Harmony Korine shot his latest movie, The Julien Chronicles , in the streets of New York with a hand-held digital video camera, without a script, and without special lighting or even props. Some would say the 25-year-old goofball auteur, who graced the world with the script of Kids and all of Gummo , is once again blazing his own path–an iconoclast, conforming to no one’s standards but his own.
Actually, Mr. Korine is just joining the crowd. The Julien Chronicles is one of many upcoming projects intended to be a “Dogma” film, produced according to the strict rules of a mysterious code of filmmaker’s conduct called the “Dogma Vow of Chastity.” In this case, he’s following the bandwagon, not leading it.
A small group of Danish filmmakers–chief among them Lars von Trier, who had an American art house hit with Breaking the Waves –came up with the Dogma Vow in 1995. A manifesto for moviemaking–a modern Ten Commandments for directors–the vow demanded a return to simplicity, stating that films must use hand-held cameras; all shooting must be done on location; off-camera music is prohibited; and any superficial action in the plot, such as murders, must be avoided. Most perplexing at all for an industry where egotism is a prized asset, the director of a Dogma film cannot be credited.
Surely, this was a joke, a kind of intellectual prank dreamed up by arrogant Europeans. But four years later, Dogma 95, as it’s also known, may be viable after all. Dogma No. 1, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration , won the Cannes Special Jury Prize, earned a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign-language film and grossed more than $10 million worldwide. Dogma No. 2, Mr. von Trier’s The Idiots , played at the Cannes Film Festival last year and will be released here by October Films in the fall. Dogma No. 3, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Mifune , received the Special Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, and will be released here by Sony Picture Classics. Kristian Levring, the fourth Danish director in the so-called Dogma Brotherhood, is prepping the Dogma pic The King Is Alive , which will be the first shot in English and which will be co-produced by Mr. von Trier’s Zentropa Entertainment and the New York indie outfit Good Machine.
(Note: Kevin Smith’s upcoming Miramax film Dogma , whose religious content has scared the bejesus out of parent Walt Disney Company, has nothing to do with Dogma 95. But it does star Alanis Morissette as God.)
Non-Danes are catching on, too: Strand Releasing recently acquired a Swedish teen-romance Dogma pic, Fucking Amal , whose title will undoubtedly be altered for American consumption, and the French actor Jean-Marc Barr ( The Big Blue ) is currently completing Lovers , a Dogma-style interracial love story. Several Brazilian productions are aiming for Dogma status as well.
According to the Hollywood Reporter , Mr. von Trier and Mr. Vinterberg have set up an association, Dogme Brothers (the Danish spelling of dogma), to train hopeful Dogma directors. Films can have the official Dogma seal of approval only if the final product has been vetted by the Brotherhood.
Now, like Ace of Base and laddie magazines, the movement is leaping across the Atlantic, but not to Hollywood. Instead, two New York independent filmmakers, enfant terrible Mr. Korine and Andy Warhol chum Paul Morrissey, are making their own Dogma films.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Mr. Morrissey, now working out the financing details for his comedy, The House of Klang . “I’ve advocated [the Dogma style] for years, and no one’s listened.”
Which raises a question: Is the Dogma movement truly original, or just a codified declaration of what low-budget filmmakers, especially in America, have always practiced? Or is it, as Variety suggested, “more a clever marketing gimmick than a genuine film movement”? That is, would The Celebration have been as successful if it were not attached to Dogma?
In America, dozens of lesser-known independent filmmakers are also working on so-called Dogma films, but without the support of the Danes. The rise of Dogma coincides with a revolution in independent filmmaking brought about by the availability of low-cost digital video cameras and desktop editing systems–and the two separate movements are being conflated and manipulated. The Dogma filmmakers claim innovation by avoiding the use of staged lighting–but only digital video makes this possible, since regular 35-millimeter film usually demands more than natural light to make a shot visible. Meanwhile, since the Dogma films have been artistic successes, any Joe Indie with a digital video camera can claim to be a Dogma filmmaker, latching onto the label for instant credibility.
Adding to the confusion, Daily Variety published a story April 7 that began: “The Gotham indie film scene has officially gone to the Dogma.” The story described the production of Sam the Man , a low-budget film shot on digital video. But the film’s co-producer, Michael Kafka, told The Observer that Sam the Man is not intended to be a Dogma film. It will contain a musical score, Steadicam shots, stage lighting and props–all antithetical to the strict Danish rules.
