The awkward thing about a blog such as this is that I don’t think you should read it.
Which is to say, it’s a discussion of the movie Dogville, by Lars von Trier, and if you haven’t seen the movie (which is likely most of you), I suggest that you watch it first. Suggestion seems too light a word. Really it should be kind of mandatory.
Lars von Trier is the director of the Depression trilogy, which features the deeply-disturbing Antichrist, 2012’s much-hyped Melancholia, and the forthcoming Nymphomaniac. Dogville is the first of his America trilogy, the second film of which is called Manderlay.
Here I’m only focusing on Dogville, but, whatever you do, don’t pull the Fight Club card like I did in high school and let the end be spoiled for you because you’re sure you’re never going to see it.
It’s the kind of movie that you must know nothing before going into. Don’t even go googling for a trailer. If you do choose to watch it, sit through the entire movie. For the first two thirds, you may well feel like turning it off or doing something else, the only thing I can say is watch the whole movie.
Unfortunately it’s not on Netflix instant at the moment, so it’ll take more legwork, but if cerebral movies are your thing, it’s incredible.
Go watch it and then come back. I’ll wait.
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For the rest of you lovelies, I want to talk about this movie, because it demands talking about. The first time I watched it was a year ago, early in the morning, with my filmmaker buddy AJ, and by the last twenty minutes, I was sitting up on my bed with my hair in my hands in shock.
The second time I watched it was last night with my girlfriend, and the experience was no less profound, but far less visceral. The shock of the town’s descent and, later, the film’s abrupt left turn into allegory had fallen, and instead I could watch the development of the philosophy and commentary happening within.
Perhaps many of you were more toward my girlfriend’s level of engagement and expectation, where she laughed afterward that she’d have been very disappointed if they didn’t machine-gun the town. But I was along purely for the journey, with a kind of lack of expectation or suspension of disbelief that registered in manifested shock by the final forty minutes of film.
A quick perusal of online reviews of this movie — a very quick perusal, I should point out — seems that what most reviews are discussing is the success or failure of the film as a critique on America. There’s a sense of discussion, not of the themes dissected, but more of whether the film deserved consideration as an anti-American film, and whether it was a bad film because of it. Released in an altogether post-9/11 world, attacking America in any way shape or form, cinematic, politically, or philosophically, constituted an echo of the violence of two or three years before. Though America quickly turned back on itself in the years following, there was still a certain mindset of community that would turn on outsiders butting in with an upheld index finger and a curt “this is our discussion right now, please.”
Von Trier presents the town of Dogville in a claustrophobic, campy, allegorical sense of something bigger than itself. Despite being located in the Rocky Mountains near Georgetown, Dogville could be anywhere. As Henry Sheehan’s underwhelming review attempts to get at, and placed in wonderful terms by the New York Times: Dogville is stripped down humanity. As the Times points out:
[…]there aren’t any walls. Nor are there any trees or houses or enclosed physical structures of any kind. There is nothing, in short, to mark Dogville as a place, American or otherwise.
Which isn’t to say that it’s not America. Dogville is very specifically within America, and very specifically begins von Trier’s planned America trilogy for a reason. The town of Dogville is very intentionally placed in the Rocky Mountains, that quintessential staple of the west, in a place characteristically defined by the gold rush of barely a few decades earlier, in the timeline of the film. Indeed, the provocative credits sequence makes the American distinction quite clear, as is discussed in reviews over and over again.
But I would suggest that for one thing, we have a better position to consider such a critique of America now, a decade after the film’s release. Regardless of your belief as a conservative, liberal, or otherwise, the decline in popularity of the Bush Administration’s final seven years following the events of September 11th, along with two decidedly controversial wars, reeled America back into a heated critique that quickly came to counter the unity found in the short months following September 2001. This national wariness extended into the Obama Administration’s takeover, counterbalancing his projection of hope and clarity to make up for the decade’s confusion prior. Any extreme, supported or otherwise, is going to meet a distinct amount of critique. Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on here, whether elephant, donkey, foreigner, or otherwise, the point is that American solidarity, even after the uniting events of 2001, has again began to crumble.
And by 2013, we’re again open to reception of criticism. Take the virality and boldness of the opening scene of 2012’s The Newsroom.
