As Anna (Morjana Alaoi) walks tepidly down the uncomfortably clean, chrome hallway, the overhead lights go on, one by one, revealing something akin to a claustrophobic passageway to Hell. There are pictures, blown up, on the wall. On them are bodies, gaunt, beaten, broken down, aesthetically comparable to Mengelian victims of experimentation. Up on the wall are “real life” martyrs, women and children who have submitted their bodies completely to pain. Their eyes are open, accepting not only every ounce of cruelty made upon them, but, seemingly on humankind in general. Read the rest of this entry »
If Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, the slow burning thriller that essentially made its director a household name in the United States and launched a plethora of cutesy memes of its leading man, is the “accessible art house appetizer”, then I think it would be appropriate to call Refn’s most recent project, and second collaboration with star Ryan Gosling the full buffet. Well, at least it looks like it. The problem is, however nice it the meal may look, you could not find a more impenetrable film that was more stuck in its own concept.
Julian’s brother is killed after raping and murdering another man’s daughter in Thailand. Julian’s mother comes to Bangkok to see the corpse of her son. Her sons were drug dealers, and, meanwhile, both harbored a unique relationship with their mother, both equally incestuous, though Julian’s from more of a distance. The chief of police and Julian’s mother are at war, though it’s never explained explicitly why that is.
Only God Forgives indulges in its slow, neon drenched cinematography, and the camera moves, much like its narrative pace, as If it is walking and meandering around the city of Bangkok. Everything is red and blue, presumably representing the clashing ideals of passion and repression, heat and cold, and life and death. Although Refn could be, to some extent, labeled a little bit of a visualist, particularly with a film like his experimental Valhalla Rising or even his earlier Pusher Trilogy and Fear X, the cinematography is both overt and opaque here, servicing no one but Refn himself. All the meaning in the world that Refn could elaborate on does not make up for the fact that the inherent coldness of the film and its cinematography very often undermines its beauty. The cinematography, however, is not without its charms. It is often haunting and hypnotic, putting the viewer under a trance, regardless of whether that trance or whether those shots mean anything other than a visual manifestation or representation of machismo.
Which might be part of the problem. A few days later and I am still not entirely sure what the film was trying to do, but I do know that masculinity was an important part nonetheless. What I do not know is whether the film is the mouth of Refn, flashing the audience his fascination with masculinity in any culture, or whether it is a commentary therein of masculinity. Almost like Tarantino’s own foot fetish, Refn admits to having a fascination, even a fetish for fists. So many of his films about masculinity and how it functions in society, and more often than not, there is a close up shot of someone clenching, or unclenching, their fists. Only God Forgives is not exception, but that fist clenching, and Goslings singular delivery of “Wanna fight?” do nothing to actually clear the waters as to what the film is attempting to do. Commentary or not, no one is nice or good or even pleasant in this film. They are all deeply masculine characters, inhabiting deeply masculine prejudices, overreactions, and desires for sex and violence. There is no hero.
Heroes and protagonists are, of course, not mutually exclusive, but one wonders who the protagonist is and what exactly they are trying to overcome. Yes, Ryan Gosling is the lead actor, but what exactly is he trying to do? He’s given orders from his overbearing and manipulative mother, and the two clearly have a very Oedipal tension between them, but what Gosling’s character actually does is very little, except for stare blankly from scene to scene, either at another character or into the lens of the camera. One could argue that the protagonist is the Thai cop, Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), but even his motives are fairly murky. Murky, but not ambiguous. The primary issue then is that the film is so bent on making all these characters (perhaps inadvertently) loathsome that there seems to be no depth to them at all. Where Drive’s main man at least had baggage and was not a good man through and through, Gosling’s Julian is nothing but a caricature or a badly drawn representation of male blood lust and misogyny.
As far as I can recall of Refn’s career, Refn has not worked in the area of provocation very much, at least not intentionally and not in the way his fellow Dane Lars von Trier has. Yes, Bronson got some criticism for Tom Hardy’s bizarre (and perfect) performance as a hyper violent, incredibly theatrical villain, but it fit and it made sense. But it was Drive’s head smashing scene that raised a few eyebrows, but even then, it wasn’t as if he was subjecting his characters to, say, the smashing of their “manhood” (which, to be honest, is kind of surprising what with the subject he often explores). But while I didn’t ostensibly have any issue with the violence in Only God Forgives, it is undeniable that it was over the top and provocative. Worse than that, it became redundant. Certainly, there were scenes where it felt necessary, such as a very On the Waterfront-esque fight scene, but like the Korean film I Saw the Devil, it simply became tiring and it reached a point where one would cross their legs, quickly roll their eyes, and say, “Okay, I get it, can we move on now?” In terms of a von Triersian brand of provocation, it’s not inherently successful. Extensive use of music is used in certain violent scenes, arguably to juxtapose the beauty and splendor of both/neither, but, at this point in the game, it feels too late and it feels desperate.
