P:O.V. No.10 - Aspects of Dogma, On THE IDIOTS

Spastic Aesthetics – The Idiots

Ove Christensen

Every film is also a documentary about itself and its creation.
Wim Wenders

Lars von Trier’s film The Idiots is in a sense an unbearable film to watch. It distances itself from the viewer. The images are rough and at times directly unpleasant to watch due to its ugliness and apparent carelessness in matters of colors, composition, lighting and content. Sometimes it is even difficult to determine what is being shown on the screen in that too direct lighting from windows disturbs the images. The movements of the hand-held camera make spatial orientation difficult and some of the jump cuts repel the spectator in that they destroy any conventional comprehension of the cinematic space and time. The effect is a distance or disconnection between spectator and the film. The film rejects direct communication. It is reserved, which of course somehow makes it seductive like an unintelligible work of Modernist art. The comparison with abstract art is not at all far fetched. The Idiots is in one sense a very abstract and cool film.

Simultaneously and contradictorily, The Idiots draws the spectator into the film’s universe, making it a very intense (and warm) film to watch. The use of the home video style minimises the distance between the story and the telling of the story in that the position of enunciation becomes, if not equivalent to, then very close to that of the spectator. The complicity between camera and spectator is caused by the film’s style, which mimes that of the spectators’ own videotaping of their children and other everyday experiences. This complicity between spectator and camera in The Idiots differs from the way identification between camera and spectator was discussed in the 60s and 70s. Baudry, Metz and Mulvey for example operate with a much more abstract psychoanalytical concept of the viewer and of the enunciation. The idea was that the (male) spectator-subject identifies with an omnipresent and omniscient enunciator giving the (male) spectator a pseudo control and thereby confirming the ideology of masculinity as actively mastering ‘the other’. The Idiots, however, mimes an aesthetic well known from everyday praxis, which makes the complicity much more immediate and intimate. One could say that the complicity in The Idiots is with the recording/taping and not with the camera as such.

Far from being a matter of physical and intellectual control the complicity between the filming of the film and the spectator becomes an emotional investment. The emotions at stake are so intense that the spectator is intimately involved. The empathy with the protagonist, Karen, is forced upon the spectator by the character’s vulnerability, her naive ‘goodness’ and not least by the embarrassing sequence with her family at the end of the film.

Contrary to Breaking the Waves the emotions laid bare in The Idiots are not presented as existing within a melodrama with its clear dramaturgy. It is stated in the Manifesto, Dogma 95, that dramaturgy is one of the techniques that has corrupted filmmaking giving it over to predictability, superficialities of action and the illusions of feelings.

Predictability (dramaturgy) has become the golden calf around which we dance. Having the characters’ inner lives justify the plot is too complicated, and not ‘high art’. As never before, the superficial action and the superficial movie are receiving all the praise. The result is barren. An illusion of pathos and an illusion of love. [1]

Obviously, however, dramaturgy is unavoidable [2]. In that it is sequential, film will always imply a dramaturgy. And furthermore, the spectator will make events connect and, hence, create a narrative. Still, it is obvious that The Idiots is not a good narrative measured by film school standards since its narrative is unfocussed and at times it is even completely void of any narrative drive.

When it comes to narrative the film disregards the audience. The narrative in The Idiots is not easily determined, but with the wisdom of hindsight it becomes evident that we follow two different narrative threads. In the course of the telling we are really not sure what the stories connected with the main characters Stoffer and Karen are about. We are never presented with a clear conflict.

The Idiots appears at first glance to be a very careless film. Sequences are strung together aimlessly without giving the spectator any concept of a project that might be important to the characters. The film refuses to answer the rather simple question of what the film is all about. We follow a collective of provocateurs of bourgeois behavior. They are playing at being idiots (‘spasser’)[3] as a kind of protest, but why they wish to provoke society – ‘the system’ – is in no sense clear. It becomes obvious that Stoffer is their leader and we feel his anger. But we do not get any explanation of this anger. The reason for his behavior and how this relates to what his purpose is with the community is beyond comprehension. In the sequence in the forest we get a few vague remarks about the idiot as the man of the future, which indicate a connection with the anti-psychiatric movement of the 70s. The same goes for the philosophy of ‘the inner idiot in every man’. But at the same time the collective’s project is not stated as political, and it is very doubtful that the members of the collective have a common motive for participating. Nana distances herself from the ‘spassing’ which she finds ridiculous. Susanne does not want to ‘spas’ at all, she only wants to take care of the ‘spassers’ when they go outside their large house.

The most obvious of the narrative strings is related to the project of ‘spassing’. The character Stoffer is the leader of the ‘spasser’ project and he tells Karen that the project is about letting one’s inner idiot out. This narrative is relatively difficult to consider as a narrative proper because the exact purpose of the project is never clear to the spectator. It appears that the ‘spassers’ have different objectives and these objectives are only passed on very reluctantly to the spectator. It becomes clear, however, that the original ‘spasser’ project is a failure.

