Kelly Reichardt’s new film Night Moves opens tomorrow and it seemed an appropriate moment to go back to one of her earlier (critical) successes. Ms Reichardt is in some ways an ‘old school’ independent filmmaker in the US. I’d only seen Meek’s Cutoff, which I liked very much, before watching Wendy and Lucy, so researching what she did earlier and how she has presented herself as a filmmaker since the 1990s has been an interesting experience.
Go to IMDB and there is no ‘biography’ for Kelly Reichardt. You have to read the interviews and articles on the more indy-orientated websites to learn that she left what she describes as the “cultural desert” of her Florida childhood to go to university in Boston. Now she teaches film as well as making her own films – primarily with writing partner Jon Raymond in Oregon. Her formative experiences in the art cinemas of the Boston area and her own classroom explorations seem to have been with the films of Fassbinder, Ozu, Bresson etc. and is intriguing to think that she has mostly worked on very American stories.
Wendy and Lucy is set in small town Oregon with a very simple outline narrative. Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) arrives in the small town in her beat-up Honda Accord with just her dog Lucy and a couple of bags of clothes. She appears to be on her way to Alaska where she hopes to find a job. But her journey is halted when first she discovers her car won’t start and then she manages to lose her dog. Much of the central part of the (quite short) film is taken up by the search for the dog – and a place to sleep when her car is impounded. It doesn’t sound much but the film is so skilfully constructed (Reichardt edits as well as directs) that it is always worth watching. Wendy is played by the astonishing Michelle Williams. I had to keep reminding myself that this is the same actress who can convince me that she is Marilyn Monroe. Here she is completely believable as the woman who suffers from one setback after another after making a single mistake.
Kelly Reichardt has discussed Wendy and Lucy in terms of Italian neo-realism. I can see the logic of this, though I didn’t think about neo-realism as I watched the film. I suppose I reflected on the use of long shots and the detailed observation of the minutiae of Wendy’s routines. I did think about European social realist filmmaking – but also about the American small town setting. On reflection, the images of the potential hostility of these small towns – even in the beautiful setting of the Pacific North West – is something that seems familiar from American literature as well as certain more mainstream films. Bizarrely the first film I thought of was Rambo (First Blood, 1982) and the initial reception given to the Sylvester Stallone character. I hope it’s not too fanciful but Rambo is a returning Vietnam vet entering a small town in Washington state. He is treated with mistrust and shown the door immediately. Wendy faces similar prejudices and also unwisely becomes entangled with the police. Reichardt grew up with a police officer father so it was odd that one aspect of Wendy’s arrest proved the only point when I doubted the ‘truth’ of the story.
At one point Wendy visits a fast-food restaurant and we see a man reading Ken Kesey’s 1964 novel Sometimes a Great Notion. This is an interesting element in the film’s mise en scène. Seen as one of the most important literary works coming out of the American North West, the book was adapted as a film directed by and starring Paul Newman and released at the end of 1970. Set in Oregon it features a family logging business – an ‘independent’ outfit that keeps producing lumber when the local unionised workforce goes on strike. This appears to be an admirable tactic in the context of US politics but from a UK perspective I found watching the film quite difficult despite the excellent cast. Perhaps I didn’t really understand it back then? What does it mean to Kelly Reichardt, I wonder? I mention the reference because Wendy and Lucy has been taken by many critics to be a commentary of some kind on American society in the latter part of George Bush’s presidency and on the cusp of the economic crash.
The film shows Wendy literally on the margins and finding it difficult to move forward. Several commentators have pointed to a crucial scene in which Wendy is given a small gift of a few dollars by the one character who has actually tried to help her. This is indeed an emotional moment. At other times we see Wendy counting the money she carries in a belt around her midriff. She isn’t actually destitute, she has enough to get ‘home’ to Indiana (?) where here notebook records that she started her journey. But apart from a phone conversation with her (rather unfriendly) sister we learn little about the life that Wendy has left behind. The small town at the centre of the story once had a mill, but now jobs are hard to find. There are still flashes of humanity in the responses to Wendy’s predicament but overall people seem to have ‘pulled up the drawbridge’. I should note however that some audiences have seen the film more from the perspective of Wendy’s loneliness than the evidence of insularity and lack of community shown by the townspeople (like all of us perhaps?).
Wendy and Lucy is of course a road movie and that raises expectations. Road movies are both supposed to ‘test’ their protagonists via new adventures and new relationships and to provide the means to escape and self-discovery. While the town itself is nondescript, the romance of Oregon is represented by the railway yards, the single track running through the trees and gorges, the sound of the train whistle and the camaraderie of the temporary camp for travellers. For an 80 minute film that at first glance offers a slight narrative, Wendy and Lucy actually delivers quite a rich viewing experience. I suspect that I will get more from it the next time I watch it.
