06 January 2005

Why I hate humanism.

So I've been asked to comment on the discussion currently raging in Slate's annual Movie Club, in which my favorite film of the last three years, Lars von Trier's Dogville, has repeatedly been attacked with the kind of venom usually reserved for child molesters, murderous dictators and suckout artists who call two raises cold with J-2 offsuit and then catch a miracle two pair on the river. (The Jack!) Unfortunately, that's a tricky proposition, since I'm quite friendly with A.O. Scott, Charles Taylor and Stephanie Zacharek -- swell folks all, whatever your opinion of them as critics -- and am on at least cordial head-nodding terms with David Edelstein. (I have no compunction about calling Armond White a loon, however.) If I merely disagreed with their opinions, it'd be no big deal; alas, it's the general tenor of this year's edition that's problematic, and I hope y'all will understand if I choose not to reprimand friends in public. At least not any more than I just implicitly have.

That said, this crew's collective loathing for Dogville is emblematic of a critical sensibility that I've always found irritatingly self-congratulatory. I can understand finding the film too didactic, too theatrical, too calculated, even just too damn long. But condemning it for its lack of compassion or generosity is like faulting a knife blade for not being plush. Dogville is not designed to make you feel good about humanity. Nor, significantly, is it designed to make you feel good about yourself for admiring it. (For that sort of emotional validation, check out Moolaadé.) It's a vicious, sadistic body blow of a movie, repugnant only if one walks into the theater holding the a priori conviction that art and empathy are inextricable. And that's really little more than an intellectually justifable way of patting yourself on the back for being a good person. Hating Dogville: easier than four hours a week in a soup kitchen.

Admittedly, this is tricky terrain. I find Todd Solondz's work utterly hateful, for example, and respond to his films -- especially his latest effort, the vile Palindromes -- with much the same reflexive abhorrence that Stephanie describes feeling when she saw Dogville. Hypocrisy? Perhaps, but Von Trier's impulses strike me as a world removed from Solondz's -- waggish rather than sour (John Hurt's bone-dry narration sets the tone for the whole movie), vituperative rather than retaliatory. There's no sense of a vendetta, which is all I ever get from Solondz. But it's possible, I concede, that I, too, flatter myself.

No comments: