May 2016, arsenal cinema

The American Landscape – 
The Films of Kelly Reichardt


Kelly Reichardt (*1964) is arguably the most important independent filmmaker working in the US at the moment and one of contemporary American cinema’s most distinctive voices. Her films are about being on the move, about people setting out, losing their way, or looking for something. They interrogate their country, its myths, its everyday routines, its suburbs, and its nature, and are usually characterized by a deliberately minimalist directorial style. Nearly all of them are set in the landscape of the state of Oregon and were created in collaboration with writer Jon Raymond. Aside from this regional anchoring, they address many more far-reaching concerns, with their characters’ stories always alluding to existential states, social orders, and crises within society, without being ostensibly political. To coincide with the restoration of her largely overlooked feature debut RIVER OF GRASS (1994), we are showing Kelly Reichardt’s first five films in a short retrospective.

RIVER OF GRASS (USA 1994, 1.5., with an introduction by James Lattimer) Cozy (Lisa Bowman) is bored of her husband, kids, and humdrum existence in the suburbs of southern Florida and would like to leave it all behind her. One night she meets Lee Ray (Larry Fessenden) at a bar, who lives with his grandmother and is pretty much a directionless drifter. When a shot is accidentally fired from a mislaid revolver, the two of them go on the run, believing they've committed murder. But this wannabe Bonnie and Clyde doesn't make it any further than the nearest motel. The topos of the outlaw couple is both quoted and deconstructed: there is no love, no crime, and no new horizons beckon, theirs is a flight that leads nowhere. Reichardt's anti-road movie is accompanied by a running commentary by the apathetic Cozy in voiceover commentary and uses biting humor to reveal that there’s no reconciling the myth of freedom and adventure with the American present.

OLD JOY (USA 2006, 2.5.) Mark und Kurt (Daniel London, Will Oldham) used to share a house together but their paths have since diverged. Now they're meeting up again to take a trip into the forests of Oregon to revisit the good old times. While one of them now has a bourgeois life as a teacher complete with a wife and terraced house and is expecting his first child, the other has remained a pot-smoking hippie and still lives from hand to mouth. With this minimalistic setting as her starting point, Kelly Reichardt uses considerable nuance and a wealth of small details to show how these two former friends no longer have a great deal to say to one another, with indeterminate feelings of loss and sadness circulating in the process. Accompanied by the melancholy guitar sounds of band Yo La Tengo, OLD JOY is equally a timely picture of the USA following George W. Bush's re-election and the portrait of a baffled generation.

WENDY AND LUCY (USA 2008, 3.5.) Wendy (Michelle Williams) is on the way to Alaska with just her dog Lucy in tow and a few dollars in her pocket, her hope being to find work in a fish factory. She sleeps in her old car and when it fails to start, she's left stranded and more or less penniless in a small town in Oregon. If that weren't enough, she is first caught stealing dog food before Lucy disappears, setting a desperate search in motion. Wendy tries to resist her awkward situation with pragmatism and tenacity, focusing on nothing but her own fate. It's only a parking lot security guard who sympathizes with her plight, otherwise she receives no support at all. She says she's just passing through – and yet the film shows the flipside of the American myth of the freedom attached being on the road. Wendy's individual crisis points to the state of society, without putting forward any concrete theses about exclusion. A precisely directed film that emerges from a simple starting point, a film great and small in equal measure.

MEEK'S CUTOFF (USA 2010, 4.5.) A group of three settler families and their wagons get lost whilst trekking west on the Oregon Trail in 1845, where the heat makes the arid steppe landscape shimmer. It's the loud-mouthed Meek who has led them here, as this was meant to be a short cut. Their water reserves dwindle and tension and mistrust increasingly pervade the group. Only the young Emily (Michelle Williams) rebels against Meek and dares to approach the Native American they capture along the way, for he could be the one to lead them back on to the right path. Reichardt fixes her gaze on the everyday lives of the women that often go unnoticed in the Western genre, showing the quotidian tasks they carry out (baking bread, looking for wood) and the many hardships of life in the wilderness. A hushed Western from a feminist perspective, replete with calm 4:3 images, delicate, faded colors, painterly shots of the landscape, and a soundtrack by Jeff Grace.

NIGHT MOVES (USA 2013, 5.5.) Although Josh, Dena and Harmon (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) hardly know each other, they have a shared goal: they want to blow up a dam in Oregon to make a stand against the pollution of the environment. But something goes wrong, their plan ends up killing someone and soon the ground is falling out from beneath their feet. It’s not the explosion that’s at the heart of the film though, but rather the meticulous planning of the operation on the one hand and the changes the attack triggers in the environmental activists on the other. What begins as a de-accelerated ecological thriller soon shifts into a psychological drama about questions of political activism, morals, violence, and guilt. Is it better to make a mistake than do nothing at all? The film withholds judgment. (bik)

An event in cooperation with Comeback Company ( With thanks to Peripher Filmverleih.