The inversion—the fog covering the Wasatch Basin—still has not abated after twenty days, and the proclamations of Salt Lake City meteorologists grow sketchier-sounding with each passing week. The latest prediction concerns a snow, a great white downpour that will arrive today and carry on through the weekend and cleanse the sky. I have not seen this snow, and like many Utahns (yes, this is what they call themselves) I have taken to daily morning drives up into the mountains, where land meets sky and sky is restored blue.
Yesterday I saw a politician fish a dead, gray hand from a Colorado lake. I was watching an early cut of the opening scene from Silver City, a work-in-progress directed by John Sayles, the filmmaker I most admire. For most of my adult life I have been ducking into theaters to watch movies, often John Sayles movies, in order to escape from the things that haunt me when I wake.
In my early twenties, I struck up a friendship with a Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, city utilities worker named Tony Wiggins, who introduced me to kung fu movies and FoodTV and beach volleyball and sushi. One of our earliest conversations was about the seldom-spoken thing between a black man and a white man. “If you’re white, you’re racist,” Tony said to me. “Don’t take it personally.” He explained that I was benefiting from historical inequities (true) and that these shadows of the past—slavery, Jim Crow laws, the ongoing de facto segregation of eastern Palm Beach County—combined with my own lackadaisical non-activism made me as culpable as Jefferson Davis for the tiny slights he faced every day.
This second part I didn’t buy, and to his credit, Tony did not let it affect our relationship. We threw poolside cookout parties, double-dated, read the same books, and drove vanloads of teenagers to concerts together. We cultivated a circle of friends, learned the sprinkler dance, lit rum on fire to make bananas Foster.
If Tony believed in God, he believed even more passionately in the Devil. On Tuesday nights, we met with friends at my apartment to discuss spiritual and philosophical things. Tony and I had a running argument. I believed life to be full of ambiguities, gray areas, situations that strained the limits of moral absolutism. To Tony, it was or it wasn’t; you were or you weren’t. “It’s black and white,” he liked to say.
One evening while discussing the early creation narratives, Tony became very angry with me. “You’ve got your blinders on,” he said. “The Garden of Eden is no myth. It’s the truest thing in the world. God makes a good thing, and the Devil comes along and fucks it up. And we let him do it, too.”
In Tony’s thirty-second year, leukemia began to ravage his body. He grew very thin and was forced into longer and longer leaves of absence from the utilities department. Water meters all over the city went unread.
I had moved away by then. About a year before Tony died, he took a bad turn, and I was summoned back to West Palm Beach. My nose had been running. The nurse gave me a blue surgical mask, since Tony had no immune system to speak of, and I scrubbed my hands for fifteen minutes with soap and hot water.
He was alert when I went inside. “Look pretty good for a dying person, don’t I,” he said. “I might have a cold,” I said. “Then get the hell out of the room,” he said. I did.
His condition improved. He moved out of the hospital and rented a new apartment with one of our friends. There was a woman, a nurse who had been caring for him, someone older, with a grown child. He told her he loved her. His leukemia went into remission. They married. The leukemia came back. He grew obsessed with the condition of her soul and of his own.
The preachers on television said that God will heal, if you have enough faith. Tony had more faith than anyone I’ve ever known. He prayed and was prayed for, and then he began to refuse medical treatment. Bitter fights broke out between Tony and his new wife. She wanted him to take the treatment. He said the Devil was speaking through her. She left him.
A couple of months, another summons arrived: Tony will die soon, come quickly.
Sunshine State, written and directed by John Sayles, was playing the same day at the PGA Cinema 6, five miles from the hospital. I paid four-fifty, the matinee price, and ducked inside the darkened theater.
The movie is about Florida—my state—the contradictions of the place, the ways culture is shaped by those with the money to shape it, the dying of old communities, the human interactions between mothers and daughters, and fathers and daughters, and between lovers, new and old.
I sat and watched and knew I should feel guilty for being here instead of there—the hospital, the place where he was dying. But mostly I felt numb, which is why I had come. The movie theater is a place for escaping.
The deathwatch was all relatives until I arrived. Tony looked like pictures I had seen of the malnourished African dead in mass graves, a distinct contour to cheeks and chin, unnaturally round in the wrong places, gums and remaining teeth just slightly too protrusive. I sat with his aunt, and we stared at him. His niece—his favorite, the beloved one—was already grieving. She lay in bed with him, her body draped over his.
He made anguished sounds in his sleep. His eyelids stayed partially open, and his eyes lolled around, oblivious to axis. Once he woke briefly. He saw me; he said my name; he thanked me for visiting. His aunt said they would move him to hospice care later in the day.
I called the hospice the next morning and asked for his room number. “Tony Wiggins,” I said.
A long pause at the other end—too long. “We don’t have a listing,” said the nurse on the other end.
“I’m sure he’s there,” I said. “He was moved last night. Check again.”
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, something of pity in her voice. “I’m sorry.”
“Was he moved again? Is he better? Where is he now?”
