You can’t always judge a work of art by the response it generates. Moby Dick was ignored when it was published, leaving the once-popular Melville to spend the rest of his life working a civil service job on the New York docks. Emily Dickinson never read Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but she said she heard it was “disgraceful.” Manet’s “Olympia” scandalized Paris, as did the urinals of Duchamp. All of these works are now canonical.
Lars von Trier’s Manderlay, the second installment of his trilogy that began with Dogville, has been received thus far with resounding indifference. I don’t want to embarrass myself by declaring Manderlay to be in the company of master works that were notoriously rejected by ungrateful and know-nothing audiences. I do, however, feel it deserves a better fate than what it’s getting: a few sneering reviews and no ticket sales. It may not be a landmark in the history of art, but it does deserve to be taken seriously.
The new film is an hour shorter than Dogville, a tightness of execution that is partly a result of skimping on the subplots that consumed so much of Dogville. This time out, too, the fact of the bare soundstage is barely noticeable, which says something about the interest we have in the actors and the story. Not only is Manderlay a tighter film, but as the midpoint of a not-especially adored trilogy, it’s now clear that these films will be a real-time artistic record of the world as it existed in the Bush years.
Von Trier may be a provocateur and a jerk, but he also happens to possess an exceptional command of history and a well-developed skepticism toward the clichés and tropes of contemporary narrative film. He hails from the ascetic religious and moral tradition of fellow Dane Carl Theodor Dreyer, the Swedes Ingmar Bergman and August Strindberg and, above all, the cleansing reformist German cleric Martin Luther. These guys aren’t a barrel of laughs, and von Trier is no different.
I think what troubles some viewers is his indifference to criticism and the fact that his films never congratulate the audience for being hip enough to get it, for being superior to the mythical people who are supposedly so outraged by this cutting edge art. This is the fundamental phoniness underneath the clamor surrounding the Brokeback Mountain phenomenon, an aesthetically conventional movie with a taboo love affair that we can all congratulate ourselves for supporting. Von Trier has no time for such easy posturing (and, some might suggest, no patience with the notion that movies are made for the audience’s enjoyment). He is paying the price for this and, unfortunately, Manderlay will do nothing to reverse his slide into commercial oblivion.
Those who saw Dogville will remember that it was set in the 1930s and told the story of Grace, a young woman who flees from her mobster father for reasons that are less literal than metaphorical. Grace finds refuge in a small Colorado town where the populace is crabbed, selfish and suspicious. The story became a twisted Christian allegory in which Grace (played in that film by Nicole Kidman) attempted to bring love and compassion to the community, even to the point of offering her body as a sacrifice. It was also nearly three hours long, and shot on a nearly bare soundstage. It played to empty theaters across America and went home.
Manderlay opens a short time after the events of Dogville, when Grace (played this time by the younger and more earthly Bryce Dallas Howard), her father (Willem Dafoe) and their entourage flee through the southern United States and find themselves in Alabama. “Manderlay” is the name of a decrepit Southern plantation and, as they discover, it is populated by a group of whites and blacks who have never acknowledged the abolition of slavery. When the plantation mistress (Lauren Bacall) conveniently expires upon the gangsters’ arrival, the outraged Grace intervenes and liberates the slaves, and she insists on staying on in order to tend to their future welfare. “This is a local matter,” her father warns, before agreeing to leave her with a small retinue of his men.
What follows is yet another one of von Trier’s scabrous melodramas, albeit one that is more tightly focused and quickly paced than usual. There’s not much psychological continuity between Dogville and Manderlay–for example, there’s no evidence in the new film that Grace had been incarcerated and repeatedly raped back in Dogville. Instead, Grace sheds her Christian martyr’s garb of Dogville and turns into something like a fiery Socialist reformer. Full of energy and purpose, she sets out to educate the slaves and instruct them in the matters of taking care of themselves in the wide scary world of Freedom.
Things don’t go well, and initially, von Trier seems to be revisiting the old suggestion that the differences between wage slavery and chattel slavery are not so great: Only the former kind is considered morally tolerable, even today.
But things get thornier and uglier. Grace’s dramatic foils in this film are the two black male archetypes, the shuffling Uncle Tom figure and the fiery, doomed rebel in the Nat Turner/Marcus Garvey/Malcolm X mold. Von Trier reportedly had trouble getting African-American actors to accept the roles, and it’s easy to see why, since the script flirts quite explicitly with Sadean ideas about liberation through bondage and submission. However, the fact that an actor of Danny Glover’s stature took the role of seemingly meek butler Wilhelm (after some initial reluctance) is probably the best evidence that von Trier earned the trust of his cast.
Von Trier seems to have done his homework about the particulars of cotton production and the varieties of tactics that were actually employed against newly freed blacks (and poor whites) in order to sweep away the promises of Reconstruction. However, the film is less about the particulars of slavery and racism than it is about the persistent utopianism that runs through American history, a delusional ideal that flies in the face of our own experience. As Grace becomes more maniacal about the virtues of the freedom she has bestowed on the former slaves, she begins to resemble something else: the messianic self-regard of America. Specifically, her lectures on freedom, and her increasingly violent teaching tactics, begin to resemble the speeches and actions of one George W. Bush and such retainers as Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice.
Aside from whatever interests we have in Iraqi oil, the current war-making in the Middle East is part of that same messianic tradition: “Freedom is on the march” goes the cry of the administration as it presides over the violent disintegration of an ancient culture.
It’s von Trier’s insight that this messianism runs through all Americans–not just the Bushmen at this juncture of history, but through everyone. It’s a tradition that we’ve held dear ever since the opening lines of the Gettysburg address, which follows noble sentiment with violence:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war [my emphasis].”
The contemporary allegory of Dogville, Manderlay and the planned finale entitled Wasington will surely become more obvious once George Bush has shuffled off to join James K. Polk, William McKinley and Warren G. Harding in historical opprobrium.
Somehow, I think Lars von Trier’s ongoing trilogy will hold up as being emblems of the times. They’re not easy viewing experiences, but there’s no reason why they should be.