In Defense of Dogtooth

One of the most controversial Academy Award nominees in years is Dogtooth, a Greek entry in the Best Foreign Film category.  I saw it at an Academy screening.  When the lights came up after the film’s abrupt, Luis Buñuel-like ending, there was a ripple of dismay and disdain in the sparse crowd.  You couldn’t hear more clucking in a chicken coop.  (Midday Academy screenings tend to draw a distaff crowd, median age 70.)

“How did THAT get nominated?!”  A bitter biddy tsk’ed to her companion on their way out of the theater.  What distasteful dreck!

But it’s not just the silver set who scoffs at this movie.  I’ve heard “How did THAT get nominated?!” from twenty-somethings and mid-thirties alike, in person, on podcasts, and in print.  Even the great Roger Ebert, a cinematic sage if ever there was one, offered only bemused praise for the film.  In his brief review he was reduced to the cliché of comparing it to a car crash (“You cannot look away”).  Roger didn’t really try to make heads or tails of this thing.

So how DID it get nominated?  In the wake of criticism of the Academy’s conservative choices over the years, rules reforms were instituted after a particularly traditional 2008 field.  Now an executive committee of about 20 members can add three movies to the six-film short list from which the nominees are culled.

The idea was that the several hundred members of the foreign-language committee were, through the magic of group-think, producing a lot of middle-of the-road nominees.  If you weren’t a Holocaust film, a tender coming-of-age tale, or an arty feast of the senses, you were probably not going to score an Oscar nom for Best Foreign Film.  Meanwhile, the movies that were being remembered 10, 15 and 20 years down the line weren’t the safe, often dull-as-a-dinner-knife Academy Award nominees.

Until now.  Riskier fare could be championed by worldly tastemakers like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List) and screenwriter Michael Tolkin (The Player), both members of the executive committee.  Films that might be challenging, disturbing and flat-out unique could be recognized for their potential to be relevant over the long haul.

Films like Dogtooth.

This year, the executive committee made Dogtooth one of its special selections, rank-and-file be damned.  The uproar has been steady and indignant.  Blasted for being brutal, pretentious, pornographic and indecipherable, this film has become the chew toy of choice for segments of both the high- and low-brow audiences.

Yeah.  Stogie is inclined to disagree…

C’mon, folks, this is a brilliant movie!  Rather than being self-indulgent, exploitative or deliberately elliptical for its own sake, this is in fact a stark yet comprehensive portrait of how home-schooling parents (without religious motivations, it should be noted) went wrong in keeping their kids completely isolated from society.

No doubt about it—this flick doesn’t go out of its way to spoon-feed the audience the particulars of exposition, back-story or character motivation.  Many people who have disliked the film clearly did not understand what was going on or why, in individual scenes if not as a whole.  But all the key pieces of the puzzle are right there on the screen!  Movie lovers used to enjoy putting these puzzles together, but maybe this one was a little too unpleasant for some people.  I get that—I found the film hard to watch at times, myself.  But in the end it’s unforgettable, in a good way.

Some of the criticism has revolved around the movie’s unclassifiable nature.  I’ve heard it compared to everything from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Village to a Dogme 95 film.  That’s like comparing an apple to an eel.  But people like to label a movie so they can hold it up to the standards of the genre.  This gives them a reason to slag it if the movie falls short of those expectations.

Genres are great, but they strip a film of its ability to surprise.  What is a genre if not a set of rules the film must conform to?  The romantic comedy is so rigid that many entries are practically movie-by-numbers.  (500 Days of Summer is a notable exception.  Check it out, if you haven’t already.)  There are comforts to the familiarity of genre, but a movie that exists outside of that prison is free as a bird.

Like Dogtooth. This movie has moments of dark, dry humor that are hilarious.  It has elements of horror.  There is a mystery to be solved, and family drama.  But this is not a movie that plays the genre game.  You don’t know what you’re getting, scene-to-scene.  For me, that’s part of what made the film so goddamn riveting.

Clearly, Dogtooth is an acquired taste, like haggis or kimchi.  I don’t think you have to be a freakin’ idiot to hate the thing.  The larger point is that the Academy is taking heat for this nomination.  From some of the same folks who whined and mocked when those hidebound prudes put another pearls-and-furs movie in the place now occupied by Dogtooth.  The committee chair has received a flood of emails from Academy members protesting the nomination.

Great.  If this dustup has a chilling effect on the Academy’s nascent attitude of audacity, you can bet the boring but safe selections will be back.  We can go back to bitching about that, while comforted by the fact that at least the films are of obvious “Oscar caliber.”  Not like that dreadful Dogtooth. “Saints alive, Betty, I thought I’d stumbled into a screening of sadists’ home movies!  Let’s go get a salad.”

Meanwhile, Dogtooth will be debated, written about and remembered, long after the latest triumph-over-adversity stories are forgotten.

— Stogie Joe