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Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Hum: Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy”












I have a certain weakness for Wendy (Michelle Williams), the protagonist of Kelly Reichardt's magnificent Wendy and Lucy, a movie that looks and feels like the conjoined feminine half of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, the other great drama of 2008. This is a lonely woman who we can assume made some bad decisions, and is now throwing herself into Fate's arms, driving away from her unfulfilling (or haunted) origins in Indiana to Alaska. She is living on limited funds in an unreliable vehicle, changing her clothes (very few clothes) and washing herself (though not her whole self) in public restrooms. Reichardt doesn't delve into many expository specifics as her camera follows Wendy. But there seems to be some Kerouacian spirit to her longing for freedom. That's what this is about, I think: the longing to fly above the barriers that immobilize human beings in moving forth and experiencing whatever it is that drives them. Wendy has one companion on this adventure. Her dog, Lucy.
Wendy and Lucy is an agit-prop human story. We should be angry watching it. It continues a sociological discussion commencing in Reichardt’s previous film, Old Joy, following a person without a safety net. We need health insurance (which relates to employment at one place over a sustained period of time); leases on residence and transportation; loans for school; we need good credit. If you have a cell phone, you are held captive by a contract for two years. To pay your contract, you need a credit card or a checking account. You need to be wired in, and the wires reach out to each other. To get a residence, you need to sign a lease which keeps you in place for so long; for that, you need a job to pay for the lease. And beyond that, to get a residence, or in many cases of employment, you need your credit checked. If you have bad credit, or no credit, what then? A felony? You can't live or work here. A driving violation? You cannot work as a courier or drive a cab. What kind of normal existence can this person ever afford to attain? To have a mate or partner? Children? A residence and room of one's own? The troubling phenomenon of the "overdraft charge" exemplifies this frustration, as banks are hesitant to get rid of such charges, which can threaten a person's financial stability, because the corporate body would suffer and have to lay people off: a lot of money comes into the company because of the poverty and fiscal irresponsibility of others – who can only afford to be fiscally irresponsible. Every step upward is met with a blow that knocks them three steps down again. The notion of complete "freedom" is a lie being that the mechanical power structures in place do their best to regulate bodies the best that they can, hampering the development of any kind of a fully realized person. The sweep of democracy over the globe is illusory. Superficially free, our deeper, essential selves are imprisoned by social security cards. If one strays or errors, theirs is a path of loneliness, fear, and a perpetual separateness from Normalcy.
Wendy has the added responsibility of Lucy, a helpless creature that she must feed, in addition to her own needs. She is relying on her car, in which she securely sleeps. And her budget, comprising of $542 at the point that we accompany her on her journey (someplace in rural industrial Oregon), will barely get her to Alaska. The dominos fall. Sleeping in a Walgreens parking lot, she is told that she has to get the car off the property. "It's not allowed," says the kindly security guard. The car won't start. She has to get it fixed. She needs to feed Lucy. She decidedly steals some dog food from a local mart, gets caught and arrested, is fined $50, and upon returning to the mart hours later, sees that Lucy, whom had been tied to a bike rack, is gone. Her quest is to find her companion, but if Lucy is ever recovered, can Wendy still adequately care for her? The film is a contemporary riff on De Sica's Umberto D.
The film opens with the sound of rail traffic and cargo trains on the graphic vectors of tracks leading to nowhere, a vanishing point with mass transportation of goods and services through the heart of America: The cold and commercial impersonal flow of industrial traffic contrasted to the warm organic relationship of creatures bonding, or Wendy and Lucy playing fetch. Reichardt's camera steadily tracks along with Wendy, simply holding the two together in their reliable companionship. This is soon broken when Lucy treads off to a campfire with a group of vagrants and travelers who have also been on this desolate adventure, some coming from Alaska. Smoking pot and telling stories, one (Will Oldham) relates how he fled one of the fisheries after being responsible for a logistical catastrophe, his lack of paper identity allowing him to get away. Wendy seems weary of this group, perhaps for good reason. An isolated trek, particularly for a young woman, cannot allow one to be too trusting of strangers and their ulterior motives. Maybe the relationship that Wendy has with her dog is more stable than anything she has experienced with another human being, which is why she is jealously preoccupied with getting Lucy away from the campfire and back to her side. In her car at the Walgreens parking lot, she overlooks her budget, and tenderly says, "'Night, baby girl.”
