Published on July 8th, 2012 | by David Fitzgerald0
“Dogville,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Margaret,” and the Quixotic Quest for “the Great American Film” in the Post-9/11 Era
The concept of “the Great American Novel” is an inherently elusive one, defined using only the vaguest, most subjective of criteria: Does this accurately capture the American zeitgeist? Does it honestly represent the current American moment? Does it illustrate, in a meaningful way, what it means to live, work, and die in this country? Over the years, it has been ascribed to a number of works—everything from “Moby Dick” to “Sometimes a Great Notion” to “Infinite Jest”—and though the term “the Great American Novel” implies a certain singularity—a pinnacle, rather than a canon—any kind of consensus seems unrealistic. Subdivided, subcultured, and subsumed as we are by a constantly chattering flow of new information, is it still even possible that any one, lone work could encapsulate the whole of the American melting pot in the same way that “Ulysses” did Ireland, or “Anna Karenina” did Russia? And if the sprawling expanse of the novel can’t pin down this tricky idea, then is the existence of “the Great American Film” even a conversation worth having, or just a windmill to be tilted at—subject matter better tackled by impossible dreamers like Werner Herzog than American icons like Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese?
Though a variety of films, and indeed entire subgenres of film have scratched diligently at the edges of “the Great American Film” concept, very few modern pictures possess the scope and breadth of vision that such a designation connotes. Classic epics like “Giant” and seminal indies like “Easy Rider” certainly have their place in history, but for the purposes of this argument, let us restrict ourselves to modern fare. Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is a sweeping, audacious picture blending perfectly rendered scenes of Americana with weighty questions about the meaning of life, but in so doing, it becomes a film more about being human than being American. Message movies like Lee Daniels’s “Precious” and Tony Kaye’s “Detachment” attack critical aspects of American life with gusto (inner city poverty and abuse, and our crumbling public education system, respectively), essentially effecting collage of one specific corner of our country, but they fail as representations of the country at large. Indeed, in 1998, Sam Mendes’s “American Beauty” and Todd Solondz’s “Happiness” cracked the white picket facade of the American suburbs and practically launched a new subgenre of disillusioned, anti-romanticist films about the American nuclear family and way of life, but these, too, are limited both by their narrow focuses and satirical bents. Having said, however, what “the Great American Film” is not, there are three recent (released within the last ten years) and highly allegorical films that reach for that zenith and, while all flawed, manage to find and elucidate some universal truth about post-9/11 America.
In the nearly eleven years since the September 11th attacks, there has emerged a minority trend in film and literature toward redefining the United States with more objectivity—a concerted effort to see ourselves not as “the greatest country in the world” but rather as the global community sees us: as a citizen-nation of the world—maybe not the best, maybe not the worst, but a country unburdened of its “exceptionalism” for whom all the same rules and consequences apply as they do to others. Though 9/11 was undoubtedly the greatest and most historic national tragedy of many Americans’ lifetimes, it also created a vulnerability in the American psyche—a space for empathy with nations once thought of as inferior when they were thought of at all. It reminded us that countries in Africa and the Middle East see monthly death tolls that dwarf anything America has ever endured; that violence is ever-present; that we are all at risk, and that we are all responsible. We were no longer the impregnable empire—we were insecure, unstable, and human—a fact expressed nowhere more powerfully than in Lars von Trier’s 2003 film “Dogville.”
