The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


River of Grass

Since collaborating with writer Jon Raymond, Kelly Reichardt has hit her stride with two remarkable features, Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) – the latter which I consider the top indie film of last year (click here for the top-ten list). Given Reichardt’s new-found prominence, I recently took another look at her earlier and less well-known River of Grass (1995). Set in the rundown area between Miami and the Everglades, Reichardt’s regionally inflected debut feature is a feminist riff on a number of genres – the crime film, the road movie, and the love story – which she seems to subvert at nearly every turn.

River of Grass begins with a postcard of a hospital and family photos. In voiceover, the protagonist, Cozy (Lisa Bowman), describes biographical details about herself, including the fact that her mother deserted the family when she was ten and that her father (who named her after the musician Cozy Cole) claims the mother ran away and joined the circus. Cozy comments, “I like to think of her there in a sequin cape, flying through the air without a single net to catch her fall.” She informs us she married a guy named Bobby who wrote her poems in high school – someone Cozy hoped she would come to love.

Cozy describes how the couple bought a house where “the previous owner had murdered her husband and buried him inside the shower wall.” Over an image of a bloodied woman holding a clever, Cozy continues, “I’ve often thought about this woman and wondered what made her act so violently. I guess it wasn’t any one big thing, but a lot of little things that just grew deeper and deeper under her skin.” As Cozy speaks, we see an image of her, from the waist up, lying naked in the bath tub, with her hair submerged, giving her the appearance of a mannequin.

Reichardt uses parallel editing to establish her three main characters. Now married with young kids, with whom she feels little attachment, the thirtyish Cozy is a bored and dissatisfied housewife. She wonders whether anyone else could be as lonely as her. Such a person, it turns out, happens to be living in the next county – a deadbeat loser named Lee Ray Harold (Larry Fessenden), who, even though he’s twenty-nine, still lives at home with his mother and grandmother until he gets booted out. Lee’s friend, Doug, finds a gun on the road and gives it to him to sell. By coincidence, the pistol turns out to belong to Cozy’s father, Jimmy Ryder (Dick Russell), a veteran crime scene detective, who gets suspended temporarily for losing it. He’s also an avid jazz drummer, who gave up playing professionally once his wife became pregnant with Cozy.

Through camera movement and the sounds of Ryder’s extended drumming, Reichardt connects his playing drums to Lee getting a tattoo, Cozy taking a shower, family photos of her, crime books strewn on the floor, a woman Ryder has picked up in a bar, Lee driving with his gun, and Cozy slipping out of the house while her child lies fast asleep on the couch. A shot of Ryder hitting the symbols cuts to a closeup of Lee firing the pistol out the window of his moving car, creating a sound bridge. As Cozy hops across the road after getting something in her shoe, she nearly gets run over by a Lee’s blue Chevy Malibu. At the local tavern, he offers to buy her a drink once Lee realizes she’s the same woman he nearly hit with his vehicle.

The two spend the night drinking and flirting at the bar, bathed in red-filtered light. When Cozy asks Lee where he’s from, he tells her, “I’m kind of in limbo right now.” She responds, “Limbo. That sounds nice.” Cozy eventually starts to leave to head home, but Lee sweet-talks her into going swimming at a “friend’s” pool. The two climb over a wooden backyard fence and Cozy dives into the pool with her clothes on. As Cozy climbs out of the water and positions herself between Lee’s legs, we expect him to kiss her as he leans forward, but, in a sexually-loaded gesture, Lee thrusts the pistol into her hands. It accidentally fires when the owner surprises them with a flashlight. Believing they’ve killed a man, Lee convinces Cozy they need to hit the road.

Being on the lam gives new meaning to Cozy’s life, but the expectant romance with Lee never develops. Instead, they lie fully clothed on a bed in a cheap motel room. When Cozy screams at seeing a palmetto bug (large roach) in the bathroom, Lee shoots it, damaging the tiles and bringing the motel owner, who demands the rent. Lee and Cozy later break into his mom’s house. As Cozy dances to a 33 rpm record, Lee steals his mother’s record collection, some roast turkey, and a pair of her shoes. As Reichardt’s camera tracks through neighborhoods, Cozy explains in a voiceover: “Lee and I had crossed that straight line that Dad called the law, and I could feel the butterflies in my stomach as I tumbled deeper into a life of crime. After all, murder was thicker than marriage, and Lee and I were now bound by the life we took.” Lee, however, returns to the crime scene and finds that the owner is very much alive, but he chooses not to tell Cozy.

