Lost in America The Cinema of Kelly Reichardt

With only six feature films to date, Kelly Reichardt has established herself as one of the most significant, distinct, and consistent voices in American independent cinema. Political without being polemical, both specific and diffuse, Reichardt’s films are characterized by their patience and their intimacy, depicting significant but irresolute moments in the lives of men and women on the fringes of society. Though she is best known for her four collaborations with screenwriter Jon Raymond — Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), and Night Moves (2013) — Reichardt’s debut River of Grass dates back to 1994, when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to positive notices and a Grand Jury Prize nomination. Following a brief theatrical run in 1995, half a dozen publications including Film Comment and the Village Voice named it one of the best films of the year and in 1996 it was nominated for several Independent Spirit Awards. But River of Grass soon faded into obscurity as Reichardt struggled to get another production off the ground. Now, following a restoration partially funded by Kickstarter, and screenings at TIFF and this year’s Sundance Film Festival (where Reichardt’s forthcoming sixth feature, Certain Women, also debuted), Oscilloscope Laboratories has put River of Grass back in theaters nationwide, premiering at New York’s IFC Center earlier this month, and currently making its way across North America.

No mere curiosity or footnote, Reichardt’s debut is brisk, confident, and thoroughly entertaining, sharing her later work’s astute fascination with the minute details, patterns, and behaviors which define character but with a mordant wit that is largely absent in her more somber films of the last decade. Lisa Bowman stars as Cozy, a dissatisfied housewife and mother of two who dreams of escaping her dead end life in the Florida everglades. One night after putting her kids to bed, while her husband is working late, Cozy slinks out of her house and heads for a bar in the next town over where she meets Lee (filmmaker Larry Fessenden), an aimless unemployed thirty-something who still lives with his mother and grandmother in Dade County. After a few rounds of drinks, Cozy leaves with Lee, who suggests they go for a swim; one of his high school teachers lives nearby, he tells her, and he lets Lee use his pool. The two hop the fence and Cozy dives in while Lee sits along the edge, removing a pistol from his pocket and admiring it. The handgun was given to Lee by Doug (Michael Buscemi, brother of Steve) who found it along the roadside the day before and thought Lee would be able to sell it. Cozy, curious, swims over and climbs up between Lee’s legs. She takes the gun, feels its weight in her hands, and aims it into the night. Just at that second, however, a flashlight shines upon Lee and Cozy, startling them, and the gun goes off. A figure falls in the doorway and Lee and Cozy, believing they’ve killed the man, dart off in Lee’s car. The rest of the film follows the pair as they try to survive on the lam and steer clear of detective Jimmy Ryder (Dick Russell), who also happens to be Cozy’s father and the owner of the misplaced firearm.

As is often the case with filmmakers’ earliest works, River of Grass proudly betrays Reichardt’s influences. While Cozy’s naive and detached voiceover explicitly recalls Terrence Malick’s first film Badlands, it is another couple-on-the-run debut that echoes most clearly through Reichardt’s film: Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. The boredom and aloofness of its protagonists and the abrupt and haphazard severity of their violence explicitly recall that of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, but stylistically Reichardt takes many of her cues from the French New Wave. Her episodic structuring demarcated by stylized title cards, subversion of genre, exaggerated mise-en-scene, and sardonic humor are all reminiscent of early Godard, while the jazzy, percussive soundtrack, which aligns drums with guns, harkens directly back to Breathless. Reichardt acknowledges her debt in a shot of Cozy thumbing through old vinyl records, lingering on soundtracks from French New Wave films which depicted their female protagonists as headstrong and sexually empowered, such as Roger Vadim’s …And God Created Woman and Louis Malle’s Viva Maria!

In fact, with their inept criminals, mannered style, and offbeat humor, River of Grass and Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson’s equally New Wave- and New Hollywood-indebted debut from two years later, can be seen as spiritual brethren of a sort. What’s most interesting, when considering the two in light of one another, however, is how Reichardt and Anderson have continued in diametrically opposed formal directions, she completely eschewing the quirky artifice around which he has built his entire aesthetic. So while Bottle Rocket may, in hindsight, seem a bit freewheeling for an Anderson film and River of Grass a tad stiff for Reichardt, Anderson’s debut nonetheless feels much more a piece of his oeuvre than Reichardt’s does hers. Some of this may be due to the fact that while Anderson has enjoyed the luxury of releasing a new film every two or three years, Reichardt endured a 12-year gap between River of Grass and Old Joy during which she was unable to secure funding for another feature. During that time, Reichardt taught filmmaking at Bard College and made a series of experimental super-8 shorts and the medium-length Ode (1999) scored by eventual Old Joy star Will Oldham. With such extensive artistic growth outside of the mainstream, it was perhaps inevitable that Reichardt’s style would evolve between her first and second features.

