Lars von Trier’s “Dogville” A Visit to the ICA in Boston
“Dogville”: a film by Lars von Trier Lars von Tier’s dogma movies have always attracted me. The lack of music, the natural(ish) lighting, the handheld camera; it all adds up to a more moving experience, I find. In Dogville, however, he changeshis m.o. a bit, though the effect is still quite arresting and moving. There is nothing realistic about the setting of this film. The town of Dogville is a bare stage, marked only by lines and some props and furniture. In that way, it reminds me of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (link here) with its spare setting. The lack of staging, or rather the absence of it, makes the emotional impact more of the centerpiece. And that emotional impact follows the parable that von Trier has elucidated, arguing that people will only behave morally if it is demanded of them, and it must be demanded of them. Once again, as in Dancer in the Dark, The Idiots, and Breaking the Waves, (Link here) von Trier presents a waif of a woman betrayed both emotionally and physically (and in all ways brutally) by her seeming protectors. Here we have Grace,(picture here) played by Nicole Kidman, who has stumbled in flight upon the town, so bereft that she is caught stealing a dog’s bone to gnaw on. She is finally given succor, but that aid has a sharp edge to it, an edge that is whetted by her need. As more and more troubles wash up to her, the town’s people begin to reject her and exploit her, until she has no one to turn to and is actually chained with a bell on her neck, reminiscent of a runaway slave. There are many ingredients to suggest the parabolic nature of the film. Characters’ names are plainly representational of something. There is grace; Thomas Edison and his son, Tom Edison, Jr.; a family with Greek names—Vera, Achilles, Pandora, Athena; a freight deliverer named Ben, who seemsto be somewhat intellectually impaired; another man seemingly with mental disabilities who becomesmore and more adept and clever as the movie moves along; and a blind storyteller named ; and then there’s the anonymous chorus cum narrator. Something along the lines of a Greek tragedy occurs here and is constructed here by von Trier. Greek tragedies and their heroes have certain characteristics that have to be followed, and I think they are here. We have Grace, of noble birth. We have her fall, which features punishments that outweigh her offense. There is her tragic flaw, arrogance (hubris), as described by her gangster father, played by, with a little senseof irony at the casting, JamesCaan. (link here from The Godfather) The lesson she learns from her troubled story. I hadn’t thought of this while watching, really, but it does seem to follow the form of a Greek tragedy, though the hero, Grace, doesn’t die. She is like Antigone, strict in her principles and unyielding to them. She insists on her goodnessand she forgives others their transgressions, no matter what they are or what the intents. That is what her father identifies as her arrogance. He says that she allows people to behave as she never would allow herself, thus insinuating that she is held to a higher and better standard becauseshe is a higher and better person. And then there is the conversation at the end of the movie, between Grace and her
father. He insists that dogs learn to contradict their basenature, but only if one corrects them so they see the correct course. Grace defends dogs, saying that one can’t punish a beast for merely doing behavior that is ingrained. Father: “Rapists and murderers may be the victims according to you, but I call them dogs, and if they're lapping up their own vomit, the only way to stop them is with the lash.” Grace: “But dogs only obey their own nature. So why shouldn't we forgive them?” Father: “Dogs can be taught many useful things, but not if we forgive them every time they obey their own nature.”
A bit heavyhanded, especially since the town is named Dogville. And there is an actual dog in the movie, Moses(another parabolic name?), who survives the fiery ending. He is the one who identified Graceat the beginning by barking when she stole his bone. That was his instinctual response—accusethe one who steals your crumbs. And that could also be the response of the townspeople to Grace; she hasn’t stolen their crumbs, but she does seem to take something from them. I guessthat her father would argue that she has taken their dignity or chance to be better with her condescending attitude towards them. And they respond by biting. So I guessthe question is, “What is the allegory that von Trier is creating?” Is this an anti-American film, as some have argued? (Link to Newyorker here) At one point, Tom Jr. describes a book he will write about a woman like Grace coming to a small town. She says he should name the town Dogville, and he says, “No, then it wouldn’t be universal. A lot of writers make that mistake.” Since von Trier has named his town Dogville, does that detract from its universality? Or is it an explicit acknowledgement of it? I think the latter. I was reminded of Nazism and World War II by this film, by seemingly kind people suddenly turning on people easily made scapegoats in their time of greatest vulnerability. I didn’t even think of it as anti-American until the credits, when there are still photos accompanied by “Young Americans” by David Bowie. Thesephotos, many from a book called American Pictures, (link here) an astounding book, and many from Depression-era photographers, (link to Walker Evans and Dorthea Lange here) show a country of poor people. And following the movie, I took them to imply that rich people, or richer, take advantage of poor people in their times of vulnerability and exploit them to near-death.
The ICA in Boston
I was in transit today and got to spend a few hours at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. It’s a rather small museum; there were really only two exhibits and then the
collection. Overall, though, I enjoyed it and was especially struck by a few f the works. There is an exhibit of a Los Angeles-based artist named Charles LeDray (http://www.icaboston.org/exhibitions/exhibit/ledray/ ). Especially interesting to me was his installation of a thrift store in miniature, all the way down to the dirty and depressing fluorescent lighting and the racks of clothes. It really made some aspects of our consumerism seem quite tawdry and poor in many ways, an idea that was echoed in other works. (picture of thrift store on desktop). Le Dray makes the clothes himself; in another room in the exhibit, he has plenty of pieces shown individually. There’s a gas jockey’s outfit, men’s suits, and other outfits and pieces. He also makes small hats, small pieces of furniture, and small pieces of pottery. Most of these did not do much for me, but I really found the small thrift store quite eerie and thought-provoking. The other exhibit is of a Mexican artist named Dr. Lakra. He usesfound pieces and draws on them. He is also a tattoo artist and many of the works are pictures of beautiful women which he finds at thrift stores and marks up with tattoos. It was amusing and interesting at first, but gradually grew repetitive to me. In the permanent collection, there were several piecesthat I really liked. The first was Ivan Navarro’s11 Upside Down, a sculpture in wood. The work is in two boxes, about coffee table height. Within the glass-topped box are four descending lines of lights, the kind of lights that ring a mirror in a dressing room backstage at a theatre. At the bottom of the boxes is a mirror. This gives the sensation of looking down a mineshaft. I kept stepping back to look at the outside of the box, somewhat surprised that it wasn’t evident from the outside how far it plunged through the building. It was slightly frightening, a bit amusing, and really made me think about the creation of space in a sculpture and in perceptions. Obviously, the boxes contained occupied two square feet, but they also contained a seemingly infinite amount of space within them. The other piece was “Czech Modernism Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely” by Josiah McElheny. It was a really interesting piece. There was also, in the mediatheque, a video of different artists explaining their works. He discuss the idea of capitalism in this piece. The idea that things are valuable because of their individuality, but at the same time, capitalism tells us that we can all accrue all goods with wealth, which is available to all. So here we have idividual and valuable things reduced, symbolically at least, to worthlessness through the very system that informs their value. Another thing I found intriguing is that, while I was looking at the piece, I realized that something was missing. I think the box is mirrored on all sides, and all the objects within it are, too. And all the objects are reflecting their own reflections. There is no reflection of the observer, though, which I found eerie. Here are these objects which only have value in the eyes of the observer and there doesn’t seem to be an observer. Or there is only a disembodied observer, me, looking at these pieces of metal which are fully unapproachable, because they are behind glass and they are seemingly in their own world where I don’t even appear. Then I went to get a lobster roll. That was nice, too.