Monday, February 06, 2006
I give Manderlay an "A"
This weekend's movie outing: Manderlay, the newest offering from my favorite director--Lars von Trier. Sadly, it got a score of 39 on Metacritic.com. Entertainment Weekly gave it an "F." Perhaps people are just not ready to be pulled by their collars until they look at some ugly realities. Perhaps the playhouse starkness of the production doesn't sit well with CGI-spoiled movie-goers. At least The Onion A.V. Club's Scott Tobias gets it, even though he graded it "B-." In the plus column, noted von Trier disliker Ryan gave it a "B."
Now, I don't want to further condemn this movie by calling it "important," but it certainly is the "i" word. Since I consider its prequel Dogville to be an unmitigated masterpiece with great social and political impact, Manderlay had a tough act to follow. While lacking Nicole Kidman's steely strength, Bryce Dallas Howard fits this manifestation of the lead character Grace with necessary altruistic naivete. (As Tobias points out, the character transition from idealistic to jaded in Dogville to idealistic again in Manderlay is confusing. Better to think of them as two different dames.) The sequel's story is less intricate and satisfying than that of its predecessor, but still stands head and shoulders above other cinematic (and live theater) offerings of the last few years/decades. It may be heavy-handed at times. It may be cutting and cruel. But it is clear-eyed throughout and often, surprisingly, funny (in a cynical way, of course).
Much is made of the fact that von Trier has never been to America. How dare he, grumble his critics, take potshots at our nation from a distance? I find this argument ridiculous. Walking our streets or tasting our local dishes is not going to change the fact that he is correctly and truthfully calling us on our shit. Like my dad said, "Can't a scientist discuss Mars even though he's never been?" Damn straight. Our nation has left its calling cards all over the world. Doesn't take a road trip across America to see what our good works and deadly mistakes have wrought globally.
At face value, the film is an examination of slavery. It was inspired by the story of an American plantation's slaves who refused to be freed after the abolition. When their former owners insisted they seek new lives under the law, the slaves slayed the owners and attempted to return to life as normal on the plantation.
The second layer of storytelling here (and in Dogville) is the examination of the most self-heralded U.S. export: democracy. Democracy delivered to your door, regardless of cost, regardless of bloodshed, regardless of existing cultural values and traditions. Democracy delivered at gunpoint, when necessary. This not so subtle allegory is slyly highlighted in the movie poster tagline: "Liberation. Whether they want it or not."
Pouring fuel on the "anti-American" fire, von Trier ends both films with "slide shows" of startling still images of the ugly underbelly of the United States. The poor, the homeless, the lynched, the assassinated. Only adding shots of Hurricane Katrina victims huddled in their own waste could've made von Trier's message more timely.
Still not sold? Maybe I'll try this angle: If you care at all about the world, see Dogville. If you want to watch a dog playing basketball, see Air Bud.* If you want to see a movie that makes you walk out wanting to change your life and change the world (which it did for me), see Manderlay. If you want to see J-lo get a pie in the face, see Monster-in-Law (something tells me EW only gave that one a "D," at worst).
If you don't care to see either offering in von Trier's almost-a-trilogy, I guess it's like Jack Nicholson's character in A Few Good Men said: "You can't handle the truth." Too bad, because word on the street is that it can set us free.
*Thanks for the joke, Damian.