Sunday, July 31, 2011

Thoughts on Kelly Reichardt and Meek's Cutoff

Kelly Reichardt has gained attention over the last few years as one of the most interesting and accomplished directors in the current American independent movement.  As “indie movies” have become brand names with audience-expected styles and “quirk,” her films have remained defiantly independent and original.  Each of her films have been shot on miniscule budgets with a minimum of cast and crew, and show no inclination whatsoever toward typical bright colors, witty dialogue, and ironic love stories of the current indie boom.  Instead, Reichardt tells naturalistic, intimate stories of characters on the edge of society, with a minimum of dialogue, action, and fuss.
Her style initially reminded me of other micro-budget indies I’ve seen, but the comparison is more revealing in the differences than the similarities.  The most common alternate style for these micro-budget projects is “mumblecore,” which is generally shot on cheap digital cameras and filled with lots of shaky close-ups and unmotivated zooms.  The stories are often about characters of the same age and lifestyle as the filmmakers, and the stories often become unbearably awkward and navel-gazing, as contemporary relationship soap operas are played out in improv style to humiliatingly sticky effect.  While Reichardt follows her (often no-name) actors on small, character-driven plots in a very naturalistic fashion with conversations that can feel improvised, her style is better described as minimalism.  She shoots on film and uses a tripod--no shaky-cam here--and she shows an intuitive understanding of where to place the camera.  Her shots are filled with interesting compositions and natural beauty.  Her level of talent makes makes mumblecore stars like the Duplass Brothers look like amateur hacks, and exposes how artistically bankrupt the mumblecore style usually is.
Her movies have the feel of short stories.  They are small, character-focused affairs that reveal themsleves through small details and unobtrusive observations.  Like James Joyce’s tales in Dubliners, they often seem to be about the unnoticed epiphanies of everyday life, drawing feelings and emotions out into the open with the greatest subtlety.  This can be partly attributed to her co-writer on her last three films, Jon Raymond.  Both Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy are adapted from published short stories of his and Meek’s Cutoff is an original screenplay by him.  Raymond and Reichart obviously work well together and complement each other nicely, turning insular prose into highly cinematic little movies.
To date, Reichardt has directed only 5 feature films.  Her first, entitled River of Grass, played both the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals in 1994, and was nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury Award and several Independent Spirit Awards.  I have yet to see it, but it is reportedly a tale of lovers on the run in the Florida Everglades, though there is apparently little violence and the lovers have a hard time ever actually getting anywhere.  Her second film is 1999’s Ode, which is an adaptation of Herman Raucher’s novel Ode to Billie Joe, based on the song by Bobbie Gentry.  I managed to catch a crappy German TV version on YouTube, and I can’t say I recommend it.  It’s a small, badly acted little film full of awkward lines.  Reichardt’s style in her later films seems to be only beginning to develop here, but she does a nice job catching the atmosphere of the woods, with the light trailing through the leaves.  Some of her usual themes are present, as the characters are teenagers who feel outcast and put upon by society, and attempt to work out there problems in the woods outside of town.  There’s also a pleasant, jangly little score that foreshadows Yo La Tengo’s excellent work on Old Joy, and there’s no denying the film develops a reasonable amount of pathos at the climax.  The actors are just too amateurish, though, to draw one in completely, and the weak scripting doesn’t help. 
It was Reichardt’s next film, 2006’s Old Joy, that really put her on the map.  A festival hit, the film was taken up by major critics like Manohla Dargis and Jim Emerson, and became a financial success, though a small one.  The film follows two old friends, each probably in their early thirties, who reconnect over a long weekend as they go camping and visit some hot springs in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains.  The two men, played by Daniel London and Will Oldham, seem trapped somewhat on the edge of maturity, reluctant to leave behind their hedonistic/idealistic youths and take on the responsibility of the real world.  They are not the stereotypical man-children of Judd Apatow comedies, though, but intelligent real-world men who feel a profound disconnection with their present circumstances, a desire for more without a clear sense of what that more might be.  A spiritual malaise pervades the film, in the midst of everyday conversations and low-key arguments about directions. Reichardt subtly develops this from a general restlessness into an aching sadness, as Mark and Kurt gradually reveal bits of themselves, and it becomes evident that their connection here is temporary.  After the film is over, they will go there separate ways, and further trips like this are unlikely to happen again.  She attempts to connect this ache to a wider political reality, playing a couple long stretches of Air America dialogue which Mark listens to in the car.  As a grounding for his character, a liberal at a loss in Bush’s America, this works fine, but as an attempt at further significance, I think it falls short.  Mark’s unhappy ennui has much deeper causes than a simple dissatisfaction with who won the election; his marriage is tough, and he has a baby on the way, and who knows what other things are happening in his life that we don’t see?  Plus, listening to radio pundits blather on about the evils of Nixon’s southern strategy, fighting and re-fighting old battles, simply isn’t as interesting as engaging with the characters sitting before us.  Nevertheless, everything is redeemed at the climax, a wondrously beautiful and powerfully emotional moment of peace, as the two men finally find the hot springs and soak their tired bodies.  Reichardt cuts between shots of running water, rain on leaves, moss on a rock, and the faces of Mark and Kurt in a quiet little sequence that shows complete mastery of her art, and the ability to evoke small epiphanies in her audience along with her characters.  For this sequence especially, I consider Old Joy her finest work so far.  Certainly it is the one that has touched me most.
Wendy and Lucy saw even more acclaim, and featured a brilliant performance by Michelle Williams.  The story of a young woman, down to the last of her savings, traveling to Alaska with her dog, the picture has been compared to Bicycle Thieves and modern throwbacks to Italian neo-realism.  Unfortunately, I didn’t like Bicylce Thieves (blasphemy, I know), and some of the same weaknesses show up here.  Neo-realist films have a delicate aesthetic--they have to be very careful to stay naturalistic and believable, becauseany slip-up breaks the illusion and turns them into manipulative, annoying films attempting to impose a moral on you.  Wendy and Lucy has only one major slip--at the point she shoplifts and the way she is caught.  The teenage employee is completely unrealistic--strangely vindictive and angry, urging her manager to call the cops to make an example of her.  Having worked in similar jobs before, I can say that this boy seems like nothing in my experience and immediately made me suspicious, taking me out of the movie.  He also wears a conspicuously large cross around his neck, turning him into a distracting political symbol (of the lack of true compassion among outspoken Christians), instead of a person.  Fortunately, the film recovers and eventually earned back my trust with its relentlessly honest portrayal of Wendy herself.  Some have attempted to find political meaning in the film as a whole, and it’s true that it advocates compassion for the less fortunate, but it shouldn’t be seen as a political fable, like many of the Italian neo-realist films of the 1940s.  Wendy is not typical of the modern American homeless population, and the film acknowledges this in her brief interactions with other outcasts. Making a young, beautiful, female movie star a symbol of homelessness would be a tasteless Hollywood move, and I don’t believe Reichardt is doing that here.  Instead, she is telling a small, tender story of one girl who has made some bad choices and fallen on hard times and is struggling to hold onto hope when she has no one else to depend on.  That is a story worth telling and hearing, despite its mild flaws.
Meek’s Cutoff is clearly Reichardt’s most ambitious movie to date, with a real ensemble of veteran actors to work with, not just a couple of unknowns.  The film looks like it has an actual budget this time, though it clearly didn’t need to be large--just costumes and three wagons to complete period recreation.  It was shot in Academy ratio 4:3, not widescreen, very unusual in the western genre, which traditionally emphasizes wide-open prairies.  Reichardt still finds ways to emphasize the emptiness of the landscape, but it also creates a sense of claustrophobia amidst a wasteland, furthering the tension.  She seems strongly influenced by There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men in the way she shoots landscape and small details.
