I first published my Theatrical Review of "Wendy and Lucy" last December. At the time I considered it the best American feature film of 2008 and I haven't changed my mind over the past six months.
"You can't get an address without an address.
You can't get a job without a job.
It's all fixed."
Wendy walks through the woods with her golden lab retriever Lucy, playing fetch. The camera hangs back at a distance, gliding along for more than a minute simply to watch a woman and her dog play. It is the most luminous shot in any film released in theaters this year.
The sheer pleasure of watching bodies move through space and time has become even more precious as Hollywood editing has become increasingly frenetic. Employed at the beginning of the film, the long tracking shot acts like a decompression chamber, allowing viewers the chance to slowly acclimatize to the film before diving headlong into the first close-up. It also situates its two leads tangibly in an environment that will play such a crucial role in the story.
This spare opening shot establishes a tone that director Kelly Reichardt maintains throughout the film, a minimalist approach that inspires lazy critics to refer to it as "simple" even though it's the kind of film that very few directors are capable of pulling off. Hemingway is a "simple" writer too.
Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) is on her way to Alaska to find work at a fishery when her car breaks down in a small Oregon town. She carries all her worldly possessions with her: just over $500, several layers of raggedy clothes and a nearly-empty bag of dog kibble. Faithful Lucy doesn't mind, but Wendy knows that for someone who lives off the grid, with no apparent support system, this is a crisis.
She goes shopping for dog food and, either carelessly or intentionally, walks out the door without paying for it. An officious, squeaky-clean prick of a sales clerk makes sure she is punished for breaking the rules and she is hauled to the police station while Lucy stays tied up in front of the store. By the time Wendy returns, Lucy is gone and Wendy spends the rest of the film searching for her companion.
From this "simple" premise, Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond spin a story that speaks more to the human condition and to politics in America than any film in recent memory. The entire system is rigged against Wendy. A $50 fine for shoplifting is a body blow. A $30 fee (a real deal) to tow her car fifty feet is the insult added to injury. A regressive system of fines that are a mere nuisance to privileged Americans is crippling to a woman with $500, no bank account, and no credit card. Checking for Lucy at the dog pound is even a complicated task for someone with no cell phone. But then again, as the smug sales clerk says, a woman who can't afford dog food shouldn't have a dog.
Reichardt builds an entire town from a handful of locations: the grocery store, the dog pound, the garage and a Walgreen's parking lot. It's in the latter place that Wendy finds a friend. A kind security guard (Wally Dalton) with big eyebrows and lots of free time on his hands offers a sympathetic ear and a cell phone that serves as Wendy's only lifeline to her dear lost Lucy. The woods surrounding the town also play a major part in the movie. While it wouldn't be accurate to describe "Wendy and Lucy" as a landscape film, it still captures a sense of a specific time and place with the indexical power of a documentary.
Michelle Williams delivers an unassuming, committed performance that announces her as one of the greatest actresses in cinema today, though it may be too quiet and "simple" to garner the attention it deserves during awards season. Williams wore no makeup and went without showering for weeks to submerge herself in the role but, as Reichardt joked on stage in Toronto this year, "She still looks like that. I hate her." Williams also provides the only musical cue in the film before the end credits, an ethereal, melodic humming that appears out of nowhere in the opening tracking shot but returns as diegetic sound later in the film. It is another beautiful touch in a truly beautiful film, and I think I'll be humming it for the next several months [AUTHOR'S NOTE: Six months after I wrote this review, I'm still humming it.]
The universe of "Wendy and Lucy" is cruel but not uncaring. She encounters her share of kindness along the way even though she sometimes does her pig-headed best to deflect it. But the cards are stacked against her. If you're alone, unemployed and poor in America, you're not a team player. You don't fit into the system. You're a nuisance. Hell, you don't even have an address; you just don't count.
