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Category Archives: Short Story as Film

A few years ago I became impressed that a whole slate of films–from All The Real Girls, Raising Victor Vargas, Elephant, The Station Agent, and even (gulp) Lost in Translation (which is 95% bullshit)–despite their various flaws, tried to accomplish a narrative and cinematic economy equivalent to those one normally finds in short stories. As a short story writer, one of the aspects to the form that I respect is that, in contrast to the novel, the limitations of short story writing seem to force the most talented of writers to explore the dramatic possibilities in the most minute of details. There is no space for a novel’s slow set-up of theme; any larger meaning in a short story must be conveyed with a tightness of craft and suggestion. There is no room for didactic prose and explanatory dialogue that can usually be seen in most novels. I love a film that can work like a short story, minimal and deliberate, scaled-down and full of the ordinary details that can be suffused with high drama, no matter how internalized or small the effects may be.

Slumdog Millionaire and Revolutionary Road are recent (largely disastrous) examples of a Novel as Film, and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is the best contemporary version of Short Story as Film that I have seen (fittingly, it was adapted from a story by Jon Raymond). It is, at 80 minutes, short and to the point, but languorous and easy in its style that allows great suggestion for a larger context that is implicit but unexplained in a film where the plot boils down to this: girl’s car breaks down, girl loses dog while arrested for shoplifting, girl tries to find dog while waiting for car to be fixed.

Seeing as Wendy (Michelle Williams) is on her way to Alaska, the film is a kind of spiritual sister to Into The Wild, though without the heavy-handed dramatism and nearly fairytale-ish narrative put forth in that film (though also without a performance as moving as Catherine Keener’s or Hal Holbrook’s either). If in Into The Wild the protagonist’s boundless optimism and charm moved him through his itinerant lifestyle without so much as a mention of economic concern, Wendy is constantly seen counting down her meager savings to see what she can and cannot afford. She is–instead of optimistic and charming–pragmatic and isolated, constantly concerned with the material troubles of getting from A to B, and without any lasting connection to anything except her dog Lucy. Without exposition, without the big Dramatic Gestures and teary monologues, Williams manages to powerfully portray Wendy’s complexly rich interior: a seemingly solitary past, a currently downtrodden present, yet still full of too much personal dignity to let it get in the way of a hopeful future. It’s a tremendous performance by an actress who has steadily, without much fanfare, been acquiring such performances for quite a few years now.

What makes Reichardt succeed is a filmmaker is her insistence on telling the story visually, at her own pace, and allowing the audience to infuse their own meaning onto the mise-en-scene. The film opens with a long tracking shot of Wendy and Lucy, and our view is then immediately obscured by trees when Wendy loses Lucy for the first time. Sam Levy’s cinematography is lovely in the next scene, where Lucy is found amongst a group of drifters (including an appropriately terrifying-looking Will Oldham) around a fire, an ages-old signal of community, while a hesitant Wendy watches from the bushes. Even as she eventually retrieves Lucy, conversing with the other humans, she is not part of the group, evinced by Reichardt’s cuts from the people surrounding the fire to a solitary Wendy, bashful and distant. This distance from the rest of humanity is a visual motif throughout; Wendy is hardly ever seen in frame with another person–whether it be getting caught for shoplifting by a righteous grocery store employee (a lively John Robinson, who you may remember as the floppy blond teen angel from Elephant or, perhaps if you are a different sort of person, Shia LeBeouf’s odd friend in Transformers) or getting an estimate from a mechanic (Will Patton)–and when she is, it is often shown in medium-to-long shot, such as when an employee at the pound lets Wendy inside to see if Lucy has been found. Framewise, the closest anyone gets to Wendy is when a security guard (Wally Dalton) hands her his cellphone to call the pound. Even then, it’s only after a few scenes where they are separated physically (he is introduced waking her up in the car, peering through the window, saying that she can’t sleep in the parking lot) as well as visually (a later scene has them talking to each other across the vast parking lot, Reichardt cutting between them both). Otherwise, any other human contact is separated either by a desk or the dehumanizing paraphernalia of detention facilities. The closest relationship Wendy has is to her dog, and even then–by the end–their reunion is separated by a fence.

Reichardt neither imposes herself on the story at hand nor does she allow the story to tell itself. What makes the film successful is in how she deliberately concocts shots that properly, ably, quietly gives the narrative its power. What Wendy and Lucy is about, variously, is: the prospects that you are certain await you in a mythical Somewhere Else; the relationship between human and animal; and the entirely American concept of individualism triumphing all, and the hampering of that individualism by everything one needs to Get There–namely material concern and, conflictingly, the solidarity of others. But the greatness of Wendy and Lucy is that, unlike all the other movies of 2008 that I’ve seen, it doesn’t try to Tell it to you. It allows you to absorb its quietness, its grace, its details, and leads you to a conclusion that doesn’t strive to say anything at all, but ends up–through the craft of its storytelling–saying something. But whatever that something is is up to you.