By Angela Tumini.
There were times in Europe when the traditions of the past were thrown aside and rejected in favor of the spirit of experimentation, and when manifestos were a recurrent avant-gardist feature expressed in extreme rhetoric, intended for shock value in order to achieve a revolutionary effect. By 1909, the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti had already embraced a chaotic and irrational artistic attitude, shrugging cultural and intellectual conformity off his shoulders. He engaged in advocating a violent rupture with the past in order to found more dynamic poetry and literature. His personal crusade was meant to unchain art from the constraints of an inherited Italian tradition that hinged it to the past. In his Futurist Manifesto he exalted a direct confrontation with the so-called passatisti, referring to the old fashioned and conservative intellectuals.
In a sense, it is not possible to understand Futurism fully unless we take into account that “mass society was still in an early stage of development, far from having acquired the characteristics that would subsequently become more and more clearly defined with the ever more rapid development of new technologies. Yet, it was precisely this new world, just emerging at the dawn of the twentieth century, with its profound economic and anthropological transformations, that became the reference point for Futurism, a movement that responded to the radical nature of this epochal shift with a project almost equally global in its ambitions, that committed itself to an aesthetic renovation also entailing moral and intellectual claims, and that sought to involve not just an intellectual elite, but all the classes and sectors of modern society” (Salaris and Rainey, 109-127).
In bringing to life an ambitious project of artistic reawakening, Futurism got to be the most influential art movement that Italy produced in the early 20th century, with Marinetti attracting artists from all fields and bringing them into contact with each other, creating an avant-garde “palinsest” made up of performance and nonperformance artists. While Marinetti was preaching out loud his parole in libertà/freedom of words, the painter Umberto Boccioni was formulating his idea of “totality” in visual art, or the simultaneous representation of the temporal evolution of an action. Following his study of speed, the synthesis of the movements and the use of unconventional materials, he created a Manifesto of Futurist Painting and one of Futurist Sculpture, and helped to shape the revolutionary aesthetic of movement as a theorist as well as through his art. This article will discuss how, by complete coincidence, the futurists principles are seen to re-emerge in Dear Wendy a 2005 Danish film written by Lars von Trier and directed by Thomas Vinterberg. Even though the film was conceived in a different nature and for a different purpose, it is supported by ideas which resembles Marinetti’s doctrine of unconditional worship of the machine. Moreover, the film can be interpreted as a critique of American society, while pointing to the fact that art should be used as a vehicle to inspire real social change, which is a principle that relates to the Futurists ideas and beliefs.
Against the moonlight
The importance of Futurism as an art movement was re-underlined in February 20th 2009, when some of Italy’s major cities joined in celebrating one hundred years since the launching in Paris of the Futurist Manifesto by Marinetti. Rome, re-named “futuroma” for the occasion, was vibrant with exhibitions, conferences and installations; acrobatic futurist dancers, inspired by Boccioni’s paintings, entertained the astonished passers-by in Milan, while Marinetti’s poems were recited from the top of a crane at the port of Genoa, the city that hosted the poet while studying for a degree. These poems had been written to react against the flamboyance of the literary works of Gabriele D’Annunzio, Italy’s major poet and novelist at the time. The Italian Futurists shared a feeling of revulsion against his magniloquence from which they attempted to free themselves.
Humanity, in short, was to be seen as an object to be studied and scrutinized, not dramatized and sentimentalized: “Noi rinneghiamo i nostri maestri simbolisti ultimo amanti della luna/ We reject our moon loving Symbolist masters” (De Maria, 220). These were the defiant words of a Marinetti who centered his Futurist discourse on “uccidiamo il chiaro di luna/let’s kill the moonlight”, a slogan built on his scorn for a lecherous Amore that hinders the march of man, preventing him from transcending his own humanity. By adopting this concept of clear Nietzschean extract, the Futurists rebelled against the verbal excesses and the implied sentimentality of much Italian art, with its traditional romantic treatment of love and women as epitomized, for example, by the adulterous heroines of D’Annunzio, particularly those found in the Trilogia della Rosa / Trilogy of the Rose. Their reproaching attitude was aimed at the desire and the longing on the part of the male characters towards the females who were consequently transfigured in mysterious and elusive beings. The Futurists’ disdain was not simply a gender related issue of male versus female, but it implied a profound criticism of the role that the traditional canons of poetry and literature had conferred upon women, arguing in favor of an alternative model that could place them into a larger political context.