"Wendy and Lucy" tells a moving story about a woman and her dog, provides a documentary portrait of the American Northwest, and conveys a piercing political critique in just under eighty minutes of efficient, eloquent filmmaking. That doesn't sound "simple" to me. If it was so simple to make, "Wendy and Lucy" wouldn't be the best American feature film of 2008. Which it is.
The film is presented in a 16:9 anamorphic transfer. Oscilloscope Laboratories is a new player on the block and they've already amassed an impressive library of recent releases including "Flow," "Dear Zachary," and, of course, "Wendy and Lucy." Unfortunately, the anamorphic transfer for this film is less than impressive. "Wendy" was filmed in super-16 which no doubt explains the muddiness of the very grainy image. I've always liked the rough and ragged look of 16-mm blowups, but they play much better in a theater than at home. The murky look is mostly a problem in the darkly lit scenes which have too little contrast to be as effective as they were on the big screen.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. Optional English subtitles support the audio. The sound design of "Wendy" is so spare it's difficult to judge the audio track at all; it sounded OK to me.
(A brief note for those who are really, really obsessive about these sorts of things: the DVD cover art we have is NOT the actual cover art. The actual cover has the exact same pictures but without any review blurbs on it – just "A Film by Kelly Reichardt Starring Michelle Williams" on the cover. What we have was the only "cover" art Oscilloscope gave out.)
Oscilloscope and Kelly Reichardt have provided a wonderful service to avant-garde film fans. Reichardt teaches at Bard College and has included several short films from the faculty members. It's fair to question the wisdom of transferring films that are so medium-dependent into digital form, but what other opportunity will people not living in New York City on the rare occasions these films screen have to see these movies?
Peggy Ahwesh is a renowned experimental filmmaker and it's exciting to have any of her films available on DVD. However, I have to admit that "The Scary Movie" (1993, 8 min.) went a bit over my head. It features two young girls in costume play-acting some horror scenes with a jarring non-synch soundtrack heavy on "shock" sound effects out of the William Castle repertoire as well as an excerpt from a cartoon that sounds familiar as heck to me but which I can't place.
I missed the Peter Hutton retrospective in NYC last year so I'm thrilled to have two of his silent B&W 16 mm. films available on this disc, both of which I think are phenomenal. "Boston Fire" (1979, 5 min.) lingers on close-ups of smoke clouds billowing up from a fire. These are sublime shots with no obvious with no obvious center of attention which positively beg the viewer to scan the image up and down (thus bringing into question the utility of seeing these on a small screen). Only a few shots with human figures provide any sense of scale or orientation, and even these are abstract. A stream of water sprayed from a fire-hose simply becomes a dark line scarring the frame right through the middle. "New York Portrait #2" (1980-81, 11 min.) is, as the title suggests, a city symphony of sorts, beginning with a gorgeous overhead analytical shot of young men gathered in the street as their sharp, long shadows stretch towards each other. Fantastic stuff.
Les Leveque's "flight" (1997, 7 min.) is a bit of a challenge to describe. It takes a single image of an astronaut on the moon and, using strobing effects and strident electronic noise on the sound track, distends it into a prolonged and somewhat amusing (as well as somewhat irritating) fall.
I can't possibly evaluate Jacqueline Goss' "How to Fix the World" (2004, 28 min.) after a single viewing, so I'll settle for just describing it. It's a partially animated semi-documentary which focuses on the ways in which language functions as a system of categorization which determines the ways in which we perceive the world. She takes a sarcastic look at the experiments of a Russian psychiatrist who force-fed literacy to a group of Central Asian peasants. I was mesmerized.
I don't know if people who are interested in "Wendy and Lucy" will necessarily be interested in these films, but I hope viewers will give them a chance.
"Wendy and Lucy" has been lumped in with the neo-realist films of Vittorio de Sica, but I think that's a matter of content (the story resembles "Umberto D." in parts) rather than style. This is indisputably a narrative film, and a relatively straightforward one at that, but don't overlook the use of deep shadows (tougher to appreciate on this transfer than in the theater) and of silence. As I said above, "Wendy" is anything but a simple movie. But it is a great one.