Captive Viewers: Learning In/humanity through Film in 'Dogtooth' and 'The Wolfpack'

Curator's Note

Though one is fictional and the other a documentary, Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009) and The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle, 2015) tell fascinatingly concurrent stories: in both, teenagers kept in captivity since infancy by their parents discover, through watching films, an alternative reality that presents them with a simultaneously promising and threatening means of escape. In gesturing at the liberating potential of encountering cinema, both works suggest that films effectively function to make us human, by constructing our sense of individuality and agency. Yet in the absence of other humanizing forces, namely the cultural referents acquired through socialization that equip us to distinguish reality from representation, these young people lack the necessary ability to contextualize what they watch. As a result, movies’ aptitude for modeling empathy alongside self-preservation is compromised, with cinema instead enabling a continuation and internalization of the inhumane violence and vulnerability imposed by the parental captors.

In this sequence from Dogtooth, the character known only as Older Daughter (Angeliki Papaoulia) has illicitly acquired and watched her first movies, forbidden within the sealed-off confines of her family fortress. The experience provokes in her increasingly erratic behavior, unfathomable to her siblings. As viewers ourselves, we too find her utterances bizarre – until their uncanny familiarity registers: she’s reenacting scenes from Rocky IV and Jaws. The patriarchal punishment that ensues proves ineffective at curbing the influence of this new authoritative voice, Hollywood’s. But because she cannot grasp how these images are just as contrived as her family’s myths, her acts of resistance threaten to end in (self-)destruction rather than liberation.

The Wolfpack, which was awarded the U.S. Documentary prize at Sundance and opens theatrically this June, focuses on the six Angulo brothers, confined to a squalid New York tenement apartment by parents who homeschooled them and rarely let them outdoors. Devoid of external stimulation, the brothers’ marathon re-viewings of beloved movies, which they memorized then staged and filmed their own elaborate, spot-on reenactments of (see a clip of their Usual Suspects riff here), allowed them to cope but also to tell their story – until Moselle came along. As this disquieting documentary suggests, movies were the sedative that kept them sane – but in so doing, cinema contributed to blinding them for too long to their debilitating, dead-end environs.

 

Comments

Daniel Grinberg's picture

Forgetting structural violence through spectacular violence?

Thanks for that intriguing post. I’ll have to look out for The Wolfpack when it comes to theaters.

I wonder what it means that both a fictional Greek film and an intimate social documentary are using aggressive American films as centerpieces for their storytelling. On one hand, it may make viewers reflexive about their own acts of cinematic spectatorship and critique the vicarious pleasures they may get from watching the disturbing circumstances of both the Dogtooth and Angulo siblings. But it’s also telling that the titles screened in the two films all promote a certain kind of glorified masculinity and largely gratuitous bloodshed. Perhaps this helps the Dogtooth and Angulo siblings forget the slow, embedded violence they face on a daily basis through spectacular bursts of onscreen violence.

James Harvey-Davitt's picture

the shortfalls of cognitivism

Thank you for reframing our themes, leading us to question the activities of spectators after viewing. In both, it seems, context (or lack thereof) determines our (varying; even skewed) perceptions of meaning. For me, this offers a severe reappraisal of cognitive approaches to films: we can’t speculate upon an ahistorical, predesignated spectatorial response. DOGTOOTH, it seems to me, uses the dispositif of self-reflexivity in order to challenge normative forms of reception in every way.

Maria San Filippo's picture

(Hollywood) Violence and Its After Effects

Thank you both, Daniel and James, for your insightful responses. Indeed it is critical that both ‘Dogtooth’ and ‘The Wolfpack’ refer to films that promote, as Daniel notes, masculinist violence. Whereas the father in ‘Dogtooth’ rules all films forbidden (with the exception of home videos he himself directs), it is less clear in ‘The Wolfpack’ who curates the brothers’ extensive film library. That these isolated siblings’ taste seems to dovetail with that of popular masculine fandoms (from ‘Lord of the Rings’ to Scorsese and Tarantino) suggests Hollywood’s reach as well as that of gendered constructions of audience. The question of representational violence’s effects is also critical here, as you both suggest, for illuminating how complex and contextualized audience responses necessarily must be. I appreciate your giving me more to think about in this regard.

Steven Cohan's picture

spectatorship, escapism, and history

Thanks for your post Maria. I haven’t seen either film so I am only musing upon the issues raised by you and our fellow curators for this week. What strikes me, as noted already, are tropes that give coherence to the way these isolated young people use and learn from film: the masculinism of the narratives and the corresponding violence along with the function of re-enactment as a coping and socializing mechanism. It is interesting that in the past when spectatorship of this sort has been represented it has tended to be feminine and feminized and (de)valued as escape—I am thinking off the top of my head of Purple Rose of Cairo as an example, and also the scene of moviegoing in Pennies from Heaven. Even when spectatorship is suggested only metaphorically, as in Rear Window, the spectator may be male but is very obviously if symbolically castrated, the ideal spectator according to psychoanalytic screen theory. So I want to pick up a thread in your response, Maria, where you say the masculine fandoms suggests the reach of (late 20th century and 21st century) Hollywood as well as the gendered construction of audience. Are you consequently reading these films as symptomatic of the limitations of both Hollywood’s global reach and its interpellation of a masculine audience that finds its subjectivity and social identity through violence, or as commentaries about this phenomenon?

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