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

Film Purity, the Neo-Bazinian Ideal, and Humanism
in Dogma 95

Ian Conrich and Estella Tincknell

Dogma 95 has attracted and divided critical opinion. This code of filmmaking has been described as a gimmick, a form of self-ironisation, and as a provocative challenge to dominant cinematic conventions. It has been viewed as imaginative, but also as a transcription of previous film formalisms and art cinemas such as Italian neo-realism; and as an approach that liberates the filmmaker and allows for improvisation, but also as a constrictive code that establishes stringent stylistic and aesthetic parameters. Arguably, the Dogma code has been a source of greater discussion than the films with which it has become associated. What Dogma 95 has provoked is an exciting re-examination of questions of film realism, truth and purity, and precisely at a time when Hollywood appears to be enraptured by a cinema of attractions, driven by post-production effects, and new media technologies such as computer generated images. The questions of film purity that Dogma 95 raises will be considered in this article in connection with the development of an ideal that we suggest is neo-Bazinian, and the relationship between the underlying ideological values of the Dogma manifesto and the cultural context in which it has appeared.

Filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini and Dziga Vertov have been cited as influential to Dogma's project. In an editorial for the film journal Cineaste, which expresses scepticism about Dogma's motives, the manifesto is described as occupying "a space (not exactly in the here or the now) where neorealism might be imagined to converge with direct cinema or cinéma vérité"[1]. Dogma, however, displays a degree of experimentation that is congruous with early filmmaking practices. Noël Burch identifies in early cinema – a period that could be designated as pre-1908, or pre-Griffithian – a Primitive Mode of Representation (PMR), associated with innovation and novelty. This screen dialect was then replaced by an Institutional Mode of Representation (IMR), which by 1919 had become fully established and, for Burch, restrained the parameters of cinematic style through a "set of (written or unwritten) directives which has been historically interiorised by directors and technicians as the irreducible base of 'film language'".[2]

Dogma is post-IMR. Thomas Vinterberg talks about taking "away the makeup" and "trying to undress the film"[3]. Dogma's rejection of film's formal precision is both a stripping back to the improvisation, resourcefulness and immediacy of much of early cinema, and an excoriation of the conventions of a prevailing filmmaking practice which has manufactured conformity to a series of recognised stylistic and aesthetic procedures.

This raises one of a number of contradictions in the Dogma manifesto. It claims to oppose manufactured conformity in today's filmmaking, but at the same time it devises its own "rules", to which filmmakers must "swear to submit"[4]. These include the prohibition of studio production, artificial lighting and filters, and the requirement that the camera be hand-held. Submitting to the Dogma collective's "Vow of Chastity" supposedly ensures the filmmaker remains unblemished and free of what Vinterberg describes as the "laziness and mediocrity in both European and American cinema"[5]. The guiding principles of the Vow, which leads to the awarding of a certificate of authentication (exhibited prior to the screened opening credits) for finished films operating within the rules of the code, establishes an ideal of realism that proclaims productions to be virtuous and pure. An ideal that is neo-Bazinian.

André Bazin, who was a film purist, was concerned with isolating realism as a fundamental property of photography and film. Bazin insisted on the necessity of photographic realism as part of a wider conceptualisation of the world and, as with the Dogma collective, the representation of 'reality' as an empirical process precisely because of a belief that the real exists concretely and manifestly. For Bazin, it was the filmmakers' duty to depict reality as truthfully as possible. An advocate of the depiction of an ontologically ambivalent screen reality in which the viewer is free to select from the image, Bazin regards a film to be truthful if unaltered by human intervention or manipulation. The film spectator's relationship to the image should be faithful to the experience of the image observed by the spectator in reality.

