With impeccable timing, Kelly Reichardt has brought a genuine, relevant tale of struggle in the modern age with her latest film, Wendy and Lucy. Michelle Williams plays Wendy, a woman traveling the United States with her dog, Lucy, in hopes of making it to Alaska where she hears "they need people" in the canning industry.
Unfortunately for Wendy and Lucy, Wendy's car breaks down in not-so-nice small town Indiana. After being arrested for shoplifting by a young grocery clerk wearing a very large cross, Lucy, who had been tied up outside the store, goes missing. What ensues over the next hour is totally heartbreaking.
This is a short film. Its goals, in terms of what is actually presented on screen, are small. But the value of what you carry with you as you leave the theater is remarkable. It's a relief to see such subtle and beautiful film-making with so many bloated movies this year (The Dark Knight, Rachel Getting Married). Ms. Reichardt proves that you don't need extra reels to create drama.
Most of the success of film is thanks to the performance of Michelle Williams. Wendy at first seems hardened and stiff. But, as the film goes on, there are moments that endear her to us. In what seems like perhaps the most stoic and selfless performance of the year, Ms. Williams paints a realistic portrait of life for many Americans, trapped in lackluster jobs, or without jobs at all, no help from family or friends. There is no peacocking in Ms. Williams performance. It is her, the character, and the camera. While her approach might be understated, her talent shines through in abundance. Ms. Williams is a real actor; she wants to tell stories and she wants to feel the people she plays.
With the economic downturn and the massive lay-offs over the past few months, I imagine there will be a plethora of films and books which will appeal to our need for escapism. The success of Twilight seems proof of this. But I hope that underneath the radar there will be more films like Wendy and Lucy, that explore the absence of wealth and security in a world that demands these things from us. One of the most beautiful things about this petite work of art is its bravery in confronting human nature head-on. And, while we have high hopes for 2009, the world is changing rapidly. The time to define ourselves is now.
So, that's not entirely true. I'm still literate, but 2008 has been a bleak year for me in terms of readership. I have Facebook, Gmail, and Twitter to thank for my dwindling attention span. I don't know if you've noticed, but the internet is highly addictive. Now, I'm not one of those poor iPhone-owning saps who walks around checking their e-mail every five seconds, but when I'm at work, I am constantly plugged-in.
In more ways than one, the internet is an amazing tool. One can educate herself on just about anything under the sun: there's an endless array of information. We're reminded to take everything we read on Wikipedia with a grain of salt, but I can't help but read an entry as it's usually the first thing that appears when I want to do a search for, say, Rasputin. So who knows if all the knowledge I'm amassed on important topics like Gout can really be considered knowledge.
Ultimately, I'm obsessed with the connectivity of the internet. At any moment, I can keep tabs on all my friends and acquaintances. I can exchange ideas with people I barely know. Hell, I've even fostered friendshipspurelyonline. (Luckily, these have developed into real-life friendships as well). But all these clicks of my mouse and the comforting sound of keyboard has made me impossible to entertain. I can no longer read novels. If I'm not enraptured by the first page, I feel a wave of disgust come over me. Rageful, I want to throw the book out of a speeding train.
(Side note: Buffy the Vampire Slayer also gets an honorable mention for detering me from my literary purusits. I don't know if you remember, but I started watching the series back in June, and I finished the complete series---all seven seasons---last week. I don't regret watching the entire series. Buffy has become a very important part of my cultural topography . . . but seven seasons, at about thirteen episodes a season, in forty-five minute increments: let's see, that's about . . . um . . . I can't do the math. Let's just say it's a lot of time).
This year, I've done a better job of trying to be more social and see more of my friends, regardless of inclimate weather or lack of sleep. On top of that, I try to get my poor, poor butt to the gym at least three times a week. I also, as of the last eight months, have enjoyed the company of a very lovely, miraculous young man, also known as my boyfriend. Oh, and then there's my job, where I read mostly terrible manuscripts and am oftentimes discouraged with the future of literature as a whole. I'm a busy girl! I don't have time to read.
It's easy for me to forget what a voracious reader I used to be. That upon reading Mrs. Dalloway for the first time as a Junior in high school, I devoted my entire summer before my senior year to reading everything Virginia Woolf ever wrote. And I mean that: every diary entry, every letter, every novel, every work of nonfiction, all collected essays, etc etc etc. I basically read a book or more a day. In addition to my self-imposed Woolf symposium, I managed to read a contemporary novel here and there: namely, Middlesex, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay.
