Thursday, January 01, 2009
Cast: Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Wally Dalton
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Runtime: 80 min.
I and my friend had this idea once, to write the frameworks of a reactionary film much in the mode of what Oliver Stone churns out time and again. I wrote, and wrote, in great fury, and then I stopped. I read it all, and I was ashamed and I promised to myself never to write anything like that ever again. I still keep it, as a measure of the raw and immature tendencies of mine, and that is when I felt a distinct sense of contempt grow within for the kind of films Stone represents. You see, these films (W.) with their modernist approach to political strategies vent their anger all-out keeping The State as their punching bag. For one, I’m not sure they’re any effective in the long run, because they always tend to get predictable and ham-fisted, and inevitably get locked up in rhetoric. And two, now that I’m here to discuss cinema rather than politics, I’m really not sure they make for great and enduring art either. Often, they handicap a film beyond repair. This kind of approach almost did Rang De Basanti in, and were it not for the artful script, its otherwise bland view of the antagonist was at best puke-worthy. A work of art is always a product of its times, the zeitgeist, but what ensures its greatness is its timelessness, something that is achieved only when one finds layers and themes beyond that rhetoric.
I see Wendy and Lucy, and I’m reminded of that great John Ford film The Grapes of Wrath. Apparently it might seem strikingly timely, especially during these bad times, where I read more and more about folks being pushed to the fringes, and some of them slipping through the cracks. I read alarming figures of jobs being lost. That might very well be the kind of world Wendy, a female itinerant worker, finds herself in. And reading this, you might choose to very well overlook this film as one given only to its surroundings with a story set in America, dealing with people in a society and times we experience little of. But as good films with good stories do, Wendy and Lucy doesn’t parade its times but instead uses merely as a backdrop. It is merely a lurking variable of the equation, whose presence is only felt because one’s aware of them. Pluck this film right out, and place it in times vastly different, and its little tale will still move you. The word I’ve used here, tale, might be a trifle on the wrong side for this isn’t as much a tale as it is a little anecdote. As they like to call it, a slice of life. And what a heartbreaking slice it is.
Wendy (Michelle Williams) is driving through to Alaska, on her way from Indiana I believe, and she passes through this little sleepy town in Oregon. It is a job that she seeks down there, having heard they might be hiring folks. For those fisheries, maybe. She is alone, and for company she has a dog. Her name is Lucy, and she is nothing more than a mutt. You know Wendy probably hasn’t that much money when she chooses to sleep in her car, a Honda Accord. On a blank sheet, she carefully does arithmetic with the money at her disposal and arrives at a figure not too generous. We hope she makes it to wherever she is going, and gets a fine job, and when she does the arithmetic at the end of the day then, the figure she arrives is more handsome. But that is the dreams of a future. She wakes up when a guard knocks on her windshield and asks her to move the car out of the restricted area. She tries to start the car, and it doesn’t. The car has broken down. The first thought that crosses our mind is not too surprisingly that little figure she arrived on that paper she carefully keeps in her bag. Not many possessions at her disposal you see, apart from a couple of bags, a few clothes that look much the same and a bag of dog food that is all but empty. She is stuck, for she has to get her car repaired and she has got to eat some food. This is the second time this year that a little film has been borne out of the weariness of a little town (Shotgun Stories), and both times it has been an independent film.
On my first viewing it seemed to me that Ms. Reichardt was pulling off a neat manipulation by subtly stacking circumstances, financial and otherwise, and her own decisions against her, for reasons that are obvious. But there occurred an incident to me, not one that is too uncommon, but one that fascinated me by its timing. I’m usually given to a rather casual approach as far as matters concerning my finances are concerned, and I more often than not find myself bothered towards the end of the month. This time around, I had planned a servicing for my car for which I had assumed an expense of Rs.2000 would be a fair figure. Things didn’t quite turn out that way when the actual figure incurred exceeded mine threefold. That is when I remembered Wendy, and the immensely shallow nature of my initial thoughts on the film. I watched it a second time that day, and it struck me what a fool I was not to perceive a truth so blatantly apparent. That things always feel kinda stacked up when you’re having troubles. When you’re having bad times. You see, there is a reason why they call it bad times.