In “Dogville,” the title locale, a tiny, destitute, mountain town, largely insulated from news of the outside world, offers a (near-literal) bare-stage take on the American zeitgeist, stripping our country down to its gears and bolts, and examining those who get mangled in the machinery. Making the film doubly interesting is the fact that von Trier has never been to the United States, and has no intention of ever visiting, making “Dogville” a representation not of his personal experience, but rather of the way in which America was viewed in 2003 by the world at large—a true outsider’s perspective. The film was shot much like a black box theater production, with few props and all scenery delineated only by white outlines on the ground, drawing a strong parallel to the intensified security state America put into place and continues to live under since 9/11. Though it is never clearly stated in the film whether the denizens of Dogville can in fact see through the “walls” of one another’s “homes,” one gets the impression that nothing in this town is truly safe or private. When an interloper, Grace (Nicole Kidman), finds her way to the town by accident while fleeing a gang of mobsters, she is mistrusted immediately and is only able to insinuate herself into the hamlet’s way of life by giving and doing far more than her fair share. In this way, Grace becomes a highly interpretable symbol. She is the American immigrant experience. She is the embodiment of post-9/11 paranoia. She is both the financial crash and the 99% (though, granted, well before those things had come into being). Really, she is any catalyst that forces institutional change on a rigged system and those who have gotten comfortable at the top of it. She is the enemy of capitalism and corruption, and she pays dearly for it. As Grace is introduced to each citizen, they begin to take shape within the story’s allegorical structure, as well. There’s Thomas Edison, Jr., who holds meetings on “moral rearmament,” and stumps for Grace at first, only to later prove himself the most corrupt of all, cutting the very figure of American organized religion. There’s Thomas Edison, Sr., the town’s ailing patriarch who resists supporting Grace the longest, even warning her that Dogville is not all it appears to be, but ultimately relents in the face of public pressure—a dark microcosm of America’s broken government. There are Olivia and June, the town’s only African-American residents (and ugly stereotypes both) whom Tom, Jr. refers to as “a token of [his] father’s broadmindedness,” perhaps suggesting the ways in which the African-American community are still treated as second-class citizens in the United States. There are Chuck and Vera, who “have seven kids, and hate each other”—almost certainly von Trier’s fractured, gloomy take on the American nuclear family. There are the Hensons, a couple who make a living by grinding the edges off of cheap glasses in order to make them look expensive (and in the process, weakening their structural integrity), and selling them at a profit—cost-cutting American labor practices writ small. And there are Ma Ginger and Gloria, who run the lone store in town with an iron, price-gouging fist as they know none of their neighbors ever venture outside the city limits (not even to vote, it is deliberately noted). And so, with these bizarre, interlocking pieces in place, the town runs well enough via its skeletal brand of capitalism and indoctrinated code of questionable ethics, and over the course of her stay, Grace goes from warily accepted servant (she finally insinuates herself into the town’s daily routine by offering to do things that people “want” done, but don’t necessarily “need” done), to fellow citizen, to communal slave, to abused prisoner as the lens of Dogville brings into focus the predatory, carnivorous nature of the United States, and its knee-jerk reflex against outside forces.
The film’s turning point comes during a 4th of July celebration (von Trier is many things, but subtle is rarely one of them), when a police officer arrives with a “Wanted” poster implicating Grace in several robberies on the West Coast. At this point, Grace has been fully accepted into the community and enjoys the privileges of an equal, but despite being fully aware that she is innocent (as she was living in Dogville when the robberies took place), the townspeople become nervous and hostile, and exact a higher penance that Grace might account for the added risk her presence brings them. They quickly begin to take Grace’s daily contributions for granted. Her workload is doubled, her pay halved and eventually stopped altogether, and before long the men of the town begin calmly, methodically raping her, as though it were just another of her chores. First it’s via coercion (“have sex with me or I’ll turn you in”), but before long they have her chained to a heavy iron wheel and simply come and go at their leisure. The other women of the town offer her no quarter, instead blaming her for tempting their men, and resorting to gossip and slut-shaming. As the title of the film’s sixth chapter notes, “Dogville bares its teeth.” Only after the gangster whom Grace originally ran from arrives, at Tom, Jr.’s fearful request, is she freed and treated with a modicum of kindness. Grace, as it turns out, is the gangster’s daughter who ran away to try to prove to her father that life inside the law was more honorable than life outside, but learned the hard way what Tom, Sr. tried to tell her from the beginning: “People are the same all over. Greedy as animals. In a small town they’re just a bit less successful.” Capitalism is an inherently cutthroat system—it reinforces mistrust and corruption, and casts aside fairness and honesty as marks of weakness. It is a game that allows criminals to win, and when Grace, the interloper, has the entire population of Dogville gunned down, it brings that chilling truth to harsh light. Dogville is a bleak, bare-bones metaphor for an America in decline, and the faster we turn against each other, the faster we fall prey to outside dangers. With every clause of the Patriot Act; with every illegal wiretap, secret prison, and covert assassination; with every civil liberty we gave up in the name of being “safer,” we eroded away at our very foundation as a society. We became suspicious of our neighbors, both globally and locally, and by consequence we grew self-centered and short-sighted as a nation. Lars von Trier has been quoted as saying that the point of “Dogville” is that “evil can arise anywhere, as long as the situation is right,” and in the histrionic, self-destructive years that followed the September 11th attacks, a scared, scarred America bared its teeth.
