Sunday, February 19, 2006

Review Notes: Manderlay

I finally got to see yet another film I'd been wanting to see, Danish provocateur and Dogme 95 co-founder Lars Von Trier's 2005 parable-as-film Manderlay. This film is the second in his "USA-Land of Opportunities" trilogy after the excellent Dogville (2003); the concluding movie, Wasington, either is scheduled for production in 2007 or has been shelved, depending upon which source you read. Below are some of my thoughts on the film; I may have more, so I'll add them either later or in a subsequent post.

Watching Manderlay, I had in the back of my mind the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten cartoons mocking the Islamic prophet Muhammad, which have led to outrage, riots, and deaths all over the world. A narcissistic, cynical insolence verging on disrespect, similar to that right-wing paper's actions, also animates Von Trier. Yet I imagine that unlike the Jyllands-Posten, Von Trier holds little sacred, and would not hesitate to send up Jesus Christ were the right script doing so in front of him.

At times this cynicism, which is also inherently critical, results in rather caustic, but also visionary art, as in Dogville or the less well known The Idiots (1998); at other times, it blooms, like a toxic flower, in such compellingly disturbing explorations as Breaking the Waves (1996), or Von Trier's horrific but remarkable masterpiece, Dancer in the Dark (2003). Danish and European liberalism, the contemporary family, male-female relations, religion, sexuality, and the developmentally and physically disabled, have all been prior targets. With Dancer and Dogville, a strain of anti-Americanism rises to the fore. The United States--or quasi-US--depicted in both films barely resembles anything, from a realist standpoint, that most Americans would recognize, and yet...there is are aspects of the American ethos, as imagined by a European, that do bear out. In Dancer, it is the power of bureaucracy, the struggles of working-class life and our societal emphasis on punishment, to the point of cruelty, rather than rehabilitation, especially for the socially marginal, that hit the target. In Dogville, is the false kindness, selfishness, greed, envy, xenophobia, and desire to dominate and destroy lurking beneath the sometimes placid surface of the small-town life that seem so true; Sherwood Anderson captured it nearly three-quarters of a century ago in Winesburg, Ohio, though one must raise the grains of cynicism found in that work by several powers of ten to approximate Von Trier's ethical--and in the case of Dancer, I would add, amoral--optic.

And so it is with Manderlay. The story in brief: it's 1933, and after Grace, the star of Dogville (Nicole Kidman in one of the best performances of her career in the earlier film, the younger and less adroit Bryce Dallas Howard in this one), has taken care of business out West, she and her gangster father (Willem Dafoe) head back east by way of the South. Passing through Alabama, they happen upon a plantation called "Manderlay." A young Black woman flags her down and asks her to help stop the punishment of one of the Black men living there, Timothy (Isaach de Bankolé, in the photo at right, bound up on the left, with Glover at right), which is when she learns that, despite the Emancipation Proclamation, Union victory in the Civil War, and the 13th and 14th Amendments to the US Constitution some 60 years before, the Black residents of Manderlay are still living as slaves--not merely in the economic sense, as in sharecropping--but in the literal sense of bondspeople. She's horrified, and using her father's well armed assistants, commandeers the estate, forcibly liberating the slaves and forcing equal relations between the White family members who'd been in control. The immediate result is that Mam (Lauren Bacall), the mistress of the estate, expires, but before she does, she urges Grace to destroy the book beneath her mattress which contains the keys to how she's maintained control. It's a heinous document, which includes every manner of rule and some viciously racist categorizations to dominate, not only physically and socially, but psychologically, the Blacks who remain. Chief among them is Wilhelm (Danny Glover), the elderly house slave who was Mam's main confidant and attendant. Grace, however, decides she'll keep the book to study it, partially as means of countering it, because she's determined to transform the slaves, and their former masters, into "Graduate Americans. She institutes a series of actions aimed at enlightening them. The very picture of humanity and good will, backed by brute force, Grace is so assured of the rightness of her view of the situation she's encountered and of her actions that she's even willing, when the opportunity presents itself, to forgo returning to her father's side and resuming her old life as his apprentice. Instead, with a retinue of gangsters and her father's lawyer, which are her patrimony, she will reform Manderlay such that it is the very model of freedom--and democracy.

This being a Lars Von Trier, film, however, things don't turn out so well. No good deed goes undone--that is, fails to backfire. I won't give any of the plot points away, but suffice it to say things are hardly as they seem, or as Grace has seen them. The utterly horrid system, which lies at the center of "The Book" and by which Mam has pitted the slaves against each other to control them, into numerical categories, with 1 being the "Proudy N*****," or rebel, and 7 being the "Pleasing N*****," or chameleon, who changes at will to get his or her ways with the other slaves and with White people (see the film poster above), ends up having an ironically perverse origin. Grace's own sense of things proves to be terribly off; she orders than a stand of trees be cut down to make repairs on the crumbling infrastructure, only to learn that they served as a windbreak preventing the terrible dust storm that inundates Manderlay and nearly starves those who remain on it. Then there's Timothy himself, played with superb skill by the still stunning de Bankolé, who is the epitome of the trickster figure. He is, we learn early on, not a Mensi, but a Munsi, a descendent of aristocratic African lineage and the repository of ascetic, spiritually grounded, but powerfully resistant cultural traits and attributes. He doesn't eat pork, he doesn't drink, he doesn't gamble, and he keeps himself apart from the other Blacks, who so eagerly follow Grace's plans. That is, he's a Number 1. Which means that he, and Glover's mumbling, docile, rather dim-appearing old house slave will naturally be the agents of Grace's comeuppance. Unlike Dogville, the blowback is upon her, and a deviously powerful one it is.

