Pro & Anti: The Alamo, Dogville
By Fernando F. Croce

Movies and history make uneasy bedfellows -- viewers expect the former to be snappy, rousing and neatly wrapped up in no more than two hours, while the latter tends to be messy, draggy and stubbornly uncinematic. If drama really is life with the boring bits left out, then whenever studios come around mining history books for new material (which is often), the past must be spruced up and dumbed down to keep audiences from squirming in their seats. Thus, yesterday's national tragedy is today's Ben Affleck blockbuster.

So it goes with the Alamo, and with The Alamo. The best thing that can be said about Disney's overpriced, lethargically epic retelling of the legendary 1836 siege is that it's less rabidly myopic than the 1960 John Wayne version. To be fair, there are aborted attempts throughout the film to suggest ambivalence toward the mythical past: Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) here is less a buckskin messiah than a genial good ol' boy weighted down by the sheath of he-man legend and memories of carnage, and the Mexican army is shown not as unwashed barbarians but as skilled soldiers dutifully following the orders of Santa Ana (Emilio Echevarrķa, all sharkish grins and preening conquistador regalia).

Then again it's hard to expect a consistent analysis of the past -- the kind found in the works of Ford and Rossellini, or even in John Frankenheimer's later cable films -- from a big-budget release that has "Stand your ground" as ad copy. Whatever nicks of revisionism were to be found in John Sayles' original script have been ironed out by countless rewrites and by director John Lee Hancock's leaden, Ron Howardish solemnity (complete with doomed characters silhouetted against the sky). Thornton limbers his role out with hints of complexity and some humor; Dennis Quaid (as a scowling Sam Houston), Jason Patrick (whiny Jim Bowie), and Patrick Wilson (twerpy Colonel Travis) have less success breathing life into their waxworks.

In the end, The Alamo wants to have it both ways, by giving lip service about how legend can cloud history while kissing up to audiences' bloodlust with the "Remember the Alamo!" war cry and ensuing carnage. As somebody not particularly impressed with the pride of dying for a piece of land, I was far more interested in the details the picture leaves out, such as what American forces were doing in Mexican territory in the first place. No film exists in a vacuum, and I have the insidious feeling that The Alamo, with all its heroes bravely embracing death in a foreign land, wants Americans to accept, without thinking, the nobility of fighting -- especially if it takes place in, say, Iraq.

At the other end of the spectrum, both ideologically and stylistically, Lars Von Trier's Dogville has been plugging away at its own little lessons. As hardcore art-house as The Alamo is populist popcorn, Dogville is just as much of a fantasy, only here the film's goal is to piss viewers off rather than warm their patriotic hearts. The imaginary eponymous town, a miserable Colorado hamlet during the Depression, sets the (literal) stage for the story, as Nicole Kidman's desperate rich girl on the lam from mobsters is reluctantly accepted into the community by the hard-toiling, unsmiling townspeople.

Offering herself as an all-purpose helper, Kidman trades in her minx coat for the Dust Bowler's babushka and finds the makings of happiness, including a tentative romance with Dogville's self-appointed spokesperson, Paul Bettany. It's not long before the townsfolk start showing off their worst colors, and their "openness and acceptance" melt into sadistic scorn -- by the time the mobsters at last materialize, Kidman has been chained to her bed, raped by practically every man in town. The burg is a dark stage decorated, Brecht style, only with chalk outlines (marking "Elm St.," "gooseberry bushes," "dog," etc.), where the large cast (including James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Gazarra, and Lauren Bacall) mimics opening doors and exercises puritanical malice. All this allegorical severity, shot on digital video (d'oh!) for three full hours, has since its Cannes premiere last year snowballed a reputation as the ultimate middle finger to the U.S. -- Von Trier's vision of America the Ugly.

Although he is no stranger to high-concept provocation (Dancer in the Dark, the whole Dogma 95 debacle), Von Trier's so-called anti-Americanism has no sting. (After all, cowardice and cruelty were hardly American monopolies last time I checked.) Despite its technical minimalism, however, the plot is so filled with grandiose intimations that everything from venomous Our Town satire to post-9/11 hysteria to Biblical Armageddon could be read into it. By turns beautiful, boring, audacious and pile-driver heavy, Dogville sheds no light into the walking paradox that is Von Trier. The Danish director (Zentropa, Breaking the Waves) has always struck me as a rather petty talent trying to will himself into the role of the great artist -- his technique is never less than bludgeoning, his ironies are smirky, and his insights into human nature (mainly dealing with endlessly abused naļfs) are paltry. And yet his desire to be the new millennium's Dreyer and Bergman, coupled with the endless moxie of a con man, make him a fascinating figure. His disagreeable experimentation in Dogville is still more edifying than all the golden sunsets and "noble" fighting of The Alamo.

Originally published in The Spartan Daily on April 27, 2004.


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