This particular frame of mind explains the fact that they turned their attention to the suffragettes as being possible strong allies in their campaign for cultural and intellectual liberation. Their rhetoric and their discourse of modernity addressing the questions of gender role in society became particularly appropriate after the First World War, a time in which, according to Stephen Gundle “a significant change occurred in women’s style and behavior. The phenomenon of the flapper or the garconne found a relatively limited echo in Italy in the form of the maschietta (tomboy) and the ragazza Novecento (twentieth-century girl), but it is widely recognized that the growth of cities, service industries, and modern entertainment was leading women towards ideals of self-fashioning and independence that conflicted with their conventional confinement to the domestic sphere” (Gundle, 80-81). The semantic connotation of “womanly” as the mysteriousness that must be uncovered is what exacerbated the Futurists who believed it was an idea to be vilified and demolished. Their praise were, instead, reserved for the beauty and nature of technology and, in Marinetti’s case, the modern man was to fall in love and worship the power of the machine, and to get excited at the glitter of electricity and at the sound of the striding wheel.
Gun slinging and bullet firing counteract the sound of the striding wheel in Dear Wendy, a Danish film written by Lars von Trier and directed by Thomas Vinterberg. The movie is a critique of American society and it is a densely layered and morally complex work, but it is also characterized by a synthesis of peculiar time and space colored with elements of a highly stylized form that allows the film to be interpreted in Futurist terms. Dear Wendy is the story of a group of adolescents who, in an a-temporal setting somewhere “out there”, in a fictional small American mining town in the USA, named Electric Park, decide to form their own “alternative” ideological movement. ‘The Dandies’, that is the name they choose, define and distinguish themselves by their worshipping of handguns, hang out in a disused mine, and stage noisy parades down Main Street, in a flamboyant way, wearing their trademark late 19th century attire. The disruption they cause in the town is one of the key elements that earns the group the power to redeem themselves from their apathy and from their former social condition of “losers”. Their newly-found condition, on the other hand, places them in direct opposition to the rest of the community which stands in the silent immobility of their repetitive and uneventful lives.
These adolescents are reminiscent of some sort of neo-futurists who are startled by the same “noise” that prompted the Italian Futurist group to be excited by the mechanical sounds echoing across the recently industrialized streets of Milan. However coincidental this may be, it is, nevertheless, interesting to notice how the futurists’ imagination was captured by machines just like the Dandy’s heart, in the film, is filled by raging madness and love for their guns. By slipping into fetish and fantasy, by naming their guns and assigning them personalities, emotions, and even imaginary votes in group decisions, the Dandies engage in a humanizing process of guns. This would encourage us to make a comparison with Marinetti’s frequent attacks against passéist culture in favor of a humanization of the machine with the purpose of replacing the long-standing idealization of the female body. The opening scenes of the Danish film are marked by a narrating voice reading the content of a loving letter written to Wendy which, as we discover later, happens to be one of the protagonists’ pearl-handed six-shooter. However, in order to conduct a more legitimate interpretation of the film in futuristic terms, there are certain points that must be stressed.
Firstly, the film prioritizes a clear extraneousness from any conventional love story between man and woman, as the title would suggest. Instead, one sees the members of the Dandy group proceeding to marry their guns in an odd ceremony. The only female protagonist is the “garconne-like” Susan who is not defined by a set of stereotypes of beauty that would be recognizable to all on the big screen. Susan does not conform to the image of a cinematic priestess of sexuality, nor does she earn the attention of the male members of the gang because of her gender related role: she asserts and consolidates her placement within the group by proving her ability as a gunslinger. If that is not enough, the Dandies have several quirks and create a “manifesto-like” list of idiosyncratic rules for themselves. It is important to point out that the aim of the film was not to re-enact Marinetti’s principles and beliefs, and its script is rather predicated on von Trier’s allusion to racial implications and stereotypes. There is a moment in the film when disaster seems inevitable once the local sheriff insists on Dick, Wendy’s owner, taking care of Sebastian, the murderous nephew of his family’s African-American maid.
