Friday, January 24, 2014


I'm a little embarrassed to say this, but I was pretty intrigued by Manderlay when I was younger. I never thought it was a great film but I remember thinking there was something interesting about it in all of it's heavy-handedness, but not so much anymore...
I used to take Lars Von Trier way more seriously than I think I was supposed to. But now that I've read enough books on the man, kept up with his antics over the years and have re-watched everything he's done over & over, I honestly get that he's trying to be a button-pushing provocateur over everything else (Dancer In The Dark, Breaking The Waves, parts of Melancholia and the final moments of The Idiots being the exceptions) and for whatever reason; I dig that about him. It's in my newfound understanding of Von Trier that I've come to respect him and enjoy his work even more. I just wish more people shared my way of thinking about him. Anyone who STILL gets frustrated over a Lars Von Trier movie in 2014 deserves the aneurysm that they're giving themselves when they get all worked up at the sound of his name. It's like people who saw Terrence Malick's To The Wonder and took the time to write super long scathing reviews of the film or go on verbal rants about how stupid, weird & artsy it is. I personally love Malick's latest work but I can understand if someone were to not like it or brush it aside. But some people's reaction to that film were as if it was his debut and they had no idea that Tree Of Life, The New World & The Thin Red Line existed (sorry, I refuse to believe anyone stumbled upon To The Wonder without knowing about Tree Of Life. You knew what you were getting in to). It's the same thing with Von Trier's recent work. Sure, it's understandable that something like Antichrist would cause the stir that it did given certain scenes and how women are presented in it. But at the same time, were those frustrated critics & cinephiles that were familiar with his work unaware of the abuse that Nicole Kidman & Emily Watson took in the last half of Breaking The Waves & Dogville, respectively? What about Bjork's body just dangling from the noose at the end of Dancer In The Dark? Was it really that shocking to see how Von Trier handled his female character in Antichrist based on his previous two decades of work? To be honest, LvT haters make me like him even more. I liken him to that of a heel wrestler. He's essentially a troll. But what's so strange is that he's a talented troll. When it comes to the technical aspects of filmmaking (which is important no matter how you look at it), having an understanding of the language of cinema and getting excellent performances out of his actors (Emily Watson in Breaking The Waves, Bjork in Dancer In The Dark, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist, etc); I'll put Lars up against your favorite filmmaker any day of the week from Alfonso Cuaron to Christopher Nolan (yeah, I said it).

As you can see I have no problem defending LvT as a filmmaker but unfortunately Manderlay is something I can't get behind no matter how many nuggets of truth or social commentary it contains.

Top row: Confederate States Of America / Cache
Bottom: Django Unchained / 12 Years A Slave

Because of recent films like Django Unchained, 12 Years A Slave & elements of The Butler, slavery & racism has suddenly become a hot topic in cinema again. But this is an echo of 2005 when the subject of racial guilt became a minor deal within indie/art house cinema all of a sudden. You had Cache (one of the greatest modern films ever made), Confederate States Of America (one of the most eye-rolling, almost unnecessary films ever made) and Manderlay, which is somewhere in the middle of those two films although it treads closer to Confederate States Of America. Cache is a film about everything from racism being swept under the rug in Europe to chickens coming home to roost while Confederate States Of America (produced by Spike Lee) is a sort of hybrid mockumentary/fiction story about a modern day America had the confederacy won the civil war. Two out of those three films dealt with slavery (Manderlay & Confederate States) and all three were about racism, guilt and atrocities committed against people of color (I can’t exactly group the Algerian characters from Cache in with the African American characters from Manderlay & Confederate States Of America, but they’re all descendants from Africa in some shape or form so, close enough…). Strangely enough, both Manderlay & Confederate States Of America played at the IFC Center around the same time if I'm not mistaken...
I’ve eluded to my extremely uncomfortable experience watching Manderlay at IFC in previous entries, but allow me to explain in full now that we're actually talking about it...
As I sat watching this in a theater made up of mostly white people, I found myself becoming more & more uncomfortable as everyone around me chuckled & laughed out loud at scenes I honestly didn’t find to be funny as a black person. Not only was I uncomfortable, but I found myself almost embarrassed for a lot of the white audience members because a lot of their laughter was clearly their way of dealing with the discomfort they felt while watching Manderlay. Don’t get me wrong, there are some legitimate humorous moments in the film, but overall there was WAY too much laughter about something having to do with slavery. 
Manderlay is ultimately a failure but at the same time, there is still a reason I bought the DVD at full price and end up talking about it from time to time at length with equal minded friends. I even devoted some time to write about it on here when I could be writing about something else...

Shot in the same stage play style as its predecessor; Dogville, Manderlay is the kind of film where if you were to stumble upon it in the middle, you’d find yourself asking; “whoa, what am I watching here?”

Black face in Manderlay
Lars touches on the (tired) taboo's of interracial relationships in Manderlay
Strange Fruit.

Going back to my troll comment from earlier; the whole motivation behind Lars Von Trier making his Grace/America Trilogy, made up of Dogville, Manderlay and a not yet made third part, was to be just that - a troll. He just wanted to challenge/annoy Americans after the criticism he faced for Dancer In The Dark. In Dogville he criticized the immigration system in America (no matter how much he denies this) while Manderlay is about race issues concerning black people in America.

