The King is Alive
dir. Kristian Levring
Opens Fri Aug 10 at the Varsity.

The holy tenets of the Dogme 95 manifesto (handheld cameras, no artificial lighting, no music, no sets, and minimal editing) would work well if only humans were interesting. But the mass of humanity is insufferably dull, and to watch humans doing daily things at "ground zero" level is to be oppressed by the full force of their stupidity. This is what watching The King is Alive is like. Directed by Kristian Levring, a founding member of the Dogme movement, the film does nothing to protect us from the heaviness of humans, and so we experience the movie in the way we experience most of our friends and family: with utter boredom.

The King is Alive begins with a lonely bus cutting across the vast Namibian desert. The bus takes a wrong turn, and the driver and his passengers (Western tourists) end up stranded in the middle of nowhere. But we are not in the middle of nowhere--we've actually returned to a familiar place. This is Gilligan's Island, except now we are surrounded by a sea of sand dunes. Yes, we thought we were going to a brand new narrative, but we're stuck in the same place, with the same story, which is structured by the same dichotomy (man versus nature). And herein lies the great disappointment of this type of Scandinavian cinema: no distance, or distortions, or veils, means we are subjected to the unchanging ugliness of the same--rather than the changing beauty of the same, as in A.I., Swordfish, The Score, and other excellent Hollywood films.

The King is Alive asks and answers its own proposals like a hypnotized car dealer. What happens when a structure (the bus) is compromised? Its passengers are cast into the merciless land of truth (nature). What happens to the passengers when they are in the land of truth? The soft layers of politeness that cushioned the world within the metal shell of the bus rapidly diminish, one by one, until we arrive at the original psyche. And what is the original psyche? It's the reptilian region of the brain, with its swamps and alligators, its malevolent gorillas in the mist. And what is it we want to see in this murky region of the psyche? The shocks of primal humanity.

At its best, this is what Dogme 95 cinema amounts to: a safari into the heart of darkness where we get to see, through the dense foliage, wild primal shocks in their natural habitat. Some safaris, like Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, show us only one massive shock. That movie starts on the surface of a civilized family and, after tearing away at the layers, arrives at cataclysm: Our father raped us. Other safaris offer us multiple shocks, which is the case with The King is Alive. The movie's first shock: The old want to fuck the young (played out by the young American, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and the old European, David Calder). The next shock: The old want to kill the ungrateful young (again, played out by Calder and Leigh). Another shock: Civilized women want be fucked by savages (played out by Janet McTeer, a white middle-aged American woman, and Vusi Kunene, the African bus driver).

Finally, there is the matter of King Lear. One of the stranded, David Bradley, is an actor who happens to know every line of the tragedy. To help maintain some sort of order and sanity on their disintegrating island, the actor persuades everyone to take a role and learn the play. But within the context of this movie, Lear doesn't relieve the boredom, it simply reiterates the civilization/nature dichotomy. King Lear is a product of high European art, while the location of its performance is the primitive African desert. To make matters worse, the civilization/nature dichotomy as a theme is utterly bankrupt--the great Werner Herzog exhausted its cinematic possibilities many, many years ago.

If you teach a monkey (a.k.a. the truth) how to draw, all it will offer us is the image of a banana, and this is what The King is Alive is: the banana of banal humanity. And why would we want to see just a banana, when for the same price Hollywood can offer the whole Planet of the Apes?

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