Thoughts On: The Idiots - Dogme 95


The Idiots - Dogme 95

Thoughts On: Idioterne

A group of people retreat to a large house as to let their inner idiots come out of them.

This is a terrible film. The lighting throughout is absolutely appalling. There is not one good shot--not one. Everything is ruined by the constant handheld camera. The acting is often God-awful. The plot makes no sense. I could go on, but, of course, this is all pretty much intentional. This is the second film that falls into the wave or class of cinema called Dogme 95. In short, this is a ridiculous concept. It was invented by Lars von Trier, the director of this film, and Thomas Vinterberg. The idea is best explained by the vow you take to make these films:

I swear to submit to the following set of rules drawn up and confirmed by DOGMA 95: 
Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found). 
The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)
The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. 
The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera.) 
Optical work and filters are forbidden. 
The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.) 
Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.) 
Genre movies are not acceptable. 
The film format must be Academy 35 mm. 
The director must not be credited. 
Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work”, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations. 
Thus I make my VOW OF CHASTITY.

Copenhagen, Monday 13 March 1995On behalf of DOGMA 95Lars von Trier Thomas Vinterberg 

In reading this, you most probably get the sense that this is a ridiculous movement. If you don't, maybe you'll indulge me as I go on to complain about it. Before that, to better explain; von Trier and Vinterberg made up these rules as an objection to high end filmmaking on the 100th anniversary of cinema itself. They meant to embody a polar opposite of what would essentially have been blockbusters of the time (films such as Forrest Gump, Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park) as a way of 'purifying' cinema. von Trier and Vinterberg, in short, wanted to create films of such terrible technical quality as to object to the extremely high-tech films being produced by those with all the money in Hollywood. This would all hopefully give people perspective on cinema, on what it is capable of and can be.

Ok, before diving into all that's at fault with this concept, let's shine a light on what's not so terrible about it. The primary strength of this movement lies in the final sentence I used to summarise it in the previous paragraph: This would all hopefully give people perspective on cinema, on what it is capable of and can be. The intent to make films without much money is respectable. This is what probably belies the urge to make the films within these rules; a strange idea of nobility and objection. And such is the only stomachable side to both these filmmakers' intentions and their films. However, despite the intention, The Idiots, a key film of this wave, falls flat like a bad 'edgy joke'. The reason why is that this wave decides to formalise what is essentially the whole concept of the independent film. Insisting on hand-held cameras and no lighting doesn't force filmmakers to make the best with what they can manage, but just forces them to make shit films. Look at any of Linklater's early work and you'll see a shining example of great work produced under a small budget. He used almost no lighting, shot on location and didn't make genre films that contained any 'superficial action'. Despite all of this, films such as Slacker and Before Sunrise look nowhere near as terrible as The Idiots. This only speaks to the most ridiculous aspect of the Dogme 95 vow:
Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work”, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations. 
Slacker and Before Sunrise are worthwhile features because Linklater probably saw himself as an artist with personal taste. The Idiots looks so terrible because von Trier was intentionally not trying. He justifies this with ideas of 'truth', 'characters' and 'setting'. To understand why this is such a vapid assertion, we only need to look to The Idiots. The story of this film, ultimately, isn't that bad. Though there are aspects of acting that are awful, there are some powerful moments wherein. Both of these elements come together at points throughout the film, most notably, the end, and allow you to forget the unapologetic excuse for direction. This was probably the hope of von Trier going into this movie; that the audience would forget aesthetics. But, the artistic experiment pretty much fails as the audience, myself, forgetting aesthetics doesn't happen - not without considerable effort, patience and tolerance. This then backfires on von Trier's entire intention; he ruins his actors' performances throughout the film. Not only does he draw so much attention to himself (his lack of credit being the pretentious cherry on this cake) but sullies what the actors have to offer. His style of direction clearly isn't by and for the actors and 'truth'. If he intended for this, he would simply set up static long shots to imitate a theatrical view. However, this begs the question of why von Trier is a filmmaker and not a theatre director. Nonetheless, he later attempted to translate this concept of theatre, of letting actors' performances be the crux of his film with Dogville...

And in such, we have an interesting side-note on how to maybe approach this idea of 'truth' in actors and characters that von Trier searches for. However, coming back to The Idiots, with ugly camera angles, a complete lack of cinematic language and constant boom pools in shot, von Trier has written a good script and took a shat on it. And him being the screenwriter flies in face of his intentions yet again. Why is he allowed to be the artist here and not behind the camera? There is a clear attempt to plot and construct a film on the page, and nothing but an attempt to not express this with any dexterity through direction. If von Trier and Vinterberg had any sense they would put the philosophy of this movement into a documentary then install the one and only print in some obscure modern art museum and leave it there.

