This Land is Your Land: Dogville. Reason and Redemption, Rage and Retribution
Lars von Trier
I have been trying to think about the film Dogville, but like most people I have been inundated with news reports about the American military’s abuse of Iraqi citizens during its occupation of Iraq, and the outrage generated by photographs showing the psychological and sexual torture of those prisoners of war, most of whom have not been officially charged with any crime. Dogville, directed by Lars von Trier (born Lars Trier), is a film set in the United States of America by a Danish man who has yet to visit the country, but who has been so thoroughly saturated with the television programs, films, music, business, and politics of the country that he feels compelled to address it as a subject in his work. Many American citizens are beginning to consider how their government’s practices relate to the ethics it claims to embody, a question—the relation of ethics to practices—that Dogville explores regarding the town in the film.
With a smile on my face, utterly satisfied, I left the screening of Lars von Trier’s film Dogville, starring Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany, about a fleeing young woman’s stumbling upon a small town and the help and hurt she finds there and the judgment she enacts upon the town. I’d like to think that the pleasure I felt at the film’s unfolding, a pleasure made up of amusement, surprise, and a sense of rightness, was rooted in an engagement with the film’s social observations, a perception of the importance of the moral issues involved, and an awareness of the political implications: How do we treat strangers? How do we treat those in need?
Dogville is set amid a spare stage setting with chalk lines on the floor marking the town’s locations, and there are only rudimentary furnishings. The film is focused on an evocation of the independence, privacy, small-mindedness and suspicion of a town’s residents, and how they are first charmed and liberated by the thoughtful, and pretty, but needy young woman who makes herself useful through babysitting, gardening, tending a handicapped girl, and spending time with a reclusive blind man. The town’s citizens reveal themselves as capable of acceptance, joy, and respect for others, but when they learn more about Grace’s relationship to the outside world, they become much more demanding of her, to the point of brutality, degradation, and imprisonment. The young woman’s choices when new options are brought to her are to be free, forgive, and simply go away, or to exact retribution. Of course, seeing the film, I may have felt simply the pleasure of gratified anger, the pleasure of the wounded and the resentful, at seeing an accusation clearly made and harsh justice delivered against society. Was my pleasure the pleasure of a civilized man, or the pleasure of a barbarian; or, inevitably, both?
Culture may be what we make of our daily habits and basic social relationships, the ways in which we wake, wash, eat, work, play, and sleep; but civilization, which requires knowledge and organization, is more than the handling of necessities and simple doings—civilization is the result of choices that are willed into being. We may or may not need to be intelligent and sensitive to survive, and we may require the intelligence and sensitivity of others in order to prosper, but we do not need intelligence and sensitivity in the form of a film, a book, a painting, or a sonata—we desire it, we will it. A cup of water might be required for drinking water—that is a necessity, and its use a basic part of human culture; but when that cup is made for comfortable use and embellished with design, made with a concern for beauty, that is the realm of civilization, and the more intricate the design the more complicated the civilization. (The creator’s willed or inspired intricacy assumes there is someone—or others—who can appreciate it.) Culture concerns what we do; but civilization, the realm of the aesthetic and the intellectual, is like morality, the realm of the good and the just, in that it is concerned with how and why. Many people live without asking many questions about how and why they do what they do—and Tom Edison, Jr., the writer in Dogville, played by Paul Bettany, tries to raise such questions. The questioner and the social critic, or the moral agent, are all traditional roles for the individual, for the intellectual, and for the writer, as they help others to see themselves better and make more conscious choices. Such a role is one some of us are inclined to see as heroic—when I was younger, my calling someone intelligent was analogous to calling him holy, and I recall now someone telling me that intelligence is simply a faculty, a tool—it can be used to see, demonstrate, or blind, to build or break; and so it is in Dogville, the 1930s American town Lars von Trier shows us, in this film, which might be read as allegory or satire.
Dogville is a color film about three hours long with a prologue and nine chapters, narrated by the actor John Hurt in voice that is by turns delighted, informative, mocking, mournful, and wary. The film begins with the writer Tom and his concerns for the town’s moral rearmament. Tom regularly gives moral lectures to the town, a form of civic criticism. (There is also no current minister or priest, and Tom acts as a self-appointed moral conscience.) We hear a man’s anger at his son for giving their dog a bone with some meat on it. The man, Chuck, played by Stellan Skarsgard, says that the family rarely has meat, and why should the dog? He says that the dog is supposed to be hungry. (Possibly hunger serves to make the dog more alert; or possibly the man is simply embittered.) We are introduced to Tom’s friend Bill, who we are told is dumb and knows it. (Apparently, Bill wanted to be an engineer but didn’t have the intellectual confidence for it; later, he’ll engineer a weighted chain for Grace’s entrapment.) Tom regularly defeats Bill at chess. Liz, played by Chloe Sevigny, is Bill’s sister, and she is a magnet for a lot of the male attention in town, including Tom’s. Tom thinks that the town’s people have trouble with acceptance, with accepting gifts.
Gunfire and Grace. One night, Tom hears gun shots while out walking (out walking, thinking, dreaming). Tom wants to illustrate ideas, in his life and eventually in his writing work, ideas that can move the soul, and that can inspire change. The idea that the way we see and what we know might be useful to others is hopeful, sometimes a mark of youth, sometimes of old age; (it may also be egotistic, deluded) and often the thinker confuses his own previous ignorance with that of the world. The assumption is that if people know better they will act better—but, often, knowledge does not inform action, at least not thoughtful, generous, right action; and, more broadly, we know so many different kinds of things that anything might be our motivation or goal.
The dog barks at Grace, who takes its bone with some meat on it, a theft that is a sign of desperate hunger, and it indicates she has been on the run for a while. Tom meets Grace (“a beautiful fugitive,” says the narrator) and hears her story, that she is being chased by men with guns and needs a place to stay but has no money. (A man in a car following Grace gives Tom, who denies having seen Grace, his business card.) Grace says that she stole the bone, and had never stolen anything before; and that she was raised to be arrogant but had to teach herself values. (The values we teach ourselves, that we will into being in our lives, can be profound, and inspiring, but they can also crumble if they aren’t given a complex and solid foundation in the world.) Tom says that the people of the town, good people, honest people, who have been in need themselves, might help her, and that her problem is also a moral opportunity for the town. He wants to use Grace as an illustration, a dangerous proposition, arguably an arrogant one—to use a human life as an experiment to prove a point. Grace, then, is a kind of gift to him and the town. When Tom calls a town meeting and presents the idea of helping Grace, someone says, We mind our own business, and, We don’t ask nothing of nobody. (This is precisely the attitude that Tom has been criticizing, a way of being self-sufficient that is also proud, isolated, and possibly ungiving.) Standing up to speak on behalf of Tom and Grace is a black woman, apparently the town’s only black citizen and a beneficiary of the hypochondriac and retired doctor Tom Edison Sr.’s liberalism; somehow, the black woman seems to speak out of humility, dignity, community, and common sense. The town members may not see themselves as a communal force—registration fees have discouraged them from voting, a prohibition that outweighs any concern with the exercise of democracy, making this meeting, and Tom’s other meetings, a genuine and rare forum. The people of the town are watchful and do not trust Grace; and when Tom and Grace talk, he is critical of the town and she says that she thinks it beautiful. What she finds beautiful may simply be its difference from the city she has known; sometimes we see something or someone as appealing not for what they are but for what they are not—and when we learn what they are, we are shocked, and if lucky only shocked and not injured. (Seeing Tom and Grace strolling, I thought that I enjoy walking in New York’s Chelsea, Soho, and Forest Hills in one way, and the East Village and Harlem in another, and that whether a view is enjoyed depends not only on what there is to see but on who sees. Tom may not see how much he himself is part of the town; it is often easier for us to see how others are part of a particular time and place than it is for us to see ourselves placed. He may not realize that what he likes in _Dogville_’s citizens he likes because it’s all he’s known, and that what he dislikes he dislikes because he hasn’t begun yet to fulfill himself.) Tom does realize that the town’s citizens’ own watchfulness regarding Grace indicates that they are trying to find evidence for judgment.
Grace and Work. Grace volunteers to do work each day, to be helpful and allow people a chance to get to know her—one hour per household per day. They do not admit they need help, at first, and Grace seems a superfluous woman. The town’s people are reserved but friendly, and curious. Grace meets Chuck, an apple farmer, and his wife Vera, who have seven kids to whom they’ve given old world names such as Achilles, and Grace helps with their kids. Chuck asks Grace if the town has her fooled yet; and he says it’s rotten from the inside out, something he’ll later demonstrate in his own response to Grace. Grace intuits that he used to live in the city but was drawn to—and disappointed by—small town life.
I know something about small town life, having grown up with it—I know how quickly time passes there, as it does elsewhere, how time is more taken with trivialities than profundities, how arguments can arise over petty things but rarely serious matters as thoughts rarely move beyond the paths of received opinion, and that everyone seems to know the facts of other people’s lives but that people are very private, and their deeper selves are hardly ever known to others, sometimes not even themselves. Whereas Trier’s Dogville is in the Rocky Mountains, I grew up in a small southern Louisiana town, with little money (it took me a while to learn how important having or not having money is, though the lessons were not infrequent, then or now). Every place has its particulars—and there it was cane fields and sugar mills, pepper and corn fields, bayous and fried catfish, gumbo, crawfish in sauce, barbecue, making ice cream with a hand-turned freezer, zydeco music, Creole French language, guns in most houses, chickens and dogs strolling the yard, sedate black Catholic services, faith healers and witchcraft, etc. I was observant, but an undistinguished student; and I liked reading and walking, and also fishing, hunting, cooking, and photography. I thought of sex not as a potential pleasure, nor a natural urge, but as a subversive power. I remember family drives and children’s games. I remember the decent instructional intentions of parents and teachers. I recall disagreements between and with my parents, and angry fights with my sister and cousins with whom I played an epic amount of fun games, but I was always mystified by cruelty, by people who were nasty, especially to strangers, without cause or reason, a cruelty I saw sometimes in town and at school. I was hurt by people who wanted me to be something other than myself, by family and strangers. (Who do you think you are? What gives you the right to say anything? were questions I heard from pink and brown children, especially from the brown, in the integrated school I attended. I wonder now how there can be freedom in America—not just rhetoric, but the thinking and action that is freedom—if genuine individuality is not accepted even by children.) It was odd to hear the children of working farmers indicate that their families were supporting the national conservative party as they feared the more liberal party would help African-Americans; and that they were angry with African-Americans for supporting a party they thought would recognize African-American issues. Agnostic, with developing radical sympathies, I wanted something from life that I did not see but imagined. When I left, it was with anger and relief—and I arrived in New York, a city of excitement and sorrow, a city I love for the arts, anonymity, and the enlarged possibility of individual pursuits, though some neighborhoods are like small towns, with people whose minds easily match such confinement. I imagine that one can find everywhere the possibility of community and the absence of understanding and compassion, as Nicole Kidman’s Grace does in Dogville.
Grace and Provocation. Grace becomes so comfortable with Mr. McKay (Ben Gazzara), a man who reminisces about the lovely sights he’s seen but won’t admit he’s become blind; and possibly confident that she can have a progressive effect, she compels him to talk about the sights that are to be seen now. McKay seems discomforted, but admits he cannot see—and she thinks she’s gone too far; and later when he attends Tom’s meeting at which Grace’s status is to be decided, with McKay thereby rejoining the town, Grace thinks McKay will speak against her. She thinks that the town will decide not to allow her to stay longer; and as she has found that people have placed food in her bag and other things, indicating she has made friends, it seems that they too expect her to go. Friends are bound by choice, not by blood or contract but by the attraction of individual personalities (because it was he, because it was I, as Montaigne said); and this makes friendship a relationship in which independence exists with attachment, possibly one of the few ideal human relationships—a respectable pleasure, a comfortable honor; but we can expect too much of it, or too little, and it is an often unspoken oath that can be revoked, a relationship that can be forgotten as if it never existed—and after its end, one feels the tremors of a soundless echo. Grace, pleased by the signs of friendship but doubtful and respectful, tells the assembled, the doctor, Chuck and Vera, and the others, that she will let them decide in private—and will know by the ringing of the town bell how many people vote for her to stay. She is surprised by the bell’s ringing that they decide she can stay.
Grace and Happy Times. In the late spring, early summer, Grace moves into her own place, an abandoned mill that Tom and others have fixed up. A policeman arrives and puts up in town a missing person poster featuring Grace and it says that anyone with information should contact the police.
Grace, the town, and July 4th. The town has a celebration in which Grace’s good influence is generally acknowledged. Grace, whose arrival in town was accidental, and whose goodwill and generosity have proved a benefit to all, seems to have made possible a kind of transcendence—in which people perceive and respond in a more giving way than they’re used to, happily, insightfully—but transcendence involves spirit more than matter, and transcendence is not change: things are as they were, but seem different. Grace is still dependent on the kindness of others; and often people who need people prove to be the unluckiest people of all.
Tom admits he loves Grace, and Grace says that she is falling in love with him too.
A policeman arrives with a “wanted’ poster that claims that Grace has been connected with a bank robbery, and though the robbery is said to have occurred during the time Grace has been in the town, and the town’s people acknowledge this, the claim affects Grace’s social status. By not telling the police what they know, Grace’s whereabouts, the citizens are committing a crime. Grace’s presence has become, then, more costly, and they want the cost made up. With Tom’s agreement, they decide that she should work more hours for less pay.
Nietzsche wrote in Human, All Too Human that “Between good and evil actions there is no difference in type; at most, a difference in degree. Good actions are sublimated evil actions; evil actions are good actions become coarse and stupid” (75). The work that Grace had been allowed to do for the town’s citizens had been, mostly, pleasant; but her work now becomes frenzied, comically painful, and as Grace is exhausted, she is more prone to mistakes, mistakes that are now harshly judged. Grace drops and breaks something in one home. One day she cuts through a garden path, a path that everyone uses, and she is reprimanded, and made to feel as if she has less right to do what others do—I thought you liked it here, says storekeeper Ma Ginger (played by Lauren Bacall), implying that Grace should be more grateful and more perfect. Gratitude, here, as in daily life, corroborates the authority and the personal sense of the goodness of the benefactor; and (their own) authority and goodness may be what these people doubt and consequently insist on. The town seems to be contriving false tests in the face of Grace’s vulnerability, expecting an inhuman perfection while putting more pressure and stress on her. (It is actually easy to see in this how workers are mistreated in more ordinary circumstances; and at the same time one thinks of impossible situations—Africans serving as slaves in America, and Jews serving Nazis in concentration camps.) Worse, men—Chuck, the married father, and the blind McKay—begin to make sexual advances toward her; and even Tom admits to yearning for Grace—he, like the other men, sees Grace sexually; and the lack of reticence is a sign of familiarity, of disrespect.
Grace and Dogville’s teeth. Chuck, though married, has been attracted to Grace as she has helped him in the apple orchard and appreciates nature, and she is a balm against his life’s frustrations. Grace has said that she is not erotically interested in him. Chuck rapes Grace.
