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Metronatural America

Wendy and Lucy

a film by Kelly Reichardt, adapted from a story by Jon Raymond
raban_1-032609
Oscilloscope Pictures
Michelle Williams as Wendy in Wendy and Lucy, 2008

In the imaginary America of books and movies, where every state and region has acquired a rich cluster of meanings and associations over time, the Pacific Northwest is a fairly recent arrival. Nineteenth-century painters like Albert Bierstadt visited Oregon and Washington in search of fresh landscapes to add to their stock of images of the sublime, and the explicitly social vocabulary of late Romantic sublimity (“noble,” “regal,” “grand,” “majestic,” and all the rest) still gets attached to the region’s extravagant volcanic geography, its mountain ranges, evergreen forests, and superabundance of water in every form. In the second half of the twentieth century, that geography came to serve as backdrop to the unmajestic, ignoble life in the valleys and foothills, where low-rise, makeshift, ad hoc settlements stand in plain view of the snowcaps and forest, mockingly diminished by their spectacular surrounding nature.

Bernard Malamud—who taught at Oregon State College, now Oregon State University, in Corvallis, from 1949 to 1961—conveyed this beautifully in A New Life (1961), a novel in which the college town of Easchester in the state of Cascadia is a scale model of McCarthy-era, small-minded social, academic, and political conformity, set in a landscape whose mountains, tumbled clouds, and vast sky hold out the promise of exhilarating escape and freedom to S. Levin, “formerly a drunkard,” of New York City. Since then, in the stories of Raymond Carver, the films of Gus Van Sant, and the novels of Ken Kesey and David Guterson, among others, the Pacific Northwest has become familiar as the place in America where lives of grimly straitened circumstances play out within sight of the now-ironic sublime. The old-growth Douglas firs, the mountains and cascades are there to tease from a distance: it’s in the trailer homes and bungalows below, in insufficient, straggling towns, their single highways lined with the parking lots of big-box stores, that most Northwest fiction happens.

These drab lowlands, mostly shot under a wan, overcast sky, are the setting for Wendy and Lucy, directed by the Florida-born, New York–based independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt. Like her last movie, Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy is adapted from a short story by the Portland, Oregon, writer Jon Raymond, whose intently observant and unillusioned take on his home territory has been adopted by Reichardt as her own. In their latest collaboration, Raymond and Reichardt have turned the Great Pacific Northwest, as its boosters call it, into an allegorical landscape of economic and emotional recession; a world starved of credit, jobs, futures, sunlight, words, and social bonds. The December 2008 release of Wendy and Lucy, after a successful season on the festival circuit, was eerily well-timed: it would be hard to find a more powerful illustration of Obama’s talk of the danger of financial crisis turning into catastrophe than this spare and haunting film.

Wendy, played by Michelle Williams, is driving with her dog, Lucy, from Muncie, Indiana, to a seasonal job on the “slimeline” of a salmon cannery in Ketchikan, Alaska (where around $750 can be earned for an eighty-four-hour week on minimum wage plus overtime), when her ‘88 Honda Accord falls terminally ill in a small town in Oregon. Whatever misfortune led her to the desperate solution of the cannery job is left deliberately unclear, but Wendy is not a feckless drifter: the spiral-bound notebook in which she records every expenditure on gas and food, in round but literate handwriting, and the money belt in which she keeps her dwindling supply of cash are tokens of her cautious, thrifty character. Almost degendered, in knee-length cutoffs and plaid shirt, her hair cropped into a pudding-bowl cut around her ears, Wendy is an androgynous Everyperson, a representative American, fallen on hard times through no particular fault of her own. When she arrives in the nameless Oregon town, her savings have fallen to precisely $525—just enough to get her and her dog to Ketchikan so long as nothing goes wrong.

The town, such as it is, is one of those Northwest places that look like the outskirts of somewhere bigger, further down the road, but turn out to be all there is. It has a railroad and marshaling yards, but the whistling trains (Raymond’s original story was titled “Train Choir”) are bound from some far elsewhere to another. Like the prominent phone cables and the continuous thin surf of traffic on an arterial street, the trains draw attention to the infrastructure of a busy capitalist society, full of messages, appointments, destinations, but the town itself seems to have been bypassed by the business of America. We learn that it once had a timber mill, but the mill closed down long ago, leaving the subsistence and occupations of the townspeople a mystery: for the purpose of the film, the town’s heart is the almost-empty parking lot of a branch of Walgreens, and perhaps that’s the solution; they live on Medicaid prescription drugs.

