Thursday, April 02, 2009

Beauty in simplicity

Wendy and Lucy (2008, USA, Kelly Reichardt): 10/10

Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy has certainly gotten a lot of critical acclaim since last year, including being named as the top film of 2008 in Film Comment's end of the year list. But despite all the attention, it wasn't until this past weekend that the film finally opened in my neck of the woods. And I am glad to have seen it finally. Wendy and Lucy is certainly a beautiful film, a film that contains much depth hiding behind the simple appearance.

The film only has a running time of 80 minutes but there isn't a single wasted minute. It is a perfectly crafted film. A rare thing in fact. The film follows the journey of Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog Lucy as they travel across the US to make their way up to Alaska. Gradually in the film we learn that the purpose of Wendy's journey in her beat up car is to look for work in Alaska, a place that is willing to hire people without an address or even a phone. This matter of fact revelation does tell quite a bit about the state of the American economy and how things have become. There are plenty of towns that are wasting away and while Reichardt beautifully keeps the focus only on Wendy, one can sense the collapse lurking around the corner.

Wendy and Lucy is another example of a film that shows how a skillful film-maker can create a beautiful work without diluting the screen with needless words. Much of commercial cinema in America is packed with over-smart non-stop dialogues which go on and on, but in reality do nothing to add to the story -- they are just meaningless words polluting the screen. So compared to that Wendy and Lucy is a breath of fresh air, something to be cherished.

A few weeks ago, A.O. Scott had a very interesting article about the state of the new American cinema. These are some of his comments regarding Wendy and Lucy:

There was some talk of an Oscar nomination for Williams, who was so believably ordinary in her look and so rigorously un-actressy in her manner that you could easily forget her celebrity. But “Wendy and Lucy,” released by Oscilloscope Laboratories, a small and ambitious new distributor started by Adam Yauch, a member of the Beastie Boys, would have looked a little awkward alongside the other Academy Award nominees. It’s true that the big winner, “Slumdog Millionaire,” concerns itself with poverty and disenfranchisement, but it also celebrates, both in its story and in its exuberant, sentimental spirit, the magical power of popular culture to conquer misery, to make dreams come true. And the major function of Oscar night is to affirm that gauzy, enchanting notion.

The world of “Wendy and Lucy” offers little in the way of enchantment but rather a different, more austere kind of beauty..........

I can't imagine that a film like Wendy and Lucy would ever win an Oscar for best film of the year, even though it is by far the best American film made in 2008. This does highlight that the award shows are nothing but attention hogging spots for the big studios and their executive’s egos. Sure every now and then, some independent film is allowed in but for the most part, it is an exclusive party for the studio films. And then there is the pattern that after an independent film maker gets a break, he/she is invited to be part of the studio machinery. Steven Soderbergh is such an example. He got his break when Sex, Lies and Videotapes made it big. But shortly after, he was sucked into the studio machinery. Thankfully he is still making good movies and Che (especially part two) is certainly a vintage film but he is far away from those initial independent days.

note: I thought of Sex, Lies and Videotapes while watching Wendy and Lucy as the leads in both films live in their cars and have no fixed address -- a free independent spirit.

There are too many tags around films – studio-backed, independent, foreign, avant-garde, etc. And somehow these tags alienate and differentiate films. Good cinema should be celebrated, regardless of how much money it cost to make or where it came from or its style. But I am drifting into a much longer rant about the messed up nature of film distribution. I will end however with some more relevant words from A.O Scott's article:
WHAT KIND OF MOVIES do we need now? It’s a question that seems to arise almost automatically in times of crisis...In recession, as in war — and also, conveniently, in times of peace or prosperity — the movies we evidently need are the ones that offer us the possibility, however fanciful or temporary, of escape.

Maybe so. But what if, at least some of the time, we feel an urge to escape from escapism?

It seems that escapism cinema will never go out of fashion. Both Hollywood and Bollywood have done such a wonderful job in dumbing down the expectations of audiences for decades that it doesn't matter what the current economic situation is, escapist films will always be in demand. Recently, box office numbers are up for Hollywood flicks and studios are putting that down to more people heading to cinemas as they can't afford to go on vacations or go to concerts. So that might mean more excuses to produce brain dead films while continuing to shut out quality works.

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