PAUL CULLUM on LARS VON TRIER’s more obscure work (Arthur, 2004)

The Rules of the Game
A “Camera Obscura” column by Paul Cullum

Originally published in Arthur No. 11

Discussed herein:

The “Kingdom of Credibility” Trilogy:
o The Humiliated (De Ydmygede) (1998), directed by Jesper Jargil
o The Exhibited (De Udstillede) (2000), directed by Jesper Jargil
o The Purified (De Lutrede) (2002), directed by Jesper Jargil


o The Five Obstructions (2004), directed by Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier
o Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier (1997), directed by Stig Björkman (available on the Criterion DVD release of von Trier’s The Element of Crime)

“In the rain forest of the Cameroon in West Central Africa lives a floor-dwelling ant known as Megaloponera foetens, or more commonly, the stink ant. On occasion, one of these ants while looking for food is infected by inhaling a microscopic spore from a fungus of the genus Tomentella. After being inhaled, the spore seats in the ant’s tiny brain and begins to grow, causing changes in the ant’s patterns of behavior. The ant appears troubled and confused; for the first time in its life, it leaves the forest floor and begins to climb. Completely spent and having reached a prescribed height, the ant impales the plant with its mandibles. The fungus continues to consume first the nerve cells and finally all the soft tissue that remains of the ant. After approximately two weeks, a spike appears from what had been the head of the ant. This spike is about an inch and a half in length and has a bright orange tip, heavy with spores, which rain down onto the rain forest floor for other unsuspecting ants to inhale.” —The Museum of Jurassic Technology

Were he not already so ubiquitous, this might seem like the season of Lars von Trier. Dogville, the first part of his “USA Trilogy” (to be differentiated from his “Europa Trilogy”—The Element of Crime, Epidemic and Europa/Zentropa; and his “Golden Heart Trilogy”—Breaking the Waves, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark) appeared earlier this year to begin the excoriation of the American character by European cinema, a process just put to decisive referendum by the awarding of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Stephen King’s The Kingdom Hospital, an adaptation of The Kingdom I and II, von Trier’s successive miniseries on Danish television, appeared as a much-touted ABC series and suffered mightily by comparison. And The Five Obstructions, co-directed by von Trier and his mentor Jørgen Leth, equal parts documentary, experiment and intervention, currently scuttles its way around the arthouse circuit.

The latter presents von Trier at his comical best. Resembling Fassbinder refashioned as a Muppet (Fassy Bear?), he is at once imperious and cuddly, using his private empire to force Leth, his former film instructor at the Danish Film Institute, into repeatedly remaking The Perfect Human, the film von Trier rates closest to perfect. “This little gem,” as he calls it, is a 12-minute 1967 black-and-white short that marries an insouciant formal abandon to a faux anthropological take on upscale hipsters, in the manner of Peter Sellers’ The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (which handed Richard Lester his directing style on a platter) or, more pointedly, title designer Saul Bass’s Why Man Creates. Leth is the one who famously introduced “the rules of the game” into von Trier’s way of thinking, the intense penchant for order which, as we know from Tranceformer, a 1997 documentary by Stig Björkman, implicitly appealed to this son of radical academics who was raised free of restraints of any kind. (Tranceformer also informs us that at age 12, “Lars Trier” was the child star of Clandestine Summer, a winsome Swedish-Danish TV series, and that he added the “von” in film school—as in “Erich von Stroheim,” Teutonic tyrant and classical sadist—in much the same way Francis Ford Coppola appended his signature to exchange the quotidian for the epic.) The Five Obstructions is justified as homage and a form of therapy, von Trier’s magnanimous gesture to force his mentor out of his “provocative perverse perfection.” Yet it ultimately borders on autobiography, as von Trier judges and rejects not only his patriarch, but his own aesthetic foundations, subjecting them to outsize pressures as if to test their structural worthiness—like Steven Soderbergh did in interviewing his mentor, Richard Lester, in Getting Away With It.

This is the Lars von Trier—whimsical ideologue, benevolent autodidact, goofball despot—on display in three documentaries by Jesper Jargil, which he collectively labels “The Kingdom of Credibility Trilogy.” Jargil, who shot von Trier’s The Idiots and has directed over 500 commercials, is a kind of unofficial biographer of the Dogme masters class: The Humiliated (1998) is a behind-the-scenes look at The Idiots, arguably von Trier’s best film; The Exhibited (2000) chronicles his similar assault on the theater; and The Purified (2002) documents a summit meeting of the four Dogme founders, as well as their separate peace with procedural orthodoxy. None are currently commercially available, and all are ripe for international exploitation. Jargil is currently working on a documentary on D-Day, Dogme 95’s simultaneous four-channel improvised docudrama that was broadcast on New Year’s Eve 2000, with the working title 4-D.

