I’ve just finished a book I bought from my local independent cinema, which has started a small shop. The book I bought was Dogville Vs Hollywood: The War Between Independent Film and Mainstream Movies by Jake Horsley was on the basis it would go into what the title suggest, look at the battle between directors who are either considered auteurs or independent of the Hollywood system. Building on Peter Biskind’s fascinating Easy Riders, Raging Bulls which was an entertaining and in-depth look at the American New wave which began with Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and ending around Raging Bull and Heavens Gate (1980). Dogville covers much of the same ground coming up to 2006 (when the book was published).
I remember when I first started reading this book I had a gut reaction to the harsh critical tone that the writer who didn’t check his facts, saying Citizen Kane was released in 1942 – was 1941, and Hitchcock’s first sound film was The Lodger (1927) – it was Blackmail (1929), I found a few more errors but these two stuck in my mind. It shows how fast this book was written, with passionate anger and disregard for accuracy, when talking about the history of any medium in such detail he got things off to a bad start.
The first chapter was an extended review of Lars Van Trier‘s titular film Dogville (2008) which he uses the basic framework for the book. A film made in response to the current state of Hollywood. A film that is devoid of likeable characters, a set that’s limited to suggestion and a dog that it’s just a drawing on the ground. Most notably an all American cast. I do see the film in a new light now which explains a few things. It’s a dogme that had teeth to bite back.
There were sections where pages where the main body of text was fighting the foot notes that were almost half a page long in places. Why didn’t here just incorporate his research into the main body or minimise it, they became not so much backing up the quotes legitimacy but they were points of trivia which pulled you away from the main body. Eventually I just stopped reading them, noticing that Horsley lifted a lot of quotes from two of Biskind’s books; Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures, showing an over-reliance on superior books on the subject. (I haven’t read the second one yet).
Lastly the overall tone of the book was scathing on just about any director whose mentioned in the book. I agree on some points, the state of Hollywood has not changed in ten years, relying on franchises, special effects and remakes – nothing new there, showing that the argument still stands up. However hardly anyone gets off lightly, unless its a director you’ve never heard of yet. The established directors – Scorsese, Spielberg and Coppola etc are seen in varied shades of black. They’ve either sold out, burned out or just faded away. He blame critics for helping Hollywood in the dumbing down of audiences, their expectations and their thinking of a film. You could say Horsley is a film snob who has an axe to grind, has he been burnt in Hollywood and fighting back? It would explain the horrible tone and the scathing attack to practically everyone, he can be fair in places which is rare, whole chapters and sections are rants, building up individuals before bringing them back down to earth with a bump.
I’ve not really learned a lot, except who Horsley hates and hates not so much. I hope in the 10 years since it’s publication he has mellowed.
I had heard about the concept for this film a while back, whilst making a piece of work in the studio, a film that has the hallmarks of being a Dogma film but without the official stamp at the beginning. A film that takes place entirely on a sound-stage (nothing new there) with a stripped back set, none of the 3 walled sets or fancy lighting. Instead just a few pieces here acting as gestures to suggest we are in a small remote town. It’s as if we are watching a play with all the actors present at all times, the camera moves around to capture what it needs to tell the story of Dogville (2003). It could easily have been film on location like any other film.
There must have been a very valid reason as to this stripped back approach that in turn allowed the acting and plot to become central. With no sets to distract the audience we instead have to focus on these two elements in film that can be lost or submerged in the filmic world that’s created for us to enjoy. It was at first distracting to see a town marked out in white lines and text on a back floor. Only having black or white sky to mark only day or night. I did find at times my eye wandering to what was going on in the town of Dogville. With a the actors when not in direct shot have to busy themselves, mimming at times. The imagination of both actors and audience’s being tested, something you would usually get in the theatre, we are getting a purer form of acting. This is part of what Lars von Trier is aiming for, stripping everything back to get just the plot driving home what happens.
Ok, so I like the form of the film what about the plot, which at first I thought was about the power of humanity to overlook your past ans background soon changed as the film entered in the final chapters. That’s another very distinctive element of the film, relayed by John Hurt in almost book form, this short (178 minute) story plays out. When Grace Margaret Mulligan (Nicole Kidman) is found in the town after gunshots are heard. Aspiring writer Tom Edison (Paul Bettany) finds her and wants to take her in. This is into a town that is at the end of a long stretch of road, out in the mountains where no one really leaves unless they really have to. A small cut-off community of no more than 3o people live out their lives. Not sure whether or not that she will bring danger along with her, that she had left out in the woods that night. The town are persuaded to give her two weeks to win their confidence and approval, if she doesn’t she’ll leave. All made possible because of Tom who is quite fond of the female stranger. So she spends two weeks doing chores for everyone – jobs that don’t really need doing, but they find her something.
Trust is soon earned allowing her to stay in the town, where she still does all these pointless jobs, all for which she is grateful for, making friends which makes Grace feel safe… for a time. When her identity’s revealed in a waned poster delivered by the long absent police a change in dynamic of the people emerges, they start not to trust her again, needing her to open up with them. Afraid to go back to the city and the gangsters that pursued her. The daughter of a gang-leader that wants her dead she wont return home. In allowing her to stay there’s a change in how they treat her, not just as a helpful person around the town, starting to take advantage. Then a sea-change happens over night, when she’s forced to smack a child, before being raped that night.
It’s clearly not a film of being welcomed into a community and being kept safe, its more to be taken advantage of to survive, the façade of humanity soon slips away. They didn’t even want the help or generosity in the beginning, then growing to need rely on it as they did. Her contribution to society’s forced upon her and we’re lulled into this false sense of charity and goodwill that is soon taken advantage off. Going back to the first rape scene, it’s harder than most to watch as it’s in this bare world of no-walls, actors having to ignoring it as they carry on in their roles as the camera carries on capturing this horrific act. It becomes more intense as the world who is clearly there to be seen ignores it completely. Before becoming an object to be abused sexually by all the men in town. Even being treated like a dangerous dog she’s chained up, literally enslaved by Dogville. Is this being too literal or to prove a point that people can take advantage of those in a vulnerable situation? It sure is powerful leaning towards the absurd at times
The idea of escape soon enters her mind needing to get out of this once out-of-the-way town that was safe-harbour for a few months before turning against her. Even then it’s a futile act that only leads to things getting worse for her, maybe her past was not so bad when she looks back at the past few months in the out-of-the-way town. When her father – The Big Man (James Caan) returns, the first time we see him, acting as conscience that needs to be awaken. She has to make a choice, staying in this town that her treated her so badly. Even the man she loves but holds back uses her to his advantage. Becoming all-powerful when the men with guns arrive to bring an end to a the last year of her life, taking responsibility, and assuming her place in life. Almost a Michael Corleone figure who wants to clean up the world she is a part of.
With a big ensemble cast, I’m not just saying that because of its size, just looking at the headline actors, Kidman s joined by actors both young and old. I can’t, not mention the likes of Lauren Bacall and Ben Gazzara who bring more depth to the film. We know the scrip is good with actors of this calibre, along with some unknown. Its theatre without the intermission, instead broken up into chapters acting like a book, that only our aspiring writer Tom Edison would write. Its a film that takes a risk, something that the average cinema goer might avoid, maybe too high-brow, even with Kidman leading the film its a brave departure from the Hollywood fare, even for the time when more interesting film were still being made over there. Its has a European sensibility of looking in on a country that appears to be all smiles and open arms, but can easily turn on you. It’s not an easy watch, in terms of length but mostly the content which gets darker as we go on, which makes it more powerful and daunting to watch.
- Z To A: Dogville (2003) (theholyshrine.wordpress.com)