Lars Von Trier's Dogville: a mid-stage beetween literature, drama, film and other narrative media
Fran Ilich <>

It's not everyday that the spoiled brat of a national film industry like Denmark decides to re-invent himself at such a point in his career that it was the envy of almost every young european filmmaker. This was the case for L'enfantTerrible Lars Von Trier, who at a very young age had the possibility of filming 2 'larger than life' succesful art films, that gained him the reputation as one of the young talents in festivals such as Cannes, but who still instead of opting for a standard career, he decided to switch paths drastically in order not only to re-invent himself, but to let cinema (as opposed to industry standards)speak for itself. Forget the aristotelic 3 act structure, and let situations, characters and scenarios do the storytelling.

And so he and 4 other filmmakers launched the Dogme 95 manifesto. Such a phenomenon was considered by many critics as an awkward move, a kind of art film-dilettantism which was not relevant even to independent cinema. On the one side, because by 1995 (the year the manifesto was written) manifestos where considered to be completely outdated, even within the art-gallery context. They where considered to be cultural artefacts of the early to mid-20 th century, a time of war when totalitarism and collectivism where the survival flags for humanity.

But Lars Von Trier was not unprepared for justyfing his group's manifesto, even so, he didn't even had to explain it, as the time was right for such a text, in part thanks to the technological innovations of the digital film, which where in their own way challenging cultural institutions and the apparatus itself of the film industry (specially questioning such quasi-independent festivals as the Sundance, Berlinale, and Cannes film festival).

What the manifesto propposed where some basic rules for the creation of movies, which limited the palette of resources the filmmaker could draw upon, for example no artificial lighting was permitted, all sound had to be recorded directly from the actual moment the scene was shot, etc. This was relevant in many ways, on the one side because it exposed the artificiality towards Hollywood industry resorted in order to create the most standard of possible worlds (Lev Manovich has written extensibly on how special effects and digital techniques nowadays are mostly used in for example romantic comedys, as opposed to sci-fi or space operas), but also because it adhered toward a kind of neo-realist / nouvelle vague / third cinema aesthetic, which on the other side was both digital (as it used mainly digital film) and oulipiesque (as it had game rules which couldn't be broken, in part to exploit imagination as much as possible, but never oulipo in a traditional algorythmical fashion).

To discuss Von Trier's movies might be somehow out of the point, within the course of this essay, because what I'm interested the most is the way in which he uses the narrative elements in itself, as opposed to the storys he tells. I believe that Von Trier is one of the living filmmakers which are closer to using the camera, actors and scenarios, in a way which resembles the utilization of a pen by a writer during the construction of a novelle.

Even if by the late nineteen-forties, the infamous Alexandre Astruc had published his brief and celebrated essay "Caméra-Stylo", the promised which he delivered has all but been made true (is notable that one of Astruc film pieces deals with Sartre as told by himself, and one has to remember Sartre in his late starge was much involved in defining literature as narrative and specifically as a media which created meaing). Godard, other filmmakers from the nouvelle vague and later movements, Gorin, etc, tried to make real the Astruc's notions of the camera as a pen, with many interesting results, but the camera-stylo is still un-fulfilled. Maybe the closest it has gotten has been to the works of film-essayists like Chris Marker, but still now, in the age of digital video not many are practicing the digital video-essay, so let's not even dare talk about how many are involved in producing digital video author novelle. On the one side because the industry has led us to believe that filmmaking is a collective endeavor, where one lucky person gets to be director. But if technology teach us one thing, it surely is about empowerment. Now what experience will tell us, is that it doesn't matter if a fountain pen is full of ink, and has potentially all the stories within it, th author still has to found how to make it work. This has been more or less the path which Lars Von Trier has followed, from his early costly and succesful Panavision 70mm films, towards Dogville -and what will surely come.

One way in which The Idiots could be read, is as an experiment in directing actors, an experience in collective improvisation of dialogs and situations within the actual depths of the structure of a scene. On The Idiots, Von Trier not only was able to let his actors be co-writers of his film, but actually was able to have his actors work as characters within a novel; he was able to escape mere representation, and to have a live exploration of the personalitys of his characters.

In Dogville, he has gone significanly further. He completely disposed of any kind of naturalistic locations, and filmed all on a black studio where the map of a street was drawn, leaving up the small details and actual places of the street to our imagination, as theatrical drama usually does. But this wasn't enough for him, he had to borrow the structure of a victorian novel, and use a voice off-narrator which conveys the effct of reading a works much in the fashion of nineteen century novels by Charles Dickens, or even Mark Twain. However the actual story and plot is not victorian at all, but hard existentialist Sartrean drama, like previous Von Trier work, one that stills takes the time to contextually translate the detailed descriptions of realist or naturalist french novels, into the audiovisual media which is film, without ever showing the images of it's description, leaving everything to be depicted inside our heads. As strange as it may sound, I believe Von Trier is actually showing the narrative tension among media: interactive media (as it shows the actual maps of the city, but doesn't allow to experience anyo ther subjectivity or plot but the linear one which is completely time-based, while reminding us that the story we are seeing is spatial, geographical-based), film (as it is obviously a movie, but one which drastically limits itself on the visual, which has been said it's the main strength of cinema). But interestingly enough, with all it's self-induced limitations, Lars Von Trier is creating his own personal cinema, where the magic of his storytelling is finding a voice thanks his use and transposition of narrative media grammar, which doesn't stop him from telling a strong moving story where movement and images are always happening. An interesting fact is that he was the actual camera-man, the actual screenwriter, the actual director. Not to mention the fact that in Dogville he stresses the point of tension where the writer character is located, a node which makes him not only aware of being a person which can bring social change to Dogville community, but also one who has to illustrate thru example, and not only commit himself to write the great american novel. In a way which can pass almost imperceptible, Von Trier manages to address the debate of the storyteller and stories as an engine where society can/have to be reminded of their reality, in such ways to make them think of it, and hopefully inspire them to improve it. Think of Brecht and Boal. Forget Aristotle.

When seeing such work one can only wonder if the UCLA project called The Electronic Literature Organization, is right when it defines "electronic literature" as new forms of literature which utilize the capabilities of technology to do things that cannot be done in print. This encompasses a wide range of genres."

If this is so, then I believe Dogville is an outstanding piece of literature, which could easily be situated in our bookshelves next to such experimental and bold works as Saavedra's Don Quijote de la Mancha, or any book by Alain Robbe-Grillet.