P:O.V. No.10 - Aspects of Dogma, On THE DOGMA MOVEMENT IN GENERAL

Auteurs in Style
The Heresy or Indulgence of the Dogma Brothers

Edvin Vestergaard Kau

Only a few films have been made under the Dogma directors' vow of chastity. I have seen the first three. But a lot of noise has been made about it – in newspapers, as well as in journals and magazines: articles, students’ analyses, interviews, reviews en masse; much of it resulting in waves of hype, and all of it results of a brilliant piece of public relations. So, what has happened? The Dogma rules and the vows are all about cinematic language: what is allowed and what is not. The question we may ask is: what is referred to as the contrast to the Dogma comrades' chastity and their disavowal of more sexy film appeals? What contexts and traditions of film art and theory may be at play in, or behind, the Dogma search for realism and authenticity?

Art and artists on the screen

In The Celebration, two brothers, Christian and Michael, and their sister, Helene, are in their respective rooms. When Helene has found the letter from Christian's twin sister and read about their father's abuse, she goes "Boo!" to scare the receptionist and distract him so he won't notice her state of mind. Within a second or so, a rapid, beautiful montage connects what is happening at this exact moment in the three rooms. In normal everyday life there is no connection whatsoever, but the editing does the trick. Pure illusion. Is everything in this place and movie OK, and taking place according to the laws of nature? The effectively executed and artistically beautiful editing, which, not only here, but all through the film, establishes telling connections between reactions and otherwise separate events, might suggest supernatural forces at play. On the other hand, this may not be the case, especially bearing in mind the down-to-earth denial of illusionism of the manifesto. But then again, at least the artistry of the editing (fortunately not mentioned in the "thou shall not" rules) has brought a magician, in the shape of the director-editor, into the viewer's field of sight.

Similarly, in The Idiots someone plays impossible, ironic games about levels of fiction and pieces of reality within other fictions and so on. To take an example: is the director (voice)/cameraman interviewing the "real" people who are acting and cheating like "spassers", or is he interviewing the real actors playing the "real" characters? Or, is he playing a director interviewing these folks? In this piece of Dogma realism, we have illusions within endless illusions. But the fact remains that the play is initiated by the storyteller, embodied in this role and stylistic gesture. "Was it a game, then?"

Mifune is no less unrealistic than Dogma # 1 and # 2. A yuppie groom, Kresten, is forced out of the capital and his honeymoon days, back to the hillbilly-like farm and hometown. Not only has his father died, he also has to take care of his mentally retarded brother. Meanwhile, in the big city, a prostitute, Liva, (making money this way to keep her little brother in an expensive boarding school) is trying to escape from pimps and threatening customers. Kresten hires her as a maid. The four outcasts must try to get back on their feet by themselves. Complications and almost no help from any friends – plus a pot of gold in the end. It is a folktale on film, with small people who become larger than life, thanks to a filmmaker whose use of locations and performances contributes to a heartwarming experience, as well as reflections on weighty topics like solidarity, ambition, love, prejudice and the difficult job of growing up. What else does an almost according-to-formula, folk tale-like movie like this need to do to make the audience smile or laugh with and not at the characters? (In this respect it is definitely different from Idiots and Celebration, in both of which it is difficult to find very many characters to sympathize with). In short, artistic control with a human touch. It seems to me that Kragh-Jacobsen has a more mature view of life and his fellow men, and that you feel this even in the editing, use of light, framing control, as well as in other stylistic details. Not that the characters in Mifune are not complex figures, because they are, but the filmmaker's craftsmanship is practiced in a way that balances bitter and sweet in most scenes. It may be easier to make misanthropic films like Idiots and Celebration, but Mifune succeeds in making a rather implausible script into a warm, thought-provoking experience. In contrast, you may ask: is it possible to disagree with Celebration on the question of incest? Does it provoke really surprising characterizations of family members? Is it possible to find any points of discussion in Idiots' workshop of self-reflections?

Realist commandments, traditional discussion

Earlier attempts to rebel against conventional film and decadent contemporary cinema have failed, or so they say. In the search for authenticity, the manifesto refers to la Nouvelle Vague: "In 1960, enough was enough! Cinema was dead and had to be revived. The goal was right, but the means were wrong. The new wave became a ripple that hit the beach and became mud." (Dogma 95). Money, and the traditions of the film industry, eventually corrupted the French directors' attempt at a new, fresh, down-to-earth cinema. "The concept of the director as auteur was bourgeois romanticism from the start and therefore – false." (Ibid). An urge to find authenticity and some kind of realistic means of cinematic storytelling runs through the document. The tradition in which the Dogma brothers seek their ancestors is, of course, that of the French Nouvelle Vague and Italian Neorealism.

