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July 10, 2014


The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

~~William Wordsworth (1770–1850)

River of Grass (1994)
Old Joy (2006)
Wendy and Lucy (2008)
Meek's Cutoff (2010)
Night Moves (2013)
(Reichardt's short films -- 1999 Ode, 2001 Then a Year, 2009 Travis -- are not available on DVD.)

Kelly Reichardt probes what we experience in the spaces, what we learn in the silence, what we see in the dark. Her camera stares into negative space and stillness, and what she finds there is often profound. Her canvas is the majesty and mystery of the natural world juxtaposed with the bleak urban landscape of Anywhere, USA.

All of Reichardt's films have a palpable sense that we are in the world, surrounded by animals and vegetation and insects and breeze -- and cars and streetlamps and parking lots and the mounting detritus of modern life. In Old Joy, one character observes, "It's all one huge thing now. There's trees in the city and garbage in the forest. What's the big difference?" Because wherever we find ourselves and no matter how much we desire escape from it, we are shackled to lucre in a system that progresses on the usurpation of the natural world.

Reichardt examines the myths of America -- the myth of progress, the myth of reinvention -- that again and again come crashing against the brick wall of reality.

Reichardt's first feature takes its title from the Indian name for the Everglades, River of Grass. It is also the title of Marjory Stoneman Douglas's book, The Everglades: River of Grass, written to bring attention to the degradation of the Everglades in 1947, a book of which Dade County native Reichardt is surely aware, though for Reichardt, the lush-sounding river of grass is just a dreary stretch of state highway.

This river, this trail, this road will be the first along which Reichardt's characters will journey across the North American landscape, a landscape that will itself become an implacable character in her stories.

Cozy is a cop's daughter and day dreamer in a loveless marriage who wonders when the stranger to whom her children must belong will come to claim them. River of Grass utilizes the tropes of the noir thriller. Cozy's voice-over fills us in on her state of mind, and her father's jazz drumming punctuates the soundtrack. 

One night she seeks to assuage her restlessness in a bar, where she meets Lee, a loser whose buddy has entrusted him with a gun he's found on the roadside (a gun Cozy's father dropped in a chase). Lee places the gun in Cozy's hand. Just then she is startled by the appearance of a man -- and shoots. Assuming they have killed the man, Cozy and Lee take to the road.

The accident is the catalyst for the possibility of a new life. The belief that Lee is her partner in crime seals Cozy's allegiance in ways her family could not. They believe that if they can just get out of Dade County they'll get away, but with no money for a toll, they can't even do that.

Old Joy finds old friends Kurt and Mark briefly reunited for an overnight camping trip that feels increasingly awkward as unreconstructed hippie Kurt smokes weed and reminisces while Mark drives. Kurt is all about rekindling the past. His present is convincing himself he possesses a deep understanding of string theory and a string of enlightenment retreats. Betraying the narcissism underlying this sort of personality, he tells Mark, "[Ashland] was amazing. Transformative. I'm at a whole new place now, really."

Mark, on the rare occasion when he does speak, unconvincingly tries to reassure Kurt that it really is just like the old days. Only briefly does he ruminate on balancing work and impending fatherhood -- the elephant in the wilderness. Responsibility is the real wedge between the old friends.

They hike deeper and deeper into the woods with only the company of Mark's faithful dog Lucy, further and further from the world in which River of Grass's Cozy is trapped.

When they finally arrive at their intended destination, the abandoned hot spring provides something of a spiritual renewal, however brief, for their relationship, which is nonetheless destined to weaken as their paths further diverge. The road may have taken them out of the world of getting and spending that lays waste our powers, but must needs carry them back.

Before picking Kurt up and after dropping him off, Mark plays Air America on the station wagon radio, bookending the film. He is inured to its talking heads whose prattling on about politics is impotent rhetoric. He will return to the grid, to his so-so marriage, to his impending fatherhood about which he seems equivocal. Though they have gone their separate ways -- the settled husband seemingly responsible, the drifter seemingly irresponsible -- is there much difference between Mark and Kurt in the greater scheme of things? As dissimilar as they might appear, they share an ambivalence that their time and place seem to require of them.

The Lucy of Old Joy returns in Wendy and Lucy. Both narratives are based on short stories by Jon Raymond from his collection Livability and share a profoundly bittersweet sensibility. (Raymond wrote the screenplays with Reichardt, as well as the screenplay for Night Moves.)

Wendy is on the road, headed to Alaska, the last American frontier. Her own bad decisions, we can assume, have left her on her own. When her car breaks down in an Oregon town it is the final straw in the downward spiral that is penury. She has a sole friend in her canine companion Lucy, but only as long as she can shoulder the responsibility.

Neither Reichardt nor Michelle Williams as the drifter Wendy makes a play for our sympathy, yet we can't help but empathize with Wendy's plight and feel deeply, there but for the grace of God go I.

Wendy and Lucy ends as Wendy jumps a freight train and fades from our compass. What happens to her? people ask me when I describe the film. I always say, Reichardt spares us from knowing.

Meek's Cutoff takes as its springboard Stephen Meek's 1845 ill-fated decision to take a fork off the Oregon Trail with the homesteaders who hired him as a guide. The historical journey involved 200 wagons and a thousand settlers. Reichardt pares the wagon train down to three driven by three families, but hews closely to the basic details of the historical record.

Meek led settlers off the Oregon Trail and into the unknown Oregon desert where, running short on water, they encountered the unpotable saline-alkaline lake of the Harney Basin. Reichardt telescopes the rumors that circulated among the emigrants of threats from Walla Walla and Cayuse Indians and the ravages of camp fever (typhus) that plagued the train into two single characters, and she incidentally includes the gold nugget find that subsequently led to the legend of the Lost Blue Bucket Mine.

