(Ed. Note: Originally published at Film-Think.)

Well I hope that someday buddy

We have peace in our lives

Together or apart

Alone or with our wives

And we can stop our whoring

And pull the smiles inside

And light it up forever

And never go to sleep

My best unbeaten brother

This isn’t all I see

Oh no, I see a darkness

(“I See a Darkness” – Will Oldham)

Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.


I am happy that I caught Wendy and Lucy right after rereading Jeffrey Staley’s near perfect essay “What is Critical about Autobiographical (Biblical) Criticism?” for the umpteenth time. It is an essay that after reading many times I have come to hate as much as I love, because it draws me out, it points at an elusive “me” that so often cowers behind sonorous technical proclamations or dense historical reconstructions. His footnotes, flecked with David Foster Wallace-like twists of narrative and poetry, draw the reader back into the text rather than into away into a forest of scholarship. And then a few points in he writes this:

“But the more personal and revelatory our writing becomes, the more we are forced to deal with questions of telling and naming. For example, when I write in the public arena of scholarly discourse about myself—my wife, my brothers, or my children; or my schoolmates from my childhood years on the Navajo Reservation; or my career as a scholar-teacher, I wrestle with questions of how the people I have named might react to my stories if they read them tomorrow—or five, ten, or twenty years from now. Should I change names and places to protect the innocent? But

who are the innocent and what or who makes them so?

It seems to me that part of the political and ethical power of autobiographical biblical criticism lies precisely in its willingness to give flesh and blood names to the disease of our scholarship and to our situatedness in the world. But I worry when I write. Am I really standing with the characters in my narratives, allowing them to speak “their” truth, or am I using them gratuitously as exotic embellishments to enliven a less than convincing argument? …Serious ethical issues are raised when there is the real possibility that our writing might “re-victimize” the voiceless and the powerless.”

Staley is talking here in general about the intellectual possibilities opened up by accepting “autobiography” as a legitimate scholarly enterprise, which becomes problematic when one considers the range of people affected by it. It is easy to talk about people in the past that we have no personal connection to. But what happens when we begin to talk about those who are part of our personal history? There is an established ethic in place for narrating history, but what sort of ethic is there for telling stories about the present? How do we do autobiography without hurting other people? I think the answer lies in forms of compassion. Not pseudo kindly speech-acts such as: “with all due respect”, “as far as I can tell”, or “things were different back then”. But compassion as a hermeneutic, a way of literately interpreting and reorganizing our memories as they bubble up in response to something we are reading or watching. This theme is implicit in Staley’s essay, but I have become convinced that this sort of autobiographical compassion exists out there in the world because I have seen it in films like Wendy and Lucy.

Reichardt has said that Wendy and Lucy isn’t autobiography in terms of narrative detail. She did some couch-surfing in her youth (and travels with a dog), but nothing that approximates Wendy’s lonely sojourn. Yet the film is her response to the dread increasing awareness of our economic interconnectedness, the shocking knowledge that my 401k really is connected to a few hundred jobs in northwestern Ohio. In this context, Wendy is Reichardt’s potential victim. She is powerless and voiceless because she is cashless, and as Reichardt’s creation Wendy is doomed to the political whims of her response to the American economic illness that has made her fictional plight so relevant. Thankfully, though there are a few characters within the confines of the film that demonstrate kindness towards Wendy and her furry pal, it is only a compassion on the part of Reichardt that keeps the film from slipping into the same dark oblivion towards which her character is traveling. On the way to a seasonal fishing gig in Alaska, Wendy gets stuck in an Oregon town while waiting for her car to get fixed. After getting written up for shoplifting by the local constabulary, Wendy loses her dog Lucy. Like a horrible stretch of dominoes, this series of events turns quickly against Wendy, and the film tracks her all the way to its inevitable end. It isn’t Reichardt, however, that is to be blamed for slowly decreasing Wendy’s range of social and financial choices, as we have just hopped into the story long after this chain of events had begun. It stretches much farther back, beyond Reichardt’s reach, into the recesses of the vanishing American dream.

If it weren’t for Reichardt’s poetic deliberation throughout the film, the only logical end for Wendy would be her eventual “re-victimization,” as Staley puts it. This quiet auteurist energy runs against the grain of the Kafkian senselessness of her predicament and the barely intelligible rhetoric of those few characters on the margin that could be considered as belonging to Wendy’s haphazard demographic. The effectiveness of her style, which also granted Old Joy an unexpected gravity, maintains her dignity as a mode of Reichardt’s response to all the social problems critiqued by the film. She “stands with” Wendy and “speaks her truth.” And then the audience, as a witness to this compassion, responds in turn. Sicinski has criticized Reichardt for “a dubious preoccupation with a certain strain of Americana, to the detriment of providing a clear picture of how disenfranchised people in our country actually exist today.” Because Wendy is white, bumps into Will Oldham, and vanishes on a train, she is actually a stand-in for a kitsch version of the “poor.” She is only a moderately successful imitation of a Bob Dylan heroin that is more at fault for her predicament than the director lets on. But I think his criticism misses the way in which Wendy and Lucy are tragic figures in a cultural subtext beyond Reichardt’s own control. Wendy’s whiteness isn’t an issue, and neither is the way Reichardt elides her personal responsibilities. What is at stake in the film, where it either succeeds or fails, in is the teleology of Reichardt’s storytelling. Over this, she does have control, and frames Wendy as a social critique with a compassion that allows us to witness her flight into a lonely darkness as something other than an “exotic embellishment” to an otherwise “unconvincing argument.” (And perhaps even unravels some of the Sicinski-irking Jack London stereotypes of the Great North that fed the romanticizing of cash-strapped pilgrimages like Wendy’s.) The film isn’t autobiography, but it works like autobiographical criticism should: standing with people within our narratives rather than allowing them to be overtaken and re-victimized by the ease of hindsight. As Buechner said, “Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” This is the kind of compassion that Reichardt seems to get, and that permits Wendy and Lucy to peter out in shadows.

More gratuitous Staley:

“There are, you know, powerful metaphors outside the Bible that shine in the darkness. They shine even in the deep night of the winter solstice. Sometimes they light up the night with a sudden shower of fiery shooting stars. They may be ancient words, spinning through a myriad of galaxies as old as the universe herself, but many are young, personal words that the darkness cannot grasp or overpower. They wind around the framework of our lives; they come alive and live with us and in us, and find us a place in the world. These words, the old and the young of them, haunt our memory. They are the ones we recall when we are on the move, when we are uprooted from the places and the people we know and love.”

Wendy and Lucy are this kind of metaphor.