101 Cameras: Lars von Trier and Me

For almost three years, I’ve carried a little red movie ticket in my wallet, the old-fashioned pulpy kind, from a big roll. It says “Emergency Re-admit” on it. It enables me to return and see Dancer in the Dark, which I went to see one weekday afternoon in 2000. After 15 confusing minutes, I snapped and decided I’d better get back to work, and I hastily, if temporarily, abandoned the controversial film.

Dancer in the Dark, image: finelinefeatures.com

Last night, I watched it on DVD, and it blew me away. It’s not just a movie starring a singer, it’s a musical. All this time, I’d assumed that meant it had some aggressively amateurish Sound of Music renditions, with Catherine Deneuve and Bjork as added gimmicks. So I was half-watching while writing when the first actual musical number came on, almost halfway into the film. After that, I was transfixed.
Von Trier was intent on “covering” the musical numbers in one take, as live events–come what may audio-, image-, and mistake-wise– using 100 cameras. It didn’t quite happen that way. They did use 100 fixed, synch-coded DV cameras (140 for one song), covering the entire performance area, and they shot several takes, all the way through. Additional crews shot close-ups of Bjork. The result: a staggering amount of footage (68 hours for one three minute song) and, presumably, a big job in post.
Rapid cuts between fixed shots stands in sharp contrast to the never-resting hand-held camerawork in the rest of the film. From the commentary tracks, the choreographer Vince Paterson, who did the Vogue video, meted out whip-cracking tough love, Madonna-style, on his Dogme-soaked, improv-happy collaborators. Vince made sure the 100 cameras positions and framing was actually based on the staging. His impressive combination of imperiousness and restraint comes through in his commentary, (“We found out it would serve our purpose much better to involve me.”) and it’s not hard to accept von Trier’s comment that Paterson saved the movie.
The limitations of this ultimately low-tech, handcrafted sophistication are apparent, though. Von Trier rightly laments the short cuts it produces: “Maybe if you had 2,000 cameras, you could get some longer cuts and closeups.” At the same time, he argues strongly against editing between multiple takes and for multi-camera coverage of a single performance. It all reminds me of The Matrix Reloaded, of all things. Specifically, the god-like CG camera technique the Wachowksis and Maeda used to film The Burly Man fight, the one with 100 Agent Smiths and thousands of cameras.