Tuesday, January 27, 2004

The Herald, Dogville and the problem of the Gift

It’s old hat here to criticise the New Zealand Herald. So old hat that it’s rarely done. In addition to the infantile puns that question the sexuality of certain Labour politicians, there is the poor coverage of international politics, the unlovely editorials and the small-minded letters to the editor. But even worse are the pages dedicated to the arts. We all know about New Zealand’s anti-intellectualism. But why is The Herald so content to merely reflect this country’s lack of interest in culture?

Why am I saying this? A few weeks ago I went to see Lars Von Trier’s Dogville in a packed cinema here in Auckland. Dogville is a disturbing work that is also a wonderful film. My partner and I couldn’t stop talking about Dogville, and later in the evening we decided to read some reviews online to get a better idea of what other people had thought about the movie. By some freak accident, we happened to read The Herald’s review. It was pretty depressing.

Culturally, The Herald shares in the Pakeha colonial abhorrence for anything Continental. The worst thing in the world is to appear "post-modern" in New Zealand. It's like saying you think that Helen Clark might actually be a decent human being. Unfortunately, reviewer Peter Calder seems to be enmeshed in this cultural miasma, if his writing on Dogville is anything to go by. And that disdain has made the ethical heart of Dogville completely invisible to him.

In his review, Calder claims that the film is evidence of Von Trier's "desiccated misanthropy" and tries to situate the problematic of the film on the same level as Golding's Lord of the Flies:

Readers of Lord of the Flies will find nothing new here. The film, drenched with unsubtle symbolism, is interesting more for its stagey form than its rather melodramatic content, and its characters are more cyphers than identifiable individuals.

It's striking that Dogville's moral content should be so invisible to so many people. But to me at least, the whole mode of the film signals that its primary content is entirely ethical. A few moments later, I found a post from an anonymous writer on Wikipedia. Surveying several possible interpretive responses to the film, the writer ends with a suggestion that there may be a conflict between ethics and economics, giving and the expectation of return.

Some have called Dogville an anti-American movie because it seems to imply that America does not care for the weakest members of its society and worse, that they are exploited whenever people think they can get away with it. The images of homeless Americans of different eras flashing over the screen during the credits, accompanied by the song Young Americans by David Bowie, have done little to dispel that interpretation.

A more extreme view is that von Trier advocates the use of violence to punish those who do not help others. That interpretation is called into question by the fact that Grace, at the end of the film, has become as monstrous as those who mistreated her, ordering to kill even children and a baby in front of the eyes of their mother.

A perhaps more likely explanation is that von Trier wants the viewer to understand the use of violence by those who are oppressed and exploited, and offers as the only salvation true altruism without the expectation of a return on investment. In effect, the film portrays quid pro quo arguments as a slippery slope that leads directly to slavery and sexual exploitation.

What is a Gift?

In light of Calder's comments about Von Trier's misanthropy, it's interesting to note that the film begins with an urgent ethical problem. The character of Tom Edison believes that the townspeople of Dogville need to better understand how to receive. If, as many critics have claimed, Dogville is an anti-American tirade, then it seems curious that the “Americans” in the film have a problem with receiving. After all, as the global superpower and the foremost economy in the world, how difficult can it be for citizens in the United States to receive? Isn’t the problem actually one of giving, or even of receiving too much?

Dogville is obviously more than just an allegory about the United States. Instead, the film explores the structure of giving. In this, the film explores the work of such writers as Marcel Mauss, Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida. All three writers locate the act of giving and the gift as one the most important features of humanity's moral life. Mauss's analysis revealed that gift giving in most societies constituted a sophisticated network of economic and social exchange, while both Levinas and Derrida analysed the gift as part of the ethical relationship to the other. Critically, many observers have noted that the peculiar thing about the act of giving is the sense in which it creates a situation of indebtedness on the part of the receiver. But if the act of giving creates an obligation of return, how then is it possible to give a 'free' gift?

Reading this stuff you begin to realise that there is a funny and terribly problematic relationship between economics, ethics and the meaning of the gift. Alan D. Schrift, in his book The Logic of the Gift expresses the structural points of similarity and difference between gift giving and economic transaction perfectly, beginning with a quote by the anthropologist C.A. Gregory:

"Commodity exchange establishes objective, quantitative relationships between the objects transacted, while gift exchange establishes personal qualitative relationships between the subjects transacting"

Schrift then adds that:

"Where commodity exchange is focused on a transfer in which objects of equivalent exchange value are reciprocally transacted, gift exchange seeks to establish a relationship between subjects in which the actual objects transferred are incedental to the value of the relationship established."

I'd suggest that the citizens of Dogville resent the gift of Nicole Kidman's character; they resent the gift of her time because they feel indebted to her. And in an effort to relieve themselves of this debt, they misrecognise her gift as their gift, and subject her to a series of economic transactions in order to free themselves of the sense of moral indebtedness that her arrival in Dogville creates.

Ethics and Film Form

Many people are used to reading films as a structure of contrived symbols. But can we read the stripped-down style of Dogville merely as a rigid allegory studded with symbolism? I think that Dogville is doing something a little different, something that recalls an earlier mode of stoytelling. The clue for me is established at the beginning of the film, when the central problem is located on the terrain of ethics: the problem of receiving. If it is true that the film is concerned with ethics and moral knowledge, then I think that the film’s structure looks to a completely different kind of aesthetic construction, a kind of structure pioneered by the Soviet film maker Andrei Tarkovsky: the parable.

A parable is a mode of moral instruction; instead of proceeding primarily through symbol, the work of the parable is achieved through example. A parable should communicate a moral truth.

Tarkovsky's style of filmmaking was highly personal and deeply evocative. His concern was humanity’s relationship with God, a relationship that Tarkovsky felt was an ethical one. If cinema was to address ethics in a meaningful way, i.e., in a way that contained the possibility of spiritual redemption, it had to leave behind the didacticism that underlay the more usual approaches to cinema. For Tarkovsky there was a parallel between a subject’s moral life that unfolded through time and the cinema, an art form that he likened to “sculpting in time.” Cinema could create an experience that allowed for a personal relationship with a profound moral reality.

Contemporary theories of montage and image placed too much emphasis on the pre-given meaning of film. The experience of cinema became circumscribed by the use of carefully constructed symbols. For Tarkovsky, this kind of symbolic construction work risked plunging film into tendentiousness. A rigid symbolic order in a work of cinema abandoned the capacity of cinema to create spiritual understanding through the possibility of multiple readings. “The aim of art” said Tarkovsky, “is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” You don’t have to be religious to appreciate his project of opening up the experience of cinema to the possibility of broader, multiple truths:

An image cannot be a symbol… Whenever an image is turned into a symbol, the thought becomes walled in so to speak, it can be fully deciphered. That's not what image is. A symbol is not yet an image. Although image cannot be explained, it expresses truth to the end... Its meaning remains unknown. … [A]ny time I attempt to explain, I notice everything loses its meaning, it acquires a completely different sense than intended, moves away from its rightful place. I could only say a bird would not come to an evil man but that's not good enough. A true image is an abstraction, it cannot be explained, it only transmits truth and one can only comprehend it in one's own heart. Because of that it's impossible to analyse a work of art by utilising its intellectual significance.