Thursday, July 08, 2010

Wendy and Lucre


Kelly Reichardt's film Wendy and Lucy (2008) has often been compared to Vittorio de Sica's Umberto D. (1952). Both films are about poverty, loneliness, and marginalized and discarded people searching for dignity, whose best friend is their dog. Both films are rooted in the small, ordinary details of day-to-day existence and focus on elements that usually remain off-screen. And both films favor natural environments and a documentary-like aesthetic.

Another film that struck me as similar to Wendy and Lucy was Robert Bresson's L'argent (Money), a movie which more-or-less follows a counterfeit bill around and shows its influence on those who come into contact with it. Wendy and Lucy doesn't follow any particular bill around but it does focus on the influence money has on the main character (Wendy) and the people she comes into contact with. Every person she encounters, save the woman at the pound, revolves around, or contains a mention or exchange of, money. Both films are filled with numerous shots of transactions, figures, bills, coins, and use personal stories to express how capital degrades human relationships. (I am reminded of one of Mark Twain's famous witticisms: "The holy passion of Friendship is of so sweet and steady and loyal and enduring a nature that it will last through a whole lifetime, if not asked to lend money.")

Dehumanization is a theme in all three of the aforementioned films, but Umberto D. focuses on dehumanization through bureaucracy, while L'argent and Wendy and Lucy focus on money itself as as a means in which to portray people forsaken by society.

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L'argent (1983)


A few months ago Glenn Beck spoke on his television show about a book called We Are an Image from the Future: The Greek Revolt of 2008. Naturally he was trying his best to mount a cohesive argument against it, but really he was just mocking it in his own inimitable way. During the segment he mentioned the slogan "people over profits" in a way meant to smear any group linked to it (by his logic this somehow proves they're communists, and of course being a communist somehow proves you're evil and think Stalin was a swell guy). By deriding "people over profits" he is acknowledging that such a mentality is in opposition to our current capitalist system, which, in his eyes, automatically marks it as something fundamentally flawed. But of course -- as people -- it doesn't make a bit of sense to be against such a philosophy in the first place! His smear is so utterly ridiculous that it becomes comical, yet too few people seem to view it as such. (Glenn Beck and his listeners are just one easy example; I don't mean to use them as a barometer of public opinion.) A lot of us, many who don't even realize it (I hope), have bought into a system where money is everything and people are merely a means in which to acquire it. We think within the system. We work immoral jobs. We buy immoral things. The mantra is everywhere. It is the drumbeat of capitalism. Profits. Over. People.

Gassing up in Erlanger, Ky., 40-year-old Lee Pullins of Springfield, Ohio, said the [BP] spill is "absolutely horrible" but will not affect where he buys fuel.

"I go where it's the least expensive, even if it's only two pennies cheaper," he said.

How does one arrive at the point where "people over profits" is seen as an evil slogan? Surely this illustrates how ideological thinking can lead to the banishment of rational thought, but it also exposes money (profit, production) as the true God(s) of our culture. Only by giving something a supernatural power over us could we end up viewing it as being more important and valuable than our very lives.

winston smith money tree


Recently in Greece, a group of anarchists walked into a store, loaded up some bags with food, smashed open the cash register, took the money, and then walked outside and burned the wad of cash in their hand. Sure, it's easy to burn other people's money (though I guess it's technically theirs once they've stolen it), but the act still holds some symbolic value.

"Money is sacred in our capitalist society. And despite a lifetime of passing it around, very few of us have ever thought to destroy the lucre in our hands. We spend our lives working to earn it, and when we are feeling generous we donate it or if we are feeling frugal we save it. But we never flush it down the toilet or burn it or do anything else that would take it out of circulation. And even the thought of doing so can provoke anxiety.

