Dancer in the Dark
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 »
My list of the favorite 101 films of all time continues! See Part 1 here!
21. Casino Royale* (2006) | Directed by Martin Campbell
Bond’s gritty return to the screen is a reboot in the same way that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was a reboot: a character reinvention where we get to see his naked psyche taking place in a real world where, in the end, he doesn’t win. The back to basics approach strips Bond of the cartoonish gadgetry of the last forty years in favor for the gritty realism that didn’t make the character popular beforehand. Prior to the readaptation of Ian Fleming’s novel, Bond was an escape, a super hero for the Cold War. In a post-9/11 world, though, and in an age where formulas have to be reinvented, that James Bond with a jetpack just wouldn’t cut it. So, we trade in the special attaché case in favor of a case study, of Bond, his villain, and his Bond girl. This is all subtle enough so that most viewers probably wouldn’t take as much note of it, but it’s still there. The cold metal armor that covers his heart is melted by Vesper Lynd (the elegant Eva Green), and Bond faces ethical decisions and must reign in his ego against the Number, in league with a certain terrorist organization. It’s Craig’s honest portrayal of a cold killer who finally comes to terms with what he does for a living that makes the film so spectacular. Oh, not to mention the superb direction (from Martin Campbell, GoldenEye helmer), the great action sequences (oh, bye Venice; oh hey free running!), and the intense card playing. I know that those sequences are often complained about it, but, when has poker playing been so intense? Bond is reinvented with a new origin story, and yet, without a doubt, we know his name and we know his number.
22. Cast Away (2000) | Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Zemeckis made most of his career for action, sci-fi comedies like Back to the Future (which I hate, by the way) or sappy walks through history like Forrest Gump. But Cast Away may be the best example of his direction, his ability to set up a scene, and his chops as a visual storyteller. For the most part, it’s Tom Hanks stranded on an island. Simple though it may sound, the mostly wordless film concentrates on how isolation affects us, our need for companionship (as evidenced by Wilson), and our struggle to survive as human beings. Tom Hanks’ performance in this is one of the best performances from Nicest Guy in Hollywood to date, at once embodying Robinson Crusoe and Charlie Chaplin. His friendship with a beach volleyball, Wilson, contains some of the most tender and memorable moments in cinema.
23. Charade (1963) | Directed by Stanley Donen
With the colors of Singin’ in the Rain and the macabre wit of Alfred Hitchcock (perhaps The Lady Vanishes), Charade is a jovial and jaunty thriller with exceptional humor and thrills. There are some obvious brushstrokes taken from the Bond films, with the storyline strumming with spies and duplicity, which is a little ironic, since Cary Grant had been offered the role of Bond for Dr. No. It’s the lighthearted wit that makes the film, the connection and chemistry between Grant and Audrey Hepburn superb. And, don’t worry, I have no idea who Cary Grant’s character is either, and I’ve watched it at least 50 times.
24. Chungking Express (1994) | Directed by Wong Kar-Wai
Wong Kar-Wai’s glorious Chungking Express is pop art in the best way possible. Taking its cues from popular romances, nostalgic music, and color drenched, kinetic camera work, the film, despite being an artistic masterwork, actually was made more as a commercial film. It just goes to show that when you have an artist behind the camera, anything is possible. The film is comprised of two stories, both following rather lonely people, who obsess either over the past or what has yet to even happen. Regardless of how superb and beautiful this film is, I kept thinking of one thing throughout viewing this film: “Wow, we Asians are awesome at wallowing in self-pity.”
25. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) | Directed by Steven Spielberg
Spielberg’s film is all sorts of lovely. A story of faith and serendipity, it brings together people who continue to see things that really could not be possible, or even plausible. But they are. Through tremendous special effects, moving performances, a stellar score from John Williams, and, of course, a wonderful role from French New Wave auteur François Truffaut, the film transcends the science fiction genre and makes a film full of emotion. The subject matter initially sounds kind of frivolous and silly, but with its character driven story, it’s anything but that. There’s a surprising amount of faith embedded in the film. Dreyfuss, against the odds, maintains that what he’s seeing must be real, and seeks to find it. The finale of the film is spectacular. The film stands out as one of the best Spielberg has ever made.
26. Clue (1985) | Directed by Jonathan Lynn
Jonathan Lynn’s comedic gem Clue was made before making movies out of board games was cool. Similar to (what I consider) the lesser comedy mystery parody Murder by Death, Clue takes your favorite characters from the Parker Brothers board game, brings them to life, and makes them do outlandish, hysterical things. It’s probably not as self-aware or as deliberate a parody of mysteries as Murder by Death, but what it lacks in that meta-humor is a terrific script and a spectacular ensemble. Madeline Khan’s deadpan deliveries as Mrs. White, Martin Mull’s indignant Colonel Mustard, Lesley Ann Warren’s slinky and sardonic Miss Scarlett, and Tim Curry’s brilliant/bumbling butler are absolutely superb. With Clue, it’s not just a game anymore.
