Dancer in the Dark
Produced by AV-Fund Norway, Arte France Cinéma,
and the Danish Film Institute
Directed and written by Lars von Frier
Distributed by Fine Line Features

The Contender
Produced by Battleground Productions
Directed and written by Rod Lurie
Distributed by DreamWorks Distribution

Best in Show
Produced by Castle Rock Entertainment
Directed by Christopher Guest
Screenplay by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy
Distributed by Warner Bros.

Like God and the Devil, films reveal themselves in the details. Pluck a scene at random, examine it closely, and you’ll be able to forecast the rest of the movie’s merit with remarkable accuracy.

Take director Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. It tells the tale of Selma (Bjork, the Icelandic singing star) who is suffering from an eye disease that will leave her blind. She has emigrated from Czechoslovakia to a small town in Washington at the end of the 1950’s, hoping to retain the services of a local ophthalmological specialist for her 11-year-old son, who has inherited her affliction. She’s sure he can be saved from her fate by a timely operation. (Why this procedure should work for him but not her is left wholly unexplained, as is the nature of the disease itself) To pay for the operation, she takes a job in a nearby factory, where she operates a metal-stamping machine. Von Trier makes this seem a terrifying mechanism through repeated close-ups of its piston-driven pressing block slamming down onto the tin plates Selma must place beneath it. Not able to see the machine as more than a blur, she operates it by touch. Again and again, the block narrowly misses her pink little hands as she tries to keep up with its ever quickening pace. Drama enough? Not at all. Von Trier wants something even more harrowing. When her landlord makes noises about raising her rent, Selma decides to work the night shift, too, only to discover that, as an after-hour worker, she’s expected to run two pressing machines at far more rapid rates than during the day. This is just one in a chain of plot turns that make this film about as aesthetically honest as, say, The Little Match Girl. Yet it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, and many American critics have fallen into line, hailing it as a triumph of innovative, hard-edged filmmaking. How can this be? It’s a matter of style and substance.

Despite the surpassing childishness of his story, von Trier cultivates a style guaranteed to win reverential approval from a certain kind of fashionable reviewer. In this film and others, notably the execrable Breaking the Waves, he deliberately forswears technical sophistication. As a member of the Danish Dogma school of cinema, he believes that serious, socially conscious films must eschew illusion and fakery. This means shooting with handheld cameras in natural light and confining action as much as possible to real time. The resulting faux-amateur production fairly shouts, “Look, ma, no trickery!” But without trickery, cinema wouldn’t exist. Films necessarily begin with the illusion of motion achieved by running a strip of snapshots through a projector: That’s why they’re called “movies.”

Von Trier’s aesthetic puritanism is at once irritating and risible. He would have us believe his moviemaking is more honest than high-tech studio productions. Presumably, technical crudity guarantees dramatic authenticity. But this film’s unprofessional look is completely fabricated. If s all too evident that von Trier has worked strenuously to keep his camera jiggling, his editing a hodgepodge of unmatched shots, and his focus optional. His compositions routinely lop off actors’ heads and leave objects significant to the scene beyond the frame. Aspiring to absolute realism, von Trier has only succeeded in making a film that irritatingly never lets us forget we’re watching a movie.

The substance of the film is even worse. In von Trier’s mind, 1950’s America is a place of soul-suffocating rigidity, virulent anticommunism, addictive consumerism, and a general hankering to execute the less fortunate. In some quarters, of course, this is considered unvarnished realism.

To make his indictment stick, von Trier recklessly piles one hilarious plot contrivance upon another. Besides her woes at the factory, Selma finds herself at the mercy of her crazed landlord. Bill (David Morse, a fine actor who is wasted here). A policeman, Bill is married to a woman who “spends and spends.” He never says no, however, for fear of losing her. The evidence of her spending, by the way, is nowhere in sight; I can hardly imagine a couple living more plainly. But von Trier is convinced that Americans are capitalist-driven, compulsive consumers, and we simply have to accept his word on it.

To stave off the financially ruinous consequences of his wife’s invisible extravagance. Bill does what any other cop would do: He chooses the most impoverished woman in his precinct, Selma, and steals from her. After all, what other option—legal or illegal—could this strapping, six-foot-plus cop have? When Selma discovers the theft, she confronts Bill and, despite her elfin proportions, manages to kill him in the ensuing tussle. During the trial that follows, the prosecutor seizes on her alien politics. “She said communism is better for human beings,” he hisses to an alarmed jury. Despite von Trier’s loudly avowed artlessness, he cleverly manages to punctuate these scenes with shots of a billowing American flag. How sardonic!

As the noose of Selma’s fate tightens, she retreats ever more frequently into the world of her imagination, which is shaped by her love of musicals. As she explains, nothing can go wrong in a musical. This gives von Trier license to alternate between “real” scenes shot in a drab, sepia tone and Selma’s brightly lit inner vision of a world transformed by music. She can sing and dance to the mechanical rhythms of hissing, clattering factory machines or board freight trains filled with ragged hoboes for a proletarian romp a la Bob Fosse. Shot in glowing, primary-color vibrancy, these sequences would be quite charming if they weren’t infused with the same sickly sentimentality that pervades the rest of the film. During her bizarre dance number following Bill’s death, Bjork sings a song featuring this touching refrain: “The time it takes for a tear to fall is all the time it takes to forgive me.” I can’t agree: This tendentious bathos is unforgivable.

Unlike Dancer in the Dark, Rod Lurie’s The Contender has been beautifully filmed and smoothly edited. Its details, however, reveal an underlying moral ugliness. Watching it, I was reminded of Mary McCarthy’s comment about Lillian Hellman’s elegantly written memoir, Pentimento. Every word, McCarthy alleged, was a lie, including the “ands” and the “ors.” The same could be said of every frame in this film.

