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Tired of the complexity and artificiality of making films (even so-called low-budget artsy ones), Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg composed the Dogme 95 manifesto, decrying what they hated most about today's standards. The two spent a whole half-hour creating a cinematic Vow of Chastity, a list of 10 commandments banning Hollywood techniques and egotism while promoting raw honesty. Stripped to its low-budget essentials, Dogme films were to focus on story and acting. Von Trier and Vinterberg enlisted two other Danish directors to take this vow, and a brotherhood was formed, open to those willing to pledge allegiance.
To adhere to the guidelines and get a spiffy certificate (which is shown at the beginning of authorized films, to some snickers), feature-length films must be shot in the here and now, on location, using only immediately available props, sets and sounds (no studio sound production). Genre films are not acceptable, and superficial action (murders, weapons, etc.) must not occur. A hand-held, color, digital camera is to be used only with natural light and without optical work and filters. The video is then to be transferred to 35 mm film. And the director should refrain from using his or her personal taste in creating a "work" and must not be credited. The supreme goal is to force the truth out of characters and settings—even at the expense of good taste and aesthetic considerations.
Because these vows are almost impossible to adhere to completely, directors must confess any transgressions. One of the first converts, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, admits in Mifune "to helping to chase the neighbor's free-range hens across [the] location and including them in the film." This tongue-in-cheek confession is characteristic of the rebellious manifesto, which playfully uses the language of Christianity and tops it off with a big, all-seeing eye peering out from a pig's butt as the group's symbol. The same goes for the story lines; humor arises from dramatic, messed-up situations.
For its Dogme 95: The Emergence of a New Genre fall series, the UCI Film Society presents von Trier's Dancer in the Dark(Friday), Vinterberg's Celebration(Oct. 12), Harmony Korine's julien donkey-boy (Oct. 19) and Kragh-Jacobsen's Mifune(Oct. 26). All but one are certified releases—Dancer in the Dark was made as a kind of anti-manifesto.
The films reveal what seems an unwritten vow: characters must have a severe handicap (editor's choice of physical, mental or both), said characters operate in the zero-gravity of amorality, and authority figures are toppled or nonexistent (fathers, for example, are dead or might as well be, considering how they've screwed up their kids).
An upper-middle-class Danish patriarch is overthrown in the first Dogme-approved film, Celebration. Friends and family gather for Helge Klingelfeldt's lavish 60th-birthday festivities. One of his sons, Christian (a compelling Ulrich Thomsen), arrives not to venerate but to expose his father (played by Henning Moritzen, who maintains his character's dignity until the end) and the years of abuse he and his twin sister endured. Featuring an ensemble cast of the highest order, the dramatic yet funny work follows the serial revelations of ugly family secrets and hopes to uncover why Christian's twin committed suicide. The 1998 film became a cult favorite, playing to an audience of returning moviegoers for several months at Laemmle's Sunset in West Hollywood.
A tyrannical father is also at the center of julien donkey-boy. Written and directed by Korine, the man who created the twisted world of Gummo, it is the first American—as well as non-Danish—Dogme movie. It's also the series' most pretentious screening, and you can't help thinking Korine neglected one of the manifesto's main rules when he forgot to check his ego at the door. Ewen Bremner (Spud in Trainspotting) throws himself into the character of Julien, a schizophrenic who lives with his family, including his heavy-handed, gas-mask-addicted father (Werner Herzog) and his pregnant sister, Pearl (Chloë Sevigny, with frizzled hair à la Laraine Newman). There are some truly warped situations and characters here, including a black man who sings refrain after refrain about how he's an albino from Alabama. To put it delicately, this is one fucked-up film.
In Mifune (Dogme No. 3), Kresten (Anders W. Berthelsen) finds out on his wedding night that his father has died after having lied about his past. Kresten leaves without much explanation to handle his father's run-down farm and care for his retarded older brother, Rud (Jesper Asholt). He hires a housekeeper (Iben Hjejle, who played John Cusack's girlfriend in the highly overrated High Fidelity), who is, unbeknownst to him, a prostitute trying to leave her past behind. Some wacky and serious moments ensue as both try to hide their backgrounds in this average offering.
Von Trier's Dogme film The Idiotsis not screening at UCI, perhaps because its premiere met with wildly mixed reviews. It's easy to see why: its portrayal of a bunch of somewhat disturbed misfits who try to get in touch with their "inner idiots" by running around town acting retarded isn't for everyone. The film struggled to find distribution, and the infamous orgy scene—featuring full penetration—didn't help. It was slated to open at one of Edwards Cinemas' art houses but was canceled before making it to OC.
These factors may also have prevented the UCI Film Society from screening it. Instead, to open the series, they are presenting Dancer in the Dark, which served as von Trier's opportunity to thumb his nose at Dogme conventions. Always the prankster, von Trier long ago added the "von" to his last name just to make it sound more interesting, and there's logic in his decision to diss an anti-genre that was already experiencing a backlash. So not only is Dancer in the Dark set in rural 1960s America yet shot mainly in Sweden (that's two vows broken), but it's also a musical (ding) supposedly shot with 100 cameras (ding), and the film's score was recorded in a studio (ding). So much sin.
Icelandic pop elf Björk does a surprisingly adept acting job in what is probably her first and last such appearance (she swore off acting after the emotional turmoil she went through in the role, which won her the 2000 Cannes Film Festival's Best Actress award) as Selma. She's an Eastern European factory worker/single mom who is going blind and suspects her son has inherited the same genetic disorder. She secretly saves money to buy her son an operation, but her broke next-door neighbor discovers this, and the film takes a tragic turn—one that might have been prevented. But she's too caught up in her fantasy musical world to register this fact, and besides, von Trier has some fixation with female martyrs (Bess in Breaking the Waves), so the possibility of Selma telling anyone the truth behind her inaction seems beyond the film's logic. This is one of those productions that people either praise as a fine update to the stale musical genre (it won the esteemed Palme d'Or at Cannes) or find downright irritating. In this, the film is unquestionably Dogmetic.
Dancer in the Dark screens as the first presentation of UC Irvine Film Society's Dogme 95: The Emergence of a New Genre series at UCI Student Center, Crystal Cove Auditorium, Campus & W. Peltason drives, Irvine, (949) 824-5588; www.filmsociety.uci.edu. Fri., 7 & 9 p.m. $3-$5.
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