It’s been six years since Dogme 95 nailed its ten-point “Vow of Chastity” to the door of world cinema. Lars von Trier’s gang of four Danish film rebels flung an inkwell at the father of Hollywood lies, calling for an end to auteurist indulgences, corrupt special effects, duplicitous props and sets, backslider’s reshoots and the devil’s tricks with camera and soundtrack. As pious as my Lutheran Grandma Dyveke, they demanded an overnight reformation. And now they’ve finally unveiled the fourth film from the movement, Kristian Levring’s The King Is Alive. Apparently, nothing takes longer than absolute spontaneity.
It took the Dogme-ticians only 150 seconds to devise each of the ten rules of the Vow of Chastity, and from the start they were fully prepared to violate them all. Dogme directors are expected to submit a list of their “sins” in making their films– the parts of the Vow they’ve broken. Yet their playfulness about the creative process is also dead serious. They view their allegiances the way Mary McCarthy was said to regard marriage. They need a worthy ideal to be unfaithful to.
Von Trier remains the high priest of the movement, even though 1998’s The Idiots, his only film made under formal Dogme rules, was by far the worst of the four. An encounter-group-grope movie, whose big nude scene he directed in the nude, The Idiots is completely overshadowed by his great, albeit grandiose, proto-Dogme epic Breaking the Waves, about a simple country girl (Emily Watson) whose crippled husband manipulates her into having sex with thugs who kill her, and the semi-Dogme musical Dancer in the Dark, about a simple country girl (Björk) manipulated by a suicidal man into killing him.
But even when they’re not strictly Dogme-tic, von Trier’s films make the world safe for certain Dogme qualities: a restless, handheld camera; jolting edits; a grainy look; a love of ugliness; an ensemble cast gradually reverting to savagery; a burning urge to live in the moment; and a Sade-esque compulsion to put a stink up God’s nostrils.
Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 The Celebration was the first hit Dogme flick. In place of von Trier’s gathering of orgiasts getting in touch with their inner idiots, Vinterberg stages a family reunion at which the son rebukes the patriarch for raping him and his sister as kids. To me, it was smug, sentimental, bad Bergman pastiche, but the film world ate it up and clamored for more.
What they got was Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s 1999 Mifune, a screwball comedy. To make a genre movie overtly violates the eighth commandment of the Vow–“Genre movies are not acceptable”– but the constraints of spontaneous filmmaking can make Dogmeteurs revert to narratives more generic than Hollywood’s. No problem: Be it ever so sinful, Mifune is humane and fresh where von Trier and Vinterberg are lumbering and sulfurous. It’s a gas–a giddy, romping shaggy-dog tale wherein a Copenhagen businessman revisits his ramshackle family farm in the country, ruled by his beguiling half-wit brother (Jesper Asholt), an aficionado of samurai films and crop-sculpting aliens. Kragh-Jacobsen calmed down the Dogme shaky-cam and made a virtue of available light sources. The film has champagne spirit on a beer budget.
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For my money, Kragh-Jacobsen was the top Dogme dog, but Levring’s The King Is Alive has given me second thoughts. It looks sensational, walks the minimalist tightrope with balletic brio and, like many good things, begins in sin. A closeup of a face on a bus yields to a shot of a bus from above, rolling down a bleak road; this image gives way to a glimpse of coldly remote mountains. Clearly, Dogme-flouting technology was involved–you’re not supposed to use tripods, let alone aerial shots. But Levring honors the spirit of the law: The movie is about the human-scale consequences of confrontation with implacable nature.
At the wheel of the bus is Moses (Vusi Kunene), a gentle black African whose name is a gag–he’s about to get his passengers horrifyingly lost in the desert, because the compass on his dash is busted. Moses pulls the bus into the best Dogme set you ever saw: a tiny ghost town called Kolmanskop. A globe-trotting director of TV commercials, Levring knew just where to find an exceptionally evocative set–crucial when you’re forbidden to construct one to your specifications. It’s an abandoned mining burg in the Kalahari, maintained by the Namibian government as a museum, and so it helpfully contained old-fashioned kerosene lamps, mining tools, weathered furniture and rooms half filled with sand spilling through the open doors, driven by winds hauntingly captured by Levring’s multiple microphones.