Sen. Laine Hanson is the contender whom President Jackson Evans has chosen to replace his recently deceased vice president. (In these roles, Joan Allen mistakes primness for gravitas, while Jeff Bridges seems to think smarm is charm.) No sooner does Evans announce his choice than a compromising photo surfaces. A naked girl resembling the 19-year-old Hanson seems to be servicing several frat boys simultaneously. On principle, Hanson refuses to address the ensuing scandal: People’s sexual lives, she argues, are private and therefore beyond public scrutiny. Only when a benighted congressman suggests the activity in the photo is deviant sex does the progressive senator permit herself to comment. “Who says it’s deviant?” she snaps back. On matters of intimacy, this gal’s a trooper for tolerance.

Well, what’s a president to do? More importantly, what’s his Republican nemesis to do? This is Rep. Shelly Runyon, played by Gary Oldman, who does an uncannily accurate impression of a frustrated iguana. Runyon, the pro-life antifeminist chairing the confirmation hearings, won’t abide a woman vice president. Sides chosen, the film begins. At first, it promises to be a lively debate on current issues, but as the one-sided dialogue kicks in, the audience is left nearly numbed by Lurie’s liberal hubris. John Wayne displayed more evenhanded restraint in The Green Berets.

Of all the telltale details, perhaps Hanson’s visit to her father is the most revealing. Having accepted President Evans’ offer, she wants ex-governor Dad’s support and advice. She arrives at his home with her darling six-year-old son and waits on the sidelines as the old man finishes his tennis workout. Coming off the court, he asks his grandson if he knows how to get topspin on a ball. “The baby Jesus puts it there,” the lad chirps. Visibly shaken by such loathsome superstition. Granddad asks the boy where he heard such “stuff.” It was his teacher, Mrs. Maloney. Turning to his daughter, he growls, “I spent my career trying to strike that nonsense out of schools.” My, my: a career spent stomping on the baby Jesus. Well, he is for choice. But what about the equally baleful Santa and the Easter Bunny? Surely, he should have spent some time stuffing them into the memory hole as well.

Later, we discover that Hanson has carried her father’s torch bravely forward. She is known for her fierce commitment to keeping Church and State hermetically sealed from one another. At the confirmation hearings, the ever-vindictive Runyon quotes her as having once attacked the specter of religion in public life by proclaiming that “We can’t have a fairy tale running this nation.” Unfazed, she responds with Clintonian aplomb. The real issue, she lectures her inquisitor, is one of “tolerance.” She respects all beliefs in their proper place. The sound track swells with violins as she declares her own personal convictions: “I stand for making it a federal crime to sell cigarettes to children. I stand for taking guns out of every house. I stand for a woman’s right to choose.” She concludes, nodding demurely to their surroundings in the Capitol, “I may be an atheist, but my church is this building!” If only Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra were still alive!

In another scene, President Evans chummily takes Hanson for a walk on the grounds of the White House. Since he is smoking a cigar, he graciously offers her one. She obliges his generosity with an experimental puff only to be reduced to a coughing spasm. Evans apologizes with a chuckle. “I should have told you, you don’t inhale them.” He then asks her, with an unctuous smile that’s supposed to be disarming, to tell him the truth about her alleged youthful indulgence in oral gratification. What a charming conflation of President Clinton’s peccadilloes—all patently pardonable, of course.

Hanson really cannot complain about the president’s double entendres and inquiring mind. She may or may not have tried group sex when a coed, but now in her 40’s, she’s a lusty wench indeed, as we discover when we first meet her, sprawled across her desk in her shadowy senate office. A man stands before her, his pants around his ankles and his shirttails aflutter as he, shall we say, enjoys congress with her. Not to worry; the lunk’s her husband. In a movie filled with adoring references to Jack Kennedy, we can be assured that Senator Hanson is merely conducting government with the old JFK vigor. Besides, isn’t it true that to govern well one needs to be as sexually active as possible? As she assures one doubtful congressman, “The one thing you don’t want is a woman with her finger on the button who isn’t getting laid.” (We’re left to assume she means the nuclear button.) If she’s right, then how do we explain Kennedy’s and Johnson’s war in Vietnam or Clinton’s actions toward Kosovo and Iraq? Their vigor in office does not seem to have tempered their button fingers one wit.

Besides being a slick piece of propaganda for the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, this film is a perfect barometer of Hollywood’s political temperament. Everything you ever suspected about the ideological climate of Southern California is here, writ large. If Bill Clinton winds up in Los Angeles working for his film-industry buddies, rest assured that he’ll never be homesick.

I’d love to describe Christopher Guest’s Best in Show in extravagant detail. Were I to do so, however, I’d be trespassing unforgivably on your enjoyment.

This hilarious satire follows the fortunes of five couples who have entered their pampered pooches into a tony dog show. Dog breeders, of course, are a special breed themselves. Guest’s genius, however, is not to mock them for their devotion, but to enlist their eccentricities in order to portray a range of foibles all too common to our general human condition.

The teaming of Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy is especially inspired. O’Hara plays a blowsy woman whose sexual history would shame the Wife of Bath. Levy is her nerdish husband, a man forever doomed to speechless embarrassment by a steady parade of unseemly revelations from his wife’s active past. Vulgar, knockabout farce doesn’t get any better than this.

The film is also remarkable for its complete lack of political correctness. It features a number of hetero-, homo-, and otherwise confused sexuals. No proclivity is spared; only the dogs escape with their dignity intact.

I eagerly await the next Guest appearance.