Friday, January 06, 2006

Who Among us Lives in Dogville

Finally saw Dogville last night. Didn’t sleep. Tossing and turning, gripped by its incredible power, and yet wondering exactly, what’s it all about.

Has anyone been in those kids’ playgrounds where all the imitation leather bags hang down, and you have to run around bumping into them, and finding the other kids in the maze of it all? The movie felt a bit like that – I kept brushing against pleather strips redolent of gospel stories, especially parable, feeling their sensation on my arms, prickling the skin, and yet the meaning eluding me because it is not obvious, and like parables it does not hit you over the head with the moral. We either have eyes to see and ears to hear, or we do not.

But it is also universally human – how do we act, sinful human that we are, when grace comes among us? Do we choose to embrace it and be changed by it, or do we say no to it? Everyone in Dogville is at once drawn to Grace’s purity, mercy, forgiving nature, and yet they come to despise her for it. Her beauty, both physical (which often signals inner beauty) and spiritual, shows their (and our) ugliness all the more.

Grace’s intrusion also shatters the cocoon of Dogville because it exposes them (and us) to something much bigger. Dogville, for all intents and purposes, is a “city” on a hill, and its residents are gripped in a grim puritanical existence, left to scratch like chickens in the earth. There is no joy, not much celebration, except when Grace first arrives. It believes itself impervious to the outside world, and yet it can be invaded, both by gangsters and thugs, and by Grace.

Her innocence, forgiveness, light and softness is there for all to partake of, and the townspeople of Dogville do just that. For the first few days they become changed, enlightened and cheered, on the verge of becoming an authentically caring community. And then something happens; mistrust sets in, they feel threatened by her, because they are afraid of the letter of the law. Instead of being transformed by Grace, they sink lower into their slum of the soul, end up attacking grace because they cannot view her as the spirit of the law.

(Some critics have accused Triers of hating women, but I don’t agree. Rape illumines the depths of degradation to which we can sink, that is to distort love by the use of force and power is the worst distortion of love possible.)

For most of the movie, I expected Grace was another “holy fool” like Bess in Breaking the Waves, and I struggled a lot with the ending where she diverges from that. The big difference between the movies, though, is Bess was driven by love, for her husband, and for his healing. Grace, on the other hand, may have such a driving force at first but not toward the end because what she thought was love, was only self-interest (Tom Edison wants to think and feel in order to write about it, but not to live it).

This morning, my bible reading was Luke, chapter 6. It was unbelievably apropos. How the crowd sought to touch Jesus for power that came out of him, and how those who were sick and filled with unclean spirits were healed; How the Pharisees were “filled with fury” when Jesus did something good on the Sabbath; this is also the chapter that deals with loving those who hate you, giving to those who beg from you, and blessing those who curse you, all of which Grace does. It’s also the chapter that talks about no good tree bearing bad fruit, nor a bad tree bearing good fruit.

There is an overriding sense of the gospels in this movie, though it’s impossible to pin down, and say this symbol stands for this, and so on. But Grace must make a choice at the end, as God did when Abraham begged him to save Sodom and Gomorrah; God agrees, providing there are ten good men, then three, then one in the city. When none can be found, the city is destroyed.

While Grace does make a beautiful and impassioned plea at the end about mercy and forgiveness, she must decide if this town is worth mercy. (By the way, Nicole Kidman is remarkable in this role.) Thomas Edison, Grace’s amour in the movie, who might possibly have been that one good man, turns out to be just as selfish and sinful as the rest of them, as distorted by life in Dogville. I’m not sure if Triers is also saying that culture will rub off on you (probably he is – after all Lot and Abraham made very different choices when they took up their land outside of Sodom and Gomorrah, with Lot choosing to be close to the city of sin, and Abraham preferring to reside a little outside its reach.)

But I do think he is saying a lot about the choices we make, particularly about whether we choose to accept grace or not.

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