Sunday, January 2, 2011


With regard to categorization, Dogtooth seems to be taken self-evidently as black humor. When the film is categorized as sci-fi, however, it strikes me as odd. The most defining feature of the story is its divergent sociological approach; were this on the scale of a settlement we could perhaps call it a dystopia, but it really boils down to the fiction of the dysfunctional family. These situations can and do occur in reality take no technology to realize. Their effectiveness is perhaps enhanced by the unwitting or unwilling nature of neighbors, but I can’t say whether this behavior has changed or remained constant. I do know that physical punishment is taboo in America these days where it was once acceptable even for teachers, so no change can be taken outside of context. While this soothes parents’ minds over the wellbeing of their own children in public, it may also influence their own indifference to or assumption of the wellbeing of others’ kids in private. What I do know is that I found the scenes of behavior depicted in the film to be jarring and unexpected, and perhaps none more so than those of parental violence, made all the more jarring by their Dantean relevance. I think these are the two most intriguing aspects of the film: the film’s depiction of ‘innovative’ parenting and the film’s contrasting uses of violence.

The film opens with the kids learning nonsensical definitions to words that will prove uncommon to those forever confined to a backyard, like ‘sea’. What this really does, for those who weren’t already aware, is establish that there is something seriously wrong with the parents. When describing the film’s opening in retrospect it seems far more bizarre than it felt on first appearance: three adult kids are taught false definitions of words and provided with a prostitute. I swear, it seemed so normal at the time! At any rate, I think the content of the opening, despite the cinematography and performances’ complete and unwavering restraint, establishes the absurdity of the situation with room to spare. For me, the comedic consequence of this restraint is the greatly accentuated humor of later situations such as the collective barking, a scene which would not be bizarre in a world populated by the bizarre instead of by ordinary blue barrels, barren concrete slabs, and unobtrusive coworkers. The implications of the opening scenes clearly delineates this film from many others in the cinema of dysfunctional families, like the Japanese Nobody Knows, but I find it odd how much these two films share despite having diametrically opposed tones. They oddly both share similarly unexaggerated camerawork and performances, but their effects are completely opposite. Both films find no difficulty in locating actual instances of the fictional behavior in reality, but they represent the opposite ends of parental influence. The presence and behavior of the parents doesn’t seem to be the reagent which causes the black comedy to arise, though, and while the kids’ age may help, I think the gravity of the situations is the key. The events of Dogtooth are so bizarre, the parenting so blatantly terrible, that the events bypass tragedy entirely and proceed unfettered into the realm of black comedy. If I were to imply that Nobody Knows is simply a higher, more purified realm of black comedy which savagely satirizes selfishness then I would perhaps be called a witch, so I will refrain. But the hint is there. As for Dogtooth, there are other elements of its construction which I think are crucial to the heights of its comedy. We see the parents struggle to incorporate new words into the kids’ lexicon, and this provides the seeds to which we can understand how the accumulation of these slight aberrations results in the fully realized nonsense of their current family structure. That the film is set deep into the process allows for the great disconnect between expectations of a family unit and this one’s reality, and consequently the increased gravity. A prequel to this film would surely be redundant and less distinct. By the time of the film the family’s odd customs have fully matured, and with it the consequences and level of humor. What I find most interesting about the depiction of parenting are the remnants of good parenting buried in amongst their overgrown parenting wisdom, remnants accentuated by the aforementioned stylistic and contextual choices. The parents have the laudable impulse to protect their kids’ fragile minds from the unfiltered excesses of the adult world. They stress the importance of spending time as a family and often combine this with exercise and learning useful skills. Where the description of the opening sounded unavoidably like the worst parenting imaginable, these elements seem completely sensible and even result in what is perhaps the most fascinating thing of all: The impulse to protect their kids from the outside world and to emphasize the importance of family time morphs the television, typically the portal to the outside world, into a device with which they are able to reflect on themselves as a family. This creates perhaps the most bizarre element of the entire film: that the audience and the family are both observing the family on a screen, but the family seems to see nothing wrong with what is shown. And it’s probably not as funny for them. They obviously need some structure to their film. To me, the contrast between the foundation of good parenting principles and the framework of astoundingly awful parental strategies perfectly complements the contrast between the 'straight' style and the 'crooked' behavior. The result: pure black comedy.

There are a multitude of relatively subtle psychological manipulations which take place within the household of the film, and the culmination of them certainly amounts to something beyond eccentric. What are far less subtle are the explosions of violence that occur throughout the film, and I find their contextualization to be particularly fascinating. The parent’s attempts to insulate the kids from exterior influences results in the expected physical altercations that need not be taught, and so we see the kids physically fighting over a toy plane that is oddly enough the parents’ false reproduction of what would have been a fiercely violent collision. Another manifestation of these power struggles occurs when one of the girls blackmails the prostitute. In these ways we see the typical manifestations of human behavior from the kids, but, for whatever reason, these events escalate far beyond the boundaries of expected behavior. Following the initial physical struggle, one of the girls takes a large knife from the kitchen and slices a large gash into the male victor’s arm. The impetus for the attack is clear, but not the degree. There is a later repeat of the incident at night involving a more blunt object. All of these confrontations revolve purely around selfish impulses, either for personal gain or out of a desire for vengeance. If there is any punishment for these acts in the film I cannot recall it. Where the parenting finally comes in, and harshly, is in the aforementioned Dantean retribution for acquiring films from outside, violating the sanctity of the household’s media insularity. The degree to which the father’s punishment is selfishly motivated will depend on discussions of the selflessness of his parental choices, the necessity of retributive justice, and the degree of punishment inflicted, but we can establish two things, given the context: Firstly, the punishment certainly works as a deterrent in its relationship to maintaining the established insularity of the household. Secondly, the assault on the prostitute in her own home with a similarly Dantean implement combined with her discontinued service can only imply that the act and the symbolism of the instrument are not purely for deterrence, and indeed are retributive. Were this scene not present it would be ambiguous as to whether retribution was involved in the father's punishment of the daughter and thus it would have been ambiguous whether the parents’ actions would provide an example for the seemingly grossly excessive retributive acts of their children in similar circumstances. The presence of the scene of violence against the prostitute certainly establishes a more sinister side of the parental structure, and this makes the self-inflicted violence later in the film all the more understandable. Given the absurdity of the family structure, this final act of violence may be the only selfless instance: she thinks it will provide for her ability to escape and yet she does not inflict retribution against her parents or adversely affect her siblings, but the necessity of the violence is rooted in the parents' psychological manipulation. Thus, the film charts the progression from peace to petty violence to retributive violence and finally to self-inflicted violence, the only apparent escape from the downward cycle of violence. Perhaps the purest moment of black comedy is when the film ends with its unusual ‘hero’ trapped in the confines of situational irony - and a trunk – and yet it all seems so inevitable. And yet, despite the comedy and its blackness, the characters' actions are, however contorted, rooted in sensible psychological soil which I cannot shake off as 'merely comedy' and am completely terrified of due to the nature of the behaviors. I have no grand conclusion to make about the film, and perhaps as a result of this I will continue to talk about it for the foreseeable future.

1 comment:

  1. I was personally homeschooled, and the scary part about this movie, I find at least, is that I've met parents who have done similar things to their children. I once knew a boy named Jeremy who illegitimately believed in fairies and unicorns when he was fifteen. Probably still does. Wasn't allowed to watch any TV, much less video games nor even read books.

    It's really scary to me to think that brainwashing is so powerful. It happens all around us even today with organised religion for example. So. I just find this movie to be incredibly disturbing on a deeper level than a lot of other things I've seen in recent memory.