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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Film Talk

Wendy and Lucy v Watchmen
Tiffany Lee

When 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 right?

After 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 Alan Moore.

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 McDonald’s hamburger, it’s quick, it’s cheap, it won’t completely cure your hunger, but it’ll 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 on it.

Wendy and Lucy is the long awaited return of writer/director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy) and stars Michelle Williams (Synecdoche, New York and I’m 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, Wendy’s 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.

Wendy’s 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.

Reichardt’s 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 Wendy’s 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 nothing.

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 Wendy’s 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 doesn’t 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, it’s 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 today’s 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 Wendy’s 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 bitch.

© 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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