To break the allegiance of the people to idolatry, Moses destroyed the golden calf, Jesus chased away the money lenders and Muhammad smashed the 360 false gods in the Kaaba. Today the paper bills we pass among us have become our idols and Mammon our god. To smash consumerism, we must do more than simply circulate our money to "green" or local businesses. We must also liberate ourselves from the religion of capital and the belief that money is sacred and can solve all problems." --Micah White

This recent act in Greece reminded me of an argument I had online a few years ago with someone (let's call him Steve) about Chris McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer's 1996 book Into the Wild. Steve knew McCandless from having recently watched Sean Penn's film version of the book, and, based on this depiction, he criticized McCandless for being a "very selfish individual." By itself this criticism wasn't enough to raise my ire, but when I asked him the reasoning behind it I became very annoyed with his response. I was expecting him to say something about McCandless leaving his family, but what he said was that McCandless was selfish because he had taken his last bit of money and, instead of "giving it to someone who needed it," burned it symbolically on a rock somewhere out West. I argued that this criticism was totally without merit unless Steve was willing to apply the same label to himself, for surely he had "burned" his own money on televisions, computers, stereos, dishwashers, CDs, movie rentals, and all manner of other unnecessary things, instead of "giving it to someone who needed it." After I said this Steve went ballistic: "I don't know who you are, but I don't want you to ever speak to me again!"

b. kliban peeing
By destroying the symbol, McCandless was spitting in the face of everything Steve worked for. It wouldn't matter what McCandless did with his money just as long as he put it to use.

During middle school some friends and I used to occasionally take dollar bills out of our pockets on the playground and tear them to pieces in front of some of our classmates for the sole purpose of pissing them off / shocking them (it worked). The reaction this caused was not unlike what happened when my friend Justin took a Bible to class one day, noisily tore out a few pages in the back of the room, and blew his nose in them. (He performed this beautifully, as if it were a completely normal thing to do.)

The reaction destroying money causes in some people exposes not only their fanatical devotion to it, but also the power inherent in destroying it.


wendy and lucy
"Consume Less, Share More"

wendy and lucy
Wendy and Lucy (Reichardt, 2008)

Wendy and Lucy exposes a world in which our dealings with one another are usually predicated on some monetary exchange, where people with less are worth less, where "people over profits" sounds a bit impractical, and where we have come to view one another as commodities, customers, competition.

When we meet someone for the first time the first question normally asked is: What do you do? What's being asked, of course, is not what we like to do or what we care most about, but how do we earn money. We define ourselves by our jobs. I am a lawyer. I am a mechanic. I am a sales manager. I am a janitor. I am a CEO. With these phrases, status and place are assigned. What does Wendy do? Nothing. But she's going to Alaska to work in a cannery.

Because she is without status, Wendy is slowly pushed to the margins of society, and out there on the margins she clings to the few tenuous links -- a wad of cash and the dream of a future job -- that keep her from falling completely by the wayside.

[spoilers follow]

The key scene comes after Wendy has been confronted by the homeless man in the woods where she was sleeping. She runs to find somewhere she can go, hysterical, and ends up in a bathroom. Once inside, she lifts up her shirt and unhooks the money belt she has strapped around her torso, and only after the belt has been removed does she let out a sigh -- a great gasping for air followed by sobs of anguish. A giant weight has been lifted and she can finally breathe again. The money is the only thing that differentiates her from the homeless man in the woods. It is her dream kept alive, her purpose and destination. Yet only when she is without it does she feel free and unburdened. The money belt chains her to a world that pretends not to notice her.

wendy and lucywendy and lucy williams
The only genuinely kind and helpful character in the film is the security guard Walter. He goes out of his way to help Wendy whenever he can, and he appears to be genuinely concerned with helping her find her dog, Lucy. He's probably more apt to help her because he's with her in spirit (similarly, one of the jobless people in line at the recycling plant appears to be nice to her). Walter has been down and out before, he knows the system is a sham, and he does not approve of it. As he says to her at one point: "You can't get an address without an address. You can't get a job without a job. It's all fixed." When he finally comes to help her out near the end of the film, he's out of uniform -- no longer on the clock. Previously throughout the film, he was always around to help Lucy incidentally because he was already there, standing outside looking after the store. Only after showing up on his own time does he hand her some money -- an amount too small to really do anything, but all he can afford. The exchange is a symbolic gesture. Walter feels as though all the things he did before and all the kindness he showed her wasn't enough. Up until now he never went out of his way to do anything; after all, he was getting paid for his time. But on their last meeting he wants to prove to her (and perhaps himself) that he truly cares, and he does this by giving her money. He believes, or perhaps thinks she believes, that money -- not kindness -- is what really counts.

