The Political Cinema of Kelly Reichardt Tim Gannon from Decent Exposure, April 26, 2013
Kelly Reichardt is one of the most independent and political voices coming out of American Cinema today. Her films wrestle with the political in the personal in subtle and open ended ways unlike anything else done by her contemporaries in the US. Although she has been releasing films from the mid nineties onwards (Her debut being 1994’s River of Grass), let us focus on her collaborations with writer Jon Raymond – Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff. This trilogy may be set in different times and spaces but each examines modern political and economic landscapes and ideals through seemingly apolitical characters and situations.
Although River of Grass is, to a certain extent, an indictment of the American Dream and traditional family living, it wasn’t until the onset of the Bush Administration that Kelly Reichardt found her true cinematic vision of an America where ordinary people were openly affected by directionless politics and the downturn in the economy. Her debut feature is more concerned with the myth of the outlaw and urban ennui whereas Old Joy (2006) finds its characters immediately caught up with the state of the country and struggling to find their place within a divided and uncertain social backdrop. The foreground of the story sees Mark, a thirtysomething man on the cusp of fatherhood, reunited with an old friend Kurt for a road trip that stirs up old and new feelings about one another and their perspective paths in life. Both men have, in the past, had the same idealistic outlook about society, politics and the environment but their approach to these ideas have diverged evidently. Mark is, or has become, a pragmatist and finds it tough to keep up the same passion about his principles that he used to have. His socio-political interest is more abstract and fleeting now as he strives to become a ‘good citizen’ and ‘do whatever it is people do’. He has a regular job, probably a mortgage on his house, pays taxes and is about to become responsible for another human being. He keeps a passive interest in politics, community and green issues through talk radio, yoga and volunteering. These pursuits marginally relieve the guilt he may be feeling for not doing more for the world. He is obviously ill contented but feels he doesn’t have a better outlet or sounding board to vent his views on society. Kurt is on the opposite spectrum of being a ‘good citizen’; he is somewhat out of society – his address seems to be floating, his employment unknown, his behavior is dictated by carpe diem but he is still passionate about the politics and the philosophy of his youth. Both men struggle to balance desires and requirements; Mark needs to keep a job and take care of a family while trying to maintain a connection with his ideals. Kurt’s main problem is finding a practical means and channel for his activism and beliefs. As the Air America radio debates on the soundtrack tells us, the left or at least the socially concerned wing of the democratic party are also divided like the characters on how to progress, on how to communicate a viable path forward and on how to help society, people and politics develop in a complex time for the country.
Reichardt, despite the blunt diegetic ranting on the radio, does not force the politics down people’s throats. She observes the difficulties that the characters have in relating to one another and the complications of melding their similar yet different world outlooks together. Mark stands for many American environmentalists and liberals who are ‘insiders’ but are uncertain how to direct their interests for the greater good. What may be more fascinating is how society treats a voluntary ‘outsider’ like Kurt. His voice and others like him may be depreciating into minus value due to his own partial disregard for the needs of formalized democracy and society. He is left just a notch above the begging man on the street who he gives money to near the end of the film. Mostly though, his values are undermined by those who were probably like him in their twenties. Due to the infighting and lack of leadership within socially directed politics and a wider acceptance of the neo conservative opinion that ‘people should help themselves first’ the character of Kurt now stands for a disenfranchised, quasi disillusioned yet still passionate group that society does not know how to handle or is gradually trying to forget. Even Mark seems resentful of Kurt’s fecklessness and freedom.
The film is not a bitter portrait of lost ideals; it does have within it the possibility of renewal or progress. As the characters delve deeper in the forest there is a sense that they can open up and literally and metaphorically strip things down to the bare bones. This is maybe where Reichardt sees hope lying, a sense of getting back to basics, removing all the stress and convolutions from the arguments so that they and the audience can see a brighter way forward. This could almost be a Buddhist or far eastern philosophy and adds another layer of intrigue and texture to the ambiguous proceedings.