[Love that video… except for the whole worst period generation period ever period. Every new generation is the worst period generation period ever period to the old generation. If he were a teacher who got to deal with the parents of our worst period generation period ever period, I think he’d start to understand why we “all” think we’re so entitled. That said, there’s obviously blame to go around, and we’ve got some issues. But I digress.]
So, now that we’ve learned to accept critique not as an attack, but for exactly what it is, critique, we can get to the real heart of Dogville, and we can stop nitpicking whether or not it was a deserved attack on American culture, or whether it should be written off as an “anti-American” movie by a filmmaker who at the time had never even been to the country.
That all said, it is absolutely necessary that Dogville both be located in America and representing America.
This is because America, popularly, is the pinnacle of Western culture. Whether it’s deserving of that title or even on any less fragile a pedestal because of such standing is irrelevant. America, structured by a thousand years of crescendoing Christianity and ideology focusing intensely upon the individual, with its sudden rise both as an ideological powerhouse and a relatively successful one, is the perfect canvas for deconstruction of those themes.
In the New York Times piece, they illustrate von Trier’s reaction to the point:
What makes ”Dogville” so fascinating, and so troubling, is the tension between the universal and the specific. ”You mean, why not just call it Denmark?” Mr. von Trier responded, mockingly, when asked about his choice. Because, of course, it couldn’t possibly be Denmark. It’s America.
Earlier in the article too, von Trier specifically pointed out this idea of America as a canvas, when referencing Franz Kafka having never visited America either, before writing his story Amerika.
“I must say I’m very fond of this idea that Kafka didn’t go to America,” Mr. von Trier said. ”For me it’s about America, even though it’s about what he had seen in Europe. Somehow America is a canvas that you can use.”
America is the pinnacle of the individual, and hence is the pinnacle of selfishness and greed. Our entire economic system runs on the idea of greed and competition. You don’t have to visit America to be familiar with greed and competition, and it’s not an insult to America to use it as a canvas to illustrate such abstraction taken to the extreme. The entire point of the film is to illustrate how communities that claim or even function as a single unit in an individualistic society can succumb to selfishness and, ultimately, when given the right circumstances, evil.
Is this ultimately a kind of discussion between the Capitalistic, individual-centric west versus a more socialistic east? Yeah, kind of. Von Trier even said,
”I can’t deny that I am by heart a socialist, and therefore the American system as I see it would make a situation like this more probable, maybe push people more quickly to the wrong side. My primitive view is that if a system is partly built on the idea that you are the maker of your own happiness, then of course poor people are miserable in the sense that they failed completely. Whereas in other countries, you might look at that more as a failure of the society.”
The delicate line that von Trier walks with a movie such as this is between labeling an entire country (one that inherently defines itself on pluralistic values) by a single allegorical situation, and using an abstraction of a country to present a discussion between ideologies. The former borders on insulting (especially given the post-9/11 world it premiered to), and ignorance, in that obviously characterizing a whole people with a single allegory is a narrow viewpoint. But! The latter, illustrating what a country (or religion, or philosophy, anyone so-defined by their fundamental ideologies) stands for–well, isn’t that art?
Is Dogville anti-American? Perhaps. But that’s skipping straight to the conclusion, and in so doing misses the point entirely. Good art is about the conversation. What would it mean to be anti-American, anyway? The knee jerk reaction is to think that “they (he, whoever) hate us.” I identify as an American, and so they must hate me. But America is a way of thinking and a way of life. It’s a compound of beliefs and practices, and even though we started as a melting pot of the world’s cultures, even though if you put a liberal and a conservative at a table and had them duke it out, we have to recognize that there are fundamental issues at the heart of our country, and it’s these issues that are examined in any smart American critique. Before we condemn them for condemning us, we have to clarify what’s being condemned (or, if we relax, discussed) in the first place.
Where Mr. Sheehan concludes that Dogville wasn’t particularly provocative save a few moments, I would argue that the entire premise is provocative. To watch “good, honest people” fall into the depths of human evils and utterly justify it to themselves is an incredible experience to engage it.
The tools the movie employs are directly related to its study of both this altogether western human experience and theme. The other most popular talking-point about the movie, aside from its critique of America, is the design of the set as wall-less and stark. The wall-less, staged nature is at once Campy. Camp being the style–primarily in theater–that focused on artifice. Though often Camp is presented as a kind of silly commentary on the nature of various social constructions, Dogville is aware of its Campy nature, but applies it in a refreshingly serious way. The most notable scene in the movie being when Stellan Skarsgard rapes Nicole Kidman in sight of the entire town as the rest of the town goes about its business, completely oblivious.