Though the Vow is a bit muddled concerning precisely which bits of technology are forbidden, I think those many mikes constitute another sin, illustrating an intriguing contradiction of Dogme. The quest to capture the true moment clashes with its low-tech strictures: You better your odds of nailing spontaneous greatness with more and better technology. In the interview on the DVD of Dancer in the Dark, von Trier says he shot the musical sequences with 100 cameras, but would have preferred 1,000, and looks forward to the day when technology permits 10,000 cameras. Will the Vow be altered to accommodate technology’s inexorable march? Maybe; but the Dogme-ticians won’t lose sleep over their crimes. Sin boldly! That’s the Dogme spirit.
When Moses discovers that Kolmanskop’s gas tanks are all dry, the passengers panic. A take-charge Aussie (Miles Anderson) strides up to the sole human in town, an old African (Peter Kubheka), viewing the proceedings from some mysterious otherworld. What’s he doing there, unthinkable miles from nowhere? Waiting for an ensemble to arrive so he can comment on them in portentous voiceover. (He’s not the most successful character in the film.)
The Aussie passes on the old man’s wisdom: The only food in town is a cache of tinned carrots, some poisonous, and to survive, they must learn to drink dew. “Above all, we stay positive and we keep our spirits up!” (Positive? Doesn’t he know he’s in a Dogme film?) Then he marches into the desert for help. The others are to wait five days for his return, then start picturesquely blackening the sky with burning tires to attract airplanes, because if he’s not back, he’s dead.
A shot of a roomful of sand yields to footsteps in the desert. Efficiently, Levring has placed us with the protagonists in one hell of a Jack London jam.
The tourists know just what to do: They freak out. Guzzle hooch, start arguments and bonfires, jump and jive in the flames and shadows. The prospect of death makes them horny, and very pissed off. Several cordless cameras roamed while the cast went on a wild chase, each to find the depths of his or her own character, none ever certain when on or off camera. It kept them honest. The twenty-minute setups permitted by location shooting and state-of-the-art videocams enabled Levring to get around the no-reshoots rule: He kept rewriting scenes and then shooting them in altered forms, merging rehearsal and performance, until he got pure takes. And who needs makeup (a Dogme no-no), when for six weeks you’ve got the sun to bake faces and whittle away at bodies until they resemble contestants on TV’s Survivor?
What passes between the passengers is not embedded in any structured story, and the emotions don’t make much naturalistic sense. A big woman (Janet McTeer) unhappily married to a bland man (Bruce Davidson) lashes her husband with cat-o-nine-tails insults and tries to provoke Moses in an ugly racial come-on. An angelic party girl (Jennifer Jason Leigh) with excelsior for brains and a Walkman instead of a mental life tries to make nice with an irascible French intellectual (Romane Bohringer), who heaps contempt in French on the uncomprehending kid.
Watching the group get ever more nasty, a grizzled old Brit tourist (David Bradley) murmurs, “Is man no more than this?” He gets the notion to jot down what he can remember of King Lear and get the others to enact it, to pass whatever time they’ve got left. The ragged, fragmentary scenes don’t add up to a play-within-a-play; Shakespeare is just another existing light source under which to study characters. It works better than, say, Gus Van Sant’s hippified Shakespeare in the otherwise exemplary My Own Private Idaho; Levring doesn’t attempt to update the Bard, and he’s not aiming at a large thematic statement or strained parallel. He more modestly uses bits of Lear to spotlight aspects of character. “Howl! Howl! Howl!” spoken by the old Brit dramatizes his grief, the Leigh character’s self-destruction and the death of his own long-lost daughter. The Brit’s half-remembered Lear is, like the mining town, a timeless found ruin occupied by a Dogme 95 fairy tale.
Why does The King Is Alive live, even though it’s so artificial and disconnected? It creatively unleashes the actors while preventing the usual scene-stealing games. The scenes don’t exactly add up, but they are riveting while they last, and the countdown to calamity or rescue provides a sustaining tension in place of a plot. The voluptuous curves and lurid lights of the desert are stunningly photogenic, and the cheap but sophisticated equipment achieves operatic effects. This may be Dogme’s best shot.
But does it really do what the revolutionaries set out to do in 1995? Does it truly “force the truth out of…characters and settings”? No, because there is no single “truth,” and only a narrow zealot would claim to find one. Like all the Dogme films, its real sin is to do what they promise: to “regard the instant as more important than the whole.” Ultimately, and however salubrious its influence on moviedom, Dogme film is a dead end, because in art, the whole is more important than the instant.
But my God, does it have its moments.