Thursday, September 14, 2006


The first Lars Von Trier film I saw was Dancer in the Dark, and I was really bothered by it. But, I'd heard good things about Dogville, so I decided to check it out and was overwhelmed by how good it was. My main criticism of Dancer in the Dark was that the lead character was so acquiescent to her fate, just accepting all this punishment and not reacting to it. That's why the end of Dogville is so powerful, because it totally messes with the idea of the suffering melodramatic heroine.

So, Dogville was great and I was excited to see Von Trier's followup. Manderlay is a very challenging, thought provoking film that's one of the most biting films made in recent times. Even more than Dogville, it's is a direct attack on American policy and belief, both conservative and liberal.

The film's opening shot, with the zoom in on the perfectly white map is striking, particularly the transition into action down on the stage. The style here is basically the same as Dogville. I read a couple of reviews that talked about how the style was a distancing device. I don't know if that was the intention, but for me, the stage setting drew me in a lot more than it would have if this was shot on a real plantation. What the style does is reduce the film to the essentials, the few important props and the actors. Stripping away the excess makes the story more timeless, and because the intention is to create an allegory, that's critical.

Some of the stuff that happens in the film is disturbing and could easily be misinterpreted as racist if taken out of context, or even in context. I was uncomfortable watching some of this, but I think the film has an intelligence that makes it clear that it's working on a satirical/metaphorical level, not a literal one. It also means that the characters aren't necessarily going to be developed or behave in the way you'd expect from a traditional film. Some of the dialogue is a bit stilted, but I don't really mind that. The stage setting gives Lars the freedom to create something less real, a world where Defoe can give a speech like the women and savages part and have it work. You could read it as bad acting, but I think the stilted delivery works in this world.

Nicole Kidman was fantastic as Grace, but I'm not sure if this film would work as well with her in the lead. The physical resemblance between her and Lauren Bacall would have driven home the thematic point about habituation of systems, but Bryce Dallas Howard's naive youthfulness brought a lot to the role. Plus, I think it would be difficult to accept the fact that Grace, who wiped out an entire village of people at the end of Dogville, could be so self righteous here. Howard pulls off a lot of difficult stuff and keeps the character grounded in this odd world.

If you read this film just as it plays, it's got a message that's a bit difficult to accept, the idea that slaves don't really want freedom, they prefer having someone to blame for the bad things in their lives. That's the sort of message you'd expect from something like Birth of a Nation. However, what makes the film so much more is the way that Von Trier shows you how systems of power perpetuate the ill treatment of disadvantaged people. When Grace arrives, she sees a fully functioning society that is morally abhorrent to her. From her perspective, the slaves are victims, so cut off from the world that they're not even aware that they should be free. She brings that freedom and expects them to immediately leave the mansion and start new lives.

I'm not sure how much Von Trier thought of film to film continuity when making this, but it would seem that Grace's experience in Dogville informs a lot of her actions here. There she was essentially made into a slave, hated it, and ultimately took revenge on the whole town and reclaimed her freedom. She was a freeperson made into a slave, and was unable to accept that lifestyle. She was vindictive about having something taken away from her and lashed out at the town with the power her family possessed.

So, she is coming from an experience where she could use her power to reclaim her freedom. That is totally different from someone who is completely powerless and also no idea of what it's like to be free. If you've spent your whole life as a slave, with a strict routine, freedom would be a terrifying unknown. Some of them may have dreamt about being free of Mam, but they're not prepared when that dream actually come true.

Von Trier's basic point with the film is that systemic oppression creates a class of people who are dependent on the oppressor and unable to function on their own. This obviously applies to freed blacks after the Civil War, who lived in a society that granted them freedom, but would not offer them real opportunities to support themselves. They had no choice but to revert to the same kind of arrangement they were living in in slavery. Most of these people were born into slavery, so they lacked the experience with which to run their own lives.

So, the slaves turn to Grace, their liberator, or rather, Grace takes charge of this aimless band, and tries to show them how to be free. Here is where she begins to run into problems. For the system to work, it requires the labor that was provided by slaves. So, what she's doing is putting them to work at the same jobs, just now with the chance to reap the rewards of their own harvest. However, those rewards are off in the distance, for now, they work without anything to distinguish this labor from slave labor.

Von Trier's scenario applies equally well to any sort of institutional system. Prison is a great example, once you go into prison, it becomes very difficult to return to life in mainstream society, the routine of prison becomes ingrained.

But I think the most potent interpretation is to read the film as a critique of US foreign policy, particularly in Iraq. Grace, like the United States, has high minded ideals and believes that it should work to free these imprisoned people from the rule of a cruel dictator. However, saying someone's free does not make them free. Freedom is a choice someone has to make, you can't force it on them, and it's the same with democracy in Iraq. Bush's greatest hubris is the idea that you can spread democracy by force, and Grace does the same thing, she says she wants people to be free, but winds up controlling them, just until they get to freedom. It's the same in Iraq, people become dependent on the US military in the same way that they were previously dependent on Hussein.

