Jon Stewart made an acute observation on The Daily Show the
other day. He noted that the Greek fiscal crisis is threatening to cause the
collapse of civilization - which they invented. That would be the ultimate irony
- which they also invented.
Jon didn't mention that the when the Greeks were
constructing the arts and sciences of the civilized world, they also invented both
ridiculous plot twists and self-conscious artiness. At least I think they did.
As far as I know, the cavemen only painted representational drawings, and left
abstract expressionism to future generations. And I don't think Hammurabi
slipped any obscure references into his famous Code. It was pretty
straightforward stuff, like "Kill your brother's wife? You owe him four goats."
OK, maybe the Israelites snuck some affectation in there with the Song of Songs,
but in general the Athenians held a virtual monopoly on pretentiousness in the
It is only fitting, therefore, that a Greek film named Dogtooth won
the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes in 2009. If you never heard of that, it is
a special award given to decidedly non-commercial films which are innovative and
daring, in the hope that the publicity from the award and a small monetary grant
will help them to achieve distribution. In plain language, they give an award to
the most artsy-fartsy film they can find, the kind of film that makes David
Lynch and Lars von Trier seem pedestrian. And if you think for a minute about
the kinds of films that are NOT considered artsy-fartsy at Cannes, you'll
realize that this film is pretty far out there. It reminds me of the homemade
underground films that screened in the Village in the late 60s and early 70s.
Dogtooth is, in essence, a film which shows the logical
extension of "home schooling," if that concept were to be carried ad absurdum.
Two parents have, for reasons which are never explained, decided to imprison
their children in a walled estate and to fill their heads with misinformation. The
children are given improper definitions of words. When a plane flies overhead,
the mother throws a toy plane in the garden and the father says "Look, it fell
from the sky!" There are no phones, computers, televisions or radios, so the
children have no concept of real life beyond their walls. The father even
removes all of the brand names from their groceries before he brings them home.
Although the children now appear to be healthy young adults in their late teens
or early twenties, they are still as naive as pre-schoolers, and what little
they know is wrong. The son and two daughters don't even have names.
The snake in this false Garden of Eden is sex. The father
decides that his grown son needs to sate his manly urges, so he hires a local
girl to provide some release. The introduction of an outsider to the sequestered
estate ends up corrupting the children. The outsider introduces the sisters to
lesbian sex, and gives one of them some video tapes of classic popular movies,
like Rocky. The exposure to the outside world causes the elder sister to want
freedom, and ...
And the rest is for you to find out.
Dogtooth is different from most avant-garde fare in that the
author actually tried to think through the consequences of his premise. While
the idea behind the film is absurd, and some of the parents' machinations create
dialogue which would not be out of place in an Ionesco play, the film is
perfectly logical if you accept the premise. The author tries to create an
environment in which such a situation could really occur, and tries to determine
what effects such an ambiance would have on the children. It's not easy to bring such
a story into the real world. Most such stories take a science fiction turn
somewhere along the way, but this one never does. The characters are bound to
behave as people would in our world. The children could easily escape, for
example, just by walking out of the exit where their father drives to work every
day. The parents have to create reasons why they should not. Rather than taking
the usual avant-garde approach of "you just have to accept it," this script
genuinely tries to reason out how it could actually be done, and that air of
plausibility makes everything much scarier because we realize that people might
actually be doing this, or something very similar.
To prevent escape, the parents convince their children that
the housecats seen beyond their gates are fearsome predators, and it is only
safe to leave by automobile. Their older brother (who, we presume, is imaginary)
tried to escape, and was torn to shreds by the cats. There's a hilarious scene
where the father has to drive the car five feet outside the gates to retrieve a
toy plane, because the only thing which keeps the children from running into the
street is the notion that death awaits anyone who crosses their property line
without a car. While the children observe him, the father must seem to be
convinced of that fiction, even though he himself knows it to be false. Why are
the children not allowed to leave by automobile? The parents create some
pseudo-religious dogma that says a person may not leave until one canine tooth
falls out, hence the film's name.
I'm not sure what the author was really trying to say with all
of this, but I found it both entertaining and thought-provoking, and even quite
funny from time to time. Think for a second about the expansion of home
schooling in the United States. I wonder how many of those parents are doing a
more subtle version of what we see in this film, telling their kids, for
example, that modern science is false and that the world was created in 4004
B.C., exactly as described in Genesis. Think of the cloistered religious schools
in the Moslem world where the only education consists of the Koran. It that very
different from the idea that the tiny images of planes in the sky are actually
toys a few feet in the air? The conclusion I drew from the film is that all
ideas need to be countered and rebutted in a free market of thought, and that
the only surviving ones will be those which are not easily contradicted. While
the modern world may well be full of evil and deception, it is up to each
of us to learn to use our own brains to discard the lies and subversions, even
when the truth may be more painful than the pretty falsehoods our parents might
prefer us to believe.
Although this film is amateurish in many ways, and will never receive much
distribution because of all the nudity, including brief glimpses of erections,
I rather liked it - and I am not one to be patient with arty films.