VAGABONDAGE

Graffiti left by Rimbaud near Karnak, Egypt.

Graffiti left by Rimbaud near Karnak, Egypt.

… J’avais en effet, en toute sincérité d’esprit, pris l’engagement de le rendre à son état primitif de fils du soleil, – et nous errions, nourris du vin des cavernes et du biscuit de la route, moi pressé de trouver le lieu et la formule.

– Arthur Rimbaud, ‘Vagabonds’

One of those themes not known to inspire summer blockbuster films, the idea of homelessness is central to last year’s Wendy And Lucy, directed by Kelly Reichardt, and Vagabond, a 1985 release by France’s Agnes Varda. I picked up both at Montreal’s Grand Bibliothèque recently, amongst more prosaic fare like Stargate Continuum, and of course it’s the smaller, more thoughtful films that have stayed with me, while the special effects vehicles fade as quickly as the indigestion wrought by a bag of Frito’s ‘Original’ Corn Chips (‘Original’ cuz only the Undead can eat the BBQ-style).

Wendy and Lucy is about Wendy, a young woman who is driving her beater car to Alaska with the vague hope of finding a better future. Lucy is her dog, and it is her need to feed her dog, and the conflicting urge to conserve her scant resources, that begins Wendy’s descent into a state of greater and greater precariousness.

Before the trouble really starts, Wendy loses Lucy temporarily during a brief stopover in an Oregon town – only to find her safe and sound in an encampment of wandering homeless kids – the same kids you see here in Montreal, squeegeeing and panhandling on the Main with their dogs and piercings and tattoos. And Wendy responds to this gang with the same mixture of curiosity and fear that we all feel whenever we’re confronted by them – which is why there’s this ongoing campaign in this city and cities across the continent to eradicate this ‘blight’ on our urban landscape, and make things safer for the tourists. Always the tourists.

(It’s interesting how many Hollywood movies I’ve seen lately that cast stereotypical ‘punk’ types as emblems of evil. Really, it’s almost like a cinematic shorthand for a certain species of lazy-minded director. The thugs who first confront Schwartzenegger’s character in The Terminator and the nasty teen hoodlum vampires of The Lost Boys are only two of the most recent discoveries in a long, long lineage of such dreck, running from ultra-low budget fare like the Donovan Brothers opus Def-Con 4, to Bladerunner, the ultra-cool bowdlerization of Philip K. Dick’s rather thoughtful Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)

Like anyone trained by such filmic fare to fear the weird, Wendy thanks the gutter punk kids, but edges closer to them only long enough to reconnect with her dog, and then she leaves, returning to the safety and solitude of her car. The car is Wendy’s independence, the emblem of her sovereign separation from those other folks wandering the backlots of the United States scraping a hard existence from the so-called ‘land of plenty’.

Unfortunately for Wendy, the car is not long for this world. When she tries to start the car the following morning, it makes ominous groaning noises and refuses to budge. Then she’s busted for shoplifting dog food, and spends hours being humiliated by the slowly grinding gears of justice. By the time she’s finally permitted to pay her fine and leave the police station, Lucy has disappeared from the parking lot of the grocery store.

The car is rolled to a nearby garage, and eventually its demise is confirmed by the mechanic. On discovering that Lucy’s been adopted by a ‘foster parent’, Wendy must make the hard decision to leave her dog behind, where she’ll be relatively secure, rather than risking it’s life ‘on the road’. Our last view of Wendy is as she climbs alone into a boxcar on a moving freight train – moving on, now by the same bare-bones means as the punks she’d previously avoided.

It’s a movie designed to break your heart, and for an American indie film it goes farther than most – in fact it enters classic Canadian indie film territory (ie. exhibits a willingness to hand the audience an actual bona fide SAD ending). However, it doesn’t really go far enough for my liking. It casts Wendy in the ‘victim of cruel cold society’ mode in a bid to spark the viewer’s social conscience. Wendy’s only waiting for a kind hand to lift her out of the mire and into fully functional employment and la-dee-da.

