It is easy to praise a film that meets low expectations, and yet one of the problems with such praise is that it may never go beyond the effusion in relation to the modesty of the work. One often praises a small film, as if overwhelmingly happy with the first day of Spring after a miserable winter. It is not especially the Spring one is admiring; it is more about the sense of relief in escaping from the harsh winter months.
Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is eighty minutes long, allows half the running time to be taken up by the search for a missing dog (the Lucy of the title), works much narrative frustration out of the hassle of a car breaking down, and concentrates exclusively on Wendy’s concerns. It also has a unity of place, as it focuses on a small town in Oregon, and an absence of love interest.
Are we however arguing from the negative here? Are we setting the film up against tired expectation and finding it no more than a little fresh, rather like those first days of Spring? We need not to praise faintly but explore thoroughly, escape from talking of the Hollywood conventions it eschews, and look for its significance elsewhere. Reichardt admits the influence of neo-realism, saying “we were having this nagging feeling about neo-realism and going back and revisiting those films just because those themes are really relevant right now.” (The Skinny, March. 2009) But a film that comes to mind is Cedric Klapisch’s relatively recent When the Cat’s Away, where a young woman looks for her missing cat in Paris. Time Out critic Geoff Andrew describes Klapisch’s film as “very French”, and we cannot but say of Reichardt’s that it is very American. There may be a sense that it is working off an interest in social deprivation like neo-realism, off narrative minimalism as in When the Cat’s Away, but the film’s power resides in this sense of social deprivation and interest in narrative minimalism coming out of a comprehension of a very American sense of geographical loneliness.
Here we haven’t set up the film against Hollywood expectation, but instead created a context within which the film can be explored: Italian neo-realism, French cinema’s sense of the small scale, and American cinema’s capacity for hinting at the vastness of the country. In relation to the latter, Wendy says she’s hoping to go to Alaska and that she’s come from Indiana, as the film locates itself at the halfway point on a very long journey. If there is something very French as Andrew claims about When the Cat’s Away, it lies in the specificity of place as intimate; Reichardt is interested here, as in her earlier Old Joy and her later Meek’s Cutoff, in the enormity of space. Any intimacy generated contains within it a great sense of the enormity of the country. We notice this if we look at the two elements which give the film its hint of narrative purpose: the car breaking down and Wendy’s dog going missing.
Cars are of course semiotic things, and possess a different set of assumptions according to the country and culture they’re driven in. In New York and Paris the taxi allows the car to become functional: we needn’t concern ourselves too much with the make of the cab that Tom Cruise goes around in in Eyes Wide Shut, that drives Romain Duras to hospital at the end of Paris, but when the car covers an expanse of space, or when it belongs to a character’s sense of identity in a city where the car is so significant (as in LA), the semiotic becomes pronounced. John Orr writes interestingly about the sign language of cars in Cinema and Modernity, where for example the German Mercedes driven by characters in American Gigolo and The Player hint at fall guy urbanity, while the convertible in Wild at Heart and Thelma and Louise are American vehicles. On the one hand we have urban bad faith; on the other nihilistic self-discovery. We may be led to ask questions not only about what a car can do, but also what it means. Sometimes a film will play on this as the car’s low-key status becomes highly efficient in the right hands. The unprepossessing Mini, say, in The Bourne Identity, which functions all the more effectively to bring out the driving prowess of Jason Bourne.
But in each instance we are talking about the car as semiotic tool rather than ontological object, and this is where Alan Badiou offers an interesting perspective on the car in Infinite Thought, proposing that if American cinema generally sees the car as an opportunity for indicating speed, works by Kiarostami and Oliveira he proposes work on that “overwhelming stereotype of contemporary imagery” as they turn the ontology of the car inside out. “The operation consists of making an action scene into the place of speech, of changing what is a sign of speed into a sign of slowness, of constraining what is an exteriority of movement to become a form of reflexive or dialogic interiority.” We may think of all those rear shots in Journey to the Beginning of the World, or the various characters the protagonist in The Taste of Cherry picks up and talks to in his attempt to find someone who will bury him after he has committed suicide. This reverse ontology of course isn’t new; it is there in some of Wenders’ work, in the more adventurous American road movies of the seventies.
