Foreign Pleasures

The Two Best Films That Didn't Make It To Tucson This Year.

By James DiGiovanna

LIVING IN OUR bucolic little slice of vacant-lot utopia, we occass. Like, we get low-stress living and CAP water, but have to give up the right to be on the cutting edge of culture and media.

As a result, some of the year's best films never make it our way. As the middle-late 1990s come to an end, it's a good time to look back on what we've missed, in hope that our local video rental establishments can fill the gap left by the odeons and 'plexes in our corporate-sponsored community.

Cinema Perhaps the best film of the year was Lars Von Trier's bizarre opus The Idiots. Telling the story of a group of thirtysomething Danes who pretend to be mentally handicapped, The Idiots was Von Trier's first (and probably only) film adhering to Dogma 95.

Dogma 95, seen in Tucson in Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, is a set of rules put together by a small consortium of Danish filmmakers. Designed to restrict the possibilities on screen in order to focus creative energy, Dogma 95 includes such rules as No Genre Films, No Unnecessary Violence, No Guns, All Shots Done With Hand-held Camera, and Everything That Occurs on Screen Must Actually Be Taking Place (e.g. no special effects). It's the last rule that will probably keep The Idiots from making it big in the U.S., since the one sex scene (actually an orgy) is what is known in the industry as "hardcore."

One of the most interesting features of Dogma 95 is the rule that the director's name is not to appear in the film. In direct opposition to the "auteur" theory put forth by French critics in the '60s, Dogma 95 asserts that the film is a group effort with no single controlling author. Paradoxically, The Idiots bears a very strong authorial stamp, and is clearly the work of a guiding hand that ties it into an extremely cohesive whole. Still, Dogma 95's anti-auteur point is well taken in that this film would not work if it were not for the extremely strong performances by the cast of unknowns. Their acting is so seamless that The Idiots blurs the line between reality and fiction.

In fact, the only weaknesses in Von Trier's engaging and disturbing film are the opening and closing sequences, wherein a bourgeois housewife drifts into the group of pretend idiots, and then returns to her previous life. In the middle are hilarious scenes of the anomic idiots taking a tour of an insulation factory, cavorting with bikers, and making fools of themselves in a public swimming pool.

Attempting to bring forth their "inner idiots," they wind up exposing how very confused their values are, and how easily disturbed people are when faced with those who are different. Hammering this point home, Von Trier shows the chaos that ensues when a group of real mentally handicapped people arrives at the fake idiots' home.

What makes this film work so well is not simply its original plot, but the rules of Dogma 95 themselves. The shaky camera, the boom mike that occasionally drops into the scene, and the startlingly naturalistic acting give the film the feel of a documentary. Emphasizing this point, there are interviews with the characters wherein they discuss what they did after leaving the group. This fake-documentary style meshes neatly with the fake-mentally retarded personas, acting to eliminate the distance that an audience normally feels from the obviously unreal dramas and action films that litter our cinemas. In faking reality so effectively in his tale of fake idiots, Von Trier has made one of the most difficult and difficult-to-ignore films in recent memory.

The other great film bypassing the Old Pueblo was Adrian Lynne's Lolita. About as far removed in theory from Dogma 95 as a non-action film can be, Lolita is stunningly beautiful and extremely faithful to Nabokov's novel.

Lolita failed to find wide distribution in the U.S. for much the same reason that The Idiots did: American film distributors are under the impression that we're collectively more innocent than our European cousins.

Although there's virtually no nudity in Lolita (except for the obligatory shot of Jeremy Irons' aging, but still quite taut, buttocks), the story, about a 40-year-old man, Humbert Humbert, who either seduces or is seduced by a 14-year-old girl, the eponymous Lolita, is not exactly the stuff of a Nora Ephron film (You've Got Under-aged Tail!). However, it is in no way exploitative, nor does it condone, promote or glamorize statutory rape. It does commit the apparently unpardonable sin of showing Humbert as a three-dimensional person who is not entirely unsympathetic.

While Irons was essentially born to play the part of Humbert, and has been warming up for the role in such films as Stealing Beauty and Damage, it is really Lynne's directing that makes this film work so well.

In direct opposition to Von Trier's style, almost every shot in Lynne's film uses some kind of special effect, done so subtly that they never detract from the story or rhythm. In fact, they form an integral part of the whole, with the unnerving sequences slowed down or speeded up, tinted or washed out, in order to quietly enhance the mood. Lynne does this so effectively that one of the people I saw Lolita with didn't even notice the camera play until after the film, when it was pointed out to him.

Lynne has always had a way with pretty pictures, and movies like Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks and Indecent Proposal showed that he could hold his own in the realm of pure imagery. However, they also branded him as a promoter of vapid stories that were staged solely for the purpose of showing off with the camera.

With Lolita Lynne finally had some A-list material to work with, and by sticking extremely close to the book, even to the point of using voice-over narration directly from the text, he manages to make a film that satisfies intellectually as well as visually.

Lolita's one drawback may be that some American movie-goers will find it a bit slow. Its pacing is definitely relaxed, but its imagery is intensely rich, with a story that hits on a visceral level that makes it extremely compelling. Sadly, most U.S. audiences will have to forego the pleasures of seeing this film in the theater, settling instead for watching it on their tiny, big-screen TVs. Still, it holds up well in reduced format and is definitely worth a look. TW

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