Four years after the Dogma 95 ‘movement’ launched a challenge to the sins of Hollywood, it is now becoming the subject of a couple of books from the BFI publishing arm. The Idiots is the first one, and it is followed by a more comphrehensive collection of essays on Dogma 95 called Purity and Provocation (look out for a kamera review soon).
The Idiots was the film that laid down the commandments of the Dogma manifesto, led by Danish director Lars Von Trier and Festen’s director Thomas Vintenberg, and even though the reservations about the sincerity, or the actual genius of this much hyped hybrid of film avant-garde pamphletism/publicity coup/collective therapy coming from Denmark are valid, it nonetheless deserves literary attention on the strength of the reaction it caused and the actual films with which it became associated.
Penned by the New York Times’ cultural correspondent John Rockwell, it concentrates on Von Trier’s contribution to the slew of films that became known as the Dogma films, which also include Mifune and non-Danish contributions such as the Argentinian Fuckland and Harmony Korine’s maligned Julien Donkey Boy, the latter something of a graft on the Dogma tree.
As with most BFI Classics items, this book gives plenty of details about the director, with a good deal of subjective insights from its author. Rockwell has met Von Trier and draws on this encounter to provide some good observational comments. It starts out with an almost blow-by-blow account of the film, virtually a script breakdown, which can be rather tedious to read, but nonetheless a useful feature to help bring back the scenes in the viewer’s mind. This section is illustrated with a generous number of stills
whose pixellated quality and documentary feel conjure up the pathos and poetic awkwardness of this rather unique film.
The following chapter is called Dogma Essence, and Rockwell hits the nail on the head straight off when he discards the ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric of the movement by calling it a ‘self-conscious’ sham. ‘The Dogma brotherhood had no intention of abolishing film-as-we-know-it’, he says, nor were they pioneers in contrasting ‘Hollywood gigantism and European low-budget’. By the same token, they did not start any ‘video revolution’ as the medium entered its methodology ‘almost by accident. However, he claims, ‘the idea of pruning the dead wood and excess, of calling upon film-maker…to strip away spectacle and technical frippery and concentrate on character and raw image – that was salutary.’
In other words, Dogma magnified a message that encapsulated no new idea in particular, opting rather for a rehash of a discourse that, ironically or not, helped democratise film in a way that is not dissimilar to what had already happened in the music scene.
The next chapter is called Tears, and here the book leaves Dogma aside for a while to concentrate on Lars von Trier, his obsessions with water, and his work method with actors – a somewhat seamless section of the book that extends into the subsequent chapter, The Artist and His Models. An appendix with a verbatim reproduction of the Dogma Manifesto closes the book, an enjoyable companion to one of the films that has a guaranteed place as one of the landmark works of 1990s European cinema.