In fact, Reichardt filmed these scenes on location in a suburb of Portland, and her detachment of the sub from the urb, islanding it amid woods and water as a dismal stand-alone community, is a clever piece of artifice that is strikingly true to the character of the region, where so many towns look a lot like this, but none is quite as perfectly centerless and accidental as this one. To the Pacific Northwest landscape, Reichardt brings a connoisseur’s eye for bare asphalt; utility poles; chainlink fencing; the texture of cinderblock walls, painted and repainted in varying shades of beige; the street of motley bungalows; the shaggy, ink-black cypress, disproportionately dominating an otherwise squat and untidy backyard. Since her first feature-length film, River of Grass (1995)—a rather discombobulated black comedy–thriller set, in pitiless subtropical sunshine, on the ugliest streets to be found in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties—she’s demonstrated an enthusiastic visual relish for the worst that humans can do to blight their environment, and in Wendy and Lucy she lets her dyspeptic view of man’s inhumanity to nature rip.

In this unlovely setting, Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain et al.) gives a performance of engrossing depth and subtlety. In eighty minutes of screen time, I doubt that she has many more than eighty short, flat lines to speak, excluding her calls of “Lucy? Lu?” when her dog goes missing. Her commanding eloquence lies elsewhere, in posture and gesture, the tilt of a shoulder, the set of her lips, and, most of all, in her eyes, which, by turns, speak wariness, tenderness, terror, pride, disgust, resignation, and despair. Reichardt’s camera treats Williams as a wonder of nature in her own right, and one is mesmerized by her capacity to make so much of a wordless shrug or a rare, reluctantly forced smile.

When she first shows up in town, with Lucy in tow, she meets what appears to be a tribe of savages—a bunch of stoner punks, their mutilated faces lit by the flames of a campfire. A little later, having scavenged a few crumpled cans and empty bottles from the roadside, she joins a more sedate and orderly group of homeless men, queuing in line at an automated recycling center, where they redeem their collections of discarded trash at the rate of a nickel per container (in Oregon, every beer or soda can and bottle sold includes a 5¢ deposit). These two outcast communities are as near as she comes to encountering a functioning society—the social world from which she is kept aloof only by the remaining bills in her money belt and her stricken car. For the rest, everyone in the town appears to be hardly less stranded and isolated than she is herself, and almost no one—cop, security guard, supermarket checkout clerk, woman at the desk of the dog pound, auto mechanic—looks as if they might not soon find themselves in her predicament.

Two cans of Iams dog food, slipped by Wendy into her purse in the supermarket, precipitate her personal slide from crisis into catastrophe, leading her to a police cell, fingerprinting, a budget-wrecking $50 fine plus court costs, and the disappearance of Lucy from the bike rack to which she had been left tethered outside the store. Alone on the street, with a dead car and a missing dog, she’s tumbled from the ranks of those who just manage to squeak by on minimal means of support into the netherworld of the punks and the homeless. But she’s not beaten yet. Her search for Lucy, which occupies the last fifty minutes of the movie, is conducted with method and resourcefulness. Watching her making “Lost Dog” posters (“floppy ears, sharp eyes, yellowish-brown, friendly face…”), quartering the town while calling Lucy’s name, and creating a scent trail of her garments tied to trees for the dog to follow, one sees her fundamental competence: here is someone who eminently deserves a job. But there are no jobs in this town, and, in any case, as Wendy says to the Walgreens security guard, “You can’t get a job without an address.” To which he replies, “You can’t get an address without an address. You can’t get a job without a job. It’s all fixed.”

An economy on the brink of collapse is at once the subject of the movie and Reichardt’s directorial aesthetic. Wendy and Lucy cost $200,000 to make, and the notebook detailing Wendy’s running expenses might be Reichardt’s own. Everything is frugally pared down to the barest minimum. The film’s musical score is an eight-note theme with variations, first hummed by Wendy in the opening scene, then picked up by a distant synthesizer. This skeletal tune, vaguely liturgical to my ear, becomes as memorable a soundtrack as any I can remember (it was composed by Will Oldham, the Kentucky musician and actor, who also appears here as the chief of the fireside punks).

The economical music sets the key for the whole movie. With the pointed exceptions of the Will Oldham character, who’s on an alpine high, and the pompous brat in the supermarket, who insists on turning Wendy over to the police with lines like “The rules apply to everyone equally” and “If a person can’t afford dog food, they shouldn’t have a dog” (and whose conspicuously dangling crucifix is Reichardt’s only lapse into excess), everyone spends language as thriftily as if each syllable were hard-earned money. No one is unnecessarily impatient or deliberately unkind, but the town has so little to spare the stranger in its midst that every expression of interest or concern must be measured and counted, cent by grudging cent.