I know the answers to these questions before she gives them.
By five o’clock that afternoon, I am sixty miles toward home, driving the Florida Turnpike, listening to a Parliament-Funkadelic mixtape Tony bought me at a convenience store. My cell phone rings. I’m expecting my brother to call, and I answer, flippantly, stupidly: “Dr. Funkenstein here.”
Tony’s niece is on the other line. She is crying. “Tony died early this morning.” Even though I already know this, I say, “He did?” Now I am crying, too. She tells me that Tony wanted me to speak at his funeral.
The church is packed. The right side is full of Tony’s family and friends from his old neighborhood. It is uniformly black. The left side is full of Tony’s friends from church and work. It is uniformly white.
I have prepared notes because I am angry with Tony for refusing treatment, for being so stubborn and self-righteous, and I fear my anger will spill out in front of his family. I get through the first two paragraphs of notes and then I cannot be professional any longer. I ramble through the rest of it, speaking extemporaneously between composure-gathering pauses, and forgetting all the important things, like kung fu movies and FoodTV and sushi and the sprinkler dance and bananas Foster.
One night before he got sick, Tony ate dinner with me at my parents’ house, and afterward he asked why I never ate dinner with his family. “You never asked,” I said. “You don’t have to be asked,” he said. “Just show. The invitation’s always good.” I never did.
In the last few weeks of his life, Tony had given up on healing; I suppose he believed in the Devil stronger than ever. At the funeral, a twelve-year-old girl we both knew asked me why God let Tony die. The question is problematic for me; I have no answer. Maybe the Devil made him do it.
In the tradition of Tony’s community of origin, the grieving will last all day: after the funeral the procession to the cemetery, then the burial service, then the lingering, then family dinners and something like a wake lasting until the early morning hours and possibly into the next day.
Tony’s niece—the beloved one—asks me to join the family, but I cannot. I have reached the limit of my public grieving; the rest I must do alone. On the way home I realize I’ve spurned the last invitation Tony’s family will extend me.
Yesterday in Park City, John Sayles sat in a deep-cushioned chair at the Sundance Lodge, surrounded by the movie posters, and presented a master class on the craft of low-budget filmmaking. He is tall and broad-shouldered and affable and not fashion-conscious, and Tony was none of these things, and yet in my mind the two of them share an identity, both concerned with the same things—the ways that history shapes us and false history warps our conceptions; the flight and decay of rooted community; the political cast to speech that is not self-consciously political; the love of movies—and someone in the audience hijacks the discussion, talking when John Sayles should be talking, and this is something Tony would have done, and across the miles—over two thousand of them between Park City and Palm Beach—I imagine an arc of lightning, a kinetic spark traveling at great velocity, and with it the fear of dying and the sadness of living. Chrystal is screening again a few streets away. I escape from my own thoughts, into the theater.
NOTE: The dispatch below shamelessly reveals the surprise ending of Lars von Trier’s new film, Dogville. If you or your loved ones plan to see this film at some point in the near or distant future—like, if there’s a chance you might rent it one weekend a few years from now, or Netflix it, or whatever—then please, we beseech you, do not under any circumstances allow yourselves to enjoy the dispatch below.]
Today’s topic for discussion: Lars von Trier’s Dogville, the Ugly-Americanism parable-ized therein, and how the audience at the Sundance premiere screening unwittingly reinforced the director’s interpretation of their cultural disposition toward disenfranchised people through an obnoxious display of inappropriate celebration rooted in the impulse toward revenge.
Lars von Trier is the father (along with Thomas Vinterberg) of the Dogme95 movement, whose Copenhagen-manifesto signatories took a ten-article vow of chastity, their intent being to strip film of its artificiality through a set of draconian limitations both physical (no makeup, no costumes, no fancy lighting, no adding sound in post-production) and aesthetic (no superficial violence, no adherence to genre conventions, the director must give up his identity as an artist and serve the moment). Dogville, which premiered to much controversy at Cannes 2003, is decidedly not a Dogme95 film, but rather a new sort of film that leans rather heavily on the conventions of the traditional stage play and consequently achieves a surreal aesthetic that requires the viewer to suspend disbelief more rigorously than a realist film and thereby makes the viewer subconsciously let down his or her guard and become very vulnerable to the hammer-blow narrative twist at the end of the movie.
Dogville is a small, isolated, backward mining town in Colorado, presumably in the twenties. Most of the town is represented by white lines on a black stage, which the camera often observes from above. The houses, for the most part, have only imaginary walls, but the walls are real because the residents cannot see through them, and a sparse, jarring Foley artist provides the sounds of doors opening and closing. Street names and landmarks are stenciled onto the stage. The dog for whom the town is named is also invisible, but we know he is real because we can hear him bark. The mineshaft is represented by three wooden arches, and the bell tower atop the mission sits atop a transparent building. The viewer is expected to fill in the blanks, to imagine the structures that the townspeople accept as a given, and the scheme offers an ongoing, concurrent storytelling track for director and watcher, because the absence of walls allows the audience to see what is happening behind the walls and closed doors of houses not involved in the primary narrative thread.
