Retro movie review: ‘Wendy and Lucy’

“Wendy and Lucy,” from 2009, is an unsung pearl of stripped-down indie filmmaking. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, it warrants a revisit by dint of its thematic relevance, stirring lead performance, and the soulful presence of an utterly endearing dog named Lucy. My review:

In the minimalist heartbreaker “Wendy and Lucy,” Michelle Williams plays Wendy with a premature perma-frown and a youthful spirit that’s been crumpled like a recycled can. Lucy is her faithful pup, a golden mutt with dark, serious eyes and the cool composure of Robert Mitchum.

She’s a good dog. Wendy’s striving to be good, too, but fate and circumstance have thrown up a gauntlet of bad luck with no room in which to budge. With impressive calm and fierce nonjudgment, the movie puts you in Wendy’s shabby sneakers and taps into our morbid economic moment when it can seem that a dog is all you have.

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Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to her scruffily lo-fi “Old Joy” is a desolate story told in miniature with almost forbidding quietude. It crackles on life’s lowest, most natural frequencies, banishing slash-cuts and musical cues, except for the singsongy, slightly eerie tune Wendy sometimes hums, and courts the rustle and flow of its woodsy Oregon setting. Such a threadbare aesthetic speaks of self-conscious formalism, yet form and function here are gracefully and expressively wed.

The story, what little there is, starts in mid-sentence, with Wendy and her steady companion stopping in a small Oregon town on their way to Alaska, where Wendy plans to get work in a cannery. “I hear they need people,” she tells an old parking lot security guard (an extremely un-actorly Walter Dalton) who becomes her angel in hard times.

Wendy has an exhausted voice for her age. It’s breathy and weary and assumes a pitch of exasperated despair as her troubles mount. Her car breaks down, she gets caught shoplifting dog food and, topping things off and setting the nonplot in motion, Lucy disappears.

Wendy searches for Lucy and, with no money, tries to get her car fixed. That’s it. But of course that’s not it. The movie’s a symposium in American poverty, about how people living on the brink of destitution can land there with a shift in the wind. It’s about how people respond to a woman whose only problem seems to be chronic bad breaks. It’s about how you and I respond to that dude and his dog with a cardboard sign at the intersection — our fellow citizens and brethren. Wendy becomes different things to different people: parasite, criminal, an everywoman in need. It’s about our state of affairs, right now.

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Reichardt and co-writer Jon Raymond, who displayed a similar fascination with the dispossessed and marginalized in “Old Joy,” purposely strip Wendy of backstory and even much personality, and this could challenge viewer empathy. Williams, sporting cut-offs, a tomboy shag and vacant eyes, recedes into the role, making Wendy a wraith in society, all but invisible. It’s an entrancing anti-performance.

You could say nothing happens in “Wendy and Lucy,” but if it were your life, everything happens. The movie doesn’t make it easy on pleasure-seeking viewers. It proudly basks in the quotidian now and lives in its exquisite details, be it Wendy washing and changing in a dingy gas station bathroom or walking past graffiti that simply says “Goner.”

In its stubborn airiness “Wendy and Lucy” grants you gaping spaces in which to wander with the protagonist and feel her metastasizing despair. Without melodrama or the clanking machinery of by-committee plotting, the movie engenders a sense of effortlessness that snares you in its lyrical spell.

It’s tempting to call this frowzy story a tone poem, but it’s not. It’s cold, naked prose, scratched in gravel with a stick.

Cats and dog sweetly coexisting. Mostly.

The dog pounces at the cat, stopping short, directly in her expressionless face. He thinks he’s fulfilling his role as a tough-guy mongrel, a canine Cagney, intimidating his housemate, the ice-cool kitty. They lock eyes and stand nose-to-nose. She doesn’t flinch, budge or blink. She has seen him coming, fast, and she holds her ground, not a single whisker aquiver.

The dog, Cubby, is small. The cat, witheringly, seems to be saying to him, “You’re too short for that gesture,” as George Saunders tells Anne Baxter when she swings open the door and tries to eject him from a room in “All About Eve.” In the end, the dog capitulates, and the cat sashays away.

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It’s really not like this, at all.