The arrogance of the Iraq War brought more lessons. Rather than being “greeted as liberators,” we were reminded of the fact that, if you take a man’s job, if you destroy a man’s home, if you kill a man’s family, regardless of your motives or intentions, that man will turn against you. These are no more forgivable acts in Iraq than they are in the U.S., and they cannot be explained away through politics. In response to 9/11, we killed (at least) twenty times as many people as died in 9/11, in a country that was demonstrably not responsible for 9/11. What was intended as a swift and decisive retaliatory blow was instead revealed to be the spasmodic thrashings of a dying whale. A wounded America became defensive and vicious, and that reactionary, flag-waving turn toward self-preservation was expressed brilliantly through Daniel Day Lewis’s towering, decade-defining performance as Daniel Plainview in P. T. Anderson’s 2007 masterpiece “There Will Be Blood,” for in many ways, Daniel Plainview was, and is, America.
Now when I say that Daniel Plainview is America, I mean many things. He is the America of the turn of the 20th century—a single-minded, objectivist hero tirelessly building his personal empire and crushing anyone who stands in his way. He is the America of the Bush years—swinging wildly from swagger to stagger and back again, a bloated, near-literal monster of capitalist greed and megalomania. He is American imperialism and oil lust—seizing an entire town by dastardly increments, thinking only of his own industrial bottom line, and refusing to take “no” for an answer. He is the No Child Left Behind Act—failing his son, H. W., time and again, shoving him further away the more parental help he legitimately needs. The breathless, adrenaline-fueled terror of Daniel’s sprint to save H. W. after an explosion on the derrick is one of the most touching depictions of fatherly love ever committed to film, making the next scene all the more heartbreaking. Upon discovering that his son has been deafened by the blast, he immediately abandons him amid screams of “Don’t leave!” to return to his work, where his child can no longer keep up. Daniel Plainview is global warming—his rickety derricks spewing acres of black smoke into the big western sky and raining down fire and soot across the prairiescape. He is the religious right, trading financial support for a spiritual veneer courtesy of the devilish preacher Eli Sunday (played with slimy fervor by Paul Dano). When Daniel forces Eli to repeatedly declare, “I am a false prophet! God is a superstition!” in exchange for money for his church, one cannot help but think of the countless ways in which the right wing generally, and George W. Bush personally, co-opted and compromised true Christian values, repackaging them as hate-speech and appropriating them for financial and political gain. And few films in history leave a final image as indelible as that of Daniel Plainview sitting on the floor of his personal bowling alley, his legs splayed like a worn-out child, beside the body of Eli, whom he has just bludgeoned to death. The private bowling alley represents the height of capitalist excess, and becomes the final resting place of any semblance of morality that the church may have retained (also reminding one vaguely of the White House bowling alley). Daniel’s final declaration of “I’m finished” seems to signal the end of his life’s work, the end of P. T. Anderson’s vision, and the end result of eight years under a corrupt regime, as if all three are saying “Look! Look at this spectacular mess I’ve made.”
When “There Will Be Blood” was first released, much was made of the opening scene, a brutal, near-silent ten minutes or so in which Daniel Plainview falls down one of his first wells, finds himself completely alone with a broken leg (the left, incidentally), and slowly, agonizingly pulls himself out. As he flops over the side, covered in dust and sweat and blood, the scene feels reminiscent of a birth; the very birth of American capitalism out of the oil-rich bedrock that would sustain it for a century. Every moment of this film is pregnant with the weight of allegory—the centuries-old tale of a powerful empire’s fast, violent rise, and slow, bitter decline. We saw it in ancient Rome, and with P. T. Anderson as our guide, in 2007 we began to see it in ourselves. Daniel Plainview turned his back on his family, his friends (in as much as he had any), his allies, his business partners, and his God (in as much as he had one), all in the pursuit of the almighty dollar, and in the decade we’ll remember as the aughts, so did America.