In Wendy and Lucy the car is neither one thing nor the other – neither adrenalized, nor dialogic – but part of a dream. This isn’t a semiotic dream either (the idea of the dream car) but the vehicle a functional means to get her to Alaska where she wants to start her new life. Here the car is neither for speed nor for thought, but for the practical, as it must eat up thousands of miles so that she can reach the beauty of Alaska and find employment before her meagre savings run out. The practical aspect is evident on matches on action – for example when the film cuts from a medium close up of her taking stuff from the boot to a shot of her closing it, the film offers the practical air of a woman removing her necessities from her car. The car is a necessary means of transport; not a vehicle carrying the freight of the ego. When Orr invokes Thelma and Louise he talks of “Louise’s 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible”, saying it “remains unscathed through the havoc it creates…while Thelma is tricked, molested, ribbed and nearly raped, her buddy’s automobile suffers no humiliation inflicted upon the body.” It of course eventually seems to die a very noble death as Thelma and Louise drive it over a canyon. This is still an aristocratic car, where Wendy’s is a proletarian vehicle of purely practical use. Neither adrenalised nor semiotically egotistical, the car ends up in a garage for an apparently minor repair. When the mechanic tells her the car is far more seriously damaged than was first thought, and will cost thousands of dollars to fix, Wendy can’t afford to have it repaired, and the mechanic says he will get it towed off the lot for thirty dollars. The car moves from functional and necessary to the casually decrepit, and if Badiou talks of the difference between the adrenalized and the dialogic, can we not also talk of the difference between the aristocratic and the proletarian in relation to the vehicle? This is a car whose demise is painfully pronounced, yet at no stage has it been egoistically important. That it happens to be functional doesn’t at all mean it isn’t meaningful. As we see the deflation on Wendy’s face as she’s told how much it will cost to fix, Reichardt manages to get to the core of loss without any interest in the fetishization of the object.
Interestingly, in a brief review of the film, in Film Comment, Larry Gross says it “could be summed up as The Bicycle Thief with a lost dog instead of a lost bike”. But it might be fairer to say that while it is a film about the loss of the dog, it is also about the loss of a car. Though Gross and other critics can talk of the film’s “tender minimalism”, if we note the film is working off not just one but two signifiers of loss (in Vittoria De Sica’s film there is only the bike; the dog comes into another De Sica film, Umberto D.), then the film is minimalist in a particular way. What it does extremely well is create a strong sense of narrative, emotional and psychological import around the two losses. For if the car usually carries a weight of egoistic meaning; the dog is equally significant emotionally – killing a dog off in a film is often more shocking than killing a human. Whether it is the death of the dog in Badlands, the apparent death of the dog in Michael, or many a thriller where the dog being killed is a harbinger of things to come, it is not only man’s best friend, but also a director’s: it can often be a useful directorial manipulation device. Any idea that Reichardt is a minimalist may be discounted on the grounds that she utilises not one but two avenues of narrative curiosity, and the emotional import of each. Will she be able to get her car fixed and keep heading north; will she find her dog safe and well?
The point is not that the director has made a minimalist work per se; more that she has created a film of kinetic insignificance. The car is neither an action vehicle, and nor is the dog utilised for any more than the lowest form of narrative tension. When Wendy finds her at the end of the film, it leads to the realization that it would be better to leave Lucy with the person who found it and took it home, than to take it with her when she has neither a car to shelter her dog in, nor the assuredness any more that she can look after her.
What we’re indicating is that the film doesn’t actually work off low expectations; it is rather that the expectations it creates are met with low kinetic returns. Yet we also proposed that Wendy and Lucy was a very American film, but the notion of an American film needn’t take kineticism as a given, and it is perhaps even surprising that so many American films happen to have done so. After all kineticism often indicates bodies colliding with other bodies, with movement meeting movement, and yet spatially this should seem more relevant to Europe than the US, taking into account the relative smallness of Europe and the hugeness of the USA. It’s as though there are two Americas to be extracted from the country: one is the studio narrative and the other is the geographical narrative. The first sees space as at the service of the story; the second the story at the service of space. This was of course central to the American cinema of the seventies, where so many characters would explore the open road. While there may have been many films in the fifties and sixties that used locations to counter the influence of television, this was still usually a location rather than a geography. It remained back projection by other means, as the narrative space became more ‘realistic’ rather than ‘real’. Hitchcock’s location shooting in Vertigo and The Birds still gave the impression of segmented narrative spaces, not quite the sort of geographical openness apparent in Two Lane Blacktop, Wanda, Scarecrow and Five Easy Pieces. So while it is true most films haven’t returned to the studio – despite the mannerist fascination with the sound stage apparent in eighties works like One From the Heart, The Loveless, Rumblefish and Streets of Fire – they have generally returned to the location. The fascination with geography gave away once again to the narrative locale – an extension of the studio by other means.