The idea of urban intrusion into the environment is something noticeably close to Reichardt’s heart. This is a theme that is most prevalent in ‘Old Joy’; it doesn’t just reflect an industrialization and degrading of green areas throughout the history of ‘progressive’ societies but comments on some dubious environmental policy in the early-mid part of the Bush administration- the non signing of the Kyoto Protocol, lax measures towards Clean Air Acts and the liberalization of oil drilling near national parks. If a country’s government and its leaders aren’t that concerned with keeping its land in good shape why would its people be? The campfire scene illustrates that even a protected park can be left damaged with plastic bags, cans and general burned man made debris. The closeness of the forest to roads and amenities signals the ever decreasing boundary between green spaces and pollution from the towns and cities. There seems to be a disheartened acceptance of this in the film however a wonder and excitement is retained by the characters as they explore something so precious and quiet that is practically on their doorsteps. The spring’s proximity to the city appears to be one of its main attractions for visitors. Again the marginalization of green issues by successive governments and a broad acknowledgement from most people of the unstoppable nature of industrialization have led to a sort of apathy from the general public in regards to the environment. The relationship between ‘man’ and the nature is a fragile one and made all the more delicate by the knowledge that it is ‘man’ that is simultaneously the protector and destroyer of the natural beauty of the world. The director refuses to condemn this blurring of the environment and the city explicitly; she observes it as it is and lets the audience make up their own minds. The effects of this urban/rural merging are something that she will return to in her subsequent work.
Fundamentally the film questions its target audience’s (middle class socially and culturally aware people, we presume) views and opinions on what is best for society and its different strata of people in general. It specifically asks its viewers to consider where American politics can go, how people should directly influence their environments and what role can those that are on the edge of society play in its future? As this debate became more prescient with the global economic collapse and the re-election of Bush, Reichardt’s cinema also became more urgent and clear in the form of Wendy & Lucy. Made in 2008, the year of global recession and bailouts, Reichardt’s minimalist third feature explores how poverty can affect ordinary people in the most life changing ways and asks how much responsibility should individuals take to help one another in a climate of ever decreasing opportunities. We find the character of Wendy set adrift in a temperamental car with only her canine companion Lucy for comfort. The road trip is traditionally seen as a path of freedom in American iconography but here it is a giant obstacle with a sense of forbearance standing in the way of Wendy and a new life with better prospects. In this atmosphere every penny counts and huge decisions rest on narrowing constrains. Reichardt focuses myopically on a class of people struggling to come to terms with the ravages of recession in the face of little governmental assistance. Through the eyes of Wendy (as she waits for her car to be repaired and as she searches frantically for her lost dog) we see a sort of underclass relegated to the woods, the ends of railway tracks and to literal nothingness. Being out of society actually means ‘out of society’ and into a murky and dangerous wilderness where thieves, drugs and craziness lay waiting. Like these outsiders the environment is seen as being hidden away, maltreated and something to be forgotten about. The general policies by the US government from 2006 to 2009 towards the environment weren’t as openly detrimental as its treatment of welfare recipients and Hurricane Katrina victims. However it is evident that green issues were put on the back burning whilst the state concerned itself initially with its war and national debt and subsequently concentrated on rescuing the banks and the economy as a whole at the backend of 2008. Given these facts, the state of the natural milieu depicted in the film reflects a deeper level of distress in the country in all reality. Even the main character’s supposed destination of Alaska, some sort of faux haven in the film, had been, in real terms, a point of environmental controversy with the Bush supported drilling of the oil reserves near its national parks.
Reichardt talks about the film’s fruition and puts it in to relevant social context (http://bombsite.com/issues/105/articles/3182).