The original pioneers suffered many casualties but finally made it, with Indian help, across the perilous Sherars Falls on the Deschutes River to establish settlements in eastern and central Oregon.

In Meek's Cutoff, amid the vast desolation of the Oregon desert, the gold nugget counts for nothing. Water is the currency upon which survival depends.

Michelle Williams collaborates with Reichardt again as Emily Tetherow, Soloman Tetherow's (Will Patton) wife and a woman of her own mind who puts no truck in the gascon Meek. First she confronts his incompetence, and when the group captures a lone Cayuse, she confronts Meek's brutality, understanding before any of the rest that the Indian is the only person standing between them and the vultures.

This is a western unlike any western in the American canon. There are no towns, much less saloons or corrals. There are man and woman in nature, with no mediation. We who are watching, however, know what is coming down the pike once these pioneers settle this vast wilderness -- a landscape of agribusiness, fast food, obesity and diabetes, petrochemicals and fracking.
The Good, The Bad, And The Women: Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine, Brokeback Mountain) goes West again as Emily Tetherow, a bold settler with doubts about the guide hired to lead her party over the Cascade Mountains.

It makes sense then, that Reichardt's most recent film would approach the question of where we find ourselves now and focus on a threesome of eco-terrorists intent on blowing up a dam.

Sidney Lumet's 1988 Running on Empty and Robert Redford's 2012 The Company You Keep explored the consequences of late 1960s-early '70s radicals' anti-war attacks that left innocents dead, the terrorists forced underground, and the benefit of hindsight. Last year Zal Batmanglij's The East trained its gaze on a cultish band of eco-terrorists with multiple targets in their sights. Night Moves enters this moral quagmire with Reichardt's signature detached intensity.

The central character Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) is a Millennial Oregonian  who works for an organic farm that distributes vegetables to like-minded consciousness-raised co-op members.

At some point Josh has met the older Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a shady figure with a dubious past and a trailer in the woods, with whom he is planning to bomb a nearby hydroelectric dam.

Josh and Dena (Dakota Fanning), who works in a New Age spa, are not romantically involved but have hooked up somewhere along the line because she's a rich kid who gets a thrill of self-righteousness out of funding the operation, presumably with Daddy's money. On the bare surface they're all able to talk themselves into a noble motive, but it is the ulterior motives that jangle.

As the owner of the farm cooperative points out while news outlets report the bombing, it's just one dam out of an entire network of dams. The act of violence doesn't even make a statement. You'd have to undermine the entire grid. What's not articulated in that observation but hovers around it like landfill gas is the question as to whether any of us would really want to live in a world without the grid.

Reichardt's omniscient eye refuses to pass judgment, but behind the film is not simply a moral question involving innocent bystanders but a thornier dilemma that suggests that the act of terrorism is the easy way out, a childish, narcissistic response to realities whose complexities require difficult, multiform solutions -- nothing less than the sacrifice of the only way of life we know: industrial capitalism.

Unlike the '60s, any optimism about the possibility of changing the world is pretty much absent from the farm cooperative in Night Moves. Any dawning of the Age of Aquarius hope has been abandoned to the inexorable reality of climate change, multinationals, surveillance, and the long arm of the law.

And unlike the '60s radicals of Running on Empty and The Company You Keep, Josh has no network to rely on. Like all of Reichardt's contemporary characters, Josh is on his own in a world that cannot be navigated without money, IDs, references, credit reports....

Wendy and Lucy was my introduction to Reichardt, and I was deeply affected by the film. She is not the only contemporary director with the courage to fly in the face of Hollywood prescriptions, but she does it so minimally in such elegantly realized slice of life vignettes.

Of the unconventional directors working today, most work big: Paul Thomas Anderson, Terrence Malik, Peter Greenaway, Charlie Kaufman, Danny Boyle, Chan-wook Park. All take on themes that are overtly understood as Big and Important, and they do so with films that say, "This is a Big, Important film."

Then there are the even more idiosyncratic directors who might be said to work weird like John Waters, Terry Gilliam, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Guy Maddin, and, to a slightly lesser degree, David Lynch, Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, and the Coen Brothers.

Even Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders cannot match Reichardt's bare-bones scripts. Béla Tarr is equally noted for his lingering camera shots, but perhaps the director I might consider the closest to Reichardt -- not in style but in sensibility -- is the French director Sylvain Chomet, whose animated films are almost dialogue-less yet explore the theft of human dignity exacted by human progress and the ultimate isolation of the individual in the midst of society (and are obviously indebted to Jacques Tati).

Each of Reichardt's narratives pivots on a decision -- a bad decision. Though the events of River of Grass might seem to result from the shooting, the dominoes begin to fall at least when Cozy makes the decision to abandon her family -- if we subscribe to free will; or even as early as the moment at which her father drops the gun -- if we do not. Before the action of Old Joy, Mark has made the decision to be a "responsible adult" and Kurt has made the decision essentially to remain a narcissistic child. Wendy has decided to make her way to Alaska without the resources to do so, just as the settlers in Meek's Cutoff have miscalculated what pioneering is going to require of them.

In Old Joy, through his hazy cosmic speculation, Kurt says, "Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy." The phrase rings out like an aphorism, beautiful and true, but does it hold up to scrutiny? Is this merely a way of thinking that justifies cynicism and inertia? Like Cozy and Mark and Wendy and Josh, Kurt too returns to the convenience stores and strip malls lining the enervated streets that crisscross mainstream America.

By dispassionately chronicling the zeitgeist, Reichardt reveals the sad truth of the ways a society drowning in decadence impacts the ordinary people in its majority, and she does so quietly, slowly, powerfully, unflinchingly. In short, we might say that Reichardt is a secular American prophet.

Kelly Reichardt