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

The Agitated Camera
A diagnosis of Anthony Dod Mantle’s camera work in The Celebration

Thomas Lind Laursen

This brief essay proposes an analysis of the camera work in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration and concludes with an intentionally provocative critique of that camera work and the dogma concept which inspired it.

The Celebration is made to look like a home video – the sort which is customarily shot at family get-togethers. As such the choice of medium befits the setting as well as the subject of the film. Even more so because the grainy, fragmentary video picture offers an emblematic image of the family ties, and because the handheld camera produces an overwhelming phenomenological account of the hectic and claustrophobic experience of a family reunion.

There are no classical p.o.v. shots in The Celebration, only conversational ones (i.e. ‘over-the-shoulder-shots’)[1]. In an illusory way these shots seem the more simple and less constructed of the two since the camera (in theory) can work without the participation of the recorded characters, seeing that it doesn’t have to swap positions with them. Therefore the nearly exclusive use of conversational p.o.v. shots in effect makes the film look like a simple amateur recording, even if this is far from being the actual case[2]. But it does more than this. It reduces the viewer of the film to a witness rather than a participator when it comes to the emotional focus of the film, as it makes us relate to rather than identify with its central character.[3]

Yet the physical focus of the film differs significantly from the emotional focus as the camera tries to create for the viewer the illusion of actually being present at the family estate and of nearly taking part in the characters’ actions (be it embracing others or fighting them). To this end the camera proves a probing, intrusive, and somewhat uncultivated registrar carrying out its strategy to such a degree that at one point it actually ventures into the very bag in which Mette is looking for Michael’s shoes. Likewise, earlier in the film, the camera comes so close to its characters that Mette’s rejection of Michael’s embrace causes Michael’s hand to hit the camera (providing as it were, the home video equivalent of the spattered blood on Janusz Kaminski’s camera in Saving Private Ryan). In this way the camera, figuratively speaking, assaults or lets itself be assaulted by its objects. Thus the narrative theme of physical injustice is treated even in the form of the film. The violent aspect of the camera work is furthermore indicated in the nearly abstract images it repeatedly produces.

In fact the camera in The Celebration displays an intense fixation with bodies. It therefore never lingers on unoccupied spaces[4]. And though there are some cases of pre-positioning (i.e. pre-framing) in the film (nearly all of which are in effect cases of the pre-destination of the narrative's development), the camera will follow, rather than lead the characters[5]. In addition, it clearly favours close-ups and extreme close-ups in preference to any other type of shot, focusing especially on faces and hands, the latter revealing among other things Christian’s neurosis and Helene’s fidgety behavior in a manner reminiscent of Robert Bresson[6]. And though there are some reaction shots recorded in calm close-ups (especially during the speeches at the dining table), the close shots in The Celebration are generally linked to distortion, crooked angles, and jerky movement. Long shots, on the other hand, are always calm.

In a television interview made in the eighties the celebrated singer/songwriter Elvis Costello admitted to having what he himself considered a flaw in his musical abilities. Whenever he raised his voice while singing he would involuntarily tear the strings of his guitar – and vice versa – as though there had been an unbreakable bond between the mutually contagious stylistic elements, both of which seem likewise easily agitated. It is from this ‘Costello-syndrome’ that the cinematographic elements in The Celebration seem to suffer[7]. When recording turbulent motion the camera will itself become unsteady. When recording still or calm situations it too will be still and calm. The cause for the camera to get upset is therefore neither audible/vocal (as the example given below concerning Helge’s reaction to Helene’s speech will show), nor emotional (the first time Christian faces his father in the film, his emotional turmoil is conceived in close-ups of his nervous gestures – not in the camera movement, which is calm and composed). Being an easily agitated camera, it still reacts solely on physical cues. Examples of these abound: Michael’s awkward embrace of Christian, the fights between the two, the excited activity of the family members arriving in the parking lot, etc., etc. Yet the best example is the scene showing us Helge’s reaction to being ignored by the waiters when demanding to have a bottle of port sent up to Helene so that he can propose a toast to her despite her devastating speech. As long as he is still sitting at the table, the camera observing him remains similarly balanced and composed (even though he raises his voice considerably). Only when he actually rises from his seat and demonstratively slams his fist on the table does the camera ‘awaken’ and ‘shy away’ from him, trying at the same time to follow the trajectory of the cutlery which he throws at the waiters.[8]