Press Notes available here.
The official US trailer:
There is a story behind my interest in this film. I went to see it in my local ABC cinema almost exactly 50 years ago on its initial UK release in 1964. I remember queuing up as a 15 year-old with my 13 year-old girlfriend. We just managed to get two seats on the front row of a cinema with over 1700 seats. The film had an ‘X’ Certificate (which at that time supposedly barred under 16s). It was dubbed into English, but even so, the possibility of such an enormous audience (it was probably a Saturday night) is an indication of the potential for dubbed European films in the period. (The film was distributed in the UK via Paramount.) The big attraction (certainly for me) was Sophia Loren. I probably then knew the director Vittoria De Sica as an actor in The Four Just Men TV series. I remembered two of the three episodes in this portmanteau film – but only as outline ideas and one or two images of the sublime Ms Loren.
The film’s title refers to the three stories associated with the South (Naples), the North (Milan) and the capital, Rome. Each story features La Loren with Marcello Mastroianni as different characters. In the first Loren is Adelina, a Neapolitan cigarette-seller in 1954 relying on contraband supplies and facing a prison sentence – unless she is pregnant or nursing an infant. Mastroianni is eventually exhausted by the effort to look after the children and impregnating his wife pregnant. She seems to thrive. In Milan Loren is Anna the bored wife of an industrialist who plays with Mastroianni as a trophy ‘artistic’ lover and in Rome she is Mara, a high-class call girl teasing both a weak Mastroianni and the young seminarian next door.
In truth this is a strange trio of stories. The first and the last are broad comedies in which Loren is the strong woman for whom sexual attractiveness is an asset that helps her achieve what she wants and Mastroianni is a weak man and the butt of many of the jokes. The Milan story, from a novella by the well-known Italian writer Alberto Moravia, is much more like a modernist tale with no real narrative. It is by far the shortest of the three and the least entertaining. Having said that, the image of an elegant and coiffured Sophia Loren in a Rolls-Royce, stayed with me from the first viewing. The concept of a portmanteau film in which each episode is directed by the same filmmaker is relatively unusual. Such films with a different director for perhaps four or more separate stories were quite common in this period and usually focused on a single location or theme. The only other ‘single-authored’ compendium which springs to mind is The Yellow Rolls-Royce (dir. Anthony Asquith, UK 1965) with three stories using the same vehicle at different times and with different (star) actors. So, how does De Sica’s selection come together? In some ways the three films are representative of De Sica’s career in films. He began as an actor in the popular melodramas of the 1930s, gained international recognition in the late 1940s with his neo-realist melodramas as a director and went on in the 1950s to move back towards the popular mainstream. ‘Adelina’ could certainly be a neo-realist film given it’s setting and single plot issue (based on a genuine Neapolitan regulation). Ironically, Cesare Zavattini, De Sica’s writing collaborator in the neo-realist period had a hand in the scripts for the second and third stories, but not the first.
There seems to be a problem with the title and the ordering of the three stories. ‘Adelina’ in Naples represents the past. So much is clear. But ‘Anna’ in Milan is surely the future or at least the ‘modern’? Mara in Rome seems very stuck in traditional Roman society. Whereas the first two stories also have some kind of social satire/commentary (on birth control and contemporary marriage and morality) the third story seems very light. Perhaps, after all, the film was just intended to serve the twin purposes of producer Carlo Ponti – to offer a high profile role to his partner Ms Loren (there were problems with the legality of their marriage) and to create an international hit. Loren had already starred in the Two Women (1961) and the ‘epic’ El Cid (1962) and when her three performances in Ieri, oggi, domani helped the film to (rather surprisingly) win the Best Foreign Language film Oscar, Ponti’s plans seemed to have come to fruition. The following year of course saw the Italian release of A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari) and the beginning of a new form of Italian film export. Carlo Ponti would, however, continue to find success with major productions.
The Eureka R2 DVD that I watched does not offer the dubbed version (which I would like to have watched for comparison). It offers a perfectly good Italian print with English subtitles. I read one American review which suggested that the sex appeal of Sophia Loren is used as a ‘tease’ (literally a striptease in the third story) and that the film resembles the Doris Day comedies popular in the US at the time. I can see that’s an interesting comment but I’m not sure I agree. It would take some time to watch a couple of examples and work through a comparison. I like Doris Day as a performer but not necessarily in those comedies. Sophia Loren is really in a category of her own.
