Hang On Girl

Relocating care and running through the invisible world in Wendy and Lucy

Wendy and Lucy (2008) | Oscilloscope Pictures
Oscilloscope Pictures

I will do it I will just leave I’m going to do it I’m going to run away to Alaska runs punched and punctuationless around my head. I am a few miles deep in the woods. I am sweating but it is the first frost of autumn so I feel dry, cracked. I am wearing a black suit and there is the slick tack of hair gel on my head and hands. I look like a reasonable and less handsome facsimile of Special Agent Dale Cooper. Today is my best friend’s birthday. She’s having a Twin Peaks party. I was in the bathroom patting hair gel to cowlick when my cell phone began shaking. On the other end was my brother, out of breath, heaving: it’s Finley he slipped off the leash I don’t know where. He saw a squirrel or something. He chased it into the woods. So now I am in those woods dressed like my fictional hero deciding that if I don’t find my dog then there is nothing left in this town to keep me in this town.

I do not think Special Agent Dale Cooper would approve running away. Still, I think, or hope: we all want out sometimes. We’re shadows cast by westward ho pioneers, shades of our pre-national Puritanical sailor-founders—we run, but why? The human condition defines itself in relation to the condition of self on the land it’s on. Sometimes the land must change if the self will. It’s easy to get lost.

We’re lucky, then, to have other bodies to attach ourselves to. We depend on the nets and loves we’re in to remind us how to locate ourselves in our selves when the grim and the damp hit hardest. It’s the best argument I can find for owning a dog, that most familiar avatar of optimism and hope. Whenever I think about running away, the totem that keeps me present is what would happen to my dog? Could I care for him away, running, lost even? Maybe the care of and over animals is our best shot at the second act we thought running away would bring.

Wendy and Lucy (2008) | Oscilloscope Pictures

Wendy and Lucy starts in the woods with a lost dog. Almost. First there are freight trains, some stationary, one drifting into the off-frame space. There’s the ambient drone of thousands of pounds of metal on iron tracks, the clacks of country crossed with what we laid on top of it. It’s industrial and walled, this world, craters full of pooled water lining what little earth is about. This place looks hard. And then: a golden shot of dog running, green in the background under a shock of sundown. A woman walks behind the dog. Her humming replaces the train whine—industrial ambience gives way to human voice. Wendy throws the stick. Lucy runs after the stick. Lucy brings the stick back. Wendy throws the stick. Lucy runs after the stick. And then, “come back girl.” And then a cut to black. “Lu, where’d you go?” She’s lost. She ran away.

This is a film about a woman who loses her dog. 

No.

Wendy and Lucy isn’t about anything. Kelly Reichardt’s filmography (all art, bear and go with me) isn’t about things: it’s of them. We imagine an artifactual form—a body of prose, moving or still image, a melody—that addresses a world but ultimately is about itself, an artifact. And so, Wendy and Lucy is of the loops of being lost and losing, of the hope we bond to running away, of how much we pin to second chances in our lives. Wendy runs from Indiana and an undisclosed, though obviously negative, net of relationships. The land must change if the self will; the land must change if the self will not. She is jobless and homeless, saddled only to a 1988 Honda Accord, a few hundred carefully budgeted dollars, and a Lucy, her dog. She’s driving them to Ketchikan, Alaska, where she hopes to find work in the canneries. It occurs to me that Alaska is as long as it gets from Indiana, from New Jersey too. It occurs to me that maybe Wendy says she’s looking for steady work but hoping to find something like a second act. Second acts aren’t about running away, but you could be forgiven for thinking that. 

In the woods, I hope I will be forgiven for thinking that. My voice is hoarse from calling my dog’s name. It’s a reasonable facsimile of what I normally sound like, but de-pitched and cracked, calling the same curt totems from bad speakers: “Come here.” I have no direction. “I know.” “Hang on girl.” “It’s okay.” I stumble over a knot of thorns. I am thinking about my life in Alaska. It occurs to me that my dog will not be there.

Why run away when you don’t know where you’re going?

Michelle Williams in 'Wendy and Lucy' (2008) | Oscilloscope Pictures

Wendy and Lucy is of America in 2008, when certain flood waters were just beginning to recede and reveal the grossest inadequacies baked into our country. Wendy and Lucy is of a world still unaddressed in America in 2019. It’s an America where the background noise has statistics and allotments for poverty but no real time for the people living in them. It’s easy to hear public radio pundits talk about economic downturn in theoretical, even charismatically moving terms. It’s harder when, in Reichardt’s Old Joy, your old friend Kurt shows up and shares his economic downturn with you in asking and intimate terms. What do you do then? Do you run away? That kind of run is from the thing we can’t escape, even in movies.