Theory – realism and/or reality?

There is a long theoretical and critical tradition of discussing the relationship between film and reality, and different views on the matter have been used to promote different styles of filmmaking. Is film just an "automatic" reproduction of reality, and is it a worthwhile effort to enhance the impression of being close to everyday life? In "Film as art" (1933) Rudolf Arnheim wrote:

There are still many educated people who stoutly deny the possibility that film might be art. They say, in effect: "Film cannot be art, for it does nothing but reproduce reality mechanically." Those who defend this point of view are reasoning from the analogy of painting. In painting, the way from reality to the picture lies via the artist's eye and nervous system, his hand and, finally, the brush that puts strokes on the canvas. The process is not mechanical as that of photography, in which the light rays reflected from the object are collected by a system of lenses and are then directed onto a sensitive plate where they produce chemical changes. Does this state of affairs justify our denying photography and film a place in the temple of the Muses?"

Apart from the possibility that Dogma ‘95 may be joking with their own temple order, so to speak, what is essential to our discussion of the manifesto and a tradition of realism is not the film-as-art-discussion as such, but that this "mechanical" or "automatic" point of view has been so persistent in critical, theoretical, and artistic considerations of film and authenticity. It is a notion that has informed thought in all three fields for years and years. Thus, Arnheim characterizes the notion that film is a direct copy or reprint of reality, and he, of course, goes on to "refute thoroughly and systematically" the idea that film and photography are nothing but mechanical reproductions.

Still, it has remained a traditional point of view, characteristic of points of departure for further theorizing, from Kracauer through Bazin and Barthes to Metz. Note how close the Arnheim quote is to Barthes ("Rhetorique de l'image", l964): "Il faut donc opposer la photographie, message sans code, au dessin, qui, même dénoté, est un message codé." Taking the comparison a step further, he states that the photographer (and the cinematographer and film director, I infer) is not obliged to make distinctions and choose "entre le signifiant et l'insignifiant: le dessin ne reproduit pas tout, et souvent même fort peu de choses, sans cesser cependant d'etre un message fort, alors que la photographie, si elle peut choisir son sujet, son cadre et son angle, ne peut intervenir à l'intérieur de l'objet (sauf truquage); autrement dit, la dénotation du dessin est moins pure que la dénotation photographique."

As Arnheim points out, this is simply not so. The cinematographer and the director have countless opportunities to choose and manipulate during planning and shooting footage, as well as in postproduction.

In much the same way as Barthes, Kracauer ("Theory of Film") is of the opinion that one, if not the most important property of the film medium is this indexical connection to reality. The impression is that this point of view, which is accurately described, very much to the point, by Arnheim, has been inherited by both Barthes and even Metz, within a French tradition whose reflections on the film medium are very much centered around, and deeply influenced by, the prominent figure of André Bazin.

An important part of Bazin's conception of film is the faithfulness with which it is able to capture reality (I am aware that this is not everything, but it's there). He elaborated on many, not least psychological-phenomenological nuances in his understanding of cinema, but in this light he even saw the development of film language as a growing approximation to the perfect reproduction of the world: the lifelike reproduction of real life developed from realist painting through still photography, to cinematography, talking movies, color, depth of field, wide screen, etc. In some places Bazin talks about the basic properties of film in an almost Kracauerian voice, as it were. In Metz, even those of his texts inspired by psychoanalysis are underpinned by belief in the realistic movie picture. Things are not present in the theatre, only pictures move on the screen. But the lack he talks about, and the possible desire to get hold of what is lacking, is deeply dependent upon (belief in) realistically reproducing pictures. In the same line of succession, even Deleuze ventriloquizes in the same Bazin-and-Barthes-voice as the one Arnheim ironically characterized so well: not only does he talk about "automatic" images of cinema (preface to English edition of "Cinema 1. The movement-image"), he also projects his concepts of so-called movement-image and time-image "onto orthodox historiography of style" (see: David Bordwell: "On the history of film style", 116-17). Even the emergence of the time-image around World War II (that is, Welles: "Citizen Kane" & Neorealism) he discovers – "just as Bazin argued". Incisively characterized by Bordwell, Deleuze's philosophical essay rests and relies "unquestioningly" upon traditional research and writings about film language and history.

