Anarchy in Cinema: The Idiots and Miike

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Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg.

Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg.

Just as there are regulated and unregulated systems of commerce and politics, the possibilities of systems in cinema follow the same principles. This may manifest in the forms of artistic movements and ideologies and it seems that every five years a new one emerges. In regards to conceptual artistic anarchy in film, there truly are only a handful of movements and filmmakers that propagate the ideas of what may be considered Anarchic Cinema, some already covered in cursory terms are notably Nick Zedd, Andy Warhol, and the arena of Transgressive Cinema, which will be returned to as the debate progresses. However, whereas completely unregulated and undefined cinematic anarchy was manifested in the mold of Transgressive Cinema, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 is an investigation to discover the same principles, but through extraordinary control and regulation. Herein lies the conflict.

Now, since Dogme 95 is extremely controlled and slated, how can an anarchic attitude exist? This lies more on the filmmakers of the movement rather than the ideals of Dogme 95 (which the creators have long since abandoned). Dogme 95 is an emphasis on traditional values of story, acting and theme, excluding special effects or heavy use of technology. The Vow of Chastity compounded this minimalist style that all films part of the Dogme ideal had to follow. This was a set of ten rules ranging from that optical work and filters are forbidden to the director must not be credited. All of this emphasis placed on minimalist stylization and restrictive components gave the filmmakers unique boundaries to create something brand new.

Though the movement as a whole has been declared dead since 2005 in time to the release of Juan Pinzás’ El desenlace, Dogme 95 currently sports 254 films. It began with Vinterberg’s The Celebration and von Trier’s The Idiots in 1998 and new additions have been continually added as recent as 2008 (Peter Neil’s Barbiere, IL). Due to its accessibility and the interest by filmmakers wanting recognition without being dependent on Hollywood-style budgets, Dogme 95 flourished as an independent movement in the then-present stranglehold of the independent reinvigoration by Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and the Coen Brothers.

Though it would be safe to assume that creators von Trier and Vinterberg would disagree with this interpretation, there are several aspects of Dogme 95 that heavily support basis for Anarchic Cinema.

Now, though some criticisms of Dogme 95 have been quite vicious, as of any movement, one of the more interesting critiques comes from Remodernist Cinema, a more recent filmmaking movement driven by Peter Rinaldi and Jesse Richards. Stated in the Remodernist Film Manifesto in 2008, Dogme 95 is “pretentious” and relatively unnecessary, as well as declaring remodernist film a calling for “new spirituality in cinema…stripped down, minimal, lyrical, punk kind of filmmaking”.

Though this is not a commentary on Remodernist Cinema, all the movement appears to be is a modern attempt at a revitalization of No Wave Cinema, more of the vein of Jim Jarmusch and Amos Poe (Poe is sited as being either supportive of or part of remodernism), rather than Nick Zedd and Richard Kern in Transgressive Cinema from which Dogme 95 evolved. Dogme, according to von Trier, “in a business of extremely high budgets, we figured we should balance the dynamic as much as possible.” Though strongly caste, it was the exploration of new ideas and film language from an entirely new direction. Transgressive Cinema was so short-lived due to its unstable and unsustainable style and impact. It was too extreme with their intention to use, abuse and shock their audience. It was not like the Grindhouse exploitation flicks of the 70s, which one commentator likened to an attempt at pornography. Dogme was founded with a desire to shock the audience, but through a higher connectivity to the human condition rather than the bombastic craziness that confronted the audiences of No Wave.

No Wave director Amos Poe's "The Blank Generation"

No Wave director Amos Poe’s “The Blank Generation”

This can suggest the films of Dogme are even closer to exploring the boundaries of the human psyche, creativity and sociopolitical climates of their age than that of Trangressive Cinema. Dogme 95 is something that can be called naturalistic nihilism. Naturalism is a perspective embracing the conception that nothing exists beyond the natural universe or, if it does, it does not affect the natural universe. And when reviewing the Vow of Chastity, it follows this idea very specifically. There is an almost dogmatic concentration on the story and the performances to engage audiences, rather than potentially alienating or distracting by overproduction. Props could not be used if they were not already on set, no light could be manipulated, and only diegetic sound could be used. All of the restrictions support the idea Dogme was less the exploration of what minimalist filmmaking could provide with no boundaries and became more of an obsessive pursuit of it, very much in the vein of the French New Wave, which of course was one of the primary influences on independent, counterculture and then mainstream filmmaking the world over since the 1950s.

During the period in which Dogme was beginning to interest audiences and No Wave was dying out was also the birth of a unique film market in Japan, V-Cinema. These are primarily movies made in Japan that are released directly to video. When distributing anime, the moniker Original Video Animation or OVA is used. The industry has been alive since the 1980s, sporting filmmakers such as Takashi Shimizu, director of The Grudge and the criminally overlooked Marebito. Now, when the end products comes from an established industry, how does it tie in with such avant-garde movements as Warhol, Transgressive and Dogme?

Unlike the VHS boom in the United States and subsequently Europe in the 1980s, which was primarily populated at first by pornography and Z-Grade shlock video-cinema from directors such as Mark Pirro and Andreas Schnaas, V-Cinema affords creative freedom, less stringent censorship, and the ability to publish riskier content to filmmakers. Though initially this gave birth to films such as the Guinea Pig series that mimicked the No Wave shock films and notorious exploitation films (like Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave and Roger Watkins’ The Last House on Dead End Street), it wasn’t really till the emergence of probably its most popular filmmaker in the West, Takashi Miike that the idea of anarchy in cinema came from an entirely new direction.