Gosling’s role is little more than a staring contest, which was charming and meaningful the first time (because there was a reason), but obnoxious and cold the second time around. Gosling is beautiful to look at, even to stare at, but if his character does almost nothing else, there’s little reason to care. Yes, I know, Driver did very little else, but his stares, while certainly more soulful, were often motivated by that of Irene. Here, he just looks like a loner, someone who you would be torn between avoiding on the subway and asking if he has Resting Asshole Face. You have to hand it to Gosling, though, for doing all that he can with what little he was given. Refn says it’s about the character channeling his impotence through violence, and while it is indeed conveyed by some sublime camerawork, it is little to actually sustain the character or the story of the film.
Kristen Scott Thomas is an interesting trifle in the film. She’s seductive, but repulsive; sexy, yet terrifying. Despite these attempts at dualities, her character remains one of the shallowest. Many of compared her to Lady Macbeth, but that technically doesn’t make sense. Although both she and Lady Macbeth are ruefully manipulative, Lady Macbeth actually felt remorse and guilt (“Out damn spot!”). Maybe it was incredibly selfish, but Lady Macbeth felt these emotions nonetheless. It’s certainly intriguing to watch Gosling do her bidding, but the Oedipal tension between the two actually goes almost nowhere. It seems to be more of a play on Oedipal tension than an actually well sketched out, primal, dangerous, even taboo relationship. Instead, Refn just sort of spells the whole thing out, especially over a dinner sequence. The masculine power that Thomas has, though, is interestingly offensive. Again, I refer back to the other Danish auteur Lars von Trier: he has, throughout his career, from the Golden Heart Trilogy to Antichrist, been accused of misogyny. Regardless of whether these allegations are true, his female character are, at least, noble in their own way. Perhaps condescendingly so, but noble nonetheless. They’re not one dimensional or even two dimensional. They may not inhabit dualities or paradoxes like Julian’s mother, but they are consistent and admirable. Thomas is the Dragon Lady, someone who is out only for herself, obsessed with power in a way that isn’t shown through exposition but through body language and action. She drapes her arms around a couch “like a man”, owning everyone and everything in the room she’s in. She approaches everyone with aggression, not like a lioness, but like a lion. She could easily be the Devil or the God of Carnage. She looks like Donatella Versace, but she hones the masculinity to a point where her character, so shallow and evil, becomes inherently misogynistic. I’m not saying female characters must be admirable, I’m saying that they should be able to oscillate between different dimensions, feelings, and be written with depth. Thomas is flat, but intriguing nonetheless. She’s one of the most fascinating, most repulsive characters that Refn has ever produced.
But there’s a running problem throughout the film and it’s never fully resolved as to whether the misogyny depicted is simply there, something a part of the film, or a criticism of machismo’s penchant for misogyny in general. The violence towards women, the demeaning language towards Julian’s hook-cum-faux-lover Mai, etc. Generally, an ambiguity of this sort would intrigue, much like the ambiguity of whether Harmony Korine was treating his subjects in Gummo as sideshow freaks or merely observing them. But here, it feels gross and wrong.
What did appeal to me, however, was the obvious Lynchian influence (as well as the influence of Alejandro Jodorowsky, to whom the film is dedicated) on the film. The soundscapes in this film were as refined, if not more so, than in Drive, not merely because the sound was filled with the ambiance of the city. ON the contrary, it was selectively beautiful, channeling in on the perceived silence and light fuzz and atmosphere of rooms and emotions. The sound could manifest itself as a series of louder noises, clangs that, with composer Cliff Martinez’s music, make your blood run cold, or scenes that could stop your heart altogether from the tension of “nothingness”. If there’s one thing that Refn can kind of do well, it’s the ability to hold tension via music and/or sound, which, as aforementioned, is something he definitely learned from Lynch.
Refn doesn’t just take from Lynch in the sound department: He also includes some Lynchian influences in the editing. The most interesting aspect of the film, besides the look I suppose, is the editing. Not “tight” per se, nor outwardly “non-linear”, but the narrative structure (for what little narrative there is, oops around sometimes and flashes back to different scenes fluidly and without being intrusive. The editing and the sound elevate this film from disaster in some ways. It is an attempt, if not a successful one, to be engaging and to keep the audience on its toes. Nothing else in the film seems to really do that.