Finally, as the Obama era ushered in a new morning, America began to gain some perspective. Public opinion turned harshly against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the administration responsible for them. In a show of global healing, our new President was promptly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize despite having been in office for less than a year, almost as though the rest of the planet was saying together, “Let us never see American leadership like your predecessor again.” Thanks to the twenty-four-hour news cycle and exhaustive internet coverage, the American populace was presented with more hard numbers and irrefutable data as to the destruction their country had wrought than at any other time in our bellicose history. The weight of complicity in violence, the guilt that comes with an unfair fight, and the utter helplessness that results when a Type-A nation loses control are at the heart of Kenneth Lonergan’s long-suffering “Margaret” (out on DVD and Blu-ray this Tuesday, July 10).
Unlike the previous two entries in this allegorical film triptych, “Margaret” takes place in the present day (or, at most, a few years prior), and exists within a largely realistic depiction of New York City. Margaret is not the name of any character in the film, but rather a reference to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall,” about a young woman mourning the loss of her own youth and innocence in the natural course of growing up; and so it comes to pass in Lonergan’s film that America does much the same. Playing the composite role this time around is Anna Paquin, whose Lisa Cohen struck me fast as the most bravely unlikable protagonist to come along since Daniel Plainview. A New York prep school student with an air of entitlement that borders on the pathological, her strident, entitled whining accounts for at least fifty percent of this very talky picture’s dialogue (indeed, she is ostensibly the embodiment of American entitlement; a walking, talking representation of the self-proclaimed “Greatest Country in the World”). Whether she’s picking uninformed fights with an Arab-American classmate, her utterly self-absorbed actress mother, or any of the myriad other characters that wander through her life, Lisa remains the most desperately unsympathetic of them all as she is defined and driven wholly by her own guilt over a tragedy for which she cannot atone, and her desire to have that guilt borne by someone else.
In the film’s opening act, Lisa is walking the streets of downtown Manhattan, blithely searching for a cowboy hat to wear to an upcoming party. In a carefully choreographed, and highly symbolic sequence, she notices a handsome, scruffy bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) in exactly such a hat, and as he pulls away from his stop and into traffic, she runs alongside his bus, flirtatiously trying to get his attention. Distracted, the driver fails to stop for a red light, and runs over a pedestrian who subsequently dies on the sidewalk, in Lisa’s arms. In the context of this film, it is nearly impossible not to read this bus accident as a metaphor for the September 11th attacks, albeit one with the measured objectivity that comes with ten years of hindsight. The driver, a blue-collar, city employee, in a cowboy hat no less, is undoubtedly meant to be the United States government, specifically under the Bush administration, recklessly driving the bus of American prosperity forward. Running alongside, a young, pretty, white girl (who is also half-Jewish, perhaps connoting America’s close relationship with Israel, as Al Qaeda has repeatedly cited that international partnership as one of its motives for the 9/11 attacks) seems quite smitten with the charming everyman behind the wheel. Though both should have known better, it is later revealed that the driver had received repeated warnings in his file about similar incidents (much as U.S. intelligence did), but had never been disciplined, and when he kills this woman, accidentally rendering Lisa complicit in her death in the process, it is she (the American public), and not he, who is overcome by the weight of guilt and the uncertainty of the future over this life-altering event. Now, far be it from me to say that Kenneth Lonergan is suggesting the United States was, after a fashion, responsible for, complicit in, or deserving of the September 11th attacks—I sincerely doubt that was his intention, and it’s certainly not mine—but I think he is getting at something much subtler and more interesting. In presenting 9/11 and its aftermath in this allegorical format, “Margaret” attempts to capture not just the pain and fear that gripped the United States during the Bush years, but also the guilt of an empire that has done more than its fair share of bombing over the course of human existence—the guilt of surviving the greatest American tragedy of several lifetimes, of wondering if we could have stopped it, and of wondering if we somehow invited it. In Lonergan’s film, America is the spoiled prep school kid of the world, finally coming to grips with what it really means to be in control, and also what it means to start to lose it.
