The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Best Indpendent Films of 2011

Although the overall quality of this past year’s independent films remained strong, most still had difficulty finding an audience. Of the films on my list, Martha Marcy May Marlene grossed the highest amount, at nearly $3 million; Take Shelter and The Future made less than their budgets.

Todd Solondz claims his films don’t make money any more and is struggling to release his latest effort, Dark Horse, while Hal Hartley is looking to raise funding on Kickstarter. Even Spike Lee got tired of waiting to find financing for his latest commercial film, and wound up self-financing it. Everyone keeps talking about new distribution models, but let’s face it: the theaters are, for the most part, empty when independent films actually do have theatrical runs. DVD appears to have died as well, as we know from the fiasco involving Netflix. I believe that only 6 of the 10 films on my list played in my home town of Madison, Wisconsin.

No matter how cheap films are to make these days, filmmakers can’t continue to lose money. VOD doesn’t seem to be the answer either. Ti West literally wrote a letter to fans begging them not to pirate his latest release, The Innkeepers. He claims he hasn’t made any money from his films. Joe Swanberg seems to have found a viable model, but it appears to involve sheer quantity. Frank V. Ross, a filmmaker whose work I greatly admire (Hohokam, 2007 and Audrey the Trainwreck, 2010) told me he doesn’t ever expect to realize any return on his films.

On a personal level, I’ve struggled to keep up with this blog because I’ve been consumed with completing my latest book, The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol (University of California Press, 2012), which has taken up so much of my time. It’s due out this spring. Publishing, however, isn’t all that different from making movies these days. Unless you’re a celebrity author, you can’t expect to get rich on book sales, especially writing academic books.

I saw a number of inspiring films from outside the USA: Melancholia, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Certified Copy, to name a few, but I also missed a number of important films that I hope to see shortly. Ironically, I saw some terrific American indie films this past year that I can’t include them because they didn’t have a theatrical opening: Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, Dustin Guy Defa’s Bad Fever, Sophia Takal’s Green, Gregory Kohn’s Northeast, and Mark Jackson’s Without. I’ve written about four of the five already. I saw Alex Ross Perry’s film at the Wisconsin Film Festival last April, and intend to write about it at some point this year.

To be honest, it’s difficult to write blogs about films that many folks simply haven’t seen, but I remain committed to doing so if it can bring more attention to independent work. I have to say that no blogger has been more supportive of my efforts than Mike Everleth at Bad Lit, whose site I consider essential reading for anyone interested in alternative film.

If there was one major theme that emerged this year, it was the feeling that the end of the world is imminent. Melancholia might serve as the model, but Take Shelter, The Future, and Bellflower share the same vision of impending doom.

I saw Meek’s Cutoff twice when it played to the New York Film Festival in October of 2010. I found myself driving to the theater when it played here in town many months later. I felt under a spell like in a Miranda July film. Once the first image appeared, however, I suddenly understood why I was there. It was without a doubt my favorite film of the year. Jon Raymond, the film’s gifted screenwriter, has a new novel coming out this spring, entitled Rain Dragon. Jon (who co-wrote the screenplays for Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy as well) is a terrific writer. I strongly recommend that you order his book. It’s already listed on Amazon.

In any event, here is my personal list of the best indie films of 2011:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

  1. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
  2. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
  3. The Future (Miranda July)
  4. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
  5. Bellflower (Evan Glodell)
  6. Putty Hill (Matthew Porterfield)
  7. Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)
  8. Jess + Moss (Clay Jeter)
  9. Terri (Azazel Jacobs)
  10. The Catechism Cataclysm (Todd Rohal)

Two of the filmmakers on my list have been included in this year’s upcoming Whitney Biennial: Kelly Reichardt and Matthew Porterfield. I try never to miss a Whitney Biennial, if at all possible.

There were many extraordinary performances this year: Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), Jacob Wysocki (Terri), Robert Longstreet (The Catechism Cataclysm), Michelle Williams (Meek’s Cutoff), and Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene). Austin Vickers (Jess + Moss) is a natural. For purposes of comparison, you might want to check out my lists of “The Best Indie Films of 2010,” “The Best Indie Films of 2009” as well as “The Best Indie Films of 2008.

For the record, I always post my list in February.

