TORONTO — The United States scrutiny heard recently at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival is one of consistent criticism due to failed emergency rescues in New Orleans. Everyone these days, from TV commentators to festival attendees, appears critical of the U.S., saying the Gulf Coast disaster further proves that the world's greatest power is morally bankrupt and inept.
When a film joins in the criticism, like Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg's Dear Wendy, a fascinating drama about America's love affair with guns, the mostly Canadian and international audience responds with deafening approval. For an American, it's a wake-up feeling to sit in a large crowd and listen to people deride your homeland with gusto.
Dear Wendy resembles a classic Hollywood western because its West Virginia mining town setting is dusty and decrepit, but it's no romantic look at American life. It's been called a love story, although the key romance is between an 18-year-old loner, Dick (Jaime Bell), and his gun, which he nicknames Wendy.
Dick originally thought he was buying a toy gun, but he becomes fascinated with it once he finds out it's real. His fascination spreads, and soon other disaffected teens from the town have joined his gun club.
Dick and the other outcasts form a club called The Dandies, based on foppish clothes, pacifism and guns. It's a partnership destined to end in tragedy.
Filmmaker Cameron Crowe comes to the Toronto Film Festival with Elizabethtown, a half-baked fantasy about a son returning to the small-town America home of his late father. There are kids jumping on a trampoline and everyone waving to the film's outsider hero, Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom), as he drives into the rural Kentucky town to make funeral arrangements for his father.
Elizabethtown is America sugar-sweetened, and responses to the film were lukewarm at best. Crowe's timing is off. If you want to win the crowd — something Vinterberg learned firsthand at an evening screening of Dear Wendy late into the festival — it pays to take an anti-American stance.
Cast members Alison Pill and Michael Angarano join Vinterberg onstage at the college auditorium and reveal the instant love affair they experienced with their firearms. They talk about a gun's erotic power and how strong it made them feel to pull the trigger. They're defending the actions of their characters, explaining how the film makes sense.
Audiences ask them: How have Americans responded to the film? When told that many critics feel the film is unfair, the crowd cheers with approval. They love the idea of a cinematic attack on America.
The following morning Vinterberg, who co-founded Dogme 95 with fellow filmmaker and Dear Wendy screenwriter Lars Von Trier in 1995 in order to reject modern filmmaking, is late coming from his photo shoot at a local Toronto gun club and firing range. Heavy traffic causes some of the delay to the interview.
But his tardiness owes mostly to the fact that he spent a lot of time handling the club's firearms. He has become something of a sure shot due to his experience handling guns with the film.
Like his actors, he's beginning to understand the allure of firearms.
"It has to do with its erotic power," Vinterberg says, taking his seat at the hotel's restaurant. "A gun is a beautiful piece of mechanics."
What takes Vinterberg by surprise, what he's yet to digest, is the audience reaction to the film. It was if they're out for American blood.
"I felt in the room yesterday something I hadn't before — a hostility toward American culture," Vinterberg says. "I was a bit afraid of saying that I had not meant the movie to be aggressive towards America because I did not want to disappoint the audience. But I am not critical of America, per se. I have said we are all suburbs of America, and I mean that. I love America, but I am taking a poke at American gun culture."
He sees Dear Wendy as "satire at its most powerful," although he accepts that true American life is stranger than his fiction.
An article in the Sept. 18 New York Times reports on efforts by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance and National Wild Turkey Foundation to promote hunting and to lobby states to lower the age at which children can hunt. One outreach program allowed a 9-year-old girl to participate on a hunting trip with grown men in Vermont.
Whether the girl gave her rifle a nickname like the kids in Vinterberg's film is unknown.
Contact steve ramos: sramos(at)citybeat.com