one; whether he is aware of Wilder or not we don't seem to know. What is clear is that the comparison, for us, is inevitable and important and damning. Despite the sentimentality of Wilder's play, it has a humanity and emotional force that makes Dogville seem the puny and narrow minded thing it is.

    You may in your own way "answer" some of my critique of your "review" of Dogville; you don't refute my points. And much more important, you don't answer the many criticisms of the movie that have been advanced by audience and critics. Most important among these perhaps is the mean spirited anti-American content. What do you say to that? What do you say to the import of the photo images and the song accompanying the closing credits?

    You "look forward" to von Trier's continuation of this mean-spirited, punishing trilogy. Why? I see no argument or defense here.

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    Originally posted by Chris Knipp
    Why can't you see how people would find his films an ordeal to watch? Surely you know that I'm not alone.
    Denby's New Yorker review calls it "pedantic, obtuse, and unwatchable".

    Von Trier's next film is a story about slavery set in the American South in the 1930's, though I'm sure he knows that slavery was legally abolished over 50 years before that time. That contradiction must be the "import" of this film. How novel.

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    Is that all you want to say? I was hoping for a discussion, here.

    Yes. "How novel." Indeed.

    Of course I've read Denby. Denby gives my position a bad name by being extreme and nasty. Something has gone haywire in Denby's mind. He also trashed Kill Bill 2, which it was pointless of him to review, because he doesn't get it. He had already trashed Kill Bill 1; that was enough. Time to give somebody else a job. He was more decent with The Dreamers. He trashed it, but with respect; with an elaborate historical buildup that honored Bertolucci's previous achievements. Or so I recall.

    I don't know of a good review that is critical of Dogville. Actually many side with Denby, but in milder terms; I just haven't sought out a review I could say I admire. I don't believe in trashing movies. I have no intention of trashing Dogville. But it is one of the most infuriating movies I've seen in years. Von Trier clearly inspires extreme reactions. His movies are either the best thing since sliced bread, or tedious and misogynistic provocations. If you don't have a strong reaction, check your pulse. You may not have one.

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    Dogville . I saw it last week (during it's extremely limited run) and I've been trying to form some concrete thoughts about it ever since.

    The movie seems like a perfect example of the point anduril was trying to get at in the "Art and Audience" thread. Lars is one skilled craftsman behind the camera, no question, but the message of the film is damning, blunt, brutally frank.

    This is the kind of movie Greenaway would make (yep, here I go again with my Greenaway bullshit): a social commentary made with the highest artistic merit.
    (If I offended you, Sir Peter, I apologize- I know your camerawork would be rock solid ;)


    That said, the film is right up my alley, but I can't recommend it to anyone who primarily watches mainstream fare.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    My dislike of Dogville has nothing to do with an allergy to the offbeat. I will go the extra mile in that direction and I am by no means a huge devotee of mainstream cinema.

    Greenaway has recently said "maybe I'm too clever." That may be, but he's way more fun to watch than von Trier. And I don't mean easy pap fun. For me Boys Don't Cry and La Pianiste are enjoyable, because they're beautifully made films.

    Philip French, the British film critic, wrote apropos of Dancer in the Dark's Cannes win in 2000:
    Von Trier's inept musical, starring Björk as a Czech immigrant factory worker condemned to death in Sixties America for a murder she didn't commit, does very badly what Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven did supremely well. Its arrogant hit-and-miss director, a weird mixture of the naive and the sophisticated, brings to mind a remark of Isaiah Berlin's about a flamboyant literary intellectual: 'He's an example of that rare phenomenon, the authentic charlatan.'
    Just an example to show I'm not alone. But to the subject at hand, his latest opus:

    Carrie Rickey:
    Dogville, Danish director Lars von Trier's theatrical exercise starring Nicole Kidman, is either an airless allegory about opportunistic Americans or another one of the director's parables of female persecution. OK, maybe it's both. But life is too short for three hours of misanthropy and misogyny.
    Manolah Dargis, LA Times:
    A provocation, a coup de theatre and three hours of tedious experimentation.
    (And she loved Van Sant's Jerry. So did I.)

    Jonathan Rosenbaum, revered at this site, wrote thus:
    This experimental drama about the cruelty of a Rocky Mountain community toward a woman (Nicole Kidman) in flight from gangsters, shot with an all-star cast on a mainly bare soundstage, bored me for most of its 178 minutes and then infuriated me with its cheap cynicism once it belatedly became interesting--which may be a tribute to writer-director Lars von Trier's gifts as a provocateur. The fact that he spends most of his time in Denmark as a porn producer seems relevant to his exploitation instincts, yet those who have called this blend of Brecht and Our Town anti-American may be overrating its ideological coherence. As in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, the heroine suffers greatly, but whether she suffers at the hands of humanity or von Trier himself isn't entirely clear.
    Amen, Jonathan.

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    Chris, I'm in total agreement with you on this. Good find, those reviews. Regardless of what you think about Denby lately, I love those adjectives he used (pedantic, obtuse, and unwatchable), though I might throw in one more, "presumptuous". He described it perfectly in three words.

    I'm not objecting to the man or the film because he "raises issues". It's the fact that he does so in such a careless, haphazard, and arrogant manner. I wrote a few inelegant paragraphs here a few months ago on this theme (something about hypocrisy of American puritanism), and how it's been well-explored in film and literature over the years. So, Trier's not breaking new ground here in his castigation of American society and morality. And now he's set out to explore the theme of racism (or slavery) in the American South in the early 20th century? Oh Lord.

