Dog Days (Hundstage) 2002. dir. Ulrich Seidl writ. Seidl and Veronika Franz cine Wolfgang Thaler edt. Andrea Wagner & Christof Schertenleib star. Maria Hofstatter, Alfred Mrva, Gerti Lehner, Franziska Weiss, Rene Wamko, Claudia Martini, Victor Rathbone, Christian Bakonyi, Christine Jirku, Victor Hennemann, Georg Friedrich
Seville - Allegro
angry men and crazy women
Lower Austria in August, when the heat is suffocating in the suburbs and the constellation Orion (the hunter and his dog) is directly overhead like some sort of malevolent deity. In the gardens and patios people lie facing the sky like sacrificial offerings.
Things are tense. In the washroom of a club a young man called Mario threatens another young man for ogling his girlfriend, one of the dancers they pay to watch as they drink and smoke. Later Mario goes after another young male, and they scuffle outside on the steps. The fight is broken up by the bouncer, a lanky tattooed character called Lucky, who later figures in an adjacent scenario as a peculiar moral arbitrator. Mario leaves with the dancer, a slim eroto-adolescent called Claudia, engages in some dangerous driving in his rodded metallic blue coupe, then parks below an underpass as the long-distance night haulers roar past in their trucks. Sex? Sure, but Mario doesn't want it. Claudia is a whore, a pussy-peddler who can't trusted. He heaves her off his lap, slaps and punches her, throws her out of his car. She stands a short distance away, isolated in the false moonlight of the freeway, sobbing... the first and youngest of several female victims in this ugly yet brilliant movie by the documentarian Ulrich Seidl and his writer Veronika Franz.
There are six parallel stories that occasionally overlap, share a common symbolism... best recognized, perhaps, in the strange rituals of Mr. Walter, a lonely widower who wanders his garden like a lost Adam, with only his aging dog for company and protection. When his dog dies, the event not only presages the end of the heat wave but also works as an illustration of the dysfunctionality in the alliance between the sexes. By and large, all the women are victims in this confused and brutal world of men. Or, if not of men, then of Nature.
The most didactic example is "crazy" Anna, who is offered up as a sacrificial totem by Hrudy, the home security salesman, to appease his clients. Who vandalized their property, their cars? Who knows... but this crazy child-woman who spends her days hitch-hiking back and forth between malls on the same stretch of highway, spouting TV commercials and singing banal pop songs, will do. Following her rape, the thunderstorm starts, the heavy rain breaking the drought as if the gods have been bought off. The primitivism is instinctive, a condition within the contemporary homosapien that can only be described in ritual and symbol. Angry men and crazy women stagger along the industrial highway like zombies driven by private traumas dispensed by fate and fortune. Free will? Doesn't seem like it. The behavior of the beasts is the behavior of the Gods.
like dummies on exhibit
For a hundred years or more, alienation has been a major theme in western art. Human beings divorced from the natural flow of Nature by the industrial landscapes they incubate within.
Dog Days has a number of shocking incidents and situations that tests its audience, and the orgy in the mall is one of them. It's one thing to go to a party where booze and dope break inhibitions, lead to a mass sexual grope, yet quite another to go to a mall where an orgy is always underway in what appears to be commercial gym. Seidl drops us into this in a sudden cut to: like turning a corner in the museum, looking into an arboretum exhibit to see dozens of naked men and women of various ages and erotic sophistication screwing and fellating in a staged Eden of tacky wallpaper and elevator music. Who is responsible for this absurd ritual? Here Seidl is arcane and crafty... we might notice "Euro-pimp's" smiling face reflected in the peep-window but probably not. This bloated hustler with his gold chains and rings shows up later as the drunken pig lover of the schoolteacher, so the causality is curious and intriguing. But... the psychology of the editing is such that we merely react rather than connect.
The style of Dog Days is one of fragmentation, even though the narrative is connected and determinist. Even when the action lingers within set tableauxs, we are focused on the grotesque. The ugly beauty of these cameos is reminiscent of the erotic mise en scenes of Helmut Newton, the German fashion photographer... or even the set quotidians of Edward Hopper, where people sit facing the sky like dummies on exhibit. The ordinary, the mundane, is hereby dramatized in an extraordinary sequence of loneliness, desperation and faint hope. Sadomasochism? Yes. Every human compact here is described in such terms. Funny? Yes... some of the time. Fact is, Seidl simply doesn't give us much room to turn away when these private hells are best left private.
the pornographic exposition of human despair
The voyeurism is therefore exquisite and relentless. The schoolteacher returns to her apartment, ogled by a short man as they ascend silently together in the elevator. As she sits on the toilet, she listens as her mother whines on the answering machine about being neglected... and we watch as she then examines her declining body in the mirror, goes about trimming her pubic hair. The vanity seems ridiculous, all the more so when we realize all of this is in anticipation of an evening with her lover. This isn't the sex of advertising and eternal life... yet the hunger and the madness is just the same as that of Mario and Claudia, the tormented teen beauties who screw in a car parked on the highway. When Euro-pimp and his friend Lucky arrive, they find the teacher kneeling on a chair, her ass raised like an animal in heat. The men are drunk, proceed to humiliate the woman. We cringe at the exhibitionism and the cruelty. They drink more and more, play an idiot word game, the inexplicable culture of bullies and victims on the edge of nihilism. At one point the teacher is sitting below a Gustav Klimt picture, "The Idyll". Irony? We probably don't even notice.
Bad behavior and exhibitionism does have a certain lure, yet some of this will be too much for even the more sophisticated voyeurs among us. Sometimes intelligence is the author of pain, not unconsciousness. Yet unconsciousness is what they seek. Anything to escape the heat and the gnawing sexual angst. Or the ugly rhythm of other people's problems.
An old man leaves his lawn-mower running in order to mask the sound of his neighbors' domestic dispute... a cleaning lady sits on the toilet behind a locked door to have an unauthorized smoke... a man hammers a tennis ball off the walls of an empty swimming pool as his wife cavorts with her lover nearby... or a man sits all night in his car watching for the vandals who never come. Everyone is waiting to be released, like people trapped at an airport, hostages of an unknown terrorist. Sound like Beckett's Waiting For Godot? The ennui is the same, and here and there the situations certainly have the Godot feel, especially the power-reversal between Lucky and his boss, Euro-pimp. Of course the styles are vastly dissimilar, as Godot is theatrical expressionism whereas Dog Days uses the documentary posture of cinema verite.
Dog Days: quite possibly the best feature film of the last two or three years. It won at Venice, if that means anything. Yes, it's the pornographic exposition of human despair... but it's not devoid of humor or even compassion. The cinematics are brilliant, and the acting likewise, even though these characters remain submerged and starless in the documentary raison d'etre.
They say the wheel is the greatest invention... but it isn't. The mirror is... if indeed it was an invention. A pool of water, a piece of silvered glass... and now the instant replay monitor.
© LR 04/03
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