wendy and lucy
"I want you to take this. Don't argue."

wendy and lucy Reichardt
By focusing subtly on money, Kelly Reichardt shows us a down-and-out woman trying to make a better life for herself in a system driven by profit, where most people have been conditioned to play out their part even when it's contrary to their own well-being or the well-being of others.

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lottery - win $41,000

wendy and lucywendy and lucy williamswendy and lucy williamswendy and lucywendy and lucyWendy calls a relative who immediately stresses that they have no money to
spare and therefore cannot help (even though that wasn't why she called).

wendy and lucywendy and lucy Reichardtwendy and lucy williamswendy and lucywendy and lucy ReichardtThe mechanic gives Wendy a "deal" by only charging her 30$ - instead
of the usual 50$ minimum - to tow her car a just
a few hundred feet.

wendy and lucy williamswendy and lucy filmwendy and lucy Reichardtwendy and lucy Reichardtwendy and lucy ReichardtKen Kesey's novel is about about a group of union loggers at a mill who "go on
strike in demand of the same pay for shorter hours in
response to the decreasing
need for labor due to the introduction
of the chainsaw. The Stamper family,
however, owns and operates
a company without unions and decides to not only
continue work,
but to supply the regionally owned mill with all the lumber the
laborers would have supplied had the strike not occurred."

wendy and lucy

wendy and lucywendy+and+lucywendy+lucy williamswendy+lucy williams
An inversion of the gilded cage

wendy and lucywendy+lucy williams


Hectocotylus said...

Of course, one of Wendy and Lucy's greatest strengths is its understatedness. Since it goes for realism we simply recognize it as depicting our world.

Also, it's been over a year since I saw Wendy and Lucy (I made the captures immediately after I saw it with the intention of eventually making a post). The same goes for L'argent, and even longer for Umberto D. So I hope I haven't made any grave errors.

Bill Fech said...

Thank you very much for this post. 'Wendy and Lucy' is a fine example of a film about those caught in the grinds of the current system, nay, way of life of the world.

Another film that I was reminded of while reading is Michael Haneke's 'The Seventh Continent', in which (spoilers) a middle-class Austrian family slowly deteriorates emotionally/mentally over the course of the narrative due to the mechanized, dehumanized nature of their routine consumer culture lives. In one scene towards the end, after the parents have resolved to destroy their possessions and commit suicide, they flush their entire life savings down the toilet, upon which Haneke trains his camera for the entire process. In interviews Haneke mentioned that this moment of Deutschmarks being flushed away was more upsetting to audiences in Cannes screenings than the actual collective suicide of the family. Quite telling.

I enjoy your blog.

Hectocotylus said...

Prompted by your comment I watched Haneke's film this morning and enjoyed it. Thanks! (It was available to stream via Netflix.) The reactions audiences had to the money flushing scene are indeed telling.

For some reason the film brought to mind husbands who lose their jobs but continue to go out each morning at the appointed time in order to keep their unemployment a secret. These men feel worthless and ashamed, obviously, and it was interesting that the wife in the film had almost nothing to write to her in-laws about besides her husbands employment and possible promotions. If he were jobless, what would she say? Would she ever write to them? Perhaps it also suggests that she knows little else about him.

I was also reminded of the men who take this even further by murdering their families and committing suicide. Granted, The Seventh Continent is about, as you said, a vacuous life of repetition and consumerism, but I couldn't help thinking about the people who kill themselves (and others) largely because their routine, middle-class, consumer-driven life is fast coming to an end.