American Transients: Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy

by cwellum

We’re not in the American century anymore. Though it feels like most of Hollywood is in denial, using nationalist spectacle to cope with our undulant, post-9/11, pseudo e-world. Its studios churn out franchise pictures about heroes who save America from endless threats; stories that shore up uncertain pasts with pixelated certainty; and a plethora of revenge films that funnel American anger into images of mass destruction and therapeutic retribution.[1] Just look at some of the most recent Oscar nominees for best picture – Argo, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, and Django Unchained. Even these “prestige films” lean on the action-image to soothe a fractured American psyche.[2] Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the internet, Netflix, and the home theatre have convinced producers that multimillion dollar spectacle is the only way to get consumers away from their flatscreens and into the multiplex.[3] It’s tough to imagine a more oppositional or singular cinema getting much room to breathe in this climate (there are always exceptions). We’re not exactly in the seventies anymore.

Even so, a critical cinema persists on the outskirts, imbued with a sense of political outrage and exhaustion that opposes the spectacle’s dogged denial of reality. It is an anti-franchise cinema. It exhales slowly. Its narratives unfurl in open spaces populated with discomforting figures. Kelly Reichardt is one of its preeminent auteurs and her films Old Joy (2006) and Wendy & Lucy (2008) are windows into its form. They move to organic rhythms and pose uncomfortable questions about America’s social fabric and the persistent threat of its unraveling from the outside, in. One purpose of Ekphrasis is to point our readers in other directions, which we have done before with Winter’s Bone. We’re at it again.

Old Joy

The film opens on a small bird, which quickly flutters away from the corner of an eaves trough. Mark (Daniel London) is meditating in his sun-drenched backyard, though he doesn’t appear to be much relaxed. His feeble calm is disturbed by his pregnant wife blending a drink and Kurt (Will Oldham), an old friend who leaves a coy message saying that wants to get together for a hiking trip to a hot spring in the Cascade Mountains. Mark’s wife seems to resent Kurt’s intrusion, but he agrees to the trip anyway. So the plot is simple enough – two old pals go on a hiking trip to reconnect and relive their old joy for a few fleeting hours. But what follows is its own meditation on American transience and regret in the nadir of the Bush years.

Mark waits for Kurt.

Mark waits for Kurt.

Reichardt’s themes emerge through her characters, which are finely drawn but not overwritten. Their pasts and motives are left open and we identify with them through our own acts of imagination. There is a wonderful freedom of interpretation that resists the drumbeat of the escapist cinema of sequels and prequels that fetishize every detail of characters’ lives and universes to the point of boredom. We can participate in the making of this cinema, in a way, because our perspective is integral to its meaning, though the process is not wholly open. Reichardt builds the basic structure and establishes the thematic palette. Mark and Kurt go on a short camping trip to a hot spring in the Cascade Mountains. They get lost on the first day and end up camping in a dilapidated area of the forest where they talk about their lives over beer and BB guns. Kurt discusses his theory of a tear-shaped universe before bursting into tears, saying to Mark, “I miss you. I miss you really really bad. I want us to be real friends again. There’s something between us and I don’t like it…I want it to go away.” Kurt voices the unnamed tension that we’ve already felt and which lingers after his words dissipate. Mark tries to reassure Kurt that their relationship is fine and Kurt dismisses his outburst as crazy. They eventually make it to the hot spring the next day, where Mark cannot relax until Kurt massages his shoulders in a richly ambiguous scene of fleeting connection. They return to town that night and go their separate ways. The film concludes with a sense that the trip was not ultimately a reconnection, but an ending.

Kurt opens up to Mark.

Kurt opens up to Mark.

So we know that Mark and Kurt are friends who have grown apart, but the exact nature of their past is mired in the fog of time and unspoken sentiment. When did they know each other? What happened to their relationship? Why does Mark agree to the trip? Just what does Kurt want from Mark? We don’t know, but we don’t need to. The dramatic tension is cinematic, not literary. What we need to know about the characters surfaces through the cinematic means of composition, expression, cutting, and dialogue. The film’s form also brilliantly exploits our cinematically conditioned expectations, which privilege sex and violence. As Reichardt explained in an interview “The two things that are somewhat inherent in [a story about] going into the mountains alone with someone, especially if they’re going to a hot spring, are the loneliness and desertedness or whatever it is of being in the forest and then sexuality. They’re either going to kill each other or they’re going to fuck each other – one of those things is bound to happen! A lot of that is just the anticipation that people bring with them from a million years of movie watching.”[4] Of course as the film unfolds we don’t see them do either, at least not on screen. What we have is a metaphoric and emotional drama unfolding between the images. We see its shadows.