Posted 24 February, 2012

Meek’s Cutoff

As a filmmaker, Kelly Reichardt is obviously on a roll. Following the critical successes of Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), expectations were enormously high for her latest film Meek’s Cutoff (2010), a period piece shot on 35mm with a budget much larger than usual. The film played at Venice, Toronto and twice at the New York Film Festival this past weekend. I’m glad I bought tickets to attend both of the NYC screenings because Meek’s Cutoff, which has been picked up for distribution by Oscilloscope Laboratories, turns out to be the best American indie film I’ve seen so far this year.

Meek’s Cutoff represents both a continuation and a departure for Reichardt. Jon Raymond, the gifted writer with whom she collaborated on her two previous efforts, came up with the idea and wrote the screenplay for Meek’s Cutoff, a “covered-wagon western” set in 1845. Despite Reichardt’s reluctance to discuss the new film in terms of genre, it’s impossible not to see the film as a revisionist western of sorts. In place of the hypermasculinity that characterizes the typical western, women play a crucial role in Raymond and Reichardt’s story. Whereas Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy tackle smaller themes – a relationship between old friends headed on different paths and a down-and-out young woman forced to decide what to do about her dog – Meek’s Cutoff is a pioneer tale about the settling of America.

Meek’s Cutoff tells the story of three families who have hired a mountain man named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to lead them through the Cascade Mountains to the Willamette Valley on the other side. His shortcut – the “cutoff” of the film’s title – causes them to get lost in the vast desert area of Oregon. Whether it’s deliberate or the result of sheer incompetence we’re never quite sure, but the settlers express misgivings that Meek might be leading them astray for political reasons having to doing with immigration into the new territory. We learn this information early on as Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) and her older husband Solomon (Will Patton) walk through the dark night carrying lanterns.

Meek not only turns out to be an unreliable guide, but an insufferable blowhard, full of tall tales that make him instantly unlikeable. Meek has the strange habit of asserting one thing, but also suggesting that the opposite might be equally probable, which is to say that his judgments amount to useless double talk. The only blatantly clear aspect of Meek is his unbridled racism, especially regarding the indigenous American Indian tribes. This will come into bold play when a Cayuse Indian on horseback begins to shadow the settlers, as they traverse the harsh terrain alongside three covered wagons hitched to oxen.

After the settlers manage to capture the Cayuse, Meek assaults him and wants to kill him on the spot, but the rest decide the Indian could be useful in finding the water they so desperately need. In confronting the “Other,” the settlers attempt to communicate with the Indian (played by stuntman Rod Rondeaux), but, of course, language proves to be an obstacle and neither party can understand each other. As the settlers’ situation worsens, they begin to rely on the Indian to help them gain their bearings, but he proves to be an enigmatic figure. Emily tries to befriend the prisoner, but he spits out the food she gives him. After she mends his moccasin, he takes to carrying her sewing basket with him as they journey on. The Cayuse marks symbols on the rocks they pass. Is he sending messages to his tribe, or is it merely part of his religion? Thomas Gately (Paul Dano), whose wife Millie (Zoe Kazan) is starting to lose it, becomes convinced the former is the case, but Solomon persuades the group otherwise.

Raymond’s spare script actually contains very little dialogue. The film’s emphasis is on the daily labor of the characters, especially the women. With domestic chores to do, there’s little time for small talk or camaraderie. There is wood to collect, fires to make, dishes to scrub, clothes to knit, garments to wash and hang out to dry in the blazing sun. What’s striking about Meek’s Cutoff is the complete lack of sex involving any of the characters, but then again Reichardt’s major features River of Grass (1995), Old Joy, and Wendy and Lucy are among the chastest films in recent American indie cinema. Facing scorching heat and a scarcity of water, it’s understandable why survival rather than sex should be the main preoccupation of these settlers. Shot in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Meek’s Cutoff is full of wide shots of the barren landscape, which serves to reinforce the formal space or distance between the characters. Chris Blauvelt’s extraordinary cinematography shifts from intense blue hues at the film’s opening to a warmer and washed out palette as the settlers and earth become parched from lack of water.

