Humming along: Issues of score in “Wendy and Lucy”

Wendy and Lucy

Wendy and Lucy

I wanted to see Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy since I first heard mention of it (I wanna say in the AV Club’s 2008 Oscar-O-Meter).

Lots of things caught my attention about this one. Independent female director. Neo-realist aesthetics. Financially hard-luck woman and her dog en route with the promise of a job in Alaska while stranded in Oregon. Exchanges that heighten the subtextual sexism between a stranded woman with a broken-down car and a mechanic who thinks he can swindle her out of some money just because she’s poor, female, and out of options. And, by the time I saw it, a recession had eclipsed the ongoing struggles from survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, making movies like this one and the fantastic Frozen River all the more poignant.

And surely, by now, we all know how I feel about female interactions with the street and the road.

I was also sold by Michelle Williams in the starring role. I thought Williams was great in Brokeback Mountain and Synecdoche, New York. I even found her adorable and charming in The Baxter, an otherwise airless rip-off of The Apartment. I’ve been a fan since Dawson’s Creek and feel that her emergent success in the American indie/prestige/smart wave film scene is vindication for all the punishment she had to endure on the WB teen soap as the tragic bad girl Jen Lindley who withered away while the two boys who really loved each other fought over the self-righteous good girl who bit her lip and tucked her hair behind her ears while America briefly considered it acting. I know now that many think of her as Heath Ledger’s pseudo-widow or Spike Jonze’s perhaps-girlfriend or a TV actress who lucked into some hipster cache, but I think Williams is great in her own right. I think Wendy and Lucy is the first time we really get to see what she can do.

Williams tremendously underplays Wendy, making her at once vulnerable and unmoved; a real survivor who occasionally loses her patience with cruel, illogical systems of power (for example, the cost of throwing her in jail for shoplifting a can of dog food exceeds the retail value of said dog food), but never loses her grace, resourcefulness, willingness to connect with others, or sense of moral decency.

Also, as my friend Curran pointed out, there’s an ambiguity to Wendy that is interesting — we know very little about her, including her orientation, which is never made explicit. In the context of Reichardt’s body of work, a queer reading seems possible. For example, Old Joy is an achingly romantic story about two male friends, one of whom is assuredly in love with the other, the other ambivalent of his feelings. And, in the context of Wendy’s plight, her emotionally distant family members (who we never see) may speak to the larger problem of homeless and drifting LGBT youth cast out by their families.

But the thing that made me really want to see the movie, and that stayed in my ears long after the screening, was the music. And God no, not this.

I’m referring to the “score.” I put the word in quotes because it consists of a few bars of a melancholic, unresolved tune, hummed periodically by the protagonist. The piece was written by singer-songwriter Will Oldham. Unfortunately, I can’t find a clip for you dear readers, but I encourage you to see and hear it for yourself.

What made me want to see a movie based on its score was the response it got from some cinephile friends. They hated it, considered it pretentious. I think it caused them to dismiss the film outright.

However, I love the score. For one, I think it makes sense — the movie’s commitment to realism is reflected in its strict use of diegetic sound (fancy term for sounds organic to the narrative environment). Thus, if Wendy’s car breaks down (and with it, her car radio), it makes sense that she’d hum something to herself, if only to break up the tension of being stranded in an unfamiliar place.

More importantly, I think we have another site through which to interrogate the notion of sole authorship. The score was written by Will Oldham. However, it is performed by Williams as Wendy within the movie, thus blurring the boundaries of writer, performer, and instrumentalist and demonstrating the true collaborative nature of filmmaking. By making it less apparent who is actually responsible for providing its musical accompaniment, perhaps there is room to consider both Williams and Oldham (along with Reichardt) as authors of the movie’s sound.

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6 comments

  1. FRANCESCA

    Just watched this flick and found the humming to be incongruous with what was going on. How could anyone hum while dealing with the circumstances Wendy found herself in. Humming usually indicates some level of happiness, but there is no way that Wendy was happy. Did she ever even smile? I really found the humming distracting and feel a score would have added greatly to this story. And yes – hated the humming.

    • Alyx Vesey

      You’re entitled to your opinion, Francesca, but I still love how Wendy’s humming — which is the movie’s score — is used as a commitment to realism and as a clear coping strategy for the protagonist. I don’t necessarily believe that people only hum when they’re happy. They sometimes hum when they’re sad or scared and want to distract themselves from their real feelings, especially when they’re in bad and/or dangerous situations and want to project a sense of bravery that they might not feel they have at that moment. It’s like “I Whistle a Happy Tune” from “The King and I” — fake it til you make it.

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  3. Teruko k

    I know this is an older article but just watched movie for the first time and wanted to know what the hummed song was ….wondering if its the same tune playing in grocery store where she is arrested for stealing?

  4. missashley

    It seemed to me that it was a coping mechanism and that she was a survivor, so long as she had her dog with her. They didn’t have much, but they had each other. When the dog was lost or things seemed at their worst, she never hummed. Whenever things seemed optimistic (like when she thought she’d be able to pay for the car, was doodling in her notebook, and en route to the foster home), she hummed.
    With a mostly silent, guarded, and introverted protagonist, it was a kind of a nice way to indicate her emotional status.
    And yes, the grocery store music seemed to be like a more cold and boring interpretation of the score. Hearing it hummed by Wendy was soothing and relateable, while hearing it repetitively and disjointed in the store was disconcerting at best – a perfect fit, given how that was the place where things went from “turbulence” to “emergency landing” as far as her trip was concerned.

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