There is another set of camera movements in The Celebration which stand in clear contrast to the nervous camera style I have described until now: namely a number of remarkably restful and static shots, or slowly gliding camera movements. They are frequently accompanied by a soundless soundtrack and are often shot from positions far from the people observed – primarily from a bird’s eye view or from unoccupied rooms (where a silent wind is seen lifting long white curtains, just to make sure the audience understands the significance of the shots). These shots obviously constitute a sort of ‘ghost view’ meant to belong to Christian’s dead twin sister Linda. They display a composure and breadth of view which the previously mentioned camera obviously cannot attain. At other times though, this ghost view is recorded from positions halfway hidden behind beds and balustrades, under chairs and tables, suggesting a frightened frame of mind and a cautious distance to the living.

As far as I can see there are three justifications for including these ghost shots in the film: First of all their possibly unsettling atmosphere and effect (drawing our attention at one and the same time to things in the past as well as to things yet to come), and secondly their function of relief from what might otherwise easily have turned out to be a somewhat strenuous, visual onslaught of a never-ceasing, restless camera. Not only is the ‘normal/non-spectral’ camera obsessed with bodies – in a way it almost seems to signify one itself. The physicality of the camera movements is so intense as to nearly make the camera a tangible entity: a living individual. It is therefore appropriate that the point of view of the ghost – being metaphysical, without bodily limitations and fears – does not share the frantic, feverish quality of the ‘other’ camera but rather appears settled and somewhat superior[9]. This, then, is the third reason for including the ghost shots in the film: to emphasize – by negation – that the peculiar movement of the ‘living’ camera in the film is a manifestation of the timid, yet agitated psychosomatic effect of a sexual assault. It is in other words to be perceived as a symptom.

With its constant swish-pans, tracking (or rather carried) shots, and quick zooms in and out (as though it were a trombone), nothing is done in order to conceal the camera’s presence. On the contrary, the camera work in The Celebration is so clearly visible that it can almost be said to call attention to itself – and this even more so because Anthony Dod Mantle in his eagerness to create stunning images reveals the hand that held the camera three times during the film[10]. In his endeavor to create the illusion of presence, he succeeds in revealing the presence of the illusion-maker, turning the camera, as already mentioned, into a nearly palpable presence – almost as though it were an additional family member: an extra fictional person.

One might go so far as to say that much of the camera movement in The Celebration is movement for movement’s sake[11]. At any rate it seems important to ask what justifies the film’s extravagant camera work.

The two most obvious (and immediately reasonable) answers to this question would be that the camera work finds its inspiration and origin in either the main character’s neurosis or in the claustrophobic and feverish intensity of family life[12]. Still, it seems strange that the portrayal of the space occupied by Christian and his family should not change after the culmination of the evening's events and the ensuing reorganization of the family's hierarchic structure[13]. We are made to believe that the tension of tempers is relaxed at the end of the film. Significantly Christian has seemingly overcome his emotional problems as we see him inviting Pia (whose affections he has earlier been unable to return) with him to his home in Paris. Likewise the rest of the family seem relatively restful following a good night’s sleep after the tumultuous evening. Yet there is no redemption to be deciphered in the movement of the camera at the end of the film. After Helge is seen lying defeated on the lawn whispering "kill me", the camera, in an unusually calm pan, follows a bird across the sky as a new day dawns (!) [14]. This is succeeded by what is probably the most profoundly composed, stabilized, and moderate shot in the entire film: in a long (establishing (!)) shot the mansion is seen lying quietly and peacefully (with no sign of human activity as yet to be seen) as a mist slowly dissolves on the lake beside it (!) [15]. Then the breakfast table is seen being set by the servants – still everything is peaceful and quiet. But as soon as the family members start gathering at the table the camera again becomes jumpy and nervous. The necessary and predictable confrontation with the evil father has taken place, yet by the time the breakfast table is fully occupied the camera behaves just as it did earlier in the film.