Characterization in Meek’s Cutoff is minimal. William White (Neal Huff), for instance, is devoutly religious. When he collapses from illness, the Cayuse stares at his shaking body and begins a medicine chant. Neither religion provides a cure. William’s wife, Glory (Shirley Henderson), is a bit on the ditsy side. She provides some of the only humor in the film, and even manages to get the other women to laugh at one point. If Solomon proves to be the most level-headed person of the bunch, Emily is the most compassionate and doesn’t hide her dislike of Meek from the very start. When he claims she must be flirting with him, Emily gives him a cold stare and insists he must not know anything about women. Meek proceeds to describe the female sex as “chaos” and the male sex as “destruction.” But when Meek gets out of line, it is Emily who stops him in his tracks.

Meek’s Cutoff unfolds at its own slow temporal pace, with shots lasting long enough for viewers to scrutinize what’s occurring within the frame. Reichardt’s film employs the type of narration we find in art cinema. Reichardt remarked after the Friday screening that until the film’s premiere screening at Venice she considered Meek’s Cutoff to be a “desert poem” rather than a western. And indeed, her work is profoundly poetic rather than narrative in its attention to small details and in its richly evocative qualities. Reichardt once again shows a mastery of visual storytelling. With the exception of Greenwood, her actors tend to be absorbed in physical actions, facial reactions, and communicating through body movements rather than dialogue. Michelle Williams and Will Patton, in particular, excel in giving restrained, naturalistic performances.

At least so far, Reichardt has proven to be the real deal as an indie filmmaker by not making films that can be read as industry calling cards. Even the release of Meek’s Cutoff was apparently delayed because Reichardt was teaching at Bard College and insisted on editing the film herself. In this tough economic climate, I try not to judge anyone because most indie filmmakers are struggling to survive these days. But Kelly Reichardt, as both Dennis Lim and Scott Foundas acknowledged in introducing her film at the festival, has somehow remained true to the vision of an independent cinema. Even though her budgets keep growing, she has not compromised her artistic integrity one bit.

Rather than wrapping up the minimal narrative with a sense of closure, Meek’s Cutoff ends with a question. Yet I found it amazing that audience members afterward really wanted Reichardt to interpret the film for them. They didn’t seem to understand that the film deals with the experience of being lost and living with uncertainty. Maybe the Cayuse knows where there’s water, but he makes no effort to communicate with the settlers. As a captive, why should he? Throughout the film, he speaks a language we can’t decipher, which somehow seems a key element in Reichardt’s new film. In the Q & A session at Toronto, according to Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times, the director commented: “We all know what happens, how it ends, there’s a golf course on the other side. You know, the bigger ending.”

Posted 13 October, 2010

The Exploding Girl

Bradley Rust Gray pushes cinematic naturalism to the brink in his intriguing second feature The Exploding Girl, where very little happens and the real interest lies almost entirely beneath the surface. Gray is mining territory that has been explored previously by films such as Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2005) and Aaron’s Katz’s Quiet City (2007), but also So Yong Kim’s In Between Days (2006), a film that Gray co-wrote with his wife and creative partner, Kim, who also co-produced and co-edited The Exploding Girl.

Mumblecore films, to which Rust’s new film invites comparison, tend to be highly verbal films about relationships, whereas The Exploding Girl employs words sparingly. It uses temporality – the passage of time – rather than language to suggest the awkwardness of youthful interactions, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. Mumblecore films, for the most part, deal with characters who consider themselves hipsters. The Exploding Girl, on the other hand, focuses on a pair of nerdy college kids. Mumblecore films are populated by nonprofessional performers, mostly friends of the filmmaker, whereas Gray uses professional actors here.

Indeed, the performances of Zoe Kazan and Mark Rendall are key elements to the success of Gray’s film. Kazan, in particular, is as amazing in The Exploding Girl as Michelle Williams is in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy. In fact, it’s hard to take your eyes off her, as she finds inventive ways to fill dead time. The writer Jon Raymond, who co-wrote the screenplay for Wendy and Lucy, talks about Michelle Williams being able to express the inexpressible. He told an interviewer: “To me, the incredible thing she accomplished, and which I can only imagine is like the black belt of acting, was somehow to express the idea that she was, in fact, withholding expression. Somehow, she managed to give the impression of blocked feelings, which to me seems almost impossible. How do you express that you are not expressing something? It seems really hard.” Zoe Kazan also earns a black belt in acting for her portrayal of a character with bottled-up feelings in The Exploding Girl. In fact, she won the best actress award at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring.