Mark, who might be in his early 30s, is anxious about the future and his imminent fatherhood. He is also plagued by latent regrets about the conformist choices that he has made : wife, suburban home, stable job, and soon a child. Meditation is an attempt to neutralize his anxiety. Mark listens obsessively to talk radio as he drives through shabby towns and landscapes – a brilliant use of diegetic sound to establish the film’s political anxieties. Old Joy is set in the middle of the Bush presidency after all and we hear Air America radio pundits endlessly debating America’s apparent lack of a viable third party and the GOP’s history of divisive political strategy. Reichardt is pointing out America’s deep divisions, which the GOP exploits and the Democrats are impotent to mend. Mark clearly shares these concerns, but the film posits a damning answer to the question of a third way and to the general sense of malaise in 2006. As Reichardt commented “I think of Mark as this guy who really wants world peace, but at the end of the day he can’t even be totally forthcoming and honest and giving to his wife or to a good old friend.”[5] Mark’s self-imposed isolation is a sign of his cruelty and a symptom of his investment in American individualism and its concomitant pursuit of middle class stability. It is a decision not to connect, rather than an inability, which ultimately infects his relationship with Kurt (which is paternalistic) and hints at America’s political quandary. Relationships are transient, just like the post-industrial communities of America that are holding onto a fast fading past. As Dave Kehr writes, the film is not about “…friendship but betrayal; not nostalgia but the impossibility of reliving times past; not about generational solidarity but lonely individualism.”[6] Old Joy is saturated with loneliness and regret at the passing of time. Mark and Kurt try to relive old times, only to discover that every remnant of their youth is fading. When Kurt learns their local record store, Sid’s, has closed to sell music on ebay, he sighs: “No more Sid’s. End of an era.”

Old Joy's landscapes are often melancholic.

Old Joy’s landscapes are often melancholic.

Kurt is Mark’s foil; he is non-conformist and non-committal. While Mark worries about doing “whatever it is people do” when his child arrives, Kurt is irresponsible, unreliable, and erratic. He is a transient who wafts in and out of other people’s lives, unable to commit to a relationship or a cause. He tells Mark that he is staying with a friend in town, but the film suggests that he lives in his van. He’s burned too many bridges. Later on, as Mark talks about his impending fatherhood, Kurt blurts out: “I’ve not gotten myself into anything that I couldn’t get myself out of. It’s just…having a kid is so fucking for real.” Kurt constantly pontificates about order and meaning in life and in the universe, but his own life is marked by disorder and chaos. Time and age have turned Kurt’s wandering life from romantic adventure into pathetic antic.

I would be remiss if I did not say something about Reichardt’s inspired decision to cast Will Oldham as Kurt. Oldham is best known as the songwriter and musician called Bonnie “Prince” Billy, though he has performed under a variety of names.[7] He is the kind of singer that lazy music journalists call a “troubadour”, though his work is far too singular and unpredictable to be summarized, and with such a trite label at that. Oldham began acting as a kid in the early 80s and he starred in his first big role alongside Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, and Mary McDonnell in John Sayles’s brilliant film Matewan (1987), which tells the story of a violent coal mining strike in 1920s West Virginia. Oldham played a child preacher named Danny Radnour who is radicalized by the company’s violent strikebreaking tactics. After landing a few other roles in the late 80s, however, he left Hollywood to pursue music.[8]

Oldham approaches music making cinematically, with an awareness of the dialectic between artifice and authenticity that is inherent in art – a tension that contemporary “indie” music often lacks, obsessed as it is with the authenticity of personal expression. Bonnie “Prince” Billy is a character and each recording is a performance of character in a way that is not just a musical expression of Will Oldham’s own thoughts and feelings, but a complex combination of himself and of his character. He has even said that he structures and conceptualizes each Bonnie “Prince” Billy album like a film and would prefer that record stores categorize albums by title rather than by “artist”.

