It Takes a Train to Cry

The Cinema of Kelly Reichardt at the Pacific Film Archive

Pacific Film Archive/Courtesy

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Few contemporary filmmakers capture the inner cries of our times with greater eloquence than Kelly Reichardt. Haunted by economic doldrums and fractured working-class psyches, her films are meditations on a mercurial America, pondering the present through bracingly frank snapshots of small-town life and the tenuous bond between individuals and nature.

Reichardt herself graced Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive from Thursday to Saturday, where a comprehensive retrospective of her body of work played to audiences. From 1994's "River of Grass" to 2008's "Wendy and Lucy," her 14-year filmmaking career offers us an indelible look at characters who hail from the fringes of American society, both by choice and by circumstance.


Reichardt's feature debut came in the form of "River of Grass" (1994), a movie about a roguish romance that blossoms between a pair of deadbeats living in suburban Miami. It's a brazen first film, raw at the edges and refreshingly unafraid to wear its influences on its sleeve. From the opening montage of home videos to the framing of the Everglades as an antidote to suburban ennui, the film suggests as much about its creator as it does about its characters: Reichardt was born in Miami, and her father's occupation as a crime scene detective clearly made an impression on her formative years. Her characters Cozy (Lisa Bowman) and Lee Ray Harold (Larry Fessenden) are Bonnie and Clyde for the slacker generation, imperfect embodiments of the latter's particular brand of pop-culture nihilism: "If we weren't killers, we weren't anything."


A five-year hiatus from filmmaking ended with Reichardt's adaptation of Herman Raucher's novel "Ode to Billy Joe," a haunting tale of a teenage boy living in rural Mississippi who commits suicide by drowning. Clocking in at 50 minutes, Reichardt's version is simply titled "Ode," and the film itself echoes this candid austerity. Like in "River of Grass," we see the world from the perspective of a lonely young woman, constricted by her upbringing and family lifestyle. Reichardt contrasts the excitement of adolescent love with the measured pace of small-town life, painting a portrait of death and loss that's at once saccharine and plaintive. Filmed in Super 8 on a infinitesimal budget, "Ode" seems to anticipate the inquisitive, mournful atmosphere of Reichardt's later works, particularly the filmmaker's penchant for minimalist storytelling. Or, as Reichardt states with disarming simplicity: "I want to make films in a private way."


Drenched in images of green foliage and cascading waterfalls, Reichardt's 14-minute short "Then a Year" (2001) opens with a voiceover reciting evocative stanzas of love, dreams and remembrance. The film then proceeds to recount a story of a woman's murder by collecting fragments of texts taken from radio and "true crime" television specials, allowing sounds to intersect in abstract wavelengths. Visual conflicts develop between the serenity of natural habitats and the troubling underbelly of modern civilization.

At 12 minutes, "Travis" (2004) is no less intrepid in its departure from conventional structure. Again returning to her penchant for intertwining found media with visual experimentation, Reichardt loops a radio interview in which a mother despairs over her army son's passing and sets fragments of dialogue against out-of-focus images of a child playing in a backyard. With their shared anti-violence subtext and empathy toward the suffering of commoners, both shorts anticipate Reichardt's subsequent feature films in stimulating fashion.


For her sophomore feature, Reichardt shifts her lens to the Pacific Northwest, collaborating with short story writer Jon Raymond to create the quietly magnificent "Old Joy" (2006). Will Oldham plays Kurt, an aging drifter who persuades his domesticated friend Mark (Daniel London) to join him for an excursion into the woods. As they embark on their journey, Reichardt paints the outskirts of civilization in Portland as an industrial wasteland, cold and barren, standing in stark contrast with the warm, humanistic attributes she assigns to both Kurt and Mark.

In a series of meandering treks into the forest, the duo's interactions with each other transform into resplendent discourse. "Sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy," intones the quirkily philosophical Kurt at one point. As we become intimately acquainted with Kurt and Mark through our own process of observation and synthesis, our understanding of their personalities becomes analogous to their discovery of themselves. Reichardt infuses the film with moments of timeless beauty, crafting a meditation on the division between nature and civil society and our conflicting allegiances to both.


In "Wendy and Lucy" (2008), Michelle Williams plays a young woman journeying towards Alaska in search of job prospects. Her road trip is impeded by declining funds and a broken-down car, leaving her temporarily stranded on the outskirts of Portland with her beloved dog Lucy. After a botched attempt at petty thievery, a young grocery clerk refuses to grant her clemency; as a result, Wendy is briefly taken into custody and Lucy disappears. An elderly security guard plays the Good Samaritan, transforming into an unlikely source of moral support amid the town's sea of indifference.

As its melancholy narrative unfolds, "Wendy and Lucy" seems to have less in common with its American brethren than with the films of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, masters of Italian neo-realism who channeled their cinematic curiosity into tales of the poor and working class. As she walks the streets in search of catharsis, Wendy's plight is not unlike that of Antonio Ricci in "Bicycle Thieves": Both are deprived of the right to pursue happiness in a world where lost opportunities often call for desperate measures.

But no matter. Like sojourners of ages past, the resilient heroine ultimately gains the inner strength to start off again, albeit alone. Reichardt's approach to cinema as life-affirming art reaches a level of transcendence in the film's conclusion. Jumping onto a moving boxcar, Wendy gazes out at the lush forests flying past, pondering her one-way ticket to an uncertain Promised Land - as are we.


David Liu is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected]

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