Friday, October 14, 2005


EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED (2005, USA, Liev Schreiber, Jonathan Safran Foer novel)
Maybe sometimes I'm afraid I'll forget.

Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel had a ton of fans among readers and critics alike, telling the curiously self-referential story of a young man who travels to Ukraine in search of a woman in a photograph who helped his grandfather escape Eastern Europe just ahead of the Nazis. There was an audaciity about the author's combination of wildly inventive verbal humour, bold imaginative strokes and dark Holocaust subject matter that somehow, improbably, worked brilliantly. The film (also a debut, Liev Schreiber's first turn behind the camera) aims for the same brash blend, and if it doesn't achieve the artistic "perfect storm" of the novel, it does tell an important story in a fresh way that may perfectly fit a generation. (The GARDEN STATE of genocide flicks?)

I know a playwright whose holocaust-themed play was recently rejected by a major American theatre: they celebrated the writing, but felt the "holocaust genre" to be "supersaturated." As if this is something we should put behind us. God forbid. Jonathan's wild and crazy Ukranian tour guide, infatuated with all things new, tacky and American, begins the film with just such an attitude: "The past is past." At least that's what he always believed until he encountered The Collector, this young Jewish American (not alone in his inexplicable obsession, it turns out) who's "a compulsive rememberer," gathering the flotsam and jetsam of his life and his family's lives in the plastic bags he carries everywhere.

There is something sacramental in this reverent oblation of mundane objects that's reminiscent of the central moment in American Beauty. Ricky Fitts has filmed a plastic bag caught in a whirlwind in an urban alleyway, a sight whose strange beauty communicated to him the benevolent presence of God: "Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember."

Everything Is Illuminated is a film that doesn't want us to forget. Or perhaps it is a film that wants a new generation to remember – to re-member, if you will, to re-assemble – a past beyond its own personal memory, which nevertheless profoundly shapes its present. Whatever its possible short-comings, this may be a very important film indeed, a story for and about a generation half a century removed from the Holocaust who must come to terms with the horrors of their not-so-distant and not-so-different past – horrors which befell young men and young women not so different than themselves.

Available at Videomatica

Originally published in longer form at Christianity Today Movies

Friday, October 07, 2005


DEAR WENDY (2005, Denmark, Thomas Vinterberg, Lars von Trier screenplay)
It's the time of the season for loving

Dick loves Wendy. Helplessly, obsessively, tragically. It's a star-crossed-lovers story that's as ancient as it is familiar. With one crucial variation: Wendy is a gun. Specifically, a 6.35mm six shooter, a sweet little double action pearl handle revolver with internal hammer who makes a new man of Dick, turns a weak and sensitive loner into a man with confidence and authority. A good woman or the right gun can do that.

Dick refuses to follow in the footsteps of the town's real men and work in the mine. He stocks shelves in the corner grocery and carts around a toy gun he found in a second-hand shop, comforting himself with smug judgements of the town's other inhabitants (as much an echo of DOGVILLE as the story's stylized small-town setting). Until he learns the true power of what he carries in his pocket, and his life begins to change. He's a natural shooter who he can plant six shots in the centre of a target without aiming or even thinking. Wendy and Dick are made for each other.

Problem is, one of Dick's strategies for moral superiority has been to call himself a pacifist. But hey, that's no problem: his firearm will be carried but not brandished. Why bother? Just packing heat makes him walk taller – of course he's never going to use his weapon. If you grew up in the MAD shadow DOCTOR STRANGELOVE, you're already sceptical: it's a naive rationalization that contains the seed of eventual tragedy.

Dick and a gun-loving "Hey, I'm a pacifist too!" pal from the grocery store form The Dandies, complete with secret passwords and symbols, rituals and pledges, even dress-up clothes and a secret clubhouse they fix up in an abandoned part of the mine. It's everything kids could want in a secret club. Big kids. Kids with guns.

Of course, as Ibsen taught us, a gun on the mantle in Act One must be used before the end of Act Three. Complications arise, as complications are wont to do, and sudden violence escalates into a bloody BUTCH CASSIDY / WILD BUNCH showdown in the town square, triggered by a tragic misunderstanding.

Well, not exactly tragic. This sad-fated tale doesn't actually aim for the emotional catharsis of tragedy. Its tongue is mostly in its cheek, and it's plenty cheeky. DEAR WENDY is to DOGVILLE as DOCTOR STRANGELOVE is to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE – indeed, the "I can walk" climax is a direct nod to that other over-the-top satire of the American weapons fetish: WENDY could easily be subtitled "How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Gun." Everything is played with a brash style and ironic tone that signals satire more than sentiment: Lars and Thomas don't want to break our heart, they want to poke us in the eye or slap us upside the head.

Judging by the critics, they succeed at that if nothing else. This movie makes Americans mad – which no doubt makes Vinterberg and von Trier perfectly happy. The not-so-melancholy Danes are in mischief-maker mode, court jesters whose cinematic smackdown chooses provocation over subtlety. Antagonistic reviewers find the movie glib, its characters, situations and plot developments absurd: I'm guessing the film-makers simply find America's love affair with guns equally absurd, and are quite content to match style and subject.

Whether you love or hate this bratty little movie may depend on whether you feel it's your nose that's being tweaked by the town fools. If you're pretty convinced that guns don't kill people, etc, that your country's more right than wrong and that America's latest war "is really about peace" (aren't they all?), you'll likely find this movie by a couple of Europeans facile, as condescending and self-righteous as its misguided central character. On the other hand, if you consider all this GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL stuff a poor way to run a country, DEAR WENDY may seem a perfectly appropriate response, gleefully deconstructing our love of power and the dreadful gravitational pull of violence.

I don't go looking for a gospel message in every film I see. But I do have this habit of taking everything life brings my way – film included – and holding it up against the Bible, to see what light might be refracted. And when I wonder what sort of letter Jesus might write to Wendy and her lover, I think of his words to Peter; "All who draw the sword will die by the sword." Maybe he said that because, if nothing else, weapons are power. Intoxicating power. DEAR WENDY charts the corruption wrought by that kind of power, observing the way young ideals fall by the way once easier, quicker, more decisive strategies present themselves.

Maybe what we've got here isn't exactly a love story or a tragedy, or even a satire. Maybe Dear Wendy is film noir in disguise, sans tough detectives or moody black and white cinematography. Naive, corruptible, lonely young man meets femme fatale, and it all leads, inevitably, absurdly, to destruction.

Some dames you just can't trust. Dames like Wendy.

Available at Videomatica
Originally published at Christianity Today Movies
P.S. DEAR WENDY has the best website in the world. The one for DOGVILLE was equally cool, but it has disappeared from the web.