However Wendy and Lucy seems like a geographical film, a world constantly giving the viewer a sense of geographic space as opposed to cinematic space, yet opening up that geographic space to thematic exploration. This allows the film neither to possess the tightness of narrative location, nor the kinetic collision of characters generating narrative event, but it still possesses a certain thematic, and even formal tightness. Hence while critics have talked of the rhyming element to Reichardt’s previous film Old Joy, which opens and closes on images from a car passing shop windows, so we may notice an inverse repetition here. Where at the beginning of the film we see Wendy playing with her dog in a tracking shot that could almost have been witnessed from a passing train, at the end of the film, the shot is of Wendy getting on a train and riding north to Alaska. While the film cares little for either kinetic narration nor narrative location, it finds its meaning in exploring the nuances of Wendy’s behaviour and the formal discretion of simultaneously staying very close to her character, and at the same time expressing a removed point of view. Indeed so removed is that initial shot where we see Wendy playing in the woods with Lucy, that we might believe it to be someone’s point of view shot. Yet this still feels like removal as fascination; the closing shot as concern. Where at the beginning of the film we may wonder who this young woman is and why we seem to be following her intimately yet at one remove, by the end of the film we still may know very little about her but we do know that we feel concern for her well-being. If the film starts with fascination for a stranger; the film concludes with concern for this stranger. Yet perhaps the important thing is that Wendy remains a stranger to us no matter the feeling that the film generates for her. One of the questions the film asks is: what is fellow feeling, and does the film not address this issue of fellow feeling both narratively and formally? Reichardt talks of making the film in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and added that the event didn’t only say “America didn’t just ignore its poor – it disdained people in poverty and this was the wake in which we started to write the script.” (The Skinny) This would seem to be the principle from which she worked: how to explore the nature of the self not as identificatory figure, but more as a figure of dispossession and yet still arrive at the requisite feeling?
In an article on ‘Empathy and (film) Fiction’, Alex Neill believes empathic engagement is central to cinema and also perhaps central to ethical life. “In Moral philosophy and psychology, from the moral sentiment theories of Adam Smith and David Hume to recent and broadly speaking feminist work on “the ethics of care,” our capacity for empathetic response has often been mooted as the source of our morality”. Central to Neill’s argument isn’t our sympathetic relationship with a value, so much as an empathic co-feeling for a situation. For example, he proposes in Don’t Look Now we may assume that premonitions are nonsense, but believe in the characters’ belief that they are not, and what we generally believe is in this instance less important than we feel others’ believe. “I suggest our controlling response to both John and Laura is not one of pity or sympathy, but rather one of shared horror at the events that have transformed their lives. And only by sharing their horror can we fully understand and be gripped by the events that follow.”
But what happens if it is not only about the problem of values but also the problem of information? It is one thing to relate to characters who finally believe in the supernatural if on the way to that belief we have been offered their domestic life, the intimacy of their lovemaking and the depth of their grief. It is as though director Nic Roeg convinced us of the emotional all the better to position us in relation to the supernatural. Reichardt would seem a filmmaker absolutely interested in an “ethics of care” as Neill couches it, but if Roeg works with the detail of his characters’ lives against the implausibility of the supernatural, and at the same time, and very importantly, offers a visual style that is simultaneously extremely intimate and also so fractured it conjures up the other worldly, Reichardt wants not the empathy of the beyond, but the empathy of the everyday. This is a fellow-feeling that risks locking us outside of the character as we observe her actions rather than identify with her state, and in this the film proves the opposite of Sean Penn’s superficially similar Into the Wild. Penn’s film turns its central character into an exceptional individual. He is someone who gives away his money, teaches people life lessons on his travels, and dies an emaciated death in the Alaskan hills worthy of a martyr: physically he resembles anyone from Jesus to IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.
In each instance, in Roeg’s case and Penn’s, we notice the notion of the exceptional hovers in both event and character. Reichardt would seem to want what we’ll call ‘mundane empathy’, that Wendy is of significance for no better reason than that she wants a better life and not a transcendent one. Yet at the same time the film gives us little information about the past life that may need a better existence, and this is where the film shouldn’t be admired for its unassuming rejection of Hollywood pyrotechnics, but for its exploration of the gesture of feeling.
The film is really an accumulation of this gesture of feeling as characters act with unassuming generosity rather than, if you like, assuming generosity. Assumed generosity would be where the person in need justifies to another the desperate straits they are in, and the giver gives on the basis of knowing what those needs are. This is a trans-active poverty consistent with the idea of the deserving poor, and also perhaps more consistent with the co-feeling Neill proposes. It is the difference between feeling for someone and with someone. To feel something for someone perhaps we need the necessary information to generate sympathy, but to feel with someone may be closer to a leap of faith – an active rather than trans-active decision. If a supernaturally oriented film like Don’t Look Now demands feeling with the characters through giving us a great deal of emotional and social information about their lives to counter the abstract, by virtue of working from the everyday Reichardt keeps things sociologically elliptical – as if to say so prosaic but necessary a fellow feeling should be generated with the minimum of explanation.
