Inertia Creeps
Dogville, a donkey, and downtime

I've noticed this blog's becoming less formal by the week. I thought being out of work would give me lots of extra time to beef it up, but that obviously hasn't happened. Instead of writing more, I seem to be staying up until 3 AM, working on mix CDs, watching movies, and reading Jonathan Lethem's mammoth tome, The Fortress of Solitude, which I finished yesterday.

All the reviews I've read have highlighted its ambition, scope, and far-reaching brilliance, yet every single one of them also say it's flawed in some way. People, there's no such thing as a perfect novel. The closest I can think of is Michael Cunningham's The Hours, for its concise structure and careful language. Every word in that book is essential, and as particular phrases echo and bounce off one another, you get a sense you're examining a tapestry in perfect balance. Lethem's novel isn't nearly that economical, going off on tangents that have varied returns. But the deeply personal story it tells has one glistening thread running throughout, linked by music, culture, race, neighborhood, and dreams.

If this period is a vacation of 10 AM wake-up calls and 11 AM smoothies, mid-afternoon matinees and late night viewings of ancient, videotaped Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes, the best thing I've done with this time is to take lots of walks

This past Easter Sunday, between watching Unlucky Monkey at the Brattle's Eye-Opener series and making a pasta salad for dinner with friends, I walked through Brookline Hills, without a map and only my sense of direction. I traversed up the hill on Summit Ave. then made my way down all the little, nearly hidden paths, the ones that don't appear on a standard city map. I listened to Sufjan Stevens' Michigan, an ingenuous song cycle that's growing on me more than his great new album, Seven Swans, which I reviewed for Splendid last month. I cherished that feeling of not entirely knowing where each road would lead me. I used to do that a lot when I first moved here. It's liberating to anticipate where your instincts take you, and then see where you end up.

Today, I ended up at the Arnold Arboretum around 5:30 PM. I made my way to the very top of the first hill, not the one with views of Boston's skyline, but the other, slightly smaller one with the view of Blue Hill Reservation. For five minutes, I had that space entirely to myself, listening to Stevie Wonder's sublime "Summer Soft" (from Songs in the Key of Life). I stood in awe of the beauty and silence of those moments. I long for them, because they're rare and tend to appear without expectation.


And then, there's Dogville.

I want to review this film without giving much away. It'll have a much stronger impace if you know very little about it. I can sum up the plot by saying it's a Depression-era fable about a woman who seeks refuge and protection in a small town. She wants to blend in and, more importantly, belong. Although these sound like rational, achievable concepts, director Lars Von Trier bathes and scrutinizes them for the complexities and consequences they contain.

While watching this three-hour passion play (which I can honestly say is like nothing else, even unlike anything else Von Trier has done), I kept thinking this was a movie about cruelty and punishment, selfishness and greed, power and family. Afterwards, someone said it was a film about revenge, and I suppose it was. But, having three days to mull over its implications and surprising, cathartic, ironic ending, I've concluded that to say the film is about a single concept and leave it at that, is to simplify the volumes it speaks about utilitarianism and human nature in general.

Maybe it's saying these things specifically about America; maybe it has religious implications that leave you wondering where Von Trier stands.

Either way, it's a film that gets under your skin and makes you squirm. It leaves everything out in the open for everyone to see, and makes a point at examining what people choose to see and choose to ignore. It continues that downward spiral of victimized women Von Trier's perversely fond of (Breaking The Waves, Dancer In the Dark), but turns it on its head in the very last minutes, giving us and, more importantly, his characters a sense of self-awareness that the earlier films lacked. You will either love it or hate it, and it may take you days, even weeks to come to a final stance. The entire cast is superb. The director is infuriating, but he's pushing himself and the medium to new levels of conceptual and emotional achievement.

It's the movie everyone should be seeing instead of The Passion of The Christ.


I also got the rare chance to see Robert Bresson's Au Hazard Balthazar (1966), which was playing at the Kendall for a week. Occasionally labelled his masterwork and unavailable on video/DVD, this is another fable, following a donkey in a rural village as he gets shlepped from one owner to another. This has all the Bresson hallmarks: nonprofessional actors, a 360 degree moral compass, amazing cinematography, meditative/deathly pace. I wonder if the Coen Brothers were influenced by this film's use of piano sonatas on the soundtrack for their own The Man Who Wasn't There? Probably not, but I'd like to believe it.

While watching this one-of-a-kind tale, I also thought it was a film about cruelty, the characters' morality mirrored in their treatment of the donkey. I later found out that the film actually revolves around the Seven Deadly Sins, which I didn't pick up on at the time. To me, Bresson seems most fascinated by the choices his characters make and their consequences, which makes it sort of a companion piece to Dogville. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Von Trier has seen and studied all of Bresson's work, although I couldn't imagine what the latter would make of the former (though he might've liked the Dogme movement.)


One last thing: go rent My Life As A Dog. Right now. Best pre-teen coming of age film ever. Enthusiastically endorsed by Kurt Vonnegut. What more do you want?