Without getting too emotional, let's pick up on another positive of this film. It does, quite intentionally, manage to ask the question: is there cinema without manipulation? Ignoring ideas of photogénie, of a camera immediately forcing a constructed space when it films, this is an interesting question. However, the answer given by this film: no. No, not under von Trier's rules and with his capabilities can cinema work or exist without manipulation. That is to say that, though this film comes close to being 'pure' it is terrible. For this, there's no point in the film. Why should we watch bad films just because they manage to not manipulate their space? Moreover, there is clear manipulation in The Idiots - as touched on with von Trier's distracting and ridiculous direction and cinematography. The most absurd thing about this film is that the script and performances have been ruined by von Trier's direction. If this was filmed with any effort, with proper lighting, actual framing, some kind of articulate cinematic language, this could be, quite possibly, a great film. In essence, this film reminds me of Lanthimos' films.


These films are absurd and extremely expressive in a way that's very similar to the film beneath what von Trier shot. And with Lanthimos' films, we find that those with better direction, are that much more absurd, are that much more powerful. Take for instance, Attenberg. This is probably Lanthimos' weakest film. This comes down to its undeveloped aesthetic and style. The absurdities in this film, for instance the opening...

... are often allowed to just play out. This is powerful in that it's confusing and rather off-putting, but it doesn't draw you into the film or force you to engage with what's going on. However. with Alps, we see a monumental leap in direction with an intriguing play with focus as a cinematic device as well as a great build to the strangely heart-warming conclusion...

What Lanthimos' kind of filmmaking says about the likes of The Idiots is that direction is your friend. Conversely, Dogme 95 is what will kill your script.

The crux of my disdain for this movie lies in the unavoidable fact that cinema is manipulation. So, whilst I don't think all films should be like what this film essentially objects to - Jurassic Park, Terminator, Forrest Gump - these films are irrevocably significant pieces of cinema. In fact, I see more truth in these great blockbusters than I do in von Triers. This is because blockbusters inherently accept the concept of cinematic manipulation. With flashy CGI, stunts, genre tropes and 'superficial action', blockbusters embrace the fact that cinema isn't theatre, nor is it reality. It is contrived, constructed and imaginary. The only truth one can then find in cinema is through the acceptance of its absurdities; in such, one should let cinema be itself. After all, to create a film, you must indulge silly fantasies, moreover, you must indulge your own ego in feeling you have something worth hearing/seeing. To then realise this almost childish endeavour, you need a bunch of loonies (actors) to start pretending they're people they're not for you to shoot - all to gradually build something with some sense of verisimilitude that will hopefully be a half-decent film. This is why the Oscars are bullshit, this is why this movement is bullshit. They take this silly craft too seriously - and in an awkward and contrived fashion. Whilst I take film, cinema and movies way too seriously on the blog, I do so knowing I'm indulging some silly notion. However, I also hold onto the fact that people like cinema, that it is important--but in a very acute way. In not looking at cinema in this light, von Trier has steeped into this pretentious maelstrom whereby saying 'I am not an artist' and then trying to act on that isn't something that warrants a slap in the face. This is what Dogme 95 is to me: something deserving a slap in the face. In short, like the shit pile that is Andy Warhol's films, this concept is so pretentious and empty - all for pointless reasoning. And this all ends up begging the question, why make bad films?

However, coming back to the idea of cinematic truth, to find such a thing, you must embrace the realities of film and cinema. In seeing it as the indulgence of imagination and then playing make-believe, you see the contrivances or manipulative aspects of cinema. It is not there to represent reality, to capture the present; the here and now. Cinema goes the the extremes of high-end blockbusters, because that's the path its birth has projected it onto. Film suspends us from reality and the everyday. It allows us to stop looking at what's 4 feet or inches in front of our noses for a story, for entertainment. Through a screen, you may see anything. Because of this, cinema has worked to project what has always been out of grasp. That is to say that Iron Man punching Captain America...

... is what cinema was made for. The essence of such a ridiculous thing is imagination; the fact that you could never see a super human fight a robot suit thing in real life. Dogme 95 opposes this needlessly. Though the effort has been made, it doesn't give perspective on cinema. This crappy homemade movie only has us itching to see someone put in some effort in presenting the unrealistic. To move towards pretensions ground myself, this ultimately belies the existential purpose of cinema. The projection of the far-off, the unrealistic, Iron Man punching Captain America, is not just there to show us something new, but to show us ourselves in a new light. As has been picked up on throughout history with the classification of stories into certain archetypes, all narratives say around about the same thing. That is to say that whilst all of our stories take different forms, they hold at their core something very similar to an awful lot of other films. With the Idiots, we see a movie about trying to deal with loss, the existential idea of death. Anyone could name a half a dozen films about death and mourning.