The second narrative string is Karen’s struggle with the loss of her child and her recovery from grief and perhaps also her emancipation from a suppressive environment. Psychologically she represses her own needs and is subservient. As the film progresses, the spectator realizes that Karen’s story is the most intense. It is, however, also very difficult to follow this narrative in that we do not know anything about this narrative until the end. Only at the closing of the film are we told that Karen lost her new-born child and left home the day before the funeral. We understand furthermore that her home conditions were emotionally very repressive. Karen’s story has the structure of a joke in that the point at the end endows the rest of it with meaning. Only at the end does it become clear that Karen’s vulnerability (also) has an external explanation.

The two narrative threads are only detectable with hindsight, which makes a first time seeing of the film confusing. A narrative normally needs a drive, which this film lacks. But when one has spotted the two threads of narrative it turns out that they mirror each other. In retrospect it might look like this: Karen and the ‘spasser’ meet accidentally at a restaurant and the intertwining of narratives takes its beginning. Karen tries to phone her husband, Anders, but hangs up on him, while the ‘spassers’ evaluate the ‘day’s spassing’. This evaluation is the beginning of the end for the ‘spassing project’ while Karen has taken the first step towards reconciliation with the fact of the death of her child and to emancipation from the restraints of her family life. While Stoffer’s plot is failing, Karen more and more becomes the true successor of the ‘spasser’ project as a means to the accomplishment of her own project.

The turning point is the sequence with the real ‘spassers’ with Down’s syndrome. Here, the two narratives cross. The collective’s reactions toward the real ‘spassers’ mark a severe crisis for the project. Meanwhile Karen is getting in touch with her inner self and is beginning to ‘spas’. Unlike the pretending to be a ‘spasser’, it seems that Karen is involuntarily ‘spassing’, which marks her ‘spassing’ as more genuine. She is letting her inner idiot out, something the others did not have the ability to do. Whereas Stoffer is going to pieces Karen is becoming aware of what she has to do. After Stoffer’s breakdown and the failure of the ‘spassing’ project, she takes over the task of demonstrating that it is possible to use the inner idiot to change one’s character.

This narrative is thus in consonance with the thematic structure of the film. Basically the film is about role playing and being [4]. What does it mean to be someone and what does it mean to pretend to be someone? Is being a consequence of acting or does acting make a disguise of an individual’s character? Is the individual a persona, a mask? This concerns the status of fiction in relation to reality. In this respect The Idiots is about identity and character and thus also about film as medium and as art.

In The Idiots we find three different strata of characters in relation to the character’s identity with itself [5]. At the one end we find the people with Down’s syndrome. The Downers act as themselves or at least they are placed as Downers being themselves within the film’s universe. It is assumed that the Downers are identical with themselves. They do not pretend to be someone else in that they do not possess a facade that hides their real selves. We can note this as: I = ‘I’, the latter referring to appearances whereas the first refers to the real identity of the person. The idea is that an individual’s identity is literally an identity. Identity is understood as the essence of a person. An individual is his or her character.

At the other end is the interviewer. This stratum is a little more difficult to determine because it is not clearly situated within the film. Who is actually interviewing the characters and why, and when are the interviews taking place? Are the interviews part of the same narrative as is unfolding during the rest of the film? It is obvious that the interviews are taking place after the events of the ‘spasser’ period. But we find no temporal indication of the relation between the main events and the interviews. The logical relation of the interviews to the rest of the film is also strange. In a later stage of life, the characters are interviewed about an earlier stage. The interviews indicate that we are watching a documentary and this seems in accordance with the fact that the character Henrik is taking notes, apparently recording the ‘spasser’ project. But it is nowhere indicated that the collective is participating in a documentary and likewise a production crew behind the recounting of the events is never made explicit, although we see operating cameramen. Henrik’s taking notes is marked as an individual act and not as part of a more detailed recording. However, the interviewer clearly has an insight into what has happened in the spasser collective. It is as if he has seen the same film that the spectator is watching. At least there is no indication of how he relates to the narrative of the film.

Pinpointing the interviewer’s role exactly is made even more difficult in that he might be ‘playing’ different roles simultaneously. First of all he is an interviewer within the film. He is a character asking questions, although in a playful and ironic manner. He is gaining information through his interview. It is strange in relation to the interview genre that we do not see the interviewer but only hear his questions. Normally we would either see the interviewer in cross cutting or questions would be cut out.

As an actor the interviewer is identifiable as the same person as the non-credited director Lars von Trier. The director, who is also the writer of the manuscript, is questioning the characters. This peculiarity is emphasized by the way the interviews are conducted and the way the interviews work. The interviews are endowed with a high degree of authenticity and appear as unprepared. It becomes plausible that the characters are not reading lines from a manuscript but simply answering questions in relation to a fictitious character. The authenticating effect emphasizes the documentary tone. This is, however, contradicted by the alienation effect caused by the interviewer being the director, which totally breaks the illusion of documentary as well as the illusion of the filmic make-believe. The same contradictory effect arises from the cameramen being visible in the picture. On the one hand it indicates documentary and realism, a recording of something, which exists independently of its filming. On the other hand it has the meta-filmic effect of breaking the film’s own illusion.