For the most part, the animals, including another cat, coexist impressively peaceably. They are very mature about their roommate situation. Drama is minimal, and, when it happens, laughable. No one gets hurt.

Poor Cubby. He’s all bark and no bite (except in play, when he nips fiendishly). He loves to hear himself yap, yelp and yowl when the mail carrier mounts the porch, producing a piercing cacophony and, somewhat comically, a rousing display of feckless theater. He growls, spins and crouches, a shrimp-size showman, his nails doing a fine tap dance on the wood floor.

Yet open the door when someone rings and he clams up, giddily sniffing the newcomer, tail wagging, a bundle of excited curiosity. The animal is operating on pure instinct, doggie DNA, so we try not to make fun.

The house cats, Tiger Lily and Spicy, tolerate Cubby, despite their frequent sighs. They mostly ignore him and his occasional manifestations of machismo. They are unflappable, standoffish. Basically, they don’t give a shit. And when they do, they swipe a samurai paw at his face. He recoils.

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Cubby: a badass in his own mind.

Yet sometimes he gets their goat. Periodically, he will chase one of them up the stairs and the cat will bolt, scramble, fly. But not without emitting a long hiss, like a leaky tire or a king cobra. Cubby doesn’t relish that sound, and he stands down and returns to worrying one of his irresistible bully sticks (which are actual 100% bull penises, dried and seasoned).

The whole cats and dogs as mortal foes narrative is a hoary myth. Of course some dogs antagoznie some cats. (As a kid, our otherwise dreamy black Lab tore apart the neighbor’s cat in a scene out of “Cujo.”) It’s nothing personal. It’s biology and psychology: genes and instincts run amok.

There’s a fluffy black cat in the neighborhood that ambles right up to Cubby when he’s on his walks, and the animals casually sniff each other out, the cat practically rubbing against the dog, purring. Cubby is mostly indifferent to this, and promptly moves on.

But he can’t help needle his pet-mates in the house. Close proximity, boredom, jealousy, general annoyance — many reasons spring to mind, all of them conjecture. Sometimes he gets feisty when a cat gets too close to his bully stick, as if they’ll snatch it. Other times he’s just asserting his virility, his wishful doggie dominance.

The cats and the dog are in many ways classic shotgun roommates: imperfect fits, possessive, a little irritable, eating each other’s food, each from different worlds. One roommate likes rap, the other likes Rachmaninoff. The cats want their space, Cubby wants to invade it. He wants to be the pack leader, the alpha male honcho. It’s sad yet funny.

Don’t tell Cubby, but it’s pretty clear: Tiger Lily could lick him.

Let sleeping dogs lie (and dream)

The dog lies at my feet. He is upholstered in unruly, charcoal-gray curls, like a pile of macaroni. Gently breathing, his belly oscillates at a steady pulse. And then, suddenly, his body contracts: He has tumbled into a dream.

His short legs twitch and his paws scratch the air. He snorts and softly whines. He is spasming. In his furry head, he’s maybe chasing a surly kitty or gamboling outdoors in an open field, pursuing an unattainable rabbit.

I haven’t the foggiest idea. Could he be getting his wee doggie heart broken by a comely pooch, hence the whine? (Dreams are charming that way.) Then again, he might be reliving his school days: He has forgotten to study for a big exam, or he has to perform onstage but doesn’t know his lines. Maybe he’s flying. Or maybe he’s falling from the sky.

Off he goes: shuddering, kicking and jerking in the unsettling manner of a seizure. “Run, Cubby!” I want to say. “Fly, boy!” He’s stretched on the floor, doing a miniature St. Vitus dance, or some funky popping moves. It’s a lot more interesting than the book I was reading before becoming transfixed by the canine convulsions.

Whatever I do, I don’t dare wake the mutt.

He could be having the time of his life.

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Cubby, sprawled on his back, dreaming things we’ll never know.

A blog post that’s purely a pet project

Cubby is the family dog. He is small and Schnauzer-esque. A rescue mutt. His long tail curls into a small O, like a bagel. He barks sparingly, if piercingly. He cuddles greedily. He is overgrown with charcoal-colored fur, like a neglected shrub that needs to be desperately trimmed into a topiary. He smells faintly of turkey bacon. Bath — he could use a bath. Freshly trimmed and clean, he looks like this, a canine Cary Grant:

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Currently, he looks like a graying Ewok:

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How we adore our pets. That’s a cliche, and I’m sorry that occurred. Still, we do. They are little people, extra children, crucial on both sides of the love equation. So human is Cubby that we sometimes believe there is a little man inside him named, mystifyingly, Pasquale, who can unzip an invisible zipper down his neck and chest and pop out ever-so fleetingly, utter his name — Pasquale! — then zip back up and return to being a dog. It’s terrific. We all need medication.

I require animal companionship. When I left home, where we enjoyed a pair of heart-melting black Labs and a bevy of feral yard cats, I went small with pets, namely fish and rats. (Yes. Rats. Deal.) I didn’t want the steep, familial responsibilities of a dog or cat. My independence, especially as a budding world traveler, took primacy.

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Tammy as a tot.

Rats rule. If you know little about them, I repeat the slogan of rattie devotees: “Smarter than dogs, cleaner than cats.” They make magnificent pets — loving, social, funny, trainable. (And then they chew up half the house and all that goodwill curdles. For about a day.)

I have owned six rats, individually. The best were Phoebe, Becky and Tammy, who played and came when called and snuggled and loved to have their tummies rubbed and peed all over the place. And then, exactly at 2.5 years old, each got horribly sick and died. Rat life expectancy is ruthless and cancer or infection generally fells them. Each loss wrecked me completely.

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Cubby, cleaned up.

Dogs, natch, live much longer. Cubby’s about 3 or 4. He looks 65. I’d say he’s got a good 10 to 12 years left in him, wonder dog. I’d include a recent picture of him, but you’d have no idea what you we’re looking at, except maybe a miniature yak.

I didn’t mention the two cats here, Tiger Lily and Spicy. They’re brother and sister and they look about as much alike as Barack Obama and Donald Trump. They wrassle and hiss at each other and Spicy scampishly steals Tiger’s food.

Cats are weird company. Their independence is enviable and noble. They thrive on solitude and hiding places. Pet them at your risk. With an imperious air, they will come to you when they want attention, not the reverse.

Come to think of it, that sounds something like me. I am definitively a dog person over a cat person. I love dogs’ gregariousness, neediness, demonstrativeness — their licks, wags and yelps. But I am not a dog, per se. I’m more Tiger Lily than Cubby. Yet I like Cubby better than Tiger Lily. What that says about me just sent a shiver down my back.

Pets reveal stuff about us. Dog person, cat person, rat person, all of the above. Knowing these creatures, all my life, I’ve been aware how far my fondness can stretch for a non-human being. Blasphemy, you say, but sometimes I think I like the animals better than the people. Just sometimes. Call it a pet peeve. I call it sheer devotion, always returned, unreservedly.

Quack, snort and other adventures in dining

I’m a relatively adventurous eater — I’ll nosh bone marrow, chicken hearts, snails, frog legs, foie gras, raw oysters, sea anemone, roe, goat, buffalo, pigeon, octopus — but, like most of us, I cleave to a less exotic, much less expensive daily diet. Those delicacies are for singular occasions, mostly while I’m traveling and living a bit high on the hog. (Hog, too, I eat that.)

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My grilled octopus, Barcelona.

Mulling a trip to Chicago, I’ve made a short list of restaurants offering casual to fine dining, from Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill (Mexican) to Paul Kahan’s Avec (Mediterranean). Squeezed between those is Stephanie Izard’s popular Girl & the Goat, an ambitious family-style spot located in the city’s Randolph Restaurant Corridor in the West Loop.

I always scan the online menus before I make a reservation. Pushing past the goat plates, two dishes at Girl & the Goat had this fledgling foodie hooked: crispy duck tongues and wood oven roasted pig face. After a flinch, I promptly decided I’m having both.

These delicacies are inarguably a vegetarian’s writhing apocalypse. I know. We must move onward.

