As Told in Nine Chapters
by Eric Hynes
Dir. Lars von Trier, Denmark, IFC Films
In which Lars von Trier prepares a heady postmodernist stew for easily sated art film lovers
The second part of a planned â€śAmerican trilogy,â€ť Manderlay revisits the spare soundstage set-up of Dogville, albeit with new chalk lines and a different cast. Dogvilleâ€™s Colorado mining town is replaced by a plantation in Alabama, and Bryce Dallas Howard replaces Nicole Kidman as Grace, the idealistic spawn of cartoon gangsters. When shot from above, the set is a two-dimensional map come alive, with cars crossing thick black borders and bodies congregating in textually demarcated spaces. When shot from eye-level, the set becomes a stage. Either way, the film is upfront about its artificiality. But foregrounding artifice doesnâ€™t necessarily imply honesty. The artificial elements strategically ally Manderlay with literary and theatrical forebears, creating an initial layer of referential distance from its subjects, and garnering some immediate respect and good will from audiences sharp, educated, and self-satisfied enough to find such shallow evocations pleasurable. Weâ€™re meant to think of Brecht, of Thornton Wilder, of Arthur Miller and Samuel Beckett, of A.A. Milneâ€™s maps for the House on Pooh Corner, of art experimental and allegorically political. This leads to film reviews with leads littered with heady adjectival attribution like â€śBrechtianâ€ť and â€śtheatricalâ€ť that will catch the attention of readers who prefer when art foregrounds its intellectual pedigree. To boot, von Trier injects his evocative set with a dependable dose of self-reflexive sarcasm, which fosters a satisfying superiority over those invariably more sincere source texts. Politically diffuse, historically spotty, and too self-satisfied to have sympathy for any belief, cause, idea, orâ€”God forbidâ€”character, von Trier achieves gravity by acting as a time-traveling dilettante, dipping into slavery, the Jim Crow south, American idealism, modernity, postwar allegory, race anthropology, present-day Iraq, â€śBenito Cereno,â€ť` Planet of the Apes, and M. Night Shyamalanâ€™s The Village before revisiting Calvinism, blowing kisses to Marxism, and returning home to a distinctly 19th-century European understanding of humanity, all delivered with the thundering power of collegially entitled existentialism. Needless to say, none of it would von Trier ever truly get behind. None of it but the impenetrable shield of postmodernism that grants him protection from justification and moral inquiry.
In which Grace represents America, liberalism, colonialism, hypocrisy, and jungle fever
Grace has changed. In Dogville, she was a lot like the heroines of von Trierâ€™s â€śGolden Heartâ€ť trilogy (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, The Idiots): mild-mannered, a bit dim, forgiving, and subject to physical and emotional rape. She was also a chameleon who was less than forthcoming about her past. When Dogville finally fully reveals itself as a tarted and smarted up I Spit on Your Grave, Graceâ€™s optimism becomes self-righteousness, and her forgiving nature is overtaken by vindictiveness. The Grace in Manderlay does exhibit vindictiveness and self-righteousness, but without a shred of the cynicism that informed her vengeful turn in Dogville. This Grace is an unfiltered idealist. Sheâ€™s strong-willed, smart, painfully transparent, take-charge, and talkative. Graceâ€™s fluid personality likely serves some half-baked notion about human character being fundamentally weak, but more importantly itâ€™s convenient for saddling her with whatever idea or behavior von Trier wants to pummel into submission. Grace is a paper doll that von Trier dresses in representational garb. Needless to say, he also strips her of said garb and fucks her with oppositional representations, figuratively and literally. Howardâ€™s Grace alternates between various concepts, systems, and objects, oftentimes clanging against another. Her outermost garment is America itself, most evident when she lectures on democracy and advocates freedom with a missionaryâ€™s zeal. But showing through, from the very beginning, is an advocacy and sympathetic engagement that is clearly liberal. This liberality, of a stereotypically northeastern privileged variety, doesnâ€™t jive with the concurrent neoconservative American garb that garbles on about the universality of Freedom with a capital F ... but oh well. I think Lars expects credit just for parroting familiar sound bites, regardless of his sloppy decontextualization. How else could he get away with such a straw (wo)man, who takes on whatever he or his discerning audience finds scornful, regardless of ideological or historical incompatibility. But I forgot: itâ€™s postmodern deconstructionism and those rules donâ€™t apply. And since von Trier hasnâ€™t been to America, and Iâ€™m not allowed (or itâ€™s too boring or familiar or easy) to address this problem, I canâ€™t expect accuracy or rigor in regards to the discussion of America because this is all about the perception of America. Oh, yes. So you see, Grace talks out of both sides of her mouth...like the world sees America. And Grace acts like sheâ€™s going to help the world, when sheâ€™s really taking it over! And Grace is a raging hypocrite, like you know who (well, also like myself and anyone Iâ€™ve ever met, but never mind). Furthermore, she talks all fancy and cultured-like, but she really just wants to get laid. By a black man, of course. Those uptight American cunts.