In my opinion this must mean that neither Christian nor the family as a whole are to be regarded as the cause of (or indeed to be blamed for) the camera work in the film. For in this case, following the film’s own logic, the camera ought to have been relaxed and composed. Rather, I believe, the explanation is to be found within the principles on which the film was made – i.e. the dogma rules.

I would suggest that the cause of the special camera style in The Celebration is that the dogma concept is hysterical[16]. However far-fetched this may sound, I find – considering the topic of the film, its display of psychological realism, the camera’s extreme obsession with bodies, as well as the dogmatic equation of extravagant cinematography with sex (hence the ‘vow of chastity’) – that it is not only fair but also appropriate to continue discussing The Celebration by using a psychosomatic terminology. Even more so since the term ‘hysterical’ applies not only to the dogma project but to the film’s main character as well.

The dominant characteristics of hysteria can be defined as "shallow, labile emotions, manipulative behavior, a tendency to overdramatize situations, a lack of self-criticism, and a fickle flirtatiousness with little capacity for sustained sexual relationships"[17]. Christian obviously displays labile emotions, manipulative behavior and a lack of capacity for sustained sexual relationships as is indicated in his relationship with Pia – up until the mentioned change at the end of the film.[18]

Regarding the hysteria of the Dogma Brothers, they are, to take them at their word, uninterested in (or unable to enjoy) a sustained sexual relationship – meaning, in their own vocabulary, the creation of an extravagant cinematographic construct[19]. Instead they have chosen an anti-aesthetic film style which will inevitably overdramatize situations as it finds its primus motor in an incessantly active camera at all times involved in avoiding and disrupting any possible Americanization of the image (i.e. any invisibility of camera work or editing). This happens regardless of the subject of individual scenes. In return the film is never really allowed to dwell upon its characters, leaving their postulated emotions shallow as a result. Despite its being based on a set of creative commandments (which indeed seem to lack self-criticism) the outcome is of course every bit as manipulative as any other type of film.

"The film is not to take place where the camera is positioned, but is to be shot where the film is taking place" one of the commandments of the dogma rules reads. By treating the constructiveness of cinematography as though it had been false and impure, the dogma film comes to favor a feverish spontaneity that finds its perfect instrument in the handheld camera. Likewise, contempt for the artificiality of film provokes the Dogma Brothers to renounce all aesthetic taste (as demanded by their set of rules). Among other things this results in the disharmonious camera style discussed in this essay. In his eagerness to destroy the harmonious image (and display the disharmonious family) at any price, Vinterberg continues his stylistic strategy beyond the point where it should have ceased.

Through the art of low budget limitation ‘professed’ by their ‘profound’ set of rules, the Dogma Brothers implicitly claim to have gained access to a certain insight neglected by superficial million dollar productions. As if they had found a way to look right through the extravaganza of American moviemaking to a filmmaking more real and pure. This, then, is also the aim of Thomas Vinterberg’s dogma film. Still, due to the hysterically ideological service in which the cinematographic components of the film are used, these components end up disrupting the stylistic integrity of the narrative, thereby revealing the film to be neither more nor less superficial than the type of film it so eagerly sought to oppose.

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1 Only once in the film, when Christian is looking out his bedroom window, does the film provide us with a nearly classical p.o.v. shot (lacking only the first shot of the eyes that are seeing in order to constitue a so-called ‘p.o.v. sandwich’).

2 The Celebration displays a classical film construction: apart from the earlier mentioned use of conversational p.o.v. structures (which despite their seemingly innocent authenticity are of course cinematographic constructs) the film for instance features many elaborate cross-cutting sequences.

3 Still there is no doubt that The Celebration is Christian’s story. He is the protagonist, he changes things, he himself changes during the story, and it is with him that the film begins and ends.

4 Though there is a noteworthy exceptance to this, to which I shall return later.

5 For instance the camera waiting somewhat ominously for Christian to open the door to the parents’ annex and enter the dark hallway that will take him to his father; the camera waiting out of focus in order to focus on Helene and the receptionist as they come to tidy up Linda’s old bedroom (an interprise that will eventually result in the discovery of the fateful goodbye note); and the camera waiting for the enlightened Michael to emerge from the darkness to engage in near patricide.