The security guard wakes her the next morning, tapping on the window. "Ma'am. Ma'am," he says. "You can't sleep here, ma'am. It's against the rules. You have to move your car." She complies, only to have her car begin to clunk when she turns the ignition. She posits that one of her belts may be broken and needs to be replaced. The guard stands, unable to do more than do his job. "You'll have to move your car." This character of the security guard is empathetic, but in his uniform he is like any number of other workers – attached to protocol, his singular directive being to have the car moved and out of the lot. He helps her push the car onto the street, points her to a mechanic, and gives the location of a grocer where she can get some dog food. Yet his insistence that the car be moved, regardless of how empathetic he is, feels absurd to us, as if he is some ghost trapped in his own machine.
Wendy ties Lucy to a bike rack, carefully placing some dog food cans in her coat pocket. Though she could easily afford to buy some, her long-term budgetary goal gives her the justification to steal. Unfortunately, as she exits, a teenage store clerk stops her, aggressively grabbing her arm and asking her if she has forgotten something. Taking her to the manager's office, the clerk insists, "There are rules. They should apply to everyone. Regardless." The manager, who probably could care less, shrugs as the clerk continues. He admits that the store has a policy of prosecuting all violators. Wendy will be arrested and fined. There is no nuance or use for apologies here because of the cause-effect linear rules that apply to everyone. Wendy is escorted out of the store by the police. She tries to tell her arresting officers that her dog is still at the store, but they don’t listen.
The police station is a den of an unending electronic humming, suspending life with no measure of time. Wendy looks at the generic clocks as the hours go by, knowing how Lucy is hungry, alone, and vulnerable in an open parking lot. Wendy is responsible for the dog, and this weighs more heavily on her than any transgression of the law. She is fingerprinted, her identity being recorded into a database – an imperfect database, as it turns out as she must be fingerprinted twice (therefore elongating her time at the station). An officer sighs, "This machine's going to kill me," as he records her fingerprints, which we see on a computer screen, a Kubrickian irony regarding the relationship of human beings to technological tools of the law. When told about her $50 fine, Wendy protests that she doesn't have any money. The receptionist answers, "You can also pay with a credit card," indicating just how for granted peoples' financing is taken by institutions. Defeated, Wendy relinquishes some of her precious budgetary cash money.
Lucy is missing. No one recalls seeing her being taken, or even being there to begin with. Seen in wide-shots, Wendy's whistles and calls to Lucy are meaningless in the sparse city heading towards late afternoon and inevitably dark twilight. We see the space-cadet store clerk exit through the receiving door of the store, picked up by his mother. This young man can stand firmly on the principles of unbending rules: he has a warm security blanket. Wendy doesn't (nor does Lucy, except for Wendy). Those who follow society's rules and stand firmly by its mandates often are able to do so because they can afford it.
I don't know if anyone reading this has felt was Wendy is feeling at this moment, but I have – regarding losing all of one's finances, one's pet (a heavy responsibility for a life that depends on you), and one's mode of transportation in one swoop – and all the while being in a completely strange place, as far from one's origin or destination as one is far from waking normality while in the midst of dreaming. The camera follows her walking through the barren and worn industrial streets, some gang graffiti on the walls alongside her, something that references a certain need for the most basic kind of free expression in an environment that is not conducive to communicative human needs.
Reaching the dog pound, Wendy slowly walks through the long hallway to see if Lucy has been taken. What follows is a fascinating tracking shot, the endless hall showing the engaged dogs one by one, some barking at their spectators, some hiding, some pacing while others are sleeping. This relates to the rest of the picture, bridging the animals to the human beings. The humming exuded from this white world is the same as what we heard in the police department.
Wendy, in a fit of loneliness and desperation, makes a phone call to Indiana, first talking to her brother-in-law and then her sister, both of whom assume that she is calling for money. This indeed may be her motive, but Wendy needs to hear someone familiar, if anyone at all, in this moment of crisis. She insists that she doesn't want anything, and the conversation ends with a kind of banality. “Oh, okay. Sure. Bye. See you.”
