Sunday, October 23, 2011

Dancer in the Dark: Comparing the Approach to Hollywood Genre Cinema of Lars Von Trier and Matthiew Kassovitz

Part 1: Dancer in the Dark

To begin this examination it is important first to look at the classic Hollywood style of filmmaking in its earliest example. The readings of Anderson, Eisenstein and Deleuze suggest the idea that organic parallel montage, first introduced and perfected by D.W Griffith in The Birth of a Nation (1915), is representative of the cinematic form of the nation. Eisenstein describes Griffith’s model of parallel montage as ‘two story lines, where one emotionally heightens the tension and drama of the other’ leading to a feature of ‘direct-lined quickening and an increase in tempo’. Anderson and Eisenstein form the background of Deleuze’s philosophical notion that the organic montage method is anchored by parallelism, alternation and convergence towards a final climax; in other words, a very systematic approach to early filmmaking. In the mind of the viewer, separate events make sense because of their integration within the same shared space and a “complete confidence in the anonymous, simultaneous activity” (Benedict Anderson) of the other people sharing that space.

Alternatives of this mode of filmmaking were also being established in the cinema of Weimar Germany, France and the Soviet Union (under Eisenstein himself). Later, I will briefly discuss how these modes of filmmaking have remained in the consciousness of New European filmmakers with the development of the post-national cinema in Europe, particularly the presence of the Soviet influence in La Haine. With the presence of globalisation and cultural changes within Europe, the cinema industry has abandoned a systematic approach and adopted a fragmented style as its politics. Popular themes of New European cinema is the reflection of contemporary life within these national spaces, but generally not by restructuring the work of Griffith. Many films in this course are not interested in the the tradition of American cinema, but Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark and Matthieu Kossovitz’s La Haine are. These films, and the difference in the way their filmmakers have approached American cinema is the central focus of this analysis.

Dancer in the Dark, made in 2000 by Danish director Lars Von Trier, was an international co-production between companies based in several countries. Set in America, Dancer, interestingly, can be read as an ‘imagined America’ as Von Trier had actually never been to America. He was, however, aware of the Hollywood style of filmmaking and both the genres of the Hollywood musical (which he admired, much like Selma) and the melodrama. Von Trier’s enjoyment of the musical, but dislike for the spectacle of Hollywood, is an example of an individualistic attitude towards American cinema that had emerged during the New European cinema wave. This is why so many European filmmakers, such as the Dardenne brothers, who developed a style incorporating unmediated relation between the protagonist and spectator, are creating independent modes of filmmaking following the 1989 acentric movement in Europe. Dancer in the Dark joined a throng of European films of this time seeking acceptance as American cinema, but I would argue that Von Trier wanted his to be a purely European production, which comments back to Hollywood.

