2004: The Year in Movies
Dear David, Tony, Armond, and Charley,
Happy New Year to you all! But David—fie on you for even reminding me of the existence of Dogville. Despite its (inexplicable) appearance on numerous 10-best lists (none of yours, dear colleagues, thank God—or is that Dog?), I have been desperately trying to blot out its existence and doing pretty well. Until now. I think it's interesting, David, that you brought up the unanimous hatred that you, Charley, Armond, and I felt for Dogville as a shared response that's simpatico with Pauline's aesthetic (an aesthetic which, as you said yourself, isn't necessarily easy to define—and I have more to say about, to use your elegant term, being a Paulinista, but later for that).
First off, I'm always a little thrown by the term "applying an aesthetic" when we use it in terms of assessing a movie. Is it like an unguent? Or that old trick where you reveal a secret message written in lime juice by shining a heat lamp on it? "I shall apply my aesthetic and the meaning will be revealed!" If only it were that easy. OK, obviously, we all apply an aesthetic, if that means we have a range of sources—of people and experiences, of other movies we've seen or books we've read or music we've heard—that affect how we look at what's in front of us.
But in the case of Dogville—well, I would have been happy to apply my aesthetic—hey, ANY aesthetic—but my response to that picture was so immediate and so intense it was almost primal. Let me correct that slightly: Although I've never been a Lars von Trier fan (I'm actually a pretty hearty Lars von Trier detractor), I was mildly intrigued by the first 20 minutes or so. Maybe it was just the lighting and the naked set with the individual dwellings demarcated by chalk lines and all that. The look of the thing seemed kind of imaginative in a stripped-down sort of way, like a stage set designed by precocious college kids or something.
But as soon as I realized that Dogville was a fable designed to enlighten and punish me, I recoiled instinctively. I know what's gonna happen next: Someone out there is going to write in and say that I shut myself off from the experience of Dogville, that I must go back and see it again—heck, three times!—to grasp its greatness. Fuck that. What amazed me about Dogville was how completely, without even a shred of ambivalence, I despised it. No, it was not knee-jerk, casual, or ill considered. I gave that movie an even fairer shake than it deserves (considering it shakes its audience the way a starved terrier shakes a chicken). It was one of the purest, most untainted responses to a picture I've ever had.
And yes, it felt great. And here, I think, is where the idea of any sort of Pauline aesthetic, however you define it, comes in, at least for me. Look—I find it extremely difficult to write about Pauline (I did it once), but I understand, David, why you wanted to bring it up. And I certainly know what you mean when you said she sensitized you to a certain kind of humanist filmmaking (I know, I know, she'd hate the term, but it is what it is, so let's dispense with the quotation marks). But as far as Dogville goes, before I did anything so delicate as to apply an aesthetic, I found great joy and freedom in recognizing that my first and most natural response, the gut response that needs to be trusted, was to recoil from it.
Now look, no one needs to be granted freedom to feel anything for a particular movie, or, for that matter, to speak his or her mind about it. It's like that old-time feminist baloney of the '80s about how women are silenced—silenced!—by society. Bullied by those scary boys into not speaking up and all that. But as far as being cowed into having, or not having, strong convictions about a movie: It strikes me that all of the people who so strongly felt the need to disentangle themselves from the Pauline Kael legend—well, what, exactly, was it that they felt entangled them? I keep reading that Pauline was a dictator, and these apron-string-cutters (we all know who they are, but do I have to be the ones to name names?) had to break free from her or they'd suffocate. The recurring refrain in these pieces is, "You just couldn't stand up to her!" You couldn't? Well, whose problem was THAT? This idea that she was running some sort of Dr. Moreau-style outfit where she was growing mutant critics under bell jars, cloning them in her own image—well, OK, now's the time to come clean: I used to be ZuZu the Leopard Girl, and look at me now.
But seriously: To me, Pauline—and let's say I'm talking about an idea of Pauline, drawn from both Pauline the person and Pauline the writer, as opposed to "Pauline our friend" or whatever—represents the exact opposite of dictatorial thinking. She just represents total freedom, freedom married with intellect. And please, this isn't Inside Baseball at all—you didn't have to know her to be hip to this. I get letters from people all the time, telling me what her work meant to them. They feel exactly as I do. I mean, just reading her was freeing. I'm putting it badly, so let me point you toward someone who said it a lot better. Greil Marcus—someone who loved Pauline a lot—writing about I Lost It at the Movies in ArtForum a few years ago, told a story about the night he graduated from high school. A bunch of kids were out wandering around, maybe kind of drunk, just looking for something. (My apologies to Greil if I'm getting some of the details wrong—I can't lay hands on the damn clipping right now.) So they go to this theater to see Pirates of Blood Island, which is just so incredibly lousy. And one kid stands up, his arms open wide, faces the audience and yells, "I nominate this movie shit-fuck of the year, 1962!" And the kids finally get the release they were looking for. They just went wild.
Again, my apologies to Greil for paraphrasing the thing so clumsily, but you get the idea. Greil told that story as a way of explaining how reading I Lost It at the Movies made people—people of a certain mindset or temperament—feel totally free.
David, I remember sitting next to you at that New York Film Festival screening of Dogville. We clung together, figuratively speaking, like the Gish sisters in Orphans of the Storm, united in our hatred of the thing. What would you have done if I'd stood up and yelled, "I nominate this movie …"? I wouldn't have—I don't think it has enough life in it to live up to that rallying cry. (But it was the only time, spontaneously and spurred by nothing but instinct, I ever hissed at a movie.)
I think that's enough, from me, about Dogville. I can't wait to move on to Sideways, to Spanglish, to that Clint Eastwood smudge-of-a-thing I saw flickering on the screen a few weeks ago. (I tried to swat it away, but it wouldn't move. Glasses dirty? No. I'm still trying to figure it out.)
Anyway, it's late, and I need to apply my head to the aesthetic of my pillow. Love to you all, and no Dogville dreams for any of you, I hope.
P.S. Oops—my 10-best list is here.
David Edelstein isSlate's film critic. Scott Foundas is a film critic for LA Weekly. Christopher Kelly is a film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Wesley Morris is a film critic for the Boston Globe. A.O. Scott is a film critic for the New York Times. Charles Taylor is a film critic for Salon. Armond White is the film critic for the New York Press. Stephanie Zacharek is a film critic for Salon.