Wendy has no Identity. The security guard, whom she has discreetly befriended, understands this, allowing her to use his cell phone. "You can't get a home with no address or phone, can't get a job if you haven't had another job...It's all fixed." Reichardt shows how these conveniences that surround us are also what lock us away from freedom in our outer spaces, in addition to hampering introspective journeys within our inner space. We are compelled by our tools to join that electrical humming poisoning the air. Looking around her, Wendy does not see any kind of relational humanity. Special attention is paid to an elderly person on an electronic wheelchair. The tools of salvation are then also our final murderers, stagnating the soul.
Meeting the mechanic, she is told that she will be charged $50 for the tow to the garage. "But it's just over there," she protests, pointing across the street. Again, just as time is not a factor for the police station, so too do regulations dictate that space is not a pertinent issue. More important than the happenings existing in real space and real time are the texts that dictate how we must act in this space to keep things perpetuating. The mechanic gives her a deal: $30, which nonetheless, on the basic human scale of thought, remains unfair.
She sleeps in the park, but is interrupted by a stranger. The man begins regurgitating words to her, spilling some kind of confession of anger that is incoherent to us. We are led to think, and Wendy is led to suspect, that a rape may occur here, and the moment becomes horrifying. But nothing happens. The man, a vagrant, just tells Wendy not to look at him while he talks. Then he goes away. But he also says something that connects him to her spiritually: “They can smell the weakness on you.” She breaks out of her shock and runs, crying in a public restroom. This puzzling encounter with the vagrant arouses many questions. For me, in my own experience of being hungry and poor on the road, it relates to how nuts one is capable of going when desperate. But it also speaks of the polar end of the sparse white walls of the institution: the complete irrationality of untamed nature. The public restroom is a sanctuary for Wendy in this moment – there is a need for structure surely, for institutions and their safety. But how do you create that beast, or machine, while keeping the many different contextual faces of the human being in mind? The distance between the institutionalized and the natural is too far.
The next day, Wendy has good news. Lucy has been found and is at a foster home for dogs in a more affluent part of town. Her car is also scheduled to be fixed. She bids farewell to the security guard, who hands her a small amount of cash (a paltry $7). Her hopes crash upon discovery of her car's fate. The engine is beyond repair, and any attempt to fix it would cost more than the car is worth (around $2,000). She is trapped.
Going to the foster home for Lucy, the details of the neighborhood begin to make an impact. The camera pays special attention to a new Hybrid car, a sign of wealth, comfort, and security. Overjoyed to see and collect her companion, she plays fetch on the other side of the suburban fence. Lucy doesn't seem to want to let go of the stick, her hold on it pulling back as if to tell Wendy that she should come into the yard.
At this moment Reichardt and Williams do something extraordinary. It is a terribly affecting moment of filmmaking and film acting communicating something so clearly without words, dictated by a camera and an actor's face in close-up. Lucy is in a safe environment, a stable world so alien from what Wendy could ever grasp. She loves Lucy more than anything, we can imagine, and she believes – either selfishly or selflessly – that the best thing that she could do is to walk away and allow her 'baby girl' to remain here, in this yard that Wendy can't provide on her own. It's an incredible moment in a world that it isn't right for lovers – or pet-owners. Wendy cannot exist in the world's normalcy of the electronic hum, though the simulacrum related to that world is what she desires to give to the creature she loves. Wendy, for Lucy’s good, must disappear. And though she promises to come back, we cannot be so optimistic. Wendy still exists in the larger earth of meatspace, a terrain that has become inhospitable to those unable to adapt to the technological changes, restructuring how the one relates to other people. So she walks away, back to the rails, and hopping onto a train car, she rides into the night alone.
Critics of Wendy and Lucy have said that nothing happens in it: Traveling Girl Loses Dog, and Has a Few Troubling Interactions with Other People. It tells nothing, but shows a lot with its timely mirror to uncertain times. We should be outraged and driven to action after viewing it (if not utter despair). It's not only a film that is speaking of present economic pressures, but also the pressures of individuals adapting to the economics that are determined by technological means. It captures souls drifting through a wasteland, some of whom are part of the deathly hum, while others restlessly flee from it, both being destroyed, but one in comfort. Its hope resides in Lucy, who is conceivably oblivious to the sadness of her best friend's circumstances, able to frolic and enjoy a space of her own. Reichardt's roving camera capturing these drifters so dissonant to the surrounding stagnation makes Wendy and Lucy a great film about longing, the rough faces here so bittersweet that breathing alone is painful under its extraordinary weight.

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