The lack of walls goes on to suggest a variety of commentary on the nature of community, on the nature of what is seen or understood but socially denied, but also it speaks toward a kind of essential humanity. There’s a play here on the nature of privacy. Privacy is a curious beast because its very nature depends on this essential Western ideal of individuality. We see ourselves as inherently different from everyone else. This as a direct counterpoint to the more Eastern beliefs epitomized by Buddhism by way of Fight Club, if I may, in which emphasis is placed on the fact that we are not beautiful and unique snowflakes. We are the same living, breathing organic matter as everyone else. At the end of the day, we are all simply human beings.
Consider cameras in every room of your house. The discomfort of being watched at every moment, of having your privacy revoked. These things then that we want to hide, or keep private, come curiously because most of the things that we hide are either altogether natural acts (sexing, shitting, showering–most inherent in the way we clothe ourselves, the way we consider nudity a private affair) or the actions we are ashamed of (crimes, betrayal, or secrets). Hiding the former is ultimately kind of odd, as there’s nothing to be particularly ashamed of. As the popular children’s story asserts, Everybody Poops.
Between those things we want to hide, the latter becomes far more complex, and begins to bleed into the issues illustrated by Dogville. Are there absolutes in private crimes? Crimes designed purely out of malevolence? Dogville’s premise alone begs the question as to whether there are crimes that are purely malicious, or whether everything is a strange blend between self-disillusionment coupled with selfishness and a lack of community consequence. Indeed, much of the violence in the film is an illustration of precisely this: evil that can occur anywhere given the right circumstances.
And much of the situational drama that nuances the movie begs the question as to whether community accountability is the best treatment for such selfishness. Because ultimately, these crimes in the movie are at their essence selfishness. Self-justified acts on selfishness inflicted on Nicole Kidman as Grace.
It’s ironic then, how in the film, those acts most selfish (and by the end, most twisted) are justified by the need for comfort in another: a need for community. Skarsgard as Chuck tries to kiss Grace because he feels lonely and sexually unsatisfied. Ben, in much the same way, needs the company of kind women and sexual satisfaction. Indeed, even Paul Bettany’s Tom ultimately wants companionship. The irony falls in this dynamic between wanting comfort in another, lacking respect for that other person because the desire is so high, and a lack of community accountability because of such blind selfishness, which may well provide a substitute for such comfort.
If there’s a critique of Western society here, it’s in the emphasis on the individual. That even individual interests as a part of a societal whole restrict empathy and true understanding of others. Illustrated to their extreme when these issues are brought to the community as Tom pushes Grace to come clean with the group, there is no accountability because everyone in the town is so absorbed in their own selfishness.
Indeed, the critique extends to the way we manifest this individual in our political process. Consider the moments of democracy in the film. Every decision the town makes is based upon a vote of the townspeople. Our moral code in America is decided by the collective. If enough people deem something as acceptable, it is not morally wrong. What tension then, when we consider issues like the morality of abortion, of gay rights, of smoking marijuana, or the death penalty. If there’s a law for it, it’s morally permissible, if there’s not, it’s not. Von Trier takes this to the logical extreme, in which a town collectively decides it’s acceptable to keep an outsider as a sexual and indentured servant.
In fact, the commentary goes farther to consider the position of America on immigrants. Grace, in the film, comes from a place foreign and far, finds herself in the town, and in their struggle as to whether or not they should accept her as one of their own, puts her to work. How easily that becomes exploited when it’s suddenly acceptable to force someone into such labor, and it’s in relatively little time that her work is doubled, her wages cut in half, because of a perceived wrong. A wrong in large part based on the communities own navel-gazing and a treatment as different. As an outsider.
Now, certainly the film doesn’t dive into the justice system and whether such an “objective” system helps prevent against such individual selfishness, but that should be taken less as an oversight of von Trier and more as a separate issue entirely. The town forms its own justice system, a microcosm of the modern, hyper-structured, rule-filled system designed by the populace in the first place. The film’s focus is on the individual’s role in a community and how we treat each other. And the movie is long enough as it is.
