Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"39 Years to Pension!" Wendy and Lucy + Morvern Callar

Not only are Wendy and Lucy/Morvern Callar streaming on netflix instant watch, but they're also a cross-atlantic pair of escalating desperations in the face of diminishing opportunities for menial income. Of the differences is the outcome for the female leads' respective digressions.

In Wendy and Lucy, Michelle Williams plays the titular Wendy Carroll, a drifting 20-something on their way to an Alaskan cannery with nothing but a car, a dog named Lucy and 535 carefully unspent dollars to their name. The film unfolds in a small Oregon town Wendy stops at on her way to a remote and alien but steady and secure job. Whilst wandering a nature trail Lucy trails off, leading Wendy to a sparsely attended train-yard bonfire. Liberated from societal obligations, these are the crust punks and the free spirits navigating the fringes of industrial decay and census bureau statistical give-or-takes to jump trains, re-up with under-the-counter paying odd jobs, and temporarily set up shop wherever their backpack sees fit for however long the local authorities don't notice. Wendy remains silent and hesitant while a hooded Will Oldham, sporting markered fangs under his bottom lip and the name Icky, casually tells her about his time at the cannery and on which levels of the hierarchy mentioning his name works and doesn't work. Kinda bragging in self-deprecatory manner he goes on about a drunken fuck-up with a vehicle whose consequences he didn't bother sticking around for.

Either not seeing the humor in that or disinterested in the outlying company engendered by that kind of un-"intentional community" she leaves for what essentially amounts to a slow dissipation of the barriers between them. Parking her transportive hibernation chamber at a Walgreens, she encounters the first glimpse of the somewhat damaging causality of "just doing my job." A perfectly genial security guard wakes her up to tell her she can't park there and go to sleep, despite her situation, and despite her car not starting, but being both a stickler and a human helps her move her car just outside the parking lot. Carefully tracking where and on what she spent her money she knows a check-up at the car shop will run her some money. Sleeping in her car and washing herself in bathrooms her tight ship is slowly sinking. As a human she can process the situation but doesn't want her dog to starve unnecessarily for the fuck-ups she's going through and when Lucy's Iams supply runs out decides to go on one major fuck-up to offset the costs of a car repair.

Wendy ties Lucy up outside the nearest food mart and gets caught walking out with somewhat fuller pockets than when she came in. The person who catches her is a naive young townie with no sense of right and wrong outside of the strictest acquiescence to policy. Even when dragging her in to see the manager the only stickler is him. The boss knows the ins and outs and probably noticing what's coloring her concessive attempt at wriggling herself out of it initially tries to weather the storm being drummed up by his employee of the month. You get the sense that if the conversation were between the boss and Wendy things would go down a lot easier, but here's the good 'ol boy citing a mixture of store policy and traditional notions of good and fair totally removed from the reality unfolding in front of him, almost as a measure of faith.

Instead the police drag her off leaving Lucy unattended while she thumbprints her way out of a minor offense. Between 50 dollar fine and 50 dollars plus a two-week-later court date she loses 50 dollars, more than her shopping excursion would've cost and goes back to fetch her dog. What follows is a slow descent out of a slightly deluded can-do, up by your bootstraps perseverance into a disillusioned realization of abject poverty. Somewhat befriended by the security guard after continual potholes in her search for Lucy her quip about not being able to get a job without an address is met with "you can't get an address without an address or a job without a job, the whole system is rigged." Her sister and brother-in-law politely dismiss her with a set of their own problems when she calls them on the phone, suggesting this isn't the first time she's looked for a bail-out, and has been slowly working towards a full-blown expression of failure to acclimate, delayering her subtle stabs at integrity separating herself from either abject homelessness or the casual, self-congratulating interaction with homelessness proffered by the group at the train yard.

Echoing her plight is a brief interaction with potentially menacing homeless man, perhaps an ex-con, lamenting his inability to stay good in the face of his hatred for everybody. He stumbles on her asleep under a tree and fumbles through her things, tells her not to look at him, he could either be talking about his desire to rape her or articulating the trajectory of her choices and the external forces leading her to where she seems bound to end up. He just leaves, and she dry heaves in a nearby restroom having survived a potential attack that went nowhere. She also, though, has experienced the dregs, no car, no money, no job, with only the slightest semblance of a life.

At the same time, despite the somber trappings, these are the kinds of people director Kelly Reichardt knows, the entire film has decisions made by Wendy resting on Lucy, told by that supermarket superstickler that she shouldn't own if she can't take care of. Despite being small it's also a kind of ridiculously epic story about a girl coming to terms with her situation via her relationship to her dog. Somewhat analogous is WAVVES as deconstructed by Young Berg over at No Trivia making these seemingly self-indulgent laments about being a white suburban teen without particular accoutrements like money and jobs that aren't his parents, but there's also a healthy amount of self-parody in its characterization as a snuff-worthy "life's a chore." Reichardt's sympathy can only go so far, but at some point she also has to pull Wendy aside ask her to ask herself some tough questions.