One of the treats of the ¡Viva! festival is the chance to see classic archive films from Spain or Latin America. This year the classic (shown again on a Wednesday matinee on 19 March) is the first film by Carlos Saura and a key title in Spanish film history. As the title implies, the story is about a group of young men from what appears like a shanty town on the outskirts of Madrid. The group survives manly through forms of petty theft. One young man is ‘legitimate’ and works at a fruit and veg market. He also has hopes of becoming a bullfighter at Madrid’s central bullring. The plot of the film traces his attempts to get to compete in the ring with the rest of the group trying to raise the money for his entry fees and costumes etc. through various scams and robberies.
Presented in black and white and Academy ratio on a battered but serviceable film print from Contemporary Films (it’s a very long time since I’ve seen that logo) the film seems pitched between Italian neo-realism of the late 1940s/early 50s and the French New Wave of the late 1950s/early 60s. One scene almost matched one I watched last year in Rossellini’s Europa 51, set in a similar community on the outskirts of Rome. But as Rob Stone notes in his Spanish Cinema book, the film “avoids the manipulative search for poignancy that characterises many of the Italian films” (Stone 2002:63). Made with few resources and using non-professional actors in several roles, Saura created a film from open-ended sequences with improvised action. Stone links the film to Spanish literary traditions of “low-life realism”. Núria Triana-Toribio (2003) places the film as a significant entry in the NCE (new cinema of Spain – Nuevo Cine Español) of the period.
The young men (and their mothers and girlfriends – older men are less in evidence in these families) are marginalised and excluded. Their fate is clear in this representation of Spain as a country some 10 years behind Italy and France in terms of economic and social development. Filmmakers in Spain in 159-60 still faced the full force of censorship and restrictions under Franco. Saura was forced to remove footage and dialogue that specifically pointed to the failures of his policies. Even so, the film’s release in Spain was held up. However it somehow reached Cannes where its merits were appreciated and where Saura met Luis Buñuel who he would help to return to Spain for the latter’s Viridiana and another row about bans and censorship. Saura himself went on to make a more carefully disguised critique of Franco’s Spain with La caza (The Hunt) in 1965 which we discussed after a previous ¡Viva! festival screening. What would be good now is to have a complete retrospective of Saura’s work – but we seem to have lost those opportunities for repertory screenings in proper seasons. I hope that ¡Viva! can bring us more examples in future festivals.
Stone, Rob (2002) Spanish Cinema, Harlow: Longman Pearson
Triana-Toribio, Núria (2003) Spanish National Cinema, London: Routledge
Immediately after I saw Nebraska my impression was that I had seen one of the most enjoyable films of the year and also one of the best. Since then I’ve thought about it several times and it’s in danger of becoming the year’s No 1. There are several reasons why it stands out. First it looks terrific in Black and White CinemaScope with slow pans across the flat landscapes and a higher than usual number of long shot framings by Phedon Papamichael, director Alexander Payne’s regular DoP. Second, the excellent casting and wonderful performances give us convincing representations of communities in the small towns of the ‘high plains’ of Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska. This is a film about a ‘real America’ – strangely beautiful even when run-down and tired. I should also mention the excellent score by Mark Orton. I’m actually listening to the soundtrack streamed live as I write.
Of course, part of my fascination is because the film speaks specifically to men of a certain age. The narrative offers us a father and son on a road trip – which, as someone who didn’t like the film pointed out to me, combines two of the most common traits of American cinema. The trip involves a bemused and possibly bewildered retired man who wants to travel from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his ‘winnings’ in what he thinks is a lottery but which in reality is just a marketing promotion by a magazine publisher. This is Woody Grant (Bruce Dern). His wife and sons attempt to dissuade him, but in the end the younger son David (Will Forte) decides to drive him to Lincoln, hoping that the journey will give him time to re-build his relationship with a father who he felt was ‘absent’ during his childhood.
The setting takes Alexander Payne back to his home state and reminds us of both Election (set in a high school in Omaha) and About Schmidt (a road movie, starting from Omaha, with a similarly aged character at its centre played by Jack Nicholson). Like those two films, Nebraska has both comic moments and ‘real’ characters with elements of both hero and anti-hero. One difference, however, is that both the earlier films were literary adaptations but Nebraska is an original script by Bob Nelson, himself a native of South Dakota. Nelson and Payne know the territory and the people and, apart from the intrusion of some black comedy ‘business’ with a couple of ‘goonish’ cousins, the film is pretty close to Rossellini’s ideas for neo-realism. It’s a story taken from a real community with family secrets and relationships that most of us can recognise as ‘real’. I’ve heard criticisms that the film is depressing but I found it to be uplifting and optimistic because it seems to deal with life as it is and not as fantasy.
