International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Film
Wendy and Lucy v Watchmen
a film captures the deep insecurities of modern society with little
but a girl and her dog, it makes you wonder, should the Hollywood
majors be looking to independent films for guidance in getting it
twenty three years of anticipation, a rainforests worth of scripts
bouncing off the desks of directors such as Terry Gilliam and Darren
Aronofsky and months of carefully positioned marketing campaigns,
finally the predetermined cult classic Watchmen has hit cinemas.
Making $55.2 million in North America alone on its opening weekend,
Watchmen has become the biggest film debut of the year, despite
many doubtful reviews from fans of the original graphic novel by
The success of
Watchmen, and the elite band of Oscar winners that were the prelude
to it, prove that the popularity of the cinema does not seem to be at
all damaged by the recession. In fact, historical figures prove quite
the opposite. In 1946, a year after World War 2 officially came to an
end, the largest audience figures ever were recorded during showings
of Gone With the Wind. And has a lot to do with distraction; in the
cinema audiences can become immersed in the lives of fictional others
and temporarily escape from their own realities. Together with the fact
that cinema, despite the ever rising ticket prices, still remains one
of the cheapest forms of entertainment available, this trend becomes
quite understandable. Think of cinema like a McDonalds hamburger,
its quick, its cheap, it wont completely cure your
hunger, but itll definitely put it off for a while.
Whilst the majority of the population were finding refuge in the safe
environment of the cinema cuddling up to the latest blockbuster as they
wait for the economic storm to blow over this week, I found myself fighting
on the front line. Abandoned by my housemates in our cold, uninviting
lounge, armed with only a computer and lack of internet piracy morals,
I experienced a film shut out by the mainstream cinema establishment.
A film that did not submerge its viewers in endless violence and fanciful
colours to distract them from the horrors of the outside world, but
one that put all our insecurities on a plate and challenged us to feast
Wendy and Lucy is the long awaited return of writer/director
Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy) and stars Michelle Williams (Synecdoche, New
York and Im Not There) as Wendy, a young girl who is driving to
Alaska with hopes of working in a fish cannery. Along for the ride is
Lucy, Wendys yellow-brown cross breed retriever who serves as
the only friend to a girl who has little else except an old car, a money
belt and a notebook.
Wendys spell of bad luck begins when her car breaks down in a
small, insular town in Oregon. With little money to waste on unexpected
costs, Wendy attempts to steal dog food at a local shop in order to
remain faithful to her tight budget. Unfortunately she gets caught and
sent to an overnight cell by an unforgiving shop assistant who wants
to make an example of the thief. However, when Wendy returns to the
store the next morning to retrieve Lucy who she left tied up outside,
she is heartbroken to find her dog is no longer there. With no car and
limited money and stuck in an unknown town, Wendy must rely on the kindness
of strangers to avoid sliding rapidly into poverty. If you go to this
film wanting to see cute relationships between man and dog, go see Beverly
Hills Chihuahua instead.
Reichardts directorial style is minimal with an emphasis on the
visual as she prioritises silence over unnecessary dialogue. For the
majority of the film there is no musical score, and instead the frames
are complimented by the diagetic sounds of passing trains, the wind
blowing through the trees or just Wendys mindless humming. This
has a very meditative effect on the film as its intentionally slow paced
narrative allows us to fully focus on Wendy, a hardened individual nearing
the brink of nervous breakdown, and persuades the audience to invest
in this interesting character. Often, secondary characters will talk
off screen as the camera lingers on Williams small, elfin face,
and we are forced to pay full attention to this character portrayed
spectacularly by Williams.
In this film Reichardt abandons many of our narrative expectations.
Reichardt has very little time for exposition and offers the audience
limited back story for Wendy other than that she has decided to go to
Alaska because she "heard they need people there" and that
she has a sister who thinks little of her. Similarly Reichardt is not
so much interested in telling a telling a story, instead she mediates
with great restraint about how close the average person is to having
Wendy and Lucy was shot in August 2007 in Portland, Oregon. Considering
that the ongoing Bush recession in America is considered to have begun
in December 2007, any argument that this film is a direct comment on
the current economic climate becomes slightly problematic. However,
I would argue that this film is not so much about the recession, but
more a warning bell. The narrative very much revolves around the exchange
of money, as the film takes time to ensure we are witness to Wendys
strict financial planning for her trip. We observe as she meticulously
counts her money and documents her expenses in her notebook, perhaps
reminding us of our own monetary struggles, and wince whenever she is
forced to spend any of it. The message appears to be that even the strictest
individual like Wendy is at risk of losing everything with a simple
spark of an engine.
Perhaps more importantly, this film captures the wide spectrum of emotions
that are currently rippling through the country. Due to our constant
positioning side by side next to our unfortunate heroin, Wendy guides
the audience through all manner of feelings such as intense anger when
her car breaks down, helplessness when she is unable to afford to have
it fixed and fear when she resorts to sleeping out in the woods on a
sheet of cardboard. This film certainty doesnt wrap the audience
in cotton wool and feed them hot soup like big budget blockbusters might.
Instead it throws us out of the nest and expects us to find our feet.
So, here we are faced with two paradoxical extremes. On the one hand
we have cinema that invites us into the foreign world of superheros,
talking animals and Jim Carrey, or we have cinema that takes our anxieties
and weaves them into subtle narratives. Without meaning to forget films
primary function as a form of entertainment, its important to
consider the role that film plays in documenting the changes in society
which can be vital in cementing our creative progress as a generation.
And despite any far fetched claims that Watchmen is culturally
compatible to the issues of todays society, there is little it
can teach future film historians except for the extent of our technological
abilities and how much Hollywood has in the bank. Wendy and Lucy
on the other hand, is an insight into the real lives of American people
in 2007 as the credit crunch begins to bite.
As a result of her lack of money and luck, Wendy is marginalised by
society in a town that like any other revolves around the exchange of
money. Instead, she relies on small kindness from others in order to
survive. Luckily she finds hospitality in an elderly security guard
(played by Walter Dalton) who helps her roll her car out of a car park,
where it could get clamped, and onto the road. They soon strike up a
friendship and it is only after the security guard lends Alexa his mobile
telephone that she manages to locate Lucy.
It is this strangely interesting relationship between Wendy and the
security guard character that makes for the most emotionally successful
scene in the film. When he gets a call from the local pound, the security
guard returns to the car park on his day off to alert Wendy. He then
proceeds to give her six dollars, an exchange that is emphasised by
a close up shot. The trade of this small amount of money offers a great
sense of relief in the film as despite it only being six dollars, the
audience who have been so rapped up in Wendys world, see this
as the ultimate saviour of their protagonist. A similar relief in the
audience comes when the garage attendant (played by Will Patton) who
knocks a small amount off the price of fixing her car in sympathy for
the helpless Wendy.
Ultimately the film is about the fragility of our society, both economically
and socially, and how easily plans and aspirations can be destroyed.
In my experience, the film is only named a failure amongst viewers and
critics who are unable to make the crucial attachment to Wendy, to sympathise
with her and relate to her predicament. More importantly, this film
acknowledges a niche in the market for the active, intellectual spectator.
This film satisfies the appetite of an audience who want to witness
truthful reputations of our economic collapse, the section of society
that perhaps finds faith in filmmakers who have the courage to capture
things as they are, despite how it make us feel as we leave the theatre.
Or in my case as I shut down my laptop with a cracked screen, in a room
so cold that I can see my own breath. The credit crunch really is a
© Tiffany Lee March 17th 2009
Tiffany is about to embark on an MA in Film and Directing in Birmingham,
UK later this year.
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