The sound of gunfire is heard in the distance, and Grace (Nicole Kidman) flees into Dogville, pursued by gangsters who offer Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany) a reward for her capture. Tom has hidden Grace in the mineshaft. He becomes infatuated with her and asks her to stay in the shelter of the town. But the townspeople are not so sure—gangsters could follow Grace and cause great harm to the town. They meet at the mission to determine Grace’s fate and decide that she can stay if, as compensation for their trouble, she agrees to provide each family with daily help with chores. One afternoon a policeman arrives from the big city and nails a missing-person poster to the wall of the mission. Grace’s presence becomes immediately more dangerous to Dogville, and so the townspeople decide she should work harder to compensate them for their increased risk. But the more work Grace does, the more Dogville begins to despise her, and she becomes the object of their decadent hidden vices—violent rapes, masochistic labor demands, verbal abuse—and all of this escalates when the policeman returns again, this time with a wanted poster for crimes that Grace could not possibly have committed. Tom offers to help Grace escape hidden among a truckload of apples, but both Tom and the truck driver double-cross her, and she is returned to town and shackled by a dog collar and chain to a heavy iron wheel, which she must drag around behind her as she performs her chores. The rapes intensify and gradually become socially acceptable—Grace has ceased to be human in the eyes of Dogville. And through it all, she maintains a placid acceptance in the midst of her pain, holding in reserve the notion that at least the people of Dogville are less decadent than the gangsters from whom she fled.
And then the narrative takes a shocking turn. Tom calls the gangsters and tells them where they can find Grace; he is angry because by now he and Grace have pledged their love for each other, and yet she will not willingly make love to him until they can do so in freedom. The gangsters arrive, and they remove Grace’s chains and take her to the head gangster—this is a funny but distracting casting decision—James Caan, and we learn that Grace is really the heir to the gangster power, and that she has rejected the power because she has grown up in the ashes of its abuse. She and her father debate the ethics of power-wielding, and at the outset of the conversation, Grace continues in her idealism, defending the residents of Dogville. But her father forces her to reflect upon what has been done to her, and she decides that the residents of Dogville are at least as evil as the gangsters. She asks her father to give her his power, and he agrees, and she instructs his men to raze the town, to shoot children in front of their mothers while the mothers are forced to watch, to let no one live except the dog, and when the job is almost done, Grace steps from her father’s car, takes a gun into her hands, and executes Tom Edison Jr. last. The film’s final image, before the credits, is the dog, whom we see for the first time outside the eye of imagination, and the dog is rabid and angry and left behind with the memories of what he has seen.
Lars von Trier seems to be commenting on American cultural attitudes toward what Americans have often considered primitive cultures, both at home and abroad. The town of Dogville could easily be an enclave of newly freed black slaves, or a Cherokee tribe, or Afghanistan in the last days of the Taliban. The gangsters are the American establishment, and Grace the liberal daughter of that establishment, born with a native idealism that slowly fades into the pragmatic. With this parable, von Trier has indicted his American target audience—_Dogville_ is entirely in English, unlike many of von Trier’s other filmsæand the response elicited in me a wash of complicated emotions, all rooted in the sadness of a truthæa weakness, an arrogance of power—that a European director had exposed about my people.
But the American audience in the Eccles Theater proved the director’s point in a way he might not have intended. They identified strongly with Grace, and when Grace commanded the gangsters to burn the place down and kill everyone—to commit genocide in the name of justice—the crowd burst into grateful applause. They seemed to be saying, en masse, this is how the world’s intractable problems should be solved, at the point of a gun, with the raining-down of fire upon the heathen masses who threaten our way of life, with the understanding that sometimes the only avenue to justice might be something that in other circumstances would be called disproportionate retaliation, revenge, the wrath of the gods meted out without apology, because he who is strongest is right.
I wanted Jorgen Leth, the Danish filmmaker who had introduced the film on von Trier’s behalf, to stand and chastise the assembled, but then the credits rolled, and von Trier had embedded within them a series of American photographs—stills from the Great Depression, Richard Nixon, urban ghettos—as if to make a final case, as if to eliminate any confusion about the moral direction of his parable. Leth did not make an appearance at all; leave them to their ignorance, he must have thought. And this at Sundance, the most film-literate gathering in American cinema.
As I was leaving Eccles, my black soft-sided briefcase, which weighs about thirty pounds with my laptop and recording equipment inside, caught on a door, and since I was carrying it by shoulder-strap, my whole body was pulled backward, and with the force of the crowd behind me I could not get loose. The bus to Main Street was at the curb, and a man behind me became impatient to pass, and he pushed me down—I couldn’t go all the way to the ground because the strap had bound me to the door—and called me “Dickweed” as he passed; and I felt embarrassed, I felt weak and ashamed, and not just for myself.