Monday, August 4, 2008

Bjork Thrives Best Hermit Style

by Jason Pyles

“I used to dream I was in a musical, ‘cause nothing dreadful ever happens … ”

This ironic line of dialogue from “Dancer in the Dark” should be enough reason for none of our Considering the Cinema members to pass on watching this film. Our weekly films aren’t mandatory, but this one should be.

Here Eleanor has selected what could be a poster child for unusual, discussion-worthy films. Bravo, El.

Filmed much like a documentary, “Dancer in the Dark” has a convincing appearance of verisimilitude; in other words, as we watch, it is easy to believe that we are watching real people behave, not just actors acting (which is also a credit to the cast).

And yet, the first musical number (of the seven total, full-blown musical productions) doesn’t begin until 40 minutes into the film. Neat.

But what is remarkable about this musical is its seeming realism. Most chirpy musicals have an unashamed artificiality to them. In this way, when the characters in these typical productions burst forth into song, we can kind of just go with it.

When “Dancer in the Dark” (an atypical musical, to say the least) derails for its musical numbers, it’s a little startling. But what keeps the contrast from becoming a train wreck each time is the fact that the song-and-dance performances aren’t actually happening in the film, they are only a part of Selma Jezkova’s (Bjork) coping-mechanism, escapist’s dream world.

And as a musician, I offer my useless opinion that the best song of the film is the second one, “I’ve Seen It All.” I particularly love the line, “You haven’t seen elephants, kings or Peru,” which was supposedly performed by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, not Peter Stormare (“Fargo.”)

Speaking of cast members, I also enjoyed seeing the great French actress, Catherine Deneuve, of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964) and “Belle de Jour” (1967) fame. This may be reaching, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the name of her character, “Kathy,” and the name of the son, “Gene,” had anything to do with “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952)? … Kathy Selden … Gene Kelly … another nod to musicals, perhaps?

Along with little tidbits like this, at times I couldn’t help but think I was seeing an homage to “Employees Leaving the Lumiere Factory” (1895), as well as the brothers’ “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” (1896). I wouldn’t put it past Lars von Trier. (That last sentence could be preceded by almost anything.)

“Dancer in the Dark” had me thinking on loftier matters, too. It is sweetly sad how the selfless mother in this film (Selma) sets aside her dreams, her safety and ultimately her own life for her son’s well-being and happiness. I don’t claim to have gained any special wisdom from my son’s birth, but as a new father of six months, this character’s sacrifice struck a chord with me.

And, as a new father, I also noted and felt somewhat comforted that this selfless mother also allowed herself brief episodes of escape into her dreams — outside her noble, parental duties. Ah, justification.

There is also a lot to be said (perhaps not by me) about the correlations and symbolism between vision and blindness. This film reminded me of the scripture, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18) And I suppose one could insert “Justice is blind” in this movie somewhere, too.

Indeed, this film seems to be a blatant critique on the justice system — and the death penalty. Isn’t it fascinating (and frustrating) that everything said during Selma’s trial is the exact opposite of the truth? I am presently covering a murder trial for my newspaper, and I couldn’t help but think of this film today during the testimonials.

But what are we to make of that horrific, shocking murder scene? Somehow one of cinema’s gentlest caricatures of humanity is compelled to administer a grisly murder. I have to contest this and assert that Selma’s deed really pushed the credibility envelope. Despite her desperate mission to provide for her son’s surgery, I just can’t see this character doing such a thing. Can you?

On the other hand, I guess it’s neat that this blind character had such a clear, precise tunnel vision when it came to her primary objective. Here’s another believability question: Do we all believe that the son really did receive the surgery? Or were they lying to appease Selma? Tell me if I’ve missed something.

“Dancer in the Dark” is unsettling, to say the least, particularly the ending. But what else did we expect from a Bjork musical? Finally, she has images to match the brooding mood of her music.

“Dancer in the Dark” is somewhat of a paradoxical thing: a downbeat musical. Most musicals are syncopated, or upbeat … That was a little musician’s humor there. Very little.


Grabloid said...

Since I've not yet seen the film (ever). I'm not reading your post yet...but I'll comment here or respond in my post after I see the film...

Anonymous said...