In which the democratic process is roundly mocked
When I first saw Manderlay at the Moscow International Film Festival in June of this year, the otherwise bored, cellphone-preoccupied audience perked up whenever two themes were broached: democracy and black male genitalia. More on the latter later, but I found the audience response to von Trierâ€™s jabs at democracy illuminating, if troubling. After Grace happens upon Manderlay, a slave plantation functioning 70 years after abolition, she decides to wrest control from a dying matriarch and usher the slaves to freedom. One of her first tasks is to gather the former slaves around a table and teach them democracy. She says something about representation but glides ahead to the easier concept of ballots and majority rule. After voting on the rightful owner of a rake â€” which is actually a judicial endeavor â€” the former slaves then vote on whether a young manâ€™s loud laughing should be curtailed. They decide that he must stop laughing at sundown. To which he says, â€śThatâ€™s democracy.â€ť (Cue whooping and applause.) Except, of course, itâ€™s not. Sure, there are more direct-ballot initiatives in the U.S. these days, and Republicans are pretty hung up on what people do in the privacy of their own homes, but this pot shot doesnâ€™t come close to addressing these problems. It just identifies democracy as an absurd, wrong-headed enterprise. Nowhere on planet earth does such a democracy exist. The ex-slaves donâ€™t form a congress or parliament or judiciary, they donâ€™t form oppositional parties or establish rights. They vote on the time of day. Hee-haw. Pauly Shore had more sophisticated procedural punchlines in Jury Duty. And the Moscow crowd roared with approvalâ€”this from a crowd of people with one of the worst pseudo-democratic governments in the world. I couldnâ€™t blame anyone in the audience for being discouraged by the democratic turn their country had taken, nor could I blame them for cathartically taking von Trierâ€™s bait. Itâ€™s just that von Trierâ€™s thinly veiled swipe at Americaâ€™s democratizing ambitions in the Middle East â€” ambitions that have been concurrent with some problematic domestic electionsâ€”is so broad that it strikes at the concept of democracy itself. Though von Trier neednâ€™t volunteer a better solution (hermetic, sour, socialist-leaning Europeans with successful careers usually donâ€™t take that next step, especially when theyâ€™re conveniently misanthropic), itâ€™s curious to suggest that participatory government is a sham, particularly in relation to a community of recently enslaved people. Could it be that these dark-skinned people arenâ€™t ready for participatory government? Of course von Trier merely enjoys the scandal of suggestion, and of deriving laughs from a line like, â€śLiving proof of the devastating power of oppression.â€ť Bada-bum. In Russia, thinking of democracy as a sham may be understandable considering recent events, but it misidentifies the problem. An actual, working democracy is whatâ€™s needed. But making that argument requires greater thought than ainâ€™t that democracy bullshit. The cost of tossing aside democracy is greater than von Trier could ever imagine, and it opens the door for more de facto totalitarianism. But thatâ€™s what weâ€™ve got in America these days, right? Uh, no. Things are bad. Things donâ€™t look good. But weâ€™ve still got a process. We donâ€™t actually vote on the time of day. And journalists arenâ€™t executed for asking uncomfortable questions. Yet holding back in any way from doomsday discourse seems tantamount to supporting the Bush administration. Which robs me of the power to make distinctions, to take a foreign leader to task for policies that canâ€™t always be blamed on America, to believe in democracy and hope that disenfranchised people abroad are one day given a say in how they are governed at the same time that I call for reform and full, transparent enfranchisement at home. Lars von Trier knows this. And he knows that left-leaners the world over are currently pavlovian in their frustration with America and supposed American idealism. Which is why, even when I saw Manderlay again at the New York Film Festival, the same silly jokes were met with reflexive laughter.
In which â€śideasâ€ť are explored
Though difficult to love, and never without sheepish caveats like â€śHeâ€™s probably a misogynist/racist/charlatan/contrarian, but...â€ť von Trier gets near-blanket respect in the â€śideasâ€ť department. This department is a critical repository for filmic evidence that a filmmaker had at one time or another attended school, read a book, or watched Charlie Rose. It gives props for everything from Contempt to Clerks. So vague is the criterion for admission that no consideration is made of the quality or of the artistic expression of said ideas. In the case of a dilettante like von Trier, idea execution is the equivalent of throwing shit against his heroine to see what sticks. A sampling from Manderlay, without caveat and dutifully without consideration of quality or originality:
Maybe African-Americans were better off as slaves.
