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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

Manipulating Storytellers: von Trier and Kaufman (Pt. 1)

Caden Cotard unintentionally upsets his daughter, while “just trying to explain plumbing,” when he says that it’s nothing to be afraid of, that’s it’s everywhere. She responds with a shocked, “Every single where?!” It’s a fear that seems to prevail in Synecdoche, NY, both in its main character, forever expanding his project, and its viewers, trying to keep track of everything. The movie is indeed monstrous in its scope. It takes you over. One friend commented that it’s one of the only movies he’s seen that puts you in the mood to watch it, whereas most movies you’re “in the mood for” before you decide to watch them. Another friend reacted negatively to such extreme manipulation, essentially criticizing it as not playing fair— it forces you to have an empathetic reaction to a character he felt to be so blind to his own absurdity and selfishness that he doesn’t merit empathy. Another thought it interesting but severely bloated, that Kaufman didn’t have a handle on what he was trying to do and so had to continually introduce new characters and subplots just to keep it afloat.

I spent a good deal of time talking the movie over with the friend who thought it meretricious, and trying to defend it against his criticisms greatly helped me in understanding why I personally find it so vital. Since his primary dislike was the extent to which he felt manipulated, I brought up von Trier, the incontestable master of manipulating his viewers. Manipulation included, I think the way von Trier develops from Dancer in the Dark to Dogville parallels Kaufman’s development from Adaptation to Synecdoche. When Dancer comes up in conversation, the general reactions are groans of anguish and avowals of von Trier’s skill. I’ve found that Dogville elicits the former much more often than the latter, and that’s always puzzled me, because it strikes me as a much, much stronger movie. The best justification for this reaction I can think of is that the empathy Dancer induces obviates criticism. It somehow feels that to dislike it would be to throw real salt on the fictional wound. Dogville‘s ending, on the other hand, is guaranteed to produce a reaction, but the means by which it does so make the decision of which reaction the viewer feels comfortable with having a conspicuously conscious one. Political message aside, Dogville forces the viewer to ask the questions that Dancer begs. Of course you feel pain in reaction to the plight of Selma, and if you could exact just revenge on something or someone to make it better, of course you would. Who would stand idly by and let such a horrible thing happen? (This, I think, is the origin of the anger von Trier so often inspires; the answer is, “the filmmaker,” or, more commonly, “the male filmmaker.”) By highlighting through the musical numbers the escapist fantasy that the cinema provides for Selma, and thus setting off even more starkly the grainy, grim reality she faces daily, the movie forces the moral dilemmas of film’s escapism and pathos to the forefront. You’re just as guilty as von Trier, for sitting there for the duration of the film, for not doing anything, for taking some perverse pleasure in watching this poor woman suffer just as he must have taken some perverse pleasure in writing the story of her persecution, and unless you walked out, there’s nothing you can do about that.

(If you haven’t seen Dogville or Synecdoche, spoilers follow.)

But when Grace is given the chance to exact revenge at the end of Dogville, where the viewer’s sympathy ought to go is painfully confused. The only enclosed space in the entire movie, Grace’s mobster father’s car with its shielding curtains, is an astonishing prompt: step outside of this fiction, off the bare stage with its characters and plots and chalk lines, and figure out what you would do in this situation. The short step into the car is a step into something that feels almost like an alternate universe, a reality somehow detached from all the events that we have just seen occur, or related to them in a manner obliquely like our relation to them as viewer. The viewer is placed in a terrible predicament and cannot help but consider both possible options. Do you choose righteous identification with a character whose horrifying retaliation feels somehow justified, or do you choose empathetic identification with a group of despicable people who deserve better than they get for only the most basic, humanist reasons? Dogville demands a commitment from the viewer by forcing an explicit conflict between emotional and rational reactions that cannot be avoided. Dancer, on the other hand, comes dangerously close to such facile pathos porn as London to Brighton, rescuing itself by its masterfully orchestrated intensity of emotion and the implicitly posed question of empathy with a persecuted fictional character.

