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

Direct Dogma: Film Manifestos and the fin de siècle

Scott MacKenzie

At first glance, one can state quite simply that the history of film manifestos represents a history of one unmitigated failure after another. Indeed, one must wonder why filmmakers, theorists and radicals of all stripes continue to produce film manifestos at such a manic and prodigious rate. From the early 1900s to the early 2000s, the proliferation of film, video, and television manifestos has been immense, while their 'effects', one the whole, are quite minimal. Are the writers of film manifestos manic-depressive masochists, continually setting themselves up only to fail on a grand scale, or are the effects of film manifestos more diverse than a hard-line instrumental or intentionalist account would leave one to believe? It is this question that I wish to consider, through an examination of Dogma `95, and the 'Vow of Chastity' manifesto produced by Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. How does the Dogma `95 Manifesto – and the films produced under its rubric – relate to the historical trajectory of the cinema manifesto? To examine whether or not Dogma constitutes a paradigm shift in the history of film manifesto writing, we must begin by considering the history of film manifestos themselves.

Throughout the history of the cinema, radicals and reactionaries alike have used the film manifesto as a means of stating their key aesthetic and political goals. Indeed, film manifestos are almost as old as the cinema itself. By the early 1910s and 1920s, Italian Futurists, French Dadaists and Surrealists and German Expressionists were all producing manifestos, stating their political, aesthetic and philosophical principles. In most cases, these texts were calls to revolution – a revolution of consciousness, of political hierarchies and of aesthetic practices, which all bled together in an attempt to radically redefine the cinema and the culture in which it existed. Luis Buñuel's famous claim that the film Un chien Andalou (France, 1928) was a call to murder is only the most infamous of the statements in circulation at the time[1]; many others framed the ways in which avant-garde, experimental, and alternative film (and later, television and video) came to be understood throughout the history of cinema. Further, film manifestos can be seen as constituting the earliest form of film theory; for instance, Ricciotto Canudo's 'Manifesto for the Sixth Art' in many ways marks the beginnings of a theory of radical film practice[2]. Similarly, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Grigori Alexandrov's Soviet manifesto on sound marks the beginnings of critical discussions on the relations between image and sound in the cinema[3]. Surrealism, the British documentary movement, and the rise of educational films were all framed, to varying degrees, by manifestos. In subsequent years, virtually every artistic and political movement existing outside mainstream, narrative cinema sallied forth with a manifesto, proclaiming the end of the old régimes of representation and the need to wipe the slate clean and begin anew. Here, the slicing open of the eye in Un chien Andalou again stands as a nodal point, encapsulating the preferred mode of address adopted by manifesto scribes.

Despite the wide variety of ideological and political points-of-view put forth in film manifestos, the rhetorical stances adopted by the writers – which foregrounded both an urgent call to arms and a profoundly undialectical form of argumentation – lead to a certain similarity in the cinematic manifesto genre. Because of the programmatic, proclamatory nature of most manifesto writing – which is an unavoidable occurrence, precisely because of the inflammatory nature of the discourse involved – the intended outcomes of manifestos were, for the most part, hopelessly doomed; yet this hopelessness added to the nihilistic romance of dramatic intervention in the public sphere. This romance was fortified by the fact that manifestos were most often texts of the moment. Intrinsically tied not only to the cinema, but the immediate world surrounding the authors, manifestos have had, in most cases, quite short life-spans; they quickly left the world of political intervention and became that most aberrant thing (at least in the eyes of the writers themselves), a de-clawed aesthetic text. This led to the need to write and re-write basic principles, either by design, in order to maintain relevance, or by force, because of political pressures; one only has to look at the ways in which André Breton continually rewrote his manifestos of surrealism as an example of the former, or the ways in which the fundamental, guiding principles underlying the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein necessarily shifted as intellectual montage and Lenin lead to Stalin and Socialist Realism – a sad but inevitable example of the latter.[4]

Thus far, I have painted a fairly dismal image of the effectiveness of the film manifesto in cinema culture. And, while one could argue that far more work needs to be done to elucidate, within a historical framework, how these texts circulated within the public sphere, the generalized failure of film manifestos points to the fact that the cinema scholar's interest in them as texts, and as statements of purpose, are as tied to their extremism, and the possibility they offer the reader to re-imagine the cinema, as they are to initiating changes themselves. Indeed, the cinema one imagines whilst reading these texts is often far more interesting than some of the films produced under the auspices of their influences. In many ways, therefore, it is the extremism of most manifestos that give them, if not their political foundation, then their intellectual appeal. From Luis Buñuel and Dziga Vertov, from Stan Brakhage and Guy Debord, and from Jean-Luc Godard to Laura Mulvey, the basis of the manifesto is precisely to provoke not only a new form of cinema, but a way of re-imagining the cinema itself.

