A Strange Kind of Western | Rebecca Rukeyser | Granta

A Strange Kind of Western

Rebecca Rukeyser

Kelly Reichardt’s film Wendy and Lucy was shown to me as a warning. There was concern I was running my life off its rails.

Look, was the message, conveyed silently, with a bowl of microwave popcorn, here is a story about a young woman who’s like you, helplessly adrift, running off to Alaska.

Wendy, played by Michelle Williams in a hoodie, is a young drifter driving north in search of a job at a salmon cannery. Her only friend is her dog, Lucy.

Wendy’s story is full of tribulation: her car breaks down, she’s arrested for stealing dog food, she’s menaced by a creep as she tries to camp in the woods. But what I remember best from my first viewing is a scene, early in the movie, when Wendy stumbles upon a group of Oregon crust punks seated around a bonfire. When she explains she’s going to Alaska, a guy named Icky shouts, ‘Woo-hoo! King Salmon! It’s awesome up there. You going to work?’

Like Wendy, I went to Alaska to work in a salmon cannery. I met my own version of Icky. His name was G-Man, short for Garbage Man. His was an enviable cannery job: he drove trash out to the dump and if you were nice to him, he’d take you along – the Kodiak grizzly bears loved the dump. From the safety of the pickup cab, you could watch the bears play, and G-Man would take a plastic fifth of Popov Vodka from the glove compartment and share. He’d repeat the Alaskan state motto then, as he drank. ‘The Last Frontier, man.’

I was nineteen and I was teetering. In a chain of events linked by the erratic grimace with which I bore my own increasing loneliness I had managed, inside of my first year at college, to become alienated from most of the people who were important to me. Some of these losses were clear-cut: I fell in love and he didn’t love me back. Some were less clear: he retained all our mutual friends.

I ate lunch alone, taking my tray to the corner of the university cafeteria. I smoked as much weed as I could afford. I decided to get a job somewhere that would give my solitude, if not meaning, then at least shape. Alaska seemed ideal.

Cannery work is notoriously demanding. You’re contending with extended periods of sleeplessness, with cold, with the aches of physical labor. Everything smells bad, until you get used to it and then it’s only occasionally offensive – cupping your hand to your mouth in a yawn and smelling your own halitosis, a hold full of salmon in from Bristol Bay arriving already pliable and sweet with decomposition.

But when you’re off work, you’re off work. You’re done. Pouring a packet of instant cocoa into stale coffee, looking out over a three a.m. dawn with glassy eyes, lighting a cigarette.

It’s a rakish feeling, to be so completely fucking done. Even through the gauze of total exhaustion, I reveled in the respite following hard work. It was the same slightly erotic relief as taking off a pair of tight high heel shoes or, because the relief was tinged with something nasty, the memory of stripping off first knee-high soccer socks, then shin guards, then scratching at pale, sweat-pickled shins.

This experience – hard work followed by empty stretches of time – was exactly what I’d expected from life in Alaska. I’d cobbled this expectation together from watching classic Westerns, where all strenuous labor is balanced out with poses of relaxation. Playing the harmonica next to a campfire. Leaning back in a wooden chair, boots propped up, basking in the pleasure of solitude.

‘The Westerner,’ Robert Warshow writes in his 1954 cultural analysis of the cinematic western – ‘is par excellence, a man of leisure.’ Warshow’s Westerner is a rugged Wild West archetype who, despite eking out his existence in an unforgiving landscape, never seems to be doing much in the way of work. He’s the Marlboro Man, never seen actually roping cattle, always mid-cigarette break. ‘We see him standing at the bar, or playing poker – a game which expresses perfectly his talent for remaining relaxed in the middle of tension – or perhaps camping out on the plains on some extraordinary errand.’

In Alaska, that part of the western United States so besotted with the Wild West that its state motto is ‘the Last Frontier,’ I think I tasted Warshow’s Westerner’s decadent leisure. Maybe at the end of a shift at the cannery, when I could relax and when the shape of my solitude, as I imagined it, was wearing a cowboy hat and leaning against a fence post.

‘Kelly Reichardt’s films are all, in their strange way, Westerns,’ writes Alice Gregory in the New York Times.

Reichardt’s films are Westerns because they’re ballads about people searching for a better life, backdropped by the beauty of the American West. But they’re strange Westerns, because her characters don’t fit the romantic image of Warshow’s Westerner, who ‘even when he holds the badge of marshal. . . appears to be unemployed’. Rather than ‘standing at the bar or playing poker,’ Kelly Reichardt’s characters live out days filled with endless, tedious chores.