Failing to sell the records, Lee attempts to go on a crime spree, but he merely takes someone’s clean clothes from a Laundromat, and gets punched in the face while stealing groceries at a convenience store. Meanwhile, Ryder’s fellow detective connects the bullet fired at the swimming pool with the missing gun. Back at the motel, the two get stoned, as the initial excitement gives way to boredom. In voiceover, Cozy comments on the circularity of her life, “It’s funny how a person could leave everything she knew behind, but still wind up in the same place.”

Without money to pay for the motel room, Lee and Cozy set out on a road journey, but it comes to an abrupt halt when they don’t have a quarter to pay the highway toll. While waiting for the trooper to run a check on them, they physically struggle over the whereabouts of the gun, forcing Lee to confess to Cozy that they haven’t killed anyone. Lee’s revelation hits Cozy hard, causing her to question her sense of reality and personal identity. She comments: “Suddenly I wasn’t sure of anything. I wasn’t on the lam after all. I wasn’t laying low or ducking cops, and if I was no one cared. We hadn’t killed anybody. I couldn’t even be sure we had really killed the palmetto bug back at the motel room. So, if we weren’t killers, we weren’t anything.”

In River of Grass, grim fate turns out to be at the heart of Reichardt’s characterization. Perhaps because the film plays with genre expectations, its three main characters represent certain recognizable types: the bored housewife (Cozy), the redneck loser (Lee), and the frustrated detective (Ryder). Cozy’s voiceover narration is essentially an expository device. Through her narration, we learn certain aspects of her character. Her father’s profession, for instance, explains her fascination with the gory details of the woman who murdered her husband in the house that she and her husband, Bobby, bought at auction. Cozy’s commentary about the woman, of course, foreshadows her own actions later on.

Bobby works all the time, while Cozy remains stuck at home. We see her doing cartwheels in her house and spinning around in the yard like a child. That she leaves her kid asleep on the couch to go to a bar provides a telling comment about her character. All of these traits – broken home, a loveless marriage, boredom and loneliness – serve to explain why she might run off with Lee. Cozy views her life as predestined. She speculates: “They say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I found this puzzling and couldn’t stop wondering: Are our lives all mapped out for us? 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?” Fate, along with the coincidence of events, serves to replace agency as the motivation for her behavior.

Our first introduction to Lee is a pan to him sleeping naked in front of a large American flag, while his grandmother awakens him. He ridicules his friend Doug for working at a dead-end job, which is why he spends his time driving around, getting stoned, and drinking. Lee scares his grandmother by pointing the gun at her and threatening to shoot her, causing his mother and grandmother to change the locks. At the swimming pool, the anticipated romance between them quickly gets short-circuited. As they hide out in a hotel room afterward, we expect that the crime will create an erotic spark between them, but it has the opposite effect. The two never touch, never kiss, never make love or display any affection for each other. If the gun’s misfire at the swimming pool turns out to be the equivalent of a premature ejaculation, it seems to destroy any hopes of intimacy between the couple.

We know less about Lee than Cozy. In their initial meeting at the bar, he tries to impress Cozy with the new tattoo on his shoulder that says “Mom,” but she points to a photograph of his mother he’s placed on the counter and tells him, “Mom? But we already have Mom here.” During Ryder’s questioning of Lee’s mother and grandmother, an unexpected clue surfaces when his mother reveals that he stole her high heels – something we’ve witnessed ourselves. In the motel room, where Cozy and Lee get stoned by passing around a joint they hold between their toes, Lee talks about his past. He reveals that his mother collects husbands. His real father, who married her twice, committed suicide on their second honeymoon by walking into the ocean. His mother married the mortician who buried him. Lee adds that it was “very creepy living with that guy!”

Cozy’s father, Jimmy Ryder, provides the plot connection between Cozy and Lee. If he hadn’t lost his gun, there would be no story. If Doug didn’t find it on the road and give it to Lee to sell, none of this would have happened either. As a crime detective, Ryder adds an important genre element, as he tracks down leads related to Cozy and Lee and the missing gun, but he never solves the crime he has set in motion. On a personal level, he comes to represent the person who has sacrificed his dreams for marriage, only to be abandoned by his wife along with Cozy. A hard-boiled detective, he drinks in bars, picks up women, and plays drums in his spare time. Even when Lee strides into the Blue Note record shop in an attempt to sell his mother’s records and their paths cross, Ryder fails to make the connection.