Warhol Film was relaxed passive nihilism. Transgressive Cinema was undeterred aggressive nihilism. Dogme 95 was overly structured naturalistic nihilism. Miike took it in another direction, industrial nihilism. He is of the belief that directing and creating films as a whole is not an art form. It is not something that should be appreciated more than any other job. That is what he brought to the table; the belief in that the artistic expression that had been so vibrant in most film movements up till that point was invalid and that filmmaking was no different than any other job.

Takashi Miike

Takashi Miike

Personally, this is a highly conflicted stance on filmmaking. Though Miike is clearly one of the most prominent and talented filmmakers from Japan still working today (his most recent film was the 2012 thriller Lesson of the Evil), his philosophy on the craft of making films goes beyond what any other filmmaker has propagated before. He directs at least two films a year and sometimes as many as eight, and maintains the same quality of work and attention to detail as any auteur from New Wave and New Hollywood. However, does this really further explore anarchy? Yes.

Anarchy, to reiterate and paraphrase is the absence of rulers and the focus is on individualized self-governance. In cinema this can take the form of projected nihilism on screen, thus reaching the intent of the filmmaker to affect the audience by that stance. This takes the same idea, but rather than being a cinematic device used to express thought, dissent or just to explore the medium, it is adherent to the artist themselves. Dogme tried to express this with the forbidding of directorial credit, but many filmmakers either bent or would break this rule quite liberally during the movement’s existence. This is due to the attitude really embraced in the beginnings of the 20th century that the artist was more of the focus rather than the art. Many people have heard of Jackson Pollack or Andy Warhol, but actually having seen the full collection of their known work is not something that many more pursue. It is because the people were being promoted than the art they produced.

In the latter half of the 20th Century, it became much more the age of the critic, where critical interpretation and endorsement from an alternative community that had access to publishing and syndication became crucial for a film to survive and/or make money. So though the work was more heavily scrutinized, as well as artists’ ability to express emotional connectivity with their audiences and their as technical expertise.

Takashi Miike's "Ichi the Killer"

Takashi Miike’s “Ichi the Killer”

Miike introduces an element that goes beyond a basic anti-critic attitude that you may hear throughout indie rock, punk rock and rap, as well from filmmakers such as von Trier (recollecting his Melancholia Cannes press incident). Miike is someone who actually takes an apparent stance as anti-artistic when approaching all aspects of filmmaking, including the critical community. This is industrial nihilism. Where the entirety of filmmaking, from concept, to production, to distribution and all those people and companies who aid the process, is equivalent to working the 9-to-5 grind. This attitude is very hard to interpret because many people have this attitude when approaching filmmaking, and mostly from those who make lazy films.

Lazy films are movies made only to cash in; and in the most honest of perspectives, lazy films are the hallmark of truly bad artists. It is quite true that art is in the eye of the beholder; art is so subjective that opinions fly all over the spectrum. There are plenty of films, paintings, novels that people love and consider completely genuine and strong art that others’ personal tastes may differ. On the other hand, lazy artists are truly people are only involved in art because the have no other place to go or belong. And this is not to say that they are antisocial people, or renegades and mavericks that we cannot classify them as one thing or the other; they have not been able to identify themselves. This is not Miike’s stance, though he has said that he originally had not sought a career in filmmaking, wanting to race motorbikes.

Harmony Korine's Dogme entry, "Julien Donkey-Boy"

Harmony Korine’s Dogme entry, “Julien Donkey-Boy”

The difference between lazy filmmakers who really are either lapsed artists or those without much other place to go, and Miike is that Miike possesses the drive, talent and intelligence to be on the equivalent of great Japanese cinematic masters such as Yasujirō Ozu and Tetsuya Nakashima. However, his personal ideas on cinema express the very central idea of artistic anarchy in film, that there are no rules or rulers. Though personal prejudices consider filmmaking one of the most elaborate and collaborative artistic experiences anyone can be part (whether a maker or a spectator), Miike embraces artistic anarchy to the absolute extreme.

To explain, the movements discussed already were fundamentally exploring moral nihilism on screen, whereas Miike crosses the threshold and embraces a form of existential nihilism in cinema, turning the perspective on the actual act of making films. This brought down any possible prejudices Miike had for directing, so the range of his work ranges from V-Cinema action and horror films to big-budget mainstream successes such as the horror film One Missed Call and the children’s fantasy film The Great Yokai War. This is complete derestriction of the mind when approaching filmmaking. Where Dogme 95 attempted extreme control over the production aspects and Transgressive Cinema was all about chaotic expression in final product and production, they were never able to fully embrace anarchic artistry personally.

Now, has Miike done this? Yes and no. As stated, he has taken a stance towards filmmaking with the skills and clout to back it up, however, he is not able to take the same aspects the he has embraced personally and apply them to screen. None of the work Miike has done could really be called expressively or artistically nihilistic (thus part-anarchic in nature), especially compared to Dogme films such as Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy or Richard Kern’s transgressive feature Fingered. This then demonstrated a very crucial point to understanding in expressing anarchy rather than simply not caring what is put on film and in what way, because lazy filmmakers are not anarchic filmmakers.

Transgressive Cinema, Dogme 95, Takashi Miike and V-Cinema all are elements that construct the overall concept of Anarchic Cinema, however there is one primary influence from the literature world, that without there could not exist an idea of artistic anarchy in modern Western cinema: William S. Burroughs and the Beats.

To be continued… (Anarchy in Cinema: Part Three – The Beats: Burroughs and the Bunker)

Written by Matthew Roe