The interviewing character being Lars von Trier gives the scene an extra dimension. Lars von Trier as an unseen character/ interviewer invites the spectator to think about what he or she knows about von Trier. As John Fiske remarks, knowledge or gossip concerning media personalities as stars will influence the reception. [6]

The interviewer does not posses an identity. He is only a function, a voice that poses questions, but without any being of his own. This is of course contradicted by our knowledge about von Trier. But as a character, the interviewer does not have any character. He is dehumanized as is also shown by the fact that we only hear his voice and see his knees but never see him as a human figure [7]. The interviewer is the negation of man and of identity.

Between the two strata mentioned there are the main characters possessing different roles at different times. Basically the main characters inhabit three different positions. They are ‘spassers’ when they are in a ‘spassing’ mode. They are simply persons or ordinary people when they behave normally. In the interview session they are different people looking back in time. They have changed in the meanwhile and now look at themselves from a distance and from the outside. From any one of these positions, the other possible positions are considered precisely as roles they might be playing, while the one they actually inhabit will be considered as an identity closer to the person’s self-identity. In this case the I differs from the ‘I’, but an identity exists as an opportunity. If it is possible to ascribe a goal to ‘spassing’: getting closer to the I through the ‘I’. As in the instance with the people with Down’s syndrome the idea is still essentialistic.

It is possible to distinguish between three different ‘spasser’ modes, in that the spassing takes place for different reasons and with varying degrees of impact. The ideology of ‘spassing’ is that it is possible to let one’s inner idiot out. This is the genuine ‘spassing’ where the role-playing becomes indistinguishable from the being. It is this that Karen, as the only one, achieves when she is ‘spassing’ involuntarily and when she repeats this when she is together with her family. This kind of idiocy is a way of getting rid of one’s false self and becoming a different person. It is almost a Nietzschean project of becoming as opposed to being.

But the spassing is also a method to provoke the bourgeoisie. It is a way of displaying the hollowness of conventional behavior. It is an ideological critique of bourgeois society and the oppression of true individuality. Thirdly the ‘spassing’ is used to prevent reality’s intrusion on the ‘spasser’ project and to maintain the collective’s benefits, for example to stay in the house which belongs to Stoffer’s uncle despite potential buyers.

The Idiots is a film about acting and role-playing. One of the themes is the relation between playing a role and being a person. In what way can one ‘be’ without ‘playing’? It makes the status of identity as well as the status of fiction its central concern. The film is also about filmmaking. The editing in the film is discontinuous and the images are often blurred and shaky because of the lack of proper lighting and the hand-held camera. The editing draws attention to the film as a film. But it is also part of the documentary style. The stylistic oscillation between documentary (minimized or spontaneous aesthetics) and marked artificiality furthermore makes the film an investigation into the status of film and the grammar of film. In this sense, The Idiots is a film about its own making.

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1 Dogme 95 (The Dogme Manifesto), www.dogme95.dk

2 Cf. the diary von Trier made under the shooting of The Idiots. The diary is included in the published manuscript. And in an interview with Peter Øvig Knudsen, von Trier says about the wish to avoid dramaturgy: "It's a contradiction in terms, because no matter what choice you make, it's dramaturgy." The interview 'The Man Who Would Give Up Control' is published on www.dogme95.dk

3 'Spasser' is a condescending term referring to spastic or mentally handicapped people. To 'spasse' is to behave or act like a 'spasser'.

4 From another point of view Britta Timm Knudsen also read The Idiots as a reflection on the relation between being and playing. See her "Billedernes realisme: Jean-Luc Godards Vivre sa vie og Lars von Triers Idioterne", Periskop # 9, 2000, pp. 239-250.

5 In a very interesting essay Birger Langkjær also discusses different strata of characters in The Idiots. He is trying to develop a theory about the spectator's reception of characters by distinguishing between 'person', 'actor' and 'character'. Contrary to Langkjær's emphasis on the level of reception, I am looking at character strata thematically. But my own reading is in some respects close to Langkjær's. See Langkjær: "Fiktioner og virkelighed i Lars von Triers Idioterne", Kosmorama # 224, 1999, pp. 107-120.

6 See for example John Fiske, Television Culture. Routledge: London 1987, p. 84f. Langkjær also discuss the influences on reception exerted by the spectator's knowledge of the characters as persons and actors.

7 That we do not actually see the interviewer is also a joke about the rule of Dogme 95 that the director must not be credited. It is a joke in two senses. Being off-screen in a cameo role is a comment upon the rule. But secondly it scorns the rule itself by indicating that the director does not relinquish control of his creation, but is in charge. This is obviously the case with Lars von Trier who shot most of the film himself and despite improvisations, the film follows the manuscript pretty closely. Having more than 100 hours of film the director gains in the editing the control which he relinquished in the filming.

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