So what the hell happened?
The Internet happened. My adult life happened. New York happened. Life happened.
In conclusion, I'd like to give a shout out to the ten books I began this year . . . and never finished:
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James The Sleepwalkers, by Hermann Broch The Book of Memories, by Peter Nadas Sentimental Education, by Gustave Flaubert The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron Loving, Living and Partygoing, by Henry Green Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill
For the record! I did read:
Roberto Bolano's massive 2666, Werner Herzog's brief but beautiful Of Walking in Ice, One of the most terrifying novels I've ever read, Never Let Me Go, The charming, whimsical Zuleika Dobson, and, my favorite read of the year, the devestating and ultimate Sophie's Choice.
As a straight woman with several close gay friends, I have always been a fervent supporter of gay rights. In high school, I stood by them at the gay pride parade in Atlanta and I've been a member of the Human Rights Campaign since I was seventeen years old. But the struggle for gay rights is more than a personal issue: it is an issue of life and death for many Americans. The right to live their lives in the open.
Gus van Sant has made a loving biopic for Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States. After a decade long attempt to be elected, Milk finally won the post of San Francisco Supervisor in 1977. In 1978, he was murdered in cold blood while at work by his colleague, Dan White.
This film is absolutely chock-full of outstanding performances by Sean Penn, perhaps one of America's most-talented, seasoned actors, and some very exciting newcomers. Penn never ceases to amaze me with courage in playing stretch-characters: a mentally-handicapped man in I Am Sam, a grief-crazed father in Mystic River, a crazy-dude in The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Mr. Penn has a reputation in his personal life as a hot-head and a bad boy, but I like to think his complex career choices as of late might be a form of therapy for working through some of his demons. His portrayal of Harvey Milk is warm, brave, and brimming with life.
You may remember uber-cutie Emile Hirsch from Into the Wild, but he's altogether unrecognizable in this film as a young man named Cleve Jones who joins Milk's campaign. Jones would go on to found the AIDS quilt and Hirsch does a fantastic job of communicating his boundless energy and mirth, although I couldn't help but think that Dov Charney must have based American Apparel's hoodies and big hipster glasses on the fashion stylings of Mr. Cleve Jones. And then there's Alison Pill, broadway superstar, as the lesbian campaign manager who has to prove her skills when she takes over midway through Harvey's run for supervisor. The part's too small to showcase Pill's talents, but her grief over Milk's death at the end of the film tugged at my heartstrings.
While James Franco does an admirable job of looking pissed off and tired as Milk's longtime boyfriend Scott Smith, his performance is rather forgettable, and his pretty face makes any sort of serious brooding a bit impossible. It's not his fault, but I'm not sure what he's doing in this film.
Milk is perhaps van Sant's most sentimental, most Hollywood-venture to date. The dialogue feels forced and there are moments of indulgence where I wished there had been restraint. But that said, Milk is still an important film. While in office, Harvey Milk campaigned in California for the demise of Proposition 6, or the Briggs Initiative, a law that would have banned gays and lesbians (and anyone who supported them) from teaching in public schools. Prop 6, thanks to the efforts of Harvey Milk and his team, was defeated on November 7, 1978. In the film, it is a moment of pure triumph. It reminded me of the mood on November 4, 2008.
November 4th was an incredible day in American history. I will never forget the endless celebration and relief upon learning that Barack Obama had been elected President. In that moment, so much felt possible, as if the pursuit of happiness and freedom had finally been realized since the past eight years of emotional and literal terrorism, hatred, and ignorance of the Bush administration. But I was deeply saddened, as were many of my Californian friends, to learn that Proposition 8 had passed, denying gay couples the right to marry and invalidating those marriages that had been legal in the state until then.
While I understand the argument that many gay couples make that marriage is a heterosexual institution that they don't necessarily want, I believe it should be an option. It should be an option for any longterm committed couple to make their partnership legal and known to the state, that their partnership should afford them the same rights that mine would if I chose to marry. And to say that they are married. That they are husband and husband, wife and wife. If straight couples have the right to be legally married in this country, every couple should have that right. It is a human, undeniable right.
In many ways we have come a long way from the time of Harvey Milk. But just as Harvey's victory of Prop 6 was blighted by his assassination, I can't help but feel as if they election of Obama was blighted by the victory of Prop 8. I can only hope that with the new year, come January 20th, America will have entered into a new period of diplomacy and the pursuit of civil rights for every single citizen: which means healthcare, employment, and yes, happiness. It's really the only way.