It has been fascinating to read some of the commentary on the film and some of the interviews and to discover the influences and references, many of which occurred to me watching the film and others which make sense on reflection. The strength of the film in aesthetic terms is its representation of landscape and characters in that region which represents the spine of ‘middle America’ and in Hollywood terms the terrain of the classic Western. In cultural and geographical terms this is the region from Montana down through Wyoming and South Dakota to Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and North-West Texas. The two films that came to mind as I studied the landscapes were Brokeback Mountain and Hud (1963). I remember from Brokeback the opening scenes in Signal, Wyoming and the drama of the huge skies. Similarly with Hud, I remember the Texas landscapes presented in Black & White ‘Scope. Those two films are linked by the inputs of Larry McMurtry, the great storyteller of the ‘Twilight Western’ who helped to adapt Annie Proulx’s short story for Brokeback and whose novel Horseman, Pass By was the source for Hud. McMurtry has the feel for landscape and communities in the region and I wasn’t surprised to discover that Alexander Payne had always wanted to cast Bruce Dern, a ’1970s character actor’ in what Payne saw as his own version of a ‘Peter Bogdanovich film’ (see this informative interview with Kevin Tent, the editor on the film). Bogdanovich made two black and white films in the early 1970s – the depression-set road movie (travelling through Kansas) Paper Moon (1973) and the Twilight Western, The Last Picture Show (1971) – based on Larry McMurtry’s novel and set in a Texas town in the late 1940s/early 1950s.
The Last Picture Show is the most often quoted reference for Nebraska. As well as the monochrome landscapes and small town views of the plains, there is also a thematic resonance with all three films I’ve mentioned here. The Twilight Western is in this particular formulation a contemporary story set in the geographical ‘West’ as defined by Hollywood. There are usually two central male characters, one upholding the honour/traditions of the West and the other negotiating with ‘modernity’. In both Hud and The Last Picture Show there is also a generational narrative with an older and younger man attempting to learn from the other. These primarily male narratives are about loss – the loss of ‘freedom’ and the ability to ‘act’ with dignity and honour. Perhaps it is a push to equate the confused Woody with older characters such as those played by Melvyn Douglas in Hud or Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show (or indeed Robert Preston in Junior Bonner with Steve McQueen as the younger man) – but the links are there. Woody has turned to drink and to lassitude, remembering his past as the owner of a small garage. We learn later that he might have been an honourable man in business – but also that he might have suffered from his experience of the war in Korea. Several commentators refer to him as an alcoholic but he seems to me to have been a man who drank beer in bars rather than face his demons at home. That judgement is something audiences have to think through for themselves – the narrative doesn’t judge the man as such. I’m not sure he is suffering from any form of dementia either. He doesn’t say much and his belief in his ‘win’ is perhaps pathetic, but he still has an identity that he cares about. Bruce Dern’s performance is remarkable but it would be a shame if it overshadowed that of Will Forte as David – the genuine protagonist of the narrative. Forte seems to have worked mainly in TV, but he is very good in this film.
The interview with Kevin Tent throws up two more interesting references in terms of the look of the film. One is to note that ‘Woody Grant’ is a name that reverses ‘Grant Wood’, the artist who painted ‘American Gothic’ the iconic portrait of the rural American couple and a potential model for Woody and his formidable wife Kate played by June Squibb – another terrific performer mining the comedy in the script. There is also a suggestion that another iconic painting, Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’ (1948) was an influence – even though Wyeth was from Maine. ‘Christina’s World’ is possibly my favourite painting so perhaps my appreciation of the beauty of these desolate landscapes is somehow triggered by memories of the painting?
The music is the final part of the aesthetic construct. Again, I have to confess that American ‘roots music’ is my favourite form. In this interview from Film Music Magazine, Mark Orton explains his own background and that of his colleagues in the Tin Hat trio:
We had all studied classical music but were all improvisers as well. We listened to Smithsonian records, Thelonious Monk, Iannis Xenakis, and Willie Nelson. We were a composer’s collective and the only thing we had decided about the group early on was that we would stick to an acoustic instrumentation and use extended techniques and preparations rather than anything electric or processed. Whatever of bluegrass’s past that found its way into my/our sound did so naturally. (http://www.filmmusicmag.com/?p=12017).
That’s a pretty eclectic mix and the interview is well worth reading. As Orton puts it, the music takes the film away from a specific genre while at the same time firmly locating it in the American ‘Heartland’. The characters are at one remove from the rural people of the dustbowl stories and the cowboys of the Twilight Western, but they certainly ‘connected’.
Nebraska is a triumph of aesthetics and storytelling. I’m sure there is a great deal more to say. What did you all think?