Maybe thereâ€™s wisdom in controlling societies according to race and personality type.
Black men have big penises.
White women desire black men with big penises.
America has a race problem.
Democracy is just plain silly.
Some people are just plum dumb.
Freedom is relative.
Thereâ€™s something to be said for living in cages.
Two thugs for a Jewish lawyer is a good trade.
People are hypocrites.
American liberal women are hypocrites.
America is self-righteous.
Starting a society from scratch is hard.
Never vote on the time of day.
Look before you leap.
Book smarts may not help you in the real (Danish sound studio) world.
America is a unified entity about which sweeping statements can be made in order to conclude a film with a fuck-you flourish.
In which Grace learns to stops worrying and love a big black buck
Graceâ€™s gansterinâ€™ father, played here by Willem Dafoe, opens the film with a blue rant about talky women. â€śHowever much they go on and on about democracy,â€ť he says. â€śSexy it ainâ€™t.â€ť What follows is 130-odd minutes of Grace going on and on about democracy. When democracy proves too complicated and her own pent-up desire gets the better of her, our porcelain-skinned, red-headed heroine dreams about getting gang-raped by Moors. Soon thereafter she gets violently fucked by a â€śproudie niggerâ€ť named Timothy (Isaach De BankolĂ©). The voice over observes, â€śGrace seemed to have left her progressive attitude at the table.â€ť Alas, her desire for Timothy blinded her to his deceitfulness (you see, he was really just a â€ścrafty niggerâ€ť) and, played for the fool, she whips him with decidedly undemocratic abandon. Dad shows up to see this and declares that all is well. Sexy, apparently, it is. End of film.
In which lovers of film do cartwheels to abdicate Lars of all charges
Forget anti-Americanism. Forget von Trierâ€™s exoticization of black men. Letâ€™s talk about women. Iâ€™m always surprised by how little is written about this. There were hard charges after Dancer in the Dark mirrored Breaking the Wavesâ€™ sacrificial-lamb structure, but von Trier waved them away as ludicrous. After all, it was his love for women (particularly his dear mother) that inspired these stories of innate goodness and unjust suffering. To be fair, most pieces on von Trier still mention the dubiousness of his female characters, and misogyny is sometimes suggested, but only in passing, as if fulfilling an ethical requirement rather engaging with the problem. My guess is that von Trierâ€™s misogyny is too obvious to engage with. Writers want to explore hidden or dormant aspects of film, and they aim to see what no one else seems to see, not whatâ€™s shining in plain view. I understandâ€”I aim for the same thing. But in the case of von Trier, searching off-center effectively lets him off the hook. A recent argument Iâ€™ve heard is that von Trierâ€™s two recent films are harder to pin down than the â€śGolden Heartâ€ť films, which were, yes, probably misogynistic. Aye, probably, considering all three Golden heart heroines were so pure, good, mentally disabled, and forgiving of men who raped/pimped/framed/emotionally tortured/forsook/abused them that justice was never a concern, and only through their own suffering and death could they redeem the sins of their men and of humanity in general, amen. I see no recent departure. Strip away the artificiality and referentiality (see Part 1), pay attention to the direction in which â€śideasâ€ť (see Part 4) and sophomoric mockery of political systems (see Part 3) is haphazardly sprayed, and what youâ€™ve got is an impressively focused beat down of women. I donâ€™t find anything profound about the Death Wish ending of Dogville, particularly because Graceâ€™s turn to vengeance isnâ€™t plausible. Her turn happens instantly (thanks to encouragement from daddy) despite three hours of unprotested degradation. And no amount of revenge cancels out the greater implausibility, inhumanity, and sadism of watching Grace get raped by every man in town, scorned as a whore by every woman, enslaved first metaphorically and then literally, and finally betrayed by the man she loves. An impressive accomplishment, even at three hours. Yet her turn, and the fact that she was a bit of a dishonest schemer all along, is supposed to counteract all this? Screen-time says a lot. In this case, screen-time dominated by the degradation of a woman too kind and dependent to defend herself. Until she does. Which makes for an effective and perhaps cathartic shock conclusion, but redeems Grace not at all. All this, and Grace isnâ€™t even given the dignity of true characterization. This is, after all, an allegory. So sheâ€™s not really a woman called Grace. Sheâ€™s not even really a woman. Sheâ€™s a flogged dog. Furthermore, sheâ€™s played by Nicole Kidman, whose attractiveness and unobtainability makes her degradation sadistically sweeter for one and all. In the end, though the residents of Dogville pay dearly for their crimes, I donâ€™t have to pay anything for getting to see Kidman pretty tied up. Neither does von Trier. In Manderlay, Grace isnâ€™t as physically punished as she is in Dogville. With a brand new personality and much younger body, she also doesnâ€™t seem to remember any of the indignities that she once suffered. Sheâ€™s a clean slate. Von Trier proceeds to chalk her slate with fresh attributes that represent all that Manderlay hopes to skewer. Every scene in the film, every punchline, every shot, is meant to make Grace look bad. The lambasting is relentless. Beneath every line of dialogue is an implied â€śstupid white girl.â€ť I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ve ever seen a film this committed to mocking a single character. Even Dumb and Dumber considers its morons lovable. But unlike the â€śGolden Heartâ€ť girls, Grace is no dummy. Sheâ€™s a smart cookie, a â€śtough cookie,â€ť as one character mockingly calls her. Rather than a sexed-up saint, a saint who wants to spread love in a world of debased sex, sheâ€™s a saint who thinks sheâ€™s spreading love when all she really wants is sex. A type, an amalgam of tired literary themes. A pin cushion for pet peeves. At least Thomas Hardy put flesh on those bones. At least Thomas Hardy had the 19th century as an excuse.
