Sunday, 18 September 2016

Dear Wendy

Thomas Vinterberg, 2004,
Italy, USA, Netherlands, Denmark, France, Germany, UK

A main criticism against Lars Von Trier’s satirical critique and goading of America’s love affair with firearms, “Dear Wendy” is that neither he as the writer nor director Thomas Vinterberg know anything about America or its gun culture. They are Swedish, of course, and the film was even made in Europe… as if making a set in Europe is less authentic than one erected in a backlot in the States. But I am not sure that criticising Von Trier for lack of realism is helpful as he has never dealt in neo-realism. It is hard to imagine that “Europa”, for all its grubby look, is an authentic portrayal of post Second World War Germany, or “The Kingdom” of European hospitals. And so on. He has always processed his polemics through cinematic artifice, allegories and fairy-tales. Downbeat real life frequently gives way to cinematic fantasia (see 'Dancer in the Dark' as the major example). Indeed, the character's embrace the poses of American Wersterns mythology as something to aspire to.

The Wendy in question is an antique gun with which Dick (Jamie Bell) is having a love affair, to whom he is writing a love letter which acts as the film’s narration. Orphaned and alienated, rebelling against a life down the mines and living alone, Dick buys the gun as a gift, believing it to be a toy. By chance, this gun bonds him to other gun-enthusiast pacifists and they form a secret club, “The Dandies”. “The Dandies” treat their guns like secret friends: they dress up absurdly, create bad poetry to firearms, research the horrific effects of bullets, give themselves what they consider to be Dandyish codes and phrases, et cetera. The balance and conceit is disturbed with the arrival of a new black member, but it is not quite this that brings them to the inevitable movie consequences of their firearm fetish.

Where the parable-like quality doesn’t help can be in the tiny but crucial details, such as the local residents being paranoia of a couple of gangs. Trying to be general and specific at the same time causes some friction: that is, there is nothing seen in the American mining town of “Dear Wendy” that supports the existence of the violent, amoral and street-owning gangs that the residents fear. Perhaps then the joke is that the only gangs we see are “The Dandies” and police, both trigger-happy. In fact, the best surprise and gag that the whole drama rests upon is the use of a shotgun by the most unexpected of residents. So: gun culture and fear and love of gun culture breeds more love and fear of gun culture and gun culture. It can only end in bloodbaths. I am not sure that an example, by comparison, like Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” is any more subtle, advanced or informed just because he is American, regardless of his evident first-hand experience with warfare. It’s not subtle nor advanced, and yet there is always something a little punkish about Von Trier, and the black humour sidesteps the judgemental fascism of that other provocateur Haneke. As a fantasy about the allure of firearms to young people, a punkish sensibility serves well. It’s all aided by strong performances and Von Triers’ typically borderline Brechtian inclinations, embraced by Vinterberg. 

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