Let's relax and let our visionary directors take us.
The paranoia from "9/11" evidenced in creating the Homeland Security agency and accelerated defense projects has influenced recent films in controversial ways. The tepid critical responses to "The Village" and "Dogville" possibly reflect an unwillingness to accept xenophobia and isolationism as valid subjects today for serious art. Unfortunately the two films have been viewed as period pieces tied to the eccentric spirit of Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone" and Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" rather than as modern allegories underpinned by classic staging and dialogue.
Dating back centuries to Thomas More's "Utopia," more recently Hawthorne's "Blithedale Romance," and Peter Weir's "Truman Show," we have been fascinated with the idea of isolating ourselves into perfect societies to escape malign outside forces only to find such withdrawal unrealistic given the need to expand our experiences and take advantage of such advances as modern medicine. Hawthorne expressed the optimism of isolationism when he described Blithedale as "the one green spot in the moral sand-waste of the world."
Director Lars van Trier's "Dogville" shows the influence of the change-agent, gang-related visitor (Nicole Kidman), who brings depression-era innocence and love to an isolated town that is warped into violence by a xenophobic ideology. The 19th century village of Covington, Pennsylvania, in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village," isolated by putative forest monsters, crosses over the woods to get medicine for a mortally wounded young man. The concession to travel is part of a larger theme of the need for exploration that offers discovery of love and life itself. For "The Village" and "Dogville" the enemy has always been within anyway.
In both films, the stilted language, cadenced like a poetic reading of "Our Town," can put off serious critics (Roger Ebert says the frequently intoning actor William Hurt "sounds like a minister addressing the Rotary Club.") Yet, as in the plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare or even some interpretations of Arthur Miller's "Crucible," the Elizabethan rhythm can serve to heighten meaning that leads the audience to allegory, which both films lend themselves to very nicely: "Village" about isolationism and "Dogville" about ideology. In both films the outside influences are inevitable, although "Dogville's" fate becomes a bloody vengeance while "Village's" future can only be guessed about.
Film critic A.O. Scott thought Shyamalan's village had "barely suppressed yearnings and guilty secrets" that "more than the beasts in the woods, might have been the subject of an interesting, Hardyesque inquiry into small-town life." But like "Dogville," "Village" does explore small-town life: The stock characters of that life like the charming blind girl (Bryce Dallas Howard) and village idiot (Adrian Brody) are there because, as in good Greek drama, they represent human strengths and weaknesses, the way a ubiquitous blind prophet would do. So, too, in Shirley Jackson's classic short story, "The Lottery," a seemingly benign town is gradually revealed on a festive day to be renewing its annual stoning of a townsperson selected at random. The allegorical relevance to unaccountable cruelty resides in a story simple, unadorned, and ultimately harrowing, just as in the films.
To devalue the parallels to "9/11" paranoia, increasing xenophobia, and hostile pre-emption is to toss away the great themes that follow us through history and literature. Let's relax and let our visionary directors take us into outdated and stilted but relevant worlds where philosophical and moral issues can be played without the interference of slick, hip talk or seductive special effects. "The Village" and "Dogville" are two intriguing films that demand our attention, not our dismissal.