How, then, does Dogma fit into the paradigm of the film manifesto as delineated above? The international popularity of the Dogma films raises interesting questions about these issues. Why would films such as Festen (Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg, 1998), Idiots (Idioterne, Lars von Trier, 1998) and Mifunes sidste sang (Mifune's Last Stand, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, 1999) have such an international appeal, when most films made in the shadow of manifestos have existed in relative obscurity? One of the key issues may be a shift in emphasis in the kind of manifesto offered by the so-called Dogma brothers; one which shifts from a properly ideological critique of cinematic production and its relation to the non-diegetical world, to a rhetoric which only addresses modes of production, and does so without offering an ideological critique as a necessary corollary to the goals of the aesthetic renunciations at the heart of the Dogma project. As John Roberts notes: 'Like many cinematic manifestos this century, Dogma 95's edicts emphasize the paralysis and decadence of commercial cinema in terms of its corrupting illusionism, trickery and sentimentality. As with the New Realism of the 1950s, Godard's Dziga-Vertov group in the late 1960s and the cinemas of national liberation of the 1970s, the relationship between social experience and the dominant forms of cinematic narration is challenged on the grounds of its loss of authentic speech and agency'[5]. Yet, despite these parallels with past manifesto manifestations, Roberts goes on to note that: 'What is significant about this list [of rules] is its largely technical and formal character; there are no political exhortations, or denunciations of other film makers; it is, rather, a kind of low-key DIY guide for aspirant amateurs; the fire of the 1960s avant-garde is tempered by an earnest practicality'[6]. To the extent that the Dogma brothers do indeed attack the French nouvelle vague, Roberts is wrong about the lack of retrospective negation to prior cinematic movements. Nevertheless, we can see that formal experimentation and the content of the films themselves are understood to be divorced. It is this disjuncture between form and content that I wish to address presently, through an examination of the tenets put forth in the Dogma `95 manifesto. It is this thematic divorce of form from content which I contend represents the decisive break from cinematic manifesto writing of the past.

If there is a key historical antecedent and cinematic intertext invoked by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in the Dogma `95 manifesto, it is the arrival of the French nouvelle vague in 1960. Von Trier and Vinterberg contend that Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette were all for the overthrowing of the cinema of the past, but did not make anywhere near a decisive enough break with the past to bring about a new cinema. The Dogma brothers write:

DOGMA 95 is a rescue action!
In 1960 enough was enough! The movie was dead and called for resurrection. The goal was correct but the means were not! The new wave proved to be a ripple that washed ashore and turned to muck.
Slogans of individualism and freedom created works for a while, but no changes. The wave was up for grabs, like the directors themselves. The wave was never stronger than the men behind it. The anti-bourgeois cinema itself became bourgeois, because the foundations upon which its theories were based was the bourgeois perception of art. The auteur concept was bourgeois romanticism from the very start and thereby... false![7]

Yet, the auteur cinema of la nouvelle vague was not a consolidated film style; it did not follow uniform rules of cinematic evolution or revolution, in the manner implied by the Dogma brothers. Truffaut himself put this vision of la nouvelle vague to rest 28 years earlier, when he stated:

People who say 'The New Wave has failed' without defining what they mean by that, I suppose they're thinking of 'intellectual' films which were not successful at the box-office, and with this in mind they refuse to 'label' films which pleased them or were successful – an arbitrary division since the New Wave is just as much L'Homme de Rio as L'Immortelle, Le Vieil homme et l'enfant as La Musica, Les Cœurs verts as Un Homme et une femme [...]. The New Wave did not have an aesthetic program, it was simply an attempt to rediscover a certain independence which was lost somewhere around 1924, when films became too expensive, a little before the talkies.[8]

It is individualism that the Dogma group sees as the failure of la nouvelle vague, yet as Truffaut points out, it is precisely the individual visions of numerous dissimilar auteurs that was the backbone of New Wave cinema. Nevertheless, it is the received idea that post-1960 cinema movements (New German Cinema, cinéma direct, British 'kitchen sink' films) stultified their radical possibilities by adopting 'styles' of their own. Therefore, it is this kind of stylistic individualism which Dogma contends was the downfall of the art cinemas which followed in the wake of la nouvelle vague:

