River of Grass
The pair meet at a bar, shortly after the guy nearly hits the girl with his car on a dark rural road. “You’re not from around here, are you?” asks the girl. “Nope,” the guy replies, “I’m from Dade.” A seemingly unremarkable exchange, until you consider that the bar these lonesome souls occupy lies somewhere in Broward County, somewhere apparently very close to the Broward/Dade County line. The exchange then becomes ironic, except that the girl and the guy don’t seem to find it all that funny. These lovers on the run in Kelly Reichardt’s debut River of Grass (1994) inhabit what many viewers would deem a decidedly small world, but to them their immediate surroundings feel just as vast and difficult to traverse as any sea or continent. This is a road movie where the protagonists can’t get past the first tollbooth, having embarked on a crime spree with very little in the way of actual crime. At one point the girl (actually a woman, probably in her early 30s) mentions how every place seems the same. This may be a subtle wink to Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984), in which a similar sentiment is expressed when it’s New York-based protagonists find themselves in Florida, which just so happens to be the setting of River of Grass. (Reichardt’s vision of Florida, dingy, eccentric, a place for wanderers, seems somewhat akin to that of novelist Joy Williams). But in this context, the sentiment assumes new hues, because the person who expresses it has hardly gone anywhere.
River of Grass feels very much like a first film (albeit one by an unusually gifted maker of exceedingly personal films) in that it carries the traces of an artist trying out as many things as she can (the camera movements, the cutting, and the use of voice-over would be tempered or eschewed altogether in her future work) and still craft something with an unmistakable signature. That word, signature, calls to mind things written by hand, and things handmade. The first word expressed in Reichardt’s newest film, Meek’s Cutoff (2010) isn’t spoken but rather traced upon a stone: “LOST.” There could be no better single-word summary of Reichardt’s body of work thus far, stories about people trying to get somewhere and having a tough time of it, unassuming, quiet films made with the bare minimum of participants and equipment. A record gets played in River of Grass: a rendition of ‘Traveling Light.’ A theme song perhaps. Reichardt has often spoke in interviews about her refusal/inability to “move up” to larger scale productions (something that helps explain the decade’s hiatus between her first and second features). This should not be mistaken for lack of ambition. On the contrary, one of the things that make her one of the finest, most distinctive, rigorous American filmmakers alive is her ability to cultivate so much feeling, atmosphere, narrative, character development, and even polemic out of the simplest of stories (many of them coming from collaborations with Jonathan Raymond) and humblest of materials.
Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt’s mesmerizing western about homesteaders lost in 19th century Oregon, seen largely through the eyes of women, opens today at TIFF Bell Lightbox, and I urge you to see it. The film’s Toronto premiere has also prompted a most welcome retrospective of Reichardt’s work. They’re showing everything save the short-shorts. (1999’s Ode, a mid-length work, shot on Super 8, which I’ve been waiting years to see, screens on Sunday afternoon.) River was last night, but still to come are multiple screenings of Meek’s, two screenings of Old Joy (2005), two of Wendy and Lucy (2008), and one screening of Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952), which was selected by Reichardt for TIFF’s Carte Blanche series. The retrospective is part of TIFF’s New Auteurs series.