27. Dancer in the Dark (2000) | Directed by Lars von Trier
Provocateur Lars von Trier makes a musical! Yes, my friends, the man behind the devious allegory of Dogville, the satanic glory of Antichrist, and the End of the World character study Melancholia made a musical. With Icelandic singer Bjork. Taking advantage of Bjork’s child-like persona, von Trier employs her to play a slightly naïve Czech immigrant living in Washington in 1964, slowly going blind. Saving money little by little for her son’s operation as she works in a factory, she takes solace in imagining her world as a musical. In that way, it’s a little like Chicago. But what von Trier does with a musical is subvert a musical’s typical job to manipulate the audience emotionally. An unsaid rule of thumb for a musical is that it must be sentimental and happy and sad, etc., the music often working as emotional cues for what the audience is supposed to feel. Lars von Trier turns that on its head and subverts that sentimentality, making Dancer in the Dark one of the most emotionally manipulative films ever made. I say that as a good thing. The moment that Bjork’s childlike Selma and her life start going downhill, there’s no stopping. It’s relentless. It gets to a point where you don’t know how much more depressing, sad, and, yes, melancholy the film could possibly get, and then jumps past those expectations. But it is nonetheless a triumph of feeling, rather than acting for Bjork, and directing for Lars von Trier. With very Bjork-ish music (she wrote the songs), and interesting Dogme95-esque camera work, Dancer in the Dark is the best slap in the face that musicals, and the people who love them, could ever get.
28. Death Proof (2007) | Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino’s loving ode to car chase films like Vanishing Point and Gone in 60 Seconds (the original one) gets the flack of being “lesser Tarantino”. It’s not as narratively flashy or as experimental, it’s not as visually compelling (so they say), the character’s aren’t as interesting, the dialogue isn’t as good, it’s like an episode of Friends directed by Tarantino, and the complaints go on. On the contrary, the fact that Tarantino reigns himself in, making a rather understated film in comparison to his other works, is refreshing. And what the film does have is an intense car chase on par with Bullitt and The French Connection. This is Tarantino’s girl power film, the closest he’s ever come to making a “women in prison” movie. It’s fun, and the characters are as articulate as ever. My favorite part of the film is the second half, in which Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, and Zoe Bell kick ass. Tarantino provides a wonderful soundtrack along with a great car chase sequence.
29. The Devil Wears Prada (2006) | Directed by David Frankel
It isn’t exactly the typical chick flick you would come to expect from the dozens or even hundreds that have been made, and it’s different in the way that it a) treats its “villain” and b) treats the fashion industry. Meryl Streep’s peerless portrayal of the Devil as Editor in Chief is far from just Streep being bitchy and demanding. There’s that, which is undoubtedly fun to watch, but Streep, in all her glory, is able to provide a duality and vulnerability to the character. Miranda Priestly is still a villain, and she rarely remains sympathetic, but she is at least multidimensional. Secondly, it treats the fashion industry with respect. Going in, we’re given the same perspective that most people in the audience would assume: fashion is stupid and overly expensive. “And they all act like they’re curing cancer or something. The amount of time and energy¡¬ that these people spend on these insignificant, minute details, and for what? So that tomorrow they can spend another $300,000 reshooting something¡¬ that was probably fine to begin with¡¬ to sell people things they don’t need!” However, we, the audience, are enlightened as to what it is: a theoretical, conceptual business of artistry. While Runway, the Vogue like magazine Anne Hathaway’s Andy works at, may focus on the marketing, we are given insights into the artistic side of working in fashion. Also, Emily Blunt is perfect as Miranda’s first assistant, Emily, whose bitchery rivals even that of her boss.
30. Diabolique (1955) | Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Clouzot’s masterful piece of suspense, mystery and horror would eventually give inspiration to numerous directors, including Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho. Clouzot perfected the art of creating tension with The Wages of Fear, and it looks and feels even better in Diabolique. In this rather Gothic horror, camera positioning is everything. Mise-en-scene is of the utmost importance. The planned murder of the bastard of a headmaster as a private school by his wife and mistress, the entire film is built around tremendous suspense. But it’s the ending that will give you a heart attack.