We don’t ever see Wendy get to Alaska. Instead, she’s marooned in a small Oregon town, scrambling to overcome an increasing number of obstacles – broken car, bills, missing dog – made nigh-insurmountable because she’s broke. We watch the innumerable discrete tasks that compose Wendy’s life: she brushes her teeth in front of the pounded metal mirror of a gas station bathroom, unpacks a washcloth out a plastic bag, washes herself with gas station bathroom hand soap.

The cannery season ended; I left Alaska and went back to California. Not much in my life got got better. I was lurching towards some sort of precipice, although now I can’t tell what the plummet to the bottom would have involved – harder drugs? Aimlessness all the way down? I wanted my solitude to seem romantic again; I returned to Alaska. The cannery work had been very hard. I assumed working in the hospitality industry would be easier.

And yes: it wasn’t as strenuous. The hours weren’t as long. I was inside often. It was possible to take a nap. The stink of slurry was replaced by the smell of fresh bread and sachets of Alaska-scented potpourri.

But the work didn’t end.

Wake up before the guests, pack lunches for the guests. Make breakfast, serve breakfast. Pack them off on one of their adventures for the day and come back and wash the dishes and cook and start in on whatever maintenance-based project was necessary, maybe staining the deck. Take a nap if you need to, but wake up well before the guests were back because it was time to start prepping for dinner and whatever happened in the evening. Wash the dishes. Spend the evening with the guests, charming, big smiles.

The time that was yours was the time you spent in bed asleep.

Meek’s Cutoff, a film about an ill-fated group of pioneers led by an incompetent guide into the parched Oregon desert, is the Reichardt film that most closely adheres to the trappings of the Western genre.

But it’s about ten minutes into the film that you see something that looks like a shot out of a classic Western: a man in a fringed jacket gets out a tent and stands, arms thrown wide, in front of a high desert landscape.

Before that, the movie is entirely silent, entirely steeped in process. The wagons reach a river; a lingering shot shows pioneers removing supplies from the wagon to make the fording easier. Slowly, three women cross the river, their calico dresses soaked up to the armpits. One carries a hamper, one carries a birdcage. On the other side, mute chores continue. Clothes are wrung out. A bird is fed. A wooden bowl is scrubbed in the river. A man fills a barrel with water. Knitting. A fire is stamped out and covered with dust.

In preparation for filming Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt spent time reading over old pioneer journals. They start out lyrical, as the pioneers leave Missouri: ‘the days are beautiful, the scenery is beautiful.’ But the accounts, Reichardt says, show evidence of humans battered by tedium, and lose their imagistic quality over time. The women’s journals, in particular, ‘become a list of chores. ‘Started the fire, took down the tent, cooked the bread. Fed the oxen, walked.’

Like Warshow’s Westerners, tourists delight in their exhaustion. Because they have time to nurse it, they allow themselves to feel its pleasure. Coming back from a whale-watching trip, flopping into a recliner. One man, I remember, took a chair and brought it to the edge of the shore, sitting with his feet immersed in the cold seawater. I handed him a beer and he said, ‘Nourishment.’

I was jealous of him. Not just because my life had been reduced to a list of chores and he was enjoying the scenery but because I felt so dull and drab and he seemed, even seated in an orange mesh beach chair, romantic. He existed in Alaska the way I wanted to exist in Alaska.

Every tourist, at the end of the day, is a lord. Or, if they’re sitting silhouetted against the gray-blue water of an inlet off the Gulf of Alaska, with the flag of The Last Frontier flapping from the nearby gear shed, they’re a man of leisure.

In in her essay ‘House and Home’, Marguerite Duras writes that women’s work ‘is worse than a man’s working day’. This is because of the sheer number and variety of tasks she has to get through. Hundreds of domestic tasks all blurred together, all never completed, all just starting.

‘From the man’s point of view a woman is a good mother when she turns this discontinuity into a silent and unobtrusive continuity,’ continues Duras. ‘The silent continuity seemed so natural and lasted so long that in the end, for the people around the woman who practised it, it no longer existed at all. To men, women’s work was like the rain-bringing clouds, or the rain itself. The task involved was carried out every day as regularly as sleep.’

Exchange ‘women’s work’ for ‘domestic work’. It fits, and it still stands in opposition to Warshow’s Westerner. Warshow’s Westerner is playing poker in the saloon. The domestic is washing the pie tin.

In Reichardt’s films, domestic drudgery isn’t just the providence of women. All of her central characters exist in a world where rest and relaxation is the stuff of legend and every day is filled with innumerable tasks

In First Cow, two men – Cookie Figowitz and King-Lu – meet each other in a saloon. A brawl has broken out; the poker game in the corner has been abandoned for the sport of watching two trappers fight outside. Cookie and King-Lu stay inside, tending to an infant left on the bar by one of the brawlers.

It’s revealed that Cookie doesn’t have a place to stay; King-Lu takes him home to his cabin. When King-Lu goes to chop wood, the camera stays inside. Cookie watches King-Lu swing the axe. Then Cookie grabs a broom and a Reichardtian scene of domestic chores unfolds: he sweeps leaves off the dirt floor. He shakes the dust out of a blanket. He leaves, we stay inside the cabin. He comes back with a bouquet of wildflowers and sticks them in a glass.

‘It looks better already,’ says King-Lu. Then: ‘Relax. Sit! Sit.’

Cookie sits, but he keeps working. He sweeps crumbs or dust off the table into his palm.

This is what divides Warshow’s romanticized Westerner from the drudgery of the domestic. The Westerner sits and relaxes and the domestic just keeps working.

The ceaseless bustle of hospitality work was romantic, after a fashion. You flit in and out of rooms, in and out of conversation, with a tureen of mashed potatoes or a can of Pledge and a rag. The spectral aspect of it is a little fun. You’re there but not remarked on unless you give relief or annoyance, much like the rain-bringing clouds or the rain itself.

It’s work conducive to daydreaming, but only the simplest, most indulgent daydreams. Those are the kind short enough, the kind whose narrative can be completed by the end of whatever task. Clean the bathrooms: one daydream. Laundry: one daydream. Pie crust: one daydream.

Usually the daydream involved variations on a theme: all of this will add up to something. There will be, at the end of this, a grand culmination. A crescendo, certainly, a climax, everything at once. And then it’s nap time.

‘Time [was] just completely different,’ says Kelly Reichardt about reading the journals of pioneers moving west. ‘I wanted to investigate this; I wanted to use this more elaborated time, the details of chores and monotony and wide-open spaces, to see if you could get tension by, basically, not delivering the heightened moment.’

People expect a certain kind of hero in a tale of the Last Frontier. If you’re the figure at rest in front of a sunset, you’re one of Warshow’s Westerners and your solitude gets to take on a romantic shape. If, however, you’re handing a beer to a figure at rest in front of a sunset, before running off to take care of twenty odd chores, your solitude is just kind of sad.

When I went to Alaska, of course, it was to be one of Warshow’s Westerners. And I felt like I was one, at least briefly, when I was relaxing in the cab of G-Man’s pickup. But, by the time I left, it was clear that I was closer to a character from a Kelly Reichardt film, a domestic.

You’re not always the one playing poker in the saloon. Sometimes you’re wiping down the bar with a greasy rag. Sometimes you’re in a strange kind of Western and the heightened moment never arrives.

In some way, I regret the way things worked out. Not because I have idealized notions of what my wild future could have been, or how happy I would have been, but because there was no definitive conclusion. My life never fully derailed. There was no rock bottom, no one fuck-up to point to and say, ‘That’s when it all turned around.’ I reeled myself back, finished school, got jobs. I moved to Germany, years later, and watched Meek’s Cutoff in a cinema, German subtitles crawling over the parched ground of the Oregon outback.

Of course, I want to tell Kelly Reichardt, you can get tension by not delivering the heightened moment. In fact, you get more of it. A film without a crescendo works as steadily and ceaselessly as a Kelly Reichardt protagonist. The tension never rests. The movie holds you in a state of unbroken anticipation.

Because of this it’s easy to get confused, as I watch Wendy and Lucy. It’s hard to remember whether I’m older and wiser and safer or if I’m nineteen, miserable, preparing to drop out, looking for work, full of anticipation for my life in Alaska.


Image © naql

Rebecca Rukeyser

Rebecca Rukeyser is the recipient of the inaugural Berlin Senate grant for non-German literature. Her fiction has appeared in such publications as ZYZZYVA, the Massachusetts Review and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and teaches writing at Bard College Berlin. She is the author of The Seaplane on Final Approach which is published by Granta Books in the UK.

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