All of Reichardt’s characters are defined by the desolate sun-drenched landscape they inhabit. She uses frontal, postcard-like compositions, as well as tracking shots of depressed areas of South Florida – a vast wasteland of Laundromats, bars, record shops, convenience stores, strip malls, single-story dwellings, desolate palm trees, flat terrain, and intersecting highways. Reichardt mixes significant narrative incidents with mundane ones. Cops tell jokes or stories that have no relevance to the plot. Shots of passing freight trains and a jet flying overhead create a striking contrast to the inertia of the aimless main characters, whose life on the run remains largely confined to a motel room.

Ryder’s drum playing provides musical interludes and creates a series of numbered chapters that merely mark the passage of time. And the lone jukebox in the bar he frequents becomes a recurrent motif – a sad image of Americana that we associate with the photographs of Robert Frank in The Americans. River of Grass provides a feminist twist on what essentially are male film genres by deflating the romance associated with crime, violence, the open road, and heterosexual love. As Reichardt remarked in an interview with Todd Haynes – for Cozy, it’s not Lee, but the gun that represents her “real object of desire.”

Posted 22 July, 2009

Treeless Mountain

Set in Korea, So Yong Kim’s American indie Treeless Mountain (2009) tells the story of two young girls – seven-year-old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and her younger sister Bin (Song Hee Kim) – who are abandoned by their single mother (Soo Ah Lee). It’s initially supposed to be only temporary while she seeks to track down her deadbeat husband Kang, but the kids wind up getting shuffled off to live with Kang’s sister Big Aunt (Mi Hyang Kim) and then later to their maternal grandparents on a farm.

Stylistically, Treeless Mountain is shot more like a poetic documentary than a fictional film. Kim chooses not to linger too long on the emotional resonances of individual scenes. Instead, the superb hand-held camera work (by Anne Misawa) and editing fracture the narrative into episodic incidents, abruptly cutting from one detail to the next – more like an experimental film. And with nonprofessional child actors, perhaps that’s the best way to capture this type of story.

Jin’s face becomes a barometer of the hurt and pain of what’s happening to the children. When Big Aunt reads a letter from the mother, explaining she can no longer afford to care for the children and they must go to live with their grandparents, the camera focuses on Jin, who in a tearful outburst accuses the aunt of lying and trying to get rid of them. Poor Bin, who wanders through the film in a blue princess dress with fur trim – like a sad refugee from a once-festive party – is merely bewildered. We later realize that her dress represents an attempt to hold onto the memory of her mother, who bought the outfit for her.

The camera usually sticks very close to Jin and Bin, which has the Brakhage-like effect of presenting much of what happens from a child’s perspective. As a result, Treeless Mountain – more than any other recent narrative I can think of – manages to replicate what it’s like to experience the world as a child, not only visually, but with the partial comprehension of unfolding events that marks childhood. Jin unconsciously senses the vulnerability of her situation – the mysterious person who comes to the door and interrupts dinner – causing her anxiety to become manifest by wetting the bed. Her mother is actually very understanding when it occurs. Later, at Big Aunt’s house, Jin lets Bin take the blame when she has another night-time accident. Her aunt is not nearly as compassionate.

Although Big Aunt isn’t outright cruel, she turns out to be a poor parental surrogate. She extorts money from a neighbor over a supposed injury to Bin. Big Aunt eats and drinks at a café, but doesn’t want to spend money on the girls, whom she insists can eat at home. Big Aunt is often too drunk or hung over to feed the two hungry children. Yet when she abandons them at their grandparents, Jin and Bin still instinctively chase after her and wave goodbye frantically. (Bin later tells Jin that she misses not only her mother and father, but Big Aunt as well.)

The dynamic between the two sisters is very much at the heart of the film. When the mother arrives home the first night, she scolds Jin for being late in picking up Bin from the babysitter. Before the mother leaves the girls with Big Aunt, she tells Jin, “Take care of Bin for me. I believe in you, Jin.” It’s no wonder that Jin resents the responsibility of always having to watch over Bin, which is why she lets her little sister wander off by herself, refuses to play with her after their mom leaves, sets her up to take the blame for bedwetting at Big Aunt’s house, tries to ditch her as they walk up a street, and calls her “stupid” when Bin still asks about the mother as they’re on route to live with their grandparents.

To Jin, Bin has become an unwanted appendage, but they only have each other – that is the bond that inextricably ties them together, no matter what. And there are indeed moments of genuine warmth between the sisters. When they sing songs about grasshoppers with great exuberance, they momentarily seem to forget their sad situation. Jin also comforts Bin the one time she cries over their mother, protectively holds her hand as they cross a busy street, and even tutors her with reading at the farm.

The film begins with Jin learning how to tell time at school. But the irresponsible Big Aunt never bothers to re-enroll her in school – leaving the children to wander around the streets of the city. The passage of time becomes a central element in the story. Their mother gives the two girls a large red piggy bank and insists that she’ll return once it’s full of coins. Jin and Bin attempt to make money hawking fried grasshoppers to school kids in order to feed their plastic piggy. After Bin shakes out a coin to buy a sweet bun and gets smaller change, the two realize that they can speed up time by exchanging larger denomination coins for many more smaller ones. From a huge mound of dirt and rubble – the treeless mountain of the title and the image that apparently served as the film’s inspiration – Jin and Bin wait in vain for their mother’s return on the bus.

Once Big Aunt dumps them on their grandparents, she and the grandfather get into a loud argument. The grandpa doesn’t even try to hide it from the girls that they’re not wanted. But the grandma (Boon Tak Park), who has a wonderfully wizened face and wears a blue towel fashioned into a hat, turns out to be totally accepting of Jin and Bin, and the girls return her kindness in their own touching way. The pace of life on the farm feels slower, the tone shifts slightly, the colors become golden, and the film ends with a wide shot of Jin and Bin as they sing and walk through a overgrown field.

Instead of the conventional way of breaking down the story into individual shots, Kim (who studied painting, performance, and video at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) uses individual shots to build her story. She uses wider landscape shots as temporal transitions, but also to comment on events. When Jin and Bin are told by Big Aunt that their mom isn’t returning, dark clouds obscure the sun. Yet Treeless Mountain is infused with such pure poetry that images never feel overtly metaphorical or symbolic, nor does Kim resort to using music to underscore the feelings of her characters.

What’s especially notable about Treeless Mountain is the precision of So Yong Kim’s spare visual style and understated narration. And if the emotional impact of the film feels like a dagger has been thrust into your heart, Kim does it with such skill and artistry that she doesn’t leave any trace of an incision.

Treeless Mountain screened at the 2009 Wisconsin Film Festival. It will be released on DVD in this country on September 15 by Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Posted 18 July, 2009

Momma’s Man

Azazel Jacobs’s low-budget second feature Momma’s Man (2008) serves as yet another example of an independent film that deliberately blurs the line between non-fiction and fiction as an alternative narrative strategy (see previous post). The thirty-something protagonist is roughly the writer/director’s age. Jacobs sets the film in the lower-Manhattan loft in which he grew up, casts his own parents – noted avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs and painter Flo Jacobs – in the role of parents, and his best friend from high school as, well, his best friend. And a flashback to childhood depicts footage of the film’s director rather than lead actor. It’s difficult not to get lost in the autobiographical hall of mirrors Jacobs creates. That Momma’s Man, as Voice critic J. Hoberman suggests, at times slips into something that feels like a psychodrama turns out to be part of the power and fascination of the film

Momma’s Man tells the story of Mikey (Matt Boren), who on a business trip to New York City during which he visits his folks, finds himself unable to leave. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but Mikey has a job and a wife and infant back in Los Angeles. Mikey’s flight gets overbooked and he has to take another one the next day – but the situation rapidly transforms into something more vexing. Jacobs never makes it clear what is going on with Mikey. Is it nostalgia for his happy childhood? Has Mikey made a double mistake in marrying and having a child? Does he regret relocating to the West Coast? Does it suddenly dawn on him that his parents are growing old? Is his wife having an affair? Is Mikey having a nervous breakdown? For some critics and viewers, Jacobs’s use of buried motivation poses a problem. They want Mikey to be explained, but Jacobs wisely opts for ambiguity.

Rather than being goal-driven, as manual writers would insist, Mikey is a passive protagonist. His conflict is internal. Part of the pleasure of Momma’s Man is watching Mikey’s behavior for clues or hints about what might be going on inside him, and Jacobs provides just enough of them to keep us guessing. Mikey’s parents are perplexed. His father seems caring, but aloof. His mother dotes on him in a very smothering way. Her desire to offer him something to eat or drink becomes an irritating mantra (it’s no wonder he’s overweight). Most people would run for their lives – I’m speaking of myself here – but Mikey regresses. He hangs around the loft in his longjohns and watches a movie on television, while lying in bed with his parents. He rummages through old scrapbooks and love letters. He plays the guitar and sings lyrics he’s written in high school so loudly that his father has to tell him to turn the music down.