But I want to get back to this idea of human nature and those crimes we’re ashamed of. Where before we considered whether crime comes from a community’s self-delusion, we on the other hand have to consider the other premise of the movie: whether malice is human nature, whether we can extend this reflection of private crimes to instances of Clockwork Orange-type violence. If such malice is in any individual’s nature, it would suggest a malicious undercurrent wrapped up in our own collective human nature.
Grace and her father discuss the issue in the car during Chapter Nine:
Father: Rapists and murders may be the victims according to you, but I–I call them dogs. And if they’re lapping up their own vomit, the only way to stop them is with a 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.
But von Trier studies the strange blend between the two, and considers whether selfishness is human nature. Perhaps that’s the film’s conclusion: that malice isn’t inherent, but selfishness is (at least in a culture that idolizes the individual), and look what that can lead to.
The question of the necessity and right of an individual to privacy (and as an inherent part of freedom) is one for another time and so I want to move on from this question of privacy, shame, and human nature, and start to move into what’s absolutely the most provocative part of the film, that of Chapter Nine, the dialogue with the father figure (or “big man”), and the religious connotations within.
One of the remarkable distillations of this moment is in recognizing that Nicole Kidman’s Grace is actually of a kind of Anti-Christ nature. This of course is not in the sense of the Antichrist as Satan incarnate to bring about the end of the world, but as a kind of second coming of Christ–or a more modern day re-envisioning of the Christ story.
This of course hinges upon this idea of the father figure, the “big man” figure as a symbol for God. He’s all-powerful and holds deep responsibilities, hands out judgements and destruction, and hails from a “city” of opulence and wealth, dreamt of by the townspeople, who are altogether separate from it. And Grace is His daughter (God’s Grace, get it?), who then acts a direct counterpoint to Christ, who was God’s incarnate son. Grace’s entire character arc is of a high-born woman who finds herself, after running away, amongst townspeople–human beings. And over the course of the movie, she seeks to understand them and ultimately, God-willing (har, har), become a part of them. But she’s separate from them. She’s pure. In this manner, the film is a kind of imagining of that “what if God was one of us” situation. The age old question as to what if Christ returns as a homeless man on the street? Would we help him?
In the God symbolized by the father figure, the head gangster, we have also symbolized the Old Testament, and the God that goes with it. Oftentimes in today’s changing world, many nu-Christians (like, nu-metal, anyone? anyone?) consider the New Testament as an updating of the Old Testament. From Carl Jung to modern day, progressive Christians, there’s an idea of a wrathful, jealous, emotional, un-empathetic God coming to terms with humanity through his son, Christ. In Jungian theology, this Christ figure died on the cross not for our sins, but for God’s sins, in order for God to fully understand the human condition through his experience as an incarnate human being, with emphasis on the suffering humans go through in the physical realm. But on a less controversial level, the more progressive Christians consider Christ as God 2.0, an update who brings peace and understanding, where the Old Testament God gives way to this more fully realized God.
In Dogville though, we see illustrated this deeply empathetic New Testament offspring-of-God-figure engaged in–finally–a conversation with the Old Testament God Figure. The story follows this idea of Grace telling him what she thought of him, then running away, treating the analogous Christ story as less God’s intention and more Christ’s. As her father says, “Our last conversation, the one in which you told me what you don’t like about me, never really concluded, as you ran away. I should be allowed to tell you what I don’t like about you.”
It’s as if the crucifixion story was paused to allow God to come down from the heavens and discuss how Jesus should best handle the situation.
In Dogville, we finally have a dialogue between the judging, powerful Old Testament God (“I… I call them dogs.”) with the New, empathetic one (“Why shouldn’t we forgive them?”). The discussion of arrogance, of the worth of humanity, of human nature, of what’s best for the world, unravels between them. Eventually, Grace gives in that she’s “arrogant because I forgive people,”. The conclusion here being of the importance of holding standards, about punishment and mercy in order to raise people to their best, rather than forgive them constantly.
“You do not pass judgment because you sympathize with them…” The Father figure says. “Does every human being need to be accountable for their actions? Of course they do. You do not even give them that chance. And that is extremely arrogant.”
This echoes even the alchemical, mystical sense that I like to speak of, in which it’s suffering that’s the method toward purity (see boiling dirty water or tearing down muscles to rebuild them stronger when working out). It brings back ideals of tough love that are echoed throughout antiquity.
