Saturday, February 21, 2009

WENDY AND LUCY

When Mickey Rourke accepted his Golden Globe Award for Best Actor, he said, "Sometimes, when a man's alone, all he has are his dogs", to a sprinkling of chuckles from the audience (obviously these people were never dog owners). Recently, a friend of mine said, "I pretty much like dogs better than people." Those weren't cynical words, they were words of love and loyalty. Being a dog person myself, perhaps I expected something that I shouldn't have from Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy. I anticipated a love poem to human/canine bonding. After all, the film's poster captures one of man & dog's most intimate moments: the "stick tug-o-war".

Since I do my best to go into a movie as naked as possible, all I knew about Wendy and Lucy was that Michelle Williams played a girl who lost her dog. But the film isn't really about that. Like Reichardt's previous film Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy is a continuation of Reichardt's meditation on the directionless floating of late-twenty to early-thirtysomethings. Lucy simply represents another part of Wendy's life that is flaking off as she makes her desperate dash from an old home in Indiana to a new hope in Alaska (where, Wendy says, "they need people"). We know little of Wendy's past. She has a bandage on her right ankle and a brace around her ribs (was she fleeing abuse?). She calls her brother-in-law and speaks to him awkwardly and intimately (was she having an affair with her sister's husband?).

Whatever the case, Wendy and Lucy works better for us not knowing, because the glow of uncertainty around Wendy helps shed light on the personal experiences she has in the small Oregonian town her car breaks down in. But this is both Wendy and Lucy's strength AND weakness. In Old Joy, Reichardt kept the focus almost entirely on the solemn but intense interactions of Daniel London and Will Oldham where, even in the film's short running time, we were able to deem a great deal about the past, present, and future of their male-to-male relationship. But in Wendy and Lucy Reichardt shows a desire to cast an eye upon a wider social arena... and it doesn't work.

Most cringe-worthy is Reichardt's handling of a scene in a grocery store where Wendy is nabbed shoplifting some dog food. The store's clerk - clean-cut, white, and with a shiny cross around his neck - escorts Wendy to the manager's office and proceeds to get off some high & mighty moralizing before calling the police over items that total less than five dollars. Later, while out searching for Lucy, Wendy crosses paths with the clerk again. With his "straight and narrow" Christian ethics already established, we see the clerk neglectfully stride past Wendy and get into his car as she desperately yells out Lucy's name. The moment is yet another tired and easy slap at small-town Christianity; the clerk's religious-born charity is useful only when it's self-serving. Reichardts too talented to play that cheap game.

Yet it's Wendy's acceptance of charity that really needs examining. Outside of a rude auto mechanic and her friendship with a Walgreen's security guard, Wendy casts an impatient and semi-sore eye on the town she's just "passing through". Thankfully, Reichardt avoids dipping into any "why me?" wah-wah disaffected young-adult panting, and Wendy does largely seem to take ownership of her hardships, but there still lingers a sense of young generation entitlement that tends to corrupt that sentiment.

A pair of local critics have put Wendy and Lucy within the context of our country's current recession. That works, but then making the leap in comparison to Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves is where one starts to rattle off the rails. Reichardt's film effectively taps into modern anxieties in a scene where a drifter (played staunchly by Larry Fessenden) sneaks up on a sleeping Wendy by the side of the road, but then quickly turns into bad poetry in a sequence where Wendy scatters items of clothing around town in order to attract Lucy by scent. This stretches the symbolism of Wendy's "shedding" a little too far, and frankly, when she left her pink panties draped over a branch, it all became a bit too precious for me.

Coincidentally, during Wendy's final ride - a fitting visual bookend to the film's opening tableau of stationary rail cars - some of the grocery store clerk's declarations seem to ring exactly true.

6 comments:

ryan said...

I haven't seen the film, but I've been wanting to for a long time, so I'm only speculating here: perhaps if the Christian grocery clerk's moralizing "rings true" at the end, it's not so much the director judging him so harshly earlier in the film, but Wendy. You call out the director for being "smarter than that" when she mocks the clerk's piety, but then at the end of your review insinuate that the clerk was right after all. So maybe you should give the director more credit. But like I said, I haven't seen the film, so I'm just going by what you said in your review.

:Debbie said...

I think I want Wendy's haircut.

Fox said...

Ryan-

That's good reading by you, b/c I did think of that when I wrote the last line. And you're right, it definitely could have been Reichardt's intention, but thinking on that scene, I'm still personally convinced that she handles the clerk in a mildly snooty way. I'd like to hear your thoughts after you see it though, b/c maybe it will read differently to you.

Also, I thought of you and Tom during the movie since it takes place in Oregon.

Debbie-

It is super cute, and I think you would morph into well from your pixie cut. Give it a try!

What's funny about Wendy (Michelle Williams) in the movie is that she remains pretty cute throughout even though she bathes in a gas station and wears the same clothes all the time. But I guess when you're that naturally pretty (as Williams is), it's kinda hard to ever look unattractive.

MovieMan0283 said...

Fox, your last comment raises something that's been on my mind, nagging me since I first heard of the movie. As an inhabitor of several East Coast cities over the years, I don't think I've ever seen a homeless person who looked like Michelle Williams. Perhaps it's different in the Midwest, but somehow the casting (and I like the actress) just strikes me as phony, a way to seem down-to-earth and "legit" without actually being so. But to be fair, that's me pre-judging the movie; it's just my first impression.

MovieMan0283 said...

Oh, and perhaps it's because I'm a lapsed Catholic, but depictions of the "faithful" as being judgemental and shrewish have always driven me up the wall. It's such an easy stereotype, and an uninteresting one. No doubt it's often true to life, but it always manages to ring false.

Fox said...

MovieMan-

I know what you mean, and those thoughts crossed my mind too, but to be fair, Wendy is on a slow trip from Indiana to Alaska. She is indeed "homeless" but not in the sleeping-on-park-benches kind of way.

Also, Reichardt does show, what appears to be some legitimate homeless people near a train yard. Although, if you live in a college town, you'll know that "anarchists"/co-op members somestimes sport a homeless chic look, so, it's hard to tell.

Now, on your second comment...

Oh, and perhaps it's because I'm a lapsed Catholic, but depictions of the "faithful" as being judgemental and shrewish have always driven me up the wall. It's such an easy stereotype, and an uninteresting one. No doubt it's often true to life, but it always manages to ring false.

I'm a lapsed Catholic as well, and it's possible that b/c I have loved ones that are still of the faith or of another faith, that I feel the need to be defensive for them. I think that mainly comes from the inaccuracy with which they've been protrayed in movies and the media at large.

Look, obvioulsy, since I am non-believer I find myself at philisophical odds with Christianity (and all religions) but too often, I think, religious people are so often portrayed as either rubes or evil instead of flawed (like we are all).

This gives me a good chance to get in some praise for a movie that looked at a branch of Christianity in a critical but respectful way. The film is caled Save Me, and it's about a ministry that believes gay men can be "turned" straight. Save Me is a gay film, and its stance is that these ministries are fighting a fruitless battle against something that is biological, but it never treats the Christians at the ministry as red-fanged lunatics. The film shows them as people with good hearts, just misguided hearts, and in the case of Judith Light's character (she runs the ministry) a person that is much more complex than is oftern characterized.

In the extras, both Judith Light and Chad Allen talk about how important it was for them to show these people in a human light even though they disagree with them morally. The film has it's flaws for sure, but the effort should be applauded because I think it approaches a controversial issue in a way that other more mainstream "indies" should, but don't.

I've also heard that that documentary For The Bible Tells Me So treats its subjects pretty respectfully... but I've yet to see it.