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Theoretical Ethics


Is Lars von Trier simply a mischievous mind with a racist streak, or a filmmaker with a serious point to make? Maybe it is better to drop the bald dichotomies, though, and propose the Danish filmmaker has a point to make alright, but this doesn’t mean he needs to convey it with conventional seriousness. Manderlay isn’t so much a serious film as a wry examination at the expense of political correctness in the country where slavery and PC behaviour found their home: the US.

What von Trier offers is basically a theorem, laid out on top of the film and that plays up its artificiality as if in recognition that since von Trier has never travelled to the States then any attempt at a plausible reconstruction would be cinematic bad faith. But if the French newspaper Le Monde proposed in the wake of 9/11 that we are all Americans now, von Trier wonders what it might mean to be an ‘American’ who has never been there: hence perhaps the theoretical, ethical take that demands an examination of the values of the US without at all pretending to know the country.

This is of course not the first von Trier film set in the States; before it came Dancer in the Dark and Dogville, films that, like Manderlay, end on an act of violence. Dancer in the Dark concluded with a hanging, Dogville in vengeful slaughter, and Manderlay ends on a brutal whipping. The US is a country where violence between its people is endemic (23,000 murders a years isn’t unusual), and where executions are still acceptable. If we’re all American now, what does that mean to our relationship towards others, perhaps a particularly pressing question for someone coming from a part of the world perceived much more for its pacifism than its violence?

Essentially what von Trier wants to do is interrogate not the reality of the country but its mythological structure. If we’re all Americans now, that will of course include the many people who have never been there; not only the rich neurotics, like von Trier who refuses to fly, but the poor in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere who lose their lives as a consequence of US foreign policy.

Thus there are several problematics Manderlay seems to want to work through, but that von Trier contains within a certain narrative logic which is as precise as it is problematic. There is the slavery issue addressed colliding with political correctness sub-textually present; the violence central to the culture and von Trier’s distance from it by the lack of verisimilitude in the locale. As with Dogville, the director sets the film on a huge soundstage, mapping out the locations with signs on the floor and a handful of props, rather than plausible alternative locations: the sort of locations he found in Dancer in the Dark where scenes filmed in Scandinavia at least looked like the States.

This eschewal leads here to an echo chamber approach both in theme and content as von Trier examines an ethical problem where the blacks are liberated from their slave status on a plantation, but where the slave mindset is harder to eradicate. As von Trier opens the film with John Hurt’s avuncular, authoritative voice-over, it’s as if the director wants to play on the notion of power even in relation to the image and the sound. Show don’t tell is the reigning mantra in cinema, but von Trier goes the Robert Bresson route of showing and telling. He opens the film with the claim that this is a film in eight chapters, and follows with a chapter heading announcing this is the first and we will be meeting the people of Manderlay. Meanwhile a voice-over informs us of Grace, her father and her father’s cohorts, having left Dogville and who are now travelling into the Deep South: in an overhead shot of a map of the States we see model cars crossing the map. Von Trier here rejects not only verisimilitude, but also offers multiple ‘telling’ devices simultaneously.

Von Trier seems to expect us to trust the teller, as though he wants to take responsibility for the provocation. Where a realist like Loach or the Dardenne brothers may insist on the location giving birth to the political idea, von Trier wants the political idea to give birth to the location: this is von Trier’s theoretical ethics. If we’re all Americans now, von Trier might well be saying, what sort of Americans can we be hypothetically? Just as von Trier works through the different character types of the slaves at the plantation with the voice over informing us of a book found there that lists the different characteristics of the blacks – ‘pleasing niggers’, ‘proudy niggers’, ‘losing niggers’ – so the director may be wondering not only what types are available to oppressed blacks, but what types are available to whites also. In each instance, in Dogville and in Manderlay, Grace may believe she is the crusading liberal capable of changing society, but by the end of both films she is the avenging angel, responsible for the killing spree in Dogville, the whipping of the smart, apparently proud nigger Timothy in the follow-up.