What does the title mean? I’m still not sure. I suppose, on the plus side for Refn, I’m still thinking about the film, but the more I think about it, the less I like it and the more I think of its flaws and how they negate any of the film’s positive qualities (of which there are very few). Who exactly is God? Is it the cop? Would he be the representation of God’s carnage, as seen in the Old Testament, since he seems to have vendettas of his own? Is it Julian’s mother, for she gave birth to a killer of man (one who is also impotent) and she herself is blood thirsty? Kind of like Mother of the Earth but, you know, vindictive. Is it Gosling’s Julian, a man who lacks control of a set of events he did not create or put into motion? And if the tagline is “It’s Time to Meet the Devil”, who is the Devil? I won’t go into that, as it would basically be a reiteration of the whole paragraph, which is in itself a problem. I do not have an issue with films being opaque in order to convey certain ideas, but when those ideas don’t go anywhere or even clearly understand what they are, then I have a problem.
While I don’t think it’s nearly as awful as the boos as the Cannes Film Festival suggested, I definitely understand why one would be prone to do that. Whether it’s a commentary of modern masculinity in society or merely a projection of it, Refn’s film gets stuck in redundancy and fails to move anywhere totally interesting. There are moments where the sublime photography, where the combination of image and music are totally haunting and hypnotic, but not enough to forgive the errors and flaws of the rest of the film. It’s a shame, though, because there are some genuinely interesting ideas here but a majority of them are sort of left hanging in the air for the audience to try to reach and explore, but are left dangling. Refn responded to critics by saying that “Silence is cinema!” Yeah, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently good cinema.
(Note: For an intriguing alternate take on the film, check out Simon Abrams’s essay here.)
Making my list of my top favorite 101 films was fun. Sort of. As you can imagine, the hardest part was whittling down all of my favorite films (a list I update regularly and runs around 300 or so) down to that rather restrictive number. It was hard. And I cheated a lot by including trilogies, series, and even thematic double features (prostitutes anyone?). But I wanted to show the best of my favorites. And I managed to forget some ones that have been incredibly important to me as well as new films I’ve only recently watched but feel more than confident in putting on the list. It’s about half and half here in that respect. I was originally going post the top ten I’d left out, but then I decided not to decide something that definitive and restraining like that. So, ladies and gents, my list of THIRTEEN films I forgot to include on my Top 101 Films:
1. 3 Women (1977)| Directed by Robert Altman
The loose story of 3 Women came to director Robert Altman in a dream. This dreamlike quality is evident in the loose yet controlled lucid style. A very strange story of identity (that bears a little resemblance to another film on this list), Sissy Spaceck plays a young naïf who attaches herself to the talkative nurse she works with played by Shelley Duvall. Those are two of the three women of the title, the third being a mysterious and enigmatic mural painter. Altman’s surreal structure and dream like narrative is gorgeous and hypnotic. Full of mystery, longing emotion, and expert performances from Spececk and Duvall, 3 Women is a masterwork.
2. Across the Universe (2007) | Directed by Julie Taymore
I grew up listening to the Beatles music, but it was not until my freshman year that I went head on into the Beatles work. And although I had seen Across the Universe once or twice prior and enjoyed it, its impact never hit me until then. The film is unabashedly polarizing, both in its innovative use of the Beatles’ music (warning, cover haters) as well as its intoxicating imagery. Taking the Beatles songs and weaving them into a star crossed love story was, regardless of its execution, one of the most ingenious ideas ever. Considering that the Beatles, throughout their expansive, yet short career, wrote some of the greatest love songs ever as well as some of the most subversively politically relevant music, it was only a matter of time until someone used that and appropriated it as a story. Taking place perfectly within the time of the Beatles career (from the early to late 1960s), Julie Taymore takes the characters’ names from songs (Jude, Maxwell, Lucy, etc.), throws some in-jokes in the mix (“Where did she come from?” “She came in through the bathroom window.”), and some truly dizzying images and makes an audacious masterpiece. Some of the best Beatles covers ever are featured in this film. It’s an incredible love story using incredible music, and just enough to cause a ruckus in the film world. You say you want a revolution…
3. Amélie (2001) | Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Amélie is a quaint, picturesque film about a young woman that likes to mettle in other people’s lives, with varying degrees of success. It’s like a French Emma. But director Jean-Pierre Jeunet uses his camera so elegantly, he creates a quirky, deeply saturated world full of emotion and joviality. Audrey Tatou is absolutely perfect as the meddling main character. She is able to portray the complexity of a woman who likes to live totally vicariously. I don’t think is really a spoiler, but, yes my friends, Amelie is given a chance at love. Were it not for some of the sex and language, the film is beautifully whimsical that it could easily be a modern fairy tale or a children’s book.