Grace tries to leave. By summer’s end, Grace has been repeatedly subjected to Chuck’s sexual demands. One of these encounters is observed by the church organist, who had been too timid to practice the organ before Grace arrived and encouraged her. Rather than discuss what she’s seen with Grace, the organist goes to Chuck’s wife Vera; and an angry Vera and the organist with Liz visit Grace. Grace mentions how she has cared for Vera’s children, and even taught them stoicism, as Vera wanted. (Having tutored during college and at several points after, I know it’s hard to actually teach anyone anything, if learning means not merely hearing or repeating facts and ideas but integrating them in thinking or living: usually, the best you can do is cultivate an attitude and environment for learning, and help an individual to identify how and when he learns—so Grace’s imparting to young children an understanding of stoicism—the acceptance of reality as is, including an impassive regard for pain and pleasure—is impressive.) Vera begins to break the figurines Grace had purchased from Ma Ginger’s store, figurines Grace saw as symbolic of her time in Dogville. If Grace had seen these in the city, she would have rejected them as kitsch, but in Dogville she saw beauty in them, an example of context changing perception. Vera tells Grace that if Grace does not cry—if she is stoic—then Vera will stop breaking them, but Grace’s sense of symbolism overwhelms her and she cries and the figures are all broken.
It is interesting that Grace suffers a great deal in relation to Chuck and Vera, the man who knows both city and country life and his wife who loves ancient literature and philosophy, and their liberally brought-up children (Vera doesn’t want her children physically disciplined). Other than Tom and his father, Chuck and Vera might be seen as the most civilized or cosmopolitan people in town. One can think of them, and imagine the whole of western philosophy—from the mid-east born Pythagoras, the founder of the systematic study of geometry and a believer in the transmigration of souls (consequently a vegetarian, as he thought a human soul could be reborn in an animal), and Thales who took the scale of pyramids by measuring their shadows and also believed that people were made mostly of water, the first map-maker of the world Anaximander, Socrates, Plato, the Macedonian Aristotle, St. Augustine, Aquinas, Ockham, Machiavelli, Francis Bacon, Descartes (I think, therefore I am), Thomas Hobbes (life is nasty, brutish, and short), John Locke (whose thinking elevated both individual liberty and property ownership), Pascal, Spinoza, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard to Nietzsche, Charles Darwin, Freud, Bertrand Russell, and Wittgenstein. However, whatever knowledge Chuck and Vera possess has had a limited effect in producing civility. In fact, when one of the children insists that Grace spank him, it is possible to see that all that concern with education may have produced repression and the desire for perversion or violence.
The ordeals undergone by the women in Lars von Trier’s films, Grace in Dogville, and Emily Watson’s character in Breaking the Waves (1996) and Bjork’s in Dancer in the Dark (2000), have inclined some people to call Trier misogynist. That seems to confuse the women’s treatment in the world they inhabit with Trier’s regard for them. In fact, suffering women are a classic subject in both film and literature, especially in internationally circulated Hollywood films — and women have often borne the burden for work, sex, and spiritual transcendence in daily life. It seems a sign of respect to depict that burden in film — respect and revolutionary possibility. In addition, films use exceptional women and men — exceptional in beauty, talent, and status — for reasons similar to those of dramatists for centuries: gods, royalty, and heroes are ideal versions of humanity, and if the best of us are wrong or wronged this reflects the state of the rest of us.
Grace, with Tom’s help, arranges to pay the driver Ben so that Grace can stowaway in the back of the apple truck and ride out of town. Tom has stolen money from his father with which to pay Ben — and Ben agrees to the plan, but though paid, Ben tells Grace that there is a surcharge — and the surcharge is sex, rape. (Ben had previously frequented a prostitute — and Grace had told him he shouldn’t be ashamed of his sexual needs, which, of course, is not the same as saying she wants to fulfill them.) Ben compounds his cruelty by driving her out of town then bringing her back into town. Ben admits that her possible escape using his truck had been discussed at the previous night’s town meeting, meaning he had no real intention of helping her. Tom has blamed the theft of his father’s money on Grace; and later tells her that was to throw suspicion away from him so he could continue to help her. (If helping Grace must be a secret, this is an admission the town does not mean her well — just as when political parties say they do not want to seem to serve the interest of minorities as the majority may turn against the political parties: this reveals the prejudices, or at best the basic indifference, of the majority and of the parties to those most vulnerable.) The engineer Bill, whom Grace helped to play chess and encouraged, contrives for Grace a neck collar with a chain connected to a large wheel as an anchor to prevent Grace from leaving.