To DOGMA 95 cinema is not individual!
Today a technological storm is raging, the result of which will be the ultimate democratization of the cinema. For the first time, anyone can make movies. But the more accessible the media becomes, the more important the avant-garde. It is no accident that the phrase 'avant-garde' has military connotations. Discipline is the answer ... we must put our films into uniform, because the individual film will be decadent by definition!
DOGMA 95 counters the individual film by the principle of presenting an indisputable set of rules known as THE VOW OF CHASTITY.
In 1960 enough was enough! The movie had been cosmeticised to death, they said; yet since then the use of cosmetics has exploded.
The 'supreme' task of the decadent film-makers is to fool the audience. Is that what we are so proud of? Is that what the '100 years' have brought us? Illusions via which emotions can be communicated? ... By the individual artist's free choice of trickery?[9]

There are many parallels between this document and the kinds of manifestos that came before; the past is decried and a new form of cinema is celebrated as a way out of the abysmal quagmire brought about by the mainstream. Yet, it is the 'Vow of Chastity', attached to the manifesto itself that shifts the dogma of Dogma away from the manifestos of the past. The need to return to a cinema of truth is underlined by the key tenets in the 'Vow of Chastity', the ten key aims of Dogma, which include:

Shooting must be done on location; The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa; The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted; The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable; Optical work and filters are forbidden; The film must not contain superficial action; Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden; Genre movies are not acceptable; and The film format must be Academy 35 mm.[10]

The directors also refrain from 'good taste'. There are many interesting aspects to the Vows of Chastity; the first thing that springs to mind is the self-conscious religiosity of the language. Yet, combined with this unholy marriage of the spirit of the Protestant work ethic and Catholic flagellation, one finds that the vows themselves are pervaded with an irony that is typically missing in the modernist manifesto. As Thomas Vinterberg states: 'I think […] Dogma is in the area between a very solemn thing and deep irony...' [11]. Indeed, the name of the movement – Dogma – is self-reflexively ironic in and of itself. There is also a reflexive self-consciousness lurking behind the filmmakers' assumptions about their own cinematic past; it is not only the 'others' who need to reform their truant ways. For instance, in relation to his own filmmaking, Vinterberg notes that:

We also wanted to break with the convention of filmmaking, first of all with the convention within our own filmmaking – force ourselves to try something new, due to the fact that there should be some sort of risk connected to making art. So from that aspect it's very solemn, and not rigid. On the other hand, it is a game, as it's defined in the manifesto, which is a bit arrogant, and of course, ironic also.[12]

It is this irony that allows the directors to believe in both the solemnity of Dogma and in its irony as an act of provocation. Moreover, it seems that the rhetorical provocation within the public sphere brought on by the writing of a 'manifesto' is as much about opening up a critical discussion about the state of the cinema as it is about following rules while producing films. Lars von Trier echoes these assumptions when he states:

I don't think it's necessarily crucial that the Dogma rules be followed. I think the issue of whether you can gain something by throwing away total freedom in exchange for a set of rules is worth discussing. And it's interesting to see whether some of those rules might be of use to others. I've created rules before, so I think I've demonstrated that they can lead to something positive. I think the need to go back to basics, which the rules are a response to, is more urgent now than ever before. I would find it amusing if Dogma could continue to exist like a little pill you could take when there was too much of the other kind of thing, too much refinement and distanciation. […] But I don't know what will happen to the Dogma concept.[13]

Therefore, Dogma is not the only way to make film, as Vinterberg notes: 'I think to make another Dogma film right now would be suicidal, because the fine thing about Dogma is to create renewal, and to do another Dogma film right after would be creating another convention, which would be very oppressive'.

