Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Dogville > Manderlay. By Large Margin.

...but I'm not telling you anything you haven't already heard. I can't swim against the general consensus when it comes to Lars Von Trier's latest provocation. Manderlay, as you may have heard or witnessed for yourself, is an extension of Dogville (review), LvT's potent skewering of groupthink, capitalism, and societal hierarchies.... only this time the thematic attack is not so much an overview of several parallel depravities as an intensely specific view of one kind: slavery.

In addition to its narrower subject, Manderlay suffers a noticeable blow when robbed of its intended movie star. Nicole Kidman's mysterious abilities with stubborn and self-deceptive characters were put to extravagantly good use in Dogville as they also were in The Others (review) & Birth (FB Best Actress nomination). So right from the start this film's "Grace", Bryce Dallas Howard, is operating at a distinct disadvantage. She doesn't come equipped with Nicole's mystery as a screen persona and even if she did, the character has already had her own secrets divulged by the events of Dogville. We're already well aware of Grace's chief character defects and the liberal acts of kindness that mask them.

I didn't dislike Manderlay so much as felt as if I'd seen it before in a more fascinating version with deeper characterizations and complex ideas. Dogville was a true original and I still urge everyone to see it. Manderlay unfortunately feels superfluous. It's a retread in virtually every way. As a result it's less shocking and potent, robbed of Dogville's considerable power to surprise. This time, having firsthand knowledge of the story's blueprint, we see the narrative gut punches coming a mile away. It's hard to have the wind knocked out of you when you've already tightened your stomach muscles anticipating the blow.

tags: Nicole Kidman, Lars Von Trier, Bryce Dallas Howard, Dogville,movies, cinema, Manderlay

19 comments:

adam k. said...

Yeah, I almost went to see Manderlay at my local college art theater one night before it closed, but then at the last minute at I thought "eh"... just didn't seem worth the $9, based on what I'd heard. Thank you for confirming my suspicions. Don't think I'm in a big rush to see it.

OhMyTrill said...

Haven't seen it yet...but I guess LvT can't have an amazingly spectacular movie every time out.

Dancer in the Dark still rests comfortably at the top of my favorite films list.

Arden said...

bryce howard is a genius

minijonb said...

I just saw Von Trier's documentary "The 5 Obstructions" ... it helped me understand his influences and inspiration for being a filmmaker.

Arden said...

5 Obstructions is the only one of his films I enjoy.

I like Dogville but only after watching it twice every day for a week straight. After that I started to like it.

tim r said...

Hey Nat. I disagree with both you and Nick on this, though I do think you're right about Howard vs Kidman. (The former's simply miscast, too girlish in the role, and not convincing as an authority figure; Kidman's perf in Dogville, on the other hand, is for my money one of her three or four best ever: it's like he terrorised her into acting again). My disagreement's broader: I think slavery is far from Manderlay's sole subject. Just as Dogville could be read either as an anti-American tract or an essay on civic values, depending on your point of view, Manderlay is either a glib and somewhat careless provocation about slavery, or a subtler and wider examination of the way old systems are valued over new ideals. Slavery, I think, is a metaphor here, not just a thematic gambit, and for me it's what rescues the film. The characterisation is way thin, I fully admit, and the Proud Timothy character in particular isn't developed in any way that worked at all well, but where I think the movie has one up on Dogville is that its community politics get progressively more fraught, fractious and complex, rather than pursuing a given downward spiral through to a predictably horrid conclusion as Dogville does. (From your post, it seems you feel differently about this.) Not that I can't see why people don't rate Manderlay as highly: I think it's technically cruder as a film, and I found it pretty dull to begin with, but I think it goes places that Dogville really doesn't, and for that I give it quite a lot of credit. They're probably best appreciated, in any case, as complementary experiences, wouldn't you say?

PS. Hate the "Young Americans" montage in both of them, which plays perfectly into the hands of each film's harshest critics by representing the ideas on their own crudest, most superficial level. But it's typical Lars to do this again, isn't it? He really wants a rise out of people with this one, I'm guessing.

Arden said...

Tim R

Thank you for choosing The Shining as your second favorite movie of all time.

It is my first.

Arden

NATHANIEL R said...

obviously he does yes. which is a bit petulant but it's easy for me to forgive since i think he's a great filmmaker (in general)

completely agreed on the 'young americans' montage in both though. It's embarrassing. like the beating of a dead horse and an easy target to dismiss the rest of the film by (which is sad)

particularly hated the zoom onto the twin towers in one particular photo during the end credits which felt completely formally wrong (there's no zooms elsewhere) and what pray tell do the twin towers have to do with slavery exactly. or even the value of old ideals over new ones? really really hated that moment.

i feel very differently about the downward spiral in both films yes. It didn't feel particularly complex to me in this film nor particularly interesting since I knew what to expect. Dogville had me consistently horrified and surprised. Yes, I knew it would end in tears but I couldn't begin to think how.

I thought the Tom Edison & Grace character arcs, or rather the revealing of their unchanging character, in the first is what really made the film... by contrast almost every characterization in the second film felt flat.

Kamikaze Camel said...

Damn, I was (still am) looking forward to this movie Dogville hit me like a sack of bricks. Was my #1 of the year. Thought it was brilliant filmmaking so I'm still excited to see this one. But I won't go in expecting brilliance here.