4. Antichrist (2009)| Directed by Lars von Trier
I already had three of Lars von Trier’s films on the list, and that was primarily the reason I did not include Antichrist. The viscerally harrowing and terrifyingly abstract psychological thriller was my first introduction into the career and filmography of the director some, including myself, like to call “Lars von Troll”. While Melancholia was made as a result of a post-depression mindset, Antichrist is the film in which he rolls out all of the stops. This is, some have said, his deadly deadpan and sarcastic answer to the world of modern psychology. Exploring gender dynamics and the art of psychosis on film in a perfect way, von Trier nods to Kubrick and Tarkovsky, creating some of the most startling and arresting images ever on the screen. The first half of the film is fairly “normal” (with the occasional interjection of the abstract), Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the depressed patient and Willem Dafoe plays the husband and psychiatrist. Von Trier’s observations about gender dynamics, psychology, emotion, etc. are astute and well articulated. And the in the second half, as the He and She head into the forest called Eden, everything goes crazy and the film goes off the rails. Don’t let the controversial scenes deter you; this film is far more complex and fascinating than its reductive “scissor” ad campaign leads one to believe. With von Trier, there’s no doubt that chaos will reign.
5. Grey Gardens (1976)/Grey Gardens (2009) |Directed by the Maysles, et. Al/Michael Sucsy
Even though Jackie Onasis’ weird relatives, Big and Little Edie Beale, seem, only by description, to be eligible for the next season of Hoarders, which the two have that no Hoarders episode ever could show is gumption and one hell of a life story. A bizarre riches to rags story, the documentary, primarily directed by the Maysles Brothers (the team behind Gimme Shelter), captures a superbly realized cinema verite of how the Beales lived. And how they lived was in squalor. At one point, they were going to be evicted from their previously lavish East Hampton home, but Jackie O came to the rescue and spruced things up a bit. And then it got dirty again. The character that both Big and Little Edie have in them is kind of astonishing. While in the documentary it isn’t made clear how people of such privilege could end up like this, the story doesn’t need to be filled because the audience is so fascinated with the subjects. Everyone who’s ever seen it remembers the very beginning, where feminist philosopher Little Edie gives her “best costume for today” monologue. It’s quite an outstanding look and how Little Edie copes and manages with the life she lives. The decrepit house, the weird relationship Little Edie has with one of the camera guys (beautifully intrusive), Big Edie’s singing and stories of Gould, etc. It’s a fascinating character study. HBO decided in 2009 to fill in some of the blanks and did so marvelously, with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange at the ready. Recreating some of the documentary footage (which Cinema Verite would do later for An American Family, but far less successfully) and flashing back and forth between the time the doc was being film and their lives beforehand, the two leads settle in their roles gloriously. Barrymore sounds so much like Little Edie, I yelped. Certainly not better than the original documentary, the HBO film makes a wonderful supplement. Grey Gardens is real life character study at its finest.
6. In the Mood for Love (2000) | Directed by Wong Kar-Wai
I may have mentioned in my little write up for Wong Kar-Wai’s other masterpiece Chungking Express that I’ve learned from Asian cinema that Asians are awesome at wallowing in their own self pity. (I should know, as I am Asian and spend my Friday nights crying into a pint of ice cream watching things like Eternal Sunshine.) While this remains true in Kaw-Wai’s loose sequel to his debut Days of Being Wild, IN the Mood for Love presents a romantic yearning that is so powerful and moving that it every other expression in love seems so trite. In Hong Kong in the 1960s, two married people move into the same apartment complex. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play the man and woman, and the two learn of a secret that will bind them forever. The proceeding events have a tender delicacy and portray a beautiful intimacy that is rarely portrayed on the screen so well. Sofia Coppola said that she was inspired by the film when she made Lost in Translation, and the themes from In the Mood for Love are evident. Wong Kar-Wai’s beautiful film is one of the most stunning portrayals of love ever on screen.
7. Mulholland Dr. (2001) | Directed by David Lynch
David Lynch’s weird universe, form Twin Peaks to Eraserhead to Blue Velvet, is a labyrinth of lies, an enigmatic world of deceit, and a poisonous letter to conventionality. Mulholland Dr. is one of his most puzzling and thrilling films, featuring alternate realities, projections of self, concepts of identity and desire, all in the city of desire and dreams. Lynch’s surrealist masterpiece shows us a deadly Hollywood noir, with a woman seeking stardom (Naomi Watts), a woman with amnesia under the guise of Rita Hayworth (Laura Harring), a director who is losing control of his film, and other various strings of plot. Originally conceived as a television plot line, filled with open endings and unfinished arcs, Lynch added material then the pilot was rejected, giving some semblance of an ending. Well, for Lynch, that is. As to the different theories surrounding the meaning of the film, that is left to interpretation. Nevertheless, the labyrinth of surrealism is one of the most exhilarating rides through Hollywood you will ever take.