“The seeds of Wendy and Lucy happened shortly after Hurricane Katrina….. We were watching a lot of Italian Neo-Realism and thinking the themes of those films seem to ring true for life in America in the Bush years. There’s a certain kind of help that society will give and a certain help it won’t give”
The main character encounters indifference from the mechanic as he offers to take her car off her and corporate compliance to the rules in the form of the shop assistant. Also there is no sense of community to the town she is left stranded in. This is emphasized by the repair shop owner who sees her as just someone passing through and does not want to involve himself in her obvious distress. Can he be blamed for looking after himself in difficult times? Probably not but the film questions his responsibility to another in need outside of commercial gain. He is on the fence and staying there. The young shop assistant is another matter; he definitely sees Wendy as a sponger thief and wants her to pay for her transgression. He goes out of his way to make sure that the shop’s rules are adhered to even though his manager wavers on the matter. The shop boy is an example of society’s and contemporary politics’ contempt for ‘people who refuse to help themselves’. The only hope for Wendy is the security guard who takes pity on her but, given his economic status and worn old demeanor, there’s only so much he can do. He may have the advantage of a support network himself but he’s just as caught up in the economic slump as everyone else. He tries to help as best he can, even providing Wendy with a contact number and touchingly, giving her a few bucks near the film’s end. He recognizes her struggles just like the rest do but he is the only one to help although it is only token in the greater scale of things. She is caught in a land that sees economic prosperity or at least the ability to pay your own way as the only feasible means for social visibility and mobility. Heartbreakingly grand decisions of her behalf are forced to be made because of temporary poverty. This is an indictment of a political system that justifies its war debt, federal bailouts and indifferent welfare structure but leaves the decisions to help out those in need to those who are already too financially and physically stressed to make a difference.
The minimalism of Wendy and Lucy focuses the subject matter and the themes for the audience like the films of the post war neo-realists as mentioned but it is also influenced by the politics of New German Cinema and the quiet Americana of Reichardt favorite Monte Hellman. Those sorts of films (with the possible exception of Hellman’s whose quiet downbeat road movies made an impression for Reichardt) penetrated sharply to the core of the social, economic and political problems in their perspective societies that they were trying to emphasize. Although Wendy and Lucy isn’t as tranquil and lush as Old Joy it does favor calmness like its predecessor to underline the isolation of the characters from one another and in this case to detach Wendy from the faceless town she has found herself in. The stillness, the bare bones of the character and the streamlining of situation leaves us to derive the film’s point of view without the manipulation of formalized exposition, emotive soundtracks or indeed Hollywood acting. This clarity allows the viewer to see through a proverbial cinematic forest and reflect on Reichardt’s observations with wide open logic.
Wendy and Lucy poses universal questions on how society can work and how it doesn’t. It matters not whether you’re stuck in some remote town in the mid west of the USA or in a chic European city, the questions remain the same: how easy is it to end up on poverty row? How much should we help each other and how deep should this help go? The film is quite emotional in the sense that the anxiety and pain we feel for Wendy in her search for her dog is palpable. We stare so long at Michelle Williams in near silence that we can almost see her mind ticking over, trying to figure ways out of her desolate situation. Having her linger in almost timeless close up and mid shot, it’s near impossible not to feel for her in her predicament.
The politics is understated as always but the message is driven through with precision; it’s a painful meditative watch that essentially makes you engage with your opinions on outcasts, people in temporary and long term need and your own sense of guilt and responsibility in society. Although it does not actively politicize its surface, the context and background of the film weighs heavy with the role of the state and its potential for intervening in ordinary but desperate situations investigated. The best way, Reichardt feels, to get across a need for debate on these issues is through a humanist low key approach. She clearly cares for political and social engagement but there’s no polemic on show here. Maybe she needed some distancing device to connect further with a more pointed political critique and this is what she got on her next venture.
Reichardt’s fourth picture Meek’s Cutoff was her third successive alliance with the writer Jon Raymond but her first outside the realm of the present. Probably her most ambitious and accomplished work yet, the film focuses on the 19th century pursuit for land on the Oregon Trail.It is somewhat an anti western where freedom and vast vistas are negated and closed off for the characters and the audiences alike. In a traditional western setting the opening up of the land, through grand and iconic shot selection in widescreen, purports positively to the idea of expansion and colonization. However, in this film, the director subverts the traditional style of the western genre and encloses both audience and characters within a narrow space of uncertain and potentially negative effects. The 4:3 screen ratio, obtuse and naturalistic framing and a discordant soundtrack is used to breathe realism as well as unease and claustrophobia.
Given its period placement, Meek’s Cutoff superficially looked like a release from modern issues but instead it is a deep allegorical exploration into the notions of leadership and racism that has just as many current day resonances (maybe more) than her previous two efforts. The American Dream is at the forefront of the themes and unlike a lot of frontier depictions the role of women in society is delved into in detail.