At the same time, the Dandies ought to be interpreted as the products of an esthetic reflection of the bleak socio-industrial environment directly affecting their human behavior. What is fascinating is how, unintentionally, von Trier riddled the story with futurist concepts: at the core of the representation of the characters’ mode of actions, lies the energy of the human reaction responding to the experience of the forces of the street, thus creating an immediate intellectual bridge with the concept expressed in Boccioni’s art. One can argue that the term linee forze, or lines of forces, that in Boccioni’s work signifies the energy which dominate matter and spirit, can be applied to describe the narrative of Dear Wendy. In Boccioni’s painting Forze della strada / Forces of the Street, the light of the traffic mingles with the light coming from the sky and from the windows and doors, adding a transcendental quality to the image. Geometric forms and intensive colors are in perpetual intertwinement and figures float through the picture in a schematic manner. In Dear Wendy, we find a recurring insertion of precise schemes and drawings of the square in Electric Park that interplay with diagrams and moving graphics. This particular insertion in the film is used for reproducing the speed and the effects of a well-fired bullet with mathematical precision.
Women, guns and machines
Thomas Vinterberg described Dear Wendy as “A classic thought-provoking drama,” stating further “I have tried throughout the entire project, to anchor the film in a form of reality and recognizability and thereby remain true to the film’s unusual and fascinating story line” (see “Director’s Statement” on the film’s website). The “recognizability” mentioned by Vinterberg contains an undertone of social critique of a trigger-happy American society. Moreover, the plot in Dear Wendy is inspired by a profound feeling of distaste for the passion filled stories proposed by traditional Hollywood fiction. Vinterberg and von Trier’s attack on the portrayals of the fun of “healthy”, sexy and happily ending marriage is evident and it is meant to promote a deconstruction of traditional mores of Western society.
The action taken by the two Danes can be paralleled to the attack on decadent aestheticism and decadent ennui considered by the Futurists to be the paralyzing tools, standing in the way of a renewal of the universe; a universe that was in need of an annihilation of the tradition and the culture that it produced. By separating mind and body, Marinetti argued that humanity had to move away from its faulty, fragile past and lean forward towards a technological future in which human physiology and art are redefined according to the ideal body of the machine. Cinzia Sartini Blum describes this “mythicization of the machine” as “a phantasmatic transformation of an enemy into a friendly object,” which “affords an illusory amplification of power, a feeling of sadistic omnipotence” (Sartini Bloom, 52).