Grace is brutalized further. Grace is raped by several of the town’s men. Everything I tried to do went wrong, admits Tom. There is a town meeting to decide Grace’s fate, amid an autumn snow. Grace is seen as the bringer of trouble. (Is it temptation that Grace has embodied for them?) If forgiveness was possible, they were hiding it well, the film’s narrator says. Grace describes her experience in town, but they do not hear her. The town lacks self-criticism. Tom later tries to make love to Grace, while she is chained; he says that everyone has had her body but him. (Bettany’s Tom climbs atop Kidman’s Grace, with both of them clothed, and he gyrates—and male sexuality has rarely seemed so obviously selfish and repellent.) Grace says that if Tom wants her like that, he can have her—but she thought they shared higher ideals, that they might be free and in love together in the future; and she wonders if maybe he wants her to give in to sex as he has thought of taking her by force, like the others. Tom is angry at Grace for seeing his limitations, a case of the critic —_Judge not, that ye be not judged_ — refusing to be criticized (been there, done that). Tom resents the doubt Grace has raised in him about himself. Tom retrieves the card of the man who had followed Grace into town on her first night there, a card he told Grace he burned; and Tom, with the town’s approval, calls that man. Everyone then is friendly to Grace, hypocritically so, knowing that they plan to get rid of her, but not telling her. They have made a decision about her fate, without including her in the deliberations. For all they know the men who were in search of her meant to kill her. Tom, who had heard gun shots with Grace’s arrival, could guess that. The townspeople allow Grace to rest for several days, in their anticipation of the coming visitors.
Grace and the visitors. The visitor, the man who had been chasing Grace upon her entrance to Dogville, arrives; and he is her father, a gangster (James Caan). He arrives with men with guns. Grace and her father talk, while the town anticipates what will happen. The town realizes that the visitor and his men are not pleased that she has been chained, and they are afraid. Forgive us our trespasses, and those who have trespassed against us. Grace and her father talk about human nature and animal nature; dogs can be trained, he says, before telling her that she forgives others with excuses that she would never allow herself. The culture of the town, in which Grace first seemed unneeded, like many workers who move to new locations and find themselves unemployed, a culture that ultimately made ill use of Grace, her good manners, and hard work, is one that betrays the expectations of civilization. While there can be no civilization without culture, there can be culture without civilization; and, with a shift in moonlight — yes, under a new light — Grace sees the town critically, and says, If there’s any town this world would be better without, this is it. She has issued judgment; she orders the people shot and the town burned, giving instruction that Vera’s kids are shot before her eyes — and that Vera be told that if she can resist crying, be stoic, the killing of the children will stop. Tom admits to Grace that her illustration (the killing and burning, retribution) is much better than his (the town’s acceptance of a stranger), and Grace shoots Tom in the head, and tells her father, There are some things you have to do for yourself. Grace had been running from the power and violence of her father’s life, but Dogville proved no escape from the use of power and imposition of violence. She has given up the ideal world in her head, and joined the human estate; and reconciled with her father she sits at his right hand. Her father says, Let’s get out of here—I think you’ve learned too much already. I laughed. (Paul Bettany had been quoted by Dennis Lim in the March 17-23, 2004 Village Voice as saying, “Stellan Skarsgard, who’s merciless with Lars, would tell him, ‘You think all your films are comedies, and nobody ever fucking laughs.’ ”)
Commenting about the massacre, film critic Andrew Sarris, who described Dogville as different and even original, wrote in the April 12, 2004 New York Observer, “Mr. Trier has seen enough genre movies to know how satisfying this kind of nihilistically poetic justice can be to an audience…I loved it.”
Dogville ends with the chalk mark drawing of a dog becoming real and barking.
(Jan Stuart in a late March 2004 issue of Newsday wrote that the film is “one of those visionary achievements that stirs moviegoers into a fury and goes on to define a decade.”)
A film reviewer, Jeffrey Overstreet, for ChristianityToday.com, which obviously has an overt interest in the treatment of moral issues, on March 26, 2004 wrote, “Like Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, Dogville tells a simplistic fable of man who takes care of a stranger while others abuse and take advantage of her. Alongside its Biblical references, there are echoes of Greek tragedy, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Flannery O’Connor. With its 1930s Colorado mountain town setting and the pleasant voice of its narrator (John Hurt in a brilliant unseen performance), the film’s most obvious allusions are to Thornton Wilder’s celebrated play Our Town.” Who is the Good Samaritan in Dogville? Tom, who shows himself untrustworthy? Such a comparison seems a misreading. Other reviewers drew connections to Our Town as well, which seems obvious, as does citing Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, which occurred to me; but I thought that a closer scriptural reference might have been a story I only vaguely recall in which men surround a house, that of Lot, and call for the male guests, actually angels, to come out—they seem to want to humiliate them, a humiliation which might include rape and end in murder. An atheist, I haven’t read in more than twenty years the collection of short magical realist stories millions of people treat as a sacred text (though I remain fond of the story about the dreamer-prophet Daniel’s being unharmed in the lion’s den), and there may be other scriptural references I am missing in Dogville. Trier himself has been reported as citing as inspirations Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Mahoganny, and also a televised British theater play of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby that was given a minimalist treatment. The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny, an opera set in the American west, is an allegorical satire featuring a city founded by fugitives and devoted to greed and hedonism. What may make Trier’s Dogville more provocative is that, as in the social world we know, the people in the film do evil but do not call it that.
At the film drama’s end, the clean white film credits roll in front of photographs of Americans—the poor, the marginal, and the ugly—to the sound of David Bowie’s uptempo “Young Americans” (which contains the line “Do you remember the bills you have to pay or even yesterday?”), a terrific end, a controversial reminder of facts that many Americans do not want seen as representative of who they are, facts so often ignored they may be forgotten. Some critics have objected to the credit roll as anti-American. Others have thought the credit roll brilliant. I think that the photographs say that this film—abstract in setting and in some of its themes—has a foundation in the world, that it is a symbolic story with a spiritual dimension, philosophical in many ways, but that its urgencies belong to a world of blood, conflict, hope, need, and power, and that the laughter the film inspires in the moments when it exposes self-delusion, lust, and self-serving brutality is, inevitably, a pleasure tinged with the recognition of a bitter truth. The allegorical and satirical exploration of _Dogville_’s invented characters, and their virtues and vices, are more than an experiment in art.
In Dogville, one can see America; one can imagine also cultures all over the world—as one is seeing human nature. Freud wrote in 1929 about the difficulty of reconciling ethics with human behavior in Civilization and Its Discontents, published in 1930: “The element of truth behind all this, which people are so ready to disavow, is that men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. [Man is wolf to man.] Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?” (68-69)
Lars von Trier has said that he thinks that Dogville is also relevant to Denmark’s treatment of immigrants. (Something rotten in Denmark?) Lars von Trier, born in 1956 in Copenhagen as Lars Trier, said early in his career that he thought the best films are driven by passion, and that Danes seemed to be afraid of fascination, afraid of miracles, and that Denmark’s films were often so refined that they were dull. (Trier has named Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer, the director of The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath, and Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman, Werner Herzog, Orson Welles, and Jim Jarmusch as some of the filmmakers he has admired.) One of the more remarkable occurrences in Danish life in the last several years has been the country’s response to immigration, a conflict in the lives of people who seem to avoid it. “In the 70s, the Danes wouldn’t do the dirty jobs, so we imported some people, and when we didn’t need them, we wanted to get rid of them,” Trier told Brendan Bernhard, for an excellent article, “Lars Attacks!,” published in the March 26-April 1, 2004 LA Weekly.
Denmark, a European country north of Germany and bordering the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, has a head of state, Queen Margrethe II, and a head of government, now Anders Fogh Rasmussen, with a national parliament; and the country is made up of fourteen counties, each with its own parliament that performs the functions of government. The government’s motto is currently “growth, welfare, renewal.” Denmark has a population a little over five million people, with about half the population in the labor force, and with some ethnic diversity—Scandinavian, Inuit, Faroese, German, Turkish, Iranian, Somali—and very little religious diversity (most people are Evangelical Lutherans, and about two percent are Muslim—and Trier, who was reared in a Communist household, grew up thinking of himself as being of Jewish descent but he later converted to Catholicism). When I checked the CIA World Factbook on May 6, 2004 for its entry on Denmark, available on the internet, this is what I read as part of the economic overview: “This thoroughly modern market economy features high-tech agriculture, up-to-date small-scale and corporate industry, extensive government welfare measures, comfortable living standards, a stable currency, and high dependence on foreign trade. Denmark is a net exporter of food and energy and enjoys a comfortable balance of payments surplus. Government objectives include streamlining the bureaucracy and further privatization of state assets.”
In the mid-1990s, Denmark’s population had been defined as Scandinavian, Eskimo (Inuit), Faroese (of the Faroe Islands), and German; there has been obviously an increase of others since then, some of whom are brown and black and Muslim. Several years ago, an August 2002 WorldPressReview.org press summary reflected on what a 2001 Danish election meant for Denmark’s immigration policy: “Ever since Nov. 20, when a center-right coalition defeated the reigning Social Democrats, and the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party (DPP) took 12 percent of the vote, curbing the influx of asylum seekers and immigrants, who are joining their families, has been high on the legislative agenda.” New restrictive immigration legislation was subsequently passed in May 2002 in Denmark. The article went on to say, “In Copenhagen, headlines spoke of ‘a historic agreement’ between the parties. Among the provisions were reduced welfare benefits for immigrants during their first seven years, a longer waiting period for permanent residency (seven years instead of three), restriction of ‘family reunions’ and foreign spouses unless both parties are at least 24 years old, and a higher threshold for Danish citizenship, including a nine-year waiting period and a Danish language and history exam, about which Politikencommented on (May 8): ‘There is a certain irony to the fact that so great a knowledge of Danish society will be demanded of naturalized Danes, more than what the public schools achieve in nine to 10 years of schooling.’ ”
Currently, many immigrants arrive in America to seek a better life and, if they do so, without official papers, they become part of an exploited labor class—hard-working and inadequately paid. This land is your land, this land is my land, from California, to the New York Island, from the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me. Welfare programs and the benefits offered to both immigrant and native-born citizens have been reformed so that participants with divergent levels of skill and education work for their benefits (workfare, not welfare); and this means that they are assigned to jobs in city agencies similarly held by full-time regular workers but instead of getting livable wages, they get benefits (very small grants for food, rent, and living expenses), an income that is less than a minimum wage salary, forming, like imprisoned men and women, the cheapest of labor forces, in a time and place in which wealth is the measure of worth. In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple, near the relief office, I see my people, and some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’ if this land’s still made for you and me.