31. District 9 (2009) | Directed by Neill Blomkamp
I was surprised at how quickly District 9, which might be at first glance just be an action sci-fi flick but is far from it, jumps into “political allegory” mode. Less than four minutes into it, the audience is given a look at the societal discrepancies between aliens, or prawns, and humans and their subsequent segregation and ostracism from society. With a wallop of an introduction, the film focuses on one man, originally hired to send eviction notices to the prawns living in District 9, and his transformation into a prawn, his desperate attempts to fix this, and the help he gets from a prawn who can fix the mother ship that can bring them back home. The documentary style filmmaking is an intriguing narrative addition, but it’s Sharlto Copley’s sporadic, improvisational style that brings an incredible amount of realism to the film. This isn’t just a sci-fi film, or even something loosely disguised as an allegory, it’s a sad story of self-actualization and acceptance. This film moved me like almost no other film has ever done.
32. Dogville (2005) | Directed by Lars von Trier
I believe the original intentions of von Trier’s Our Town from Hell were to make a film just to piss off the United States. Von Trier, through all of his diabolical genius, accomplished far more than simply angering Americans; von Trier paints a nasty, but important, portrait of America’s hypocrisies and shortcomings. Utilizing minimalist set design, the little town of Dogville is the nice heart of America. Nicole Kidman, whose performance is superlative, plays Grace, who is America’s gung ho idealism. Almost an ironic exploration of self, through Grace’s “arrogance”, she reveals Dogville’s teeth and dark soul. It’s infuriating, long, and exhausting to watch, but it’s an unrivaled experience, and an honest look at America’s tendency to sweep things under the rug.
33. Down with Love (2003) | Directed by Peyton Reed
Reed’s colorful romantic comedy is a treat, but Down with Love serves up something more than just nostalgia. A critique of the contemporary romantic comedy via the use of techniques reminiscent of the sex comedies of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, every line of dialogue is about the Battle of the Sexes, drenched in sexual innuendo. Ewan McGregor is great as the handsome philanderer and Renée Zelwegger is fabulous as proto-feminist type trying to establish herself as a bestselling author. Even better than the leads are supporting Sarah Paulson as a go-getter editor and David Hyde Pierce as the editor in chief for the magazine McGregor works for. The Battles of the Sexes is hardly over, so let’s get ready to rumble.
34. Dr. No (1962) | Directed by Terrence Young
When the James Bond franchise began, it didn’t lapse into the boring and trying formula that’s become associated with the series. Instead, it was a stricter form of escapism, as similar to any spy movie about the Cold War as anything. Dr. No is one of the best action spy movies to come out of the ‘60s. Of course, it wouldn’t be anything were it not for the charisma of Sean Connery. He’s charming without being annoying, sexy without effort, and cheeky without being silly. Dr. No ends up being a fascinating, action packed adventure.
35. Drive (2011) | Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Nicolas Winding Refn’s pop culture infused, postmodern existential character study is a captivating film. It looks great, and Ryan Gosling portrays the Driver with expressions that are at once discernible and unreadable. We feel like we know him. With the neon drenched cinematography, every frame is a work of art. It’s a flashy, pop work of contempo art. With its ‘80s-esque pumped soundtrack, the turbulent and shocking bursts of violence, the neon drenched cinematography, and the love story at the center of everything, the film shifts between being completely original and out of left field and being “Camus Behind the Wheel”.
36. Eat Drink, Man Woman (1994) | Directed by Ang Lee
Ang Lee presents Food Porn and Families. I might be exaggerating a little, but Eat Drink Man Woman, a film about relationships, family, love, and maturing, is gorgeous to look at and to watch. Especially the food scenes. As much as that opening scene is mouthwatering to look at, Lee offers a careful examination of a group of women who are growing up and finally becoming independent from their widowed father. Very humorous and insightful, Lee continues to prove himself an expert at looking at familial subjects. It’s delicious.
37. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) | Directed by Michel Gondry
Kaufman once again explores the complexity of the mind, going through the memories of one Joel Barrish, as he attempts to erase his ex-girlfriend completely. The exploration of pain, love, and how memories affect who we are as people is stunning, genius, and heartbreaking. Both Jim Carry and Kate Winslet play against type, Carry taking on a more serious, somewhat anal and insecure role, while Winslet is goofier, epitomizing the annoying pixie quirky girl. Discovering the people who’ve affected us the most is a journey of self-discovery and it has never been more potent than in Gondry’s visually beautiful film.
38. The Exorcist (1973) | Directed by William Friedkin
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist has been championed as one of the scariest films of all time, and rightfully so. From Linda Blair’s head turning role as a young girl possessed by an evil demon to the even more horrifying subtext regarding religious control, ideology, and homophobia, … did I lose you? Okay, sticking to the most obvious things, philosophically focusing on faith and viscerally focusing on… pea soup, the film gives a sucker punch with every viewing. Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, and Jason Miller also give terrific performances. It’s a film that sounds just as scary as it looks as well, having won an Academy Award for Best Sound. Based on William Peter Blattey’s novel, any day is an excellent day for an exorcism.