Still, many of Reichardt’s trademarks are already apparent in River of Grass. Cozy and Lee both establish Reichardt’s interest in and sympathy for characters who are overlooked or marginalized by society, or who are destitute by middle class standards. Hiding out in a nearby motel, Cozy and Lee’s most pressing struggle is how they are going to make the 20 dollars they need per day for the room. The crunch is felt all throughout the county, in the overworked yet poverty-stricken locals and the shuttered storefronts of failed or otherwise abandoned businesses. Both are also infected with a wanderlust born less of dreams than desperation. In Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, the journeys have nominal destinations: Wendy is headed to Alaska to seek employment in the fisheries, while the pioneers led by Stephen Meek are headed west across the Oregon Trail in the spirit of Manifest Destiny. In Old Joy, Kurt’s geographical destination is nebulous, but there is a sense of trying to recapture something lost from his youth. Cozy and Lee, however, leave situations of relative comfort and complacency in search of anything different from what they have come to know. Lee protests being thrown out of his family’s house, despite his vocal displeasure with living there, while Cozy wonders aloud about her own agency, looking out at unfinished highways that lead to nowhere and expressing fear that “our lives [are] all mapped out for us.”

Cozy frames her existential terror in terms of lineage, stating that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and asking, “Would my daughter grow up only to wear my shoes? Did my mother’s life create my destiny? Or does one thing just trigger another?” Reichardt never answers these kinds of questions in her films, but River of Grass does at least suggest a sort of Electra complex in the sexually suggestive way Reichardt films Cozy’s interest in and possession of Lee’s gun, which unbeknownst to her actually belongs to her father. Reichardt, who also grew up in the Florida Everglades with divorced police officer parents, rarely addresses blood relations as explicitly as she does in River of Grass, but all of her films can be considered in terms of family and intergenerationality. Reichardt is often discussed as a political filmmaker despite the lack of proselytizing or categorical partisanship in her films; even Night Moves, about a group of eco-terrorists, has no liberal Green party agenda, nor does it endorse or condemn those of its protagonists. Character always comes first in Reichardt’s cinema, and for Reichardt herself, the personal is inextricable from the political.

In a 2009 piece for the New York Times, prompted by the release of Wendy and Lucy, A. O. Scott coined the term “neo-neo-realism” to describe the growing trend of small scale, understated, socially conscious films which seemed to reflect the cultural and economic anxieties of post-9/11 America. Whether or not you take umbrage with the label, there is no denying that while River of Grass was redolent of Godard, Reichardt’s next two films shared some DNA with the postwar Italian Neorealist movement, itself an influence on the French New Wave. (Wendy and Lucy, in particular, recalls two of Vittorio De Sica’s great masterworks, Bicycle Thieves [1948] and the heartbreaking Umberto D. [1952]) By foregrounding transient characters and forgotten pockets of society, Reichardt tactfully and stealthily questions the two opposing tenets which undergird the American mythos: democracy and individuality. Wendy and Lucy, in particular, forces viewers to reconsider their social contract, to borrow a term from Rousseau, to question the duty of individuals to extend not only their compassion but their resources in order to support the less fortunate and, subsequently, strengthen their social unit as a whole.

Sometimes it is simply a matter of solidarity among the less fortunate — the change that the homeless Kurt gives to a beggar at the end of Old Joy and the six dollars the security guard passes along to Wendy won’t buy much more than a sandwich, but it’s the gesture that counts. Meanwhile, the teenaged supermarket clerk Andy (John Robinson), who apprehends Wendy for shoplifting two cans of dog food for Lucy, exudes a sanctimonious and condescending attitude, adhering to the letter rather than the spirit of the law. A crucifix worn prominently around his neck, he goads his initially sympathetic manager into pressing charges against Wendy, insisting that “the rules apply to everyone equally. If a person can’t afford dog food, they shouldn’t have a dog.” Later, when Wendy returns from the police station to find Lucy missing from the spot where she had left her, Reichardt shows us the holier-than-thou hypocrite Andy getting picked up from work by his mother. Walter (Wally Dalton), the Walgreens security guard who helps Wendy, is also reliant upon others for his transport, as we see when his wife picks him up and drops him off each day, but his enforcement of “the rules” — making Wendy move her car from the parking lot during business hours — is offset by his generosity and his genuine concern for her wellbeing.

Reichardt later follows Wendy through the halls of the local pound as she looks for Lucy. The secretary’s remarks to Wendy about the homeless and lost dogs they pass reminds the audience that for humans and animals alike, their abjection is a matter of circumstance rather than choice. Though never addressed in the film, Reichardt has hinted that Wendy’s displacement was caused by a fire, and both she and co-writer Raymond have discussed the film as a post-Katrina parable meant to question, explore, and perhaps expose the dearth of the opportunities to which each American citizen is supposedly entitled. Wendy’s migration is not terribly dissimilar to that of the settlers in Meek’s Cutoff in that the American Northwest has always held a mythopoetic resonance for those seeking new starts, new lives, and new possibilities. From the gold rush of the nineteenth century to the contemporary hipster meccas of Seattle and Portland, the Pacific Northwest can still inspire a sense of manifest destiny within would-be vagabonds and wanderers.

