Monday, 3 January 2011

Retrospective: "Festen" and other creations of Dogme 95

 “Was it a new style? Was it a joke?” asks Birger Langjaer in his article “What was Dogme 95?”, “Was it a new movement, a turning point for Danish cinema and a lesson to learn for European cinemas? Or was it all or neither of these things?” Dogme 95 was a cinematic manifesto created in 1995 by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg that demanded a completely new perspective on the cinematic spectrum, challenging the established conventions and looking for new ways of expression. The manifesto demanded from the collaborating directors submitting to the Vow of Chastity – ten dogmatic rules by which films were meant to be made in order to restore the transparency of filmmaking. The search for ‘purity’ emerged as the key point of the manifesto. According to Trier and Vinterberg the cinema has died and a very radical change was needed to resuscitate the experience. Following this logic films should not be considered as pieces of work and a name of director should be removed from the credits completely as he is no longer an artist. Films should serve only one purpose:  to portray the characters truthfully and make the audience involved with the characters’ lives.  

The restrictions of Dogme 95 outlined in its ten rules under the Vow of Chastity are a set of aesthetic canon that determine a certain style, that is, a return to an unsophisticated form of film art or a kind of reverse aesthetic. The ten rules are thought to be a guideline of how the films should be made rather than tell the creators how they should look. The restrictions of form were meant to embrace the freedom of story development as the manifesto very clearly tackled not the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ of the production. Dogme 95 very plainly stated its status as a response to the wrong-doings of the Hollywood mainstream cinema and the bourgeoisie avant-garde of the French New Wave.

Throughout the cinema history European and Hollywood cinemas grew apart and are seen up to this day as separate things. According to Bordwell the distinction between two cinemas emerges from the difference between classical narration and art cinema narration. Most critics see Dogme 95 as an art house cinema and there is some truth to it. But European cinema, in general, is much more than only art cinema. According to Langjaer “European cinema can be considered as consisting of three major forms or modes of film-making: genre movies, art cinema and realism.”

A genre movie in its narrative form is often described in terms of classical Hollywood cinema. Its main characteristic is a well established protagonist who strives to accomplish a certain goal – solving a case (crime), finding love (romance) or confronting a killer (thriller). The main character overcomes all obstacles and answers the main questions presented in the story. A genre movie through its narrative devices provides some sense of closure.  To contrast with this Hollywood model, we find the European art cinema. It is characterised by more complex and ambiguous characters often in search of a goal. The casualty between situation and action often becomes internalised as to make the drama psychological or more existential. Protagonists try to deal with problems without any clear-cut action in the outer world to solve it and this often leads to open endings. Realism is a mainstream film practice in European cinema which after 1960’s switched from portraying social problems and focused on personal and inner observations. It has the accessibility of the genre film but favours characterisation of persons, places and conflict over action which often leads to endings in between classical closure and art cinema indeterminacy.

The diversity of style, genre and narrative are all present in Dogme and merge into a hybrid of a convention of itself. Many critics often talk about Dogme as a stylistic feature and the so-called ‘Dogme-style’ refers to nothing else but the crossbreed of established forms and conventions. The manifesto tries to purposefully deviate from the traditional norms of Hollywood filmmaking.  The Decalogue forbids any ‘superficial action’ (no murders or guns may be involved) or clarifying a specific genre. It calls for ambiguity within the aesthetical set of norms listed in the Vows of Chastity. It calls for merging different forms of film-making together and as shown by the following example, the Thomas Vinterberg’s film Festen, the manifesto is very successful in achieving its goals.

As argued by Palle Schnatz Laurdisen, Festen combines a classical narrative with an innovative style. If so, where does it leave the style of the film? Is the style an additional feature of the film, making it look like an art cinema when it isn’t so? The opening scenes present the aesthetical landscape that thrives throughout the film: the shots are moving and shaky, the light changes during cuts and the 180 degree rule virtually doesn’t exist as the cuts go through a random selection of angles and points of view. But there is more to Festen than just the dynamic of its editing. As the film focuses on the characters it plays with different conventions and styles, adding layers upon layers to already rich portfolio of ideas. Every main character presented in the film carries their own storyline followed by a different set of aesthetical choices. There is the old-fashioned naturalism in the story of Christian, a suspenseful detective and ghost story when presenting Helene and social comedy with Michael. These changes in genre on a scene-by-scene level go hand in hand with changes in style on a scene-by-scene level. Thus, the style appears to be both varied and highly motivated in relation to genre and story-content.