Reichardt coaxes from her (underpaid) cast a magnificent ensemble performance of austere naturalism. Michelle Williams’s restrained and gestural style is exactly matched by the other actors, and especially by Walter Dalton as the security guard, who first orders Wendy to remove herself and her car from the parking lot, then, by halting stages, falls into a shyly avuncular relationship with her. Dalton, slow of speech and movement, whose unruly silver eyebrows deserve an Equity card of their own, is the living embodiment of the town, its good days in the past, now whiling away its time in tedious drudgery on minimum wage. Toward the end, after Lucy has at last been located in a “foster home,” Dalton thrusts some money into Williams’s hand. When he’s gone, she counts it—a five and two singles. It’s a measure of the film’s own scrupulous economy that we know what the sum means: a few seconds short of what he earns for fifty-four minutes of standing on weary feet, gazing at empty asphalt and watching nothing happen.

Reunited with her dog, though a chainlink fence divides them, Wendy eyes Lucy’s new life at the home of a couple who took her in, the spacious yard, the food and water bowls. So the Northwest has made good on its old promise of miraculous self-betterment, for one of the pair, at least. Crying—for the first time in the movie—she leaves Lucy to this canine version of freedom and bounty, and hops a boxcar on a train heading north, in the direction of Bellingham, Washington, and the Ketchikan ferry. As the train speeds up, beside a plantation of young firs, the blur of passing tree trunks recalls an earlier shot in which Wendy walked through the dog pound, the bars of each cage going by faster and faster. But Reichardt is too subtle to insist on the point: the firs may be shades of the prison-house, or they may just be trees.

A nicely obscure in-joke is embedded in the movie. At the supermarket, Wendy is about to pocket an apple, but sees an aproned stocker replenishing the produce department a few feet away. People who go to art galleries in the region will find the face of the stocker familiar: it belongs to Michael Brophy, the Portland landscape painter, much of whose work has been devoted to ironic deconstruction of the Bierstadt-style Northwest Sublime; here reduced to placing vegetables on shelves at $7.80 an hour.

It’s to be hoped that admirers of Wendy and Lucy will be led from the film to Livability, Jon Raymond’s collection of short stories, whose title is another ironic deconstruction, this time of the lists of “Most Livable Cities,” published annually by travel magazines, in which Portland and Seattle regularly figure near the top. The lists assume a readership of well-heeled types, looking for somewhere to move to in search of suitably noble landscape views, ski slopes, hiking and biking trails, rock faces to ascend with ropes and carabiners, rivers on which to flyfish, water on which to sail and windsurf, along with such conventional urban amenities as espresso coffee, luxury shopping, and good schools. Reading Livability might persuade such city-sipping, nature-loving, upper-middle-class nomads to be glad to remain where they are.

It’s true that Raymond does once allow the word “majestic” to creep into the book, as a description of the Oregon coastline north of Florence, but that may be because the narrator of the story is an elementary school teacher. Much more typical of his staunchly post-Romantic sensibility is the moment in “Benny” when his narrator (recently married, gainfully employed, and settled in a newly bought house in the pleasant neighborhood of St. Johns in North Portland) mourns the death of a schoolfriend who took the alternative-lifestyle route and OD’d under a rhododendron bush in a Portland park. Looking for the happiest memory of their shared childhood, he comes up with a day in the forest when they were thirteen, and began throwing rocks at trees:

We started with small ones, winging little nut-sized stones and waiting for the distant knock if we were lucky and hit something. From there we progressed to bigger things. We went a little crazy that day. We lifted rocks and banged them against the trees, chipping into the yellow meat. We rolled small boulders down the incline of ferns until they cracked angrily against something at the base of the ravine. We pounded the woods until our arms ached and our breath was ragged. We taught the woods a lesson they would never forget.

There speaks a true native of the Pacific Northwest, where punishing nature and teaching it lessons it won’t forget has always been a more powerful regional tradition than its Romantic counterpart of nature worship. The slash-littered clearcut, like a World War I battlefield, the massive concrete dam, the cyanide leach mine, the subdivisions marching across what used to be forest only yesterday, are features of the Northwest landscape as prominent as its mountains, lakes, and waterfalls.