Now central to much of von Trier’s work is the nature of a conceit, of setting in motion an idea that is both cinematically and socially provocative. If Godard once sent von Trier a letter in praise of The Idiots, this makes sense if we see von Trier as taking up Godard’s project as proposed by critic Henry James McBean in ‘Politics and Poetry in Two Recent films by Godard’. Here he says “the double action – of analyzing society and how it works, and at the same time analyzing art and how it works – is precisely the double action of Deux ou trois choses.” Yet where Godard works with open worlds, von Trier usually creates closed ones. Whether his films follow loosely the realist aesthetic of Breaking the Waves or The Idiots, or the formalist approach of Europa, Dogville and Manderlay, there is the element of the lab in von Trier’s work usually in both form and content. In Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville and Manderlay the notion of a community is vital, with von Trier trying to work through broader human concerns by focusing on specific power dynamics within the one locale. Whether this is Bess seeking absurd freedom out of emotional vulnerability when she takes up with other men after her husband’s accident in Breaking the Waves, the middle-class ‘spassers’ in The Idiots trying to escape social convention, or Grace giving blacks their freedom here, von Trier wants to create a double bind that proposes both the conservative and the utopian as oppositional states which need to be worked through. This isn’t the liberal compromise absorbing the Left and the Right, but a radical enquiry that in a bi-polar manner swings between, say, the apparent possibility that human nature can’t be transformed (Dogville, Manderlay), and the utopian wish that it ought to be (The Idiots), between bourgeois small-mindedness and an open-mindedness that borders on the unstable (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots).

But the issue of form and content proves vital. When von Trier says in interviews that in Dogville he was interested in the old game where you have to argue for a position completely opposed to your own view point, it allowed him, as so often with Godard, to create what we could call a radical dialectic as opposed to a liberal dialectic. In the liberal form what often happens is that a character of bigoted views comes into contact with liberals that show him, or occasionally her, the error of their ways or the failure of their perceptions – evident in films ostensibly different as As Good as It Gets and Missing. But what if the dialectic does not give way to liberal thought, but stubbornly maintains its radical dimension? By the end of Manderlay we may believe that the oppressed do not seek freedom because their perceptual world would be too fragmented and consequently lead to a sort of psychological agoraphobia. Better perhaps to return to the safety of enslavement over the possibility of freedom, von Trier muses, and this could be true of any number of human situations, but by taking an extreme example – actively oppressed people who we would surely all agree are absolutely entitled to their freedom – von Trier arrives at a radical dialectic. If the film had focused on a middle class wage slave who couldn’t leave his job, the film would have offered no more than liberal pessimism: an aesthetic awareness of freedom contained by the social need to conform. We would have noticed the psychologically agoraphobic without being horrified by the politics. But the extreme situation of proposing that slaves would prefer to remain slaves than demand their freedom is nothing if not a radical provocation.

This is matched however by the form. When von Trier said after Dogville that one of his problems is that he likes to start a new experiment in form with each film, and it exhausts him, we might wonder why he needs to set himself such a task. It may lie in the nature of provocation: that to provoke in content without questioning form would leave the film with only diegetic irony, an irony within the content of the story, where instead, like Godard, he is looking for a questioning of both form and content. When for example he breaks the hundred and eighty degree rule as Grace and her father are talking, or when we hear the sound of a door opening but the character is miming the action, the provocative contains the possible. In other words the provocations in content von Trier offers (and that can radically suggest socio-political hopelessness) are countered by the possibilities available in form. Where a film like As Good as It Gets offers liberal belief within conservative style, von Trier offers an apparently conservative content within a radical aesthetic, yet it is the form that often calls the former into question: we can neither settle into the film and see it as a racist diatribe, nor assume the film is simply an ironic satire on slavery. It is this refusal of the form to contextualise straightforwardly the content that liberates von Trier from the conservative. Question the content, he might be saying, with some of the self-reflexivity that he applies to the form, so that we won’t arrive at a ready perspective on the film.

