De Udstillede/The Exhibited



Denmark 2000
dir. Jesper Jargil
78 minutes

Or : Those crazy Danes! – chapter 28.

Yet more high art high jinks from Scandinavia, this documentary is a kind of peripheral offshoot of the Dogme 95 phenomenon, in that it examines a piece of work executed by Lars Von Trier in 1996, one year after he dreamt up his cinematic vows of chastity, but before any of the movement’s results (Festen, Mifune, The Idiots, etc) made it to the screen.

The piece of work in question isn’t a movie this time, it’s an art installation called Psychomobile1 – The World Clock. 53 actors inhabit, for three hours each day over a period of weeks, a building in the middle of Copenhagen divided into small rooms. In the corner of each rooms are coloured lights and a honking buzzer. The periodic flashing of the lights acts as a cue for each of the actors in the room to undergo a specific mood change (“the yellow light is my provocation light”), or undertake a specific action, as previously determined for their ‘character’ during ‘rehearsals.’

But this is only part of the World Clock – what lifts (rather self-consciously) it into the realms of the bizarre is the mechanism behind the changing of the lights. Under instruction from Von Trier, a video camera is set up in the New Mexico desert, trained on a colony of ants. The images are transmitted back to Copenhagen, and overlaid by a grid of boxes. The rule is, when a particular box is entered four times by an ant, or a series of ants, the signal is passed back and a particular light or series of lights is activated. Kind of ‘Big Brother meets Phase IV.’

This is the type of conceptual art in which the mechanics of the concept turn out to be rather more intriguing than the results. Where De Udstillede goes wrong is to focus on the latter rather than the former, which makes it pretty tough going once the initial set-up has been sketched in. Director Jargil presents large chunks of the ‘drama’ being enacted in the ‘house’, but it’s nevertheless extremely hard to work out who is who, and what is going on. These scenes alternate with briefer interviews (conducted relatively recently, if the drastic changes in hair lengths and styles are any guide) with the actors involved, who provide the audience with what meagre details of ‘plot’ and characterisation we ever get. As one of them notes, there is no real drama going on here, at least not by any conventional definition: “It’s an antheap, a chaos.” Trouble is, Jargil doesn’t seem to grasp that a little bit of antheap chaos goes a rather long way.

The fact that De Udstillede is worth persevering with at all is down to one individual, and it’s neither Jargil, nor Von Trier (who I’ll get to in a moment). The most intriguing and striking presence is one of the actors, Bo Overgaard, who plays a character known only as ‘The Cur’ – there’s a Sam Shepard tinge to some of the namings, which also include Emperor and Starseed, the latter endowed with the power to ‘freeze’ other characters by touching them. According to the Internet Movie Database, this is Overgaard’s only screen appearance to date, but if this documentary reaches any kind of audience I’m sure it won’t be the last. Overgaard utterly dominates the frame during his appearances in the ‘drama’ – imposingly tall and athletic, he has an classic movie-star’s high-cheekboned face and swaggering attitude – and displays a sardonic wit during the interviews.

He’s also the only person on screen who doesn’t hold Von Trier and his instructions in reverent awe – the rules state that when a gun goes ‘click’ then the character being ‘shot’ must ‘die’ and depart the scene, but when The Cur is ‘killed’ by two assailants he just stares straight back at them, and they flee. It’s the one moment of the ‘drama’ that has any kind of power – the ‘story’ is otherwise mainly concerned with an ER-style romance, standing as a savage indictment of actors and their dire need for competent scriptwriters, directors and editors.

In that one moment of resistance Overgaard asks more intriguing and pertinent questions than Von Trier manages during the whole of his month-long enterprise. He himself appears only fleetingly at the start, radiating his usual genial charm, and is never exposed to any kind of interrogation or critical analysis. The World Clock is an endearingly barmy conceit, but, as ever with Von Trier, it seems the work of a chancer, a charismatic publicity-seeker whose greatest ability is to persuade people into believing he has some vision of truth, or art, or society, or whatever. What exactly is he saying with World Clock – is it a pastiche of the impulses which govern the actions of an individual in a given society? Or is he, as Jargil’s title implies more concerned with the process of exhibition itself? The public peeks into the drama’s rooms through two-way picture frames, and it’s clear that they are on display as much as the actors, at least from the perpective of De Udstillede‘s audience.

Jargil doesn’t seem to want to probe into any of these areas, instead indulging himself with repetitive, dead-end visits to the shenanigans going on in the drama’s various rooms. By the end, although the actors claim to have gained a greater insight into their own art thanks to these weeks of relatively unfettered improv (were they paid?), we, the viewers, are no wiser than if we’d read a two-paragraph synopsis of World Clock‘s concept off a sheet of paper. But – and it’s a crucial but – we are better off: we now know to watch out for Bo Overgaard, especially if Von Trier has the guts to employ him ever again.

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