On Today of All Days (The Constant Gardener)

Everything I wanted to say about film today tastes like chalk in my mouth. I can’t peel my eyes away from the television news, and the last time this happened was September 11, 2001. The long-term effects of Katrina are far more devastating than those of 9/11, though, especially for the many, many poor people facing the demise of everything and everywhere that they know. I just keep thinking on my visit to New Orleans three years ago; how charmed I was by the last authentic city in the United States (and I do count my beloved, if completely commodified, NYC in that count); how deeply connected New Orleans denizens were to their city’s culture, architecture, cuisine, even its foibles. We have not only lost a crucial part of our history — a living part that connected us to both our Native American and European roots in a profoundly immediate way — but we now are forced to confront the stark reality of the horrendously governed society to which we have devolved. It’s ugly.

If you must stop looking at this demise today, and if you have the luxury to be able to do so, I say go see The Constant Gardener. Perhaps it is the only film that will afford an unguilty escape right now. Certainly, it is the best one. City of God director Fernando Meirelles teased out of a John Le Carré novel a tremendous epic of postcolonialism and love set amidst (rather than separate from) a contemporary Africa gone wild with corporate greed and mortal danger and disrepair. And somehow, it is uplifting. Even today I can endorse it.

Lars von Trying (Dear Wendy)

With his small, worried eyes and seemingly toothless jaw, English-born Jamie Bell has become cinema’s poster child for a very American strain of pathos. In the Green Day video, he’s the generic beleaguered US soldier in Iraq; in this summer’s Chumscrubber, he’s the disenfranchised suburban teen; in last fall’s Undertow he suffers as the oldest child in a Southern rural family held hostage by good ole boy masculinity. And in this fall’s upcoming Dear Wendy, he plays Dick, an orphaned teen stranded in an ultra-generic Southeast mining town, who falls in love with his gun, (dear) Wendy.

That Bell, 19, hails from England is hardly a coincidence. Very few American male actors, especially young ones, ever transcend the brash boyishness that damns performances as hopelessly glib; Bell’s long-faced stoicism, a Brit staple, suits heavy fare to a T. No doubt he’s less encumbered by the American publicity machine than most US actors his age. And that outsider status, coupled with that real-man wad of invisible tobacco lodged in his cheek, renders him an ideal spokesperson for more controversial social criticism.

Such as Lars von Trier’ script Dear Wendy, which, much like von Trier’ Dogville (2003), offers social criticism galore — and almost nothing else. Back when von Trier and other Danish filmmakers formed Dogme95, that stark departure from Hollywood machinations couldn’t have been more welcome, but it’s been interesting to see, as the major helmers of the movement have moved on, how they have ran out of gas. Some, as in the case of Italian for Beginners writer/director Lone Scherfig, have faltered, but gorgeously, as they incorporated more painterly elements into their storytelling. Some, like Dear Wendy director Thomas Vintenberg made use of Dogme’s rigid mandates to distill a pure emotionality, as in his wonderfully wrenching Celebration, but haven’t found a way to do so since. And then there’s von Trier himself, who, it turns out, benefited from Dogme95’s stark lack of affect because it suited his natural cold-fishiness. He’s such a cold fish that everyone involved in his projects channels their inner cold fish. For some, such as Nicole Kidman, that’s not much of a stretch. But poor Jamie Bell’s caught in the good cop/bad cop crossfire of a Vintenberg-von Trier production. Bell’s blank humorlessness, which can be used to such fierce, good effect, reads as maddening when compiled with von Trier’s hopeless grandstanding.

The Dear Wendy screening made me regret my recent pledge to not walk out on movies anymore. Most around me, when they finished hissing and shifting relentlessly, filed out long before the credits and I looked after their backs longingly. Yes, only von Trier can summon a knee-jerk defense of the US from a room full of NY pinkojewbroadfag critics. And, no, strong responses do not unilaterally a good movie make. Von Trier’ uninformed generalizations, blueprints (literally, as he incorporates diagrams) of his diatribes about American culture, prove that.

Honestly, Vintenburg does his best with his old compatriot’s script. The stage set that von Trier undoubtedly called for is transformed into a sepia-toned square, slick with oil puddles and crumbling small-town capitalism. Despite the classic, ludicrously monotonic von Trier voiceover overdetermining every screen moment, Vintenburg does coax out three dimensions — making good, if perhaps also-ironic use of character quirks and Tarantino-like explication. But he can’t transcend the project’s wild limitations. Here’s the basic plot: Dick, a young teen, is mentally or emotionally disabled in a never-identified way. His mom is gone. His dad, a man’s man miner, doesn’t dig on him. He’s mostly raised by his black maid Cristobel (what modern mining town denizen can afford any maid, let alone a painful Mammy character?). He clerks at a grocery store run by a sniveling Jew who fears town gangs no one’s ever seen. One day, the boy finds a pistol. He falls in love, and meets another who loves a gun. They form the Dandies, a cult of pacificist gunlovers who are all former losers so emboldened by what they’re packing that they don’t need the weapons’ actual power. They dance together in a temple of their own creation, study forensic psychologists’ educational films and weapon history, recite odes to their firearms, drink port, (oddly) cheer each other in a patented Brideshead stutter, and wear the ruffled-shirt, big-booted uniform of the American Revolutionaries. Until a bad black boy who’s actually killed steps into the mess and onto Dick’s toes by manhandling his beloved Wendy. And the world ends in four-alarm gunfire despite the intentions of dull-witted sheriff Bill Pullman.

Ye Gods. It’s obvious but I’ll say it here: The irony of von Trier, who freely admits he’s never been to the United States, is that he traffics heavily in all the worst stereotypes he’s garnered about the US from the exact source, the media, that he includes in his critiques — and then regurgitates those stereotypes in these weirdly improvisational, highly offensive ways that don’t even make sense. The irony of von Trier is that he’s such a ignorant, remorseless bully that if he’d actually been born and bred in the US, he’d no doubt be one of the meat-and-potaters, Bible-thumping, self-righteous, small-minded, frothing-at-the-mouth motherfuckers he lobs at whom he lobs so many spitballs.

In a conversation between von Trier and Vintenberg included in the press notes, Vintenburg acknowledges his discomfort with the lack of apparent logic or intention that motivates film’s principle events. “Ya, I don’t think that matters much,” von Trier admits blithely in response. He goes on to cite one of his chief influences as Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), which makes a painful amount of sense. At least Kubrick generally didn’t bother to bury his misanthropy in political stances, but I’ve learned the hard way to see a Kubrick fetish for the red flag that it is. Here’s a guy who generally found humankind, especially womankind, repellent in its messy spill of bodily fluids like blood and cum and tears, and he made his career photographing his distaste beautifully. Von Trier, with his pared-down sets and plots and character sketches, takes that distaste one step further (much like that Mormon wanker Neil Lebute): with bare-bones dialogue, plotlines and characters, he sacrifices any plausibility, let alone humanity, in order to campaign on his neverending platform that people suck. Ain’t no one, not Vintenerg nor Bell nor even congenitally genial Pullman, can sweeten up that shit.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy