Jon Raymond and the power of, gulp, discipline

Michelle Williams as Wendy with dog LucyArt Scatter has been late to the Jon Raymond celebration, which started last month when copies of his short story collection Livability started popping up and reviews started to hit various book sections. The film Wendy and Lucy, based on one of those stories, had already hit the festival circuit, winning some major prizes, and then it opened here. Raymond lives here, his stories roam around here, and the film was shot in Portland in 2007, so somehow it feels as though we have a stake in these various enterprises. Which turns out to be a good thing.

What I admire most about 1) Raymond’s short story Train Choir, 2) the film Wendy and Lucy that Kelly Reichardt has directed based on that story, and 3) Michelle Williams’ utterly central performance as Wendy in the movie, is their discipline. All three have some other pleasures, but I love how they hew so close to the line that they’ve cut for themselves. No rambles. No posturing. No baroque curlicues or cupids hovering pudgily above the stage. No windy psychological explanations or philosophical expressions of “meaning”. They are clean and bare and simply present. We observe and supply our own wind, our own meaning, our own set of explanations, maybe, but we don’t really even need to do that. They have a completeness in and of themselves.

That isn’t so rare in contemporary fiction, maybe, though Raymond’s approach is so disarming that reading it I didn’t think for a second about the school of Raymond Carver and its modern practitioners. Train Choir follows a single character, Verna, during a stopover somewhere in Idaho as she travels from her home in Indiana to some dream of Alaska that she keeps kindled in her mind, a place where she can get a job in a cannery, get out of debt, start fresh. She doesn’t allow her dream to get beyond that. Raymond tracks her for not quite three days, an eventful three days in her life, perhaps, but nothing we’d consider out of the ordinary for a young woman of limited means driving across country.

Nothing out of the ordinary. We’ll compress the plot of Day One, just to make the point. She parks in a Walgreen’s lot to sleep. When she wakes up, aroused by a security guard, her car won’t start, so they push it to the street. She and her dog Lucy head over to a nearby grocery to buy food. She leaves Lucy tied up outside, which is where she remains when Verna is picked up for shoplifting three cans of dog food and taken to jail. After a day in the criminal justice system, Verna is released but by the time she gets back to the store Lucy has disappeared. Verna frantically starts to search for her, and then as night falls, she settles into an uncomfortable sleep in the car. That’s it. Day Two she looks for Lucy in the pound and gets her car into a garage to have it fixed, and has a nervous few minutes with a psychotic guy who may have served in the military. Day Three she finds out the car can’t be repaired, and she finds Lucy. I won’t completely spoil the ending.

That’s about it. The dialog is minimal. The descriptions are sparse and to the point. The action, such as it is, is conveyed briskly and sometimes simply summarized. Occasionally, we get a peek at Verna’s “interior” — her reasoning for some action — but that occupies far less space than her calculations about how much money she has and how she’ll be able to stretch it to last the entire trip. A young woman (I’m assuming that Raymond imagines that she’s young — he never gives her age), a dog, a broken down car, the edge of a small city somewhere, the characters she meets as she tries to escape and get back on the road.

Here’s a snippet from the story, just so you get a little sample of Raymond’s style:

“Panic rising, Verna walked around the store calling Lucy’s name, at first coaxingly, then angrily. She checked near the Dumpster and in the blackberry bushes, hoping her dog had burrowed into some hiding place and was waiting for her return. But Lucy was nowhere to be found.”

If I had been editing the story, I might have asked Raymond, did you need the “panic rising”? Don’t we get that? But I am operating with the film in my mind, too. Maybe the reader needs that little reminder of emotion. The other interior descriptions are so connected to the action that it’s hard to argue with them — “coaxingly, then angrily”, for example, or the “hoping”. We need the details for the picture in our mind, because they describe how she’s looking.

Raymond is relentless with this little story. It plunges forward. Verna plunges forward. The clock is ticking. The space is barren. There is no relief waiting around the corner in the plot, and certainly no sleight-of-philosophy that’s going to make it all better. Verna is enduring as well as she can, enduring and moving on, and if she’s learning anything, maybe she’s going to tell us in another story. And what of us? Are we learning something? The values of endurance or courage in small things or small good deeds? Raymond leaves that to us.

At the beginning of Wendy and Lucy, I was a little worried about what Reichardt was going to do with this rocky little story. She starts with the same scene as Raymond does. Wendy (Verna has been renamed) is chasing after Lucy at night, and she runs into a group of kids gathered around a fire below a train trestle. Lucy’s been corralled by a large, tatoo-ed and pierced young woman, but the camera pans around to a couple of scrawnier guys with bad teeth, the light of the campfire playing dangerously across their long, hungry faces. Wendy is at least a little scared, but she’s got to get her dog — she endures a longish story about another guy’s adventures in Alaska, and then leaves. But the sinister image of the group around the campfire didn’t really fit the scene in the story, which doesn’t have that overtone.

I shouldn’t have fretted, because Reichardt’s account from here on out is, if anything, more spartan than Raymond’s prose. This is something that film does — it removes complicated thoughts and emotions and replaces them with something visual, the setting and the action. But usually it feels obliged to juice those substitutes, artfully or exploitatively. Reichardt’s camera follows Wendy/Verna around, on the course that Raymond, who co-wrote the screenplay with Reichardt, set in the short story — to the garage, to the grocery, to jail, to the pound, hanging out in the Walgreen’s parking lot, the bathroom at a service station, the scruffy woods on the outskirts of town. She’s walking, she’s taking the bus, she’s leaning against her car, she’s squatting against a building.

When she walked into the grocery, my antennae started twitching in expectation. When we go to the store in the movies, the fun usually begins. Those rows of juices, milk and beer in the refrigerated shelves? They are going to be blasted by semi-automatic (at least!) fire. We’re going to see a great gusher of liquid and glass spill out from behind those transparent doors. Rows of carefully arranged cans and bags of chips are going to be pulverized, displays knocked over, the whole place left in a shambles by men wearing masks or by the guys fighting the men wearing masks. But no, this grocery experience is just every day, well, except for the shoplifting incident.

Reichardt’s pacing is deliberate. She takes her time. In the short story, Raymond tosses off the visit to the animal shelter in a sentence or two, but Reichardt walks the corridor with Wendy, her camera inspecting every cell, taking a look at each dog. Is that Lucy? No. As in the story, the conversations are brief, a little halting, Wendy trying to take the measure of the people she meets, while they take the measure of her. We form opinions about them, opinions that change sometimes, with small gestures of kindness. Eventually, those gestures start adding up, counterbalancing the disaster of a blown engine, to a small extent.

By taking this approach, Reichardt, like Raymond, trusts that the small lives and their minute details will add up to something for us. If there’s any difference in tone between movie and story, it’s that the film may be slightly softer, but Reichardt resolutely avoids either overblown sentiment or bitter cynicism. She doesn’t try to overexplain. She doesn’t have a theory she wants to assert. Having acknowledged that interior reflections aren’t what she can do well, she sticks to the surfaces and waits for them to reveal those interiors. Reichardt waits, in short, the way Wendy waits.

Yes, Wendy waits. She walks, calls for her dog, occasionally breaks into a run. She makes a sign for her lost dog, sleeps in her car or outside or in the restroom of the gas station. Why do we keep watching her, exactly? A lot has to do with Michelle Williams, who is just as resolute as Raymond and Reichardt at keeping things “normal” or “natural” or “realistic”.

I was a big fan of the first couple of years of “Dawson’s Creek” (it was something I watched with my kids, excellent for starting conversations), and the best part of that show was the very young Michelle Williams. She caught my eye again in Brokeback Mountain (receiving an Oscar best supporting actress nomination), and then I saw her in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, and I thought she was terrific in her small role as Claire. But I wasn’t prepared for her Wendy.

Even more than Raymond and Reichardt, Williams has stripped her performance of everything resembling “performance”. Her Wendy is taut, trying to be self-sufficient. Alone on the road, she is cautious, all the way to wary, and just this side of skittish. I would say she has a tough exterior, but really she doesn’t — her defense mechanism has more to do with blending in, purposefulness, a sense of quiet courage, though maybe I’m manufacturing that for her. We like her, and we know that at this point in her life we can’t get too close to her. She’s vulnerable, but she’s in the process of protecting herself from becoming a victim.

The camera returns again and again to her face, waiting to register something more than that essential wariness. When it comes, it flashes up and subsides quickly, repressed and filed away, maybe for recollection later. Again, I surmise and perhaps go too far. And it’s more than the face, too. Her walk is matter-of-fact, all business. Her slouch is not a pose, it’s an alert form of resting. Same with her squatting: She could come out of the blocks like a sprinter if need be.

Williams has scrubbed the pretty from her performance along with the dramatic. She finds the ordinary, instead, and somehow trades pretty for beautiful in the process. I can’t think of an acting job in recent years I’ve admired quite so much — with the possible exception of Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Savages. This isn’t a “discovery” of mine. Williams’ name has circulated in Oscar buzz circles for this role, and critics have been almost uniformly enthusiastic. The Toronto Film Critics Association voted her best actress in 2008 (and named Wendy and Lucy its best film).

Raymond to Reichardt to Williams, each sticks to a clean vision of the story, to a narrative, to a character in sequential motion, and reflect in the process panic, despair, anger, revelation, gratitude, even love, without any of it being obvious or cloying or campy or cynical. It’s harder than it looks, to stay that flat, to trust that much, to keep your desire to impress under check, to serve that simple story and that ordinary character. It takes discipline, yes. But maybe it takes more than that.