The plot of The Exploding Girl is extremely slight. The story centers on a young student named Ivy (Kazan), who returns home to Brooklyn from college in upstate New York over break, along with an old school chum named Al (Rendall) who ends up staying at her house. In the car, Al, who attends a different college, asks Ivy whether her boyfriend Greg (Franklin Pipp) is planning to visit her. Greg isn’t, but Al’s reaction suggests that it’s actually a loaded question. It soon becomes obvious from Ivy and Greg’s cell phone conversations, that their relationship consists mostly of reporting what they’re doing at the moment, and, for Ivy at least, it seems to involve moping around and waiting for him to call her. So it comes as no surprise when Greg dumps Ivy as she stands on the street in the midst of heavy traffic.

Ivy has epilepsy, which partially accounts for her fragility. She has to be careful not to drink too much or get stoned or overly stressed, but she’s also so repressed and depressed that her passivity becomes pretty exasperating. Not that her handsome and overly polite pal Al, who’s into biology and has the face of a sad clown, is any better at expressing what he feels either. Under the guise of their close bond – they go back to eighth or ninth grade – he confides in her about his crushes, and asks her advice about wanting to kiss another woman. Yet it’s obvious in the hushed and sincere tone he uses when speaking to her that the two have feelings for each other beyond friendship, even though they might need a sinking ocean liner for it to register.

Ivy’s mother (Maryann Urbano) runs a dance studio. Other than when the three of them play a game of cards, she seems more preoccupied with her own life than with spending time with her daughter. Al’s parents aren’t much better. They’ve rented out his room (or at least that’s what he claims), and his parents never come up again. Gray uses the art-cinema technique of burying the motivation of his characters. Babies, real or imagined, surface several times in the film. Along with Ivy’s mom, Ivy and Al visit her cousin, who has a new baby, which Ivy holds, while Al stares with wonder and touches the baby’s tiny hand. Later, after a party where Al gets very stoned and the two share a milkshake, he asks Ivy whether she wants to have babies. She explains that, given her medical condition and need to take medication, it would be more complicated for her, which leads to this exchange:

IVY: Why? You want babies?
AL: Yeah.
IVY: You want my baby?
AL: Yes. (Ivy laughs) I didn’t mean it like that.

At the rooftop pigeon coop toward the film’s end, he shows her a couple of baby birds. Ivy gushes and wants to touch them. Is this an indirect way of trying to bring up sex?

In terms of the film’s use of buried motivation, there seems to be one skeleton in the closet that’s never brought up, namely: What happened to Ivy’s father? If The Exploding Girl is the b-side of In Between Days (both titles come from songs by The Cure), as Gray has indicated in several interviews, I would hazard a guess that this might be the key to unlocking Ivy’s character. In Kim’s film, In Between Days, the absence of Aimie’s father remains the main source of her pain and confusion. Why is Ivy so depressed? Why is she in a relationship with a guy like Greg, who is clearly cheating on her behind her back? The answer actually isn’t in the text, so to speak, but part of the pleasure of watching films like In Between Days, Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and The Exploding Girl remains filling in the missing blanks.

The Exploding Girl is deliberately underwritten – the screenplay is a mere 60 pages for a film that’s 79 minutes long. Gray calls the process of making the film “exciting because we made it out of nothing, like making cookies with ingredients you find in your cupboard.” According to an interview with Ramin Bahrani in Filmmaker, Gray wrote the character of Ivy based on conversations with Zoe Kazan after she agreed to be in his film, while Al’s character derived from things Grey had learned about Rendall from an actress friend of his. Thus, there’s a close connection between actor and role in the film. As was already evident in In Between Days, Gray has mastered how young people communicate (or don’t) with each other, especially via cell phones. As Ivy walks down the street, Greg calls her:

IVY: Hello?
GREG: Hey . . .
IVY: Hi. Hey.
GREG: Hey.
IVY: Um, I called you last night.
GREG: Yeah, I was with my parents, and . . . we’re going to lunch now.
IVY: Oh . . . (her phone rings) Oh, hang on a second. Shit, I have another call. Um, can I, can I . . . can you hang on?
She gets another call, which turns out to be from Al.
GREG: Ah, yeah.
She talks briefly with Al, and then returns to Greg.
IVY: Hey . . . Greg?
GREG: Hey, yeah, sorry I can’t talk long now. I’m with my parents. I just . . .
IVY: Oh . . .
GREG: You know, wanted to check in.
IVY: Okay.
GREG: I miss you.
IVY: Yeah, me too.
GREG: Ah, okay, so I’ll call you later. Okay?
IVY: Yeah, yeah, okay. I’ll have my phone on. (Pause) Okay, bye.
GREG: Bye.