Oldham never gave up acting in films entirely, but music is where he honed the kind of performance that suited him to play Kurt. His Bonnie “Prince” Billy persona shares many of Kurt’s qualities, though often in greater extremes; and many Bonnie “Prince” Billy songs share Old Joy’s concerns, not the least of which is brotherhood. Oldham’s classic song I See A Darkness is one of the greatest songs about a male friendship ever written and could in many ways be a theme song for Old Joy. Most important, though, is the physicality that Oldham brings to musical performance. He manages to get so much expression – so much character – out of his voice because of the way he moves, subtly contorting his face and angling his body more like a method actor than a singer. Oldham brings this ability to wholly inhabit a character in mind, body, and voice to his interpretation of Kurt and the result is mesmeric. Kurt emerges through Oldham’s movements, twitches, shrugs, intonations, and glances. We get a sense of Kurt’s impulsiveness and vulnerability just by watching him tell stories in close up in the car. And throughout the film, Oldham imbues his body with a subtle spastic energy that suggests Kurt’s carefree but erratic nature and gives us a sense of his past. Bearded, balding, and mischievous in his shabby clothes, Kurt doesn’t look much different from Will Oldham in the recording studio. The performance is marvelously crafted and beautifully executed and only Will Oldham could have pulled it off.

Old Joy revolves around its two longest scenes: the flickering campfire scene where Kurt voices the tension he feels with Mark, and the film’s narrative climax at the hot spring, where the tension accumulates before it briefly dissolves. Reichardt has described Old Joy as “a western in a way, with a new kind of competitiveness that challenges each other’s openness. Which comes to a head at the tubs.”[9] Western imagery abounds throughout the film, though this idea is most fully realized in the scene at the tubs, which plays like a western co-directed by Sergio Leone and Terrence Malick.[10] The entire film builds up to this point and Reichardt heightens the tension with an extended hike to the hot springs on the second day and excruciating cutting between Mark, Kurt, and nature once they arrive at their destination. This building tension is conditioned by the expectations of our film culture (as we have already seen), Reichardt’s subtle visual cues, and our questions about the direction Mark and Kurt’s relationship is going. What happened in the past and what is going to happen now? The narrative possibilities are nearly endless, from sex, betrayal, or murder, to the more mundane. Extreme close ups of each character are interspersed with abstract compositions of feet, clothing, flora, and fauna. Nature emerges as its own character and the air is thick with silent tension, running water. The scene is a confrontation of competing openness and its structure clearly comes from the western genre.[11]

The use of BB guns at the earlier campfire scene subtly establishes the sense of an impending western showdown.

The use of BB guns at the earlier campfire scene subtly establishes the sense of an impending western showdown.

Mark shoots a BB gun.

Mark shoots a BB gun.

A shot of the hot spring that wouldn't be out of place in a western.

A shot of the hot spring that wouldn’t be out of place in a western.

Some abstract compositions from the film.

Some abstract compositions from the film.

OJ 23

OJ 17

Kurt, in the end, is the more open character. Unable to stand the silence, he tells more of his idiosyncratic stories and Mark finally begins to relax. Soon Kurt walks over to Mark’s tub and begins to massage his shoulders. Mark resists at first, but he eventually relaxes as his hand falls gently into the water. The scene is rich with ambiguity and sexual overtones, though I think that the reconnection here is fraternal and, the film suggests, tinged with finality. It is as if the two have finally come to a moment of understanding illustrated visually as a purity of experience that is only briefly unmediated by sorrow, regret, and selfishness. Kurt makes this understanding plain for us in a poetic summary of the film through his dream about an encounter with a Indian cashier who comforts him, saying: “It’s okay. You’re okay. Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy.”

"Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy."

“Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy.”

The hot spring scene, like the rest of the film, unfolds slowly and – one is tempted to say – naturally. As J.J. Walker has pointed out, Reichardt works in a different sense of time. We might even call it a more spiritual, Tarkovskian sense of time, resistant to the industrial capitalist structure of production that is in the very nature of the medium (still images rolling past us like an assembly line) and to the late capitalist barrage of images that persists in our digital cinema.[12] The slowness is contemplative but lonely. In one scene, the camera stays behind in the car as Mark gets out for a break from driving…and from Kurt. Reichardt keeps the shot going as Mark’s phone rings, he comes back to get it, and walks away again to talk to his wife (another source of tension) while Kurt watches and smokes. The literal and metaphoric sense of separation is palpable without cutting or music to cue our emotions.

Kurt waits for Mark in an extended shot.

Kurt waits for Mark in an extended shot.

Old Joy ends quietly. Mark and Kurt leave the hot spring in silence and the drive home is almost peaceful, as if something had resolved. They do not get back to town until well after dark. The film’s final shots suggest that the imperfections and regrets of their lives will be hard to escape and that the remainder of the Bush years will be hard on average people. As soon as Kurt gets out of the car, Mark returns to Air America. In a foreshadowing of Reichardt’s next film, the pundits discuss inflation and America’s uncertain future. Housing, healthcare, energy – the “overwhelming share of the budget of an ordinary family” is being squeezed by the rising cost of living. Nothing better is visible on the horizon to which Mark is always looking. Meanwhile Kurt returns to his life of impoverished transience. We see him on the street trying to find food that he can afford. But as Mark resumes his self-centered anxieties, Kurt gives to a panhandler when he can least afford it. Despite his problems, Kurt can still get outside of himself. Both men are lonely and insecure, but Kurt shows more humanity; the possibility for a third way. Directionless, he walks off camera into the night.

Mark returns to political radio.

Mark returns to political radio.

Kurt disappears into the night.

Kurt disappears into the night.

Coda: Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Reichardt’s next film, Wendy and Lucy (2008), takes place near the end of the Bush years, just before the “Great Recession” of 2008. It is a sympathetic portrayal of another spectral character, Wendy, and her struggle to find work in a crumbling American economy without a social safety net. The limits of sympathy in tough times and political failure are the heart of this beautifully realized film, which is Reichardt’s greatest achievement to date and one the best films of its decade. By way of conclusion, I want briefly to consider some of its thematic accomplishments as a critical cinema focused on American life on the outskirts.

Wendy and Lucy begins and ends with the movement of trains, evoking the desperate plight of thousands during the Great Depression as well Wendy’s tragic rootlessness. We first meet Wendy (Michelle Williams) walking in a clearing with Lucy (her dog), unobserved by the world. She hums quietly. Wendy is on her way to Alaska to find work when her car breaks down in a depressed part of Oregon. She has very little money and cannot afford to be unemployed much longer, but she has to wait for the nearest mechanic to fix her car. In the meantime, she gets caught shoplifting dog food in a grocery store (“The rules apply to everyone equally” says the young zealot who catches her). Lucy remains tied up outside the store while Wendy is fingerprinted and fined at the local police station. Lucy is gone when she returns. The rest of the film follows Wendy’s growing desperation as her money runs out and she searches frantically for her dog. Economic circumstance begins to dictate her decisions.

One of the film's opening shots.

One of the film’s opening shots.

Wendy and Lucy passing through, unobserved.

Wendy and Lucy passing through, unobserved.

The film’s soundscape, like much of its imagery, evokes Wendy’s transience and her alienation from mainstream America. There is no music (except for Wendy’s humming), only the sounds of trains, empty space, or cars buzzing by on the interstate. It is most often an ugly, postindustrial soundscape of constant motion and the forgotten, degraded spaces that it elides. The periodically beautiful natural landscapes through which Wendy walks pose a question about the relationship between our forms of movement and forms of nature. Reichardt also seems to be commenting on the atomizing effects of the pointless, mechanized motion that marks postindustrial society. In such a society, a tragic figure like Wendy wanders quietly by, unseen or heard over the din of traffic. But her own motive form is a source of dignity, even if her rootlessness is far from romantic.

Wendy sleeps in her car.

Wendy sleeps in her car.

Wendy and Lucy is also a critique of the conservative (sometimes libertarian) socioeconomic ideology that dominated America in 2008, and now. She has no community or family to fall back on. Rootlessness does not often beget stability in modern America, and so we watch her descend into grinding poverty and despair, as a matter of circumstance and design. As one character decries, “You can’t get an address without an address. You can’t get a job without a job. It’s all fixed.” So the film asks: how do people like Wendy figure in our society? What do we owe to each other? What kind of politics do we want to create?

An image of America in 2008.

An image of America in 2008.

