May 3, 2010

Kelly Reichardt: Off the Beaten Track @ the Walker

It's unclear to me whether this is a coincidence or the beginning of a trend, but for the second year in a row the Walker Art Center is holding a May retrospective featuring the work of a highly acclaimed American independent film director who most people have never heard of. Last year it was the rising star Ramin Bahrani, who most recently earned gushing praise for a short about a plastic bag (his third feature, Goodbye Solo, was one of my favorites of 2009). This year, it's Kelly Reichardt ("Off the Beaten Track", May 5-14), an understated filmmaker whose career has developed just as quietly, if not quite as rapidly, as Bahrani's.

For the life of me I can't remember why I made a concerted effort to see Old Joy at the now-shuttered Oak Street Cinema in 2006. I'd never heard of Kelly Reichardt or either of the two lead actors (Daniel London and Will Oldham), and I'm sure I had little idea what it was about heading into it (I've actively avoided trailers for the last decade). Maybe I read a blurb somewhere or maybe the poster art grabbed me, or maybe I'd learned that it was filmed in the Pacific Northwest, where I had traveled through a few months earlier. Maybe there was just a dearth of other interesting movies in theaters that fall. 
Whatever the reason, it didn't take more than a few scenes for me to be hooked by the disarmingly simple narrative and, of course, the soundtrack by Yo La Tengo that I spent the next four years trying to track down (I've just now discovered that the tracks from the film are included on a 27-track compilation album). Old Joy was, at the time, still on the cusp of the resurgence in mumblecore, minimalist ($30,000 budget), neorealistic filmmaking. Seeing it for the first time in 2010, you might watch Old Joy and shrug your shoulders. But it stood out just a few years ago and I think it caught a lot of people, including critics, totally off-guard. 
Manohla Dargis was breathless: "Odds are that none of those [Academy] contenders will capture the tenor of these difficult times with more sensitivity or greater attention to beauty than Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, a triumph of modesty and of seriousness that also happens to be one of the finest American films of the year." Wesley Morris quipped, "Loving a movie is easy. Telling people you love a movie is not, particularly one as finely honed and delicate as Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy.", before cleverly calling it "Sideways for realists". Of course Morris is right, and a number of people I've talked to about Old Joy agree with Andrew Sarris, who bluntly said, "Let us say simply that Ms. Reichardt’s brand of minimalism leaves me truly joyless." 
Thanks in large part to reviews like the first two, Old Joy grossed about a quarter million dollars as it played on just a handful of screens in the fall of 2006. See it this Friday, May 7 (9:00 PM), or next Friday, May 14 (7:30 PM). 

Reichardt's next film, Wendy and Lucy, was another critical darling with a minuscule budget - but this one starred an Oscar nominee (Michelle Williams). It was a film about a jobless young woman that came along, coincidentally, right when millions of people were losing their jobs. While I appreciated the immediacy of the film and Williams' efforts to assume the character of Wendy, there was never a point when I was watching it that I wasn't thinking, "that's Michelle Williams". Kind of like watching Angelina Jolie try to moan and cry her way, unsuccessfully, into character in A Mighty Heart.

In any case that's not necessarily Williams' fault, and generally I tried to pay attention to the story (much as there was one) instead of the character of Wendy. Fact is, Wendy and Lucy isn't really about Wendy in the same way Into the Wild isn't really about Christopher McCandless. These stories are bigger than just two characters - they are about culture, and history, and dreamers who seek something grander than their immediate environment. They are stories of the American dream (or maybe the human dream?) gone unfulfilled.

Michael Phillips noted in the Chicago Tribune, "America is full of people like Wendy Carroll...Somewhere along the line — we're not given the usual facile reasons—her promise and possibilities have been thwarted." In the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle observed, "Wendy and Lucy may focus on one person, but its ambition is to make a larger point about what it's like to lose everything. Lack of means might be the easiest part. There's also the isolating loneliness of poverty, as well as the danger of it. There's that way poverty has of perverting relationships, inspiring disdain and eating into self-esteem. Wendy and Lucy shows all this and, with an uncanny prescience, presents it at precisely the moment when audiences are capable of receiving it, not with distance, but with empathy. And some real fear." 

Wendy and Lucy played in Minneapolis for only a few weeks in early 2009 - don't miss this chance to see it on 35mm in the Walker Cinema. It will screen this Friday, May 7 (7:30 PM) and next Friday, May 14 (9:00 PM). 

Also screening during this retrospective are several of Reichardt's short films (next Wednesday, May 12) and her feature debut, River of Grass (there is not an embeddable trailer available, so you'll have to check it out here), which will screen this Wednesday, May 5, at 7:30 PM. 

The highlight of the series, of course, is a conversation with Reichardt herself, who will discuss her work and career with Scott Foundas (this Saturday, May 8, 8:00 PM).

May 5-14
Walker Art Center
Tickets $8 ($6 for Walker members)
Tickets for May 8th Regis Dialogue w/ Kelly Reichardt $15 ($12)


  1. I was really blown away by Williams' performance in "Wendy and Lucy." I thought it was a moving, if predictable little film that was bolstered largely by her performance. Perhaps because I hadn't seen her in much before I was able to believe her performance more. But I think she's proven to be a capable actress.

  2. Can't really disagree with you that she carried the film, but I just...I don't know, her chopped 'do and lack of makeup still didn't let me fully see her as Wendy. I don't think that's a knock on her acting ability, but maybe the casting? But then, would another (unknown) actress have been able to a.) still carry the film and b.) get people into theaters to watch it? Kind of a catch-22.

  3. Hey Daniel,
    I'm hosting the My Best Post blog-a-thon.
    It goes from May 21st-23rd. Want to be a part of it?
    It's pretty easy. You've already written your entry.
    Just send me a link to your best/favorite/underrated blog post! Thanks!

  4. Daniel - Bahrani's acclaim kind of baffles me. He's a very competent filmmaker, but his subject matter seems the stuff of film school. Plastic Bag would have been nothing without Werner Herzog playing the part of the bag.

  5. I think you remember the discussion we had at Fox's last spring about Bahrani. I admit I do give him some blind praise since my ignorance of film school/courses/theory might prevent me from determining how original his ideas are. Nonetheless Plastic Bag didn't greatly affect me - ironically I found Herzog's narration distracting (I usually do)!

  6. I love Herzog. He's so droll.

  7. Bahrani is far more than a 'competant' filmmaker methinks, and I must side with the esteemed Roger Ebert when he hails him as one of the best new contemprary filmmakers, placing CHOP SHOP as the 6th best film of the decade on his own list. GOODBYE SOLO too is proof parcel that he is able to imbue his special brand of observational minimalism with a universal emotional resonance.

  8. Wow, I didn't realize Ebert had Chop Shop that high on his list. Maybe a little generous, but of course lists should be somewhat subjective anyway (let the record reflect I had Anchorman among my favorites of the decade).

    Like this description: "special brand of observational minimalism with a universal emotional resonance."


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