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Saturday, May 17, 2008

New Film Review!: Dear Wendy

DEAR WENDY is directed by Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg, who helmed of one of my favorite films, THE CELEBRATION. It is an American Western in its broadest sense. Written by DOGMA 95 creator Lars Von Trier, it is a love story between a pacifist and his gun, and a critique of the love affair Americans have with firearms, as viewed by a couple of non-Americans. It is about social outcasts who band together with a common interest to form a group called The Dandies. They love firearms for the power and the sense of confidence the weapons bring them. Each member of the group names their gun, and they vow never to brandish them in public or in daylight, for doing so would awaken the guns to their true nature, which is to do harm. Instead, the group meets weekly in the basement of an abandoned mining facility which has been made over into a temple. The group plays dress up and have shooting practice, but they also study. They learn about their weapons, and about the damage they can cause. They also learn about the code of the Samurai and their fighting habits. They clear their minds to create psychic links to their guns. And when this link is created, they take it a step further and marry their weapons.

If you're a sensitive person who can't take some good-natured ribbing from foreigners about America, you'll probably be somewhat offended by this film. In it, everyone in this no name town full of hardworking, blue collared folk seem to carry guns, and when people are shot dead in the street the crowd reacts with little to no fanfare. Also, the main character is named Dick, which seems to be how the filmmakers might view gun-totting Americans. Also, the band The Zombies plays heavily into the story, as the filmmakers use the name of the band to reflect their views of this seemingly American-exclusive culture.

In many ways, DEAR WENDY reminds me of two of my favorite films. DOWN IN THE VALLEY, starring Edward Norton and also released in 2005, was a movie which began as one thing before taking a left turn to become something else entirely different. In both that film and this, the end result was to become an unorthodox Western. I can understand why people who don't admire the craft of filmmaking would be turned off by this structure, because it is so different than what they've become accustomed to seeing.

The second film, FIGHT CLUB (also starring Edward Norton, and also one of my favorite films), is similar to DEAR WENDY in a quite a few ways, including how both received mostly less-than-favorable reviews by professional critics who seem to have missed something in the storytelling. Perhaps they were so focused on they style of the films that they forgot to pay attention to the substance.

One of Roger Ebert's criticisms is the use of Sebastian, who is black, and who inadvertently introduces violence into the Dandies' world of respect and order. There are countless films where white Americans strike out to "fix" people of different races and nationalities, and Dick is no different as he sets out to try and change how Sebastian views guns. Ebert claims it is beyond racist, it's stupid. But that's missing the point - is it racist? Sure, but it's far from stupid. DEAR WENDY is a fable, and the filmmakers are attempting to show us a reflection of ourselves. It seems as though every week a new movie enters theaters across the country where millions of Americans can see stereotypical young black males behaving badly, brandishing firearms and acting wildly inappropriate and dangerous. Although Sebastian does this, he is more than just a simple cliche, cut from the same cloth as dozens of similar characters. And Vinterberg and Von Triers aren't stupid. They're aware of the cliche but they're not above using such a device to demonstrate how we tend to view a black man holding a gun verses white people holding guns.

Another of Ebert's criticisms is that the film doesn't follow the rules of the DOGMA95 movement. Apparently he isn't aware that this is not a DOGMA film, and it was never intended to be lumped in with that movement. In fact, in many ways, this film is as anti-DOGMA as they get, as it breaks just about every rule they set for themselves.

Other similarities shared with FIGHT CLUB include social outcasts creating a support group to help them deal with their issues, to inspire confidence in the characters, and this support group soon evolves into something approaching religion or cult status.

The genesis of the Dandies has shades of Edward Norton's Narrator changing his life after meeting Tyler Durden, as Stevie steps into Dick's life. The destruction of the central characters' ideal image of their creation comes about by introducing a character who sees through all the bullshit they've created. In FIGHT CLUB it was Marla Singer, in DEAR WENDY it is Sebastian.

In both films, a bizarre love triangle breaks up the group. In FIGHT CLUB, the Narrator is in love with Marlene, who is fucking Tyler Durden who is actually the Narrator, although the Narrator isn't aware of this little fact. In DEAR WENDY, Dick marries his gun, Wendy, but their relationship spoils when Sebastian borrows her for shooting practice. This is actually a very tender sequence, although the description comes across as hokey.

Another similarity is both these movies are cautionary tales about how easily people can be corrupted by material objects. In FIGHT CLUB, the Narrator rails against his life as a consumer, whereas in DEAR WENDY, the characters try to justify the natural urge to shoot the shit out of things, even as that completely contradicts their pacifistic nature.

A few more minor similarities include protagonists with obvious daddy issues and the need for branding and scarification. In FIGHT CLUB, fight club members scar themselves before they can join Project Mayhem; in DEAR WENDY, the Dandies cut themselves before they're allowed to fire their guns in public. Also, both protagonists are uptight and out of touch with the rest of their group.

Even the some of the sets have similar feels to them - the Temple in DEAR WENDY feels very much like 420 Paper Street. Both films use violence as a way to get a message across, and on and on. Hell, both titles even have 2 words with a total of 9 letters -- the mind, it boggles...

The climactic shootout between the Dandies and the law, led by Sheriff Krugsby, played a little over the top by Bill Pullman, reminded me of some of the best shootouts in films such as YOUNG GUNS and TOMBSTONE. It was the OK Corral, set in a contemporary American mining town.

I haven't said a word yet on the style of the film. It's beautifully shot and the set pieces are amazing, filled with wonderful details. It is paced well and it there is clever editing reminiscent of David O. Russell's 3 KINGS, and for the most part the acting was spot on. Some people have complained about the dialogue, saying it was stiff and unrealistic, but that was intentional - the goal of the movie isn't realism, but escapism, and what we say and how we speak in real life conversation is never the same as how we imagine those same conversation in our heads.

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