In other words, the whole purpose of Greg’s phone call is to tell Ivy that he can’t talk to her.

Rust differs from mumblecore directors in being far less oriented toward dialogue and in relying instead on visual storytelling. Gray cites Hou Hsaio-hsien as a major influence on this piece. The Exploding Girl embodies a cinema of observed gestures, silence, and intricate sound design rather than plot and action. Gray uses a longer focal-length lens to compress his images spatially. It allows him to embed his characters within documentary-like shots taken on the street, which add to the film’s realism. Even though Gray includes a fair number of closeup shots, especially of Ivy, he and his cinematographer, Eric Lin, often place obstacles between the characters, such as framing Ivy behind the doctor’s shoulder during her checkup or filming her through passing traffic while she’s in the bookstore.

The most visually exhilarating scene occurs on a rooftop when Al takes Ivy to see his friend’s pigeon coop, where she finally breaks down, while pigeons swirl in formation overhead. The film is also book-ended by the trip from upstate to Brooklyn, where the moving landscape is reflected on Ivy’s sleeping face, and the return ride back, where Gray relies on the power of the camera to capture those subtle moments that are somehow beyond words.

The Exploding Girl, which is being distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, will be shown as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival in April.

Posted 19 February, 2010

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

Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Reichardt’s first feature River of Grass (1994), a regionally inflected, feminist riff on genre set in the area between Miami and the Everglades, drew critical attention within independent film circles, but received only limited theatrical distribution. It would be over ten years before Reichardt’s collaboration with writer Jon Raymond provided the unexpected spark that reignited her career. Made on a micro-budget of $30,000 and adapted from Raymond’s short story (itself the result of a collaboration with photographer Justine Kurland), Old Joy (2006) managed to become a major critical hit and to gross ten times its production costs. Reichardt and Raymond’s latest effort, Wendy and Lucy (2008), produced for a mere $300,000, not only fulfills the promise of Kelly Reichardt’s earlier work, but catapults her squarely into the forefront of major independent directors.

Both of the Jon Raymond short stories on which Reichardt’s last two films are based have just been published in a collection entitled Livability (Bloomsbury, 2009), allowing viewers an opportunity to understand the nexus between word and image in Reichardt’s work. The story of a camping trip between two old friends whose lives have taken different trajectories, Old Joy deals with the impermanence of relationships in a culture of accelerated technological change. Raymond’s “Old Joy” turns out to be even more understated than the film, which includes an important added element, namely, that Mark (Daniel London) is married and soon to become a father. After Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark get lost while searching for a remote hot spring, the pair end up camping overnight in a garbage-strewn area in the forest. As the two shoot empty tin cans with a BB gun in front of a golden bonfire, Kurt, stoned and drunk, discusses his theory of a falling tear-shaped universe. Afterwards, Kurt has a sudden emotional outburst. He cries that he misses Mark, and insists that something has come between them. Mark impassively denies this, but, of course, it’s something he can’t admit to himself.

Old Joy is completely understated – it relies almost wholly on subtext for its narrative tension. Dialogue is kept to a minimum. We get mobile shots of Portland to the sound of Air America on the radio, purely cinematic sequences of the majestic countryside accompanied by music, and extended treks through the dense woods with Mark’s playful dog. Reichardt’s long takes include everything that would be cut out of most other films in the service of succinct storytelling. When Mark drives to Kurt’s house, for instance, we watch him park, get out of his car, and walk all the way to Kurt’s front door. In one memorable scene, the camera frames Kurt smoking a joint inside the car, as we view Mark studying a map through the windshield. Mark heads away from the car down the road. His cell phone rings. We watch him jog back to retrieve it, and then amble back away from the car. We can’t hear Mark’s conversation with his wife as he paces, but we can sense her irritation, as can Kurt, no matter how dulled his senses have become.

