Side of the road

Pub date November 9, 2010
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionFilm Features

FILM Kelly Reichardt wrote and directed a pair of arresting short features in the 1990s — River of Grass (1993) and Ode (1999) — but it was the two poignant recalibrations of the road movie she made during the George W. Bush years that put her on the map. With so much American independent cinema gone upwardly mobile, Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) were films that dug back in to that minor place that gives the 1970s cinema of Monte Hellman (1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop), Bob Rafelson (1970’s Five Easy Pieces), Barbara Loden (1970’s Wanda), and Eagle Pennell (1978’s The Whole Shootin’ Match) its plaintive appeal. Reichardt’s characters (the recent ones all developed with the help of Portland, Ore., author Jon Raymond) are side-winding, shipwrecked, or otherwise in limbo. The films do not engineer uplift, but instead reserve empathy for melancholy souls who, for one reason or another, feel themselves cut off.

Some of the elements of Reichardt’s “naturalism” include her subtle direction of actors (an emphasis on gesture and rhythm); her deceptively unhurried pacing which, as in the best short stories, reveals the continuity of life in its interruptions; her sensitivity to the emotional registry of politics; and the strong regional accents of all her films. If you’ve seen the two earlier movies, you know that Reichardt has a strong feeling for the southeast’s glades, but she’s since come to be associated with Oregon’s overcast skies (her new film, Meek’s Cutoff, was shot upon the state’s hardscrabble plains). Reichardt could probably make a good picture in any out-of-the-way place — a lot of America, actually.

Reichardt’s films unfold as ballads: a cast of two, with occasional walk-ons, observed from a near distance. The incremental addition of events anticipates heartbreak or worse, with context and emphasis left between the lines. Always, we find ourselves in an America where it’s hard to escape and easy to get lost. However the meaning of “escape” and “getting lost” might vary, the characters emerge similarly bruised: walking the strip, stuck in traffic, riding a freight train, or back at home without consolation. Many of Reichardt’s memorable scenes — and there are already many — might have been torn from Robert Frank’s The Americans.

Like all good ballads, the stories strike us as being emblematic. In interviews, Reichardt has made it clear that she intends her films to remind us of the times, whether evoking the left’s ineffectual ties in Old Joy or the lack of a public sphere in Wendy and Lucy. As with her ’70s forerunners, the films invite a pastoral daydream (renewal in the wilderness or out on the road) only to have it dissipate in responsibility or a dead end. Something Cozy (Lisa Bowman) says in River of Grass hangs over all Reichardt’s movies: “It’s funny how a person can leave everything she knew behind and still wind up in such a familiar place.”

Even before learning that Meek’s Cutoff (which premiered at the 2010 Venice Film Festival; no local release date has been announced) was to be set in 1845, it seemed reasonable to assume that we wouldn’t soon see a computer or text message in one of Reichardt’s films. Her characters all have difficulty communicating — this can be vexing, especially in Wendy and Lucy — but the films finally turn on the repressed energies and vulnerabilities that only surface in the midst of a genuine encounter. In Reichardt’s early work, intimate productions provided the right scale for these fragile relationships. That began to change in Wendy and Lucy by virtue of Michelle Williams, and now Meek’s Cutoff represents another enlargement of cast and budget. Reichardt will be in conversation with film scholar B. Ruby Rich following the Pacific Film Archive’s screenings of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, and it will be interesting to hear whether the extra attention has made it any more difficult for her to keep to the byways. 


Nov. 11–13, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249