Cinema: Putting on the Dogme

This rigorous form of filmmaking is all the rage. First stop: Copenhagen. Next stop: Hollywood?

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In his conference room on the Universal lot, Steven Spielberg showed a couple of guests a printed card. On the card was "The Vow of Chastity"--Ten Commandments of simplified filmmaking, as proclaimed in the Dogme '95 manifesto by directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Spielberg spoke enthusiastically about Dogme and said he'd like to make a film under its rules.

Wait a minute. Why should the most successful filmmaker in history subject himself to these dicta, jotted down in half an hour by a couple of daffy Danes? Why would any director toss away the tools of power and sorcery that the movies have spent a century developing? No 150-person crew, no wide screen, no post-synchronizing of dialogue, no flashbacks, no E.T. or dinosaurs. No tripod for the camera. And no director's credit.

Yet Dogme is the hot word in serious film circles. Its precepts were first used in Vinterberg's The Celebration, the family-in-tatters drama that was a worldwide success. Dogme 2 was Von Trier's The Idiots, an aggressive comedy with porno elements. Now come Soren Kragh-Jacobsen's easy-to-take Mifune, about a young businessman who goes home to settle his late father's estate; Kristian Levring's The King Is Alive, set in Namibia and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh; and, opening next week, the first American Dogme film, julien donkey-boy, by genius nasty boy Harmony Korine.

If Dogme spreads beyond art houses, it will be not because it suggests a vital new way to make pictures, but because today's directors feel crushed by technological gimmickry. The camerabatics of the French New Wave, the anti-dramatic films of Bresson and Antonioni, the nonlinear experiments of the American avant garde--each of these was a revolutionary call to arms. Dogme is a call to disarm, to strip away the veneer, to walk without crutches supplied by Industrial Light & Magic. Unabashedly reactionary, Dogme loves innocence; it aims for a primitive purity. "Filmmakers and filmgoers are yearning for something else," says cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot The Celebration, Mifune and julien donkey-boy. "But not necessarily something new. A revival. A renaissance. A refocusing on the story. The nakedness and simplicity of Dogme has put us back in touch with the essentials of filmmaking."

Korine, who wrote the scabrous Kids, then made on his own the widely praised and reviled Gummo, had already planned his new film--the largely improvised story of a schizophrenic (Scottish actor Ewen Bremner), his bullying dad (Werner Herzog) and pregnant sister (Chloe Sevigny)--when Von Trier & Co. suggested he make it under Dogme strictures. "I liked the idea of it being a rescue action from the elevation of cosmetics," he says, "the idea of not hiding behind the trickery." Bremner found that the stripped-down system let him focus on his craft: "I don't have to reserve a portion of my brain to monitor the on-set mechanics--lighting rigs, camera tracks, field of focus. I can dedicate myself fully to realize what I want to do."

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