Still from Wendy & Lucy

The natural beauty of Oregon, where Reichardt has shot four of her six features to date, is also a draw, both to the filmmaker and her characters, as well as significant thematic concern. Even River of Grass, though it is set in the Florida Everglades, makes a point of depicting the rampant deforestation underway at the time, as well as the construction of superhighways that connect towns but cleave man from nature. As in the films of Jacques Tati, industrial sprawl is depicted as alienating, a cancer that dehumanizes its citizens and cuts them off from something more important than the trappings of modernity with which it connects them. As played by Will Oldham, Kurt in Old Joy is aligned with nature not so much because he exhibits a mastery of it or any great survivalist skills, but simply because his freewheeling demeanor allows him to flow and get lost in both space and time in a manner that eludes the more civilized and settled Mark (Daniel London). He longs for a place away from the scurrying metropolis, someplace where there is “real quiet,” the kind of stillness and solitude that allows man to understand his place within the universe, but Kurt is not blind to progress and laments that the boundaries are blurring, with “trees in the city and garbage in the forest.” Thus, the Bagby hot springs, already weighted with the impossible reclamation of his and Mark’s childhood friendship, take on an Edenic significance as a site of purity and baptismal cleansing.

These zones of purity anchor most of Reichardt’s films, but they signify different utopias for different characters. Freedom-seeking Cozy floating on her back in River of Grass is one of Reichardt’s first such images, beautifully undercut by the pool’s status as both a manmade construct and a stolen object — that she must scale a fence and trespass upon private property for her fleeting moment of repose speaks to its falsity. When we first see Mark in Old Joy, he is meditating in his own fenced-in, manicured backyard. Later, during his phone call to Kurt, we first hear their voices as Reichardt languorously pans across telephone lines silhouetted against the open sky, following them to the roof of Mark’s house, finally cutting to Mark, seated again in the middle of his backyard garden, talking on a cordless phone. With this single cut, Reichardt shatters the illusion of freedom amid a system of tethers, or what Kurt will later describe as “all that quarks and superstring shit,” the unidentifiable order that upholds the seeming chaos of existence.

In Night Moves, there are several such Arcadias representing as many forms of back-to-nature, off-the-grid escape. Each of the three main characters has a realm to which they abscond and which reflects their character and relationship to nature and to one another. Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a former Marine with an unspecified criminal record and questionable ties, lives completely on his own “in the middle of nowhere,” geographically as well as spiritually and practically removed from greater society; Dena (Dakota Fanning), who comes from a wealthy family and whose largess funds their enterprise, works at a New Age-y day spa whose primarily older, white clientele take massages and steam baths in the nude; and Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), more ideologically invested than Dena, but less blithely anarchistic than Harmon, lives and works on a farming co-op with about a dozen other environmentally conscious young men and women. None of these arrangements, however, are completely self-sustaining, and when complications arise, none prove tenable. Even among their like-minded associates, the ecoterrorism perpetrated by Harmon, Dena, and Josh (blowing up a local dam) is not embraced as a heroic or virtuous act, but met with derision and scorn. “The grid is everywhere,” the co-op’s founder states, and that one less dam hardly makes a difference when that river alone has another nine still standing.

The moral ambiguity in Reichardt’s films extends to their narratives, which never resolve themselves neatly. For viewers who like closure, Reichardt’s films can be infuriating. Half of her features have been adapted from short stories, and their scale and duration reflect this. Rather than a detriment, however, Reichardt’s narrow focus allows her films to develop a great intimacy with their characters, to follow them in real time, and to create emotional tension from the very stuff that tends to be excised or elided in traditional Hollywood cinema. In fact, Reichardt is one of the great depictors of process; recalling films as varied as Rififi and Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Reichardt relishes in sequences which portray her performers engaged in activities which illuminate their characters as much, if not more so, than they progress the narrative. In doing so, she often subverts the norms of a given genre, such as the Western in Meek’s Cutoff or the thriller in Night Moves, foregrounding the physical realities of the situation. Reichardt has said that the shot of Kurt and Mark rolling up their sleeping bags in Old Joy tells the audience everything they need to know about their differing personalities, and does so completely without dialogue, while the frequent and protracted scenes of Wendy walking, packing, bathing in gas station restrooms, and tracking her distance and finances in a doodle-filled notebook convey the ubiquity of her hardship.

