From the land of Kierkegaard and crullers, the newest New Wavers resuscitate – and reform – an artform ready for last rites.
“The time to make up your mind about people is never,” says Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) in The Philadelphia Story (1940). In most contemporary films, however, the time to make up your mind is during the opening credits. Characters have become standards, symbols representing a social function or status (lawyer, policeman, student, executive, dad, computer geek, whatever). “No real people, just cops,” as Mr. Pink would say (Reservoir Dogs). Actors are judged on their ability to assume the model, reinforce it. But who needs characters when the technology used to make the film can play both the lead and the supporting cast? In a recent interview about End of Days, Arnold Schwarzenegger confessed that he was not too worried about the effect of technologies such as CGI on the future of acting (hmm … enough said). “A technological storm is raging,” “the supreme task of the decadent filmmakers is to fool the audience.” “Predictability (dramaturgy) has become the golden calf around which we dance. Having the characters’ inner lives justify the plot is too complicated [ … ] the superficial movies are receiving all the praise.” The Manifesto of the Dogme 95 brotherhood (mainly Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg) is both Ludditical and puritanical, a northern reformation unimaginable in the sunny, catholic south (including Southern California).
While most of the interest in the Danish-based film movement Dogme has focused on its bare-bones technique, the heart of its appeal lies in the celebration of character – and actor. Inherent in removing the bells and whistles from filmmaking is the death of the stick figure and the stock character. No pieces of yellow scotch tape on this stage. The essence of the Dogme technique is to provide favorable conditions for actors to find or create characters, favorable conditions to capture human movement, “happening” characters. And while the style is realistic, the camera here doesn’t itself constitute the event (hot camera); it is reduced to the mere recording of events whose progression relies on the characters (cold camera). “I am a camera,” as Christopher Isherwood had it in his Berlin stories.
Dogme is a New Wave. But this time, the wave is meant to be stronger than the men behind it. Copyrights lawyers are out of luck. Anyone can obtain a Dogme certificate if he (or she) shoots a film in accordance with the ten rules known as “The Vow of Chastity.” Formulated to counter the film of illusion (of pathos, of love …), to break this technological wave that “can wash the last grain of truth away in a deadly embrace of sensation” (Trier’s 1996 Breaking the Waves was the catalyst), the rules are:
- Shooting on location (no imported props or sets)
- Sound and image produced together
- A handheld camera
- Natural light
- No optical work or filters
- No superficial action (murders, weapons)
- No temporal or geographic alienation
- No genre films
- No signature
This last tenet is a clear departure from the highly mannered style of the auteur derived from the individualistic French New Wave (which in Europe has become a convention, as in the states has the independent filmmaker). The rules are the uniforms of the movies, and the director must “swear to refrain from personal taste.”
As it happened in literature (with writers like George Perec), Dogme means creativity (and new-found freedom) through restraint. Technical and esthetical restraint to raise the fewest barriers between the film and the audience (as if removing the spotlights on a theatrical stage, separating audience and comedians): “Stay as close as possible to a simple recording of events, the proof that they happened.” Unplugged cinema. Because the Director has a supreme goal: to force the truth out of characters and settings. The first three Danish films – Dogme #1 The Celebration (Vinterberg), Dogme #2 The Idiots (Trier), and Dogme #3 Mifune’s Last Song (Soeren Kragh Jacobsen) – succeed brilliantly.1 (The point, of course, is not the Manifesto itself, which was obviously written in 30 minutes in a schoolboy atmosphere –this same playfulness pervades the films – by two very talented filmmakers who banned most standard film-making techniques and reflexes. What is significant is that already from this movement have emerged three inspired, original, honest, and intense movies, shot realistically (two in DV) but with strong stories and great characters (great actors), and concerned for once with the individual and not the zoon politikon (no real social issues here; nobody is looking for a job, à la Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, et al.)
Dogme technique, a certain process to produce a certain result, is by all means art, because it is when unveiling and not fabricating that art is production, in a sense that something hidden appears, is produced in the nonhidden. The ten rules, gestures, aim at a certain result: to produce the truth out of the material being worked – characters, settings. The truth is understood as unveiling characters being naturally veiled. The camera is no longer an instrument of fiction; the feeling is of films producing themselves before the eyes, in real time (theatrical process). More than realistic cinema, live cinema. In this regard, that sound and image must be produced together is probably one of the most influential rules. Because practically it means that music cannot be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot (an essential difference with traditional movies, given the role music plays in underlining the action, mostly in a redundant way), and that because there is no sound editing (overlaps, dissolves …), everyone must be present on stage (for background sound, for example), which turns the shooting into a theatrical process.