I have seen this film twice. I watched it the 1st time strictly to see the incomparable Catherine Deneuve. Thought it an interesting film but not one I would particularly want to own. Watched it again several months later and picked up more on the film itself. Can`t say I like Bjork all that much, but did have alot of empathy for her character. C.D., of course, was excellent.

Jason Pyles, Movie Critic said...

Dear Anonymous,

Your comment and your writing resemble a person who used to comment on my other movie review blog named "Patrick." If you're that Patrick, please e-mail me at I have appreciated your comments along the way, and I wanted to formally invite you to be a part of this weekly film discussion blog. Let me know. Thanks for commenting.

Joshua Ligairi said...

This film brings up one of my pet topics, so please forgive me if this post ends up being a little long, but I have much to say. You see, I have been fascinated by Lars Von Trier since my LDS mission when another missionary told me (in great detail) about Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration and its place in Von Trier's Dogme Manifesto film movement that was going on whilst I preached the good word to both Jew and Gentile. My interest only grew post-mission as I watched filmic curiosities such as King Is Alive, Gummo, and Italian for Beginners. What is this Dogme movement and who is this wacky guy that started it? I gleaned much from a close family friend--who teaches Von Trier at UC Berkeley--when I sat in on his class on Dancer In the Dark. Besides exploring the Von Trier/Bjork collaboration by comparing scenes in the film to Von Triers' The Idiots and Breaking the Waves as well as several Bjork music videos, the class discussion really plunged deep into the ability of film to capture truth. This soon became an obsession of mine and Lars Von Trier became the vehicle by which I explored this obsession.

Of course in some ways, film cannot help but reflect a certain view of reality, but how closely does cinema come to truly capturing love, or hate, or fear, or any part of the human condition? I hypothesize that achieving truth is the oft-failed ideal. All movies are constantly trying to be real (and some more effectively than others) whether by truly believing themselves real and propagating that notion, by using artifice to slip in under audiences’ radar, or by exposing artifice and giving a nod and wink to the audience in that “fiction is the only reality” sort of way.

I think that all movies want to be real and they just go about getting to reality in different ways. The traditional documentary, for instance, certainly means to capture the truth of the moment and the essence of reality, but many would argue that most documentaries (see the hubbub over Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 or more recently with American Teen) fail miserably in that regard.

During that same trip to UC Berkley I was lucky enough to meet Werner Herzog, hear him lecture, and view early cuts of his two new movies (at the time) White Diamonds and Grizzly Man. During his lecture he admitted to the crowd that he had scripted a specific line in White Diamonds for one of the locals to speak. He said that they shot the clip several times, and in his mind, the local man never got it quite right. I found this somewhat disturbing, and I wasn’t alone. As Herzog made this statement, a sort-of gasp mixed with nervous laugh rose from the audience. There is an unspoken expectation with documentary that the information will be factual and uninflected. The assumption being that a documentary, by nature, is not filmmaking, but merely uninflected documentation akin to reporting.

As a rule of any cinematic storytelling, most filmmakers would tell you that they try to hide their hand in their work. An old filmbiz adage is that in the best films, the audience never notices the constructed meaning—
production design or camera work—because they’re so caught up in the given one. Hollywood has toyed with this notion that authentic sets, authentic costumes, and talented actors can effectively create or recreate truth. The so-called category of docudrama—featuring the “true story” of Gandhi, or JFK, The Motorcycle Diaries’ Che Guevara or Braveheart’s William Wallace—is an example of this.

Flicks like The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings, Shrek, or Harry Potter, are most definitely not realistic, nor are they attempting to be, but what they are attempting to do is very similar. They are trying to sell us, the audience, on their version of reality, the reality of a world wherein this type of story could take place. Horror movies operate on this premise as well. People go to Scream to scream and nobody is going to get scared during Jaws unless they allow themselves to suspend their disbelief.

Lars Von Trier has spent over a decade (and the better part of his career) trying to find reality through cinema and I think it's through his diligence in experimentation and his willingness to fail that he has come closer to achieving this ideal than anyone else.