I have of course never had duck tongue. Beef tongue, perhaps. No idea what to anticipate, so I’ll allow the gustatory gurus at Serious Eats explain the specialty:

“Surrounded by a faint hint of meat and papery thin layers of cartilage, duck tongue is predominately a vehicle for juicy pockets of fat. At barely two inches in length, the tongue may seem small and insubstantial, but its flavor is intensely duck-like. When freshly fried, duck tongues are positively addicting with a crisp surface and a creamy, slightly fatty interior that melts in your mouth.”

This …

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… becomes this:

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Duck tongue with tuna and black bean poke, crispy wontons and piri piri.

Like duck tongue, no appetizing euphemism masks what pig face actually is: the meat and fat sliced off the face of a pig. I may have eaten pig cheeks before, but this is different, a full facial. Again, Serious Eats explains:

“It’s the multitude of harmonized flavors and textures that make the roasted pig face of one my favorite dishes ever. From the succulent wood-fired pig face patties, sweet maple gastrique, and tart tamarind vinaigrette, to the crispy potato sticks and gooey sunnyside-up egg, it’s clear why this is one of Girl & the Goat’s signature dishes.”

This …Cannon-and-Cannon-Meat-School-pig

… becomes this:

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Wood oven roasted pig face with sunny side egg, tamarind, cilantro, red wine-maple, potato stix.

As I momentarily salivate (daub, wipe), it strikes me that both meals are commendable for their use of animal parts that might otherwise, and usually are, thrown out with the beaks and snouts, offal rejects. This is mindful, sustainable cooking, but it’s also, let’s face it, delicious, deeply indulgent cooking, sinful, decadent, irresistible. (It’s a lot like the bone marrow I adore, seen below from my recent Russia trip.)

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Right, I haven’t tasted the duck and pig yet — maybe I’ll gag into my linen napkin — but my experiences with exotic, zany foods comprise a solid track record of gastronomical daring and concomitant success. In other words, I enjoy this kind of food, and I’m not only amenable to it, I’m beguiled by it, too.

Omnivorous by nature and choice, I will pursue my culinary escapades for the foreseeable future — that is, a very long time. Vegetarians may scowl and harrumph, and I get it. I can only respond with a lusty chomp and gulp and the thrill of tasting whole new worlds.

Animals pulling heartstrings

If seeing animals in distress upsets and ruffles you, you may want to skip the new documentary about primatologist and famed chimpanzee doyenne Jane Goodall, simply titled “Jane” (in theaters). While most of this fascinating film is a frank, intimate portrait of Goodall and an enthralling overview of her groundbreaking studies with the wild chimps of Tanzania’s Gombe, there’s enough heartache to plunge you into an unrelenting funk. A sickening wave of sadness rushes over me whenever I think back on it.

(Spoilers follow.)

Maybe it’s me, but watching an old chimp we’ve come to know and adore contract polio, becoming so crippled that he has to drag himself across the ground, no longer able to climb or feed himself, and so ill that his human observers at last shoot him, is unbearable.

There’s the momma chimp that falls sick and dies slowly under the crestfallen eyes of her grown but dependent son, rendering him an inconsolable heap that stops eating and dies two weeks later. If you’re not shattered by now don’t miss the full-blown chimpanzee war between rival groups that leaves the jungle floor strewn with furry corpses. (And then there’s the obligatory scene of a poor lone zebra getting taken down and torn apart by a pride of lions.)

It’s powerful material that makes for a powerful film, one that I fully recommend despite that fact that I carried my heart in various pockets on the way out.

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I’m a softie. Animals make me sad even in the best of circumstances. I worry about them. I wonder if they are comfortable and happy. From the wildest fauna to the most domesticated mongrel, I ponder if creatures get nuzzles and belly rubs, eat tasty and plentiful food, play and frolic, read good books and dance occasionally.

Street Dogs in IndiaStreet mutts, of course, rip me asunder. I’ve seen them all over the world and so many are suffering in some capacity, be it malnourishment or crippling traffic injuries. Almost masochistically I’ve volunteered at animal shelters. Next to the glee of successful adoptions are haunting images of broken, damaged, hopeless animals confined to veal-sized pens. And service dogs for the blind and handicapped — let’s not start. That’s a double-whammy, when I feel terrible for both animal and human.