The culmination of their dialogue leads to Grace’s revelation that the town’s actions were indeed wrong, and that no matter who committed such actions, there needed to be punishment. To be made an example of, in a sense. As the narrator says:
“What they had done was not good enough. And if one had the power to put it to rights, it was one’s duty to do so. For the sake of other towns. For the sake of humanity. And not least for the sake of the human being that was Grace herself.”
Grace then makes the decision to kill the town and to burn it, echoing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra. What’s fascinating here though is the reversal from the earlier New Testament Christ story. Where in that story, Christ sacrifices himself in order to save humanity, so sparing his wrong-doers, here, with the influence this Old Testament God-Figure, Grace makes the opposite decision, coming back around to the Old Testament ways, destroying her captors explicitly for the sake of “other towns…of humanity” and “not least for the sake of the human being that was Grace herself.” Where in Christian mythology, Christ was sacrificed by tyrants and ultimately saved all of humanity, here we have a reversal, in which our Christ figure instead sacrifices the tyrants to save humanity.
The emphasis on the end of the quote, toward the importance of her decision on herself as a human being speaks toward God’s revelation in his manifestation as a human being. Where Jung understood this manifestation as His coming to terms with the nature of suffering on the physical plane and a kind of self-recognition, here this manifestation is about coming to terms with the necessity for punishment. It’s like an episode of Undercover Boss in which the boss realizes his employees don’t need extra reward, but a good spanking.
It’s in this way then that she’s the anti-Christ in the sense that she’s Christ’s opposite in action, not his opposite in essence She is herself a messiah figure, but one who ultimately comes to understand humanity and the Old Testament God at once. From this perspective then, it would seem that Dogville could be more aptly titled Antichrist than von Trier’s 2009 movie was of the same title.
But the religious allegory doesn’t stop there. Without stretching it, there’s a commentary extending to the broken figure of Stellan Skarsgard Chuck as the embodiment of Satan. Midway through the movie comes the revelation to Grace that Chuck was from the city once, and that he rejects her because he can’t stand the reminder of everything that he came to Dogville to find. Chuck also tries to tempt her in the orchard, and devotes his life to harvesting apples.
Where Grace is a revision of the Christ figure, Chuck serves as a reflection on the far-earlier-fallen Satan, who ran from Heaven because he was upset with God. A re-envisioning of Satan then, in that he didn’t run to the humans in order to corrupt God’s most favorite creations (and what good would that do, as they’re already corrupt enough and God is all to happy to punish them when they transgress), but he ran to them in order to find something genuine and pure, but was mistaken in much the same way that Grace was.
Exactly the same way as Grace was, in fact. Consider if Grace decided to stay? Perhaps eventually she would be accepted, in strained terms, until she made a defeated life with Tom, had five kids and the white picket fence, picking apples in the orchard all day, and utterly down-trodden with the life she leads. This narrative then reverses the old ideals, that it was humanity that was corrupted by Satan, and instead suggests that maybe it’s Satan who was corrupted by humanity.
Satan then, in this allegory, is no more the manifestation of evil than Christ. Simply speaking, he’s the broken product of evil and misguided hope. Satan is a long-defeated Christ.
So what’s the use of this religious allegorical nonsense? Particularly how it interacts with the other heart of the film: that of the American critique.
I could ruminate on the way that American culture, yet in its infancy, embodies both the roles of the Dogville community and the Old Testament God figure, dishing out judgement and punishment to the rest of the world. I could reflect on the thusly ironic and pessimistic question of the film, in that if America really is such a godless society, who will give us the punishment we need? I could continue into some sort of conclusion about whether this conclusion really is anti-American and whether or not that’s truly warranted by the end of it.
But I won’t elaborate on these, or seek to answer them. Because these are the questions left for the individual. These are the questions any one of us need to ask ourselves, not only as part of America or as part of Western culture in general, but as human beings who are inherently given to our selfish natures, who inherently must look out of only one pair of eyes for our entire lives.
Whether there’s truth in this commentary is not a success or a failure of the film. It’s not an argument in the philosophical sense, where it can be proven wrong by logic and so devalued. As a film exploring these issues in a way that not only makes us feel deeply, but in a way that makes us think deeply, Dogville is truly an achievement.
Karl Pfeiffer won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, works with investigative teams across Colorado, lectures across America, and leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com