The nakedness and simplicity of Dogma has put us back in touch with the essentials of filmmaking Anthony Dod Mantle
In November 1999 the Polish director Roman Polanski visited the National Film School of Denmark. During his stay he confirmed that he knew of Dogma 95 but when asked if he would make a film in accordance with its principles, he answered: "Everybody makes them now. My 6-year-old daughter does it all the time when she is running around with her digital video camera."
Polanski’s answer sounds like a typical reaction to abstract art: ‘Even a child could paint that’. But as is the case with abstract art, it would be a mistake to confuse the artifact with the rules governing its production, even if the resulting product suggests a lack of conventional craftsmanship. There is a gap between poetics and works of art. One can not judge say a Dogma film on the basis of the Manifesto and The Vow of Chastity. These two texts present a poetics of Dogma filmmaking. However, the films made in accordance with the principles of Dogma 95 have to be regarded as individual films.
In his somewhat condescending attitude towards the aesthetic principles of Dogma 95, Polanski, however, correctly pinpoints the importance for Dogma 95 of a kind of desired amateurism. By renouncing the professional refinements of filmmaking, the brotherhood of Dogma 95 tries to minimize the distance between the filmed and the finished film. They want to rediscover a sincerity of cinema. If he had to describe the real purpose of the concept of Dogma 95, Lars von Trier says, it would be as a search for genuineness/sincerity (Danish: ‘ægthed’). The technical restrictions presented in The Vow of Chastity are the means to achieve a kind of authenticity.
In what respect a film can be authentic is, however, the crucial question. To understand the idea of Dogma 95, it is important to discuss the concept of authenticity in relation to cinema. Here the discussion will only deal with the principles behind Dogma 95 and will not touch upon the films made under the auspices of Dogma 95.
In the history of cinema, the claim of authenticity has been made on at least three different levels, implying three different meanings of Realism. In respect to cinema as representation, authenticity and hence the degree of realism involves an epistemological level. The truth is placed in the external world and the task of the medium is to represent it. The conventional mode of (filmic) storytelling is firstly dependent on the credibility of its characters, locations, and causality etc and secondly on the subordination of the telling in itself to the content of the story told. The authenticity of conventional storytelling is related to the collaboration of syuzhet, style and fabula on a formal level. The truth is contained within the film’s world (of make-believe) and the task is to give access to this world. If the film’s emphasis is only indirectly or symbolically related to a defined reality and hence is based on an idea, authenticity is measured on a thematic level. The truth is an apprehension or an opinion that is not directly accessible, so the task is to convince the spectator, who has to see the truth for him- or herself. The third could also be described as an ideological level in that it deals with and argues in favor of certain values and beliefs. These three levels are in no way exclusive and there are possibly more of them.
The main goal of Dogma 95 is to achieve a purification of film language by avoiding a lot of otherwise well-established technical devices since these are seen as creating an undesirable filter between the profilmic setting and the actual film. Technical manipulations of a film are rejected as cosmetics that hide the true images or the truth of the film. Technical manipulations disrupt the filmed subject and turn it into harmless pieces of decor or easy entertainment. At least apparently, the Dogma Manifesto and The Vow of Chastity express a longing for a kind of cinéma vérité, films without the traditional trickery of filmic illusions.
Technically generated illusions are the target of Dogma 95 in its rescue action for the cinema. The Manifesto of Dogma 95 represents a forthright confrontation with the cinema of illusion: "To DOGMA 95 the movie is not illusion! Today a technological storm is raging of which the result is the elevation of cosmetics to God. By using new technology anyone at any time can wash the last grains of truth away in the deadly embrace of sensation. The illusions are everything the movie can hide behind." The cinema proper is something that has to do not with illusions but with truth. But it is not always easy to distinguish between illusion and truth. And this difficulty is even greater in relation to aesthetic artifacts in that they only possess an at best indirect reference to (the representation of) reality or their own subject matter. Film language is not only, and not even primarily, a matter of communicative assertions concerning a state of affairs. Instead, film has to be seen as an expressive interpretation of reality in its broadest sense. Even a representation has to be regarded as an interpretation. But if this is the case what does ‘truth’ then mean and what is meant by illusion?
By the rejection of illusions, Dogma 95 apparently draws on the Bazinian idea of the truthfulness of cinematic representation. Discussing film directors, André Bazin makes his well-known distinction "…between two broad and opposing trends: those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality. By ‘image’ I here mean, very broadly speaking, everything that the representation on the screen adds to the object there represented." That nothing be added to the object represented is also the desired result of the principles of Dogma 95.
The idea of the photographic image and consequently the cinema as a mirror of reality goes back a long time in history. The idea was already foreshadowed with Daguerre’s notion of photography as the double of nature, which for that matter was an echo of the Renaissance where Alberti claimed that through representation with ‘natural perspective’ (perspectiva artificialis) the image became a window on to the world.