This theory certainly finds its correlative in the Futurist movement that was at once a joke and a threat to established powers in Italy and other parts of Europe. In their disrupting of public events as part of a campaign to install into Italian culture a resolute fascination with technology and war, the Futurists chose to embrace the power and speed represented by machine. Their aim was to portray the excitement of life in the fast lane, in a new Machine Age, where Italian culture would be respected for what it was doing in the present, not just for its lingering past. Moreover, the Futurists saw this “new friendly object” as the symbol of a necessary “waking call” to be launched to the guardians of Italian culture who could be then forced out of their lethargy and coerced into creating a modern, up-to-date country; a country that, in their mind, would gain as much importance as the Italy of classical antiquity and of the Renaissance. We could argue that a “waking call” of this kind characterizes Dear Wendy too, if we consider that this film is the result of Vinterberg and von Trier’s wish to address and challenge the well established aesthetic style and pre-conceived notions of cinema and the society it represents. It ought to, therefore, be placed in the sphere of alternative film-making, something that can be better explained in Laura Mulvey’s terms:
“The alternative cinema provides a space for a cinema to be born which is radical in both a political and an aesthetic sense and challenges the basic assumptions of the mainstream film. This is not to reject the latter moralistically, but to highlight the ways in which its formal preoccupations reflect the psychical obsessions of the society which produced it, and, further, to stress that the alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting against these obsessions and assumptions.” (Mulvey, 6-18)
“Reacting”, to use Mulvey’s expression, was a term cheered by the Futurists when they initiated their counter-action towards a bourgeois and passeist artistic mentality. Unlike most modernists myths which sought to divorce or detach the subject from their role in a mechanical society, they based their manifesto on the modern aesthetic principles of a fast, aggressive and death embracing lifestyle. They advocated the citizen’s allegiance to a truly positive belief that the meaning of life and one’s personal fulfillment lie in the future and not in the present or past. It might be added that, in the process of engaging with this type of defiant ideals, the Futurists were also very much in dialogue with the issue of war, virility, and, to some extent, with misogyny. Few would deny, that Futurism strongly appealed to masculinist ideals, while asserting that the cherished “feminine ideal” that needed to be left behind, purported to represent the idealized images of Woman that dominated Italian culture. In short, in order to make the transition to a newly-regenerated culture, Italians males were urged to stage a collective action that would liberate them from the tyrannical hegemony of the female sexual power while turning their attention to the empowering attributes of machines.
Divas and anti-divas
It seems logical, at this point, to define the casual analogies that occur between Dear Wendy and the Futurists ideas by a set of pre-existing Freudian notions. It is, in fact, through the fetishization of their guns that the Dandies affirm their masculine omnipotence that had remained unclaimed before the newly-discovered identity of the gang. It is difficult in this case to ignore the psychoanalytic aspect of Dear Wendy, since it is excessively Freudian in its phallic imagery and representations of power. Freud addressed castration anxiety at length and conjectured that fetishism disavowed the missing penis/phallus of the woman via that missing part’s displacement onto an exterior object. In the film, Wendy is completely anthropomorphized and symbolizes the fully phallic and fantasmatic female, and it is not just the biological boys who succumb to such fetishism. The sole girl Dandy, Susan, does so doubly and in a spectacular way by owning and mastering two guns, which she names Grant and Lee. It would be wrong to analyze Susan from and aesthetic standpoint as a female character, since she is not constructed on our accumulated collective memories of American iconography or drafted from film history. Susan does not, in any way, evoke the 1950’s sex-comedies in which “the role of woman in a film almost always revolved around her physical attraction and the mating game she plays with the male characters. […] [in which] the laughs are on her. She is assumed to be frigid, and the plot rolls along on the tricks a man plays on her, with liquor or words-until the very end of the film, when he suddenly gives in and marries her” (Smith, 14-16). Susan is a von Trier-created “Calamity Jane” who is gritty and un-romanticized and finds no parallel with the “Janes” traditionally played by sexy vixens.
For example, in The Plainsman, made by Cecil B. De Mille in 1936, Jane is portrayed has having an exaggerated love affair with Bill; or we can think of the musical Calamity Jane made in 1953 and starring Doris Day. If any parallel could be established with an American counterpart, the only Jane to consider is the one featuring in the HBO series Deadwood and played by Robin Weigert, but only because of the realistic approach taken in her depiction as a character. The Susan in Dear Wendy moves away from a classical discourse of divismo whereby the woman-icon is “displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look [and the one who] always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified”, that is to say the castration anxiety (Mulvey, 65). The process of identification with her guns counterbalances Susan’s potential mystification as a female by eliminating a priori her fetish attributes as object of desire. The scene in which she proudly exposes her breasts to Dick is, in fact, intended as an acknowledgement of their belated growth, not as a seductive or a provocative stance. She becomes, paradoxically, and by means of Vinterberg and von Trier’s subversive intentions, a typical anti-diva whose accomplishments are not gender related or shaped by her sexuality: they are achieved because she is enamored with guns, and by being swept up in the weapons’ mystique and power.