8. Ratatouille (2007) |Directed by Brad Bird
I saw Ratatouille in theaters when it was released in 2007. Walking out of the theater, my immediate reaction was akin to, “How the heck did they sell this to kids?” Although easier to market than something like Hugo, Ratatouille’s “cooking rat” seemed like a hard sell. Since when do kids care about cooking? They just kind of expect their food to appear magically, either via their mother or through a drive-through window. But Ratatouille’s endearing “anyone can do it as long as your heart is in it” storyline is sweet enough to melt the hearts of viewers, but not so saccharine that cynics will groan and/or vomit. As usual with Pixar, the strength in the film is its storytelling. It is not really a typical way to tell this kind of story, and the devices used are actually fairly unique. The voice acting from Patton Oswalt is full of life, and after the film, you’ll be left hungry for more. (Kudos to Peter O’Toole to giving life to the cunning and articulate “villain”: a critic.)
9. The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005 – 2012) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
Say what you will about the last film, but Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is a very impressive mainstream foray into the world of dark psychoanalytical character studies, gritty realism, ethics of vigilante justice, and post-9/11 buzz words. Inhabiting a very real world metropolis under the guise of Gotham City, Nolan’s noirish take on the caped crusader presents an interesting thesis to contemporary moviegoers expecting the usual blow-‘em’up action movie: “How does a society react when someone fighting for justice comes to our aid and then leaves? What does that society do in their absence? How much do we need them?” Although interpreted, and logically so, as a very political, almost pro-Patriot Act kind of film, the realistic world that the characters live in make the stories and the characters more relevant than they have ever been. And although the films are very flawed, the ideas they present are at least enough to spark some semblance of discourse. Christian Bale nobly plays billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, a man with his own demons, ones he fights through the manifestation of a vigilante bat. Nolan and his team started from scratch, reinterpreting the Batman’s origin in Batman Begins. In The Dark Knight, terrorism engulfs the city of Gotham through that of the Joker (a stellar and pretty much legendary Heath Ledger), in the form of total chaos. And when the Batman is blackballed by the public, they seek his return when another ideologically motivated terror thrives in Gotham in Bane (Tom Hardy) in The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan’s fascinating look at society, character, and politics make his Dark Knight Trilogy a unique triumph in modern blockbuster cinema.
10. The Terminal (2003) | Directed by Steven Spielberg
Tom Hanks plays an Eastern European man who lives in the international terminal of an airport. His country, well, doesn’t technically exist anymore because of a military coup. Stunted by there being no common language and fending off a mean Customs Head (the delightfully asshole-ish Stanley Tucci), Viktor Navarski must make the most of everything and nothing. He has no money, but the terminal has a wealth of stores. What does he do? He takes those airport carts that refund a quarter and put them back all together so he has enough to get a small meal. Until Tucci stops him. As he gets “used to” living without a real country, he makes some friends in the form of an Indian custodian, a Spanish food cart delivery man, a police officer, and a very flirty flight attendant whom he falls deeply in love with (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The simplicity of the film is its strength, and while it may be in many ways Spielberg’s trademark sap, the film is so light and breezy that it is hardly a bad thing. The Terminal is sweet and affecting and features one of Tom Hanks’ best performances.
11. Wings of Desire (1987) | Directed by WIm Wenders
My English teacher from sophomore and junior year said that Wings of Desire was his favorite film. I got it for him for Christmas, and then ordered myself a copy. I was expecting… talk of angel and love. Besides that, I had no idea what I was in for. And what I was “in for” was one of the most lyrical, ludic films about what it is to love and what it is to live I have ever seen. Wings of Desire follows an Angel who falls in love with a beautiful, lonely trapeze artist and sacrifices his immortality to be with her. As an Angel, he can hear the thoughts, the wishes, the desires of everyone around him, but he yearns so much to be with the lonely soul and to feel something humans call love. Wim Wenders’ film works both as a symphony for Berlin (it was made shortly prior to the reunification of Germany) as well as a tapestry to love itself. It was loosely remade into City of Angels. Skip that and just desire for love with the original.
12. Little Children (2006) | Directed by Todd Field
Very few adaptations of novels ever include the same narrative structure as that of the source material. For instance, third person omniscient narration has, to my knowledge, never been in a film adaptation. (I could be wrong, correct me if I am.) It may be used in films from time to time, even in the form of novel writing or even screenplay writing, such as in Stranger Than Fiction or Adaptation, but not actually an adaptation of a specific novel. Little Children makes a little change to that. Little Children, directed by directed by Todd Field, based on the book by Tom Perrotta (who gave us Election, which was adapted by Alexander Payne), and with a screenplay by the two of them, Little Children is perhaps the most literary film to come in the last few decades (tied with aforementioned Stranger Than Fiction). It at times seems to be a darker, more nuanced American Beauty-esque film, but that just touches the surface. There is irony there, as the film explores the surface of idealized suburban life, but only slightly. It does it in a masterful way, allowing more time to look at the characters: a mother and faded feminist (Kate Winslet), a “prom King” father (Patrick Wilson), and a man who was recently released on sex offender charges (Oscar nominated Jackie Earle Haley). The various routines the married people have and what the sex offender wants are disrupted by various things: an affair, yearning for love form their respective spouses, and the small Boston neighborhood’s reaction to a sex offender arriving on their streets. All around the little children. Stunning performances accentuate the desperation these people have, and, somewhat regretfully, you may find yourself pitying people who may not deserve it at a first look. And all around the little children.
13. The Complete Metropolis (1927) | Directed by Fritz Lang
I bought the Kino Blu-ray of The Complete Metropolis ages ago, and I deliberately continued putting it off because the prospect of a two and a half hour silent sci-fi drama, a behemoth of inspiration and influence, was daunting. Fritz Lang’s epic is said to have inspired Blade Runner, Star Wars, and nearly every other science fiction film imaginable. But the magnitude of importance of the film is far larger than ghettoizing it to the sci-fi genre. Metropolis may be one of the single most important works of art ever created. Its dialog and situations evoke the current political atmosphere, its imagery is reminiscent not only of German Expressionism, but every other style ever used, and its characters are as complex as any human. The Complete Metropolis is THE film to watch this election year. Where else will you see the legendary quote, “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart!” The film went for decades missing nearly a half hour of footage that was cut when American producers butchered it for its US release. The footage was nowhere to be found until a 16mm duplicate negative was found in a warehouse, of all places, in Buenos Aires. The print was in lousy condition, but Kino cropped it fix the aspect ratio and cleaned it up without removing its filmic qualities. The Kino Blu-ray of The Complete Metropolis looks absolutely stunning all around, and the film is powerful, exciting, and dramatic. Its influence in society is undeniable, form the language of film to the semantics of politics. Metropolis is a towering achievement in art.
Provocateur Lars von Trier’s films have always been, more or less, well, provocative. His films, often depicting a strangely gruesome truth in a very human reality, like Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, or Antichrist, have always been extremely divisive. Yet, most of his loyal fans have been able to come up with a defense for him, especially regarding technical mastery and artistic integrity. However, there was a change in the air when his three hour, “Let’s Piss Off the Americans” parable was released. Why was this? Supposedly, his film, Dogville, was a harsh criticism of a country he had never been to. That’s quite obvious. Its follow up, Manderlay, continued that thesis. But why did these two films manage to ruffle so many feathers? And what did it all mean? Even if the answers are muddled and indiscernible, both films, particularly the former, are masterworks of satire and social commentary. Originally conceived as a trilogy, called “USA – Land of Opportunity”, the two films that have been made so far are an undeniably infuriating, honest, and stylish look at America’s hypocrisy.
While I was in middle school, I was subjected (yes, subjected) to reading and watching Our Town, a play that, to me, was inexplicably acclaimed and vastly overrated. My view has changed slightly since then, but the personal look at a small town and all the innocuous details of day to day life simply bored me to death at the time. Thornton Wilder seemed to want to blend the realism of everyday life with the distinctly imaginative use of minimal sets and almost no props. Seeing it live was like watching a naked stage. I would like to thank my middle school English teachers, however, for putting me through the experience, twice. Without that, I would not appreciate Lars von Trier’s own witty, poisonous take on American life.
In brief, Grace, played by the lovely Nicole Kidman, and her alabaster hands have stumbled upon the town of Dogville, escaping from fairly intimidating men in black cars. Thomas (Paul Bettany, and you can see him cry in the doc Dogville Confessions), the town’s philosopher, suggests to the townspeople that they take her in and protect her. In return, Grace agrees to help each member of the town every day with little tasks. Little by little, as Grace proves more dangerous to the town, Dogville begins to “bare its teeth”.
Were it not for John Hurt’s wry narration, Dogville would look almost exactly like Wilder’s Our Town, but appropriated in the Midwest. We are told that the town’s buildings are fairly ramshackle and almost dilapidated, something the mind can compare to a ghetto of sorts. The imagery, what we see on the screen though, is pure starkness and minimalism. With props here and there, von Trier places more focus and importance on the characters themselves, for they will put his conceit into motion. The minimalist set design is a curious opportunity for pure mise-en-scene, and despite von Trier’s Dogme 95 rooted handheld camerawork, scene construction still works in a fascinatingly naturalistic way.
But rather than approach these films in my typical, sterile way, why not get down to some analysis? What exactly does it all mean? The auteur made this film to make Americans angry 9which he did), but what could have made them so angry?