The logical contradictions within cinéma vérité in relation to fiction films are, however, also inherent in Dogma 95. The badly produced images of the hand-held camera and insufficient lighting make use of a documentary style. But the filmed subject is in no way presented as reality in itself. According to The Vow of Chastity, the subjects of Dogma films are presumed to be fictitious and there is no intention to lure the audience to believe otherwise. Where does this dichotomy between the real and the fictitious place the desired authenticity of Dogma 95? If the documentary style is nothing but a trick, it approaches the old avant-garde’s self-conscious use of styles and genres. But such an approach of alienation does not go together with the search for sincerity and authenticity. And it is also obvious that Dogma 95 is a rejection of a post-modernist stance, favoring an attitude of irony and playfulness, which takes nothing seriously.
Reading the Dogma Manifesto it becomes evident that filmic techniques are regarded as the main obstacles to the creation of genuine films. Technical devices are identified as cosmetics that create illusions. This is not only a problem for the film as representation but also as an art form. The illusions disregard the film as art and make film a matter of the sheer communication of feelings and sensations. The problem is not emotions and sensations as such. The problem is that the emotions communicated are false in respect to the stories told, since they are generated by trickery and are therefore neither intrinsic to the film itself nor to the characters. Sensations are regarded as superficialities creating hollow entertainment, in no way affecting the spectator intellectually. This is the basic diagnosis of contemporary film as I interpret The Vow of Chastity and the Manifesto. According to the brotherhood of Dogma 95, a new avant-garde is necessary to counter the commercialized film or "‘certain tendencies’ in the cinema today" as it says in the Manifesto.
The brotherhood of Dogma is fighting the film heretics who worship technology and thus abandon the true art of film. Filmmakers have given in to the craftsmanship of filmic illusionism. Refraining from good taste and aesthetic considerations, the directors complying with Dogma 95 want to return to the great masters of cinema and "force the truth out of […] characters and settings" to quote from The Vow of Chastity. This quotation locates the truth in the profilmic and the film’s task is to transfer this truth to the film. Situating the truth outside the actual film is the plausible reason for refraining from technical improvements of the depicted.
To counter technological enslavement, Dogma 95 demands a minimized aesthetic if the latter means improvements to the look of the film made in postproduction or on the set. The images are not supposed to be the main attraction in a film but are to be regarded as necessary means to reach the true film that is its content. Here one notices the affinity with the credo of Realism in the conventional Hollywood aesthetic as described by David Bordwell. Style is nothing in itself but only a vehicle for the story told. A too obvious style is regarded as an obstacle to the reception of the film.
But Dogma 95 is of course not a repetition of Hollywood Realism with its demand for relatively invisible editing allowing only the content to be dominant. But the rejection of the importance of the images is for various reasons found in the conventions of Hollywood and of Dogma 95. Well-composed pictures guarantee that the audience will not be attracted to them in that they do not disturb normal reception.
But by its minimized aesthetic and even more so by the insistence on hand-held camera, Dogma 95 ensures that the audience is made aware of the film as an artifact and thereby of the implied mise-en-scene and filming. Contrary to the Hollywood convention, the style of Dogma 95 is very visible in that it precisely disappoints audience expectations and prevents automatized reception. In short, the Dogma principles give the films a kind of self-awareness by creating a minimal meta-filmic effect. This effect implies an alienation that seems to be contrary to the desired result. By the same token the hand-held camera together with badly composed images, shaky pictures and the like are also signs of the documentary, suggesting that the filmed subject exists independently of the filming. The principles of Dogma 95 indicate formal realism, thematic realism and the illusion of semiotic realism together with the conventional avant-garde’s mistrust of art as the representation of a given reality. The contradictions haunt the project as they have haunted other attempts at mediated immediacy.
The search for a more ascetic aesthetics of film is not something unique to the brotherhood of Dogma 95 but has to be seen in relation to a much wider tendency within cinema as well as contemporary culture as such. The ugly and apparently amateurish look has for instance been a trend within advertising at least since the 80s. Punk aesthetics has had a great impact for the last twenty years. In television an increasing number of programs consist of docu-soaps, video diaries, home videos, reality shows, and the like which seem to be an attempt to side-track the professionals and give the screen to ‘ordinary people’. The applied aesthetics seems to privilege the amateurish ‘made-on-the-cheap’ look.
The prerequisite of a minimal aesthetics makes Dogma 95 the last in a long line. In Denmark as well as internationally ugly cinema has received increased attention: films that do not consist of well-produced (focused, well-lit, harmoniously composed) images. Dogma 95 has forerunners throughout the whole history of cinema not only in cinema’s recent history. Just to mention a few recent examples, we find Harmony Korine who in his film Gummo (1997) uses a home video kind of style. Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) by Myrick and Sanchez are other films that in different ways exploit the illusion of truthfulness by an absolute minimum of aesthetic refinement. The Danish film by Jonas Elmer, Let’s Get Lost (1998), is an excellent example of the use of a documentary style. And one can think for instance of the success Jim Jarmusch achieved with his low-budget film Stranger Than Paradise from 1984.