If there is a parallel between von Trier’s and Kaufman’s growth, it’s in the development from an implicit to an explicit concern with their main themes. von Trier is concerned (in these two films, at least) with manipulation, power, and how the medium of film itself can be used to viscerally relay the struggle between manipulator and manipulated, forcing, in Dogville, the crisis he presumes a viewer will be aware of in Dancer. Kaufman is concerned with storytelling itself, with how we engage ‘fiction’ and what effect seeing ‘reality’ turned into ‘fiction’ (or vice versa) has on us. While manipulation is thus more of a byproduct than the main concern, I think Kaufman’s particular draw, for me, is that he goes to such great lengths in this film to show how film as medium, humans as storytellers, and we as viewers manipulate the incommensurable into coherence, and not only that, but how our manipulation ultimately manipulates us.

(To be continued…)

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Filed under: Film, Kaufman, Synecdoche, von Trier

5 Responses

  1. Richard says:

    Fascinating stuff.

    I’ve only seen two of von Trier’s films, but they happen to be Dancer in the Dark and Dogville. I hated the former, loved the latter. With Dancer, I think you nail it as “facile pathos porn”. I found myself unable to sit still while watching it.

  2. senseabove says:

    Thanks, Richard. Technically, I called London to Brighton ‘facile pathos porn’, a correction I make only because I don’t think you can call Dancer ‘facile’ by any means. von Trier works damn hard for your reaction. He’s just too convinced he’s going to get it. But I’m still a fan of Dancer, and it’s still one of the most unsettling first experiences I’ve ever had with a movie (though, admittedly, the circumstances surrounding that viewing probably enhanced its impact).

    As for the rest of his work, so far as I’ve seen, Dogville‘s by far the best, but there’s a documentary of sorts he made with Jørgen Leth, a mentor of his, called The Five Obstructions that’s worth checking out.

  3. Richard says:

    Quite right. That was a sloopy reading on my part (perhaps enabled by the fact that I’ve never heard of London to Brighton); thanks for the correction. My hate for Dancer is perhaps unaccountable. It certainly made me very uncomfortable, which no doubt would please von Trier. I felt like Selma was constructed as a character that simply was not able to help herself, so her continued problems drove me crazy. But I haven’t seen the film since its theatrical release. I may have to give it another look.

    Thanks for the tip on The Five Obstructions. Have you seen other von Trier films, such as Europa or Manderlay?

  4. senseabove says:

    Agreed on the ‘constructed’ aspect of Selma (yet another reason Dogville works better, using the allegorical tone as a limit, so any flesh added to these sketches of characters becomes that much more powerful) but I prefer that when it’s done well. I’ll take well-constructed and obviously so over ‘realistic’ or ‘naturalistic’ for its own sake any day. I’d say see it again, but it’s one of those that I honestly only ever watch with people who’ve never seen it before. It does what it does, and does it every time. Dogville at least has the “Choose Your Own Moral Dilemma from a First-Thanksgiving Feast-Size Cornucopia of Options” aspect to keep it interesting.

    London to Brighton‘s godawful, a random pick I watched because it’s gotten inexplicably high ratings from critics and won a few awards. I wouldn’t bother hearing about it any more, if I were you. Manderlay I’ve only seen once and have no desire to see again, except maybe if the third installment in the USA trilogy is ever made. I saw Breaking the Waves years ago, but I remember virtually nothing about it. I’ve been trying to see The Idiots for a long time, but to no avail, though my school library has it and The Early Years, for which von Trier wrote the screenplay, both of which I’ll probably nab soon. The Danish TV series he did, Riget (The Kingdom in English, later remade by Stephen King as a miniseries called Kingdom Hospital), is very enjoyable but very odd, plot-wise (a haunted hospital, demon babies, all-knowing dishwashers with downs syndrome narrating the play-by-play of the spirit world, hospital black markets and secret fraternities…). It’s also yet another in his trilogy-minus-one series, due to the fact that two of the lead actors died before the third series could be made and he refuses to replace them.

    So, yes, some, but not all. Unless you’re really intrigued by his work, which admittedly I am, I’d say only The Five Obstructions is a must-see— very interesting if you’re interested in creative processes and/or film-making (and what an intriguingly dastardly bastard von Trier can be in person)— and Riget‘s worth watching if you come across it, but I wouldn’t go to any great lengths to get ahold of it.

  5. senseabove says:

    Wow… that’s a lot longer than it looked in the comment box…

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