Sunday, February 26, 2006

Side by side on my piano keyboard

Manderlay (Dir: Lars von Trier, 2005)

In Lars von Trier's sequel to Dogville, we find Grace and her gangster father escaping the carnage of that Brechtian backwater. In Alabama, they stop outside a crumbling mansion, and Grace is asked to prevent the beating of a slave. But it's the 1930s, and slavery was supposedly abolished 70 years before. Intrigued and appalled, Grace decides to take action, but discovers that the black workers aren't exactly unwilling participants in this social timewarp. She ends up questioning her own liberal instincts and eventually, her deepest desires and motivations.

Von Trier continues the uncompromising Verfremdungseffekt of the previous movie. The action clearly takes place in a studio; cars drive across a vast map of the USA; walls and doors and running water are mimed. The alienation continues in the casting; Grace and her gangster daddy are reincarnated, Dr Who-style, as Bryce Dallas Howard and Willem Dafoe. However, half a dozen actors from the previous film (including Lauren Bacall and Chloe Sevigny) do make the transition - albeit as new characters. A further jolt comes from the fact that most of the black characters are played by British actors, many of them familiar TV and theatre faces.

Although the nominal subject matter is the ongoing racial rift that obsesses American discourse, the ideas thrown up here are much more diverse. Iraq for one; is it right, or even possible, to impose democracy on a culture that hasn't asked for it? Indeed, is democracy such a wonderful idea anyway? I saw the film in Thailand, a couple of days after the Prime Minister had called a snap election to deflect attention from his questionable business dealings. For various reasons (a fragmented opposition; a cowed media; rampant corruption and vote-buying) he'll win. But that's 'democracy'. Kinda.

But von Trier then sabotages this wider resonance with the end titles, a montage of images of American racial conflict. It's brilliantly done, to the sound of Bowie's 'Young Americans', but it refocuses the viewer's attention on a specific socio-political problem, rather than opening the argument up. Hollywood's done plenty of navel-gazing over The Race Thing, from Birth Of A Nation to Crash. It's a big story, but it's not the only story.

Manderlay is meaty, adventurous film-making, and will inspire earnest debate over the popcorn dregs. But von Trier should have followed Brecht more closely. Old Bert's at his best when he's dealing with the big subjects, war, corruption, exploitation, rather than the specifics of his own time and place. Lars has nearly made a movie of truly global significance, but blows it in the last few minutes.

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