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Down With Vows of Chastity

I’m hardwired to love the ideas espoused by Dogme 95. The avant-garde film making movement that Danish directors Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Kristen Levring and Soren Kragh-Jacobsen unleashed (in the form of descending red pamphlets) on Paris’ Le cinéma vers son deuxième siècleconference in 1995 is tailor-made for a young, idealistic and cash-strapped filmmaker like myself.

On paper, I should adore the notion of gimmick-free cinema. You’d think I’d love all the shaky cameras and lack of special lighting. You’d think I’d jump for joy at all the money and bother I could save by doing it the von Trier way.

But no, not really.

The Luddite in me loves Dogme. The film fan, however, recoils at the mention of its name. When you strip cinema too bare it ceases to hold any real interest for me. In effect, it ceases to be itself.

I agree with the opinion Roman Polanski voices on the DVD commentary to Knife in the Water. “I’m allergic to Dogme,” he announces, “all that shaky camera nonsense. It looks like the cameraman has Parkinson’s Disease, or maybe while filming he’s masturbating.” How is using a steadicam selling out? The Dogme movement was established to re-engage audiences with the purity of old-fashioned storytelling. But how are you meant to focus on the acting and the story when the camera won’t stop trembling?

Even von Trier never really did it the von Trier way. In The Idiots (Idioterne, or Dogme #2, the only Dogme film he ever actually made), the director opted to use off-camera music. Since then, in films like Dancer in the Dark and Dogville he has pissed on his vow of chastity to magnificent effect. Dogme works better as an essay than a set of working principles.

Which brings us to the Inside Out Festival’s showing of Gypo, the first certified Dogme95 film made in the United Kingdom (Tuesday, May 23, 7:15 p.m., Isabel Bader Theatre). By subscribing to the Dogme principles, Gypo places an unbelievable amount of pressure on its script and actors. Few scripts alive could survive this kind of a burden. And Gypo is definitely not one of them.

You’ve got to give the film points for addressing interesting subject matter. Gypo is set in the urban armpit of Kent, where working-class families cling to a dangerous nationalism—desperate succour as jobs disappear and the population gets increasingly dark-skinned. Helen (Pauline McLynn) (playing a strange amalgam of Empty Nest’s Dinah Manoff and Sheila McCarthy in I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing ) and Paul (a superb Paul McGann are unhappy. Their daughter popped out a kid in her teens and she now sees it as a burden—it sucks up every spare penny (along with the hookers Paul frequents now that Helen has lost interest in sex). One day, their daughter brings a friend home. Her name is Tasha and she’s a Roma (otherwise known about Europe as Gypsies or the more derogatory “Gypos”) from the Czech Republic who lives in a seaside caravan with her mother, waiting for a British passport. While Paul (who may or may not have visited Tasha when she was forced to work as a prostitute) spews his disgusting, straight-from-the-tabloid xenophobia across the dinner table, Helen believes she may have found a soul mate of sorts. Gradually, she becomes more and more involved in Tasha and her mother’s life. And as her and Paul’s marriage collapses, Helen finds another love to replace it.

All of this sounds fine and dandy. But there’s something wrong. Everything you learn in this film comes through dialogue. Everything is said and nothing is shown. Helen babbles on for ages about just how she is feeling, while their daughter delivers out-of-character lectures about the effects of tabloid culture on working class anxieties. It becomes too much. The audience is just slammed over the head with language, all of which is trying desperately to explain what the film is about and why everyone feels the way they do.

Furthermore, in some bizarre attempt to create unnecessary tension, the script has Tasha and her mother’s husbands coming to England to force them home. Apparently, these husbands, who end up looking like cartoon Hebrew scholars, are both tremendously abusive of their Roma wives. The film follows a triptych structure where a bloodied face and a scream on the other end of the phone isn’t properly elucidated until the film’s final third. By the time everything becomes clear, the effect of finally understanding that Tasha and Helen are in love—and any sense of realism at all—is completely negated by absurd chase scenes.

Gypo is one of these films you’re happy you saw, if only because of its educational value. You walk away knowing what not to do: how not to write dialogue, how not to plot and why you shouldn’t forgo modern cinema’s tried-and-true gimmickry unless you know your foundation is solid.

If you’re up for a bit of camp and absurd fun (and you like good music), check out Backalley Jukeboxthis Friday at 9:45. Curated by Matt Thomas, the program brings together a sumptuously diverse bunch of music videos by gay, lesbian and trans artists. The program features everything from Lesbians on Ecstasy’s vampire slaying freaks to Gentleman Reg’s raunchy orgy. Though the visuals aren’t always as fun and arresting as the music they support, videos like Final Fantasy’s Ballad for Win and Regine and Soft Pink Truth’s Promofunk more than make up for their lesser cohorts. It’s difficult to know how well the experience of watching videos will translate into a cinema space. It may ultimately come down to the crowd.

Gypo screens as a Centrepiece Gala at the Isabel Bader, Tuesday May 23, at 7:15 p.m. Backalley Jukebox screens at the ROM on Friday, May 19 at 9:45 p.m.

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