Lisa Cohen spends the rest of the film fighting angrily to sue the driver, or his boss, or his bus company, or absolutely anyone else who can levy some kind of punishment—bring some kind of justice—for this tragedy, and in doing so assuage her guilt. Lisa’s mother (J. Smith-Cameron) is the quintessential American elite, a successful stage actress who is eternally shifting conversations back to herself rather than dealing with her daughter’s increasingly difficult and uncomfortable situation. Lisa’s seemingly well-meaning teacher Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon) ultimately takes advantage of her emotional state and engages her sexually—yet another metaphor for the failures of the American public school system. Emily (played by Jeannie Berlin, the only other actor in the film who matches Paquin’s relentlessly strident pitch), seemingly the only friend of the dead woman’s, is drawn into Lisa’s lawsuit, perhaps giving voice to those who actually lost loved ones in 9/11, and how the magnified, megaphoned, star-spangled grief of a Nation only served to cheapen their personal losses (she angrily accuses Lisa of dramatizing the accident out of boredom). Though no member of this cross-section of New York life is particularly deserving of sympathy, Lisa least of all, they are all extraordinarily, boldly human in their self-pitying emotional frailty, and whether they ignore the fallout from the bus accident that changed all their lives, sweep it under the rug, cry over it, fight about it, rage against it, or try desperately to see someone blamed for it, they are all playing the victim, and failing to pull it off. After weeks of struggle, when it is finally revealed that the bus company will have to pay a steep sum of money to the dead woman’s next of kin, but that the bus driver will still go unpunished, Lisa loses it, screaming into the phone over and over again that the accident was her fault, finally admitting, for the first time, to the shame that has been driving her from the beginning. Again, I am in no way suggesting that the United States deserved to be attacked, but I do believe that in the years since 9/11, with more international news and information at our fingertips than ever before, we have gained a greater understanding of our place in the world, our influence on it, and the repercussions of our actions within it. “Margaret” may be the closest thing we’ve yet seen to the Great American Film in the post-9/11 era, but it also raises the question of whether America remains truly great. As a nation we are older but less trusting, wiser but more calculating, stronger but more vulnerable, more informed but less innocent, and so, like Lisa sobbing through an opulent production of “The Tales of Hoffman” in the film’s closing scene at the Metropolitan Opera House, and like the young girl in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, we are Margaret, and “it’s Margaret we mourn for.”
Allegory is a tricky medium. It’s very easy to get into “this represents this” territory, and just repurpose a story for invention’s sake. But truly great allegory has a deeper purpose: the ability to illuminate natural truth through unnatural means. Through these three films, via symbolic dystopian societies, profoundly exaggerated characters, and hyperbolic moral conundrums, allegory helps shed objective light on subjective problems, creating just enough distance between story and reality for the audience to make lasting, real-world connections while still believing that they’re simply being entertained. In this way, it may be the only format through which a film could ever aspire to encapsulate the whole of the American experience with any success. All three of these films (conveniently spaced four years apart so as to perfectly capture America from different vantage points across the last decade) are towering achievements, but they are also exceedingly long, depressing, confounding, moralistic, and not at all interested in easy answers. They could all be called anti-American, and likely have been, but in our high-speed, mobile app, 4G society, they are the only three films I can think of that truly keep up—attacking the American zeitgeist from enough angles, with enough new ideas, and with enough genuine honesty to be worthy of being discussed as “the Great American Film.” It may not be an accomplishable goal—America is a vast and diverse country, and even within the realm of allegory any attempt at unilaterally defining it will inevitably ring false to someone, somewhere—but in the tradition of Werner Herzog and Don Quixote, it is a decidedly lofty goal to pursue, and what could be more American than that?