I enjoy seeing healthy dogs with healthy owners on walks, out and about. But weirdly that wasn’t the case on my recent trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. Bounding dogs on leashes ambled the city sidewalks and parks. Happy and hale, they were the picture of doggie luminosity. Yet at some point I hoped I wouldn’t see any more dogs on my trip. They were bringing me down, making me blue. I unaccountably felt bad for them, even though they were clearly fine.

This is pathos at its worst. It’s feeling so much that the emotion becomes misplaced. I recommend a strong prescription medication.

Goodall’s puckish chimps buckle me, but it’s a contained anguish. Animals, from the suburbs to the Serengeti, will always disquiet me, reasonably or not. Yet of course they also furnish joy and wonder, comfort and companionship, which can’t be underplayed. Like people, they are prickly conundrums, fascinating if so terribly fragile.

Stray, dogged thoughts about the world’s street mutts

The coolest friend I met on back-to-back trips to Istanbul was a dog.

I met the stray during a May visit and then, staying in the same area of Sultanahmet, met up with her again in October. She recognized me immediately and we enjoyed a fast, happy reunion. She jumped on me and her tail swept like a furious broom.

Stray dogs are plentiful in Istanbul and are protected by the city. Each dog is registered, one of their ears pierced with an official tag. My pal wore a red tag on her floppy left ear, leading me, with a poverty of imagination, to call her Red Tag.

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Medium-sized, camel-colored and sweet as a peach, Red Tag wasn’t always around and she didn’t follow me through the city. She had a life of her own. I would see her by my boutique hotel in the morning and in the evening, and she would sit near me at my nearby watering hole at night. One night she hung out with a group of people as we caroused by the Hagia Sophia, staying up till dawn, a trooper.

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Red Tag at dawn after staying out all night with human revelers.

I didn’t spoil Red Tag, though I did occasionally buy her a can of tuna to nosh on as a treat. Street dogs unavoidably crack my heart, and my first instinct is to feed them. Near Gallipoli, Turkey, I bought a stray puppy a can of tuna that she gobbled up gratefully.

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Tuna for a puppy in Turkey.

It’s not always so. In India I bought some peanuts, the only nearby food, for a crazy puppy that ignored the offering. Another Indian dog rebuffed the samosa I tried to give it. Rice wasn’t appreciated by mongrels in Vietnam. For some reason I assumed these derelict doggies would eat anything.

These memories bubbled up while reading a recent story about street dogs in The New York Times titled “Stray Dogs Started Turning Blue. Then the Street Mobilized.” It’s a great, heartening article about how well strays in India are treated and protected. Even though I’ve been to India, it’s an eye-opener:

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India pup, with cow hoof.

“India has some of the most pro-dog laws on the planet. It is illegal here to kill healthy strays, and the result is millions of them — perhaps as many as 30 million across the country. Packs of dogs trot through the parks, hang around restaurants for scraps (which they usually get), and sprawl on their bellies inside railway stations as rushing commuters leap over them.”

This is a far cry from, say, China, where dogs are rounded up as people food or killed outright as pests. Sickening.

In Hanoi I saw an actual “dog restaurant.” Outside was a silver bowl filled with cooked dog paws and, ironically, a chained German shepherd serving as a guard dog. Eating dog is a kind of virility ritual — it’s a guy thing — and when a table of drunken men spotted me spotting them, they tried to rope me to their table, yelling and gesticulating. Later, in an open-air market, I saw dog carcasses basted like turkeys for sale.

Is this cruelty or culture? A culture of cruelty, I say. But let’s not wade into pitched arguments of moral relativism and abject hypocrisy here and now. Later. Maybe.

Red Tag, terrible as it is to think, has probably passed by now. It’s been a while and she seemed to have some age-related arthritic issues when we hung out. She was kind of a loner, but I saw she had friends that curiously looked a lot like her. She was protected by a big-hearted city that coddles its stray dog population, much as India is demonstrating to its mutts and mongrels. I always feel so bad for street dogs in my travels — mangy, mistreated, malnourished. This delivers a whisper of hope.

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Street hounds of Istanbul. Let sleeping dogs lie.