The Idiots is the story of middle-class libertines who form an intellectual commune dedicated to “spazzing,” or rejecting societal confines by emulating the mentally unhinged, and the ramifications of their actions when taken up by the true believer. Kind of a Dumb and Dumber as scripted by Ibsen or Strindberg (although in the documentary, they strangely resemble the Beatles in the Richard Lester films). But as The Humiliated makes clear, this parody of cult behavior and dogma run amok could just as easily be about the Dogmetists themselves, with its constant debates over purity of actions and degree of dedication. In a defiant breach of Dogme etiquette, Jargil slathers his portraiture with the Ennio Morricone score from Days of Heaven (also appropriated for Todd McCarthy’s cinematographer documentary Visions of Light), painting von Trier as variously sullen or testy. “I fear I have cancer of the balls,” von Trier confides to a video diary. His nickname from the cast is “Sulker,” even as he confronts their criticisms with totalitarian disdain. Finally he snaps, his manic-depression overloading him like a circuit breaker, and he is physically bedridden for two days. “No one can blame me for not admitting my mistakes,” he says afterwards, by way of apology. It is specifically this self-reflexive shame which keeps him interesting as a director. “I’m afraid hubris will strike like a fist from the sky and annihilate me,” he admits when only the camera is watching.

The same warring impulses guide him through The Purified, a come-to-Jesus meeting of von Trier and his field lieutenants—Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), Soren Kragh-Jacobsen (Mifune) and Kristian Levring (The King Is Alive)—where they review Jargil’s making-of footage from each of their first Dogme features and bust each other on violations of principle. While the others sheepishly agree to do better, von Trier reacts viscerally when an actor in Mifune smears dirt on his face, yet when caught on camera smuggling an extension cord in to the set of The Idiots, snaps, “Did I write the rules or did you?” Stalin himself could not have put it better. Along the way, we learn that the Dogme 95 manifesto took no longer than 45 minutes to write, and that its signatories originally considered it an intellectual prank. But by far the biggest revelation is that the notorious orgy scene in The Idiots, where the actors carry their “spazzing” conceit all the way into on-camera sex, was a sham. That is, “porno models” were brought in and strategically placed beneath the mound of actors to provide the verisimilitude of plunging genitals.

“You can give all the reasons you like, and good ones at that,” says von Trier in The Humiliated, discussing a character’s motivation, “but you can’t compare reasons and feelings. Any time feelings and theory meet, theory always loses.” This seems the crux of Dogme, this “demand for lack of control,” in von Trier’s elegantly self-defeating phrase. Every stipulation of the Vows of Chastity—an abstinence from props, sets, non-synch sound or music, tripods, dollies, cranes, opticals, filters, special lighting or effects, flashbacks, dramatic inserts, murders, weapons, genre conceit or director’s credit; this militant Lumiereism—seems designed to keep filmmaking out of the way of the emotional truth of a scene, whose secular emissary is the actor. This is ultimately the subject of The Exhibited, the most provocative film of the three.

In 1996, von Trier conceived his first theatrical event, titled Psychomobile 1: The World Clock. Staged at the Arts Society Building in Copenhagen, this entirely improvised drama took place in 19 rooms over 50 days, and starred 53 actors (the performance lasted three hours a day). Each actor was assigned to a room and given a character name, loose back-story and final agenda. But to interject an element of spontaneity, ultimate authority was handed over not to a director, but to a colony of ants near Los Alamos, New Mexico. That is to say, a video camera was set up on a remote anthill, and its image broadcast 8,000 miles via videophone and satellite uplink to the installation site. There a computer program registered when at least four ants had crossed one of 19 on-screen sensors, which triggered a change in the red, green, yellow and blue traffic lights mounted in each of the 19 rooms, and for which each actor was given a corresponding emotion. In the film, each light change is signaled by an emergency warning sound like the one at the end of Alien, when Mother shuts down the Nostromo, and the actors freeze and recalibrate. “One day,” says one of the actors, “that guy running the Mexican ant heap or wherever it was gave them a French fry, and the lights changed nonstop. It was very hard to work; you could hardly get a word in before the lights changed completely.”

For practical purposes, Jargil focused on a dozen characters using 16 cameras, from which he amassed 70 hours of footage. What emerges in is an entire universe of actor’s moments—War and Peace meets Tony and Tina’s Wedding. The action is dominated by drug overdoses, suicide attempts, schizophrenia, incest, rape and self-administered miscarriages—“a world full of drugs, drink and scary men,” in the words of one actress. But as the actors’ tricks and technique are depleted, they rely more and more on their real lives. Relationships are forged, grudges harbored and enmities incurred. Characters wander from one reality into another that suddenly clashes violently, as emotions turn on a dime, suggesting a possible new form of drama that draws absurdly from Bollywood musicals, Hong Kong pastiches and Cassavetes. One character, Starseed, is a kind of deus ex machina or dramaturgical cop on the beat, summoned to settle metaphysical beefs, and any character he touches must stay frozen until the next light change. Toward the end, a real-life hypnotist was introduced into the cast. “There were light changes that saved lives,” says one actor. “Another month and we’d have all gone stark raving mad,” says another. The last day is filled with major revelations, breakthroughs, epiphanies and radical agendas which are somehow magically completed with the appropriate light change, as if the collective intelligence which governs insect populations had found some biogenetic way to accommodate the artistic impulse. It’s as if von Trier had inverted Keats’ famous maxim: Here the antenna is the artist of the race.

“Destructiveness is very important,” says von Trier in Tranceformer. “It depends on what you want to destroy. But there should also be something you create. You can compare it to an anthill. When you poke a stick in it, it’s vital sometimes, because then thousands of ants can come and rebuild it exactly alike.”

Categories: "Camera Obscura" column by Paul Cullum, Arthur No. 11 (July 2004) | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s