These aspects of Susan vaguely recall the only extant futurist film Thaïs, made by Anton Giulio Bragaglia in 1916. Thaïs is an experimental film in which the heroine is a doubling and dominant female figure through which the idea of destruction is set up in radical opposition to procreation. As remarked by Lucia Re “Thaïs (in both cases a pseudonym), triggers a sense of vertigo for the viewer, who in effect is unable to distinguish between the two. It is, however, the fictional character named Thaïs who overshadows the diva here; by means of her acting, the character creates the diva effect – not vice versa” (Re, 125-150).
In Dear Wendy, Susan’s figure is overshadowed by Lee and Grant which are the determining factors for her daring display of indirect hits using ricocheted bullets. Susan’s figure can, therefore, be juxtaposed to Bragaglia’s Thaïs as she “conjures up a new, different model of spectatorship, one that even while playing with the conventions of D’Annunzian divismo, asks us to be critical and disenchanted, and exposes the very mechanisms and tricks that it uses to seduce us. The film ‘shoots’ repeatedly and in various ways at the conventions of the dominant diva culture or divismo. […] Bragaglia’s film overturns the traditional paradigm of the diva (in a typical futurist gesture which – echoing the first futurist manifesto – could be defined as ‘sfida alle stelle’ or ‘challenge to the stars’) because it promotes a complete unknown, without any kind of publicity campaign and without any kind of past, to the rank of diva. She is transformed into a diva ex-nihilo” (Re, 129-130).
Susan is a myth-decoded female character and represents the swooning departure from the land of tabloid romance; the romantic side of her is fulfilled by her excessive lust for the potential destructive power of her guns. Susan calls for a role that rivals sensuality and tradition and it is confined to a self-made “outer space” where she constructs her identity: the Temple. The Temple is the locus where Susan’s character is shaped and completed; it is hidden in an old mine and is far retracted from the homes of the rest of the community above it. Similarly, in Bragaglia’s film, there is a constructed “outer space” represented by at secret chamber where Thais plays her role of creator of mechanical seduction and destruction. What surfaces in both films is that the underlying message is really about the uncanny way in which the fascination with the dark and uncontrollable side of machinery keeps a grip on human nature. The difference is, that while in Thais the destructive power of machinery is clearly associated with the danger of the femme fatale, in von Trier and Vintenberg’s movie the focus is placed on the romanticizing of guns to an excess that leads the dispossessed and the deviant to naturally turn to them in order solve personal and social ills.
More to the point, in “La battaglia di Tripoli”, Marinetti had, incidentally, compared the femme fatale to a weapon, specifically to a mitragliatrice, or machine gun (Re, 130) combating the artistic concept of the great beauties depicted by the old Italian masters. Marinetti had gone as far as issuing a Manifesto “Contro il lusso femminile/Against female luxury” in which he condemned the waste of feminine luxury citing “[…] that hygienic measure taken by a Venetian doge who required the beautiful Venetian women to expose their naked breasts at the window, between two candles, in order to lead males back to the straight and narrow” (Gundle, 101). That explains the reason why Thaïs owes much of its meaning to her representation as the incarnation of the elements of technology that remained mind-boggling for the futurists. Likewise, the “humanized” gun, Wendy, has definite feminine qualities (hence the choice of the name) suggesting a certain purposefulness and overindulgence on the part of its owner who, treading on Freudian ground, transfers his/her libidinal energy onto it.