The history of narrative cinema is rich in examples of the search for truthfulness. Cassavetes’ and Warhol’s films from the 60s and 70s are very diverse forerunners to a minimal cinematic aesthetics. But the traces go even further back. The cinema of illusion has been countered ever since its birth. Searchers for a cinema of the real as opposed to a cinema of illusion find prominent and obvious examples in the Italian Neo-realism from the 50s and in Vertov’s early manifestos of the 20s.
These examples of different filmmakers and genres which share some features with Dogma 95 are only a few and each one relates differently to Dogma 95. They are mentioned merely to suggest that the Dogma Manifesto hardly represents something shockingly new.
But if the very idea of authenticity is self-contradictory and not even new, what do we then make of the whole idea of Dogma 95?
First of all it appears that Dogma 95 is a very unclear statement. The object of criticism is not at all evident. The target is something called the cosmetics of film. But filmmaking will always imply the use of technology and what takes place before the camera is also a matter of technique (acting, directing, choice of settings, colors, etc.). And the fact that all kinds of techniques can be used for different purposes (art, entertainment, descriptive depiction) applies to mise-en-scene as well as post-production. According to Dogma 95 some techniques are allowed and some are not. Abandoning good taste, however, does not mean a lack of aesthetics. Bad taste arouses an aesthetic reflectivity and asserts something about the state of the arts. But it is not the applied techniques that prevent a film from being a work of art or a sincere work of authenticity. Dogma 95 does not even claim to be the only way of making films but is merely regarded as one alternative possibility. This undermines the critique of the cosmeticizing effect of technology.
Dogma 95 is very unclear and abstract in its criticism of contemporary cinema and the development of cinema since 1960. But it does not formulate a positive alternative either. The Manifesto and The Vow of Chastity do not qualify as a poetics of filmmaking and the films made in compliance with the rules and regulations confirm this. Having seen the three films finished under Dogma’s Ten Commandments (The Celebration (1998), The Idiots (1998), and Mifune’s Last Song (1999)) it is difficult if not impossible to consider Dogma 95 to be a common poetics.
The rules are more a way for each of the directors to rethink their own filmmaking and not least of drawing attention to the participating director’s films. Most important, Dogma 95 is a way of emphasizing the obligation of filmmakers to rethink the language of cinema. Moreover Dogma 95 has drawn international attention to Danish film and in particular the associates of Dogma 95, thus improving the possibilities of maintaining the role of Danish film in a world dominated by American cinema. Even if Dogma 95 may seem to be much ado about nothing, its impact on public awareness of cinema and its implied aesthetics has been great. It has encouraged reflection on the status of cinema and on film as an art form.
But insisting on rules forbidding technical interference with the image is inconsistent, insofar as the brotherhood of Dogma 95 does make fiction films. The director uses many conventional techniques in arranging the events and actors before the camera. What is filmed is by no means true to reality proper. Films are illusions but they might be authentic illusions revealing a truth bigger than life or just a game of make-believe. The oscillation between these two positions is what counts and Dogma 95 contributes with its insistence on true stories.
Bazin, André. What is Cinema? (Selected and translated by Hugh Gray). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.
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Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. London: Routledge, 1988.
Schepelern, Peter: "Filmen ifølge Dogme,"’ Dansk Film # 1, 1999.
Trier, Lars von: Idioterne. Manuskript og dagbog. Copenhagen: Gyldendal 1998.
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1 Cf. Dagbladet Information 1999 November 19th, p. 9
2 It is interesting to note that the Dogme Manifesto ("Dogme 95") expresses a similar rejection of a too easy access to filmmaking: "Today a technological storm is raging, the result of which will be the ultimate democratisation of the cinema. For the first time, anyone can make movies." See the Manifesto: Dogme 95 at www.dogme95.dk. The reaction is of the kind that rejects the possibility of art based on technological innovation: A "Since the electric guitar music has died"-kind of response.
3 Cf. Lars von Trier Idioterne, p. 238. I quote from von Trier’s diary of the filming of The Idiots. The diary is printed in the manuscript.
4 Here thematic includes all so-called deep structures that are not visible and hence not directly depictable.
5 André Bazin, "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema," What Is Cinema? p. 24.
6 The conception of the photographic image as a window on to the world has been widespread but it has also been widely disputed. Although the argument is made more complex André Bazin repeats the idea in his essay "The Ontology of the Photographic Image," What is Cinema.
7 Cf. for example David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, pp.156-204.
8 Korine’s film Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) has been certified as a film in compliance with Dogme 95.
9 Cf. Peter Schepelern: ‘Filmen ifølge Dogme’ [The movie according to Dogma], pp. 12-16.
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