In 1999, a controversy flared on the bulletin boards of the official Dogme 95 Web site. Steven Spielberg had allegedly agreed to produce “Jurassic Park III” under the Dogme 95 Vow of Chastity. This meant conforming to Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 Manifesto, a document calling on directors to rescue the art of filmmaking from “bourgeois romanticism,” “predictability” and “the deadly embrace of sensation.”
The Spielberg posting was a prank. But as journalist Richard Kelly’s engaging investigation of the Dogme movement makes clear, the merry pranksters known as the Dogme brethren — von Trier, Vinterberg, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen and Kristian Levring — didn’t object. “We encourage anarchy,” Peter Aalbaek Jensen, managing director of Zentropa, the Danish production company behind von Trier and Levring, announced at the time. “The Dogme concept is getting out of the Brothers’s control. That’s what we want.”
The Manifesto, distributed at a Paris symposium on the centenary of cinema, followed by the celebrated release of four Danish films stamped with the Dogme seal of approval — “The Idiots” (von Trier) “The Celebration” (Vinterberg) “Mifune” (Kragh-Jacobsen) and “The King Is Alive” (Levring) — soon aroused international interest, not least because of the radical measures the Brothers prescribed.
In an effort to strip the filmmaking process to its core, the Manifesto laid out 10 stringent rules. Among them: shooting must be done on location; there can be no artificial light or special optical effects; the camera must be hand-held; and the director must not be credited.
The Manifesto also stirred the interest of Kelly, a film journalist whose view of Hollywood is so curmudgeonly that he all but stopped going to new movies between 1992 and 1997. Indeed, his sanguine disinterest in the realities of Hollywood (“had Steven Spielberg only seen fit to hire Harmony [Korine] rather than the Englishman Sam Mendes,” he muses) is a sharp liability in a book that takes several pot shots at mainstream cinema.
But Kelly is also an astute observer of Dogme eccentricities and the movement’s place in film history, and his book — a kind of travel narrative — is written in a breezy, accessible style. In setting out to write about Dogme, Kelly links up with two friends shooting a Dogme doc for Channel Four and travels from London to Copenhagen and L.A., interviewing the principal filmmakers, producers and actors involved. A highlight of those travels is Kelly’s visit to Film City — the former army base where Zentropa and Nimbus (the shingle behind “The Celebration” and “Mifune”) are headquartered — a facility the Brothers dream of making into the Cinecitta of Denmark. This book doubles as a companion to the Channel Four doc, and it’s even written according to Kelly’s own 10-point Vow of Chastity (“the content of the book should be composed sequentially, using a single notebook or loose-leaf binder”).
Gradually the hallmarks of the movement become clear. These are films about damaged people rebelling against the traditional order of things. Their characters are grouped together in clans or communes, each a microcosm reflecting on some level the status of Denmark in relation to the rest of the world. The visual style, says Anthony Dod Mantle, cinematographer of “The Celebration,” “Mifune” and Korine’s “Julien Donkey Boy” — the first American Dogme film — reflects an effort to “decompose the image: breaking down the official, conventional sharpness we’re so used to, losing some detail but finding a texture.” Finding creativity in constraints is clearly the Dogme philosophy, more important than adherence to any particular rule.
Such objectives are clearly in earnest, but the book isn’t likely to disabuse Dogme’s critics of the sneaking suspicion the movement and the Manifesto are just a publicity stunt. “It’s the same thing as a guy with a small penis who wants a huge motorbike,” says Vinterberg. “When you’re a small country, you have to yell to get heard.”