Monday, January 31, 2011

Lonely Journey

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2009)

I don’t think there’s ever been a time when our public discourse seemed to me so off the mark. The news media talk with proper gravity about economic crisis and its human consequences, then in the next breath move on to octuplets or bong-smoking swimmers or other sub-trivia you couldn’t bring yourself to utter if you properly believed something big is happening. Assertions about stimulus packages, bail-outs, rescue packages, another ten billion here, another fifty billion there, come and go, swept away as the successive layers of our accumulated disaster bloom and get surpassed. Talking heads spout predictions, seldom with the appropriate humility. And things just get worse and worse. Some people say this kind of apocalypse talk is itself the enemy, that we’re worrying ourselves into a hole; recovery depends on regaining our collective confidence - however ill-informed or self-destructive. Of course you always enjoy the party more if you don’t think about the next morning.

The Creative Economy

As I write this, a new, much-heralded report says our future lies in the “creative economy.” Certainly I agree that education, technology-enabled flexibility and a common commitment to pragmatic reinvention will serve us better than trying to hang on to old paradigms. But I also agree (regretfully) with the Globe And Mail letter writer who said this concept “relies on two extreme and temporary economic distortions. The first is the availability of almost free manufactured goods from Asia. The second, which to a fair degree has made the first possible, is the printing of tens of trillions of dollars pushed into the ‘creative’ end of the economy by a completely out-of-control financial system. Neither of these trends is sustainable…”

The world we’ve built is so tangible and, for all its unknowns, so familiar and enveloping, it’s unimaginable to most of us that cyclicality and adaptability won’t ultimately keep things much as they are. So we endlessly defer the even more major problems that we all know loom ahead, or assure ourselves for example that an “Earth Hour” constitutes a meaningful “first step” toward solving a problem that demands renovating all of our minutes and years.

It brings me back to what I wrote the other week, about the consequences of our overvaluing the recent past as a guide to our likely future, of failing to adequately price uncertainty itself as a component of policy-making. I think there is going to be a lot of self-examination over the next few decades (hopefully of a progressive kind, although I wish I was more optimistic about it). As I’ve been complaining lately, current cinema hasn’t been contributing much to depicting, let along understanding or resolving, any of this. But Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy And Lucy is an exception, and an achievement rare in any era – a small, highly specific and localized narrative of enormous, terrible implications.

Wendy And Lucy

Wendy, played by Michelle Williams, is a young woman traveling in her beaten-up Honda Accord from Indiana to Alaska, where she hopes to find work. Her traveling companion is her dog Lucy, a half-retriever mutt; we first see them playing in the woods outside a dead-end Oregon town, observed in the middle-distance via a long tracking shot. It’s almost idyllic: she’s self-possessed and in control of her situation, optimistic about her destination and meticulous about her habits and her expenses. Trains and railtracks figure prominently in the film, evoking classic archetypes of frontiers opening up; early on it evokes the hippie counter-culture too. It’s always been one of the validations of America’s bloated sense of itself – that the myth of mobility and renewal can at least sometimes be true.

In just an hour and a quarter, the film shows how little room remains for such dreams. She ties Lucy to a rail outside a grocery store, where she’s caught shoplifting some dog food; when the police let her go, the dog’s missing. At around the same time, her engine gives out. Now her stop-over becomes a potential abyss, rapidly exposing the limitations of her resources and of her emotional (and perhaps physical) safety. Without mobility or a fixed address or even a cell phone, the basic logistics of finding a lost dog loom like impenetrable mountains.

Reichardt made the film before the worst of recent events, but it definitely gains extra resonance from the timing of its release. With plummeting oil prices, the bloom is off Alaska, as it is Alberta. Wendy’s journey, likely always a myth, was a creation of momentum and quiet optimism; when that’s stalled, there’s almost nothing left. In the end, her situation is much clearer, and (no real spoiler here) not for the best. The very last shot reminds us of the dark side of that romantic view of the railways.

Selfless Love

Some people would say I’m over-emphasizing the film’s gloomy aspects. Rick Groen, in the Globe and Mail again, gave it four stars (the film won the Toronto film critics’ award for best picture and actress), while emphasizing its upbeat or redemptive aspects. He describes the ending thus: “..the weakest among us delivers a lesson in uncommon strength – a pure act of selfless love, with none to bear witness and no reward in sight. Then, alone, she passes through.”

There’s a religious undercurrent to that reading of it, implicitly linking the film to the likes of Tsotsi or (in a trashier vein) Slumdog Millionaire, where isolated moments of grace or transcendence at least momentarily transform the deprivation giving rise to them.

Needless to say, I don’t see it that way. Uncommon strength and selfless love…you can call it that, but isn’t it the raw material of survival every day at the very bottom of the food chain, that people somehow keep going, way beyond a point that (to those of us who’ve never lived under such limitations) seems impossible. It’s not selfless, it’s just the best self there is. The ending, I’d say, is a pure tragedy, a capitulation to a horrifying dead end.

Wendy And Lucy is a superb exercise in form reflecting content. It’s quiet, precise, careful, and desperate, taking on, without any cinematic ornamentation, a sense of escalating threat. I’m afraid there are many Wendys among us, most of them probably not even possessing as promising a narrative as the film’s Wendy starts out with, but experiencing as comprehensive a downward evaluation. And there is no “creative” solution to this, no easy “bail-out” that can keep her physically alive and safe at even a low level while allowing her a personal narrative that nourishes her. Reichardt’s film will likely be one of the year’s most significant, but for those in the eye of the storm, I’m almost reluctant to recommend it. Maybe for some viewers the film can be the truth that starts to set them free, if there’s still enough room (economic, social, psychic) for mass freedom in this world.

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