it happens every summer: day five

day five finds us playing host to a menagerie. we begin with claude nuridsany and marie pérennou's fascinating nature documentary, microcosmos (1996).

using specially developed cameras, this filmmaking team explores life among the tiniest denizens of a meadow to astounding effect. the narration is almost non-existent and explanation or analysis is never offered. instead, what you have is sequence after sequence of some of the most exquisitely photographed routines of daily insect life you'll ever see. caterpillars, beetles, spiders, moths, mosquitoes, ladybugs, and on and on, doing what they do in vivid color. i love insects. i am endlessly fascinated by them, with their perfect geometry, all segmented, symmetrical and bright. they strike me as a perfect union of biology and mechanism, half living thing, half machine. on the one hand, so devoid of any motivation other than survival and subsistence, efficient and diligent in their toil. on the other hand, such beautiful examples of nature's greatest architecture. this movie really lets you indulge your appreciation of those things (assuming you have that to start with). employing time-lapse, slow motion and enhanced sound effects, it turns the infinitesimal routines of these insects into high drama and high art. something as simple as the amount of surface tension in a dew drop becomes fraught with suspense. and the colors explode off the screen. it's not a traditional nature documentary in any sense but i would certainly like to see more like it. i appreciate not having a human narrator trying to tell me what a snail might have on its mind or ascribing motives to a colony of ants. i would often rather just sit up close and watch and this is perfect for that - intimate observation of a tiny universe. just beautiful.

next, we go from the meadow to the sea with the smorgasbord of manipulation that is the appropriately named simon wincer's free willy (1993).

a troubled kid, in and out of foster care, is assigned a job at a sub-par aquatic theme park as punishment for vandalizing the place. he befriends an orca whale who is rightly upset about being held in captivity by this rinky-dink operation. when it's discovered that the owner of the park is plotting to kill the whale to collect the insurance money, the kid, an indian and tank girl take matters into their own hands and set out to return willy to the sea and his family, who are hanging around right outside in the bay. hoo boy. where to start? the first, and most obvious, problem this thing has is the casting director. i have never seen a kids movie so full of unlikely and/or unlikable performers in my life. michael madsen as the infinitely patient, loving foster father? that ought to give you some idea. i am not sure what foster care agency is handing out kids to mr. blonde but they need to invest in more thorough background checks. michael ironside, who knows his way around playing a heavy, is on hand to be the bad guy but ends up saddled with lines like "because we don't have theft insurance on the whale, that's why!". the most egregious example, though, is the kid. he is a jerk. starts a jerk and, i'm convinced, stays a jerk. not once throughout this entire thing did i find myself pulling for him or giving a tinker's damn about what happened to him. if you're going to make something so obvious at least give me some personality to hang my hopes on. i felt less like freeing this whale was something noble he needed to do than it was just one more thing he was going to get his way about. it's a real shame because i thought this might be one of those pleasant surprises the queue drops on me and there is no place i would rather be than in the ocean. it should have been easy to make me like this. i did like the whale and i am glad he made the jump, if only because it means he won't have to be around any of these people anymore. ultimately, though, any goodwill this beautiful creature might have generated was completely undone by this, the ending credits. skip ahead to 4:24 if you don't feel like sitting through the whole thing.

so now, on top of everything else, i have to listen to michael jackson crying? that's the last straw. free cole-y!

to the rescue comes kelly reichardt's wendy and lucy (2008).

wendy carroll and her lab mix, lucy, are on their way from indiana to alaska where wendy hopes to find work. what little money they have quickly running out, they break down in oregon and bad luck takes root like a particularly tenacious weed. wendy is picked up for shoplifting dog food for lucy and by the time she is released lucy is long gone from where she was tied up in front of the store. she spends some anxious hours waiting to hear if the pound has picked her up and, in the meantime, the repair bill for the car necessitates getting rid of it altogether. lucy is found, eventually, but the reunion is heartbreaking, as wendy's desperate financial straits and lack of a vehicle make it impossible to take lucy with her. it's not so much a narrative as an extended observation of hard times in this land of plenty, which is what kelly reichardt excels at. it is spare and elliptical and it allows you to fill the spaces with your own experience. michelle williams is quietly becoming the best actress of her generation. she certainly seems to be willing to take more risks than most of her contemporaries and manages to do so without being ostentatious. she subtly communicates so much in this film that you don't even realize until it's done how completely you understand her character. the supporting players are great as well, particularly will patton and wally dalton. as melancholy as it is, i also found it incredibly heartening, for a couple of reasons. first, her sorry circumstances expose a lot of the fundamental good in the people she crosses paths with, all people of modest means themselves. barring the vigilant grocery clerk that busts her for stealing, there is not one person she encounters that doesn't cut her some kind of break and their humanity is encouraging. i never thought i would be emotionally wrecked by someone giving another person seven dollars, but damned if i wasn't. it's the little things that make you believe in people and everyone involved in this production seems to have an innate understanding of that. the second reason that makes me hopeful for the character is that she leaves her dog. it may seem contradictory, and certainly feels terrible, but i think it's the first truly responsible decision we see her make. because of the kindness of strangers, because of wendy's pragmatism, because every dog has her day, i prefer to think that both of them are eventually going to be ok.

tomorrow is all about connection and a vitagraph favorite returns.

nothing ever hurts like you think it will.


  1. I'm really glad about what you said about Michelle Williams. She is my favorite actress who is around my age, by a lot, because of the thing she shows off so well in Wendy & Lucy, and the thing that I like to see the most in an actor, which is that ability to convey on a face what isn't said aloud... I'm so bored with praise being heaped on actors who play crazy/loud/over-exaggerated characters. I think it's SO much harder to do quiet, introverted, stoic.

    I think the only real reason I like Free Willy so much is the whale. I'm sure it's a dumb movie to watch for the first time as an adult but it had a huge impact on me (along with Gorillas In The Mist, which I probably would have chosen instead if it was streaming) as it made me feel that the divide I was drawing between the treatment of animals and the treatment of humans might be more arbitrary than I thought.

    I'm glad you enjoyed Microcosmos. I saw it at Dobie when it came out and still own it on VHS and occasionally put it on silent while listening to records and cleaning the house. It still never fails to enthrall me after watching it probably a dozen times.

  2. i can see how free willy would make a huge impact on a kid, especially the opening sequence where he's caught. what distinctions were you drawing at that age and how did this change them?

  3. I think before I saw Gorillas In The Mist (which I actually only saw up until the poaching scene at which point my parents saw fit to turn it off because I was screaming and crying so incoherently that there was no way we could continue) and Free Willy, I definitely subconsciously (but irrationally) assigned humans a vague "special" quality, probably most frequently described as a "soul" that I did not grant animals, or at least animals I didn't know. It didn't really occur to me that SeaWorld could be cruel, OR that there really wasn't anything much differentiating between a human family and a pack of gorillas. These movies were a catalyst for me, followed by a lot of good old fashioned book reading. I was already an atheist at this point, which prevented me from simply arbitrarily giving humans special privilege based on what-God-said. I came to the conclusion that humans weren't really so special at all, and that animals basically didn't deserve to be confined to tanks or killed so we could have pretty things, or, for that matter, crowded into tiny cages so I could eat Chicken McNuggets. I became a vegetarian the year after Free Willy came out. I don't necessarily think anymore that vegetarianism is the only option for those that generally feel this way about animals, nor do I think it's "complete." My views have become more complicated as I've realized that the world is a lot more complicated than I thought. And I know that other animals besides humans do use, eat, and kill each other. But they typically do so without unreasonable cruelty, and I think the (forgive me) souls we share the world with deserve that much. And for what it's worth, I still haven't been to SeaWorld (or a zoo that still 'borrowed' from the wild for purposes other than cultivating endangered species) since this movie came out.

  4. it's always interesting to me - the sometimes surprising places in which we find the inspiration to become what we are, the arbitrary way things arrive in our lives at crucial junctures. thanks for telling me about that. more than anything, this queue has made me sorry we don't get to see each other very often to have these conversations. i miss your face.