To put it bluntly, things turn very ugly, bloody and nasty. On top of this--and I tossed the thought around a bit--the film is racist. The racism, which is an essential aspect of the theme and plot, is also an inherent element in the film's vision of Black Americans and our struggle to overcome the experiences and legacy of the 200+ year, brutal, dehumanizing "peculiar system"; yet it's also cartoonish. In fact, the film's articulation of its own racism made me laugh out loud more than once. (At several other points, the few Black people I'd spotted in the theater, as well as some of the White people, were also laughing at the same moments.) The sheer absurdity--remember, that cynical insolence--of Von Trier's vision here should not be underestimated. Or maybe the right word is "misunderestimated," since one of the clear aims of the film, in its allegorical mode, is to smack America--and in particular, George W. Bush and his neoconservative folly in Iraq--hard across the face. Von Trier swings several times and while he does get in some wallops--including one that essentially captures the horrid scenario the US now finds itself in in terms of an exit strategy, or lack of one--I don't think he really strikes the blow he wanted, particularly not in the way that Dogville did. (On the film's website, under one of his interviews, he makes clear that this reading is indeed correct, as he sings an adaptation of "Springtime for Hitler in Germany," only substituting George W. Bush and Iraq in key places.)

Dogville casts a long shadow over this one; here, the racial context serves to obscure the essential critique of neoconservatism, that liberty cannot be opposed from the outside, even as it fits much more clearly within the American historical context. But even in terms of our history, Von Trier appears to mock the long struggle, by the enslaved people themselves (from 1643 onwards) to be free. Yet he doesn't; the one ex-slave who took Grace up on her initial charge finds something other than freedom waiting for him. And after the film proper has ended, Von Trier presents us with a series of images from the American racial and racialist archive--from the Black Civil Rights movement, from the racist archive (the KKK), lynching photos, etc.--as a way of establishing his liberal bonafides and anti-racist outlook. Even the film's counterheroes, though seemingly drawn from the same pen as those Jyllands-Posten cartoons, strike me as models, in a certain light, of resistance. I could even see mapping Timothy not only onto Eldridge Cleaver, say, but in a strange way, onto Moktadr Al-Sadr....

Manderlay is a truly fascinating film, highly original and definitely worth seeing, but I think Dogville is the better movie; it had the stronger script and a stronger lead, and was narratively more coherent. Von Trier's often stilted, sometimes ridiculous English dialogue grates or comes off as, well, ridiculous; his starkly Brechtian, expressionistic sets lose a bit of their novelty and bite if you've seen the earlier film; and Howard suffers by comparison with Kidman. (Supposedly Black Britons play 9 of the 12 adult Black roles because many African-American actors refused to take the parts, and Glover himself allegedly signed on, then off, then back on.) Also, the filmmaker's cynicism blunts the power of the film's critical aims: the real history and stories of racial and socioeconomic and political domination, in the US and between Europe and the rest of the world--that is, colonialism by another name--which are playing out in a very different way in Iraq, fall by the wayside, as does the reality of the ongoing African-American (and by extension Third World) struggle for autonomy, to be sovereign agents of our destiny (if that is really possible), even at the psychological level. Though it may seem to be the case, no one--no mass of people--really want to be slaves, or be enslaved, even if they don't know what to do with liberty or how to achieve it. (The issue of religious submission, which isn't really slavery, begs a different question.) Too, Von Trier's fantasy of America is more off here than he would probably care to admit. But there was another revelation in the film, which was that Von Trier can't help exoticizing Black (male) bodies; just as Grace stands in as a proxy for George W. Bush, she also stands in for a particular European gaze and fetish, which must ogle those brown, (frontally) nude (sex[ualized]) objects (of desire)--washing themselves under cover of darkness, strutting about the quarters with ebony, smooth, muscled biceps and pecs on full display, lying in bed after a vengeance-filled, annihilating bout of sex, the prodigious manhood of the "buck" too magnetic to pull (the camera) away from...because ultimately that's what it's about, isn't it? Control, desire, lust--control of desire and lust, desires and lusty fantasies, structures and practices of control, over Black and female and other bodies, acted out along the spectrum of humanism to outright intentional brutality so that it ultimately benefits the gangsters of the world?

Ultimately, the reality is that most Americans won't see this film, and certainly not the objects of his provocations--the neocon cabal in power, nor most White or Black Americans, most Southerners, most Alabamans--though they (we) should. You don't believe me? I'd bet the Edmund Pettus Bridge on it.

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