Thursday, May 19, 2011

Kelly Reichardt: All Disquiet On The Northwestern Front - Matt Wavrin

"I was scouting for Wendy and Lucy in Tucson on Highway 10 in the middle of nowhere and this van blew a tire right in front of me and went into the ditch. So I pulled over. It was this Mexican woman, she was mid-forties, maybe my age. She had no shoes on, just socks. I asked if she had AA or a spare tire. No. Well, do you have a cellphone? Yeah, but they just turned it off. She said, “Before I bought this Pepsi, I had $20.” That’s where she was at. So I gave her a ride to the next exit which was about half an hour away and we borrowed a jack from a trucker and circled back around. So now I’m like an hour out of my day and trying to figure out how deep I’m going to get into this. But she was so unpanicked by her situation. She was going to visit her husband and she was very accustomed, clearly, to shit going down like this and having to scramble. She was on her knees on the side of the road getting this tire off when a cop stopped. The cop never made an effort to help her but he kept telling me to be careful. What she was doing was way more dangerous but he stood there and watched her and kept telling me to be safe and get out of the way. She just took the whole thing in stride, which really made an impression on me."

-Kelly Reichardt

A little over 2 years ago, I went to see something called "Wendy And Lucy" at The Loft Cinema in Tucson. Having heard good things about Kelly Reichardt's previous film, "Old Joy," I was anxious to watch it, but was not expecting to be as affected as I was. Truth be told, I didn't see a movie as uniquely powerful the remainder of the year. It announced a new filmmaking voice, but because of Reichardt's complete confidence as a director, it didn't need be loud, brash, gratuitous, violent, ugly, shocking, or controversial to burst onto the map. Its emphasis on character, dialogue, and human (as well as human-animal) relationships was so refreshing to see, it almost made you forget that most movies these days don't focus on these basic elements.

Based on a story by Jon Raymond (with whom Reichardt is again collaborating on her new film, "Meek's Cutoff") the sad predicament that Michelle Williams' Wendy gets herself in makes you feel for her, especially in this day and age. Reichardt described her film thusly: "If you don't have a net and you've had a shitty education and you don't have the benefit of family that's in any better situation than you're in, how does one improve their lot? Not even reaching the middle class, but how do you just get a toehold in the next level?" Wendy is a lost soul looking to find work in Alaska, when her hopes get derailed by a case of car trouble and a run-in with the law. "Old Joy," too, is concerned with a similar character, Kurt (musician and sometimes-actor Will Oldham) who has a wandering spirit in contrast to his old friend (Daniel London), a man content with family life. Kurt only wants to relive the connection the two friends once had, but it appears his friend has moved on.
Reichardt's new film, "Meek's Cutoff," can be considered a Lost Trilogy of sorts. Set in 1845 on the Oregon Trail, it concerns three families that are led, rather misled, by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) through the Cascade Mountains, enduring what you might expect if you ever played the classic computer game. Reichardt focuses on the plight of the families, particularly their need to find water as they become more skeptical of Meek's guiding abilities. Reichardt carries over actors from previous films, including Michelle Williams and Will Patton, but there are also new faces in the cast, such as Paul Dano ("Little Miss Sunshine," "There Will Be Blood"), Zoe Kazan (yes, granddaughter of Elia Kazan), Shirley Henderson ("Marie Antoinette," "Trainspotting") and Neal Huff  ("Michael Clayton," TV show "The Wire").

 Although Reichardt made her debut with 1994's "River of Grass" (a little-seen independent set in her home state of Florida), she has only three shorts to credit, in addition to the aforementioned features. In the meantime, she teaches film at Bard College in New York. According to Reichardt, the gap between feature films (12 years passed between "Grass" and "Old Joy") had much to do with her financing frustrations, most certainly the thorn in the side for most independent filmmakers wishing to tell more personal stories.

"Meek's Cutoff" opens at The Loft on May 20.

-Matt Wavrin is a former Loft volunteer and devoted audience member (2001-2010).  A graduate of The University of Arizona's Media Arts B.A. program, he now resides in North Carolina and is waiting for a miracle. Please send him one.

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