In 1995 Dogme was created and the Dogme Brethren (Thomas Viterberg, Soren Kraugh-Jacobsen, Kristian Levring, and, of course, Lars Von Trier) announced their "vow of chastity. The idea was to break down the barriers set up by film conventions and the Hollywood system, to eliminate the artifice in an attempt to get down to something real. They would get closer to the actors. They would be in real environments. They would eradicate things like production design and do away with cranes and dollies. While it is true that the Manifesto flew in the face of Hollywood’s rules, it is not true that the Manifesto meant freedom. Quite the contrary. In fact, the rules defined the very nature of the Manifesto; this was a vow of chastity with ten commandments! “The Dogme rules are, just like in religion, impossible to abide by,” Von Trier later stated in an interview, “but they provide some guidelines, and I needed some of that at the time”.

Attributing influence to the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Carl Dryer and bearing strong resemblances to his American counterpart/contemporary David Lynch, Von Trier started out his career as an extremely stylized genre filmmaker caught up in technique and his own mastery of method. His first three feature films, Element of the Crime, Epidemic and Europa--known together as the Europe Trilogy--were avant-garde technical masterpieces that caused Jan Lumholdt to describe Von Trier as a “structured, image-obsessed formalist”.

That all changed with the Dogme Manifesto. Each of the Brotheren was talented and accomplished in their own respect. The idea was that these filmmakers would take all of their strengths and eliminate them from the equation. You’re a master of camera moves? The camera must be hand-held! You rely on soundtracks to bolster your scenes? Now music must be tied to an image. You take great pride in costumes and locations? You may use only found locations and the actors have to wear their own clothes, no costumes. The filmmakers were put in a position where they could not rely on their old crutches to make their films either attractive or meaningful.

As interesting as this all was, what they found in the end was that both the tradition of the Hollywood model and the achievement of the Dogme model were comparable. Both had the ability to reflect some fraction of authenticity. Which was superior is a matter of preference. In the end there is no way to escape the fact that acting is farce; film is farce. I think Von Trier realized this and it drove him insane. Not actually insane of course, because he had already accomplished that, but I think that the realization that there was still some unseen barrier between the idealistic Dogme films and reality bothered him. I think it bothered him enough to rethink his entire strategy, abandon the rules of the Manifesto, and try for something completely different. We see a strong reaction in his next two films Dancer In the Dark, the end of his Golden Heart Trilogy and Dogville, the beginning of his America Trilogy. Said Von Trier, “the moral is that you can practice the technique--the Dogme technique or the idiot technique--from now until kingdom come without anything coming of it unless you have a profound, passionate desire and the need to do so”.

Dancer in the Dark was Von Trier's most wildly popular film to date. It won top honors in 2000 at Cannes. Bjork, who wrote and performed all the music in the film, also won at Cannes for best Actress and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Soundtrack. The film was a hit, but some Dogme fans were upset. The song and dance numbers in the film were each shot in one take with 100 cameras. The film used beautiful locations and interesting costumes. Put simply, the film seemed like a rejection of the Dogme95 Manifesto. This was not the case. For one, the Manifesto’s vow was always meant to be honored for one film only. Secondly, Von Trier carried over several of the practices that he developed on Breaking the Waves and The Idiots while shooting Dancer in the Dark. Third, Von Trier was not letting his increasing notoriety and success get to his head. “The most dangerous thing is to go in and try to milk more good fortune out of a previous success,” he said of Dancer in the Dark’s popularity. “You have to work against that success in order to move on”.

Von Trier's next film, Dogville takes the post-modern notion of reality to the extreme. In fact, it almost takes us out of cinema altogether, back to the beginnings of theatre. “As I get older I get more interested in reality compared to fiction. That’s why I’m interested in working with reality in relation to my work” Von Trier said in an interview between the two films. Dogville takes place on a soundstage with chalk outlines scrawled on the floor to represent the buildings in the town. There are no doors or walls. Everyone in town is visible to the audience at all times. Von Trier makes it extremely difficult for us, the audience, to suspend our disbelief. There is no choice but to be constantly reminded that this is all acting, that these people are on a stage, that this is not real. Because of this, the audience commitment must go one of two ways. The audience either gives up on the film or they become completely involved--I'd argue more involved then they have ever been before, because it is a constant struggle to be submerged in the movie, in the story. Von Trier doesn’t allow it. Of course he entices us with a fantastic story performed by brilliant actors. Reality in Dogville becomes an active relationship between the film and the audience. It is because of this that absolute artifice is the most realistic. Dogville succeeds fully in making the audience part of the movie as did (to a lesser extent) the Dogville follow-up, Manderlay.