Yet what is the significance of Dogme 95 in European tradition of film-making? As mentioned before, the manifesto not only challenged the Hollywood dominance in the European market but also questioned the significance of such important movements as the French New Wave. The declaration of the manifesto states that “DOGMA 95 has the expressed goal of countering “certain tendencies” in the cinema today”. The ‘certain tendencies’ referring of course to François Truffaut’s very own manifesto called “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” which was the foundation of the auteur cinema treating about the importance of the film director as the author. Having in consideration that the auteur cinema constitutes the signature tendency of the post-war European cinema, it can be argued that at large the cinema d’auteur is what we nowadays recognise as European cinema. The audacity in which Trier and Vinterberg refuse adopting the auteur theory in constructing their manifesto is most certainly astonishing. Not only the manifesto aims at the Hollywood domination in European cinema but renders itself as a completely separate form from what was considered European up to this date.  Yvonne Tasker calls it a “formal and thematic provocation” and righteously so
. ‘Provocation’ is the key word describing not only the Dogme manifesto but the filmography of the main force behind the Vow of Chastity – Lars von Trier.  The director made his career on reinventing and rediscovering different concepts of filmmaking and storytelling and very possibly the masterful use of provocation is his greatest legacy.

Trier and Vinterberg embrace the pop culture and take full advantage of the opportunity the digital media gives them – to get closer to another person than it was ever done before. The size of a digital camera secures mobility and accessibility justifying the manifesto’s declaration of the hand-held shooting style, use on the set sound only and forbidding any geographical and temporal alienation. Dogme 95 is meant to be fresh and contemporary and in the historical context of European cinema, playful with conventions and refreshing.  Dogme 95 is mostly viewed as an artistic movement and its artistic values are the most significant in the context of European cinema.

Just by looking at some of the Dogme films, e.g. Festen, The Idiots, The King Is Alive and Truly Human, realising their artistic aspects becomes very obvious. All of these films conceive of art narration in very different ways; Festen is a playful display of a pre-modernist form, the theatre of naturalism including more symbolic elements. The Idiots is most certainly closer to avant-garde cinema than art cinema but in certain aspects it remains within the artistic borders. The King Is Alive is the only full-blooded art film that strives for ambiguity and symbolism and does so by excessive stylistic means. And Truly Human has a non-naturalistic premise (the fantastic) that makes it an allegorical tale in contemporary and otherwise realistic setting. Besides shared set of aesthetics dictated by the manifesto all of the above films in some respect rely on the tradition of realism. Realism is sort of a middle field, a balancing point that combines the felt deepness of the art cinema with the accessibility of the genre film. One might say that many of the Dogme films revitalise the tradition of realism.  

In the opening paragraph Birger Langjaer refers to Dogme 95 in past tense and does so for a reason. As provocative and powerful as it might seem, Dogme was rather short-lived. All of the directors that were involved with the manifesto turned their backs on the Vows of Chastity after a while and switched to more conventional ways of filmmaking. Trier after directing his Dogme-style musical Dancer in the Dark ended his romance with the digital camera and began shooting his Brecht-inspired theatre on the big screen with Dogville being the first instalment of his U.S.A. Trilogy. Vinterberg abandoned cinema altogether and focused on some smaller TV productions. The manifesto died but its legacy lives on. It provided platform for many European countries to produce a piece of cinematography that did not require a huge budget but was just as satisfying as any other European film. As to challenging the tendencies brought by the Hollywood conventional narrative, Dogme justified the oddity of avant-garde in a completely new dimension. But most of all showed what it takes to make a film.   

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