Reichardt’s recurring theme of the encroachment of people on the land manifests itself again in Meek’s Cut-off. In her previous film, the director hinted at the destructiveness of centuries of progress on the environment; now she observes its origins or at least its central building blocks on American History. People setting up ‘civilizations’, town and cities have had an inevitable cost on the natural resources and the native population. The vast unplundered spaces of the US led an ever growing population to seek out new frontiers for development in an almost internalized colonial way. Without due care for the existing ecosystem and its inhabitants, without concern for the ways of the native Indians, these previously tranquil areas were disrupted, harmed and bulldozed in the name of ‘growth’ and town planning. The film contrasts two ways of life (the Oregon trailers looking for prosperity and new areas to settle in and the Indian who protects the status quo) and how these opposing views lead to mistrust and conflict once they meet one another. Obviously the trailers are not out directly to destroy the land and its stability; history has shown us that, for the most part, a balance is struck between progress and preservation. However as Reichardt’s previous work have implied, in contemporary times, this balance may have been, through greed, ambition, power and possibly ignorance, weighted drastically in the direction of urbanization. Whether the director has a more militant argument for protection of the environment may be revealed in her upcoming ‘Night Moves’ which is reportedly about eco-warriors and the blowing up of a dam.
The uncertainty of direction and leadership that the travelers get from their guide Meek is reflected in the audience’s feelings as well. We, like them, don’t know if he is a prophet or a charlatan and as the trail goes on divisions are evident within the party. When Michelle Williams’ character Emily Tetherow says ‘is he ignorant or is he just plain evil?’ the audience is left to empathize with her and fear that the conclusion may be closer to the latter than the former. The idea of a leader moving his faithful supporters into new pastures is as old as time but the ambiguity of where they are on course to or if they are heading on a destructive route raises comparisons with the state of American foreign policy and the divisiveness of the Gulf war and Afghani occupation. Given that the Bush administration had just been ousted by the time the film was in production, it is fair to suggest that Meek’s Cutoff reflects on the Republicans’ aggressive steering of the country in the first decade of the century. The parallels between Meek’s almost evangelistic belief in his own righteousness and cunning and that of the decisions and attitude of the Bush regime are there to be seen. Meek’s followers, whether they are wholeheartedly behind him or don’t have an alternative, are like lost sheep in a barren landscape looking for a savior or some sort of hope to grasp on to. They are the American people, somewhat skeptical, somewhat cuckolded into believing that a better world with greater riches is over an unknown horizon.
Further modern analogies are introduced by the capture of the Indian. Even before the native’s first sighting, Meek builds up a climate of fear to strengthen his position of indispensable power. The Indian is the flip side of Meek; he is ungraspable, almost mystical like the land and does not campaign belligerently for the group’s attention. The troop is in fear of him primarily due to urban legend and misinformation mainly elicited from the mouth of Meek thus allowing suspicion and racism to take hold. Miss Tetherow and, to a lesser extent, her husband Solomon put their faith in the unintelligible Indian and a split for the hearts and minds of the camp ensues. The primary dilemma of whether to trust a preaching, smooth talking probable swindler or their captive foreign victim, who seems closer to the spirit of the land than anyone else, takes hold. This conundrum is put to the audience by Reichardt in her familiar non judgemental style but the decision of which side to take is made more difficult by the lack of information on or translation of the Indian’s dialogue. This is a brave and potentially alienating move on the part of the filmmaker but a clever one all the same to make us question our relationship with our own leaders and those considered ‘Other’ or foreign. Should we automatically trust our authority figures because they are articulate and say they have our best interests at heart? Should we get them to earn this trust by evidence and moral courage? Should we question the motives of those who preach that people contrary to us are enemies and only out to harm us? These are all significant queries that the film tries to address to its audience. Ms Tetherow is more trusting and willing to treat the Indian like a human than the others but she does this not primarily because she feels sorry for him but because she recognizes him as a better option to provide their overall survival. In saying this she does not identify his culture as being equal to her own. When she says ‘you can’t believe what we’ve done, the cities we’ve built’ she is only aggrandizing her ‘civilized’ way of live however it is ironic that they are now lost in inhospitable lands and are looking to this ‘primitive’ for their salvation. Essentially the audience and the travelers are asked, through the contrast of Meek and the Indian, to believe in something that is probably wrong or to believe in something that is unknowable. Both may ultimately lead to devastation. The ambiguity and mystery continues at the climax but the themes and questions of leadership, political direction and the meeting of different cultures that the film provokes are there to be debated by all immediately.