Von Trier adopts a neorealist approach to the melodrama, drawing from his Dogma 95 grounding, incorporating the hand-held digital camera to create a grainy, washed-out documentary appearance. He deftly differentiates the musical sequences by using multiple (approximately one hundred) static cameras, by rapidly editing this footage, and by drenching the scenes in brilliant colour, reinforcing the contrast between Selma’s ‘real’ existence and her fantasy. Von Trier makes a bizarre gesture to the Hollywood aesthetic he normally eschews, but which seems so integral to the visual spectacle of musical sequences. When the film adopts this mechanised style, the high profile commodities (Bjork and Catherine Deneuve) have the freedom to perform and be viewed as ‘themselves.’ But behind the sensory difficulty of the hand-held, it is irritating for the viewer to see these commodities within such a landscape. It is within the scenes of the melodrama that Von Trier’s rejection of American cinema is most apparent, but in the tradition of musicals and the brilliant representation of Selma’s fantasies, his interrogation of American mode of cinema becomes worthy of analysis. These scenes, particularly “I’ve seen it All” (performed on the moving train) are performed beatifully by Bjork, evidently with influence taken from Spike Jonze’s music video of ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ (1995), Bjork’s most popular single in America.
Von Trier has made his film using predominantly European techniques, but it really is a Hollywood film posing as a product of independent cinema, resuscitating and blending two genres of film that Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make, and strongly opposing their relative generic purity. In this combination we find both the explanation for the critical reaction to this film and an effective comment on the shifting nature of generic formulas in contemporary (European?) cinema. Roger Ebert describes Dancer as a “brave throwback to the fundamentals of cinema – to heroes and villains, noble sacrifices, and bastardly betrayals.” This seems to be a tributary comment to the early work of Griffith, and his development of parallel plotlines, and of polarising the heroics and the villainy. Brenda Austin-Smith in her critical essay ‘Mum’s the Word: the trial of genre in Dancer in the Dark’ states that both musicals and melodramas are staples of classical Hollywood production, but their conflicting natures, one subscribing to the liberating capacities of music, the other to the limiting conditions of gender – make the film’s unorthodox mixture of the two a provocative film experience.
Dancer in the Dark’s struggle of genre arguably climaxes in the courtroom scene where the judge closes in on a verdict of Selma’s guilt in murder, and the film finally interrogates itself as either musical or melodrama, and sentences the competing genre (the musical) to death. Selma’s identity, not as musical star, but as quintessential melodramatic figure, is confirmed by the judge’s guilty indictment of her murder of Bill and for her ‘generic impropriety’ (Austin-Smith). The Hollywood musicals are about the ideal America, the way things are supposed to be. Selma discovers, in an outrageous turn of events, that reality is depressingly different from her illusion.

Hollywood musicals capture Selma’s spirit, except when they reach the extravagant musical finale, where she finds the movement of the camera going out of the roof ‘annoying’. But Selma dislikes finales not because the camera ‘goes out of the roof’ but because that movement signals the end of the film, and the return of the viewer to the banal world outside the spectacle of the song and dance. Cary Wolfe makes some interesting yet problematic observations about Dancer in the Dark as a ‘post-modern opera’: “even though Dancer invites us to take it in the genre of the Hollywood musical, this is ultimately a blind alley” (Austin-Smith). He argues the film is not a musical, because its insistence on the radical split between the world of Selma’s fantasy, in which the musical sequences take place, and the world that the film in broader terms constructs and inhabits. Austin-Smith argues that it is this separation of Selma’s musical fantasies that does not make Dancer an opera, since “opera is a drama told within music, where the music is integral, rather than incidental, to the development of the story.” 
I agree that Dancer in the Dark undergoes a generic metamorphosis into opera. The exhilaration and joy expressed in Selma’s song and dance fantasies disappear and music becomes the vehicle of Selma’s fear, anguish and suffering in the final scene as she awaits her death. One of the fundamental tensions in the musical genre is the opposition of utopia and reality and as Jane Feuer states in The Hollywood Musical, “the ultimate synthesis of the musical consists in unifying what initially was imaginary and what initially was real…but in the film’s unfolding, the boundary between the real and the imaginary may be blurred.” In raising these ideas, Dancer in the Dark acts both as a deconstruction and as homage to the Hollywood musical. It is not ‘anti-musical’ or an opera, but an example of a postmodern musical.
Lars Von Trier is playing with the genre of the musical by placing Selma’s death (the melodrama) almost as a spectacle for the ‘audience’ to experience. When she is hanged she drops into a space of close proximity to the spectators, and the curtains are then shut, enclosing this space, like the conclusion of a stage musical. Following this the camera is raised in a movement toward the ceiling and out of the building, but never actually reaches the top, before the screen turns black and the closing credits begin. This film cannot be described as a ‘complete’ musical because the camera doesn’t entirely leave the building as Selma so vividly remembered and disliked. In another example of this idea, the singing/dancing/choreography is not uniformly perfect, as it usually is in the grand Hollywood musicals, but represented as if a musical had just begun in ‘real’ time, without rehearsal or practiced choreography. Dancer in the Dark is the creation of a new genre of European cinema, but adopting two different Hollywood genres and using them in conflict to destroy one another. Dancer and similarly the next text of analysis, La Haine, are constructed in a way that they talk back to the conventions of Hollywood genre filmmaking, but not directly accessing the methods of organic montage or a pure investigation of a specific ‘national’ identity of cinema.

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