Death is also the key component that creates a common terrain for the conclusion of both the Danish film and the Italian Futurist one, even though there are differences in terms of their variety of content. The Dandies ‘whose conflicting ideals of pacifism and guns have a set rule to never draw their weapons, come to realize that in some situations rules have to be broken and stage an explosive finale in a sharp allegorical way in which the folly of America’s love affair with guns is exposed in a perfectly structured bloodbath. Bragaglia, follows the scene of Bianca’s deadly fall from her horse, with an immediate doubling, and the spectacular scene of the self-annihilation of Thaïs. Since Futurism’s popularity, grew in a time when by advocating a concept of “simplicity” and “naturalization” by which perfection society was traversed by collective protest and demand for change, Marinetti decided to distinguish his argument according to the following principles:
“Destroy the frills of one’s own life. Simplify each thing in order to be able to dominate a greater number of affairs. One must have a hundred things simplified and coarsened in one’s own life. One must never have anything tied up or made ornate with a thousand useless frills. Destroy all tricks masks cosmetics ribbons of important things. Reduce every important matter to its state of raw nudity. That way you can dominate many important matters and make a complex synthesis of them directed toward its perfection and splendor. Frills prevent us from seeing the direction of their strength. Important things, once stripped liberated from their frills, can reveal their power and their direction to us.” (Rayney and Wittman, 1-44)
There is a cry of rebellion built into Dear Wendy that can justify a possible association of this film with the ideals of the Futurist poets. These ideals are timeless and universal and were not invented by some aesthetic clique. They are an expression of a violent desire, which have, at different times, boiled in the veins of creative artists across the planet. The cultural purpose of Dear Wendy as a movie is to combat not only the Hollywood style, but all the cinema which falls within its sphere of influence. Marinetti and his followers caused riots, spread rumors, and flaunted endless rhetoric before divisive audiences, in order to gain support for Italy’s imperial invasion of Libya and its entrance into World War I, and for the country’s artistic catharsis. In the process, they foreshadowed many of the political and aesthetic developments of the twentieth century, particularly those relating to the physical and psychological effects produced by the rapid rise of modern technology. He declared the group’s identity and aesthetic position not only by slapping tradition in the face, but by insisting on the condemnation of stale rationality that leads to artistic inertia:
“We are not exhausted…. Our heart is not in the least weary! For it has been nourished on fire, hatred, and speed! …You are astonished? It is because you do not remember living!…. Your objections? Enough! Enough! I know them! I quite understand what our splendid and mendacious intelligence asserts. We are, it says, but the result and continuation of our ancestors. – Perhaps! Be it so! … What of that? But we will not listen! Beware of repeating such infamous words! Rather hold your head up! Erect on the pinnacle of the world, we once more hurl forth our defiance to the stars!” (Cohn, 112)
Lars von Trier had launched his “defiance to the stars” by voicing his critique of the routine practice of film-making early in his career as a director. In creating the Dogme 95 group of which Vinterberg was a member, he had previously emphasized the need for filmmakers to rethink the language of cinema and its implied aesthetics. He, therefore, promoted a clear rejection of the “prisonlike setting” of conventional cinema opting for the creation of new rules that would spur the directors to build a dialectic relationship between fiction and truth.
With the production of Dear Wendy, the two Danish “mavericks” continued to hold their heads up when they proposed aesthetic ideals grounded on the criticism of those films which offer a “skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure. [Those] Unchallenged, mainstream films [which] coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order. In the highly developed Hollywood cinema it was only through these codes that the alienated subject, torn in his imaginary memory by a sense of loss, by the terror of potential lack in fantasy, came near to finding a glimpse of satisfaction: through its formal beauty and its play on his own formative obsessions” (Mulvey, 59). Futurist art was the result of pursuing a program of cultural democratization, setting the goal of bringing art into the realm of daily life. Dear Wendy reflected a commitment on von Trier and Vinterberg’s part to challenge the accepted conventions of the fiction film-making. By encouraging a reflection on the status of cinema, the two Danes were also targeting the possibilities of maintaining the role of Denmark and its cinema tradition marked by the works of masters such as Carl Theodor Dreyer, in a glamorous cinematic world colonized by the American film industry.
Angela Tumini is Professor of Italian Studies at Chapman University in California.
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De Maria, Luciano (1994), Marinetti e i futuristi, Milano: Garzanti.
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Sartini Blum, Cinzia (1996), The Other Modernism: F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist Fiction of Power, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Salaris, Claudia and Rainey, Lawrence S. (1994), “Marketing Modernism: Marinetti as Publisher” in Modernism/Modernity 1:3, The Johns Hopkins University Press.