Monday, February 16, 2009

Wendy and Lucy - a great American film that I won't recommend to most people

The audience at Cinemark Tinseltown didn't seem to appreciate Wendy and Lucy very much tonight. Throughout the screening, most of the handful of fellow attendees offered misplaced titters and chuckles, and even an unfortunate "eww" during a scene where Wendy (Michelle Williams) "kisses" her dog (something I'm sure every dog owner has done - hardly abnormal behaviour; alas, this gesture from the heckler came at a heartbreaking moment in the film, serving as an index of just how little emotional attachment the person felt to what was going on on screen and taking any of us who were connected to the film emotionally somewhat out of that sacred space). Afterwards, indignant mutters of "four stars?" - querying some critic's view of the film - could be overheard, as well as some female viewer in the wings complaining to her friend about how it wasn't sufficient that "you're supposed to feel sorry for [Wendy] because she has no money." I guess they won't be recommending this film to their friends, and its just as well: chances are that the audience members tonight who felt antipathy to the people who told them they should see this film spend their social time with other no-neck types who would likely feel the same way. "We came here to be entertained, not to watch a sad slow film about a broke woman looking for her dog! How dare you tell me I should see this!"

Critics have been kind to this film, but for good reason: it's one of a very small handful of American feature films in current distribution (that I know of, anyhow) that counts as a serious work of cinematic art, and in the age of immoral, valueless shit like Iron Man and The Dark Knight (or ridiculous and intellectually bankrupt "critical favourites" like There Will Be Blood) that's no small measure of praise. I was actually a bit disappointed when I first saw it, during the VIFF, because I was hoping for something as fresh, as complex, as moving and as rewarding as Old Joy; it's a far more straightforward affair, following a very simple arc, and many of the things it does very well were already done by Old Joy, so there's really no way it could live up to my hopes. I downplayed mention of it during my VIFF coverage, praising Lance Hammer's Ballast instead. I still admire Ballast, but much of its drama, given a bit of distance, seems rather melodramatic; I couldn't get myself excited about seeing it again, during its recent run at the Vancity Theatre.

Wendy and Lucy, on the other hand, has grown in my estimation. It's evocation of place is amazing, trumping even Hammer's careful consideration of the Mississippi Delta; no one I know of captures so well what America looks like - or at least the America I know, including the corner of Canada where I live - as Reichardt. I still can't quite figure out if that's because she's looking at small towns in the Pacific Northwest, not unlike the suburb where I grew up, or if it's due to her finely attuned perceptions; I'd almost like to see her make a film set elsewhere, to see how well she captures other spaces - for her to become the next John Sayles, say, documenting different American regions through stories. Her eye is far more sensitive even than Sayles', tho', and besides, I only say that I'd "almost" like to see her undertake such a project: there's also a great power to the fact that she's making films about the place where she lives, capturing its moods and colours, its beauty and squalor, and if they remind me of the place where *I* live, so much the better. (Funny that my other favourite "new" American filmmaker, Robinson Devor, is also making films in the Pacific Northwest. I wonder if they know each other?).
I've been cautious, myself, in recommending Wendy and Lucy to people. I've been ridiculed so often for liking weird, sad, painful, or serious films that I've grown tired of it, and it's my unfortunate estimate of most of my friends that they would be rather bored by this film. I know exactly how it would go: I'd try to describe the film - I've taken to telling people it's about being without money in America, or maybe about the effects of compassion and/or its absence, rather than saying it's about a girl and her dog - and I can see in my mind's eye exactly the skeptical look I would get, inevitably followed by, "Would I like it?" In most cases, I'd have to sigh and honestly answer, "probably not." If only they asked me, "Would I find truth in it?" "Is it beautiful?" "Is it honest?" "Would I respect it?" "Would I profit from seeing it?" "Would I respond to it emotionally?" -- then I think I could honestly answer yes; but "would I enjoy it?" -- I mean, maybe I underestimate my friends, but I suspect that most of the people I know would side with the hecklers sitting in back of me tonight. "What, that's it? So what? I paid money for this?"
With apologies to Ms. Reichardt, then, I'm not going to try very hard to get people to see this film. I hope she understands. She has my profound respect and I hope that the positive critical response that the film has thus far garnered makes it very easy for her to make her next film. I am very curious as to what that might be. Anytime she wants to do an interview, by the way, she's welcome to contact me. I'd love to ask her the simplest questions - why does Wendy have a bandage around her ankle? How did she choose locations? What's her history with Lucy, and will Lucy be in her next film? Who is Smokey Hormel? What the hell is blowing Bill's mind, exactly? Has Ms. Reichardt herself ever shoplifted? Oh: and is the record shop that Kurt mentions in Old Joy a real place?
I fuckin' bet it is.
Hey, maybe she answers some of those questions in this online interview = a chat between her and Gus van Sant. I think I'll go read it and see.

No comments: