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Dirty Realism: Reichardt on Ice

by Annie Dewitt

Annie Dewitt reviews Kelly Reichardt’s new film, Wendy and Lucy.

Michelle Williams as Wendy. Still from Wendy and Lucy, 2008. Directed by Kelly Reichardt.

In a startling epitaph to the sensuality of loss, Kelly Reichardt’s recent feature, Wendy and Lucy, runs hot blood through minimalism’s metallic handlebars, constructing a narrative vehicle which realigns the spokes of the post-minimalist tradition.

At once static and fluid, Reichardt’s movies occupy both a two and three dimensional perspective. On Reichardt’s watch, the viewer is suspended in a shifting web of both the tactile and the embodied, at moments reduced to tracing the psychological hallways of Jon Raymond’s stories with her fingers and, in others, fully righted in psychological scenes which tote a startling familiarity for their very ghostliness. In this most recent film, themes of isolation, immobilization, and despair in present tense America are dissected on what is at once both the whitewashed walls of the minimalist institution and the grainy relief of realism’s wooden utility-style cutting board whose imperfections seem hauntingly familiar. The plot itself is fairly simple: when Wendy’s car breaks down in front of a megamart in rural Oregon, she is forced to abandon both her vehicle and her dog to the wills of a sleepy blue-collar town more concerned with shoplifting and leash laws than the needs of a lonely woman who is just “passing through,” down on her luck trying to cobble together an existence out of a backpack and the few dollars she keeps in the money purse under her T-shirt.

As I left Film Forum after viewing Wendy and Lucy last week, I was struck by what the late John Updike once called minimalism’s “antiromanticism.” In a 2001 Times article titled “Medieval Superheros,” Updike said of current fiction, “[its] sole excuse for being is the implicit claim that this is how things are,” and added rhetorically, “We should know, of course, how things are—how else can we appraise and negotiate reality.”

The day I saw the film, New York was under siege, hostage to the recent cold snap. Typically ambivalent to the weather, dressed in a mid-weight jacket, as I stood alone on the platform on the corner of Varick and West Houston after the movie, how things were was obvious: New York was on ice. When I got home, I was going to have to bleed the radiator. If I got gutsy, I’d open the door to the oven and crank it to broil.

As I considered these various options while waiting for the 1 train, I was reminded by what D. T. Max once said of dirty realism in his review of Amy Hempel’s story collection, The Dog Of The Marriage; “they tell us not just what life is like but the authentic way to see it.” The best stories, he seemed to say, resemble drafts, drawings on paper—crude, unlovely.

Earthly, compassionate, with their affinity for emotional abstraction, Reichardt’s movies spring from a similar voice, one which almost reaches into the scene and scratches, creating narrative through the negative process of removing perspective to reveal universal epigraphs of shared compassion and pain. They are spectacularly drafty icons to the blueprint which somehow embrace both the ideal and the lived, the modern and the primitive, the decadent and the decent. Like claw marks in “dirty realism’s” familiar sheets, they speak of a desire which seems to glimpse the trappings of comfort and security from the backyard, abandoning traditional framing devices in favor of circling around thematic floodlights without really landing. Lined with an uncanny primitive instinct, Reichardt brings to mind the familiar homes and recognizable landscapes of the likes of Raymond Carver. She reminds us that the difference between filmmaking that mimics and films that move is the argument between tracing and sketching. To learn to sketch an object well is to first forget how to see it.

Independent film