CINEMA: Girl, Interrupted

wendy_poster_3_1.jpgWENDY AND LUCY (2008, directed by Kelly Reichardt, 88 minutes, U.S.)
This weekend at The International House)


A film so internalized as to barely exist at all, Heath Ledger’s widow Michelle Williams mourns soulfully for her lost dog in the latest film from Kelly Reichardt, Wendy & Lucy. The plot is so slender it is almost high-concept, in its own modest way. Michelle Williams is Wendy, a twenty-something woman driving solo to work in Alaska’s fisheries when her dog disappears in a sleepy Oregon town. She feels far from welcome; the mechanic rips her off towing her dying car, she’s been briefly detained for shoplifting dog food but she stubbornly refuses to leave town without her missing pooch.

It is the telling that allows the story to escape being a retread of Lassie Come Home. Over the last fifteen years Reichardt has forged a career of carefully observed small moments, perusing the landscape while studying the words almost spoken by people trapped in stasis. With this, her second collaboration with novelist Jonathan Raymond, she delivers her most confident vision yet. Without a score and with natural lighting Reichardt achieves the unpolished realism for which she is aiming, believably tying us to Wendy dilemma as she takes in this little backwater town by foot.

The restrooms, the garage, the beat-up car, it all reeks of the wreck that real life can become. Williams’ tight-lipped performance feels real as well, without a soul to complain to Wendy quietly contains her emotions to keep her vulnerability as hidden as possible. But as carefully mounted as this story is, is it enough to make up a feature film? I’m not sure. Director Robert Bresson is the acknowledged master of this brand of dramatic restraint and yet he always focused on characters facing the highest of stakes. Although Wendy & Lucy succeeds at everything it attempts, at some point such excessive modesty can reduce a subject to triviality. And I say this as a dog lover.

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This weekend The International House & Jay Schwartz’s Secret Cinema¬† continue their film series focusing on the work of the husband and wife team of Frank and Eleanor Perry. Together they made five features between 1963 and 1970, all containing their personal mix of social commentary and intensely theatrical melodrama. It’s the way these films throw themselves into their characters mad worlds that set the Perry’s films apart, you’ll be tempted to laugh but the way each of their films stare back at you will leave you unnerved none the less.

Thursday night the I-House ran their most famous work, 1962’s David & Lisa, which despite being a small davidandlisa.jpgindependent production was nominated for Oscars for Eleanor’s screenplay and Frank’s direction. The film dares to follow the unusual romance between two profoundly mentally ill teenagers, the obsessive compulsive David (KeirDullea of 2001) and Lisa (Janet Margolin of Annie Hall), who suffers from multiple personality disorder. These two aren’t troubled in a cuddly way and the film is most daring for trapping us with these alienating yet very human personalities.

The intensity continues with Friday night’s feature, Ladybug Ladybug from the following year. The nuclear attack warning sounds in an elementary school and the majority of the film takes place as teacher Nancy Marchand (Tony’s Mom Livia from The Sopranos) walks the students home down a long rural road. Of course the teachers refuse to tell the kids exactly what has happened so the nervous children are left to try to hash out their fears among each other on the long walk home. Fueled by cold war hysteria, the film is an unblinking look at how these international tensions have seeped down to the youngest citizens with disturbing results. The ending pulls no punches and I suspect the films willingness to toss its kids into the mouth of danger is the reason it didn’t meet with the success of their debut. Never available in any home video format, this is a rare chance to see this morbid drama.

The angst continues Saturday with Burt Lancaster in 1968’s The Swimmer. Based on a short story by John Cheever, the film opens when Lancaster’s Ned Merrill emerges from the woods in a tony Connecticut suburbs wearing only his swim trunks. Looking down across the suburban valley he decides he can make it all the way home by stroking his way through his neighbors gleaming blue swimming pools. Ned, still buff in his mid-fifties, at first appears to be a well-liked local businessman but as he meets each of his neighbors in their backyards you learn everything that has soured and curdled in his life. Within a few years of making The Swimmer things soured in the Perry’s marriage as well, ending their collaborations but leaving behind a provocative body of work whose frank disillusionment with American life still stings forty years later.

Friday January 23rd Ladybug Ladybug 7:00pm
Saturday January 24th The Swimmer 7:00pm
The International House
3701 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA

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