The story follows a group of eight pioneers attempting to make it to the new settlements in Oregon.  Their way is long and difficult, and they seem to be lost.  Reichardt carefully maps the relationships between every character and how they can change and evolve from day to day.  She focuses on details, like washing clothes, sewing, fixing wooden wheels, sitting on the bench detached from the front of the wagon and set on the ground.  The film is mostly seen from the women’s perspective.  Michelle Williams’ character is perhaps the strongest and smartest of the crew, though she is also the most circumspect, taking time to develop her opinions, then acting on them when she’s sure she’s right.  He husband, played by Will Patton, is also a good man, but he isn’t as quick to take charge, and defers to her when she’s determined.  Stephen Meek, their guide, has a beard and hat that are so ridiculous they look fake, giving him an air of untrustworthiness that feeds into the uncertainty and tension of the film.  Played by a completely unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood, he talks a lot about bears and Indians he has fought and boasts of his friendship with Jim Bridger, and comes off as completely untruthful.  But surely he has no ulterior motives for bringing them this way, for he is now as lost as they are.  They cannot trust him, but he is the only one with experience in this sort of situation, and they have no one else to trust.
The film functions to constantly bring up conflicts among the various characters, between both personalities and worldviews.  The other men of the party do not trust Meek, but they have no viable alternative to his directions.  The tensions in marriages are investigated, as one man harshly orders his wife around while Patton’s character consults carefully with his.  Meek’s extremely xenophobic view of Indians seems harsh even to the other characters in the film, but he is the only one speaking from experience.  Williams’ character urges that they spare the life of an Indian they meet and follow his lead to find water and civilization.  It is common in many westerns for characters of different backgrounds and worldviews to have their views and characters tested against each other in order to decide which was most wanting.  John Ford was especially adept at this, as seen such films as Stagecoach and Wagon Master.  Reichardt is doing the same thing here, but she refuses to resolve the frictions, instead leaving her characters in a perpetual state of uneasiness and danger.  Her ending is already famous for its mysteriousness, and it’s sure to upset audiences all over.  Her point seems to be a dramatization of the uncertainty of life, where our various disagreements and contradictions cannot be worked out in an hour and a half, and sometimes both sides seem to have logic on their side.  This is a much more difficult and cerebral theme than her previous work, and the film frustrates from its refusal to grant catharsis.  I can’t help feeling that the ending is meant to be hopeful, however, for there is a clear sign of going the right way just before that fade to black.  Reichardt immediately undercuts it, but I’m not sure I can accept something that bleak.
Jon Raymond’s script is based on a true story of a group that broke off from the main Oregon Trail to find a shortcut and became lost.  The original group was much bigger, and several people died.  They did eventually find civilization again, though, which bolsters my claim to see hop in the ending.  The film is intentionally both specific and ambiguous, leaving it open to numerous interpretations, from feminist and leftist rejections of Manifest Destiny to modern political parables of the choice between Bush and Obama.  I don’t like those readings, but they can easily be argued, and perhaps because of that, I can’t call Meek’s Cutoff my favorite of Reichardt’s work.  It is a finely crafted work of detail and abstraction that is well worth seeing, but its many uncertainties rest uneasily with me.  Whenever I find an interpretation to grab hold of it with, it slips through my fingers and leaves me tetherless again.  Nevertheless, her talent has never been less in doubt, and she continues to establish herself as one of the finest independent directors working today.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is a fantastic essay on Reichart's cinema, Stephen, though I am still trying to find that magic that so many others have taken from her work. I had issues with OLD JOY, which never went anywhere (but yeah, many say it wasn't supposed to go anywhere) but found the discussion eventually sequed into repetition and tedium; I liked WENDY AND LUCY more, but was intermittingly exasperated with the intense minimalism, and then MEEK'S CUTOFF, which was breathtakingly beautiful, but again a film that stayed the course with her vacuous sgtyle. But heck it's me looking in from the outside and THIS is a great piece!