    Speaking of the theme of American hypocrisy, I'm now reading "Americana" by Don Delillo. It's the wonderful first novel by one of our great contemporary authors. Highly recommended.

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    Thank you for joining in. Certainly von Trier isn't to be faulted for raising serious issues -- if he would only do so in a sensible context, without brutalizing the audience and his heroine/victim. He has gotten too gentle a treatment on this site and I hope others will join the dissenters with me and JustaFied. I only want to point out that JustaFied and I are not alone. A filmmaker does not deserve praise merely for challenging the audience and putting on the guise of thoughtful avant-gardism any more than he or she would deserve it for merely pleasing and coddling us.

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    Trier is heavy handed with Dogville. I wonder if he really HAS to make movies like this. He's got the clout to branch out into territory that's never been explored before. Why is he making films that (on the surface) are beautiful yet deep down are really pessimistic?

    What great tragedy befell him in his life that he must lash out with beautifully destructive films? I sure would like to know.
    Lars needs to realize he's got the same cinematic eye as Tarkovsky yet an outlook that is almost too painful to bear.

    When will we see Trier's "Optimistic", starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock?

    Um, never, methinks.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Originally posted by Chris Knipp
    It's very important to note (though you claim not to see it) that Tom is ineffectual; that he betrays Grace, that he represents the liberal whose path to hell is paved with good intentions. That's the essential import of the character. You fail to acknowledge that.

    I refuse to spoil the film for the reader by disclosing Tom's betrayal explicitly. I suggest it by stating that the film exposes "the way each character justifies his/her abuse of power over Grace."

    Comparing it with Kurosawa seems a curiously tone-deaf remark

    Uncharacteristic of Chris to fail to read attentively. It's obvious from my post that the only analogy I'm making between Kurosawa and Trier pertains to their moralist intentions.

    Surely you know that von Trier has strong detractors.

    After my first viewing (almost a year ago) I said the film would be highly controversial. It has strong detractors and strong supporters. My fave critic hated it which is fine, except for the cheap shot at Lars for producing two pornos in his spare time. Many critics I admire like it, including Hoberman.


    Despite the sentimentality of Wilder's play, it has a humanity and emotional force that makes Dogville seem the puny and narrow minded thing it is.

    There you go again, comparing apples to oranges. As far as emotional force, I was deeply moved by Dogville. Grace's loss of innocence and her surrender to her father's ways (in the key scene inside his car) left me devastated. Sola posted that the film "moved me to such a degree that when I walked outside I no longer felt sure about my immediate surroundings". She ain't the only one.

    What do you say to the import of the photo images and the song accompanying the closing credits?

    I think Trier intends a connection between the photos' subjects and Grace, as stated at the end of my review. That can be a springboard to a variety of added interpretations.
    Last edited by oscar jubis; 05-18-2004 at 04:19 AM.

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    WEll, Oscar, as usual you're so tightlipped that there's not much to reply to. My view is that von Trier is not a humane filmmaker in any way shape or form, so comparing him to Kurosawa, even in a narrow way, seems outrageous. Apples and oranges--you said that of one of my comparisons. The comparison to contrast makes sense, which is what I am doing with Thornton Wilder's Our Town. The comparison (to contrast) is very relevant: Dogville very much resembles Our Town in its theatrical accoutrements and also invites comparison with Brecht, as quite a few writers have pointed out.

    We're not previewing the movie now but discussing it, so we can talk about the ending, eh? You can't have a real discussion of a movie if you're afraid of dropping "spoilers."

    Perhaps Sola was just exhausted from being too long in the airless and artificial world of the movie. "I felt so and so" is not really a way of convincing anybody else of the emotional impact of a movie. It's like saying "You hated it and I loved it." The question is, Why?

    I don't know what you're saying about the photos and Bowie song's import at the end. Why don't you spell out what you think it implies? Something to do with Grace? What? That isn't what most people think. They think, I guess, that it's saying America is a lie. Sure, there are various possible interpretations, but an anti-American one strikes me as the most likely, in the whole context of von Trier's work and of Dogville.

    "An austere Brechtian critique of an unjust society" is how one critic (Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine) describes Dogville. If it is that -- and the concluding credits underline that -- then you ought to walk out not overwhelmed with emotion, but THINKING. The heart of the Brechtian approach is that it shakes you up, yeah, but instead of awakening Aristotle's pity and terror, the purging effect (catharsis) of classical tragedy, it withholds that, and instead makes you sit up and THINK. And Dogville does that to me: but I don't buy the ideas it dishes out. I don't think it's supposed to induce profound sorrow or any strong emotion, but shock and then thought.

    Let me quote the conclusion of Gonzalez's review, because it provides the kind of interpretation I was hoping for from you:

    Though Grace’s final conquest can be read as a campaign for cultural euthanasia, the film’s devastating final credits—which juxtapose David Bowie’s “Young American” with photojournalistic memories of American underdevelopment—are unmistakably sympathetic. Von Trier understands that the root of American aggression may very well be our arrogant elite’s oppression of the culturally underprivileged, which has bred ignorant and isolationist attitudes throughout the ages. Contempt breeds more contempt, so to speak. “It’s got to be universal,” says a confused Tom at one point, widening the director’s political perspective. In the end, Dogville is less anti-American than it is, quite simply, anti-oppression.


    I don't quite agree, but I think this is an example of the way you have to approach the movie. Lots of good interpretation offered by Gonzalez in his review.(http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/fi...iew.asp?ID=830).

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