That’s probably why I prefer Varda’s Vagabond, a film I first saw when it made the art house cinema circuit in the mid-eighties; I re-viewed it for the second time last night, with a nice (albeit no-frills) Criterion Collection DVD. It’s much, MUCH bleaker than Wendy and Lucy, which I have already described as pretty bleak. But the French are like that, aren’t they? They’re so ‘fuck you’ about it when it comes to challenging the audience’s boundaries.

I prefer Vagabond because the homeless woman is so much more appealing. In Wendy and Lucy, Wendy is timid, watchful, polite, rather like a prison inmate just trying to put in her time and keep her head down and get through her sentence with a minimum of friction. (Sort of like how I went through university.) The acting is superb – there’s one horrific scene where Wendy is trying to sleep in the woods, and along comes Bearded Homeless Crazy Guy who delivers a rambling, angry soliloquy while rummaging through Wendy’s bag, then wanders off still mumbling. Almost paralyzed with terror, Wendy manages to get up, grab all her stuff, and frogmarch herself to an all-night gas station’s bathroom. It is only there, when she’s all locked in, that she finally lets go and cries. It’s the stand-out scene of the film, because the viewer can see she’s really reached her limit. She’s not just some stoic robot, she’s got feelings.

In Vagabond, the stellar Sandrine Bonnaire is a much different character. Diffidence is not in her vocabulary. While Wendy struggles to achieve that meager little American Dream (job in Alaska), the self-named Mona (she confesses to an older woman who befriends her that she used to be Simone) is on a giddy downward spiral fuelled by an inarticulate rage at society in general. She’s punk without ever exhibiting the punk cliches (ie. she doesn’t have a Mohawk or a tattoo), but every look and gesture is a challenge, and a challenge backed by a violently stormy personality. It’s beautiful to watch – at no point does this film ever drag, she’s that good.

Mona is presented as a primal, mythic being from the beginning of the film, when a couple of young men watch as she emerges from the ocean, and the narrator states ‘it was as if she came from the sea’. Her interactions with people revolve around a few points of contact – she needs food, cigarettes, money, shelter – and one primary point of friction, which is that she refuses any and all attempts to control her. In the film, Mona’s closest love relationship is with another homeless youth who later complains that she ran away and left him when he was being assaulted. “I’m just glad she didn’t steal my radio,” he says. “She had her eye on it.”

Perhaps the key scene occurs when a drop-out philosophy professor and his wife, who have turned to the most primordial form of goat farming, offer to take Mona in. He sympathizes with her situation, her radical refusal of all that society offers her; he gives her a place to live, and more importantly, the means by which to live – a field where she could grow a crop of potatoes. Instead, perversely, Mona mopes around her trailer smoking and sleeping, and doesn’t do a lick of work. (Somehow I can’t see the character Wendy doing this.) When the farmer finally confronts her, she lashes out at him. “You’re not my boss!” Her sheer bloodymindedness continually throws her back into the only state where she seems to achieve any peace – the state of the wandering vagabond. “It’s good to be alone,” she asserts matter-of-factly.

I’m reading Rimbaud in Abyssinia right now, and Mona reminds me of Rimbaud. Unlike Wendy, her state of being isn’t one that’s happened by chance. Of all the characters in the film, Mona’s is by far the most driven by will, even when it becomes, near the end of the film, not much more than a will to self-destruction. By then, she’s lost the few accoutrements of survival she’d started with – a tent, a backpack – she stumbles through a cold, snowy landscape of barren fields, wrapped in a sodden blanket, and dies alone in a ditch. Her death is as mythic as her first appearance – she’s lately undergone a kind of pagan ritual in a village, pursued by demonic gods of the vine and daubed in wine. Her death resonates with ancient rites of renewal, the sacrifice of the virgin to the soil.

Troublingly, Varda presents her death as somehow inevitable. When Mona encounters the philosopher-goatherd, he tells her, “You chose total freedom, but you got total loneliness. The time comes when if you go on, you destroy yourself. You head for destruction. My friends who stayed on the road are dead now, or else they fell apart: alcoholics or junkies. Because the loneliness ate them up in the end.”