After his trilogy Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1986), and Europa (1991), Trier felt trapped under the weight of his style, “I had used all possible techniques to control and manipulate images and sound. I made these rules to prevent me from doing so.” (These cinema-haunted movies, with their stunning images, were criticized for their obsession with technique at the expense of characters.) From a conscious decision “not to be too close to the actors” Dogme repression led him to a technique based on a relationship of trust between the director and the actors. Worry less about the technical decisions, and give actors freedom. Time and movement no longer danced to the rhythm of technology. In a Dogme film, you can only see what can happen.
For Vinterberg (The Celebration is only his second film after his impressive debut with The Last Heroes, a road movie also starring Ulrich Thomsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, and Paprika Steen), these rules allow one “to concentrate on the moment, the actors and on the story that they are acting, which are the only aspects left when everything else is stripped away … to merely witness what happens among actors.” Capturing that on film, however, becomes possible when the relationships between actors cease to go through a third party – the camera – and become immediate. More than re-creating reality, Dogme technique re-creates intimacy, and by extension, a cinematic space the audience can enter. Most movies bring forward the one (ones) who make them. Dogme films make the cinematic space direct. Cinema as an art becomes not a question of point of view, but a necessary event (think of Robert Bresson’s distinction between beautiful images and necessary images). The symbolic maxim that the director should not be credited, in an effort to avoid his superficial imprint, becomes meaningful here. In trying to be “as un-auteur-like as possible (ironically enough, the result is some pretty auteur-like films),” the director “steps back from the product,” from what is produced, and actors (characters) come forward. To a certain extent, what happens between them doesn’t become a matter of the taste of the director. The “eye” versus the “I” of the camera. Appropriately enough for Kierkegaard’s homeland, it is not an impossible denial of subjectivity, but again, an appreciation that a human being is constantly becoming and cannot be defined beforehand nor fixed on film. The time to make up your mind about people is never. The technical rules permit the integration of the unpredicted, the accidental. In the three Dogme films, characters are never whom they appear to be, and as the story unfolds, more appearances (masks) are removed. But only those masks taken by characters within the frame of the story (or in reaction to it); the unveiling never reaches the character as a whole (fully); a natural opacity remains that can’t be overshot.
There is a cinematic convention: shaky camera = audience driven deeper in the story. But given its immediacy, the main thing remains the tension between truth and artifice, fiction and reality, and the director’s ability to measure out both to tell an interesting story (into the middle of which one can be driven – from the Latin inter esse), and transcend skepticism, because creating the illusion of truth might always coincide with the truth. Dogme films succeed because the three elements on which they are built – characters, places, story (a mixture of “you can’t lie your way out of your past” and “you can’t escape your inner self”) – combine seamlessly with the filmmaking technique. (The Dardenne Brothers’ Rosetta, the last Cannes Palme d’Or, illustrates a much less successful attempt. Filmed in an anything can happen, let ’er rip documentary style, the camera, not merely shaky but positively Parkinsonian, tracks poor Rosetta’s quotidian struggle for life and a job, but from the opening credits her destiny is fixed. Rosetta is a strong character, but the story isn’t going anywhere. The film is the polar opposite of those movies where so much happens to nobody.) Those three elements (story, characters, places) are pretty much the same in Celebration, Idiots, and Mifune: a group of people reunite and confront each other in a nonurban surrounding (echoing the technical chastity of the shooting): the countryside, a family hotel, house, or farm (a fundamental difference with most realistic movies shot in the city, in small apartments, in places where traditional shooting is difficult, to underline the realistic aspect). Given these similarities, there does seem to be a progression in Dogme #1 to #3 from darkness to light, a sort of liberation, #3 being the most optimistic. This unity in Danish Dogme also derives from the same actors migrating (in the same clothes, no less!) between films.
Mifune director Jacobsen chose a place “not used to film productions” (the southern island of Denmark). King Is Alive, Dogme #4, was shot in Namibia. Going back to a “purifying film experience” (Jacobsen), to the “naked film” (Vinterberg), to “regain lost innocence” (Trier), in the creative gesture, implies intimately in those films going back to nature, to almost volkish themes (blood ties in Celebration, Mifune, Idiots). A primitive state (another meaning of Idiot), stripped relations made of love and pathos (all three movies). More than live cinema, cinema alive.
- Mifune was purchased by Sony Classics during the Berlin Film Festival (it won the Silver Bear) and was released in New York and Los Angeles in February 2000. It ran for Denmark at the Oscars. The Idiots will be released sometime this year; it was in competition during the ’97 Cannes Film Festival. The Celebration was released last year and won a few international prizes including the Jury prize in Cannes ’98. The King Is Alive (Kristian Levfring), #4, is in postproduction. The French actor Jean-Marc Barr (who played in two Trier movies) directed #5, Lovers. Harmony Korine (Gummo) directed Julien Donkey-Boy, Dogme #6 and Paul Morrissey (look under “Andy Warhol”) will probably direct Dogme #7. Unfortunately, the official site appears to be defunct as of 2009. [↩]