As we donned our 3D specs in 2009 to watch the breathtaking special effects in Avatar, somewhere across the world, Lars Von Trier was sitting with his head in his hands.
Back in the 1990’s, a group of Danish directors, including the then unknown Von Trier, decided they’d had enough of action-packed, high budget fanfares like Die Hard and fought back by creating an avant garde movement with a strict set of rules that pared down film-making to its bare bones. From this, The Dogme Manifesto was born.
The somewhat contentious concept – which was announced to a bemused audience in Paris, 1995 by Von Trier and fellow director Thomas Vinterburg – was conceived to change film-making back into a purified art form by focussing on the production and narrative rather than budget and gimmicks. Always one for pushing buttons, Von Trier and Vinterberg also decided that each member of the Dogme collective, which included Kristian Levring and Soren Kragh-Jacobsen should take a ‘Vow of Chastity’ which consisted of strict rules that had to be followed.
Such rules requested that sets and props should never be used unnecessarily and that all sound, lighting and camera effects must be completely natural. ‘Superficial’ action such as fights and murders were forbidden as were dream sequences and flashbacks. Above all, the director was never allowed to be credited and the entire film had to be shot using a hand-held camera on an Academy 35mm format. Genre was abandoned in favour of situational drama that could easily be taking place in your own living room – though you were glad it wasn’t.
The first and possibly the finest film of the genre, Festen (The Celebration) was released by Vinterberg two years later and attracted a lot of controversy due to its crudely realistic portrayals of sex, violence and themes of incestuous abuse. As the story unfolds through a slow-reveal of recollective dialogue, Vinterburg seemed to play by the rules using shaky fly-on-the-wall camerawork and no-name actors. The second Dogme production to screen that year however, predetermines Von Trier’s later work a little too grimly. Antichrist anyone?
Idioterne (The Idiots) told the tale of a group of adults who escaped their inhibitions by pretending to be mentally disabled. Yet the shocks don’t end there. Von Trier rounds off his efforts with a mass orgy using porn actors, which in turn broke another of the many Dogme rules that Von Trier decided to brush aside. In fact, his total disregard for his own rules and sarcastic interviews caused a ruckus among film buffs who became suspicious as to whether Dogme was actually serious or an inside joke between friends.
Other directors involved with the Manifesto went on to direct less popular films such as Mifune (Kragh-Jacobsen) The King is Alive (Levring) and Donkey Boy (Harmony Korine), although none were as successful as Festen, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes. Many, including Von Trier, went on to break their ‘Vow of Chastity’ by becoming involved in Hollywood productions and using US actors, though the psuedo-Dogme Nicole Kidman flop, Dogville, didn’t exactly break the box office.
When the movement ended in 2005 with only 39 films officially certified by the Manifesto, it seemed that Dogme had been a passing fad that made labelling amateur porn as ‘art’ okay. Yet, bizarrely, the Dogme brethren have had the last laugh as the Manifesto’s methods have popped up in many recent productions such as the ‘found footage’ or ‘hand-held’ phenomena that became popular in the 2000’s, not to mention the recent unofficial Dogme movies that have been made by underground directors.
So as this summers blockbuster season winds down with its ridiculously high-def CGI, airbrush enhanced actors, green screens and ten-years-in-the-making Pixar technology, remember that there was a time when conversations happened in people’s living rooms and not in front of explosions. Especially you, Michael Bay.