6 Christian is shown to wipe his fingers nervously and the camera noses in on Helene’s smoking.

7 Let me just note that I do not find this peculiarity of Costello’s to be a deficiency in his musicality but rather a charming facet, integral to his admirable style – much as is the case with Anthony Dod Mantle’s camera work in The Celebration. My term ‘the Costello-syndrome’ is thus merely meant as a descriptive rather than a derogatory term.

8 The editing of the film will often function in a fashion similar to this as it tends to cut to arresting action: such as matches been striken, doors being opened, people falling, dropping glasses etc. etc. – i.e. on physical cues.

9 It is, by the way, somewhat strange that the less physical the beholder of the contrasting point of views the more specific its identity. Both camera styles seem to constitute the p.o.v. of an extra person. But the ghost shot (even though it be-longs to no body) obviously belongs to somebody (namely Linda) whereas the ‘normal/living’ camera, despite its extreme physicality, doesn’t really belong to anybody in specific. (My division of the camera work into the recordings of a ‘normal/living’ and a ‘ghostly/undead’ camera is of course merely meant to provide descriptive, analytical terms).

10 Once in the rear view mirror of a car, once in the sunglasses worn by Helene, and once in the mirror in Mette’s and Michael’s bedroom. These ‘mistakes’ can again be said to emphasize the amateurish home video quality of the film.

11 For instance the shot at the beginning of the film, where Michael’s car arrives at the estate, seems notably overdramatized. It is possible that this shot is thought as a ghost view, but this seems unlikely as it differs in far too many ways from the later shots of this kind. Furthermore one would think that Vinterberg would be more anxious to make sure that the audience understood the shot’s metaphysical significance had this been his aim.

12 Every family has its secrets states the subtitle of The Celebration.

13 In addition, as was argued earlier, the film ought to have been shot differently had the emotional (psychological) and the physical focus of film been meant to correlate.

14 Here again physicality is seen to be of paramount importance in The Celebration. Of the two brothers’ confrontations with their father it is Michael’s physical approach (as opposed to Christian’s psychological one) that has the most conclusive effect.

15 This is the notable exception to the camera’s disinterest in unoccupied spaces, meantioned earlier.

16 I not only find this to be evidently revealed in the last scene, but to be true of the film as a whole. Regarding the dogma concept, the term ‘hysteria’ is admittedly used here in a slightly derogative sense. This is, however, not the case in my treatment of Christian’s personality disorder.

17 Whitlock, F.A. Hysteria. IN: Gregory, Richard L. (Ed.). The Oxford Companion to The Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 333-334.

18 In addition Christian displays two further symptoms of hysteria, namely "feelings of constriction in the throat" (suitably emphasizing the film’s preoccupation with speech: for instance Christian’s formal speeches, Linda’s whispering and Michael’s yelling) and a "dissociation" appearing in the form of fugues, twilight states or trances (perfectly designating the two visional instances regarding Linda during Christian’s unconscious [sleeping and later comatose] condition). Dissociation is also known to appear as multiple personality disorders (as is the case with Christian’s childhood alter ego Snut). This phenomenon of dissociation is regarded as a means of "escaping from an intolerable situation or suffering from a severe depression. This wandering behaviour has been equated with an act of suicide, with the patient seeking some state of nirvana which will free him from his worldly cares and responsibilities". This fits well with Christian’s condition. Even the closing notion of suicide is relevant to his case as it not only points back to the sad cause of death for his twin sister Linda but also points forward to his own readiness to join her in the afterlife ("shall I come with you?" he asks her during his last vision). (Quotes: Ibid.)

19 By using the term ’vow of chastity’ it seems the Dogma Brothers are saying that they believe an indelicate injustice to have been committed against the film medium by the American, Spielburgerized movie makers. As though it had indeed been raped. This is of course every bit as ridiculous as it sounds. Still, as a parallel to Christian’s case, it provides an interesting explanation as to where the dogmatic hysteria stems from.

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