39. Fanny and Alexander* (1982) | Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Once stating, “The Stage is my wife and the cinema is my mistress”, Bergman’s tribute to the stage and to imagination is one of the greatest films ever made. Fanny and Alexander is gorgeously photographed, textured, and visualized. Though the theatrical cut of three hours is more than graceful, the work of true perfection is Bergman’s original five hour cut for TV. As joyful and eloquent as Bergman has ever been, the semi-autobiographical film about the beauty of youth and imagination transcends cinema altogether. I’ve made it a new tradition to watch the first episode of the TV cut of Fanny and Alexander every holiday season, as the 90 minute episode contains the best Christmas scene ever. Oh, yeah, that Christmas scene is the entire episode.
40. Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 (1940/2000) | Directed by Walt Disney/Roy E. Disney
Gorgeously experimental and beautifully realized, music and animation come together harmoniously in Fantasia and Fantasia 2000. The films use two artistic mediums of expression in segments to embrace emotion, story, and the artistry of creating animation and creating music. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is a standby, of course, but “Rhapsody in Blue”, featured in Fantasia 2000 clocks in at my favorite segment from the two films. Using Gershwin’s gorgeous music to paint a picture, literally, of New York as expertly as Gordon Willis and Woody Allen did in the opening of Manhattan. Combining the two mediums and having them worked together, complementing one another at every beat, comes together beautifully, making for a memorable experience on the screen. Fantasia is a treat for both the eyes and the ears.
111. Tokyo Drifter (1966) | Directed by Seijun Suzuki – B+
112. Branded to Kill (1967) | Directed by Seijun Suzuk – B
113. Alien3: Work Print Cut (1992) | Directed by David Fincher – B+
114. Tiny Furniture (2008) | Directed by Lena Dunham – B-
115. Alien3: Theatrical Cut (1992) | Directed by David Fincher – C
116. Alien: Resurrection (1997) | Directed by Jean-Pierre jeunet – C+
118. The Seventh Seal (1957) | Directed by Ingmar Bergman – A
119. Cinema Verite (2011) | Directed by Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini – C
121. America Graffiti (1973) | Directed by George Lucas – A
122. Fatal Attraction (1987) | Directed by Adrian Lyne – A-
123. Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) | Directed by Charles Reisner – A-
124. The Last Metro (1980) Directed by François Truffaut – A
125. Spy Kids (2001) | Directed by Robert Rodriguez – B
126. Help! (1965) | Directed by Richard Lester – D+
127. Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) | Directed by Ingmar Bergman – A-
128. The Terminator (1984) | Directed by James Cameron – B
129. Our Hospitality (1923) | Directed by John G. Blystone and Buster Keaton – A-
130. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) | Directed by Robert Wiene – A
131. Secret Sunshine (2007) | Directed by Lee Chang-dong – A
132. Mary and Max (2007) | Directed by Adam Eliot – B
133. Submarine (2010) | Directed by Richard Ayoade – B+
134. I Am Legend (2007) | Directed by Francis Lawrence – B
135. Mouse Hunt (1997) | Directed by Gore Verbinski – B+
137. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962) | Directed Robert Enrico – B
138. Citizen Kane (1941) | Directed by Orson Welles – A
139. The People vs. George Lucas (2010) | Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe – B
140. Outrage (2009) | Directed by Kirby Dick – B
141. The Lady Eve (1941) | Directed by Preston Sturgess – B+
143. Dancer in the Dark (2000) | Directed by Lars con Trier – A+
144. Jules and Jim (1962) | Directed by François Truffaut – B+
145. The Exterminating Angel (1962) | Directed by Luis Buñuel – B+
146. Friends with Benefits (2011) | Directed by Will Gluck – C+
148. FreeDogme (2000) | Directed by Roger Narbonne – B
149. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) | Directed by Joe Johnston – C
150. Blue Valentine (2010) | Directed by Derek Cianfrance – A
151. The Element of Crime (1984) | Directed by Lars von Trier – A-
152. Tranceformer: A Potrait of Lars von Trier (1997) | Directed by Stig Bjorkman – B+
153. Epidemic (1987) | Directed by Lars von Trier – D
154. Europa (1991) | Directed by Lars von Trier – A-
155. Do the Right Thing (1989) | Directed by Spike Lee – B
156. Heavenly Creatures (1994) | Directed by Peter Jackson – A-
157. Delicatessen (1991) | Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet – A-
158. An Andalusian Dog (1929) | Directed by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí – B+
159. Zéro de Conduite (1933) | Directed by Jean Vigo – B+
160. The Navigator (1924) | Directed by Donald Crisp and Buster Keaton – A
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