Morvern Callar, on the other hand, has a job at a supermarket, and a boyfriend well acquainted with posthumous publishing. The former is dead-end chore requiring menial subservience, the latter is just dead, ostensibly looking past shock and grief towards an opportunistic grab at publishing requiring Morvern take his manuscript to a list of publishers. I say ostensibly because his reason for doing so is never explored, seemingly intentionally as Lynne Ramsay's focus is entirely on Morvern's reaction, or non-reaction.

What follows the opening discovery, her boyfriend dead on the floor with a floppy of the manuscript and a task as well as a mixtape of indie tunes specifically crafted for Morvern, is straight dissociative. Instead of calling the cops Morvern picks up a payphone and answers a barrage of questions from a stranger. Instead of grieving she takes ecstasy with a friend and weaves through a young and hip gathering in some rich kid's wood cabin, generally unaffected by the social pressures of being seen where needs be (in fact jokingly humping and dumping a dude with her friend before stumbling home). Instead of paying for a funeral she takes the money left her and goes to Ibiza.

This almost jumps dissociation and goes into full-blown nihilism when on top of this she changes the name on the manuscript to her own. Where Wendy and Lucy's theft leads to a reflection on responsibility and current life stations, Morvern's is more of a post-reflective response. Wendy is being forced to come to terms with the way her means don't support her life and her insistence on a fairly overblown solution to it on the other side of the country in Alaska. Morvern, on the other hand, is a check-out girl/supermarket attendant, though not the end of the road, she's kind of entered the real world of post-secondary job market exploration and hasn't gotten very far. That she shacked up with a naive-seeming idealist more in tune with the publishing world than his surroundings is perhaps an indication of the vicariousness by which she holds herself back.

His book is dedicated to Morvern, is apparently about a girl, but judging from the mixtape Morvern comes off more like a writing experiment than a girlfriend, someone her boyfriend can decorate for cultural references and commodifiable appropriation. By Ramsay's estimation it's the boyfriend who takes the easy way out. Her attraction to the story came from the idea that the "romantic" character is killed off and his "non-intellectual" working-class girlfriend takes over. It's a knock to the genre of young, intellectual males piecing together their surroundings in alienated, supercilious fashion. The film takes on the periphery, that angry young man's periphery that they can be seen as callously trampling on and putting it front and center with an upper-hand almost.

Ramsay sees nothing wrong with what the character does, finds it "kinda...punk rock" actually, but notes the precise rationale to her actions. Despite being cold, chopping up his body and disposing of it before shipping off to Spanish rave culture, Morvern's use of drugs isn't indicative of any nihilistic free-spiritedness, it's a numbing agent. Her hedonism, which includes the three-way hookup early on almost immediately after her boyfriend's death, isn't blase, it's almost empirical. Her friend is a co-worker, a kind of aloof party girl whose association with Morvern is almost like a cipher she keeps to attach herself to before it was "like this."

Knowing where she is, where's she's probably not going, she doesn't even read the manuscript but instead sees where it can take her. The way she was a stepping stone for her boyfriend's posthumous literary career she kind investigates where else she's just a cute checkout girl with a use beyond herself. When meeting with the literary agents, she kind of intentionally slips-up. While they fall head over heels for her, noting her potential explosiveness, they almost look past her. She doesn't say much, not in a mysterious way, but a kind of seemingly unsophisticated manner, blurting out she works at a supermarket when they ask her about the fine details of her authorship and her story, she's totally aware of how ridiculous the situation is, and how little she has to do to navigate it.

On the cusp of meeting with a literary agent she kind of sees through all of it, a continuation of her druggy threesome at the beginning, and disconnected Ibiza-going later on, it's just as much a dead-end as her job. She's able to draw it from the face of a Scandinavian girl knocked out standing on who knows what celebratory numbing agent, looking undead as she smears her make-up outside a dressing booth with her head against the door.

The only moment she wallows in misery comes later in the film, where disconnected from the youthful shenanigans across the way she wanders the hotel and stumbles on a young man who's mother has just died. His crying rings through the halls, and she offers to comfort him, he requests it even. She starts off with an anecdote of a familial funeral, but they both just end up bawling, pillow-brawling and fucking, not just each other, but each other's grief, almost themselves through the other's misery.

But the film doesn't offer moral hand-wringing, it doesn't offer reflection of an audience-sating kind, it just offers Morvern Callar, disinterested in the boundaries of her means, aware she almost kinda means nothing to them and thus they almost kinda mean nothing to her, but she's still affected by and can affect them.

Interview with Kelly Reichardt at Slant Magazine

Interview with Lynne Ramsay at warp records

Both films available on dvd (and instant watch!)