If we're to look to the future, Von Trier indicates that following the failure of US involvement in Iraq, the Iraqi people will turn to a new dictator and the previous status quo will be returned. There's also clearly a mocking of liberal arrogance here, liberals love to talk about "the people," but when it comes time to actually deal with them, they're usually a lot less affectionate.

I think the film does a great job of dramatizing the steps that the plantation takes on the way to its new form. Both this film and Dogville do a wonderful job of showing the evoultion of community, there's none of the typical montages to skip through things, rather Von Trier takes his time to show us processes at work and make us as invested in their success as the characters are.

Grace tries to create a democratic government, but in bringing it about, she takes on a level of dictatorial power. The authority that her gangsters provide allows her to force people to come to the town meetings. In theory, freedom should mean that the meetings are optional, but she is sacrificing temporary freedom to get more down the line. Her governing strategy blows up when the people vote to kill Wilma. So, democracy is good, unless the people choose to do the wrong thing, that's what she seems to think. This moment raises the issue of whether she did the moral thing by killing Wilma. Should she have instead tried to lobby the people to be more lenient in their justice? This bit ties into the end revelations about Mam's Law. Because there's so many of the slaves, they always have some power over their master. Their numbers mean they have the ability to force Grace into doing something she doesn't want to do.

The major subplot in the film revolves Grace's lust for Timothy. Here, Von Trier, is juxtaposing the simultaneous attraction/repulsion that an upper class woman like Grace would have to an African man. She doesn't see him as a personality, rather he is a collection of traits that she casts onto him, something that's made explicit when she finds out that he is a Type VII, chameleon. Grace generally holds herself above the slaves, and is disgusted by her own feelings. This reinforces Grace's arrogance, she feels perfectly fine running these people's lives, but would never think of actually loving one of them. This fits well with the way that Grace's fancy clothes and high class demeanor separated her from the salt of the earth Dogville folk.

When they finally do have sex, Grace is essentially used, her face obscured, she's an object for Timothy to fuck. So, things have flipped, and rather than Timothy being the object, Grace now is. Grace's feelings cause her deep shame, and when she's whipping Timothy at the end, it's as much about punishing herself.

About that ending, the successful harvest is a great payoff because we've been with these characters for so long, living their struggle, so we get the vicarious joy of their success. I think Dogville was more successful at creating strong individual characters within the community, but here we get a strong sense of the community as a whole.

This leads into the big revelation about Mam's Law. The slaves have chosen security over freedom, and for them, it makes a lot of sense. They get food regardless of the harvest's success and always have someone to blame for the problems in their life. The film is a critique of this victim mentality, but makes it easy to understand why these characters choose to live this way. Basically, the US government let them down by failing to provide any viable options for their post-slavery existence. That means the best they can do is try to maximize the possibilities of their current existence. What they need Grace for is to serve as the locus of their blame. If they don't have a Mam, there's no excuse for their problems. This is the system they've had for all their lives and no one wants to leave that security.

Grace whipping Timothy isn't quite the cathartic hellfire of Dogville's finale, but it's still very powerful. Here we see the character taking the frustration of her months on Manderlay and putting it into one burst of violence. In the end, the film seems to indicate that systems create cycles and it takes more than surface change to alter peoples' behavior.

I think Manderlay is a great, great film, but it doesn't quite match up to Dogville. Part of that is the style was fresher and more surprising in Dogville, but also that the supporting cast there were much stronger characters. Here, Grace is more clear, but the others exist more as pieces in a scenario than real people. Plus, the finale of Dogville was astonishing.

But that doesn't mean that this isn't a fantastic movie. It's interesting both on its own terms, and as an extension of the themes in its predecessor. I really hope that Von Trier does fiinish the trilogy and make Wasington, but if not, this still stands as one of the most inventive, politically aware series of films around.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

JLA: World War III (#34-41)

At the end of the final issue of Morrison's JLA run, Metron says "We have shown you the shape of the world to come. Now you must find the way there." That basically sums up Morrison's goal with the series, and with most of his work, to prevent an aspirational model of the humanity that could be. For him, the superhero is a vision of what humanity could be, the next step in evolution, and that concept is at the center of this arc.

I think the final issue is fantastic, but the earlier stuff is a bit more hit or miss. I do like the way Morrison brings back some old villains, which gives a nice sense of closure to the arc. It's like everything has been building to this point, which is true in some respects. However, the arcs are generally standalone so the payoff in this final arc isn't going to be the same as it is in The Invisibles, or New X-Men, where each arc built on what happened previously, bringing us to a big overall conclusion at the end.

One of the issues with writing for the JLA is it becomes very difficult to keep topping yourself. I feel like One Million was the ultimate threat for the JLA, and since then the smaller arcs actually worked better, where the focus was on character rather than just making massive foes. In this case, Prometheus and Luthor are good villains, but they seem to be here only to show how massive a threat Mageddon is. Side note, but I'll just mention that the Bee Queen seems like a precursor to The Filth, with both her visual design and the nastiness of her setup.