“It’s not a Dogma film,” admitted Oliver Jones, the reporter who hyped it as such in Daily Variety . “That was just our news peg–a way to write a juicy lede.”
Mr. Korine’s film, though, is definitely shooting for Dogma status. Mr. Korine finished shooting The Julien Chronicles last month, starring his muse Chloë Sevigny ( The Last Days of Disco ). A publicist for Independent Pictures, the production company for the film, said Mr. Korine will not know if his film is strict enough to be sanctioned by the Brotherhood until after postproduction. The film is about a teacher who finds redemption through his interactions with the students in a comically surreal school for the blind. Mr. Korine, a scruffy Friend of Leo (DiCaprio, of course), recently told the London Guardian about his search for a blind figure skater he saw on television, in order to cast her in the movie: “I thought she was 14, but it turns out she’s only 10, so I’ve had to cut out the anal intercourse scene between her and Ewen Bremner, who plays her hard-core schizophrenic teacher.”
Mr. Korine’s Gummo , a nonlinear film about grotesque Midwestern adolescents, won several festival awards but was also labeled the worst film of 1997 by Janet Maslin in The New York Times . Still, Mr. Korine, who would not return calls from The Observer , has a strong following that includes Harvard academics and directors such as Gus Van Sant and Werner Herzog, who appears in The Julien Chronicles . His proponents paint him as a new Warhol, a savior of avant-garde cinema. According to them, it’s fitting that Mr. Korine–who is building a crazy-genius image for himself with disjointed appearances on Late Show With David Letterman –is the first major American filmmaker brave enough to attempt a Dogma film.
Producer Cary Woods got Mr. Korine interested in Dogma by introducing him to Mr. Vinterberg, the director of The Celebration . In 1995, Mr. Vinterberg and his older colleague Mr. von Trier wrote the Dogma Vow to, in their words, “counter certain tendencies in cinema today.” Both graduates of the state-run National Film School of Denmark, the directors were used to working on art films with budget constraints. “They wanted to have more freedom, but eventually learned there was a lot to gain from constraints,” said Lars Rahbek, a producer at Nimbus Films, the Copenhagen company behind The Celebration and Mifune . “Dogma 95 allows you to cleanse yourself, to cleanse your system.”
The Vow of Chastity supposedly allows for more raw, realistic filmmaking and pure storytelling. A reaction to overstylized multiplex fare, it states that films must be made without special effects, artificial sounds or special lighting. Even props are not allowed, unless they happen to be found at the location. Films must be screened in 35-millimeter format (transferred from video). Also, the film must take place in the here and now, and genre movies “are not acceptable.”
However, breaking the rules seems to be as much a part of Dogma as sticking to them. “Søren [Kragh-Jacobsen] shot Mifune on a local countryside farmhouse, but confessed to having deliberately chased chickens from a neighboring farm onto his farm to get more life into picture,” said Mr. Rahbek.
The Brotherhood let this heresy slide–and they also allowed Mr. Kragh-Jacobsen to use off-screen music. In other words, the Dogma filmmakers pick and choose from the commandments as they see fit, and much of the Dogma manifesto is not intended to be taken seriously–specifically the part of the vow that demands the director “refrain from personal taste.” The director may keep his name off the actual film, but studio publicists make sure audiences know whose vision it is.
“There is an implicit duplicity in the Dogme 95 Manifesto,” writes Mr. Vinterberg in stilted English on the official Dogma Web site (www.dogme95.dk). “On one hand it contains a deep irony and on the other it is most serious meant.… In this sense it is a kind of play, a game called ‘rule-making.’ Seriousness and play goes hand in hand.… [The manifesto] was actually written in only 25 minutes and under continuous bursts of merry laughter.… Still, we maintain that we are in earnest. Dogme is not for fun. It is, however, both liberating, merry and almost fun to work under such a strict set of rules. It is this duplicity which is the magic of ‘dogme.’”