Mikey begins to embellish his situation. He’s not being malicious, so much as irresponsible. He lies to his wife Laura (Dana Varon) and even to his parents when he implies that Laura might be having an affair. We do see her visited by a neighbor named Tom (Richard Edson from Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise), but there’s no clear evidence that anything is going on. The film begins with a closeup on the clasped hands of Mikey and his mom. He asks, “You sure everything is okay?” She answers, “Of course.” Her initial note to him alludes to a doctor’s appointment. Mikey later tells his co-worker his mother’s been in the hospital as an excuse for missing work. Is she, in fact, ill? There’s no further indication of this either.

As the film progresses, Mikey develops agoraphobia – he’s unable to walk down the hallway stairs of the loft. There’s a sense that Manhattan has receded or disappeared, only to be replaced by his family’s claustrophobic loft – chock full of stuff – made dark and more womb-like by Tobias Datum’s cinematography. When his parents indicate they’re going for dinner in Chinatown, Mikey’s immobility prevents him from joining them. As he attempts to shave, he covers his entire face with lather and stares into the mirror. In an effort to get beyond the threshold of the loft, he gets drunk and crawls on all fours. During the night, he literally hurls himself down the stairs, which succeeds in breaking the spell.

Mikey seeks out an ex-girlfriend named Bridget (Eleanor Hutchins) after finding an angry letter from when they were in high school. Does he have lingering romantic feelings? When they meet at a coffee shop, Bridget brings along her young child in a stroller. It’s an awkward get-together. She asks, “So, what’s up?” Mikey refers to the letter and apologizes. Bridget appears bewildered. She’s obviously forgotten whatever pain he caused her. When Bridget asks about him, Mikey shows her photos of his wife and daughter, Anna. After she returns them, he stares pensively at the one of Anna. If Bridget is no longer the same person, Mikey’s friend Dante (Piero Arcilesi) – obsessed with boxing tapes and the Indigo Girls – also seems to have morphed into someone else. After Dante has a drug relapse, Mikey observes him with bemused detachment as his old pal manically works out and sings “Closer to Fine” off-key.

The fact that things change seems to be at the root of Mikey’s problem. He wants to stop time, or go backwards. He clings to the past – to earlier memories. Matt Boren plays Mikey with a quizzical look that fits his character perfectly. There’s a scene toward the end where his mother gets him to sit on her lap like an overgrown baby, dwarfing her in size. The image serves as an apt metaphor. He’s not a momma’s boy, but a grown man – stuck in a state of arrested development. As he snuggles and cries and his mother comforts him, she recalls a sweet image of her actual son, Azazel, as a child – fast asleep on a plate of spaghetti. In the old home-movie footage (from Ken Jacobs’s epic Star Spangled to Death), she lovingly lifts up Azazel and places him in bed. The next morning, Mikey listens to his phone messages and calls Laura.

Very little happens in Momma’s Man. Jacobs avoids the causality of classical narration. Much of what occurs within the family dynamic involves subtext – the things that remain largely unspoken. At one point his father demonstrates a mechanical windup toy – a headless crawling baby. The parents do try to intervene. In a family conference, his father confronts him, but Mikey becomes defensive and snaps, “Are you asking me to leave?” His mother inquires about Laura, “Is there someone else?” As Mikey begins to cry, his father presses him, but his mother insists, “It’s all right. You can stay here as long as you want.” His father later overhears a despondent message from Laura on the answering machine and watches Mikey erase it. Later, as Mikey starts to discuss Laura seeing someone, his father responds, “Can you recall us once lying to you?”

In Momma’s Man, Jacobs employs an episodic structure in which the dramatic and character arcs have been flattened. Just as mysteriously as Mikey falls into a personal crisis, his funk lifts by the film’s end (though I’m sure there will be consequences once he gets back to Los Angeles). I suspect some female viewers will find Mikey’s self-absorption to be a problem – for obvious reasons. But it’s Jacobs’s willingness to explore these issues so honestly that makes Momma’s Man such an absorbing and distinctive character study.

Momma’s Man played at the Wisconsin Film Festival back in April. It’s now available on DVD from Kino Video.

Posted 5 July, 2009