Wendy and Lucy (2008)

FILM, Film Society

This week at the Wellington Film Society: Kelly Reichardt’s American tales.

For all her offshore filmmaking influences, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Satyajit Ray, Italian neo-realism, and New German cinema of the seventies, Kelly Reichardt’s latest American triumph is just that—a distinctly American film anchored both politically and aesthetically in the country’s present and past. Set to screen at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival (and to be proudly sponsored by The Lumière Reader), Meek’s Cutoff summons the erstwhile tradition of classical Hollywood cinema, with its robustly framed vistas and close-ups in the old Academy aspect ratio, as well as adopting a more recent trend in movies, the political allegory. Not to be mistaken as the projection of an overeager film critic, Reichardt has co-opted the tale of Stephen Meek—an incompetent mountain man hired to guide a group of emigrants across the Oregon Trail in the earliest days of the American West—as a parable for the equally clueless Bush administration, and indeed, has couched the doldrums of the Republican era in other various, less than subtle ways, since breaking through with her exquisite 2006 road movie, Old Joy. In that film, disillusioned talkback callers droned the airwaves of a weekend road trip embarked upon by two estranged friends (played by Daniel London and Will Oldham), and the lingering radio broadcasts proved to be an interesting, self-critical reflection on the impotence of liberalism at the time. Her next film, Wendy and Lucy, saw the ramifications of the nation’s ideological shift placed front and centre, if not squarely on the shoulders of the human casualties post-Hurricane Katrina, where an ailing economy has begun to take its toll.

Having had the chance to view Wendy and Lucy a second time at Film Society on Monday evening, what struck me was how emotionally involving it was. It is a compassionate, heartfelt, yet never manipulative film—a quality easily underestimated when considering how upfront it is as a social critique. Thanks largely to Michelle Williams’s sensitive, inward performance, Wendy and Lucy isn’t the blunt political object it might have been, and the quiet dignity she brings to the character’s struggle—a from-bad-to-worse scenario that sees her arrested for shoplifting, lose her car to disrepair, and become separated from her beloved dog Lucy en route to Alaska, where the promise of work awaits—is part of the reason why the film radiates in spite of its devastating tone. Then again, Reichardt’s formal sensibility—by turns plainspoken and highly cultivated—should also take much of the credit for the film’s piercing beauty, for hers is a way of seeing the world through simplicity rather than austerity. The spacious, easy-going visuals (shot on earthy 16mm) and economical mise-en-scène have prompted many an admirer to trot out such adjectives as “self-assured”, “pitch-perfect”, and “subdued”, and though overused as compliments, Wendy and Lucy is all these things and more.

Something Wendy and Lucy isn’t, though many erroneously claim it to be, is a product of the “slow cinema” movement, and at a touch under 80 minutes, it’s hardly what you’d call a workout in cinematic endurance. Reichardt covers plenty of ground in this short space of time: Wendy’s daily routines, steeped in necessary frugality; a humiliating phone call to her sister’s family, made out of desperation; the kindness of a security guard (Walter Dalton), sympathetic to her growing plight; an alarming encounter with a homeless man (Larry Fessenden) who, at the extreme end of destitution, has fallen through society’s cracks; and the protracted, ultimately hopeless process of fixing her broken down vehicle, placed in the care of a mercenary, but not entirely heartless local mechanic (Will Patton). More crucial to debunking this myth, however, is the film’s functional style and rhythm: a sort of pliable minimalism that, while certainly indebted to the “house style” of leading art cinema auteurs, is far from rigorous in constitution, discreetly eschewing the language of stationary camera angles, real time long takes, and wordless and music-less environments that festival audiences have become accustomed too. With Meek’s Cutoff, this spare but invigorated aesthetic takes on an almost monumental form, where the smallest details and gestures are seen as not only vital to the characters’ universe and survival, but epochal. One writer described the film as a relative “epic” given Reichardt’s small-scale oeuvre to date, which is perhaps another way of appreciating her body of work as an auteurist case study. Each new film building and improving on the last, Meek’s Cutoff is Reichardt’s strongest outing yet, and I look forward to offering more thoughts on it in the coming months.

Film Societies in twelve centres run an annual programme of weekly/bi-monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Further details are available online at filmsociety.wellington.net.nz. For information about a film society closest to you, visit the New Zealand Federation of Film Societies.