I enjoyed Dancer in the Dark, especially for David Morse's performance, Bjork's music, and the creative dance numbers. Still, I'd have to say it is one of Von Trier's least interesting films of the past decade.

PS: I agree with you that “I Have Seen It All” is the best song in the film. Your ears didn't fail you, that's Stromare singing in the movie. Thom Yorke only sings on the soundtrack--which I actually think is a pity as I actually prefer the unpolished performance of Stormare.

PPS. In my opinion, the best ever flick for cinephiles to geek out over is a documentary(?) starring Lars Von Trier called The Five Obstructions and I'd recommend it to anyone truly interested in the power and limitations of cinema.

PPPS. Also, not sure if everyone has seen the Von Trier penned Dear Wendy directed by Dogme Brother Thomas Vinterberg, but it is a very interesting (if flawed) story with great acting and beautiful production design. I'd recommend it. In fact, I think I bought it for Andrew at Christmas last year.

Barrett Hilton said...

Thanks Joshua. I have to admit that in attempting to really digest this film but being too busy/lazy to do some research and in depth analysis I was hoping to sit back and read what others had to say. I was wondering about the relationship between this film and dogma 95 so I really appreciate the insights into that aspect, and the discussion of the possibility of filmic depictions of reality is fascinating and hopefully will be on-going here. I had a professor who was very interested in dogma 95filmmaking as a guideline for student filmmakers--again not strict thou shalts, but in terms of not being obsessed with dollies and cranes or 35mm film. I've always tried to keep that in the back of my mind and I think it's helped me.

I agree with you Jason, the movie does feel contrived at times as if to force hopeless situations--which I think is the point more than strict believability--the contrast between whimsical musical numbers and a horribly depressing real world situation. But the attraction for me is the film's ability to achieve beauty through atypical and seemingly simple technical means--although after reading about the 100 cameras I'm not sure simple is the right word.

Definitely some great recommendations for further viewing Joshua--I've only seen a few of the films you mentioned and look forward to checking the others out. I feel no need to look down on or throw out conventional Hollywood filmmaking, but I love watching films that operate outside the conventional modes of filmmaking--especially when they do so successfully. There's a level of beauty which is only achievable I think by the unexpected and bizarre.

Barrett Hilton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason Pyles, Movie Critic said...

Josh, thanks for taking the time to write that in-depth comment. You filmmakers impress me. We have at least four of you posting on this blog now. I’m jealous that you met Herzog, Josh. I love that wild man.

I’ve heard many of the arguments now, but I can’t see us ever truly being able to reproduce reality (or a thoroughly convincing reality) through film, unless we advance to some holographic, five-senses-interactive experience. Or, unless you have one of those recording devices from “Brainstorm” (1983).

Yes, that rectangular window that allows us to a limited look into that film’s world will always be restrictive, that is, unless your film is about an earthquake victim who’s stuck under debris, peering out through a rectangular hole, and the entire film is shot from a subjective point of view. Last year’s French film, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” toyed with this concept by showing us the subjective view from Jean-Do’s left eye. Of course, that film strayed from the notion.

How I do love the way films sell us on a version of reality, or the reality that exists within the world of the particular film, such as Gotham City. Yes, I thrill to watch convincing films (note the key word “convincing”), where I am sold during the runtime on a world projected onto the screen that does not or could not exist in my world. I love to watch movies — and be convinced — of the way things aren’t.

And speaking to the notion that suspending or dismissing one set of rules tends to create a whole new set of rules: Yes, one time, for some reason, I attempted to design a completely new language for my best pal Bill Barnes and me. I began by deciding conjugation would not exist in my new language. Immediately I encountered the necessity for rules and exceptions, all in the name of maintaining clarity. (By the way, don’t tell anybody else I tried to make up my own language.)

And regarding Josh’s observation that the audience has to become more involved in a film like “Dogville” because it’s a constant struggle to be submerged in the movie: Yes, again. I once dated a fabulous singer who often refused to use a mic during her performances. I found it bizarre since she sang so quietly. Later I realized she did this intentionally as a way to control the audience to be quiet enough to listen to her. It’s a little manipulative, to be sure, and ultimately frustrating. As a rule, people don’t like to be manipulated or controlled, and they will eventually rebel. I think many people probably out-and-out rebelled against “Dogville,” hence the prevalent distaste for that film and others like it.

Great comment, Josh.