It is perhaps the rejection of the trans-active for the empathic that allows for the ‘trans-formational’. Where sympathy demands justification of the other, empathy maybe demands much more from oneself. Two key examples come to mind in Wendy and Lucy. The first comes near the end of the film as the security guard who at the beginning told Wendy that she couldn’t sleep in the Wal-Mart parking lot he watches over, by the end of the film, after various small gestures and enquiries into her well-being, offers Wendy a small sum of money surreptitiously as his own middle-aged daughter waits in the car. This is money that presumably his family could well need, and at the same time money that from the daughter’s point of view he would inexplicably be giving to a stranger. Yet maybe it is inexplicable from his point of view also, as though he hasn’t quite worked out his own thoughts and feelings in relation to this financially minor yet emotionally hugely meaningful act of generosity. As the film cuts from Wendy receiving the money to one of the few reaction shots in the film as the security guard observes her reception of it, this could be viewed as a sentimental moment diegetically, within the story, and a no less lachrymose moment non-diegetically, from the manipulation of film form. But this is not the jump-starting tears that Tom Lutz (Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears) talks of when describing the way films generate emotion without much underlying feeling, but the accumulation of underlying feeling that will leave one close to tears. What generates the deep feeling in both the characters and the viewer is a certain inexplicability of feeling that says more about the transformative than the transactive. Hence, if Wendy and Lucy is escaping from certain mainstream conventions, it is important to understand that it is doing so not contrarily but in an exploratory way that can get at the transformational rather than transactive emotions.
The problem with the transactive in form and content is that we are moved not by the inexplicable but the very clearly explicable, and this is what Colin McArthur explores, formally, in his book, Brigadoon, Braveheart and the Scots, as he quotes the composer Carter Burwell. Here Burwell says he likes doing romantic music when it is up against the unromantic, when there is a conflict in the viewer as they respond to contrary elements, “I’m not pushing anyone’s buttons because they’re hearing romantic or sentimental music…” The formally explicable manipulation that McArthur sees in James Horner’s music in Braveheart is maybe consistent with a cause and effect aspect to emotion in our lives where the emotional aspect is justified to us rather than coming from us. When Lutz talks of jump starting the tears, as films formally use whatever device is to hand, it is like an aesthetic equivalent of someone who cripples their own child to improve the family’s begging opportunities. The scene between the security guard and Wendy may release strong emotion in the viewer, but hardly jump starts the tears. We may find ourselves responding to the transformative feelings in the security guard, not the transactive devices of the weepie.
This leads us to the other emotionally intense moment in the film, where just before the end Wendy realizes that she won’t take Lucy with her to Alaska. As she finds Lucy obviously well looked after by the people who found her outside the supermarket and have taken her in, so Wendy seems to realize that it isn’t enough to love, one must also shelter, and that Lucy is certainly being sheltered and, in that sheltering, it seems that she is also being loved. Throughout her stay in the town Wendy has found herself vulnerable and at the mercy of others. In one moment after she has picked up some cans and intends to get money back on them, a wheelchair bound man says there will be a long wait and that he will do it for her, giving her the money later. Wendy hands the bag of cans over to him and says he can keep the meagre sum that will be paid for them. In another scene after she is caught shoplifting Wendy sits in the manager’s office while his shop assistant insists that it’s company policy to prosecute. The manager looks like he wants to let her go as she pleads with him, but as the assistant hovers he must be seen to be doing his job consistently: the police are called. In a third scene quoted above, the mechanic explains that her car will cost thousands to fix, and offers to get rid of it for her for thirty dollars. In another scene Wendy sleeps rough and gets verbally abused by a hobo who in the process makes Wendy see how absolutely vulnerable she happens to be. It is as though these moments have accumulated in Wendy’s thoughts as she looks at the most important thing in her life and leaves Lucy behind. If it is such a moving moment it again doesn’t reside in the manipulative and the transactive; more in the realization and the transformative. If films often wring emotion from us in relation to children and animals, it is also interesting to note that in each instance there will of course also be a general absence of the realization and the transformation. It might be consistent with Mary Midgley’s claim that sentimentality “is misrepresenting the world to indulge our feelings”, and though she refers to it as a misrepresentation, it might be no more than an over-simplification. Children and animals can extract from us an emotion closer to sympathy then empathy because we do not share their detailed emotional state, but superimpose upon them generally a sentimental simplicity.
If Wendy and Lucy achieves an emotional impact that might extract tears, it is important that the tears are more pertinent to Wendy’s realizations than Lucy’s hangdog look. These need to be tears that are complex, and capture the transformative in both characterisation and form. Tears for Lucy would be closer to the opposite, and be consistent with the helplessness of dogs and children in so many films, and exemplified by the way Horner uses music in Braveheart over a scene where the young William Wallace receives a thistle from another child. Reichardt’s film may be called Wendy and Lucy, but it could have been very different film indeed, had the title reversed the emphasis. At the end of the film she has no car, no dog and the film has captured the enormity of space and the smallness of the individual. This is a small film, but contains emotional vastness within it, and consequently can extract from the viewer an emotional vastness within ourselves, and not the narrowness of too easily manipulated feeling.