Sunday, April 24, 2011

DOGVILLE: A Case Study on the Human Self and Actions

The beautiful fugitive, Grace, arrives in the isolated township of Dogville on the run from a team of gangsters. With some encouragement from Tom, the self-appointed town spokesman, the little community agrees to hide her and in return, Grace agrees to work for them. However, when a search sets in, the people of Dogville demand a better deal in exchange for the risk of harboring poor Grace and she learns the hard way that in this town, goodness is relative. But Grace has a secret and it is a dangerous one. Dogville may regret it ever began to bare its teeth... (

I’ve been putting off writing on this movie for the past few weeks. There’s so much to talk about, but it’s hard to find something solid to hold onto. It is especially hard to do so without revealing any spoilers which I will attempt to keep unspoiled.

Part of what makes a lot of von Trier’s writing great (not only in Dogville but in other movies like Dear Wendy) is the ambiguity of the final epiphany. In the commentary for the film, von Trier talks about how he does not like to write from one singular perspective; there are no bad guys and good guys. The heroine might be murderous with redeeming qualities, or something similar. This makes it hard to find the over all “moral” of the story, which von Trier says is nonexistent. Like most of his work, Dogville acts as a sort of case study, examining the situations and the effects of certain events in certain circumstances. He’s stated before that “[his] films are about ideals that clash with the world. Every time it's a man in the lead, they have forgotten about the ideals. And everytime it's a woman in the lead, they take the ideals all the way.” This is important to remember while watching Dogville. Grace has a certain level of ethical ideals and she carries those through to the end of Dogville, as well as, to the end of it’s sequel, Manderlay. I’d say it’s equally important to remember also the idea of power, and what one might do when they have it at their disposal. Grace, by the end of the film, definitely has power, using it in a way that von Trier describes as meeting us on a lower human level while simultaneously revolting us as being wrong.

The first theme I’d like to look at that arises from this case study is human nature. From my most recent blog post on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, I showed her belief that human nature is of the selfish kind. I’m not going to dispute this, I think Rand is right on that front. It’d be pretty hard to prove otherwise considering the current state of the world on international, national, regional, and local levels. But one thing that this film shows is that despite Rand’s reasoning, selfishness, when manifested in actions, is not a good thing.

It’s hard to notice the townspeople ever acting on anything other than their own selfishness and pride. Philosopher and author Iris Murdoch considers this blinding. We see the world through a veil of our own cares and concerns, Murdoch would say, and the only way to be good is to view the world objectively by removing this veil. The townspeople, even when in support of Grace, always harbor something against her. Whether it’s a jealousy they feel towards her unmatched beauty, or fear of her unknown origins. Though, it is hard to say whether or not Grace ever looks beyond her veil, either.

The second theme I’d like to explore would be that of moral relativity. There are many different ways of defining this relativistic view of ethics, but the one I’d like to consider is “the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to some group of persons.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). I think this is total bullshit, frankly. I have a feeling von Trier agrees with me.

The question brought up in the film is whether or not we (the audience) would do the same as the townspeople (or grace, for that matter,) if we were put in their situation. A poor desolate town that barely has enough finances to get by and is so isolated that the only knowledge of the world outside comes from a radio that only plays music, faced with a stranger who is wanted by the police. The further question to be asked is not only if we would do what they did, but whether or not we would be right in doing it.

Grace is described as having high ethical standards for herself, but being merciful to all those knowing that they could never reach said standards (sounds arrogant, right?). She strives to better herself, but does not expect the same from others. This does hardly any good. I believe von Trier might be trying to tell us that if we know that we could not justify specific actions, others who do them probably can’t either. People might be put into a situation that is difficult, poverty is one of those situations, and they might do things that we consider wrong out of instinct to survive. Does that automatically make those actions correct? Not really. Though it is hard to condemn those who do such things as steal to eat; how can we blame someone for acting on natural instincts in situations beyond their control? (I think this leads into the bigger problem of what causes said situations and that, that’s the real problem which ought to be fixed. Though this is not examined in Dogville, so it must be saved for a different time.)

The third theme which arises from this is the idea of blame, punishment and rehabilitation, and humanitarianism in a deterministic world. For any readers who may not be familiar with determinism, I’ll try and sum up as best I can.

Determinism is the assumption (as well as presupposition of science) that the world is completely causal. Everything happens as an effect, which then will cause other effects. This is not to be confused with the idea of things being predetermined, or of things happening for a reason. There are causes for each event, but that does not mean there is a specific meaning behind it that makes it a reason. The major implication of this outlook is that there is no free will--we are set in causal paths.

This leads to the greater implication that if we are only acting on the illusion of choice, then can we really be blamed for our actions? If someone murders their neighbor, we may understand it to be wrong, but can we really blame them for said action? Even if we don’t blame them, per se, does that mean we shouldn’t punish them?

The film takes up the idea of dogs, which are capable of great things, but if you let them act on their own natural accord and disrupt something, you’re not going to let them do it and move on. There must be some type of discipline; training to bring them into better behaviour. Dogs, as an illustration, tend to work better than humans because they are closer to natural instinct behaviour and we don’t tend to think of them as creatures that make reasoned choices.

From a deterministic outlook, you do not necessarily punish one for their actions (since it was not necessarily their “choice”), you must rehabilitate them to deter them from wrong deeds. Rehabilitation acting as a cause to bring about the effect that is beneficial for society as a whole. Similarly, how if a dog bites your hand, you’d want to bring them away from their behaviour, not blame them because they should have known better. This brings about a very humanitarian way of dealing with criminals. Safety of society and rehabilitation rather than strict punishment.

Along the lines of blame, in a deterministic world there is also no room for praise. This is fulfilled in Dogville as well, as we definitely cannot see any reason to praise any of the acts that any one character fulfills, because they only follow from the circumstances. Similarly, should we necessarily blame them for the actions either? But there still must be some corrective rehabilitation? There must be a way to protect society, but how can you do that? Is there really a best method? Or have you fallen so far down this hole of unfortunate circumstances that there is no logical way out?

It seems that I have bitten off more than I can chew with this post. There’s still much more that can be talked about and looked into, but I will save those themes and ideas until after they’re more developed with another viewing of the film. In summation, I’d like to say that Dogville is one of my absolute favorite films. It’s stylistic choices work well to send you straight into the rich dialogue and complex themes that are being shown to you. I highly recommend it to anyone who finds any of the themes that I just covered interesting.