Sunday, April 18, 2021

DOUBLE FEATURE: Dancer in the Dark / Dogville

Dancer in the Dark (2000, Lars von Trier)

Quest Status: 738 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #695

Dancer in the Dark is the third film in Lars von Trier's so called "Golden Heart Trilogy." I haven't seen the second film in the trilogy, The Idiots, but this film is definitely cut from the same cloth as the trilogy's first installment, Breaking the Waves. In Dancer in the Dark, von Trier pays tribute to the pure filmmaking standards laid out by the Dogme 95 manifesto, shooting most of the film himself with low-quality digital cameras, natural lighting and location shooting, but breaks the manifesto's rules on one point - the use of non-diegetic music. Because, in fact, Dancer in the Dark is a musical.

For those coming to this film having seen any of von Trier's other films, he would probably seem like an odd choice to direct a musical. And indeed, the musical elements never really gel with the rest of the film, a depressing melodramatic about an immigrant factory worker whose life spirals into tragedy as she begins to lose her sight. For one thing, the songs (sung by the idiosyncratic Iceland singer and lead actress Björk) are clunky and superfluous - adding little to the film other than giving us a break from the crushing drudgery of the main story. There's also a cruel irony to the musical sequences, which tease us that "nothing dreadful ever happens in a musical" even as von Trier repeatedly reminds us that this is one musical where that rule does not apply.

Dogville (2003, Lars von Trier)

Quest Status: 739 / 1000


TSPDT Rank #348

After finishing his "Golden Heart Trilogy" with his first English-language film, Lars von Trier embarked on another (as yet unfinished) trilogy set in the USA - despite the fact that he's never been there, due to a fear of flying. Dogville takes place in a Depression-era town in the Rocky Mountains, although it was filmed entirely on a bare, warehouse-like set with streets, houses, and even the town dog existing only as chalk outlines on the floor. The set is theatrical and minimalist to the extreme, while the story is narrated in Dickensian fashion by John Hurt and divided into nine chapters, evoking a fairy tale atmosphere that clashes with subject matter that grows increasingly bleak as the story unfolds.

Whereas previous films like Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark had featured female lead characters made to endure unfathomably painful dilemmas, in Dogville, the humiliation endured by Nicole Kidman's Grace reaches absurd heights unusual even for the misanthropic von Trier. (It's potentially worth mentioning that Dogville features numerous instances of rape, which are largely written off by both the narrator and the other characters.) Because of this, Dogville is often difficult to watch, but it's a stylistic success if nothing else. Despite the minimalist sets, the film envelops the viewer fully in its punishing fantasy world, leading us through a tangled web of situations which force us to ponder the human capacity for cruelty and forgiveness. Still, much like the pretentious and self-important would-be novelist Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), the catalyst behind many of the story's twists and turns, von Trier might be guilty of many of the sins he accuses his characters of in this sprawling portrait of the evil lurking behind the innocent facade of a stereotypical American small town.

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Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The Tin Drum (1979, Volker Schlöndorff)

Quest Status: 737 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #774

Based on a towering literary classic by Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass, The Tin Drum starts from absurdity and builds to insanity, conveying the inexplicability of fascism. It follows a boy named Oskar, the son of an incestuous nymphomaniac conceived from a potato field tryst between a peasant woman and an arsonist. Oskar stops growing at the age of three out of disgust with the adult world, a conscious decision that he disguises by throwing himself down the cellar stairs. Even at birth, he has the body of a six-year-old, which never seems to grow or change, even after his fateful third birthday.

His third birthday is notable, not only for his portentous fall, but for the present that he receives from his mother: a red and white tin drum. He carries it with him everywhere, and whenever some poor soul tries to take it away from him, he screams bloody murder--shattering everything from his teacher’s glasses to cathedral windows across the street. In this way, he soon learns that he can control the adults around him. As he grows older, everyone continues to treat him like a toddler, although he becomes more intelligent and aware of the world around him than he lets on.

At first, we sympathize with Oskar. The world around him is certainly worthy of disgust--even before the Nazis come to the forefront. Director Volker Schlöndorff does his best to make everything seem sick, never shying away from an opportunity to make the viewer uncomfortable. Oskar’s birth is a hellish nightmare vision, and his mother’s incestuous philanderings with her Polish cousin are sweaty and filthy affairs--as far from erotic as possible. Later, during a seaside family outing, Oskar and his parents watch a fisherman haul in a horse head infested with countless squirming eels. His mother vomits, the father takes the eels home and cooks them--only able to convince his wife to eat them after her cousin pleasures her to stop her from crying.

However, as Oskar grows older, we see that his stunted physical growth cannot prevent him from being corrupted by the adult world. After his mother dies from overdosing on raw fish, his grandmother brings in a 16-year-old girl named Maria to help at his father’s grocery store. Being 16 himself, Oskar is filled with lust for the pretty Maria, first feeding her sherbet powder made fizzy with his spit before attempting to seduce her. He’s filled with jealousy when his father also becomes sexually involved with the underage Maria, revealing a monstrous rage that shows that he is capable of just as much cruelty as the adults around him.

But let’s not forget Oskar’s trademark tin drum, often seen as an instrument of protest against the rise of Fascism. Maybe this is the case when Oskar disrupts a Nazi rally by leading the band away from their rigid march into a swinging Blue Danube waltz, to the great distress of the Reich dignataries in attendance. But what about when Oskar joins a troupe of dwarfs in performing for the Nazi occupation forces in France, even looking on as the soldiers gun down a group of nuns collecting shellfish on the beach at Normandy? The film’s central allegory is clearly more complicated and ambiguous than it’s usually made out to be, although its unflinching view of fascism and innocence corrupted gets closer to the soul of Nazism than most films about the era have ever dared.

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