Lucy isn’t lost yet, not after that first splash of fetch in the woods. Wendy catches up with her hours later, in the dark surrounding a campfire of strangers. The dark is important: it suggests the passing hours of mounting panic Wendy lives in, looking against losing, just saying “Lucy.” That’s the anxiety of personal economy, of the money running out, of being net-less and stretched so thin that any new obstacle is untenable. It’s easy to lose hope when you run so far that it’s too late to turn back. That campfire of strangers is important too: they shelter Lucy, caress her, keep her close until Wendy finds her. They’re nomads, mostly, moving from place to place to find jobs, gigs. “Just passing through.” They’re of Wendy’s world, the invisible one so much of society fails or chooses not to see.

We don’t know when or what hurtled Wendy into this world. Maybe she doesn’t know either. How could you know when you go from citizen to denizen, from living in to just passing through? The other world, the society of systemic decisions and paperworked law, exacts its rules on Wendy’s slim plans with mounting, alarming pace: she can’t park in that Walgreens lot. Her car won’t start. She still has to move it. She pushes it dead into the street. She goes to a mechanic one parking lot over. He’ll look at the car, but she’ll have to pay for a tow, even for the 10 feet. She’s out of dog food. Lucy looks at her. “I know, girl” She steals a few cans of dog food. “I know.” She’s caught by a teenage employee. “If a person can’t afford dog food they shouldn’t have a dog.” I know. “The food is not the issue. It’s about setting an example, right?” The manager agrees. “I know.” Wendy is arrested. Lucy looks around. From the back of a patrol car Wendy tells the officer that that’s her dog tied to a bike rack. He tells her to calm down. She’s stuck in the police station for hours. She pays $50 she can’t spare for bail. She takes a bus back to the grocery store. Lucy is gone. 

In an interview given at Lincoln Center circa 2008, Kelly Reichardt discusses Wendy and Lucy’s relation to a country just post-Katrina, a country where “poverty isn’t just something you just ignore anymore; like, there’s a real disdain for it.” I’m reminded of the abhorrent hero of David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake (who may be responsible for killing dozens of dogs): “I know it’s not okay for me to say this but I fucking hate the homeless…all they do is just float around on the edges, on the peripheries and watch people eating delicious food, drinking beer, and falling in love. They can’t participate so they get jealous and they harass us.” I’m reminded of Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s American Psycho, berating and taunting and teasing a homeless man and his homeless dog: “You know how bad you smell? You reek of shit. You know that? Al, I’m sorry. I don’t have anything in common with you.” And then he stabs the man. And then he kills the dog.

Wendy and Lucy has a Bateman in its midst, a Dog Killer: the young and white and male employee at the grocery store who confronts Wendy over her theft. “The rules apply equally to everyone,” he reminds the store manager, an older man who seems, at least at the onset, a little less willing to punish Wendy. Of course, that’s the original sin of the land: nobody is created equal in the eyes of the country, least of all those without money. The only self-evident law of the land is self-preservation and self-amassment. “You can’t get a job without an address,” Wendy vents to the Security Guard, who becomes a slim line of encouragement and support in the bob of this run away invisible world. He snuffs at this. “You can’t get an address without an address. You can’t get a job without a job. It’s all fixed.”

Michelle Williams | Oscilloscope Pictures

Again, still: this is not a film about homelessness or joblessness. It’s not about how Wendy’s situation became so precarious or what action we as spectators have to take to remedy the systems designed to put people and dogs in such dire situations. Which isn’t to say the film is nebulous—its conscience is clear. The system has always been fixed. It was made that way and will continue that way until we unfix it. The young and white and male employee who overzealously pushes his manager to prosecute Wendy is still working a minimum wage job that most likely denies him benefits or any real security. He has more of a net than Wendy, but how much more? “This is a steep hill,” says the vagrant who ambushes Wendy the night she stays in the woods looking for Lucy. Is he threatening to push her down it? “Don’t look at me!” he demands, as he rifles through her bag and talks to himself. So long as we look away we’ll survive. Wendy’s junked car is in eyeshot of the mechanic, who still maintains she has to pay for a tow. That’s Reichardt’s gift and curse to us: her cinema isn’t about emotional exploitation and she won’t manipulate our experiences for dramatic catharsis. Her camera isn’t for melodramatic provocation and she won’t talk down to us. This isn’t neo-realism, it’s life. Wendy and Lucy is of us, the worlds we walk in, and the ones we run to. It puts us back in the woods, looking for our lost dog. It isn’t about anything. It’s just Wendy and Lucy. Until it’s just Wendy.