Nicole Kidman’s character has a name which, for the bulk of the film, epitomizes her personality. She is kind, helpful, she does not complain. Even in moments where she should complain or accuse, she opts not to. She always sees the good in people. She is Liberty. She is the overeager, almost “be the hero” tendencies of the United States, the Good Samaritan of the world who is willing to do anything, feigning humbleness, but just as much in need of recognition and praise. A young child in the film walks up to Grace and says, “I know why you’re here. You want people to like you. You want to fit in.” This sounds almost like a statement that the United Nations or NATO could give out, if they had the guts. The constant remarks from the narrator about Grace’s alabaster hands leads one to believe that she, Liberty, has never really worked. That her naiveté and newness has never forced her to put in some elbow grease. But upon seeing an opportunity of helping a community less fortunate than herself, which you could substitute for any country or any disaster prone town, she then puts in all the hard work she could muster. There does not seem to be anything terribly wrong with this criticism, as history has shown that, regardless of whether “we” are supposed to or not, “we” like helping people. And “we” always think they need or want our help. While the town of Dogville is at first hesitant on letting Grace in so far into their lives, even helping with day to day tasks (the pedestrian feel accentuates the satirical turn of Our Town), they seem to give in, either begrudgingly or because they actually need some assistance. Do the countries the United States really need help or does the United States simply act completely innocent and somehow nose its way into the lives of others? It is this kind of question that von Trier forces the audience to ask itself, and there are far more.
The Town of Dogville, USA, while being any other ghetto or country you can think of can also represent the United States itself. Despite its rather derelict state, Dogville is a proud town and represents the Heart of America, to some extent. And at the heart and core of America is a generous and kind façade, one that has consequently influenced much of American history, especially when that mask has been unceremoniously ripped off. The townspeople seem nice, although slightly helpless, but generally full of good will. Though, the town of Dogville has sharp teeth to bear when it needs to. Grace and Dogville are to allegories about America as Janus is to Roman mythology. They are two faces of the same coin, and one could argue that Dogville is Janus all on its own, the duplicitous two-faced god, one face looking forward in favor of exploration and advancement and the other looking back, stubborn and obstinate, wishing for things to remain the way they always have. Thomas Edison Jr.’s philosophically inclined character seems to represent the pseudointellectual vein in America that leads us absolutely nowhere but pondering in our rooms answering no real “worthwhile” questions. Dogville begins to bare its teeth when keeping Grace becomes more of a risk. They want more help. Soon, Dogville’s acts become slightly more unethical. They require Grace to work more with less pay (sound familiar?) On the far end of the spectrum, after all the brainless accusations and Grace’s naïve refusal to say anything else on the matter and after Grace attempts to escape Dogville, they require her to wear a device that is like an anchor with a bell around her neck. While this may be interesting, undoubtedly, and a terrible refection of the United States’ questionable history (as compared to its small town, “we accept everything and everyone” façade), there is one scene that rings perhaps the most disturbing regarding the town of Dogville. Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard, who seems to be in nearly everything von Trier has ever made) sexually assaults Grace, but Grace says nothing. Could von Trier be commenting, criticizing a society which has somehow taught its people that when someone is raped, it is the victim’s fault? That they are to blame for whatever situation they “put themselves in”? And despite the fact that Chuck’s wife, Vera (Patricia Clarkson, disturbingly brilliant… or brilliantly disturbing) learns afterwards that it was not Grace who made the advances, as her husband had told her, but Chuck, she is meaner than ever. The men of Dogville pay visits to Grace often, and the kids almost celebrate gleefully by tolling the bell. Is he commenting on a society that glorifies sex at the expense of the woman? Whatever von Trier is doing, his portrait of small town America is cutting and, even worse, accurate.
At the end of the film, we learn that Grace was being angsty and was running away from her father. Her father is a gangster, with a slew of followers. When he comes by Dogville to rescue his daughter, essentially, their chat inside the car is as revealing about von Trier’s purpose as anything. James Caan, who it may be noted was in The Godfather, speaks of his daughter’s arrogance. “Arrogance”. It is an important part to this entire three hour opus that some critics have called “anti-American”. Grace’s generous, “think the way I think” contrasted against the town’s intolerance is a naked look at America’s both xenophobic tendencies as wells as its tendency to think less of others, but skew it in a way where we pity them. Grace’s father takes it a step further, almost acting like the trigger happy military and government the United States is known to have, and burns down the town of Dogville, shooting all of its inhabitants. This is just as powerful of an idea, but what matters more is the wakeup call he gives to his daughter about her “arrogance”, her judgment, and her condescension of others.
This is what von Trier is trying to say, trying to prove throughout the entire film. It is a biting commentary he provides, but the worst part is arguably the fact that he is, essentially, correct. Harsh though he may be, he is not wrong in evaluating the United States as a country that tries to present itself as more than willing to be helpful, but is at heart intolerant and xenophobic. He, like Jean-Luc Godard in Pierrot le Fou, has seen the United States bare its teeth.