So, concepts of cinematic realism and belief in the cinema-photographic picture run through the history of film and film style, becoming tradition; and through many writings and critical presentations they have been disseminated to filmmakers as well as audiences. The ghost of cinematic mimesis is still wandering through studios and cinema theatres, and settling in television sets.

Film tradition and style, artists and auteurs

The tradition in which Dogma inscribes itself goes back to Neorealism and La Nouvelle Vague, and references also include Cinéma Vérité. Among the films are classics like Ossessione (Visconti, 1942), Bicycle Thieves (de Sica, 1947), Umberto D (de Sica, 1952), Rome – Open City (Rosselini, 1945), A bout de souffle (Godard, 1959) and Les quatre cents coups (Truffaut, 1959). These too, were films that took the shooting into the streets, into apartments, small rooms, cityscapes, and the open country. Some used handheld cameras; in many cases amateurs as actors; daylight and streetlights instead of lamps.

Apart from their freshness and devotion to the everyday life of ordinary people, at least in retrospect it is evident that they are very carefully made, with great artistry in drama, even melodrama, often a fine sense of comedy, precise camerawork, and meticulous editing; all of it combined in an overall sense of cinematic style. Thus I contend that the most important characteristics of these traditions or schools of cinematic fiction is not what is traditionally called realism, but the development of certain, uniquely cinematic, styles of relating stories. Hence, in many ways I think that traditional theories miss the point of what realism means to cinema in general, as well as in their descriptions of neorealist and other films. This has to do with the point of view that film as such is almost a duplication of reality.

In much the same way, the Dogma manifesto mistakes its own rules or commandments for authenticity. They seem to want to make one film practice more true-to-life than others, but what in effect is more important in their films are the nuances to be found in the style of their cinematic language, and the artistic choices involved in their practice. That is to say they position a narrator – or make him visible, so to speak – through the storytelling activity of the camera and the editing. This is the art and the artistic achievement, in old neo- as well as new realistic films, in new, as well as old new waves.

In the perspective of the reflections on film and theory, history and tradition outlined here, the Dogma papers and films tend to be rather contradictory. Far from being direct, like, for instance, cinéma vérité-like workshops, the more important part of their effort is that they insist on their stylization and that the viewers are made aware of things like the use of the camera, visual quality and the somewhat strained presentation of themes. People begin to discuss both style and the Artist behind it, rather than what the pictures may tell us.

The Dogma monks don't want to be considered artists, but there you are: they are given at least as much credit for these small productions (if not on screen, then everywhere else) as others are for films with a more traditional look.

From neo-realism to cinéma vérité, film history has reliably proved that authenticity is a chimerical goal. Sooner or later, the impression of raw immediacy congeals and stands exposed as a style like any other.
(Peter Matthews, Sight and Sound, March 1999).

Consequently, most of the virtuosity you find displayed in the three films is in the editing, which is precisely not mentioned in Dogma's vow of chastity. In the creative urge, and the desire to experiment – lies the Dogma Auteurs' Art, which carries on the tradition of going into a clinch with film language itself. Not that every part of the few examples reaches the level of the pioneers whose shoulders they stand upon, but with a few, public relations-related tools, they have initiated a surprising amount of discussion about something as exotic as the details of film language and style, both within the film industry and among filmmakers, as well as in the audience.

To the extent that the Dogma Auteurs succeed in meeting the audience in a meaningful discussion, in an arena defined by their stories and the way they tell them, it is not really on the basis of the Dogma principles. Rather, one may see it as a result of heresy against their own vows and commandments. In the light of this, any purchase of tickets in a positive spirit, and as a sign of interest, may help the filmmakers to buy indulgence.


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Falcon, Richard. "Reality is too shocking." Sight and Sound, January 1999.

James, Nick/Romney, Jonathan. "Cannes. Magnificent misanthropes." Sight and Sound, July 1998.

Macnab, Geofrey. "The big tease. Interview with Thomas Vinterberg." Sight and Sound, February 1999.

Matthews, Peter. "Festen." Review, Sight and Sound, March 1999.

Seesslen, Georg. "Oprør i blindgyden (Rebellion in a Cul-de-sac)." Kritik 140, 1999.

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