In Old Joy, Lucy (the director’s dog) inserts herself into the film, enough to become a character by often seeming to favor Kurt over Mark. In Reichardt’s latest effort, Lucy has finagled her way into a title role. Reichardt indicated in the recent issue of Film Comment that what she most admires about Raymond’s stories is that “he writes these really interior kinds of characters, and then the challenge for me is just figuring out how to physicalize that in turning things over into a script.” Ironically, “Train Choir,” the source for Wendy and Lucy, provides more motivation for the protagonist Wendy (Michelle Williams) than the film, even though Raymond’s writing style is rather spare. Ray Carver used to talk about life in terms of people having either good luck or bad luck, and his characters were left to grapple with whatever life dealt them. Wendy is down on her luck. While it’s not made explicit in the film what has left her in such a dire predicament – she elicits no sympathy when she phones her sister – Wendy’s hell-bent on making it to Alaska, where she believes she’ll be able to earn enough money to start her life over.

En route from Indiana to Alaska, Wendy’s car breaks down in a small town in Oregon. With a tight budget and food running out for her pooch, Wendy attempts to pilfer a couple of cans of Iams from a nearby grocery store. On her way out the door, she gets stopped by a young worker named Andy (played by John Robinson, the protagonist of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, no less). With a silver cross around his neck, he’s strictly Old Testament, insisting on retribution for her petty crime. After vacillating, the spineless boss lets Andy call the cops, and Wendy is hauled away, fingerprinted and booked by an inept officer, before she’s forced to pay a fine she can’t afford. By the time Wendy returns to the grocery hours later, her beloved Lucy has disappeared from the parking lot where she was left tied up outside the store. Wendy’s search for her missing dog, which takes up most of the film, might be exasperating if Reichardt weren’t such a masterful visual stylist and storyteller. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Wendy visits the local pound. Reichardt’s camera tracks past the various cages of dogs, suggesting the inside of a prison.

The film involves a series of episodic incidents, mostly with the people Wendy happens upon in the vicinity where her car has stalled. In Wendy’s initial jaunt into the woods, Lucy leads her to a group of young street people, one of whom pets the dog, while another, appropriately named Icky (Will Oldham), spins a rambling tale about driving an expensive bulldozer off a cliff in Alaska. There’s the security guard (Walter Dalton), who tries to befriend Wendy by allowing her to use his cell phone. As becomes painfully clear as Wendy tries to navigate her desperate situation, you can’t really exist in this society without an address or digital means of communication. In one of the film’s only redemptive gestures, the kindly guard later tries to help Wendy by stuffing crumpled bills into her hand – it turns out to be six dollars.

There are also those only too willing to take advantage of people less fortunate or down on their luck, such as the indifferent cops or the auto mechanic (Will Patton), who cons Wendy into junking her car for the reduced towing charge. And when Wendy’s forced to spend the night in the park, she has the misfortune of running into a scary derelict (Larry Fessenden), who rifles through her stuff while Reichardt’s camera focuses mostly on her face. Wendy breaks down afterward in the bathroom of the gas station. By the end, she’s so beaten down by events that she can no longer even think straight. The film seems to suggest that it’s bad luck that leads to reckless decisions – not the other way around.

It’s impossible to talk about Wendy and Lucy without mentioning Michelle Williams, who has short-cropped dark hair and wears the same plaid shirt, pedal pushers, blue hoodie, and distressed sneakers during the entire film. Williams’s understated performance is nothing short of extraordinary. Critics often talk about acting as if it were somehow unrelated to the script. If Wendy’s motivations are not always delineated, this gives a truly gifted performer such as Williams even more creative room to maneuver. In her interactions with others, she has a tendency to turn completely away from them (and the camera) as an innately defensive response. It’s only with Lucy that Wendy is able to exude any warmth or emotional spark.

Reichardt has always gravitated to those vulnerable characters who seem to exist on society’s margins. Wendy and Lucy, in fact, begins and ends in a train yard, as if deliberately conjuring up the past – the mythic figure of the hobo – in order to suggest that the Great Depression of the 1930s is back again. As such, the film can be read as a searing indictment of the Bush economic legacy. Reichardt creates rectangles within rectangles, evoking all the ways Wendy manages to get herself boxed in. There’s one shot in particular, where the camera follows Wendy as she walks in front of a brown wall. She turns the corner, but the camera stops abruptly, dividing the space of the frame in half. Reichardt relies on a symphony of train sounds and Wendy’s humming rather than music to create emotional resonance. With its muted colors, rusted metal, and grey skies, Wendy and Lucy manages to create an overall sense of melancholy that seems to reflect the protagonist’s psyche.

Posted 28 December, 2008

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