Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Case of American Neo-Realism

by Brandon Colvin

Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy marks the crest of a recent wave of profound minimalist filmmaking that has dominated the attention of critics in the past year. Along with Wendy and Lucy, films such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, Lance Hammer’s Ballast, Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life, Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop and Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light have rightfully floated to the top of many best-of lists and seem to indicate the international maturation of a set of aesthetic and thematic principles rooted in the work of previous generations of iconoclastic cinematic masters. Combining strains of Bresson, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, and Italian neo-realism, these films depict their subjects with attuned subtlety and revealing simplicity, operating on a scale that some have decried as “too small,” but which imbues works like Wendy and Lucy with the capacity to dramatize the most minute motions as monumental movements.

The dynamics of Reichardt’s film, her third feature and second based on a story – “Train Choir” – by Jonathan Raymond, are textured with the nearly imperceptible and the frequently unnoticed – averted gazes, slight vocal shifts, altered body language – all of which become remarkably highlighted when viewed in the context of the film’s general stillness. Expanding like outward ripples, Wendy and Lucy’s humble moments of desperation, generosity, and defeat culminate in an overwhelming deluge of quiet, understated power crafted from the most apparently meager of means. Concerned, like its contemporaries, with accessing the transcendent via the concrete and the tactile, Wendy and Lucy evidences a philosophically materialist ethos, inherited from its cinematic predecessors, as it examines the visceral fragility of the economic, spiritual, and moral decrepitude surrounding its titular heroine, Wendy (Michelle Williams), and her dog, Lucy, as they struggle against frustrating immobility.

Broken down in a small Oregonian town on her way to Alaska – the supposed promised land of good wages, individualism, and ample work – Wendy and Lucy are forced to spend the night in Wendy’s malfunctioned auto. Startled awake by the concerned security guard (Wally Dalton) of the Walgreen’s whose lot they camp in, the short-cropped, barely-scraping-by Wendy and her likable retriever begin their cash-strapped attempt to get back on the road by pushing the vehicle (with the assistance of the amiable parking attendant) to a side street, where it sits as they wait and wait for the local auto repair shop to open. While stuck, the two head to the nearest grocery store for, what else, dog food.

Putting her pup before herself, Wendy is reminiscent of the protagonist of Italian neo-realist director Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952). De Sica’s affectionate pairing of Umberto (Carlo Battisti) and his dog, Flick, is plainly evoked in Wendy and Lucy, tying the film to De Sica’s in content, as well as directly linking Reichardt’s movie to its neo-realist influences. Lucy is Wendy’s only real friend or companion (as with Flick and Umberto) and their bond in a largely uncaring world gives the film heart. Perhaps more important is that this referential set-up aligns Reichardt’s effort with that of renowned screenwriter and conceptual father of neo-realism, Cesare Zavattini, who also wrote many of De Sica’s films, including another major influence on Wendy and Lucy: Bicycle Thieves (1948). Zavatinni craved simplicity and everyday humanity, even claiming that his ideal film would be 90 minutes of an ordinary man doing nothing; Reichardt seems to have taken up his banner, and to have mastered it.

Once Wendy ventures into the grocery store, ominously tying up Lucy outside, desperation and tragedy of Bicycle Thieves proportions throw the straightforward narrative into gear. Knowing she probably has to use most of her money to fix her car, Wendy indulges in shoplifting as a means of penny pinching and pooch pleasing – like Antonio in Bicycle Thieves, economic hardship forces Wendy into a moral conundrum in order to support her family: Lucy. For her transgression, she pays dearly. Once she is caught by an overzealous employee who catches her stealing at the grocery store, Wendy is carted off to jail for a few hours, trapped, locked away from Lucy. Upon her return to the store, with more money paid out to the jail on her release, Wendy finds that Lucy has disappeared, reportedly taken away by a white van. So begins Wendy’s quest for her lost pet, a parallel to Antonio’s frantic search for his stolen bicycle.

The difficulty of travel in Wendy’s circumstance lends added weight to every step along the way. Her car stuck, her funds depleted, and her ass in jail, Wendy is constantly coming up against impediments on her dual journey to find her dog and get to the physical manifestation of carte blanche in Alaska. Wendy’s struggle to avoid stalling in an environment seeking to trap her mirrors Reichardt’s minimalist technique by providing a context that is conducive to highlighting the slightest deviations from a basic stillness. Like her troubled progress in the face of stagnation, Wendy’s infrequent emotional outpourings contrast her usual stoicism, concentrating into each expression a depth and sincerity earned through rarity and minimalist juxtaposition (which is all the more wonderful as a result of Michelle Williams’ superb performance). The most stunning and affecting application of Wendy and Lucy’s pervasive dialectic between disruption and stillness is the way the contrast between the two is used to magnify the simplest acts of kindness into semi-miraculous instances of sympathy and understanding, instances that are vital, yet hard to come by, in Wendy’s situation.

The most endearing of Wendy and Lucy’s moments of wondrously empathetic humanity come from the aforementioned Walgreen’s security guard, who repeatedly goes out of his way to lend his services to Wendy and shows sincere support for her in her attempt to find lost Lucy. The security guard’s generosity and selflessness, however minor the may be, enable Wendy to climb out of her tragic rut, like a few extra breaths to a drowning victim. The small acts add up. When faced with her most crucial decision near the end of the film, Wendy seems to apply the sort of sympathy and selflessness exemplified by the benevolent security guard, leaving her in a position that is both bittersweet and ambiguous. Through its minimalist style and sparse narrative, Wendy and Lucy carries on the tradition of its neo-realist influences, portraying the incredibly intimate struggles of an individual with a subtle attentiveness that makes the struggle appear universal and ultimately transcendental. Perhaps more than anything, Reichardt’s film is about how even $7 and a few phone calls can save a soul; it really is the though that counts, no matter how small.


Nostalgia Kinky said...

Hey Brandon,
I am going to hold off reading this until I can see it. I did want you guys to know that i just awarded Out 1 this blogging award that is going around that Arbogast on Film gave me. Enjoy and keep up the great work.

Brandon Colvin said...

Thanks so much, Jeremy!

It's always good to know you're reading. I miss seeing you around!

Brandon Colvin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joel Bocko said...

Though I'll probably be able to better comment after seeing the movie, you do place it in a context that makes me think I'd like it more than the initial buzz did. I'd heard the connection to Umberto D. but somehow never thought of the one to Bicycle Thieves - interesting.