By Anna Merlan
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By Alice Laussade
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By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
Is there anything more tedious than the guy who complains and complains about something he knows nothing about? Danish cinema auteur Lars von Trier has never been to the United States because he's afraid of flying, yet he seems determined to keep making movies about how horrible this country is. According to such films as Dancer in the Dark and Dogville, we hate outsiders here and generally try to abuse them to death, because, y'know, we're violent people. Sure, we have our share of prejudice, but is there a country on earth that doesn't?
Still, nothing seems to fascinate Europeans quite as much when it comes to the United States as the cultural obsession with guns. They seem to think the Second Amendment is a travesty, and yet they wholeheartedly buy into the mythology of the cowboy and the contemporary action hero. There's certainly an opportunity for a good filmmaker to examine Americans and their weapons--Bowling for Columbine, though flawed, was entertaining and scored some good points--but von Trier's latest script, for Dear Wendy, doesn't find it. Whatever you may think of Michael Moore, he is an American, and he has some understanding of his own culture and the perspective to make fun of it. Von Trier just makes shit up, and it shows.
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, a co-founder of the no-frills Dogme 95 movement with von Trier, Dear Wendy has a framing device that lets you know you're in trouble right off the bat: "Wendy" is the name of a gun, and the voice-over narration that permeates the tale throughout is a love letter written to said gun. Because Lord knows we Americans all anthropomorphize our weapons and have fantasy romances with them. It isn't just the main character, either; everyone in the movie names their gun and treats it like a human being.
Jamie Bell, an impressive actor in a thankless role, is our hero, Dick Dandelion, who buys a toy gun as a birthday present for a kid he doesn't like, only to renege when told that the kid will love it. Instead, he keeps the gun for himself and gets the kid a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray with the last 20 pages torn out. Eventually, Dick realizes that the gun he purchased in a toy shop is in fact a real gun, and he learns how to shoot it with the help of a co-worker named Stevie (Mark Webber), who, like Dick, is a self-proclaimed pacifist who just happens to be obsessed with firearms. They form a society called the Dandies, presumably derived from "Dandelion," though they also wear foppish clothes and prance around like 19th-century English satirists.
Question: If the point of having a gun is to make you feel tougher and more secure (attributes explicitly mentioned in the movie), why exactly would gun ownership make you want to behave and dress like Oscar Wilde? It makes no sense, but then, neither does anything else here. The birthday boy Dick didn't like ultimately resurfaces, and he turns out to be black, and therefore a troublemaker--he almost immediately starts pursuing the nearest white girl. It isn't worth going into the details of what happens next, save that a trip to deliver coffee to a neighbor somehow turns into a High Noonshowdown against the local police, led by Bill Pullman. Really, explaining the logic of it is impossible, but yeah, coffee causes a shootout.
Vinterberg's direction is solid; the problem is that the story makes no sense and depends upon people acting based on some crazed Dane's mental stereotype of Americans rather than actual human beings. While there may be some crazed NRA member somewhere who writes love letters to his gun, that certainly isn't the norm. The only thing Dear Wendy really gets right is the incessant paranoia among the small-town residents regarding gang violence, even though there are no gangs in the vicinity. Gun ownership and paranoia are often connected, certainly more so than gun ownership and metrosexuality. And Michael Moore already said it better.
Is this supposed to be satire, then, or allegory, perhaps based on the way the U.S. itself behaves on the world stage? If so, it still isn't much good--President Bush and company aren't exactly considered dandies and nor are the terrorists they oppose. Is von Trier implying that guns are phallic symbols and therefore those who wield them are effeminate wussies? Hard to say when everyone else in the movie owns a gun, too. The most obvious answer is that he and Vinterberg are making the simplistic point that guns are appealing but destructive. Virtually every contemporary western has long since had that theme covered.
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