Bazin wrote that the Egyptians, by mummifying their dead, were able to preserve the appearance of the deceased, thereby preserving a representation of life. He argued that the photographic image should perform a similar function and not simply offer the survival of an image, but the creation of a resemblance of the real: an "impression", "tracing", or "fingerprint".[6]

The use of cinema technology was approved by Bazin if it enhanced the spectator's relationship with the image's realist effect. He therefore liked deep focus photography, widescreen, and mobile and unpunctuated camera movements. He expressly disliked anything that treated film as an art of manipulation, that could bend and shape nature into what he saw as a distorted version of reality: accentuated editing and lighting, back projections, and spurious mise-en-scène. Dogma, too, rejects such distortions of the real, declaring that "[p]rops and sets must not be brought in. (If a particular prop is necessary to the story, a location must be chosen where the prop is to be found)", and that "[s]pecial lighting is not acceptable". The Dogma manifesto displays a Bazinian belief in the likeness between a recorded vision and an individual's experience, and in the movement of the camera as opposed to its static positioning. Vinterberg and Lars von Trier have both opted for digital video technology allowing for the camera to be hand-held (rule 3 of the manifesto), but they do not embrace technology that can aid, through illusion, the spectator's acceptance of a reality-like experience.

Bazin saw that the introduction of new formats, such as VistaVision and Cinerama in the 1950s, would enable the viewer to no longer be confined to cinema's "small box". Cinema has since undergone a dramatic technological revolution, but in the direction of what often appears to be an emphasis on excess and audience seduction through maximum illusion, as opposed to anything that may be regarded as common and natural. Such a fascination with illusion was present in von Trier's earlier films – as he admits, he had "an almost fetishistic attraction to film technology", and then he "reached a point [where he]...couldn't get any further".[7]

The ‘back to basics’ approach of Dogma has not been unique, and at the start of cinema’s second century other filmmakers have been attracted to new media forms, which allow an immediacy in production, such as small hand-held cameras and digital video technology. The video aesthetic that has emerged is (often) deliberately ‘amateurish’ and anti-productivist, appears to have minimal need for a scripted performance, and favours the long take. This has facilitated a move away from the conventions of continuity editing, which offered one highly constructed form of representation, to a style of filmmaking in which editing is produced in situ or not at all.

The possibilities offered for new ways of storytelling were crystallised around the phenomenon of The Blair Witch Project (1999). While the claim that the film was ‘found footage’ was fairly rapidly exploded, it was the film’s style – a shaky camera and a low tech, reduced aesthetic – that contributed to its novelty. The Blair Witch Project seemed to promise not simply a ‘return’ to the basics of film-making, but a ‘truthful’ and authentic form of storytelling in the form of documentary. Its enormous impact seems to point the way to the emergence of a popular ‘cinema of truth’. Mike Figgis’s Timecode (2000) has been equally significant. Eschewing all forms of editing, and dependent on actor improvisation, this film foregrounds the innovatory possibilities of unorthodox approaches to filmmaking.

Dogma, too, refuses dominant filmmaking conventions. In an interview for a British television documentary, director Søren Kragh-Jacobsen compares the imperative that drove Dogma with that which impelled rock and pop musicians to go ‘unplugged’ and to perform acoustically in the early 1990s [8]. Just as the technical perfection, obsession with electronic sounds, and bland musicality of pop in the eighties produced the radical response of unplugged performance, Hollywood’s excesses (apparently) led to the Dogma manifesto. Similarly, the over-determination of the figure of the auteur/director as star (Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino) is countered by the Dogma model of not crediting the director.

Dogma’s commitment to the idea of purity surpasses the desire to strip away such excesses of film, producing a further contradiction. Dogma is overtly (and theatrically) ‘political’ in its intent, as the writing of a film ‘manifesto’ signifies. For the Dogma project seems to be about the recovery of ideological as well as film purity, and the Dogma productions offer a radically confrontational representation of Danish society and middle-class family life.

It is not a coincidence that domestic space is central to all three of the ‘first wave’ of Dogma projects, although it is figured differently in each text. In Festen (1998), the family country house/hotel is the splendidly whited sepulchre of bourgeois corruption; in The Idiots (1998), the uncle’s ‘borrowed’ villa is transformed into a commune; and in Mifune (1999), the dilapidated farmhouse with its threadbare furnishings symbolises the loss of emotional values which are eventually recovered. In each film, the house is the locus of emotional transformation and catharsis for its main protagonists.