I wonder what Manderlay does for the third part of his trilogy (Washington I believe is what it's going to be called). Lars had that thing recently where he second guessed his own workings, didn't he? Hmmm.

Russ said...

I was afraid of this. I too just missed catching this at a local theater because of second thought syndrome. Though I can't deny the rare kind of brutal filmmaking von Trier exhibits so I must check it out when it comes on rental.

StinkyLulu said...

MrStinky & I just saw this last night. A couple thoughts:

1) Bryce Howard might yet be great but not here. The film suffers for her being in the role of Grace, and with this performance she's the least of LvT's leading ladies. Likewise, the supporting cast just ain't as strong as it needs to be, most notably Isaach De Bankolé as Timothy. Ivanek & Dafoe bring the film into emotional focus any time they're onscreen. That kind of clarity is needed throughout the cast & the supporting cast of Dogville came closer to contributing that...

2/ I agree with TimR that this film is not really about slavery at all. Rather, it seems to use the metaphor of slavery to describe the peculiar brand of colonialism to which the US seems particularly predisposed. Guilty, righteous, clueless. Many a scene seemed like an illustration of "Post-Colonial Theory for Dummies."

3/ The "Young American" montages are just dumb. They reveal LvT's historical myopia & cultural naivete & fetishistic use of blackness. Feh feh feh.

4/ I don't think the film works. It is -- as most/all of his films are -- grueling. Yet it's more in the zone of "brilliant failure" than "bad" for me.

Finally, we caught the flick at the only place scheduled to screen it in NM & they almost cancelled the screening because they didn't have the quorum of 6 ticket buyers to justify the actual screening costs of the film. Based on LvT's recent public retirement from/disavowal of filmmaking (see Roger Ebert's review for the excerpt), this might be the end of the series. At least for a while.

Kamikaze Camel said...

I read that in the third one he was going to use both Bryce Dallas Howard AND Nicole Kidman for the role of Grace. Could be fascinating if true, could be a disaster also.

Still annoyed this hasn't reached us yet though. We got Dogville months before the US.

As much as I loved Nicole in the role of Grace and will be sad to not see her in Manderlay I'm also sad that Willem Dafoe took over from James Caan who I loved in Dogville. It might be for the best that Nicole didn't grace the screens as Grace though. Would she have saved it?

Kamikaze Camel said...

I meant to write after that, that I'd rather Nicole have as few movies on her resume as possible that people can use to insult her with. People already use Dogville and Birth as such films for some reason.

NATHANIEL R said...

which is so so very silly since she's so much better in these than her mainstream fare.

Arden said...

I tried to comment on here but it became a post.

Go to www.cinephiliatheblog.blogspot.com to read.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I never was THAT interested in seeing this one, I might see it on DVD though. I remember when Bryce was cast I didn't think it was the right choice for Grace, they should've gotten someone a bit older. Ah well.

And on Nicole Kidman, I agree that her mainstream choices of late have not been that great, but we all know(or most of us) she is mostly brilliant in smaller movies. And I'm so happy her next movies are in fact small independent movies. Fur comes out in Octobeer and I just have such a good feeling about that one, plus she is shooting the Noah Baumbach movie right as we speak.

It looks like Nicole finally back(thank god!)

Anonymous said...

Only TSW and Bewitched have been her dire choices, people make it sound like she has done more than 2 bad movies in recent years,lol. Her movies have been OK (Cold Mountain, The Human Stain, The Interpreter) to brilliant/great (Dogville, Birth), only TSW and Bewitched have been bad. That is not too bad but I agree that she should just stick to small fares or if she wants to go mainstream, work with better directors and if she wants to work on comedy, she should stick to biting, dark comedies.
She has just worked with Oliver Hircshbiegel (Downfall), Steven Shainberg and now is working with Noah Baumbach. These are imaginative directors.

Beau said...

The best film of 2005. Hands down.
Granted it was released in late Jan '06, but it IS a 2005 film. That's when it made it's circulation, and that's when it deserves to be named.

I disagree on Howard, I felt... her childish naivete and determination WORKED as the next step. Grace had felt betrayal and reacted accordingly at the finale of Dogville, yet in this one she really is, as she so delicately puts it, "given the power to act." Her optimism is justified and she does all that is in her power to make due, and Howard must be praised for taking on such a strong role so soon after The Village.

The performances in this work wonders, the story is more concise, and in all personal opinion? I loved Dogville. I did. With all of me, and I love that final half hour to no end. But by the end of Manderlay, in that theater where only four people (myself and my friend, and two others) remained, I couldn't breathe. That affected me, on a level, where when the film ended I... couldn't describe what I'd seen. I had the same reaction earlier that year to Ingmar Bergman's "Winter Light" and had the same experience when viewing "United 93" though for different reasons on that one.

But when the credits rolled, I was in awe. Dogville was a great film; this is a masterpiece. Wasington is currently toward the top of my most-anticipated films list, alongside Michel Gondry's "Be Kind, Rewind" and Coppola's "Marie Antoinette".

Some people may not get much out of this film, and some may not see it at all. Von Trier's arrogance may turn them off, or it may just be the anti-American feel altogether. Regardless, it's just... to watch this film was, to me, feel like you were in the hands of a master. And that feeling doesn't come often.

rural juror said...

Eh...I'm not a fan of Dogville. Sorry