How Many Years Is That In Dogma Years?
A Jewish, European director inserts a "von" into his name. He cultivates an image of terribleness and knowingly flirts with outré Teutonic heaviness. He decides that his goal is the ultimate in screen realism, and starts building long, unwieldly films out of the stuff of everyday life, at the same time keeping his reputation for perversion intact. He shoots on location, recording take after take of the same material in a country where he wasn't born; bullies a girlish actress playing more youthful and less savvy than she is. With her, using favorite, cheerful songs of the past as ironic counterpoint, he produces an anti-musical mired in darkness and tragedy.
The director is Lars von Trier, and the movie is Dancer in the Dark, right? Sure, but it's also Erich von Stroheim, "The Man You Love to Hate," whose movie The Merry Widow was released in the US almost 75 years to the month before von Trier's. Hired by MGM and Irving Thalberg to helm a movie based on a 1905 Viennese operetta, the obsessively meticulous Stroheim (fresh off his notoriously hacked-down realist epic Greed) couldn't resist turning the frothy material into a study of decaying aristocracy confronted with girlish innocence (in the person of Mae Murray, a hugely popular actress in her late thirties playing a girl in her late teens). The Merry Widow was released in 1925; the anti-musical predates sound in the cinema. It arrives before the movie musical itself. Stroheim was criticizing something that didn't exist yet, something he saw coming that threatened everything he so stubbornly stood for as a film director. Von Trier, with Dancer, on the other hand, criticizes something that hasn't existed for years: the standard musical.
(Von Trier has one thing on Stroheim: when his last name appears by itself in print, it's always with the "von" attached, unlike Stroheim, and unlike Sternberg, the other "von"-adder. No matter; film history tells us that Stroheim's friends both of them called him "Von.")
Dancer In the Dark comes at the end of the first half-decade of Dogme 95, the celebrated "manifesto" and "vow of chastity" concocted by von Trier and a cohort of Danes. The Dogma's principles prohibition of props, sets, professional lighting and non-handheld camera work, to name a few seemed so clearly designed to oppose the reign of the big-budget movie that right-thinking people were willing to overlook the prankishness of the effort and the capricious, spotty nature of the rules (Why, for example, should you be allowed to edit your film when you're not even allowed to provide your lead actor with a briefcase?). Dancer's shooting style and themes represent a kind of summation of the Dogma, but what is really earning kudos for the director is his graduation from his own school, a graduation made possible by his decision to invert the musical genre. As in the end of Breaking the Waves, bells are ringing for von Trier's redemption goodbye, Dogma; hello, Oscar.
But the anti-musical wasn't born yesterday. In fact, it's hard to think of a musical made in the last forty years that isn't an anti-musical. There are some, but for every Sound of Music or Evita that's come out since the decline of the MGM musical in the late 1950s and its replacement with the super-spectacular Streisand-type vehicle in the '60s, there have been more than two versions of Pennies from Heaven offered as knowing exposés of the genre's lies: People don't just break out into song. Life doesn't have a happy ending. You don't end up with Cyd Charisse. Nelson Eddy, my ass!
About 20 year after the filmmaking explosion in post-war Italy that was later dubbed neorealism, and while the Hollywood studio musical had entered its last period, Jean-Luc Godard gave the world what he called "a neorealist musical," A Woman Is a Woman, a Dogma musical without the gloom. Fellow Parisian Jacques Demy's musical confections, like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, were so stylized and informed that in them hearfelt emotions always did double duty as commentary. Everybody had to get into the act: Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player doesn't use Charles Aznavour, an anti-Chevalier, as a song-and-dance man; it delivers noir with sad plinking instead. It wasn't just a French thing. Today, you can be sure that someone, somewhere, has called almost every musical made since then an anti-musical, from Ken Russell's Twiggy-starrer The Boyfriend and MGM refugee Bob Fosse's All That Jazz to Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. Even straight-ahead fare like Oliver! and 1776 find themselves soft-shoehorned into the anti-musical camp today. Scorsese's "Happy Endings" number at the end of New York, New York may have put the definitive capper on musical tragedy (as opposed to musical comedy), but coming when it did in 1977, after even At Long Last Love, it's no wonder his dark valentine to the musical didn't warm audiences' hearts. Now, twenty-three years later, Von Trier has them weeping in the aisles. That's just one difference between De Niro and Björk.
Something Martin Scorsese knows something von Trier elides to make Björk's tragedy all the more heart-rending is that at its best the musical has always been a downbeat genre. Even without an innocent heroine and a state execution, the kind of musical Busby Berkeley choreographed for Warner Bros. in the 1930s traded on the desperate mood and crises of the Depression. At the end of Gold Diggers of 1933 when Joan Blondell talk-sings "Remember My Forgotten Man," she's addressing a parade of panhandlers and social rejects, World War I vets left high-and-dry, not her lost love; Gold Diggers of 1935 ends with a chorus girl plunging to her death from a tenement window, a choreographed suicide. The musicals Vincente Minnelli directed at MGM in the '40s and '50s are unabashed in their presentation of loneliness, melancholy, and failure. Fred Astaire in 1953's The Band Wagon playing a washed-up Hollywood hoofer who returns to a New York where no one remembers him and realizes that, as the song says, he's by himself, alone defines the Minnellian musical world. Even at its dreamiest, even with Gene Kelly, something unhappy always lurks in Minnelli's musicals. When Kelly complains that he's depressed to Oscar Levant in An American in Paris, Kelly's positivity makes it somehow threatening. What does a glib dope like Gene Kelly do when he's depressed? Blow his brains out? Or just sock Levant for not smiling?
So the melancholic undercurrent in the musical has been there since the
beginning. Lubitsch even remade Stroheim's Merry Widow as a regular
musical. Still, none of this takes away from von Trier's real achievement
in Dancer in the Dark. How much of the film's strength comes
from him and how much from Björk can always be debated, but neither of them
present a world that's real in the sense that the one outside the window
is. Von Trier's early '60s America has the exact same amount of reality as
Stroheim's silent turn-of-the-19th-century Vienna does today; the musical
sequences, particularly "I've Seen It All," work just the same way
production numbers do in Minnelli or Berkeley. But, on its fifth
anniversary, where does that leave the Dogma? Dancer in the Dark
isn't a Dogma film that the film opens with a bas-relief von Trier
credit instead of the director's name scrawled on a
grocery bag with a Sharpie announces that it's not but for those
who took the world-saving
tone of the
Dogme 95 Manifesto and its Vow of
there's got to be something disconcerting about the
period props, the melodrama, and the pop star breaking out into song. Rule
No. 8: "Genre movies are not acceptable."