Admittedly, Manderlay is most definitely the weaker of the two films, but this is probably due more to Bryce Dallas Howard’s unsatisfying performance as Grace more than a lot of the film’s flaws. (I bet Nicole Kidman regrets taking on that remake of The Stepford Wives, doesn’t she?) Another problem the film has is that it does not have nearly as much depth to it as Dogville had. At first, the allegory behind the parable sticks out like an eyesore, but nevertheless, Lars von Trier’s theatrical staging and stellar cast make it almost as entrancing of an experience.
After burning down the town of Dogville, Grace and her father (now played by Willem Dafoe, who would return in von Trier’s controversial Antichrist) happen upon a plantation in Alabama called Manderlay. Inside, slavery still persists, as rampant as ever, despite the year being 1933. When the matriarch dies (Lauren Bacall, who was also in Dogville), Grace takes it upon herself to free the slaves, give them contracts, and completely reform their society.
Again, sound a little familiar? Grace’s condescension reaches a new height, but the proselytizing that she does resembles a different aspect of the United States. This is the United States who goes to other countries, speaks of Democracy, and forces them to adhere to it whether they like it or not, whether they think democracy works for that society or not.
Grace does indeed take over, in a somewhat Orwellian, Animal Farm-esque way, forcing the ex-slaves to conform to her school of thought. There is also a book of rules, the Bible of the plantation called Mam’s Law, in which everything to run a plantation successfully is detailed. Unsurprisingly, Grace is disgusted at the things within the book. It also details how certain slaves fall into certain psychological states of mind. They can be clowns, proud, suck ups, etc.
Grace’s white guilt at the slavery whites subjected African Americans to is hardly new. They make films about that all the time! Remember The Help? Here, though, the white guilt is not used in the same manipulative way that the Help used it, to gain some semblance of sympathy of the “oh, I was wrong” sort. It is used to pint out how ridiculous it is that some people within the society should act, without much guilt of their own, holier than thou.
One could say that Manderlay might be a happier (well, no) or more merciful story or execution of similar ideas and themes in comparison to Dogville, because, again in comparison, there does not seem to be as much to talk about. There still is, regardless, it just does not overflow with ideas the way its predecessor did.
There is some curious talk of the death penalty, although in a very subtle way. I honestly was not expecting that from von Trier but I do not know why I was particularly surprised by it. While one little girl was sick with pneumonia and not eating, although to everyone else it appeared she was, an old lady had been taking the food from the young girl’s plate at night when no one was watching. When the girl dies, they find that the old woman had taken the food and there is a debate as to whether they should kill the woman or not. For Grace, who had been holding meetings as a demonstration of “the ballot” had taught them that she wants justice for them as much as anyone. Hence, the Death Penalty talk. The ethics of not only the supposed crime are discussed, but also as to whether the justice would actually be justice or simply pure revenge.
And in the end, von Trier’s slightly lesser Manderlay successfully leaves an impression on the viewer. For Mam’s Law, which had all the ghastly ordinances of the plantation set in stone, was not written by Mam at all, but the wise, patriarchal slave Wilhelm (Danny Glover). He called it the “lesser of two evils” and explained that maintaining slavery was the safer bet as he did not think that, after the Proclamation Declaration, America would be ready for blacks. Mam’s Law guaranteed certain rights and safety, etc. Obviously, this kind of commentary would strike a nerve in audiences. This is 1933 and it would still be another two and a half decades before the Civil Rights Era would fall upon the United States, where intolerance would still be just as rampant as ever.
Von Trier makes very powerful statements about race in this film, also using the theme of tolerance, or lack thereof, which was prevalent in Dogville. The film is dry, cutting, and fascinating and eerily accurate once again. Once again, he pushes the button of America evoking a stunning response.
Both of these films have been described as “anti-American”, which they are. And why shouldn’t they be? Americans have had their way with portraying other countries in less than favorable lights, and probably to an extent that is more obvious and hyperbolic than even von Trier. What von trier does in both of these films is not only criticize the United States harshly, but he actually holds up a mirror the United States and makes them realize what they do and what they have done, “our” hypocrisies. It is more than potent with David Bowie’s “Young Americans” playing over pictures of poverty stricken people (in Dogville) and scenes of violence from the Civil Rights Era (in Manderlay). Rather than take the perspective of “How dare a Danish director who has never been to our country criticize us!” it would be more fruitful to think of why he is making these criticisms. The nationalism gives way to our history of sweeping our country’s flaws under the rug to jumping to arbitrary defenses. As I said, Americans are just as guilty of never going to another country and then criticizing it. With its simple staging accentuating the character relationships and turning Thornton Wilder’s American classic of small town life on its head, its vicious commentary is all the more intriguing. Lars von Trier’s imaginative, challenging, and inventive style has quickly made him one of my favorite directors of all time.
Trailer for Dogville
Trailer for Manderlay