So what?

You have to find the dog. Wendy’s grand gesture, her movement across a country in search of a better opportunity, echoes Ford’s Joad family and rhymes with Michelle Williams in another Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff. Like those cinematic cousins, Wendy’s odyssey would be easier without a dog, without another depending on her. Running away is easier when you do it alone. In a world fully content to discard her, Wendy doubles down on bringing Lucy, loving Lucy, finding Lucy. Finding the dog is important because caring for the dog is transformative. It’s not about running. It’s of finding. 

We turn to movies to exercise empathy, to connect to another life for a while. We go to the movies to run away. I don’t mean to sap the potential for cinema to incite political or polemical change: film has as much a chance at impacting a world as any other artifact. But art isn’t about change, it’s of it. Movies especially, in their motion, in their sensation of remaining still in the dark while travelling to far off and away, are themselves an architecture of escape. 

We turn to dogs to learn empathy and what it’s like to care, which is to say, what it’s like to lose. My body is beginning to accept Alaska and then I think: “The trail narrows, Diane. I’m close, but the last few steps are always the darkest and most difficult.”

I find my dog two hours after he slips the leash and runs away. He’d huddled in a low ditch miles back in this wilderness. He’s muddied and gashed across his hindquarters. His eyes are bloodshot from the running, from the realizing he’s a little lost. He looks up at me. “I know.” I cry. This is a steep hill.

I cry when Wendy finds Lucy, too. She always does, whenever I watch and rewatch the movie, and I always cry. I cry because Wendy has the kind of bravery I don’t possess yet, the bravery to turn running away into letting go and taking care. This isn’t care to be talked about theoretically or invoked arbitrarily; this is care in its active state, the act of becoming a caretaker. Industrial ambivalence gives way to human action. This is “maybe a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but only a piece of a big one.” This is the exercise of empathy.

Wendy and Lucy (2008) | Oscilloscope Pictures

Wendy finds Lucy in the spacious backyard of a foster home. For all the ways in which a world denies Wendy any empathy, some soul extended it to an unsupervised dog who now has something like a steady life. “That man looked so nice,” Wendy says to her beloved, separated only by a chain-link fence. We know what she’s going to do before she does it. I cry. “I know.” She leaves Lucy behind the fence. She says she’ll come back when she has money. The film’s last shot, the final turn, is Wendy hopping a freight train. The break of Wendy and Lucy is its reverberation of Mervyn LeRoy’s pre-Code revolution of broken worlds, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. How do I unfix the world and render care? How do I find and how do I help? Over rails from the dark: “I steal!”

I run away in measures. I find myself in others. My dog hurls himself on the carpet in the other room, a heave and then a panting that reminds me that losing and finding is all about relocation. We live in a land that encourages us to double down on selfishness. We exist in a world too ready to dismiss its animals. My dog, my sweet dummy who ran after a squirrel or something, teaches me to extend my identity as caretaker in all direction, towards all worlds, or at least to try. I clack this keyboard and he looks at me and cocks his head, suddenly wise and asking: “Will Wendy come back?”

In her meditation on Certain Women, Holli Carrell writes: “Reichardt is a master because she gives us permission to hope that her characters will find one another. She gives us hope that we’ll find those connections ourselves. And despite that certain impossibility, she reminds us that none of us are totally lost, just still finding our way.” In Wendy and Lucy, bravery is empathy and cinema is running away to run towards a better world. We have to invent a future of care. We have to see our lost people. We have to find our way. Our second chance is all the time in the world we’re in. Chase it. Wendy loses Lucy, finds Lucy, loses Lucy, loses everything, finds Lucy, finds herself, loses Lucy. So what? 

I don’t know if Wendy comes back. I do know that those train tracks are literal loops, no matter how much they feel like one-ways or escapes. If you steal, steal hope. If you run, find.