Living Lars

Dogma weighs down Idiots

Sept. 15-21, GSU's cinéfest

During this hectic, media-saturated campaign season, you, like most Americans, are probably troubled by one question above all others: What is up with Lars von Trier? Yes, he is Danish. Lars himself would be the first to admit that.

But is his mere Danosity enough to explain how an experienced, highly trained filmmaker with a shrewd cinematic eye and a gift for getting painfully powerful performances can keep churning out such contrary, brilliant, frustrating and occasionally downright unwatchable movies?

Maybe von Trier just fell in with a bad crowd. Lars is a founding member of an ascetic and somewhat radical film "movement" known as Dogma 95. Like Veganism, Amway and other cults, Dogma 95 seemed like a good idea at the time. The "manifesto" of this would-be revolution, probably scrawled late one night on the back of a lobster bib in the back room of a smoky brothel in Copenhagen, attacked what von Trier and his drinking buddies see as the artificiality of contemporary cinema. According to the Dogmites, movies these-a-days are "... barren. An illusion of pathos and an allusion of love."

In response to this "decadence," Dogma 95 calls on filmmakers to keep it real and take a "Vow of Chastity." In order to get their de-coder rings and ceremonial undershorts, Dogma directors must eschew the use of constructed sets, professional lighting instruments and sound or music recorded off-set. Not only that, but all Dogma movies have to take place in the present, the camera must be hand-held throughout the production, and optical trickery and special effects are strictly taboo. These directors are so pure that they cannot even be credited, except in press releases, reviews, diatribes, interviews and award ceremonies.

So if you are wondering why feel-good von Trier treats like Breaking the Waves leave you wishing you could find a nice, tall bridge to jump off of, maybe it's because, like many orthodoxically inclined, the Class of Dogma 95 isn't having much fun. There just isn't much room for it in their credo. And it shows.

Ironically, the inherent dangers of following someone else's radical aesthetic blueprint too closely is what The Idiots, the great Dane's latest release, is all about. Stoffer (Jens Albinus) is a thoroughly egomaniacal, marginally Marxist guru who feels that the fast track to enlightenment in this hurly-burly modern world is through getting in touch with one's "inner idiot" — acting and ultimately thinking like a mentally disadvantaged person.

Like von Trier, Stoffer is a hard-line practitioner of what he preaches. The demagogue runs a suburban commune populated by groupies, middle-class dropouts (a doctor, an ad executive, an art teacher) and a sardonic nudist who combine self-actualization and Stickin' it to the Man by "spazzing" — rubbing straight society's discomfort with difference by acting out in public at bars, restaurants and business meetings. Using this bizarre blend of guerilla theater, method acting and regression therapy, Stoffer is continually challenging his acolytes' ability to submerge their sense of shame and immerse themselves in their roles. Members who don't take their fooling around seriously enough (like a devout young "retard" who breaks down after spending an agonizing afternoon in character being babysat by bikers) are subject to censure and abuse.

If Stoffer's master-plan for better living through Idiocy doesn't make much sense, neither does von Trier's film. The tenets of Dogma 95 forbid the production of genre films, and The Idiots certainly ain't one of those. The movie had more mood swings than its characters. Keeping us on our toes and out of our element, von Trier is all over the map, mixing elements of the documentary, the melodrama, even the classic Scandinavian sex film (there is a Titticutt Follies meets I Am Curious Yellow orgy sequence guaranteed to leave you queasy).

Like the director's earlier films, this aggressively anti-conventional film is powered by a group of performers capable of delivering devastatingly raw and real work, and The Idiots should, in fact, be required viewing for anyone who wants to act. Von Trier, like Stoffer, throws his cast into some seriously hot water, and watching them try to swim in it is fascinating. There are moments of unbelievable intensity, such as when a group of genuinely retarded adults suddenly shows up at the commune, moments where the fusion of acting and experience seems almost miraculously complete.

But they are only moments. There is that manifesto to think of, and that dominant paradigm to subvert, and von Trier can't stop the Revolution just because an Oscar-winning moment is about to happen or because the audience needs him. The problem with The Idiots is not how unnerving, how new the film feels; it's how stubbornly the director insists on never letting us settle down and enjoy it. Von Trier's hand-held camera moves vaguely around, seemingly disconnected from the dramatic development of the scenes it sees, often undermining potent performances. And he is so dogmatically opposed to Hollywood's pat catharses that von Trier seems disinclined to give us any closure of any kind whatsoever. Not only do none of the myriad threads of the story ever get tied together, but almost every scene just stops, regardless of where we or the actors are at that point. The result is a mesmerizing mess, a collage of contradictions, a hypocritical satire that keeps negating itself, a drama that won't let us sympathize with anyone, a comedy that we can't bear to laugh at.

If von Trier is aware of how his Idiots are overwhelmed by the same kind of self-indulgent, self-flagellating adherence to a set of essentially reactionary artistic ideals, give the guy credit for guts. If, as I suspect, he's not, we need to do an intervention, pull him out of the Dogma 95 commune and administer some tough love. Talented directors, and the viewer's time, are a terrible thing to waste.