Wendy & Lucy (2008) & Kelly Reichardt Q&A
To accompany the UK release of Kelly Reichardt’s acclaimed new movie Certain Women the BFI have launched a short retrospective of her work, and invited the curious chronicler of the American dispossessed, of those living their quiet lives in the margins of society over to introduce some of the screenings and discuss her work. I first stumbled upon her films in the most serendipitous way possible, renting a DVD of Wendy & Lucy knowing nothing of its story or maker, being faintly aware of its reputation and critical praise. I was utterly blown away by the films direct empathy for its central character, for its near unique emphasis on middle America and the faint political underpinnings of a social structure in crisis, welded together with the then arising ‘austere’ stream of cinema which adopts a narrow but effective array of techniques in order to replicate reality – diagetic sound only, 100% location shooting with single camera takes, a loosely explored, improvisational performance structure. In the intervening decade Reichardt has become one of the finest practitioners of the form, and slowly built a formidable auteur reputation and a string of awards from the festival circuit, while darting through an eclectic array of subjects and situations – the eco-warrior movement, 19th century US pioneers, a triumvirate of women seeking solace and security in an anxious world. She is unquestionably one of the most accomplished US filmmakers working today, whose career I follow closely, so naturally I jumped at the chance to see her speak of her craft and revisit her work on the screen as intended.
So, just to be slightly unconventional like her films we’ll begin with the Q&A before getting into the movie, as that was the sequence of events on the day. She took a while to get warmed up and was a little inarticulate, but that was more to do with the difficulty of explaining her process which she explained is more felt instinctively than through serious cognitive concentration. I hadn’t clicked that she always works as her own editor, cutting the picture ‘in-camera’ during the shot, which may prevent the gift of having an independent, fresh pair of eyes to assess the material, but cleaves closer to her original conception of the picture. She noted how difficult it was to make ‘quiet’ films, pictures without instructive soundtracks, devoting attention to the sound mix by writing out an aural schemata similar to a storyboarding for the visuals. All her films are shot in natural locations which maintains a verite intensity, and creates a certain frisson while shooting as the crew grapples with unpredictable elements such as the weather, animals, and inquisitive natives. Her rehearsals with actors consist of making them conduct the chores of their characters, of living their everyday repetitive lives, such as the pioneer camp for Meeks Cutoff, or servicing a farm for Certain Women, rather than running lines or script table reads, so the actors can build a muscle memory that serves the part. Finally, the inevitable influences and favourites question was posed, and as a film scholar she cited a few expected maestros – Sirk, Fassbinder, Bresson – and mourned how terrible 2016 was with the loss of both Kiarostami and Chantal Ackerman.
As the daughter of a crime scene technician and narcotics agent it is no surprise that Reichardt’s films are studious investigations, methodical in tone, perhaps a little distanced and sociological in their cool observation than some would prefer. Shot on location in Portland, Oregon Wendy & Lucy is a few days in the life of financial economic refuge Wendy (Michelle Williams) who is traversing the country to Alaska, in search of seasonal work at a fishery factory. Sleeping in her dilapidated car and keeping a keen eye on her meagre budget her only companion is her mongrel Labrador Lucy, a unique source of affection in her difficult environment. After a bad choice leads to her being separated from her companion the film follows a modest path of her attempted reunification with her mutt, orienteered through William’s heartbreakingly discreet performance which fully inhabits the role of the proud disposed and forgotten. The drama arises from the smallest and seemingly most inconsequential of incidents – a stuttering car engine signalling economic panic, a simple yet critical offer to use a mobile phone – which are bracketed by Ozu pillow-shot interludes to build a sense of time and space, weaving a tapestry of realistic rigour.
Wendy & Lucy is simply a beautiful, discreet haunting modern classic, drip feeding character texture through action rather than reaction, while offering a historical portrait of an entire segment of society. released in the year of the worst global crash of 90 years it is a moving vision of any strata of society, their precarious existence balanced where one poorly judged decision can threaten the entire fabric of safety after the social contract safety net was withdrawn by successive neo-liberal administrations. Reichardt cleaves to the bone in terms of plot and narrative, it follows a directly linear sequential path, coolly observing the situation and character actions without judgement, yielding a space for the audience to form their own conclusions and connections. It’s from those hesitations, the muted, reductive dialogue, the slow imperceptible construct of screen realism that the oblique politics creep into the work, enforced further through the absence of any diagetic sonic crutch to signal how we should feel in certain sequences, and a sparse 78 minute run time. It’s a cinema of quiet anxiety and gentle loneliness, as in the final reel Wendy marches off into the distance, to face an uncertain future alongside swathes of her forgotten generation;