In Manderlay, we pick up with the Grace character following the events of Dogville. This time around Bryce Dallas Howard takes up the role of Grace instead of Nicole Kidman (John Hurt does return as the film's narrator). Set in the early 1930's, Grace travels with her mobster father (played by Willem Dafoe this time instead of James Caan) and his henchmen through the deep south. In their travels they eventually come across a plantation ("Manderlay") that still practices slavery decades after it's been abolished in America. Apparently this was a deep backwoods southern region where they somehow kept the news of slavery being abolished a secret. Sounds a little far-fetched, I know. But I can let that go. It makes for an interesting story. Grace, along with her father’s henchmen, takes it upon herself to free the slaves but given their institutionalized mindset, they can’t function as free people. Against her father’s wishes, Grace stays back in an effort to help the freed slaves and of course by the end of the film she incidentally becomes the new defacto "master" which is the exact opposite of what she was trying to do in the first place. It's also revealed at the end of the film that one of the elder slaves (played by Danny Glover) is a bit more sinister than what we thought. It's kind of a shame Glover wasted such a good performance on this overall mess of a film. 
Manderlay is a paradox because Grace is self-righteous & obnoxious, yet so is the overall message of this film. Von Trier tries to criticize the Grace character in all of her self-righteousness & know-it-allism in her mission to help the slaves not realizing that Grace is actually a mirror of Von Trier himself in making Manderlay. Lars points his finger at America and criticizes the racism that exists in this country (which it certainly does exist) but he has yet to even step foot on American soil. I'm not saying that he can't have an opinion on racism in America (or even make a movie about it) but for him to go as far as he did with Manderlay without ever witnessing it firsthand is a little strange to me. How could this be truly authentic? Plus, Von Trier is pretty much trying to go out of his way to blame all white people for the plight of black people in America and its SOOO much more complicated than how he presents it. He simplifies such a complex issue (racism) to the point where it becomes insulting. In the final moments of Manderlay, one of the slaves, played by Claire Denis regular; Isaach De Bankole, practically looks in to the camera and says to Grace; "YOU made us this way." I have two major problems with that. One, it's as if Debankole is speaking for all black people (myself included) as if we're one like-minded group of people who all think the same and blame the same. My other issue with that statement is, like I said earlier, it's the biggest oversimplification of what's probably the most complex issue in the world, yet Von Trier manages to whittle it down into a single phrase.

Recently a good friend of mine (Mtume Gant of the site; Alter Eye) offered an interesting perspective on Haneke's Cache which I actually feel applies more to Manderlay. On the subject of Cache, a film we don't exactly see eye-to-eye on, he felt that at the end of the day Cache was about racism & people of color, but it was made by white people and for white people only. I understand that take on it, but in my opinion, Cache is the only kind of film Michael Haneke could make. Had he made that kind of film from the perspective of the Algerian characters in Cache, I feel it would have been out of line & out of place. Cache is told from the perspective of a white European male because Haneke himself is a white European male. If you're going to make an authentic film about racism, it's potentially dangerous to take on the perspective of a black person when you've never walked in their shoes (not saying it can't be done, but it is risky). Even the few parts of Manderlay where Von Trier is on point with his social commentary, I can’t help but feel like it isn’t his place to say anything given he’s spent ZERO time around African Americans outside of a movie shoot and has yet to step foot in a highly populated black area in America. And to add an extra layer to things, Manderlay is the kind of film where mostly white intellectuals will talk about this among themselves without knowing or wanting to know a black person’s opinion on it.

And lets be clear – had a black person made this very exact same film, I still would have had problems with it…

I’m a little disappointed that Lars’ one & only film to date that tackles race head-on turned out to be this. He’s handled minor racial issues in the past (on & off camera) in a way that I’ve respected. The character that Catherine Deneuve plays in Dancer In The Dark was originally supposed to be a black woman but Lars decided to not add to another long list of black supporting, sidekick female characters so he made her white instead (as strange as that sounds, that’s how I personally prefer more filmmakers handle things instead of trying to please black audiences by throwing in an under-developed black character in an effort to make things “diverse”).
I always found it odd that the biggest controversy from the production of Manderlay was John C. Reilly walking off set in protest due to a donkey being killed for a particular scene. 
How were there no reports of racial tension or inner turmoil among the director and his mostly black cast given the subject matter & tone of Manderlay?
This almost feels like what a movie about slavery would be had it been produced by Vice Magazine. Manderlay also suffers from some of the same issues as Django Unchained - another film centered around slavery with a heavy tone of white guilt (conveyed mostly through the Dr. Schultz character) where the white characters are more interesting & complex than the black (MAIN) characters (Danny Glover's performance being the exception). I still place Manderlay above a film like Django but that’s almost like picking the lesser of the two evils. Although this movie is ultimately a failure/mess, I still think it should be seen by anyone with an interest in race issues or the films of Lars Von Trier.
I love Lars to death but I don't know if it’s possible to have something backfire in your face as bad as Manderlay did.


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