Life in America for certain people, as well as American influence abroad, has been much worse than anything shown in the closing credits of Dogville. It should not be necessary to remind American citizens or filmgoers of the theft of Native American land and the genocide of many of these peoples. But reminders become necessary when we do not know the stories behind names such as Cherokee, Kiowa, Mohawk, Narragansett, Ogala, Pequot, Sauk, Seminole, Shawnee, and Sioux, and that Native Americans contributed culture, food, ideas of government, spirituality, and even labor to world culture; or that it’s estimated that there were between twelve and fourteen million Native Americans when the Europeans came and that there are now only two-and-a-half million. Native Americans seem to be people of legend rather than flesh. Although there were Indian mounds near where I grew up, and one of my mother’s uncles was married to a Native American, I’m not sure that I ever heard a Native American speak at length until I heard the refreshingly sarcastic comments of a radio host on New York’s WBAI Radio, and I don’t think I met a Native American man until I worked for an environmental organization (he was a visitor).
African-Americans have a more vivid presence than Native Americans, but it’s not clear that most Americans have come to terms with the enslaving of Africans, the cultural and economic contribution consequently made to the country, and the still-lingering problems troubling African descendants who are natural citizens. The African-American voice and vision most people hear and see is likely to be loud, ignorant, alienated, and derelict. There are still people unfamiliar with names such as W.E.B. Dubois, Alain Locke, Ralph Ellison, and Percival Everett, and who do not realize how subtle and pervasive African-American influence can be. Ralph Ellison, in an essay published in Time magazine and later reprinted in his book Going to the Territory, wrote that “had there been no blacks, certain creative tensions arising from the cross-purposes of whites and blacks would also not have existed. Not only would there have been no Faulkner; there would have been no Stephen Crane, who found certain basic themes of his writing in the Civil War. Thus, also, there would have been no Hemingway, who took Crane as a source and guide. Without the presence of Negro American style, our jokes, our tall tales, even our sports would be lacking in the sudden turns, the shocks, the swift changes of pace (all jazz-shaped) that serve to remind us that the world is ever unexplored, and that while a complete mastery of life is mere illusion, the real secret of the game is to make life swing. It is its ability to articulate this tragic-comic attitude toward life that explains much of the mysterious power and attractiveness of that quality of Negro American style known as ‘soul.’ An expression of American diversity within unity, of blackness with whiteness, soul announces the presence of a creative struggle against the realities of existence” (109-110). Often Americans forget the best and publicize the worst regarding Native Americans and African-Americans; and as in Dogville, the more [g]race was made use of, the less value [g]race seemed to have.
Economic and social prejudice also plagued the immigration of Chinese and Japanese, as well as the Irish, Italians, and Jews, who are seen by most as valuable citizens now—and yet, Americans act surprised and shocked when accused of injustice here or abroad. The United States has been involved in more than one-hundred interventions in other countries, including military invasions, the support of oppressive governments, and the appropriation of foreign resources. Ward Churchill, a professor of American Indian Studies and himself a Keetoowah Cherokee, has published a book, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, which gives a year by year summary of the bad faith and brutality of American government, especially regarding international relations and the United Nations.
As excuses for war with the oil-rich country of Iraq, a place of ancient (5,000 year-old) civilization—Mesopotamia, which invented the first writing, and Sumer, which invented the wheel, and gave the world The Epic of Gilgamesh, about a Sumerian king—the American government claimed that the Iraqi president supported the terrorists associated with the destruction of World Trade Center in New York, and that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, though no objective evidence has been found for either claim. The British newspaper The Independent reported on May 23, 2004 that thus far about 11,500 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the war began. Newspapers and other news media have reported that some of the American personnel who imprisoned and tortured Iraqis in captivity had been employed by the U.S. prison system, which has locked up a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic men. Norman Solomon wrote in an article that appeared May 6, 2004 on the web sites of both CommonDreams.org and Fair.org that “the same government that runs this prison system also conducts foreign policy that during the past four decades has resulted in bombing and invading the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq. More circumscribed Pentagon missions landed in Somalia and Haiti. In 1999, a major U.S.-led bombing campaign caused enormous suffering among civilians in Yugoslavia. Sudden missile strikes hit Libya and Sudan. And U.S.-funded military forces on several continents—from Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala to Angola to Indonesia—took many lives.” He went on to say: “Generally, with the exception of Serbs, the victims of Pentagon firepower have been people of color who’ve looked different than theUSA’s white majority and power structure. In the United States, racial biases have helped to grease the war machinery.” Some observers have also said that the use of homosexual acts as humiliation for Iraqi Muslim men is rooted in American homophobia and religious insensitivity (it may also indicate a sexual curiosity American society discourages). “Power, then, which can have no morality in itself, is yet dependent on human energy, on the wills and desires of human beings. When power translates itself into tyranny, it means that the principles on which that power depended, and whichwere its justification, are bankrupt,” wrote James Baldwin in No Name in the Street (407).