Like Mark and Kurt, we are left in the dark about much of Wendy’s past. We do not know who she is or where she came from. We know only that she is poor and transient, just passing through, unknown. We do not know why she is jobless and apparently living out of her car. We do not know how she came to own Lucy or why she does not seem to have parents. When Wendy calls her sister about her situation, her sister asks “What does she want us to do about it?” We don’t know the story behind this tension either – is Wendy always screwing up or is she neglected? As in Old Joy, the audience is responsible for the backstory. But in many ways, it doesn’t matter. Wendy is a character who clearly needs a break in a system that will not give her one. The sympathy and generosity of strangers for someone passing through their already busy lives is limited and ultimately ineffective. She meets a kind Walgreens security guard who watches over her car, offers her company and the use of his phone, and secretly gives her what he can – six dollars. As the mechanic comes to understand her situation, he also gives her what break he can. But both the mechanic and the Walgreens security guard are embedded in the same system, ultimately helpless. Neither can give her the means to escape poverty. Both have their own lives and problems and limitations.

Wendy tries to call her sister.

Wendy tries to call her sister.

The sympathetic Walgreens security guard does what little he can for Wendy.

The sympathetic Walgreens security guard does what little he can for Wendy.

In an interesting, “meta” sort of way, the film itself is an act of sympathy, but just as impotent as its characters. Reichardt is clearly sympathetic to Wendy (and those like her), much more so than Mark and Kurt. Sure, Kurt was likeable. But Wendy is downright tragic and sympathetic. We want to help her. We are brought to indignation about her circumstances. Portraying a pivotal moment in her life in a semi-neo-realist way is a form of sympathy, which is, no doubt, indebted to Michelle William’s compassionate and careful performance. She brilliantly conveys the inner life of a person who is so often forced to withhold her emotions, except when she is most herself – alone with Lucy. We can see vividly that her mobile life is nightmarish, and not clearly the fault of any one individual in the film. This is a tragedy that personalizes the social.

The shot of Wendy peering teary-eyed through the chain link fence that separates her from Lucy encapsulates this sense of the film. Here is despairing young woman, banished by circumstance to the outskirts of life in the richest nation in the world. We the audience have spent 80 minutes in her life, as helpless as those who happen to notice her to do anything significant for her. And as she is forced to the economic decision that finally breaks her, we think of the parting words of the sympathic security guard: “I hope it all works out. I know it will.”

WL 14

-cwellum-

Endnotes

[1] One could add the recently popular “apocalyptic future” theme to the same effect.
[2] This, despite the fact that “We hardly believe any longer that a global situation can give rise to an action which is capable of modifying it…” Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, 206.
[3] “The loss of quality that is so evident at every level of spectacular language, from the objects it glorifies to the behavior it regulates, stems from the basic nature of a production system that shuns reality. The commodity form reduces everything to quantitative equivalence. The quantitative is what it develops, and it can develop only within the quantitative.” – Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 38.
[4] Quoted in J.J. Murphy, “A similar sense of time: The collaboration between writer Jon Raymond and director Kelly Reichardt in Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy,” in Analyzing the Screenplay, edited by Jill Nelmes (Routledge, New York, 2011), 169.
[5] Quoted in ibid, 164.
[6] Quoted in ibid, 165 – 166.
[7] Including, but not limited to, Palace, Palace Music, Palace Brothers, Bonny Billy, The Amalgamated Sons of Rest, and under his own name.
[8] At the time, Oldham was disillusioned with the filmmaking process in Hollywood. He recently recalled: “[I] didn’t want to be in that system and now making records it’s still a constant battle, swimming upstream. Maybe I just learned, eventually, that that’s what a person has to do, but at that time I thought there’s probably a life that’s more natural, that I am suited for, and it’s not this acting thing…” From Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy edited by Alan Licht (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012), 30 – 31.
[9] Quoted in Murphy, 164.
[10] Sergio Leone is famous for, among other things, his agonizingly long shoot outs, particularly in the “man with no name” series of films starring Clint Eastwood. Terrence Malick’s cinema is marked by a discursive poetics, loose narrative, and frequent visual/philosophical references to nature.
[11] It is not insignificant that Reichardt eventually made a full blown western, Meek’s Cutoff in 2010.
[12] This is a reference to the legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, who worked in extremely long takes in the second half of his career to sometimes, almost, transcendental effect. Tarkovsky’s sense of movement and visual precision has never been matched.

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