With the release of Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots (1998), the work of a group of Danish film makers who work collectively and individually under the ‘documentary’ and verité demands of Dogme 95 has now begun to achieve a measure of critical visibility. In fact, with the release of Festen (1998), by Thomas Vinterberg, another leading member of the group, and Soren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Mifune (1999), their films have found a popular audience outside Denmark. Moreover, this international reputation is now being matched by a new international dimension to the collective itself. Recently, the director of Gummo (1997), and writer of Kids (Larry Clark, 1996), Harmony Korine, has agreed to film under their strictures.
In the following, I look principally at The Idiots, firstly, in relation to the claims of the group and its reworking and extension of 1960s communal ideologies of cinematic praxis and dramaturgy and, secondly, in the light of the problems of alternative cinema today. For The Idiots, in particular, encapsulates and acts out the crisis of contemporary independent cinema, in that it is beholden to the avant-garde legacy of the 1960s—or the fantasy of that legacy—yet is politically distant from its critical origins.
Like many cinematic manifestos this century, Dogme 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 of 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. In this respect, their list of do’s and don’ts, Dogme 95’s manifesto ‘TheVow of Chastity’, is worth quoting in full, because such manifestos, whatever their ideological hue, are extremely rare these days.
Furthermore, I swear as a director, to refrain from personal taste. I am no longer an artist, I swear to refrain from creating a ‘work’, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of my good taste and any aesthetic considerations.
Thus, I make my VOW OF CHASTITY.
What is significant about this list 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. In short, its message is simple: you do not have to be rich to make interesting films. In this regard, the democratizing ethos of the manifesto is no stranger to the spirit of post-war ‘counter-cinema’ or even pre-war workers’ film organizations such as the Workers’ Film and Photo League. Yet, in a sense, what characterizes this democratization is its ideological reticence. The voice of the fantasized film maker here is strangely formless: that is, it refuses to speak on behalf of anyone or anything. It is subjectless. This is reflected in the Dogme films themselves, as well as in what the group has said so far about its activities. Whereas, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the notion of counter-cinema’s critique of the dominant narrative form was based on the redemptive narration of the speech, labour and customs of the working class and the dominated, in the films of Vinterberg, Von Trier and Kragh-Jacobsen, the claims to authentic speech and agency seem to issue in mutism or silence. For
Generally, however, Dogme 95’s work is much closer to the majority of other critical independent European and North American cinema of the late 1980s and 1990s: a cinema of confession and abjection, in which the alienation of the sons and daughters of the middle class and lower middle class is staged as a world of febrile narcissism, hedonism and self-hate. In this kind of cinema, the dissolution of the family, and the perceived collapse of a progressive public (or counter-public) sphere are intertwined in various narratives of redemption through the pursuit of various forms of bodily excess, transgression or substance dependency. The early films of Gus Van Sant (My Private Idaho, 1991), Kevin Smith (Clerks, 1994), and the recent work of Todd Solondz—in particular, Happiness (1998)—and Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise (1999), all fit this generational and critical profile, although Clark is considerably older than the other film makers. Indeed, Solondz’s Happiness is paradigmatic of the blackest side of this current of independent film-making: the transitory nature of pleasure is what sets the limits of human fulfilment.