Films based on such premises so often are, and their shamelessness is betrayed in the way they choose to show the misery and gain leverage out of it. The Pursuit of Happyness comes to mind, where the objective is always to convey the desperation of the situation. The pain and the suffering are always highlighted, often doubly so, just so to ensure that the audiences do not miss them. Not Ms. Reichardt, whose film isn’t exploitative in any way, neither with us nor with its central character. Yes, it is given to a somber tone, but one that arises deep from its heart. Its movements, its choice of frames, its edits and their timing are given to contemplation. Now, I have benefitted immensely from a second viewing, and the secret to her mise-en-scène isn’t all that difficult to read. You see, she isn’t one to pander. She is patient, she is reserved, because every moment of her character is something that is precious to her. Her frames move slowly capturing the atmosphere around, and the times around. She doesn’t supply anything external, say a score, but instead relies on the world around Wendy. The object of her attention isn’t just Wendy’s misfortunes, but her life. Rather the object of her attention is Wendy herself. And Lucy, her dog, is part of it all. I hope you appreciate the difference. We’re forced to contemplate too, and the questions that arise in our mind might be way beyond Wendy’s present situation, or even way beyond Wendy and very near to us. The film eventually becomes a part of the little anecdote it is reciting. This isn’t a bleak film mind you, and in many ways it will warm your heart as few films have this year, even though not a false word is spoken, and not a moment exists that might be considered even remotely artificial. It is one of those films that find a rare pragmatic truth within them, which I believe is a million times more affirming than the false goodness most films seem to soften us with.
But then there’s a certain element that I’m kinda caught up in. Wendy is moving to Alaska out of financial helplessness, but there’s a part of me that feels Ms. Reichardt’s romantic notions about the kind of drifter that Wendy represents is betrayed. She feels to me like a free spirit, and in lending her heart to the film, she might have lent that part of hers to it too. There’re quite a few shots of trains, and I don’t know that triggers a hunch in me. That Wendy’s life is a result of her choice. Which although might not be entirely true, but actually might not be entirely false either. We see circumstances, but we see false decisions too. Whatever may be her past though, I believe Wendy of now wants to settle down and have a warm and cozy life of her own. Not alone, but with a company. Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain) delivers one of the best performances of the year, and it is a performance of great courage. There’s great intensity in that subdued demeanor of hers. She reveals precious little through her exterior, and there’s a certain pain we feel in the way her emotions are repressed. We wish she could let it out, but she endures. How much, we wonder. And just that thought plain breaks our heart. Watch her wade through her world all alone. She doesn’t speak a word. She tries to, at one time, and calls her sister to seek some comfort. Seek some warmth from a loved one. Watch how it pans out. Her sister may have her reasons, as we all do for what we do. At times, I was frightened for Wendy.
And I was reminded of this little incident that happened in Diu, one that I’ll always remember. Anyone who might have visited the place would know that it shuts down by eight in the night, after which the streets feel absolutely desolate. We stayed at this hotel, and many of us were drunk, and fast asleep. It was in the middle of the night, probably after midnight, when the non-drinkers amongst us decided to enjoy a stroll in the night. We were three of us, and we approached the reception, where the guy at the table had locked the door and was fast asleep on the couch nearby. We woke him up to unlock the door, and as he approached it our eyes caught a lady, apparently not from India. Her eyes were sunken and by looking at her it seemed she hadn’t slept in a year. She was standing outside the locked door, absolutely still, and overburdened by her haversack. She looked at us, and she knocked. The receptionist opened the door and asked her to leave, because of some rule that foreigners aren’t allowed unless booked in advance. She spoke, rather there was a sudden outburst of words, as if she hadn’t spoken to anyone for a long time, and her accent was Australian. The receptionist didn’t understand her, and for a minute or two we heard her talking non-stop and him asking her to leave. She was in utter despair. We asked the guy to let her in, and when she realized there was someone who could understand her, she burst into tears. She cried, and cried endlessly. The bus (which in all probability was a state bus) she had boarded had promised her Diu, but had apparently left her ten kilometers outside the town. Imagine a woman walking all that distance all alone in the middle of the night, with her luggage. She reached here, and when she walked into this other hotel where her agent had supposedly booked a room for her, the receptionist there refused her flat that there was no booking. And there was no room. All this in the middle of the night in an absolute foreign land. The hotel guys refused rooms in the night because of the minor inconvenience involved, the details of which I have no idea about, but we know it was minor because we convinced the guy rather easily. She got the room, and she cried in gratitude. Maybe the relief caused them. Such a moment occurs in Wendy and Lucy, and it is a small gesture, but there’s such great truth to it. These might be bad times, harsh times, and through filmmakers like Ms. Reichardt there seems to be the first signs of a more human reaction. One that speaks of the actual, human toll, and quietly but surely makes its point felt deep. Ms. Reichardt is being hailed as the new hope for American independent cinema, and all I hope she carries in the same vein.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 4:13 AM