Von Trier's immigration allegory squares up to society's destructive impulses.
Highly recommend Jacob Holdt's "American Pictures," which contains all the photographs used in the end roll and captures a lot of what von Trier says here. A Dane hitchhiked through the states in the 70s and took pictures of the worst poverty he saw (and also wrote very humanizing portraits of the country's victims). Was formative for understanding the USA in my 20s.
i watched this on an iPod classic while i was packaging books at work, and it was still a really, really rough time.
(also, can i confess that Ebert's "empathy" quote always rings a little self-congratulatory to me? movies can generate empathy, but it's a fleeting, complicated feeling that's often as much about assimilating differences into the illusion of commonality as it is about instilling appreciation and respect for others--that's not even a bad thing, but these days, i get defensive about the art that needs to accomplish a concrete social good, rather than just it existing and giving pleasure and texture to life being enough.)
It's hard at times like these not to think there's an unfixable bug buried deep in America's source code -- or really, in humanity's source code. Von Trier may be right about that. But I might feel warmer toward him if I felt there were even an implied "Now let's think about what we could do better next time" to his work. (Not that I feel warm toward much right about now.)
Great piece. I had one thought about the ending—I may be misreading Von Trier, or it could be just a personal response, but I felt like the catharsis of the ending ultimately implicated the audience in the violence. It showed us that we, too, could enjoy the suffering of others if it was for the "right" reasons and served our own emotional needs. So in that way it kind of extended one of the central themes of the film out into the real world, which I thought was brilliant. And you could pretty easily connect that to the discourse today, too, how much we love seeing our enemies get what's coming, how sometimes that's even more important than actually advancing a good cause.
I saw this in a theater, and found it quite moving. My takeaway from it was a religious allegory - Grace was the gift (aka Jesus) that humans abused and betrayed. My much younger self was not versed in the ways of Von Trier, other than knowing the movie would not be "fun."
As someone who has carried water for this film for years, recommending it to people who would inevitably despise me for "making" them watch it and never again take me up on my suggestions ("Sure, John, I'm sure Paddington 2 is a great watch...just like Dogville!"), I was giddy to see it as the topic of Mr. Tobias's essay. I did wonder why, assuming it must be some sort of anniversary. Then I got to THE LINE. Thanks for writing this at this particular time in the Great American Experiment, Scott.
As for the idea of empathy, or Lars's seeming lack thereof, I would throw out that sometimes the idea of a film's empathy is not tethered to a character. What if what we are supposed to empathize with is von Triers's point of view? Meta, I know, but the damn setting is a sound stage with outlines, so it feels in keeping with the vibe of the thing.
I found myself empathizing with the director's dim view of American exceptionalism and found value in sitting with the hopelessness on display if only to have a moment to reflect on our failings of humanity and wonder how we do better.
So I ask: Is Dogville actually an empathetic call to action?
I’ll always remember sitting in the small art theater in my college town watching that brutal ending followed by Young Americans over the photographs of America’s failures to help its own. Moved me deeply, so maybe Von Trier isn’t completely bereft of empathy.