The Dogma rules have so far inspired filmmakers to contemplate dark subjects, involving incest, suicide, mental retardation, prostitution and schizophrenia. The Idiots concerns a group of men pretending to be mentally handicapped; Mifune focuses on a yuppie, a hooker and the yuppie’s retarded brother; The King Is Alive is about tourists stranded in the African desert who stage King Lear . Unlike these, Mr. Morrissey’s The House of Klang will be a light comedy. The film, which he hopes to begin shooting this summer, is set to star Udo Kier as an outsider on the fringe of the garment business trying to enter the teen fashion world in Germany; it will likely be produced by Mr. von Trier’s Cologne-based producer, Vibeke Windelov. Mr. Morrissey, whose last feature credit was Spike of Bensonhurst in 1988, said he has no problem with the Dogma requirement of relinquishing his directorial credit; after all, many of the films he directed in the 70′s had titles such as Andy Warhol’s Trash and Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein .
For Mr. Morrissey, Dogma is nothing new. “The idea is to limit the technical things and stay with the characters. I did that 30 years ago. The only difference between Dogma and my old films is that I used a tripod.”
Because of the productions’ simplicity, all three of the completed Danish Dogma films cost close to $1 million each. But that is only slightly below the average cost for feature films in Denmark. In America, Dogma is perceived as solely a shoestring-budget, independent method of filmmaking. That’s why the American filmmakers tackling Dogma are fringe figures like Mr. Morrissey and Mr. Korine, not establishment artists like Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese–who both were encouraged to try Dogma by Mr. von Trier and Mr. Vinterberg. But even the American independent scene, as emblemized by the schmoozefest that is Sundance, will probably not embrace Dogma. As Mr. Vinterberg has said, Dogma is very much a product of Danish film culture.
“In the U.S. the context is different,” said Robert Sklar, a professor of cinema studies at New York University. “There’s not a visible American avant-garde; the independent group is just a junior varsity Hollywood, scrambling to get visibility. There’s no ideological context. To say, ‘We’ll piggyback on the Danes’ seems a kind of publicity stroke.”
When the vow was written, the Denmark newspapers reported the first theoretical debate over cinema in decades. In their manifesto, the creators situate themselves in film history, raising up the torch from the failed French New Wave: “In 1960 enough was enough! … The goal was correct but the means were not! The new wave proved to be a ripple that washed ashore and turned to muck … The auteur concept was bourgeois romanticism from the very start and thereby … false!”
“I don’t get the sense that the manifesto is anything but anti-Hollywood, as opposed to something arising out of Danish society or European culture,” said Mr. Sklar. As such, the movement does not have the historical resonance of, say, Italian neo-realism.
” The Idiots and The Celebration , as interesting as they are, don’t speak about contemporary society the way The Bicycle Thief did,” the professor continued. “Both those films are about a middle-class malaise, a crisis of spirit that doesn’t have the immediacy of political struggle.”
But to the Dogma filmmakers, Hollywood–and conventional European cinema– are regimes worth fighting against. “I hate all the emphasis on spending money–in order to give films a self-importance, they disguise the absence of interesting characters with special lighting, camera movements and effects,” said Mr. Morrissey.
For K. Louise Middleton, an aspiring actress, writer and director in Los Angeles who is hoping to make a Dogma film, watching The Celebration “was like drinking a cool glass of water after eating too much candy.” Her script, The Outside Man , concerns religion and race, and she believes it needs to be shot Dogma-style to be most effective. “I don’t want to manipulate or threaten the viewer,” she e-mailed The Observer . “The vow of chastity is actually the most un -restricting thing. What a relief to be able to let the story fly free without the burden of forcing it into a look or style.”
Regardless of the merits of The Julien Chronicles and The House of Klang , the Dogma movement will probably run out of steam. The next films by the members of the Brotherhood will not be Dogma productions: Mr. von Trier is breaking most of the Vow rules by directing an epic musical with Björk, called Dancer in the Dark , which is being shot in Sweden but set in the American Northwest and features dance sequences filmed by 100 digital video cameras.
When Mr. Rahbek calls directing a Dogma film “a great experience,” he implies that it’s a way to recharge, a lark akin to a weekend at a spa resort.
“Søren [Kragh-Jacobsen, the director of Mifune ] was also a rock musician in the 70′s,” said Mr. Rahbek. “He said, in every musician’s life, there’s a time you want to play unplugged.”
As for Mr. Vinterberg? He has hooked up with International Creative Management and is looking at English-language scripts from–gasp!–Hollywood.
Follow Michael Colton via RSS.