The reason why we have these many variations on these archetypal narratives, however, is that humans are very basic in essence. We live by and are driven by a very finite amount of ideas. All of these relate to emotions. We do what we do because we feel bad, depressed sad, hurt, anguished, betrayed. Or, we do what we do to be happier, to put ourselves in an alternate, hopefully positive state of joy, levity, relaxation or comfort. This is life in a very basic sense. Movies, stories, facilitate this. A huge part of this facilitation is evolution - is films showing us new characters, locations, plot lines--and through a lens we've never seen before. This is why cinema evolves so rapidly: the market demands something new. Why? It's all apart of cinema's existential purpose to show us more about ourselves in new lights.

Dogme 95 is (probably) a (somewhat unintentional) shit on the face of this. Though it means to create new perspectives on aesthetic and form, on performance and the presentation of film as an art, it fails as an experiment. This film is contrived by design. It limits itself in ways that force cinematics to crumble. By denying cinematic manipulation through lighting, framing, genre and props, Dogme 95 via The Idiots is a step backwards - and an needed one. It doesn't introduce a new classical form of cinema, it reduces the form to little more than a shittier version of looking at life. After all, if you were to watch this movie play out live, I'm certain you'd see a better 'movie' with just your eyes than what von Trier presents. This begs the question, again, why didn't von Trier just turn to the theatre? Why must we watch something that we would all be better of going out into the world and doing ourselves?

Ultimately, the most amusing aspect of The Idiots is that it seems to be a film about Dogme 95 itself. Though it would be a comedic assertion to say that von trier has made this film as a prank, as a prolonged act of 'spassing', by pretending to be a retard, this is not what I mean. The greatness in the story of The Idiots is in the question they are always asking themselves: why? Why have they retreated into this home and decided to behave in such a ridiculous manner? No one in the film gives a good answer, but, it is clear that each person decides to 'spass' as a form of escape. They want social reprieve and so they imitate the handicapped - who they think get help in society and so have a pass or easier time in life. Such seems to be the subtextual slap in the face that the characters in this movie are making. This is why, when they meet real disabled people, they almost all see what they're doing as completely fucked up. However, the social reprieve the group seek is not just tantamount to that the disable apparently have, it's the pass in life one has as an idiots. And I'm not referring to the clinical term, but the colloquial one. They seem to think that being idiotic, not thinking, is an easier way of living. This is an interesting idea that the film explores, but, the fact is that people cannot imitate this mindlessness. This is what everyone is made to see by the end--the absolutely brutal end. People can't just turn their brain off and just spass without consequence...

This is why I like this film's story. I hate its form, but, fuck can von Trier write a good script.

Nonetheless, the reason why von Trier seems to have been able to write this script is that it talks about himself and so projects his inner workings. In such The Idiots seems to be von Trier questioning Dogme 95. I'm not saying that this is what he intended, but it seems so clear. He sets up a situation of isolation, he lets his characters fold in on themselves and indulge their stupid ideas for a self-centric and rather pathetic reason (all except Karen - her character arc is the only justifying one). So, just as von Trier let's his characters be self-indulgent, he allows himself to be self-obsessed with his Dogme 95 movement. He decided to turn his plight of being an independent filmmaker into a wave of cinema - all to object to those he's not (Hollywood big shots). This is a rather stupid pursuit, just as Karen's is when she joins the group of idiots. However, whilst von Trier has her feel the horrific implications of this in the end of her narrative, he doesn't seem to recognise the stupidity of this wave. What this turns the final moment of this film into is a question to the audience. Has Karen fucked up?

I would definitely say, yes. She seems to have ruined her life. I can understand why she's done this to herself, but that doesn't make her a clever person or one deserving sympathy. All you can hope is that after she walks out of her home and away from family that she manages to find some kind of sense and stability in life. I don't get the feeling that von Trier saw the film in the same way when I look at the movement of Dogme 95 and the way he shot this film. In such, I'm not sure of this film is supposed to be a tragedy, a mere question to the audience, an positive assertion, a negative one. In the end, I'll leave the question to you. Does this film, does Dogme 95, have any worth? If so, what is it?

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