This strikes me as the pollyanna aspect of Varda’s storyline. Perhaps it’s true; but why, then does Varda so clearly adore this utterly doomed person, Mona? The film all but canonizes her in her abjection and her stubborn refusal to return to the fold – the basilisk head of Sandrine Bonnaire, the jutting jaw, the stoney gaze. Only in moments of solitude does she ever betray even a glimmer of fear, of despair – the same fear and despair that seems to pursue Wendy through her unlucky Oregon days and nights. Mona’s death is made more terrible because she is so strong, so brilliant and so sure. In the end, I’m left wanting, not the ‘conversion’ of Mona to a sensible future – the conversion of ‘Mona’ into ‘Wendy’, per se – but rather the total conversion of our entire society. Any society that can do nothing but eject such a monster of potential, and throw her to the wolves, exhibits its own worthlessness.

I think I find this characterization of Mona as a doomed figure troubling because it seems to comes close to the sort of ‘blaming the victim’ song and dance that constantly and annoyingly goes on around the homeless people who live in our fair city. “They want to live like that.” This is bullshit, actually. Working on The Main for several years, I got to know some of the regular panhandlers, and a lot of them are people who should be in some sort of managed care situation – in group homes, for instance. They’re mentally ill, they need to take meds to get through the day, they’re intellectually challenged, in some cases brain-damaged. The fact that they’re out on the street begging has a lot more to do with the heartlessness of our current social system, which begrudges spending a dime on social issues, but cheerfully lavishes billions on Olympic projects and bankrupt car manufacturers and sabre-rattling military exercises in the high arctic.

The New York writer Lynne Tillman wrote about homelessness quite a bit in her 1998 novel No Lease on Life, which I’ve lately read. Her protagonist Elizabeth lives in the Lower East Side, scrabbling a bitter existence from the hard streets of her city. (She’s a proofreader – talk about bitter!) Most of the novel is concerned with her block – the block where she lives, the block where she spends hours of insomnia watching the shenanigans of the local hooligans and street dealers. While she despises the ‘crusties’, the panhandling punks who reciprocate her hate and spit at her as she walks by, Elizabeth has surprisingly warm relationships with other marginal characters, including a crack-addicted prostitute and a formerly-homeless man who she’s known since the days when he was on the street. She hangs out with them, has long conversations with them, she gets to know them and she looks out for them. It strikes me as an eminently sane way to behave.

Similarly, Mona and Wendy are cautiously open to relationships with people who don’t judge them and who don’t try to control them. Wendy is befriended by an old security guard who helps her find her dog, and eventually gives her a few dollars (all he can afford to give). Mona’s definitely a more difficult case – she’s blithely amoral and always ready to rob or cheat anyone if it’ll give her an edge. But even she has moments of vulnerability, of tentative hope when someone offers her their friendship.

The notion of rootlessness, of wandering, came up at the Words and Music at the Cagibi on Sunday, in Ali Naccarato’s poem about the search for an idealized ‘home’ (of the heart, of the spirit) through travel, and the difficulties of the return to the prosaic workaday world. It was also present in the stories Paula Belina told and the poems she read – she’s slept in something like 84 different places in this, her wandering year. Following a self-directed touring itinerary, hitting a lot of anarchist festivals and bookfairs, making and selling zines and stamps and things, giving workshops and performances. For Belina, this form of ‘directed’ homelessness is a means of achieving transcendence – a way to bring herself into complicated relationships with those who offer her shelter, food and friendship. Her’s is a life-affirming pilgrimmage – perhaps because it was undertaken voluntarily, and consciously.

Last year, just before she embarked on this perigrination, I met Paula by chance at the Grand Bibliothèque – the very place where I got the DVDs I’ve been writing about. At one point she caught my attention, gestured with her chin at the weirdness of all the people around us, ignoring each other as they restlessly flipped through DVDs with an insect clicking noise. And yes, I agree with her, it is a pretty weird scene, even if I do partake of it on a regular basis. In this Panopticon World, there are those who try to break the spell of The Spectacle. There are those who try to re-create the oldest sorts of circles, person-to-person.

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