Raymond’s characters live in and around Portland, along the urban corridor whose main street is Interstate 5, within a couple hours’ drive of the ocean to the west and the Mount Hood National Forest to the east—destinations visited, in two stories, “The Coast” and “Old Joy,” for their supposed power to heal the decaying friendship and the wounded soul; but in both cases nature turns out to be poor medicine for the malaise it’s meant to cure. Reality is firmly situated in the city and the subdivisions, in the kind of territory on which Reichardt’s camera dwells in Wendy and Lucy.

What the characters share is a peculiar lightness of attachment, both to each other and to the geography in which they’re placed. Some (the screenwriter in “New Shoes,” the sculptress in “Words and Things,” the teenage sales assistant in “Young Bodies”) exist on the risky economic margin of society; others (the teacher in “The Coast,” the Porsche-driving, Chinese-American insurance company manager in “The Suckling Pig”) have reliable means, but find themselves newly marginalized by widowerhood or divorce. Their social lives are typically improvised, with friends who are little more than acquaintances, or were friends in the past but are near strangers now, and lovers who won’t last long.

Those who have spouses and children come across as slightly puzzled spectators of their own families. Ranging far and wide across Portland and its suburbs, crossing and recrossing boundaries of age, gender, and class, Raymond paints a world that has all the superficial appearance of a diverse, even flourishing society, but is built on ties so temporary and fragile that it might at any moment fall apart. An obsessive theme in these stories is that the characters in them will end up at a greater distance from one another than they began.

Verna in “Train Choir” (renamed Wendy in Wendy and Lucy), the last story in the book, carries that principle further than anyone else in Livability. Other stories leave their central characters alone, usually at night, quietly facing the void of their own solitude, but in “Train Choir” Raymond transports Verna into a version of the world in which society has ceased to exist. From her boxcar, Verna/Wendy looks out at the accelerating landscape:

Already the foster home was receding in the distance. A juniper bush whipped past. She was traveling ever deeper into a sterile, bone-dry planet of rock and sky.

Verna lay down on her side and pulled her knees to her chest. Far ahead, the engine’s whistle blew, full-throated and remorseful. And then it blew again. Verna watched the ball of sun wobble in the sky. She knew she was going to be chasing that sound for a long time now.

That sterile planet, whose last human remnant is the remorse that Verna chooses to hear in the train’s mechanical air horn, is where all of Raymond’s characters, in their increasing remoteness from each other, may be ultimately bound. In the meantime, they live in metropolitan Portland, throwing dinner parties, conducting affairs, taking their children shopping, driving to the region’s accredited beauty spots; acting out their lives, driven more by custom than conviction.

All this might suggest that Jon Raymond is an austere writer, which he’s anything but. Where Kelly Reichardt practises a strict, Carveresque minimalism, leaving out far more than she puts in, Raymond is a prose maximalist. Although his characters have difficulty relating to each other, they relate to the reader with unbuttoned, occasionally garrulous, intimacy. To the reader alone, they entrust their memories, thoughts, feelings, landscape descriptions, even as they explain to the reader why these private riches can’t be shared with the person closest to them in the story. At the end of “Benny,” the narrator considers talking about his dead friend to his Vietnamese wife, Minh:

I heard her walking around in the kitchen and I knew she’d be happy enough if I came up and told her what was on my mind. I stayed put though. I had plenty of stories about Benny I could share, but I didn’t really see the point. Why bother?… It was too late for Minh to understand what Benny had meant to me. It was too late for her to understand that we might as well have been brothers.

The cumulative effect of this, extended over nine stories, is to immerse the reader in a varied society of compulsive and fluent interior monologuists, who experience their lives with articulate intensity, but find it uphill work to communicate satisfactorily with their fellow loners.

The book’s Pacific Northwest setting, insistently present in every story, is not an accidental location but an intrinsic part of its theme. In no other American region has solitude been so exalted as a virtue, or society— especially in its concentrated urban form—tolerated, if not quite as a necessary evil, then as the acceptable price to pay for living so conveniently and romantically close to nature. A year or so ago, the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau adopted the limp neologism “metronatural™” to tout the allure of the city on brochures and mugs; and Raymond’s Northwestern characters are, one might say, metronaturals™—uneasy creatures, neither quite of the woods nor of the city, isolated from each other and from their native ground.

Their attachments, fragile at the best of times, won’t survive the notice of foreclosure or the pink slip that—as Raymond makes clairvoyantly plain in “Benny”—may arrive at any moment now. Between the proud houseowner in St. Johns (he bought his home just after the median house price in Portland rose by “fucking one hundred fifty percent,” and he barely managed to scrape together the down payment) and the hunched and solitary figure in the boxcar, speeding into the void, lies one small misstep or stroke of ill luck, no bigger than the price of two cans of dog food.

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