A personal diary keeping people abreast of what I am working on writing-wise.

Sunday, January 11, 2004


Sunday brought a little over 2,500 words in the book. Not a bad run at it for an afternoon, especially since some time was spent reading over the section I was in. This actually inches the amount of pages written in a straight line (that is, from the beginning on) to now over 100 typed pages. Makes it a little easier to assess how far I've gotten if I'm not jumping around as much, if I can start sewing the pieces together.

Lars Von Trier's latest film, Dogville, is an arty headrush of ideas. Having just finished the three-hour tour de force, part of me wants to simply start the film over and watch it again, and the other part of me (which is winning) wants me to sit down and let my reactions fall out. NOTE: This film is not going to be out for a bit still in North America, so there may be plot points spoiled ahead of here. In fact, this film may be best entered with zero expectations. The filmmakers seem to be doing a good job of keeping some of the elements under wraps. The trailer is a fascinating piece of work in itself, giving zero indication of what the film is actually like.

The plot of the film is simple. Nicole Kidman plays Grace, a woman on the run from something. Her character's name is an obvious symbol. One need only read the many definitions of the word to get it. She is meant to embody all these things, a blonde figure from the city coming into the very brown town of Dogville--an American mountain community that we're told by the ads is "a quiet town not far from here." It's set during the Depression, so the people are dirt poor, and except for the one man who isn't originally from Dogville and the other who transports goods in and out of it, they don't know much of the world Grace is coming from. They don't even know really what is going on down the hill, as they turn off the radio anytime the music stops and information follows.

Dogville is parable. It's meant to be unreal, meant to be representative. The very first thing we see is an explanation that the story will be told in nine parts plus a prologue. Each chapter is preceded by a description telling us what is actually going to happen in the section that follows, almost like directions in a script book. There is an omniscient narrator who explains things to us as we go, who will make no bones about who is feeling what and maybe even tell us what a specific happening means. It's a fascinating technique for a film that ultimately tells us not to ask what the meaning of the story is, and suggests that to do so is dangerous?only slightly less so than actually attempting the answer. An artful conceit, one that is immediately confounded by the closing credits--a collage of images of poverty set to David Bowie's "Young Americans." It's impossible to, at that point, not ask, "What the hell did I just see?"

There are a couple of different levels that Dogville immediately works on. It could be religious allegory, with Grace as a stand-in for Christ. She certainly represents an example of purity and human dignity that ultimately makes those that surround her feel lesser by example--to the point they eventually turn on her, turn on their own sense of right and wrong. This interpretation makes Grace's eventual decision to give up on them all the more exciting and perplexing. Or perhaps we should dig deeper back into the Bible and consider the case of Noah and the Flood, when God decided His people had ruined his precious gifts and perhaps the planet was better without them.

Or, given the closing credits, maybe it's more of a political allegory. Is the Danish Von Trier considering the case of class in America? Is he reversing the roles, putting a privileged member of society in the hands of the underprivileged, putting her in their care, only for them to abuse her much as they have been abused? That doesn't end up being a very generous view of the lower classes, though, so it may be better to not lay that trip on Von Trier. Rather, I would lend more weight to the film's discussions of power and humanity, and say it's more an indictment of our species as a whole, which is ultimately selfish. We live in Dogville because we are no more than animals--though, even there, Von Trier confounds us. There is a dog in the film. He is named Moses, and as his name suggests, his function is to point the way for the lost people that surround him. In reality, he is the only one whom Grace has committed a grievance against, the only one who could rightfully have quarrel with her, but none of the humans can see that, too concerned with their own selfishness, what they can gain.

I say there is a dog in the film, but that's not entirely true. The dog for the most part appears as a chalk outline, and the word "Dog" appearing next to him--an idea of a dog, not the physical thing. This is just one part of an abstract soundstage set that has more in common with theatre than film. The only walls that exist in Dogville are ones needed so that props may be hung upon them. The rest of the space is open, with doors and other elements existing only through pantomime. In fact, we often see the town through aerial shots, where every street, dwelling, and essential prop can be seen as drawn out on the soundstage floor, clearly demarcated and labeled. As one of the men behind the invention of the Dogme school of filmmaking, at one point Von Trier advocated a "more natural" approach to motion pictures, using only natural light and a minimum of camera trickery (though, the more, um, dogmatic of the group insisted on only natural camera movement, as well). It was an attempt to remove artifice from moviemaking, and in some ways, Von Trier is still adhering to that by taking it to another logical extreme. Here he drops artifice in favor of the abstract, sure, but by removing all the elements that might otherwise get in the way of what is central: drama. Rather than replicating the reality of our world, he creates his own, the reality of story. (Truthfully, this is his most stylized film since The Element of Crime.)

Kidman is fantastic as Grace. It's a tough role, requiring a lot of restraint and compassion. There aren?t a lot of moments to show off, and it requires more reaction than action at times. The cast that surrounds her is so phenomenal, that it's even a more laudable feat that she manages to do so much with so little when surrounded by such exceptional people as Patricia Clarkson, Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazarra, Jeremy Davies, Chloe Sevigny, Philip Baker Hall, and Stellan Skarsgard. Hell, you know it must be some kind of film when an actor like Udo Kier signs on for a three-line role.

Though meant as parable, Dogville doesn't have the obvious meanings often associated with the form. It's more a riddle, a spool of storytelling thread to unravel. I'll be curious to see the reaction to the film upon its release. I am sure it's going to inspire just as much hatred as it will love.

Current Soundtrack: The Simpsons

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