2005Director: Lars Von Trier
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Danny Glover, Issach de Bankolé
candinavian humor is B-L-A-C-K (you’ll get the pun in a beat.) You wanna bring down the house in Denmark, you tell the joke about the kid with no arms that can’t reach the “cakes” on the kitchen shelf and the mom who says “No arms… no cakes!”
It’s all in the telling, though.
You wanna burn the house to the foundation in the U.S., show Manderlay. Talk aboutcher “movie” in a firehouse (P.S. I’m writing this from Paris is Burning, France.) If you own real estate in any major US city, sell before this flick hits the theatres: ritualized-big-black-buck-on-virginal-lily-white-deb-“rape” but-she-had-it-coming-and-reeeeaallllly-wants-it-BAAAD, an old black woman’s black community-endorsed execution-style murder (for causing the death of a sick black child by stealing her food) by the aforementioned young white and willing “rapee,” Machiavellian betrayal, lynching, racial stereotyping, generous abuse of the n-word, masturbation, law-enforcing gangsters, a white woman in black face singing to black kids on the potty as punishment, nudity, lying, stealing, cheating, whipping, burning, famine—leading people to eat dirt (a “Southern tradition” we’re told)—as a result of liberal naïveté… “just young folks enjoying themselves” this is NOT.
I also did NOT see Dogville or read any reviews—because I live here, I stop, drop and roll when the French tell me they LOVE a film—so I’m spared the bias for this, the second instalment in Von Trier’s USA: Land of Opportunity trilogy. And, well, if Von Trier can make a film about slavery and racism in the United States without ever having set foot there—something he’s now unlikely to do unless he wants to join the living-challenged—I guess I can review his film clueless. It’s a unique experience, in fact, NOT to see a trailer, NOT to know the director, NOT to even know what the film’s about. It was a Dogme 95 experience from the get-go, audience-wise, if you will. And BAM! fritzed the switchboard right out of the box trying to figure out what the opening shot was about. So much so that I didn’t even notice there were no opening credits…? A Dogme 95 tick. (Although I later found out many of the tenets carved in sand in their “Vow of Chastity” manifesto were broken in the film… spoken like true anarchists.) And, well, the digital-Danish Dada-handheld-generic brand-theatre-in-the-round mise en scène hyphenated my synapses into auto-“witness mode” for the anticipated train wreck, hoping I hadn’t happened into yet another macabre, 9-bucks-wasted-walk-out-Wooster Street sweatbox-poser version of Woyczech or The Seagull or Godot… because there’s absolutely nothing I suffer more pathetically than really, really bad theatre.
That said, being a structure-junkie, I like theatrical representation on film (insert smiley face here).
Choking back the bilious pre-vomit with the thought that while Willem Dafoe might be caught naked in a pretentious film, he wouldn’t be caught dead in a BAD film, I ogled his ghoulish, happy-go-lucky opening cameo as the lead’s vulgarly bigoted yet wryly sage—as successful world-weary criminals are wont to be—gangster father. That lasted only until the “I’m so embarrassed for you” moment when Bryce Dallas Howard’s “Grace” pronounced more than a handful of syllables. Thrashing about to free myself from the invisible chains of Responsibility that bound me to the red velvet armrests, the veins in my neck turning to cable, the shrill, off-key, Siren screams dogwhistled in my ears... RUN! FLEE! FLIGHT!
In the end, I’m glad I toughed it out. It’s been so long since I’ve been to the theatre, I’ve forgotten how stressful it is to traverse the fourth wall.
Alabama, 1933, 70 years after slavery was abolished. Young Grace has a coming of age at the gates of Manderlay, a slave plantation whose “Ma’am,” with yet another surprising cameo from the unrecognizable Lauren Bacall, dies in front of our eyes. But not before she reveals a terrible secret: a book, “Ma’am’s Law,” is hidden under her bed—a Santoria-inspired DIY manual for running the plantation—that she implores Grace to burn. The estate is thrown into turmoil when Grace’s white guilt indignation that Slavery has been perpetuated for so long compels her to right the wrong. She squats the plantation with gangsters she’s “inherited” from her father, including a lawyer! She contractually and forcibly frees the slaves, only to find out to her horror and disgust that they themselves have perpetuated the system, and the vicious twister of liberal and conservative stereotypes gets whipped to a fine lather and defiles and destroys everything in its path in this ugly reality-show parable.
Told in eight chapters with title cards to announce each and narrated by the very fine John Hurt—no doubt because no one could have possibly taken an American “seriously,” although there’s a chance no one had the balls (imdb informs us that nine of the twelve actors playing slaves were British for that very reason)—the “stagey” representation was, indeed, effective to hermetically isolate the disease of Racism for analysis. Once over the hump of accepting that the film might actually be going somewhere, I admit I still squirmed politically correctly for a good long while, terrified that the “play” was going to go “there.” Which it did, of course. By then, Bryce Dallas Howard, Danny Glover, and the ensemble cast had me eating out of the palm of their self-righteous, bloodied, guilty hands.
Nothing is black and white in this white and black world. The complexity and maturity was so refreshing and welcome, finally, that I didn’t even mind having my Yankee Liberal white hot buttons, double entendre intended, pushed by this “streets paved with gold” and “Harlem tourist” cartoon America. The caricatures, the folksy myths, the whole shit and shinola at least made me realize where I was kidding myself or how I had been fooled.
“Don’t tell me the truth, tell me a good story.”
And, just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. Only to end on an ironic bit of bona fide black humor that is about as welcome as a lynch mob. And, with a last wink—through squinting eyes and gritted teeth—the closing credits’ civil rights montage features David Bowie’s rousing Young Americans, with the line “Do you remember… your president Nixon?” synched to a portrait of George W. Bush. A dead give away the director wasn’t from these parts: any American worth his salt-in-the-wound would have had Lynyrd Skynyrd doing a cover of Neil Young’s “Alabama.”
Can’t wait to review Spike Lee’s much-anticipated Aryan Brotherhood gay hardcore porn musical So Fist-icated, loosely based on the writings of Soren Kierkegaard and starring Rocco Seffredi as Hans Christian Anderson and Sandra Bernhard as Niels Bohr, shot with a Fisher-Price PXL 2000. Should be a real barn-burnin’ hoot in Copenhagen!
By: Chris Panzner
Published on: 2005-11-29