Meek’s Cutoff represents the apex of this technique, drawing much of its drama from the elongation of such scenes of process. Showing her pioneers crocheting, cooking, setting and striking camp, gathering kindling, fording rivers, waiting, and most of all walking, Reichardt summarily conveys the sheer effort of endurance expended by the settlers. Unlike other revisionist westerns like Monte Hellman’s minimalist Ride the Whirwind and The Shooting or Alejandro Jodorowski’s lysergic El Topo, Meek’s Cutoff achieves its surreal, dream-like tone through repetition and duration, one which probably closely mirrors that of its exhausted and dehydrated protagonists. By minimizing the narrative thrust, Reichardt is able to experiment more with images and perspective. She has explained her choice to shoot in the full-frame Academy ratio as opposed to widescreen as “bonnet-vision,” creating an image more analogous to that which the women would have seen through their restrictive headwear. In addition to subconsciously favoring the female perspective, the boxier format also robs the scorched vistas of some of their expansive majesty, trading their longitudinal breadth for an excess of oppressive, blank sky. Reichardt does, however, subvert this connotation in the film’s final moments, wherein she and cinematographer Chris Blauvelt use contrasting focal lengths and foreground obfuscation to visually resolve, if not the plot, the philosophic and spiritual distinctions between the indigenous Cayuse (Rod Rondeaux) and the white American settlers.

Still from Meek’s Cutoff

The other benefit of Reichardt’s microcosmic portraits of passing moments in her characters’ lives is that their budgets match their scale. It is an unfortunate fact that the 12-year gap between her first and second films has much to do with Reichardt’s being a woman in a field that remains dominated by men. Filmmaker Todd Haynes, on whose film Poison (1991) Reichardt interned as a prop master and who has co-produced every one of Reichardt’s films since Old Joy, has said that were Reichardt male, she would already be celebrated as one of the great American auteurs: “It’s very hard to come up with other filmmakers in the independent film community who’ve made such uncompromising work so consistently, with such a clear, precise, and resonant vision.” Reichardt spent her spare time between River of Grass and Old Joy making experimental super-8 films, the longest of which was the 48 minute Ode (1999), which she shot piecemeal with a crew of two. Reinvigorated by the experience, Reichardt asked Raymond, to whom she had been recently introduced by Todd Haynes, if he had any short stories she could film. In order to work within her resources, she placed two restrictions upon the story: that it take place mostly outdoors, and that she would be able to write her dog, Lucy, into it. The ensuing film was Old Joy, made for $30,000, and its strong critical response enabled her to securing financing for Wendy and Lucy. Even with the addition of star Michelle Williams, that film cost only $300,000, and her last three productions, with their period setting (Meek’s Cutoff) and big name stars (Eisenberg, Fanning, and Sarsgaard in Night Moves; Williams, Laura Dern, and Kristin Stewart in Certain Women) have all come in around $2 million.

It is perhaps serendipitous that Reichardt’s interests as a filmmaker lie so far outside of the mainstream. (“It feels like a different conversation,” she confesses about the issue of women in Hollywood, where franchises and explosions rule the box office, a conversation that to Reichardt often boils down to, “Can I make a movie as crappy as those movies?”) Still, it is unfortunate that often this is by default rather than choice. Reichardt has expressed interest in some higher budgeted projects, such as an adaptation of Raymond’s novel The Half-Life, but sounds doubtful that financiers would line up to support a female filmmaker whose box office is not commensurate to her critical caché. There’s a sense that Reichardt feels lucky to be working so far under the radar, without the obligations or hassles that come with increased budgets, that she is happy to not be reliant upon ticket sales to support herself, but she also understands acutely the pitfalls of capital and commerce, and how tenuous such stability can be. In a sense, every one of Reichardt’s films boils down to acts of happenstance, either ill-timed or fortuitous, which drastically change the lives of her characters. In Night Moves, a sleeping camper turns an act of vandalism into manslaughter; in River of Grass, Cozy and Lee can’t pay the toll to get out of Florida because a soda machine ate her last quarter. All these little quirks of circumstance coalesce and accrue until something minor becomes insurmountable.

Nonetheless, there is usually a sense of hope in Reichardt’s films, partly due to their staunch irresolution. Wendy leaves Lucy with a promise that she will return once she can provide for her; the pioneers may not have found water at the end of Meek’s Cutoff, but the lone tree suggests they can’t be far. Sometimes, the ending can seem purgatorial, like Kurt’s continued homelessness in Old Joy or Josh’s ironic resignation to corporation, capital, and recreational sporting goods at the end of Night Moves. But Reichardt, herself a wanderer with no permanent address who spends much of her time driving across America, believes in the perseverance of the human spirit and sees transience less as an affliction than as the default state of being, something to be embraced rather than fought. Hers is an intensely human cinema, one both timeless and unmistakably of its time, one which finds, in her own words, the political within the personal and vice versa, offering no answers but rather encouraging us to seek our own.

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