There is a gap, however, between Dogma’s rhetoric of radical intervention – and Lars von Trier’s semi-serious invocation of the revolutionary ‘moment’ of 1968[9] – and the filmmakers’ own apparent commitment to humanism. This is especially evident in Dogma’s tendency to valorise emotional ‘truth’ as an absolute analogous to empirical reality. In Vinterberg’s Festen, for example, the corrupt patriarch is confronted by his son, Christian, who reveals that the memory of a history of paternal sexual abuse drove his twin sister to suicide. Yet while the staging and filming of this confrontation at the father’s sixtieth birthday dinner is remarkably compelling, the film’s relatively uncritical emphasis on the necessity of the son’s triumph seems profoundly humanist. Christian is empowered to ‘speak for’ his dead sister and a feminist reading of the film might conclude that the issue of incest is displaced by the film’s focus on the necessary renewal of patriarchal power in the figure of Christian.

We are shown Christian’s hallucinations of his dead sister, and this is one of several instances when Festen breaks the Dogma "rules". Perversely, this is also one of the most powerful moments in the film, and its contravening of the code seems to suggest that there is a lack of fit between the story Vinterberg wants to tell and the formal limitations that he has set himself. Dogma films can only inadequately represent psychological interiority, desire, dreams and fantasy because of a commitment to the empirical. Yet it is precisely these areas that are central to the subject matter Dogma seems to want to deal with, and that present us with the most intense, suggestive and complex moments in the films.

Perhaps it is Mifune’s attempts to offer a story that is, in essence, a fairytale, that leads to its struggle with the Dogma code, and was responsible for its indifferent reception. In contrast to the first two Dogma films, Mifune’s deployment of stock genre characters – the tart with a heart, the reluctant yuppie and the idiot-savant – as its main protagonists; its evasion of the ‘dark’ subjects it introduces; and its deployment of a happy ending produces a problematic relationship between the demands of narrative and those of Dogma. Arguably, without the Dogma label attached to it Mifune would have been overlooked by much of its eventual audience.

Mifune repeatedly stages and invokes the mystical and the esoteric, but because of the rigors of Dogma’s conventions it is limited in its magical realism: the fantastic can be implied but not shown. For example, the crop circle which mysteriously appears towards the end of the film is significant yet its meaning is rendered opaque.

Interestingly, like The Idiots, and even Festen in its invocation of Hamlet[10], Mifune is a film that engages with the theme of role-playing and game-playing in diverse and often complex ways. Liva’s day-job as a prostitute in Copenhagen requires her to act the part of a sexual dominatrix for her wealthy customers; she is mistaken for Linda, a comic-strip heroine from outer space, when she arrives at the farmhouse; and her brother pretends to be an obscene phone-caller. Most crucially Kresten plays at being ‘Mifune’, a Samurai warrior, for his brother Rud, and this return to a childhood game is what brings them together. Similarly, when Kresten and Liva playfully whitewash each other rather than the house, their relationship is transformed. The film seems to be asserting that play is essential to identity, and that a return to childhood is necessary to the characters’ emotional recovery.

In Mifune, as in The Idiots and Festen, the narrative’s emphasis on the importance of performance as a way of laying bare emotions articulates a central underlying humanism implicit in the Dogma films. Characters are repeatedly stripped of their social ‘costumes’ and social roles, and forced to confront emotional truths about themselves as a way of moving forward.

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1 "Editorial", in Cineaste 25: 1 (December 1999), p. 4.

2 Noël Burch, programme commentary for his film Correction, Please or how we got into pictures (1979), p. 3.

3 Robin Wood, "Humble Guests at the Celebration: An Interview with Thomas Vinterberg and Ulrich Thomsen", in CineAction 48 (December 1998), pp. 50-51.

4 Ibid., p. 47.

5 Richard Porton, "Something Rotten in the State of Denmark: An Interview with Thomas Vinterberg", in Cineaste 24: 2-3 (March 1999), p. 19.

6 André Bazin, What is Cinema? volume 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), pp.9-16.

7 Patricia Thomson, "The Idiots Plays By Von Trier's Rules", in American Cinematographer 81: 1 (January 2000), p. 20.

8 This Film is Dogme 95, tx FilmFour digital, 26 March 2000.

9 Ibid.

10 See Porton, p. 18.

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