River of Grass

River of Grass

I once had the privilege of seeing Kelly Reichardt speak at my alma mater. I had already graduated but I was planning a visit back when I saw that she had been invited to campus, so obviously I chose that weekend. I want to say that she did two events, but I only remember one. She was on a panel with a couple other independent filmmakers - one from Austin and the other from somewhere else in Texas - and there was a moderator who took questions from the audience. The panel had a very broad topic of conversation, but the questions tended to skew towards funding and getting projects off the ground. Eventually, Reichardt got fed up with too many people "putting the cart before the horse." At one point, she brushed off a question and wondered aloud why no one was asking questions about story structure or sound mixing.

I'm not sharing this to make Reichardt out to be a snob: that's not even how it came off being in the room. Tensions got high, but she was still good enough to mingle afterwards and I even got to ask her a question, which she politely sidestepped. I wanted to know about some potential symbolism she had packed into a scene in Old Joy, but she told me she didn't believe in answering those kinds of questions as the interpretation should be solely up to the viewer. I respected that and it solidified a view that had been forming that whole evening.

Kelly Reichardt is a filmmaker who is there to do only that - make films. Don't bother her with questions about funding or securing distribution because she is only ever about making films. She teaches film classes at several schools to subsidize her income in order to make films. When she goes to speak at a school, she wants to talk about the most important part of the process - that part that gives her joy. Watching her debut, River of Grass, you can tell how much she cares about filmmaking.

Like any low-budget debut, Reichardt wasn't able to attract the level of talent to match hers. Every performer is stilted, but some are worse than others. The leads (Lisa Donaldson as Cozy and Larry Fessenden as Lee Ray) are the least problematic, which helps. But as co-writer and director, Reichardt was able to control a large share of the equality of the picture. She and her cinematographer, Jim Denault, created some beautiful frames. One shot of Cozy's feet hanging out of a car window is particularly striking.

But some of the more important images feature Cozy floating in water. The title, which refers to a characterization Marjory Stoneman Douglas made about the Florida Everglades, conjures a wonderfully dreamy image. The contradiction in it has a deeper meaning for the story, too. Cozy feels trapped in the life she jumped into as a young wife and mother. She doesn't feel any connection with her children and her husband is as absent from her thought as he is the film. So when she ends up running from a crime with a Lee Ray (whom she just met), there is a feeling of escape. But soon that feeling turns stagnant as they don't have enough money to get far enough away. It's as if Cozy thinks she is on a waterway, but she's just laying in a flat field.

The dueling nature of the film is enhanced even more by the discovery that Cozy and Lee Ray didn't actually do anything seriously bad like they thought. As it turns out, they're on the run from nothing. At least nothing legal. Cozy is anything but in her life, but she seems to be stuck in it, even when given a good reason to get away from it.

I suspect that Reichardt felt strongly about leaving south Florida because the film has nothing affectionate to say about the film, save for maybe some kind narration about the geography. Reichardt has never gone back to Florida for another feature of hers, choosing instead to relocate to the West and the Pacific Northwest. Those settings fit her much better. Reichardt is a filmmaker who thrives in wild spaces. Some are emptier than others, but even the forests of Old Joy are filled with air. Miami is crowded and dead. This doesn't suit her sensibilities as well, but the contempt Reichardt has for the area makes the film better. It reeks of dissatisfaction and disgust and a yearning to break free. It's sadly poetic that the yearning is never fully realized in this film. It would be twelve years before Reichardt released another film. Perhaps the fact that Reichardt didn't have a proper outlet for herself and had to resort to making cheap shorts has made her filmography bloom in a way that it wouldn't have. She made her river of grass into an actual river and it took her upstream.

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