By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “The Boss of It All,” IFC Films, 2007]
The Danish-slash-global mini-revolution known as the Dogme movement, initiated by bratboy-auteur Lars von Trier and a few cineastes, lasted only a few years ostensibly a pledge of bullshit-free purity in moviemaking, it was always a questionable set of strictures, and von Trier himself put the decisive nail in its coffin with “Dancer in the Dark,” which featured decidedly impure musical dance numbers. It was quite obviously von Trier’s ship to sail from the beginning, because he has revealed himself in the long haul to be not only an ingenious artist and master of melodrama (meant in a good, Aeschylus-Hardy-Sirk-Fassbinder kind of way), but also a self-flagellating imp who loves struggling with a straitjacket (and loves watching others struggle as well). “Breaking the Waves,” “Dogville,” “The Idiots,” “The Five Obstructions” each are defined by formal restrictions von Trier himself imposed on the filmmaking process. “The Boss of It All” is a Dogme film in most particulars no music, natural lighting, etc. but it’s also got an extra set of thumbscrews: this time, von Trier’s decided to semi-automate the creative procedure, and leave the camera angles and placement up to a computer program, nicknamed Automavision. The director only imposes his will upon it when the software produces a wholly unusable image; as it is, Von Trier gives the machine pretty free reign, and the film is filled with oddball angles and absurd cutaways, ostensibly revealing the perspective of a binary-code brain on a visually simple modern comedy scenario.
Of course, that’s not entirely the case; whatever brilliance and idiocy went into the programming just comes out again on the other side, like food. But for “The Boss of It All”, the affect works wonders: however “unmotivated,” the movie’s disruptive, off-kilter syntax fits the story like a rubber glove. Von Trier was of course careful to concoct a plot in which hierarchal social structures, like boss over employee, are never what they seem. Von Trier vet Jens Albinus plays a self-obsessed but not terribly bright actor hired by the true owner of what might be the world’s most neurotic IT firm (Peter Gantzler) to masquerade as the company’s mythical CEO, a canard he contrived to maintain a sense of warm camaraderie that has evolved into a workplace prone to outbursts, indulgences, fistfights and desk sex. The reason for the sudden need for a big boss in the flesh is a plan to sell the company to a Dane-hating Icelandic businessman (a hilariously gruff perf from Reykjavik filmmaker Friðrik Þór Friðriksson), which in itself creates emotional turmoil and ethical compromise every which way. It’s savagely clever down to the sound of the copy machine, and suggests yet again that von Trier’s yen for experimental penitence may be merely the smoke of his sideshow, obscuring his real achievements in storytelling and directing actors (there hasn’t been a misjudged performance in a von Trier film in the two decades since “Medea,” and there’s been a wealth of world-beaters). Has anyone told him?
Andrea Arnold’s “Red Road” is also a post-Dogme entity, borne out of an idea by Dogmatists Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen (three films by first-time filmmakers, using the same set of preordained characters), and it also involves the action of robotized camera visuals. This time, it’s in the sauce: we’re introduced to Jackie (Kate Dickie), a bony, haunted middle-aged woman working as a monitor to Glasgow’s plethora of CCTV surveillance cameras. Think of it as “Rear Window,” exponentially expanded with as much echo of our experience sitting in the dark, feverishly watching. Her life is otherwise an empty shell; her tether to humankind is in being an official voyeur, taking pleasure in children, sympathizing with the owner of an ailing dog and getting off surreptitiously observing back-alley sex. Things shift into high gear, plotwise, when Jackie spots a familiar face the post-coital mug of a man she’d hoped never to see again. So she keeps watching, and begins entering the frame herself, as it were, revisiting places where she’d seen him and eventually crossing over into his social sphere.
Resonant and atmosphere-saturated, “Red Road” withholds its heroine’s motivations and thoughts for a very long time, gratifyingly not knowing reflects eloquently back on how much she doesn’t know about the lives she watches on her bank of video monitors. When the subterranean story surfaces, the film loses a lot of its gas, partly because arousing mysteries are being demystified, and also because the backstory revealed is close to cliché. To circumvent that eventuality, Arnold would’ve had to go out on an art-film tangent all her own metaphysical, post-modernist, or otherwise and it’s a shame she didn’t. But had she, “Red Road” may not’ve won its trunkful of fest awards, including a Jury Prize at Cannes.
“The Boss of It All” (IFC Films) and “Red Road” (Tartan) are now available on DVD.