We are perhaps now in a better position to explain why von Trier doesn’t want us all to become Americans of a certain type: an American of political correctness on the one hand, of vengefulness on the other: one which sees freedom and progression as natural and fair, and the opposite view that believes in an eye for an eye, and might is right. (And were these not perhaps the two contradictory beliefs apparently at work in the invasion of Iraq: the liberal notion of liberating a nation of tyranny; a right-wing sense of entitlement in invading a country which one feels has wronged the homeland?) It as though von Trier wanted to make a film that would illustrate the absurdity of liberal assumption and the problem of punitive punishment, as Grace liberates the blacks at the beginning of the film and punishes Timothy at the end. In each case a problematic isn’t worked through –  one is liberal and simplistic; the other aggressive and oppressive – and we suspect von Trier is interested not in either solution but in a radical re-questioning of both suppositions, suppositions that must be questioned when they are used together, as in the Iraq war rhetoric.

When von Trier says “fortunately I don’t know any more about man and his nature than anyone else, so I can only come up with a story and shape it according to my own thoughts”, it is out of this shaping that he can say not so much something fresh about man and nature, but inquire into the problem with a texture and exactitude missing from anodyne political correctness, and belligerent aggression. By being, if you like, aesthetically aggressive, by being provocative, von Trier questions the US on more levels than many people who geographically know the country far better than the stay at home Dane. Von Trier’s films are often, again like Godard’s, not especially funny, though they contain the humorous, but that by refusing in form and content ready assumption, they produce a quizzical thought – a slightly absurd perspective, but one that can be neither allow for a comic assumption nor a serious stance. Both are perhaps too complacent.

Von Trier looks at the extreme options and would seem to side more with extremity than with liberal compromise. But this is partly due to working from extremes. In so many of his films he focuses on a young woman who is in some ways too good for the society in which she finds herself – this is true of  Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville and Manderlay – and ends up being punished or punishing others in relation to this goodness. But by working with extreme positions, von Trier arrives at, we could say, extreme questions. We shouldn’t assume at the end of Manderlay that the film is proposing the impossibility of black liberation; more that we need to look at radical methods of liberation greater than liberal decency. Throughout the film it questions what freedom means. Early on when it looks like Grace will be thanked for liberating them, the blacks wonder why they should be so grateful. Later, when it turns out that one of the slaves wrote the very manual of ‘nigger types’ with the plantation owner, the liberation is especially empty. Is von Trier saying freedom is pointless and that people prefer the safety of their own enslavement on geographical, emotional and psychological levels, or is he saying that problems are so complicated that they cannot be readily answered by either the well-meaning or by the violent? When at the end of the film Grace whips Timothy with far greater ferocity than he would have been whipped by one of the white plantation owners at the beginning of the film, this tells us much about an un-thought through idealism on Grace’s part, but needn’t necessarily be read as a reactionary response on the director’s. How could it be – not only because so racist an argument would be untenable, but also because the closing images of the film show numerous recent photographs of black Americans beaten, brutalized and homeless to the sound of David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’? Von Trier’s question would seem to be what can liberate a people, since the photographs suggest that though slavery ended in the States in 1865, such freedom looks an awful lot like a different type of failure. How one might wonder can freedom be achieved except through thinking through what freedom means in both form and content? Von Trier offers aesthetic freedom here, but contains it within a broader question of what ethical freedom might be also.

In the narrative the blacks it seems haven’t achieved it as Grace whips Timothy; nor historically, as the conclusion shows far crueller acts perpetrated on the black man long after emancipation from slavery. Von Trier lays out a provocative and almost mathematical exploration of race relations here, and perhaps one much more logically consistent than that of history’s own narrative, but he does so clearly not to come up with an ethical conclusion, but a radical theorem which leaves the viewer all the more aware that the problem of racial integration has, from certain points of view, hardly been solved at all.


©Tony McKibbin