Mageddon works better as a thematic villain than as a an actual foe. He's a concept, and can create destruction, but we don't have a huge emotional stake in his destruction. That said, when you're dealing with the JLA, normal villains don't work. What they're fighting in Mageddon is the destructive force of regression. It is a holdover from a previous world and is trying to destroy the world that has grown up since his time. So, it's the ultimate conservative force, the anti-sun, an impediment to human progress. In this respect it's similar to the Sheeda, who harvest civilizations when they grow too powerful.

Morrison heroes are always about evolution, so Mageddon is the ultimate foe for them to fight. During the arc, there's a lot of different phases of evolution. What we realize by the end of the arc is that the whole reason the New Gods were working with the JLA was to fight Mageddon. They were there to guide humanity through this trial then leave them to grow on their own. If we view the New Gods as humanity's parents, this arc is all about humanity proving that it's strong enough to stand on its own.

However, humanity here is divided into two distinct categories, regular human and superhuman. The New Gods serve as parent figures to the superhumans, and the superhumans act to guide the regular humans. This series has been all about the way that these God like beings have the mandate to inspire regular humans to be better.

The ingenious thing that Morrison does at the end of the arc is reveal that Mageddon is literally preying on humanity's primal, unevolved weakness by activating our dormant reptilian DNA. Side note, but it was great to see Animal Man back in a Morrison comic. I think Morrison gave the character the perfect conclusion to his own series, but it's nice to get to see him just keeping on. Similarly, it's cool to see Zatanna as well, I would love to see Morrison write an ongoing series with the character, his work on her miniseries was phenomenal.

Anyway, if Mageddon's going to fight them by targetting our primitive weakness, the JLA decides that the best way to combat this is to tap into humanity's potential and evolve the world. On the one hand, this feels like territory Morrison has gone over many times, but I give him a pass because it works wonderfully here. I love the idea that the JLA is giving humanity a preview of what they could be. Morrison's core thematic statement is contained in this speech by Oracle:

"Hi, everyone...don't be afraid...what we're feeling are new structures opening up in our brains...It's like a preview o evolution. All this amazing stuff you're seeing and feeling is what Superman feels like all the time. It's why he wants to save us."

That sums up the whole series right there. The JLA are the ultimate form of humanity, what we hope to be. In a panel right out of Flex Mentallo, but still potent, we see an army of ordinary people flying up to battle Mageddon because they want to thank Superman for saving them. Juxtaposed with this is Superman's crisis of faith while figthing Mageddon. It's this tribute from ordinary people that gives him the strength to absorb the energy of the anti-sun and defeat Mageddon. It reminds me a bit of Buffy's "The Prom," where we see that ordinary people really do notice what these superhumans do for them. It's a really powerful moment that perfectly expresses so much of Morrison's personal philosophy.

For him, superhero comics are a way to examine humanity's future and construct a model of what we want to be. Having the ordinary citizens become superpowered is the equivalent of the reader being brought into the comic to fight alongside the characters. Batman mentions that the JLA always end up winning, and the way the ending is structured implies that it's the reader's faith in the characters that ultimately gives them the power to triumph over evil. On a literal level, the fact that we keep buying the books and seeing the movies means that the characters remain viable properties and there will not die. So, reading the book does keep them alive.

Reading a lot of Morrison JLA can numb you to just how strong his ideas are. But, if you step back, the torrent of crazy concepts in this final issue is unmatched by virtually any other author at any time. And by this point, you just accept it because he's built a world where all this is viable, it's a world where imagination and strength of belief are enough to win the day. Look at Green Lantern, he just has to believe and his ring works again, it's not the ring that matters, it's his belief in the ring.

The series ends with humanity having received a preview of the world it can one day have, and Metron giving the JLA the goal of bringing that world to fruition. One day everyone will be like Superman, and in the world that Morrison's created, great power does not corrupt, it allows you to see the wonder of the world. The bad guys in this series are the ones with petty, individual concerns, the good guys are the ones who can transcend that to fight for the good of the world as a whole. And in the final panel we get one more meta nod to the reader with the hilarious line, "We're the Justice League. You know you love it."

I once heard someone say that Morrison always has problems ending his series. That's absoultely ridiculous, Morrison's endings usually do a wonderful job of wrapping up the loose ends of the series and providing a vision of the characters' future. Animal Man #26, Doom Patrol #63 and The Invisibles #1 are three of the best comics you'll ever read. JLA #41 isn't on that level, but it's still a thoroughly satisfying wrap up to a great run.

Ultimately, World War III suffers from fatigue. By this point, it's very hard for Morrison to surprise us. So he probably made the right choice by exiting the series then. However, the final issue is a wonderful topper to the run, perfectly articulating the thematic concerns that made his work so unique. It was an issue that had me cheering.

Next up, I'm going to do a wrap up of the run as a whole. So, look for that in the next couple of days.