Saturday, October 01, 2005

Second Thoughts on Manderlay at the Vancouver International Film Festival

First reactions to Manderlay, even while you're watching it, can tend to the negative. It tends to be a little didactic -- most of what happens in the film so blatantly announces itself as an idea that von Trier wants you to think about that one wonders, at times, why he didn't just write an essay; it is hard to enter the film as story, to respond to the characters as characters, when the themes are so overt (reinforced further by John Hurt's chorus). It also looks and feels exactly like Dogville, and while that film's minimal, stripped-down-soundstage style had the virtue of being fresh, unique, inspired, and daring, seeing it in the second film in von Trier's trilogy on America prompted two reactions in me: oh, this again; and, does this mean I'll have to watch a third movie like this?

The final problem with Manderlay -- tho' one admires von Trier's balls, since he's never been to the US -- is that it really does come across as a somewhat smug anti-American tract, a bit of preaching that is perhaps just a little too easily accomplished, a little "much," even to someone who harbours a fair number of anti-American sentiments in his breast himself. This "what right does he have" approach to film criticism was widely circulated in reviews of Dogville, so I won't expand much on it here; Von Trier has addressed his critics by saying that

America is sitting on our world. I am making films that have to do with America
[because] 60% of my life is America. So I am in fact an American, but I can't go
there to vote, I can't change anything. I am an American, so that is why I make
films about America.

... and that's fair enough, actually. (Note: quote is from this interesting/useful article on von Trier). But around about the end credits (to the tune, again, of "Young Americans" -- guess we'll be listening to that a third time, too), where von Trier is showing us photos of Klan rallies intercut with those of lynched, beaten, dead, homeless, and otherwise victimized blacks, an image of Martin Luther King in his coffin, and so forth -- one starts to feel more sympathy for America than for von Trier; as my friend Karen remarked, aren't there any racial problems in Europe he can deal with? (AKA, why look to the mote in your neighbour's eye when there's a plank in your own?).

The theme, by the way, of Manderlay is racism, if that wasn't obvious. Grace, the protagonist from Dogville, now played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is passing through Alabama with her father (now played by Willem Dafoe) and his gangsters. They encounter a plantation where, 70 years after its abolition, slavery is still being practiced, and are asked to intercede in the whipping of a "proud nigger," Timothy (Isaach De Bankole, the Haitian ice-cream vendor in Jarmusch's Ghost Dog), who has committed a crime. Grace does intercede, and in the process the plantation owner dies; she then pressures her father, who clucks his tongue at her naive idealism, into leaving her several gang members so she can teach the blacks to be "free," and establish a new and democratic social order for them, where they run the plantation for themselves. The film follows a convoluted path, as Grace sets about reeducating the slaves, to an ending where Grace discovers that she wasn't being quite the liberator (and the blacks weren't quite the victims) she'd imagined, and where she briefly assumes the role of the former plantation owner, even administering the whipping she'd initially rescued Timothy from (and doing it with great personal zeal). Along the way, we explore the psychology of slavery and encounter several notes that strike one as a bit false and odd, as long as one thinks of the film as being completely about slavery and racism (which is the temptation). When Danny Glover, as an older "house nigger," actually defends the unusual social order of the Manderlay plantation towards the end of the film, praising its orderliness and security, one wonders how black audiences will react; it's a pretty dangerous statement to make, when viewed out of context, and one starts to wonder whether von Trier has the right to speak for African Americans in this way. Suffice it to say that on leaving the film, I felt tired and a bit disappointed with von Trier, a reaction that at least some of the other online reviews, like this one by Kirk Honeycutt, share.

This morning I flipped open my film festival guide and read the description of Manderlay through; I'd ignored it, since I intended to see the film regardless and wanted to see it fresh. I realized, reading the guide, something pretty bloody important that I'd entirely missed last night. Because the film seems to so strongly deal with "racial problems" in the US, the idea of the naivete and arrogance of Americans presuming to teach their "subjects" about democracy (while men with machine guns lurk in the background as enforcers) didn't really enter my perceptions. Manderlay isn't just the American south, it's Baghdad, or any other part of the world where Americans claim (and sometimes perhaps even believe) they are being liberators; the film is much bigger in its scope than it initially appears, big enough that one wonders why von Trier didn't slip a few Abu Ghraib photos into the lynching montage, to hammer that point home too.

So my initial reactions were a bit unfounded. I hope I can be forgiven for not noticing something, in a film made with hammers, quite so obvious (though more subtly presented) as Manderlay's contemporary applications; it seems to be "just" about American history, and about the failure of America to address the problems of racism and slavery, but in fact something much more interesting is happening. When America finally are forced to leave Iraq, the images of Grace tearing off across the map in panic and denial at the end of the film will acquire a haunting force they currently don't quite have; it's almost like von Trier is thinking ahead. It all ends up a weird testament to von Trier's intelligence and craft: last night I left the theatre disappointed and bored, and today I want to see the film again; I can think of no other filmmaker who inspires such reactions in me. I generally like cinema that people consider challenging, but von Trier's challenges, really, are in a class by themselves...

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