In which Lars thinks that weâ€™re all dogs, caged birds, and really stupid
Iâ€™m afraid I havenâ€™t given von Trier enough credit. One thing he does extremely well is build narrative tension and, after a tantalizing, tortuous delay, relieve that tension with an internally resolved bang. He never fails on this front. If I didnâ€™t find his texts so morally repugnant, I might actually enjoy his storytelling. But not only are form and content conjoined (or even, so the Susan Sontag argument goes, one and the same), von Trier quite naturally delivers content through formal persuasion. This gets sticky when the gist of contentâ€”the moral of a certain storyâ€”is that humans are dogs. To achieve this, he creates characters that seem nice and normal but ultimately behave brutally. They try to be civilized, but their real doggy nature barks right through. So after dramatizing this misery, and as Dogville draws to a close, he whips out the dog metaphor to prove his thesis. And really, after all that, how can we disagree? For starters, we can refuse to buy into the loaded characterizations. We can cry foul when characters behave in ways unconvincing of reality but rather convincing of a film-specific morality that suggests that people are strictly selfish and bad to other people. Though his screenplays always stack the deck this way, pitting a community of people against a helpless woman, Iâ€™m not convinced itâ€™s evidence of a genuinely bleak view of humanity. It might well be, but I find von Trier so untrustworthy that any conclusions he draws are suspect. No, Iâ€™m more inclined to think his stacked-deck stories are evidence of a writer who really likes to be in control. Not uncommon for a writer, but some are less comfortable with multiple viewpoints than others. In Dogville, citizens begin with different outlooks and personalities before becoming a mob. In Manderlay, the ex-slaves seem different from one anotherâ€”if all fulfilling typesâ€”and Grace is even humiliated for not being able to tell them apart. But in the end, they all prefer the safety of enslavement to the dangers of freedom. The joke on Grace is that her morality teaches her to think of people â€” even people of another race with whom she has had limited interactionâ€”as individuals deserving of respect, only to discover that these people donâ€™t particularly want her respectâ€”because sheâ€™s white, because, as she says â€śwe made them,â€ť because her generosity is deemed self-serving, because things are just bad and nothing can be done. To hammer home this wisdom, not only is Graceâ€™s overall liberal morality worthy of punishment, but each and every expression of this morality is also mocked. Having it any other way would complicate von Trierâ€™s simple set-up. More so than Dogville, Manderlay is an endgame. But rather than one in which two competing and equal forces come to a stalemate, this Grace is a force that simply needs to give up. Von Trier is pitching himself nothing but fastballs and hitting them all over the fence. Home runs are nice to watch, but controlling the pitches does cheapen them a bit. Especially if you then call those pitches America.
In which Lars violates his own silly logic, flogs America, hates you, wants your thunderous applause, sits on his own thumb while David Bowieâ€™s â€śYoung Americansâ€ť plays, and the examination ends
Manderlay ends like Dogville, with an impenetrably pithy remark from John Hurtâ€™s sardonic narrator, followed by a photo-montage credit sequence set to â€śYoung Americans.â€ť Similar to Dogvilleâ€™s images of assorted impoverished American citizens, Manderlayâ€™s photos of African-Americans being enslaved, lynched, hosed, imprisoned, neglected, and mistreated, have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH THE FILM YOU HAVE JUST WATCHED. Nothing. Just as Dogville had nothing to say about poverty in America, there is nothing of historical or intellectual import to be gleaned from Manderlay, nothing about race or oppression or white guilt or political reform, nothing save for a few one-liners that lead nowhere. But it all says a lot about Lars von Trier. I bet he thinks the song is about him.