Taking an American filmmaker post 1968 and discussing him/her and their work as an auteur in the spirit of Andrew Sarris' "The American Cinema" is no small task. In fact as I sat down to decide what to write about I got a bit overwhelmed and a bit sad in the realization that most of the cinema I love post 1968 isn't unnecessarily from this country. And the cinema that is, that of Jim Jarmusch, John Cassavettes, Martin Scorsese, etc.., is not cinema I am comfortable (outside of my own viewing of it) writing about.
Luckily, I decided to read Cinema Scope's interview with Lance Hammer (director of Ballast) in which he mentions Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves and Dogme in general as an influence on his fine first feature. I've always been a fan of Von Trier, and even though "Lars von Trier" is not a name one might think of immediately when asked to consider the directors of American cinema but in a sense I can't think of a more appropriate context for Von Trier than American cinema. As he said in an interview at Cannes Film Festival 2005:
America is sitting on our world. I am making films that have to do with America [because] 60% of my life is America. So I am in fact an American, but I can't go there to vote, I can't change anything. I am an American, so that is why I make films about America.
And after all, the von in his name is supposedly influenced from Erich von Stroheim.
The following is much less formal and comprehensive than I would have liked but should serve as a jumping off point(and hopefully for me to put together a better piece) for a discussion of von Trier and the "fringe benefits" he has bestowed upon American Cinema. I've included his filmography at the bottom, beginning with Breaking the Waves, as his “Golden Heart Trilogy”is a good starting place for considering Von Trier in this context, as it marks his stylistic shift towards Dogme and inklings of a fascination with America.
Breaking the Waves : A much needed contrast to Hollywood love stories. The beginning of Dogma aesthetics. A disarming critique of intolerance. A pumped up take on the American melodrama, von Trier does more than work for you tears, he commands that you cry.
Idioterne : His Dogme film - Dogme itself being a response to the overproduced, stale films of America's Hollywood System. Therefore the goal of Dogme is to purify cinema through the purging of special effects, post production changes, altering light and sound while shooting and other things that are gimmicky and distract from story.
Dancer in the Dark : Like Breaking the Waves, this film is a "sadomasochistic celebration of female suffering." Brings into light the ability of digital video (supposedly shot with over 100 cameras). Also a tale of American greed and perhaps a statement on our judicial system and immigration. Looks to American musicals and their influence as well.
Dogville : Here von Trier is back again as a provocateur. He takes us this time to a stage with actors that represents a Rocky Mountain Community. Through the two faced nature of the towns people and the persecution and martyrdom of an innocent young woman we learn the true nature of American human community. A Brechtian deconstruction of "Our Town, the film worked for many and for others was simply a hateful prank.
Manderlay : Picks up where the anti-American Dogville left off (just with different actors). The main lady and her gangster father drive the Depression-era U.S and end up on an Alabama plantation where blacks are still held as slaves. She works to free the slaves and becomes a "Great White Mother" delivering democracy. Von Trier's critique of America might not hold up as well as with Dogville, but on first viewing is pretty powerful.
Often it is hard to tell whether Lars von Trier's critiques (especially his portrayal and treatment of women) offer true criticism or are just an act of exploitation (both make him relevant in the world of cinema here in the US - I think)
Jonathan Rosenbaum has always been critical of von Trier (and his Dogme pals) and thinks his intentions clearly lean one way, as he writes in his review of Thomas Vinterberg's Dear Wendy:
I'm amused that von Trier managed to snooker the American press with his Dogma 95 manifesto, whose professed aim was to get back to the basics of realism. I'm equally amused that so many of my colleagues routinely overlook his company's production of porn through its Puzzy Power branch. My interest is less moralistic than aesthetic: his supposedly more serious work has the same aesthetic limitations as porn. The protracted shoot-out at the end of Dear Wendy is even more pornographic than the moment when a female member of the Dandies exposes her breasts. The audience is clearly expected to enjoy the bloodbath even while it disapproves.
And in his brief review of von Trier's Dogville:
This experimental drama about the cruelty of a Rocky Mountain community toward a woman (Nicole Kidman) in flight from gangsters, shot with an all-star cast on a mainly bare soundstage, bored me for most of its 178 minutes and then infuriated me with its cheap cynicism once it belatedly became interesting--which may be a tribute to writer-director Lars von Trier's gifts as a provocateur. The fact that he spends most of his time in Denmark as a porn producer seems relevant to his exploitation instincts, yet those who have called this blend of Brecht and Our Town anti-American may be overrating its ideological coherence. As in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, the heroine suffers greatly, but whether she suffers at the hands of humanity or von Trier himself isn't entirely clear.
In my mind, intention while worth mentioning, doesn't prove more important to me than what he's actually done. Whether his cinema is seen as exploitative or informative, it brings with it a much needed discussion on issues of greed, misogyny, suffering, faith and violence. Also, whether Dogme was a true attempt to tell genuine stories or more of a joke makes no difference in the sense that it encouraged (and still encourages as we see with Ballast) cinema that goes beyond the cookie cutter films of Hollywood. It encourages people to tell stories with actors and ideas instead of special effects.
And in the words of Lars von Trier himself : "It's always been a lie that it's difficult to make films."
- Wasington (2009) (announced
- Antichrist (2008) (announced)
- Chacun son cinéma ou Ce petit coup au coeur quand la lumière s'éteint et que le film commence (2007)
- Direktøren for det hele (2006)
... aka The Boss of It All (International: English title)
- Manderlay (2005)
- Dogville: The Pilot (2003) (V)
- Fem benspænd, De (2003) (segment "The Perfect Human: Avedøre, Denmark")
... aka The Five Obstructions (International: English title)
- Dogville (2003)
- D-dag - Den færdige film (2001) (TV)
... aka D-dag - Editors Cut
- Dancer in the Dark (2000) (as Lars Von Trier)
- D-dag - Lise (2000) (TV)
- D-dag (2000) (TV)
- Idioterne (1998) (uncredited)
... aka Dogma 95 - Idioterne
... aka Dogme # 2 - Idioterne (Denmark: series title)
- "Riget II" (1997) (mini) TV mini-series
... aka The Kingdom II (France: theatrical title) (USA)
... aka Geister II (Germany)
... aka Hôpital et ses fantômes, L' (France)
... aka Hospital der Geister - Teil 2 (Germany: video title)
... aka Lars von Triers Riget II (Denmark: DVD box title)
... aka Riket 2 (Norway)
- Breaking the Waves (1996) (as Lars Von Trier)