The recent abuse of strangers — Iraqi citizens who have not been charged with any crimes — is simply the latest barbaric act of this presumably civilized nation: men and women threatened, stripped naked, sexually molested, beaten, dogs set upon them, killed. People ask how this abuse could have happened, and the answer is easily, if one knows history. If one knows philosophy, one might remember that Nietzsche once wrote that commanders do not see the execution of their orders, and those obeying orders did not make those orders and do not feel responsible, so neither has a sense of personally being involved in cruelty, and this is how certain outrages can occur; and, regarding to whom injury is done, in his late notebooks Nietzsche wrote that societies caricature those it sees as its opponents, such as lawbreakers: as the cliché goes, it’s easy to hurt those we do not see as human. (I committed the crime of being hungry and poor, goes a traditional prison chain gang work song.) The Iraqis though were simply different, in culture, religion, and skin color. The question is why is it so easy for Americans to forget their own history? (Are the education system, the news media, and the social affirmation of private life over public affairs to blame?) Why are Americans surprised by such violent occurrences, such injustices, when they perpetually recur?
I wish I were more interested in politics; then, I might understand. Once I was interested in politics — I read political theories and memoirs, signed petitions, and marched in demonstrations, participated in organizations that talked about politics, such as the Cultural Politics Discussion Group, or that tried to act on political goals, such as Democratic Socialists of America and the NAACP. (I thought of politics not simply as the struggle over resources and values but as work that transformed self and society.) I had less pleasant encounters with other individuals and groups that tried to teach me real politics, which seemed to mean abdicating both imagination and independent thought in the name of organizational unity. Frequently the well-educated and well-situated cannot recognize the potential of someone young and not yet established (who do you think you are?). Frequently the badly educated do not trust the speech and actions of people trying to help them—not used to being the focus of anyone’s intense attention, not used to being giving full information, but used to weaving bits and pieces into whole cloth, and instinctive rather than intellectual and suspicious rather than engaged, they doubt the helper (what gives you the right to say anything?). Rather than give the homage of allegiance, my tribute was a rude impatience. Now, I mostly think of politics as stupidity and suffering.
Dogville and its depiction of stupidity and suffering reminds me less of Louisiana or New York than it reminds me of states of mind; it recalls for me not place, but people. What occurs in Dogville, and most art, is not as shocking as any ordinary day in most countries around the world. Dogville, a film, a form of art, an experience in itself, is as much about thought and feeling as politics; it dramatizes thought, and thought has its own reality. “We need to free ourselves of the sacralization of the social as the only instance of the real and stop regarding that essential element in human life and human relations—I mean thought—as so much wind. Thought does exist, both beyond and before systems and edifices of discourse. It is something that is often hidden but always drives everyday behaviors. There is always a little thought occurring even in the most stupid institutions; there is always thought even in silent habits,” said Michel Foucault in The Essential Foucault (172). Foucault also said the purpose of a critique is not the identification of errors but rather the identification of the assumptions and circumstances on which standards and judgments rest. Film and literature build their structures with language and imagery, and they are less about facts and events than the evocation of relationships, which create meaning. Dogville has reminded me of hope and need and how sometimes I, aesthete and moralist (and barbarian), have hated the world as I have too often found it, rich and poor, male and female, black and white, straight and queer, all the rigid social categories and the people too lazy and lost for liberty who try to embody those labels as they are commonly conceived. I used to think it possible to broaden and deepen those categories from within, but it’s possible that they should simply be abolished; or ignored. I used to want to be an exceptional human being, but with time’s passage I saw that to be simply and thoroughly a human being is itself a great goal, and that this achievement is not assured. I savor now the moments in the town of Dogville when [G]race is accepted, respected, and celebrated. In times of confusion, doubt, and pain, I borrow the wisdom, even the sanity, of artists and thinkers—with unforced gratitude; and sometimes it’s the only illumination I have; although, more often, I go out of want rather than need to the works of artists and thinkers as their works arouse, please, and satisfy my mind and spirit. Oscar Wilde, who was reported to have said that art is the only serious thing in the world (and who wrote that the world can forgive everything but genius), also thought that criticism was what made us cosmopolitan — and even more, he thought it might make us humane. (Are these thoughts new or are they as old as Socrates and Plato; and are they any different from what Dogville_’s Tom wanted?) “Criticism will annihilate race-prejudices by insisting upon the unity of the human mind in the variety of its forms,” wrote Wilde in the intellectual dialog “The Critic as Artist” (870). The human mind _does have a variety of forms, a wondrous, terrifying variety. Insightful and inventive, Oscar Wilde was a martyr not only to his own foolishness but to the ignorance of his time, an ignorance embodied in law itself, and tomorrow’s sunlight will no doubt help to reveal the martyrs of our own time, among which we are likely to count Iraqi citizens.
Baldwin, James. Collected Essays. Edited by Toni Morrison. New York: Library of America/Literary Classics of the United States. 1998.
Churchill, Ward. On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality. Oakland: AK Press. 2003.
Ellison, Ralph. Going to the Territory. New York: Random House. 1986.
Foucault, Michel. The Essential Foucault. 1994. Edited by Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose. New York: The New Press. 2003.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human. Translated by Marion Faber, with Stephen Lehmann. 1878. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 1986.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated and edited by James Strachey. 1930. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1989.
Wilde, Oscar. Collected Works of Oscar Wilde. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions. 1997.
Guthrie, Woody. “This Land Is Your Land.”
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