Another level of irony, mixed in with the guilt of the Protestant work ethic, is the repenting of sins that the filmmakers undertake when they break their own, self-prescribed rules. The role played by sin in this instance is quite curious, as it has no moral content, only form. Or more precisely, one can only sin in regards to the form of the film itself. However, not all the Dogma directors look at the manifesto as simply a formal challenge. Von Trier, the agent provocateur of the new Danish cinema, takes a less ironic tone when dealing with the implications of the Dogma directives, and feels there are moral issues at stake behind the formal claims made in the 'Vow of Chastity'. Further, he takes issue with those who see Dogma as an empty formal exercise:[14]

But there have been a number of crises and the idea of my having full control over my films has at times been a total lie. For example, Aalbæk and Vibeke Windeløv allowed filters to be used in connection with The Idiots. That was an insane cock-up, but it may have involved a break-down in communication on my part. Part of the problem with the Dogma concept has been that nobody has taken it completely seriously. It's been viewed as a bit of a joke […]. Why would anyone in his right mind impose such ridiculous restrictions on himself?[15]

Do these restrictions, these abstinences, lead to a revitalized form of cinema for the second century? Does Dogma lead to a new kind of film, where the changes are felt not only in terms of production, but also in terms of content? Despite the hyperbole found in von Trier's many pronouncements about Dogma, it is indeed the case that, perhaps against the wishes of the Dogma brothers, the aesthetics of the manifesto have lent themselves to three films that all share broadly similar concerns: those of the dysfunctional family and the ways in which the psychical and mental harm done by families needs to be sorted out. Further, all three films have characters that are the agents responsible for the re-imagining of the family: in Festen, it is Christian (Ulrich Thomsen); in Idioterne, both Karen (Bodil Jørgensen) and Stoffer (Jens Albinus) play this role, albeit in strikingly different ways; and in Mifune, the surrogate family constructed by Kresten (Anders Berthelsen) and Liva (Iben Hjejle) compares favorably to Kresten's more 'traditional' family back in Copenhagen.

It is possible that Dogma was a moment in the sun, whose glory days are, like all film manifestos before it, already fading. Despite the call for permanent change, the directors are already talking wistfully about the Dogma past:

But I still think that Dogma might persist in the sense that a director would be able to say, 'I feel like making that kind of film'. I think that would be amusing. I'm sure a lot of people could profit from that. At which point you might argue that they could just as easily profit from a different set of rules. Yes, of course. But then go ahead and formulate them. Ours are just a proposal. [16]

Yet, it is this proposal that has re-invigorated debates around the nature of both art and political films at the end of the first century of the cinema. Furthermore, by embedding within the modernist film manifesto a profound sense of irony, the Dogma brothers have revitalized, for a short while, the notion of the film manifesto and its function with both the cinema and the public sphere. Despite the narrative similarities of the three Danish Dogma films thus far, this act alone is worth celebrating.

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1 See Buñuel's preface to the script of Un chien Andalou, originally published in La Révolution Surréaliste 12 (1929), reprinted and translated in Jennaro Talens, The Branded Eye: Buñuel's Un chien Andalou (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 89.

2 See Ricciotto Canudo, 'The Birth of the Sixth Art (1911)', Framework 13 (1980), pp. 3-7.

3 See Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Grigori Alexandrov, 'Statement on Sound' reprinted and translated in Richard Taylor and Ian Christie (eds.), The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896-1939 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 234-235.

4 For Breton's versions of the surrealist manifesto, see André Breton, Manifestos on Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969); the primary statement documenting the aesthetic renunciations of the Soviet Formalists is 'For a Great Cinema Art: Speeches to the All-Union Creative Conference of the Workers in Soviet Cinema', in Richard Taylor and Ian Christie (eds) The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896-1939 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 348-355.

5 John Roberts, 'Dogme '95', New Left Review 238 (1999), p. 141.

6 Roberts, p. 142.

7 http://www.dogme95.dk/the_vow/index.htm.

8 François Truffaut, '"The Evolution of the New Wave": Truffaut in Interview with Jean-Louis Comolli, Jean Narboni (extracts)' in Jim Hillier, ed. Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1960s-New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 107.

9 http://www.dogme95.dk/the_vow/index.htm.

10 The full text of the 'Vow of Chastity' can be found at:http://www.dogme95.dk/the_vow/vow.html.

11 Robin Wood, 'Humble Guests at the Celebration: An Interview with Thomas Vinterberg and Ulrich Thomsen', Cinéaction 48 (1998), p. 50.

12 Wood, p. 50.

13 'Lars von Trier Interview' in Mette Hjort and Ib Bondebjerg (eds.) The Danish Directors: Dialogues on a Contemporary National Cinema (Bristol: Intellect Press, forthcoming 2001).

14 Wood, p. 51.

15 'Lars von Trier Interview' in Hjort and Bondebjerg, op. cit.

16 Ibid.

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