Monday, September 13, 2010

The Origins of Wendy and Lucy (2008), OR Umberto D (1952)

And, we're off with a whimper.

Athelas hit the can't-feed-the dog-but-can't-find-it a-better-home-because-I-NEED-the-dog-to-feel-like-a-person-and-this-is-just-all-a-metaphor-for-larger-country-wide-economic-issues movie plots nail on the head.

Umberto D. IS Wendy and Lucy.

Let's review a few key points (warning: full of plot spoilers for both films):

1. Down on his/her luck titular character who just needs this ONE thing before everything is better:
a. Umberto--pensioner who just needs 5,000, no 4,000, no 1,000 lire . . . . to pay his debts (back rent).
b. Lucy--young woman who just needs to get to Alaska so she can find a job.

2. A mutt who doesn't get fed much but likes to play and wander off; said wandering off gets mutt caught by whatever version of animal services and sent to the pound:
a. Filke--a Jack Russell-like dog who is only seen eating a plate of pasta at a cafeteria and who likes to play with a ball and a ruler (and later a pinecone). He wanders out of the apartment and gets sent to the pound.
b. Lucy--a golden retriever-like dog who gets an inadequate amount of dog food once and who likes to play with sticks. Lucy wanders off at various points in the film but it's Wendy's leaving her at a grocery store that gets her sent to the pound.

3. Hair-brained plan to play the system and, thus, temporarily get by results in dog incarceration:
a. Umberto plays sick to get sent to the hospital where he will be fed for a month and can save his pension which can be used to pay rent. Filke wanders out of the apartment during this hospital stay.
b. Wendy decides to steal a can of dog food (despite having enough money to pay for the can and one can not being enough for Lucy for even one day). Wendy goes to jail and Lucy is picked up by the pound.

4. Minimally-employed person of the opposite sex helps the titular character with the dog, advice, and misc.:
a. Maria the maid is supposed to watch Filke while Umberto is in the hospital, she also tries to help him with the landlord, brings him cake and a thermometer surreptitiously.
b. Security Guard (no name) gives Wendy advice on where to get her car fixed, allows her to use his phone to call the pound, and gives her money.

5. Same minimally-employed person has immense trouble of his/her own but seems to keep it together:
a. Maria is pregnant and isn't sure which of two military guys the father might be (and both deny capability). The landlady finding out about her pregnancy will probably get her fired.
b. The security guard has a daughter with a child who is demanding of all of his resources.

6. Larger economic issue on which the writer, director, et al. would like to comment:
a. The Italian post-war economic recovery which was looking pretty good for everyone but the pensioners who were suffering greatly.
b. The recent huge economic failure in the US.

7. Family member or person like family who can't or refuses to help:
a. Umberto's landlady apparently was like family when he moved in and called him grandfather. Now that she wants to get married and he owes her 1,500 lire, she doesn't like him anymore.
b. Wendy's family is supposedly having their own hard time (but I think we're supposed to not quite believe this).

8. Third character who legitimately needs money from titular character:
a. Umberto's landlady.
b. Lucy's mechanic.

9. The unfortunate titular character is not sympathetic. Somehow just being down on his/her luck is supposed to be enough without character development or depth.

10. Titular character leaves dog in better place (or tries to) by tricking him/her with play:
a. Umberto tries to get away from Filke while he's playing with a group of kids (fails).
b. Wendy gives Lucy a stick to occupy her while she walks away (works because Lucy is in a fence).

Where Umberto D and Wendy and Lucy admittedly diverge is the endings (sort of). Umberto D gives us Umberto trying to first house Filke in a sort of doggie daycare with what I assume are supposed to be people of questionable repute but he has second thoughts so he tries to give the dog away to a child he somehow knows in the park (that, of course, fails thanks to a person who is, I assume, the nanny). Then he tries to kill himself and Filke with a train but Filke rightfully freaks out and Umberto wasn't even standing on the tracks so that didn't work out. Filke then doesn't trust Umberto for 10 seconds and then they run off playing. Wendy, however, finds Lucy has been taken from the pound by a man with a home and a yard. We know Lucy has an at least temporarily better life. We don't know what will become of Filke with his homeless master.

Despite the slightly divergent endings, the movies are the same thing and both ultimately fail but let's consider why Umberto D might be on this list. 1001 Movies begins its information on Umberto D with "This heart-wrenching"--nope, my heart wasn't wrenched. Not one bit. And I'm a bleeding heart, let's feed the poor and give everyone a chance and save all of the animals liberal. It continues with the fact that the film "is shot on the streets of Rome and the major parts are played by nonprofessional actors, add[s] to the film's immediacy and authenticity." Um, no. Being shot in Rome is cool but a lot of movies are shot in Rome. And the fact that nonprofessional actors are used only makes it poorly acted not to mention the fact that these nonprofessional actors are being PAID to be in a film and no matter how little pay they are receiving, it's more than their peers. Those nonprofessional actors are now taken out of their (maybe) bad circumstances and raised above their circumstances--they no longer represent the characters they're playing, they are no longer authentic.

1001 Movies adds in that "the suspense built up around the ever-more-desperate search [for Filke] rivals a Hitchcock thriller." Has the author seen a Hitchcock thriller? Even at his worst, the suspense in a Hitchcock is, well, suspenseful. Umberto D contains not one ounce of suspense. Not one. As with Wendy and Lucy, you almost hope that Filke isn't found by Umberto. First, that might give some real emotional heft to the film and, second, if Filke isn't found there is the slight chance that someone who can feed the dog has taken him (a la Wendy and Lucy).

Ultimately, both Umberto D. and Wendy and Lucy could have been more effective social message films without the dogs. While 1001 Movies may be right that a "pet who gives joy to a joyless existence" is fascinating and heartwarming, it is not effective as a social commentary on the downtrodden. Those dogs, like the dogs of homeless people on the streets of every major city, cannot change their circumstances. Those dogs are being led around by owners who, for whatever reason, cannot care for themselves and have implicated the dogs in their situation. I'm not blaming homeless people or poor people or anyone at all for circumstances but, if you can't care for yourself, if you can't provide for yourself, you cannot and should not implicate a helpless animal. Figure out a better solution. Keeping a dog when you can't feed yourself or the dog is simply selfish and mean to the dog. That's where these movies break for me. If you don't add in the dogs, I might have felt something, anything, for Umberto or Wendy. With the dogs, I hate both Umberto and Wendy for starving their pets. Wendy is marginally redeemed for leaving Lucy but the more effective film is following Wendy after she's left Lucy in that yard. Umberto gets no such redemption and his "walk into the sunset" with Filke simply makes me sad for Filke. Both movies fail to deliver their message, cloaked in neorealism or no.


  1. Yeah, why was this movie on the list? I suspect that it's riding (no pun intended) the tails of The Bicycle Thief, which I've of course never seen, but is supposed to be legitimately awesome. I guess we'll see about that. And I don't know about Wendy and Lucy because I referenced it without ever having seen it (full disclosure: I do stuff like that all the time), but I felt like Filke was being exploited in the movie. Not by the director, but by Umberto. When he made him stand and hold his hat out because he was too ashamed to do it? Not cool.

  2. Ugh--we have to watch another movie by this director? *Sigh* It better be legitimately awesome or I'm writing the editor(s) a letter.

    Filke was totally exploited by Umberto. Grow a pair and beg for your own money, dude. I was *almost* moved by his inability to open his hand to beg but then it was just annoying and cloying. Lucy wasn't exploited that way in Wendy and Lucy but Wendy never gets to panhandling--she just does the doe-eyed whiny begging to not have to pay her bills and outright steals (or tries to anyway).

  3. That actually reminds me of something I DID like about the movie--it never suggested that Umberto was emasculated by either his age or his poverty. Does Wendy use her "feminine wiles" to get money? Is that troubling in the movie or to you? I like how we're totally just talking about a different movie now. You are not the gods of us, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die editors!

  4. Yes! I didn't think of that but they really didn't try to make him any less a man because of his situation--almost the opposite since it was a gang of old poor men causing fights at the beginning. Although the only time he really flirts at all is with a nun and you know that disturbs me.

    Wendy doesn't really use any of her femininity at all in the film. The doe-eyed thing is really gender neutral and doesn't imply anything other than "I'm pitiful and poor." The only time her being a women is pushed in the audience's face is when she's almost raped by a homeless man in the woods in the middle of the night.

    The lack seems sort of odd for a couple of reasons. I don't buy that she's been living out of a car for however long and no man has tried to take advantage of her until she stupidly decides to sleep in the woods. I also don't buy that she's broker than broke and she's not tried to use her feminine wiles to get anything especially when that tends to work better than, say, shoplifting.

    Ha! We'll just talk about what we want to talk about so there!