The role of women is considerable in Meek’s Cutoff in that they are the binding glue of the families yet they are denied any real say in decisions and discussions. We see the women cast adrift from the men but we are able to identify with them more in their isolation due to our own denial of information by the film as the men go off to debate. We, like the women, can’t hear the discussions, are held at a distance and only get morsels of soundbites passed from one woman to the next. Interestingly it is through the better judgement of human nature on the part of Ms. Tetherow that Meek’s direction is questioned. When most of the men are taken in by his confidence and brusqueness, it is Emily who makes her husband muse over Meek’s worthiness and makes him question whether he is taking them not to the land of plenty but down the path of destruction. She, as mentioned before, is willing to treat the Indian humanely but not in an emotionally clichéd female way but for the practical reasons that he is their best hope of getting out of the situation alive. In positioning this character as the most sensible and astute mind in the camp, Reichardt may be calling for a greater female presence in the realm of government affairs or she may even be criticizing how a male orientated decision making process has led her country in to a dubious war that benefits no one and causes huge human losses. Reichardt’s naturalism with elements of documentary style also gives prominence to the women on the frontier. The early scene of clothes washing down by the stream is Robert Flannery like in its matter of fact realism and the silence and emphasis on the common place and nature elicits a feeling of Terrence Malick through its tranquillity. In some ways Meek’s Cutoff is Reichardt’s most naturalistic film with its wide shots and the authenticity of location and production design. We really get a sense that they have traveled on a long arduous route, are wore out and kept in dirty and ragged clothing and have to sleep in brittle and cramped wagons. This naturalism could not have been pulled off without given the female characters equal, if not more, screen time than the men.
From Old Joy to Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt has developed her themes and situations from the forests of small intimate relationships to the barren and wide open deserts, posing increasingly difficult questions about society and the nature of politics within America. From one film to the next the situations that the characters find themselves in have become progressively complex and threatening. Old Joy’s central premise relies on an emotional internal arc rather than anything concrete, its gentleness and tension seems from an almost abstract need for connection between the characters and their environs. Wendy and Lucy ups the ante somewhat as it draws a clearly defined situation of a young woman and the forced decisions she has to make for the possibility of a better life. Meek’s Cutoff marks a serious jump in narrative for Reichardt as it essentially describes the journey of survival or destruction of a whole group of people. Her stories have moved from the near theoretical and the personal through to a larger yet just as complex canvas. Her key themes can also be said to have broadened; Old Joy is a personal questioning of people ideals in society, Wendy and Lucy moves on to ask about class and the state intervention and Meek’s Cutoff raises wider questions about the nature of leadership, race and the position of women in America as a whole. What binds these films together is Reichardt’s insistence in observation, in non judgement and her interest in naturalism and the underdog. However what makes her work unique in contemporary cinema is the subtle probing of large socio-political themes through the eyes of ordinary people striving to survive or find their place in the world either philosophically or literally.
Over the course of the last decade Kelly Reichardt has funneled the political through the personal. Her voice is not outwardly didactic but through character and situation she has managed to ask some pertinent questions about the nature of community, the responsibilities of individuals to one another, the role of the government in economic, social, environmental and military issues without taking away from the inherent core of her stories. What next for her? The issues that her films obliquely provoke remain largely unchanged despite the fact that the country is in the middle of a more hopeful administration. We can only hope ourselves that she continues to keep her unerring critical eye on America whilst producing the same standard of mysterious and evocative storytelling in future. She is truly a unique voice that uses the ordinary and the disenfranchized to magnify her observations on the problems and difficulties in society and its politics in general.