Thursday, September 18, 2008

NYFF dispatch #1: harrowing pet stories and trains trains everywhere

Next week opens the 46th New York Film Festival, brought to you by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. And, like most fall-season film festivals, the selection list is crammed with movies both underground arty and fodder for Oscars. Like most fall-season film festivals, the selection list masquerades as premiere-worthy when in reality these films have seen small audiences earlier in the year. But, luckily for me, I've been tasked with writing festival dispatches for FilmLinc, and I have the rare opportunity to see a handful of the films offered by the NYFF.... and let my true opinions let out into the wild on this very blog you (yes, you!) are reading.

My first foray into the press screening experience? Wendy and Lucy, a hyper-minimal and very film-festival-friendly entry by director Kelly Reichardt (who wielded similar minimalism, I've read, with her previous film Old Joy).

Down-and-dirty plot summary: Wendy is homeless and jobless and headed to Alaska in her Honda for reliable work in the canneries. Her companion and roadtrip partner is her dog Lucy. Just outside of Portland, her car gives out; she's got $500 to her name and can't afford to fix it. She's run out of dog food. She shoplifts said dog food, gets arrested for it, and we're treated to a memorable and heartbreaking shot through the back windshield of the police car of Lucy tied to a bike rack and faithfully waiting at the door of the supermarket. Wendy's left with nowhere to go and no means to get anywhere, and without her dog she finds herself truly and undeniably lost.

This is a kind of road-film, but I like that it opens in a way where Wendy is ultimately caught in a feedback-loop odyssey; this is a road film without any roading. It's probably too reductive to say that the movie is about Wendy's search for Lucy, because that's only one piece to the puzzle. Down to its bones, this is an atmospheric and behavioral film rather than one that adheres to Aristotelian rules of story and structure; every little scene that highlights Wendy's impending collision course with rock-bottom is as much what the movie is about as it is about trying to find her lost companion.

Nary a shot goes by without Michelle Williams, she of “Dawson's Creek” and Jack-nasty, who carries this entire film on her shoulders. Unfortunately, she's saddled with an awkward Mary-Martin-goes-goth haircut. I think the jury's still out for me on whether I think Williams is a high-caliber actress, and part of me thinks that she approaches the role about as well as any unknown-but-reasonably-talented actress would. Wendy is, after all, awfully destitute, but not to the point of going a bit wacky (unlike a small troupe of tattooed drifters she meets near the film's opening). Her performance is quiet and even-keeled, but she approaches each situation of Wendy's as dead-eyed and helpless.... What doesn't move me into full-fledged sympathy for Wendy, especially after losing Lucy, is that fact that Williams treats Lucy dead-eyed and helpless as well. A movie that is titled Wendy and Lucy, after all, must require some degree of chemistry between the title characters.... and I never quite feel it.

Still, movies that involve pets separated from their loving families always tug at my heart strings. How can they not? They highlight that gray area where humans and their pets simply can't communicate in the way that says “stay close to me”.... any amount of unforeseen difficulties, even worse when they're accidental, can separate a pet from its owner, and each one of these difficulties always ends in helpless loss. Of course, most media on the subject isn't so heartless that owner-and-pet end up separated forever, but the fear still lingers. Suffice it to say, after watching Wendy and Lucy, I wanted nothing more than to go straight home and snuggle with my cat, whether he wanted to snuggle or not.

Kelly Reichardt, the director, came to the press screening and answered a few questions from the audience after the film was over. The film is based on the short story “Train Choir” by Portland-native Jonathan Raymond (whose work Reichardt had previously drawn from for Old Joy), shot over 20 days on location around Portland, and self-edited in her apartment in New York City. Reichardt’s vision of Wendy translates to film quite well, and she proves herself to be a director of startling control in crafting Wendy’s awareness of the day-to-day, veering away from the “big picture” because, in the end, Wendy can’t afford to cast her net so wide. I did find some nagging things unforgivably problematic, though: The way this film “resolves” between Wendy and Lucy feels like much was left on the cutting room floor, though I got the impression from Reichardt that this wasn't the case. If Wendy decides that Lucy would be much better off to live in the backyard of some old guy's house outside of Portland, we're gonna need a lot more convincing of this fact than just a fence-enclosed yard and the old guy owning a Prius. For Wendy to decide that Lucy has found a better home, I would also need a little bit more work done on Wendy's part (and not the filmmaker's) of reflexively understanding that her life is bare-bones to the point that she'd be doing the dog a favor by leaving her behind. Even though this point is made clear in the big picture of things, I never get the sense of that coming from Wendy herself.... and, I dunno, I feel like that's something integral to the story if this is the movie's closing statement.

There is another element to the film that seemed almost hyper-aware and heavy-handed, and I'm quite surprised none of the people who asked questions during the Q&A brought it up. I'll bet someone a cookie that not one minute of outdoor screentime goes past without the occurrence of the sound of a train. Seriously. Whistles, horns, squealing tracks, ratcheting. It's everywhere. Some of the time is forgivable, sure, but all of the time is the filmmaker stepping in and bitch-slapping the audience. I'm totally willing to go with it when trains are on screen, even some of the time off screen, but these train noises are at all hours. My careful and studied detective skills find that maybe the inspiring short story “Train Choir” might have something to do with that. The last shot of the movie is of Wendy staring out into the night woods from the open car of a freight train. Lots of train sounds. I am a lover of trains and they've been known to pop up from time to time in my own short fiction.... I suppose trains-as-symbol in Wendy and Lucy highlights the transience of Wendy's predicament.... but there's just too much. Maybe some subtlety should be in order.

1 comment:

ignatius said...

what's funny is that i live near where the movie was filmed and, um, i too wish we weren't hearing the trains all the time. just sayin'...