15 May 2009

WENDY AND LUCY (Dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2008, US) - 'You can't get a job without a job...'

Indie film maker Todd Haynes acted as one of the producers on the film

There was a time when the word independent actually meant something quite profound in the realms of cinema. Today, many of the widely seen indie films tend to have been financed in some way by a major studio or propped up by a clever marketing campaign. It is still safe to say that any film made outside the mainstream, funded independently and aimed at a specialised audience would usually constitute an actual indie film yet the term seems to have taken more commercialised aspects today which suggests that independent cinema has all but been subsumed into the bland sphere of the Hollywood mainstream. Arguably with the advent of DVD and the Internet, the term independent cinema has lost totally its meaning when considering accessibility is not the same problem it was in the past.

Geoff King’s recent book on contemporary American cinema grapples quite intelligently with the emergence of ‘indiewood’, a term that he deftly explains:

‘The term ‘Indiewood’ was coined in the mid-1990s to denote a part of the American film spectrum in which distinctions between Hollywood and the independent sector appeared to have become blurred…the term is often used as a disparaging label by those involved in, or supportive of, the independent sector, as a way of marking off certain types of cinema deemed to be too close to the activities of the studios to be deserving of the label ‘independent’…’

So called American independent films like ‘Juno’, ‘Crash’, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ are in truth part of a new wave of studio financed cinema that have been given the indie tag purely for marketing reasons and the motivation to attract critical acclaim in the form of awards. Many of these ‘Indiewood’ films were partly financed and distributed by the major studios under friendly indie production companies like Lions Gate, Focus Features and Fox Search Light. The Sundance film festival continues to act as the perfect market for the studios to seek out potential new independent films which could cross over and also attract a certain degree of prestige. Nevertheless, many ‘Indiewood’ films straddle the line between independent and mainstream cinema in a way that invites criticisms to do with selling out and creative compromise.

Michelle Williams is clearly one of the most understated actors of her generation

So which film makers working today in American cinema could still be considered independent? Not many should probably by the response but the current crop of American independent films making waves with critics and at the various film festivals suggest that independent cinema has never been stronger. Perhaps the Hollywood studios love affair with the ‘indiewood’ brand is coming to and end. It surely seems the case when considering how recently Warner Bros effectively closed down their speciality division, Warner Independent Pictures (WIP), bringing to an end what amounted to a highly successful flirtation with financing mid to low budget films. Though the films produced by WIP performed unevenly at the box office, they did succeed in backing and distributing some very edgy and politically unconventional films like Clooney’s McCarthy era polemic ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’ and Linklater’s animated cyberpunk adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel ‘A Scanner Darkly’. Paramount Studio’s speciality division, Paramount Vantage, had an unprecedented run of critically acclaimed films that in some cases like ‘Babel’ and ‘There will be blood’ attracted a sizable audience.

Many of the films financed under the Paramount Vantage banner were either a chance for a mainstream Hollywood star like Brad Pitt or an actor turned director like Sean Penn to extend their oeuvre in the reassuring parameters of a major studio. However, the steady number of films that underperformed at the box office seemed to play a major factor in leading to the demise of Vantage, just as the division was finding its feet and succeeding in backing films of authorial expression and sociological relevance. I would like to have seen Paramount continue supporting such a rich and creative speciality division which was hugely successful in bringing together independent art house sensibilities with mainstream populist concerns. The Coen Brothers Oscar winning neo noir western, ‘No Country for Old Men’ stands as perhaps the peak of Vantage’s many short lived achievements. Though this gamble seemed to suggest that though Hollywood were cynically trying to capitalise on targeting the specialised indie audience, they nevertheless proved that it was possible to have best of both worlds.

'Wendy and Lucy' is yet another intriguing and inspired addition to what is surely being touted as a new wave of neo realist American independent films. Directed by emerging film maker, Kelly Reichardt, on a low budget and shot entirely on location, the film implements a starkly simplistic plot of a young girl who must find her companion, a Labrador named Wendy. The cryptic and grungy character of the central character, Wendy, is played by Michelle Williams who appears in virtually every scene, building her performance around the emotional attachment she has with her dog, Lucy. It’s easy to argue that such a film has no plot and that the idea of losing a dog is a very sentimental narrative situation one would come across in a children’s film. The ‘lost and found’ narrative is a strangely familiar and like ‘the stranger who comes to town’ narrative is one that forms the basis of many novels and films. The film uses the disappearance of the dog merely as an obvious means of exploring the margins of American society and how those who choose not to be assimilated have to dig deep when it comes to coping with poverty.

Rosetta (1999), directed by the Dardennes seems to be a key influence on the recent wave of neo realist films

I’m not so sure if this new wave of neo realist films should really be considered something uniquely original because much of the style and ideology in a film like ‘Wendy and Lucy’ is indebted to the influences of European film makers like The Dardennes. Similarly, Bahrani has acknowledged Kiarostami and the Iranian new wave as a powerful influence. In terms of both its elliptical, minimalist style and subdued tone, Wendy and Lucy is probably closest to a film like The Dardennes masterpiece, 'Rosetta', managing to achieve a note of honesty and authenticity through moments of genuine compassion. This is an incredibly short film, clocking in at around 80 minutes and the brevity and economy maintained through the narrative points to another defining characteristic of films like 'Chop Shop' and 'Wendy and Lucy'.

New York Film critic, A O Scott, recently wrote what is a very important article on the emergence of what he ironically termed ‘neo neo realism’ in American independent cinema. Scott’s response offers what is perhaps the most articulate and illustrative analysis of this new wave of oppositional film making:

In contrast, Bahrani said, Hollywood wish-fulfillment tales — or the faux-independent dramas of adversity followed by third-act redemption — did not strike him as hopeful at all. “They just don’t make any sense,” he said. “They create massive confusion.” To which his own films (and films like “Ballast,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Sugar” and “Treeless Mountain”) might serve, in their very different ways, as an antidote. Not because they offer grim counsels of despair or paint lurid tableaux of desperation but rather because they take what has always seemed seductively easy about movie making — the camera can show us the world — and make it look hard. Their characters undergo a painful process of disillusionment, and then keep going. The disappointment they encounter — the grit with which they face it, the grace with which it is conveyed — becomes, for the audience, a kind of exhilaration. What happens at the end of a dream? You wake up.

Neo-Neo Realism by A.O. Scott, The New York Times, March 17 2009


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