Kelly Reichardt works in a uniquely American idiom, in a poetic, lyrical narrative style – hardly elliptical, but bedded with silences – and with the quietness of that which must remain unsaid, unspoken. Experimental cinematic poetics and narrative orientation are uniquely fused in her work. Her films occupy a certain kind of 21 st century impressionistic register, unadorned, stripped down, often described as austere, contemplative or minimalist. Reichardt’s cinema feasts in the uneventful event, in the questioning of what constitutes a dramatic action, what defines and gives meaning to beginnings and endings.
Yet it is in the intimate smallness of Reichardt’s films, and their prizing minor moments of subtle revelation, small gestures, that the tonal strength and tenacity of her directorial voice emerges and is felt. We could say that Reichardt articulates the terms of a minor cinema within American independent film practice (taken pace Patricia White regarding women’s cinema/70s cinema) The private, small scale of her collaboration and the habitus of her film’s production – models itself on friendships, occulted nighttime conversations, misdirected journeys, and brief love affairs. In some sense, Ode, much as many others in her oeuvre, represent the tracing of that experience of the film’s making – a relation of intimacy between cast and crew, ambiently, humbly given to the audience.
In this transitional work is evident the signature intimacy of scale of Reichardt’s films, and a set of motifs we’ve drawn close to, through the delicacy, spareness of her style – a mournful naturalism, a resolute description of a profilmic world, its evocations of a time that seems to wander, to get away from us, just as we wander through it, and characters attempting to find, however fallibly or unsuccessfully, their place within it. In Reichardt’s films, we are allowed to get lost, and getting lost is perhaps her cinema’s most axiomatic principle - a dispossession that is both existential and narratological.
Ode (1999, U.S.) was made on Super 8mm, and with a crew of 2: Reichardt, one other crewmember, 2 actors. In her filmography, it takes a place in a 12 year period in between her two features. Her first film River of Grass, reworks a rebel outlaw couple narrative towards a treatise on failure, on the haplessness of an attempt to escape the drudgery of the everyday, the difficulty of commitment to actually breaking the law, of inhabiting the place of the outsider jubilantly or effectively. Old Joy is a film that treads the delicate boundaries which separate old friends on a camping trip to hot springs. We see a strained relationship after something indefinable has happened. It is an ode, in a sense to an end of something.
Ode is based on Bobby Gentry’s country song, “Ode to Billy Joe” which in 1967 became a national hit, and the Herman Raucher novel and screenplay of same name. A Hollywood film based on it was made in 1976. The song, set in 1953, tells the story of a teenaged boy’s suicide told evasively through the plaintive lyrics of its narrator – Bobbie Lee – a girl whose relationship to Billy Joe is speculatively and mysteriously drawn. Billy Joe is “no good,” they are seen on the bridge, something is dropped off it. Details emerge through banalities of a dinnertime conversation. The persistent refrain “Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge,” echoes throughout the song, and it offers the framework for the opening scene in Ode. The 1976 Raucher screenplay and film introduced a queer subtext to the elliptical narrative, in which Billie Joe’s suicide is fleshed out in relation to a sexual encounter with a man.
Made in the late 1990s, in a moment after the emergence of the new Queer cinema and in the wake of the murder of Matthew Shepard, Ode takes up the narrative of gay sexual repression and subtly modernizes it, while still leaving it in a veil, of a hazy time outside of time – memory traces etched through the granularity of the film stock, its registration, of streaming dappling light, and half remembered places dimmed, tamped down with darknesses. Filtered entirely through the perspective of the 16 year old girl in the act of remembering Billy Joe, in the confused flush of first love and primary lust, Ode’s vantage point mediates the mystery of the boy’s end through the his relationship to Bobbie Lee, a Baptist preacher’s daughter. As a queer film, Reichardt’s elaboration of the mythos of the song and its circulating story is tendered through the frustrations of and limitations on pursuing one’s desire, of even knowing how to. Ode de-dramatizes, and avoids any overt sentimentalism associated with romantic tragedy – instead tendering the suggestions of Billy Joe’s emergent gay identity through impressionistic sketches of Bobbie Lee, her incapacity to properly see or understand him. They are misplaced objects for each other, yet cannot fully recognize it.
The event of suicide, like the refrain of the song, precedes and ends the film, suggesting a time that moves in a circle, one that cannot fully take account of Billy Joe’s struggle. Billy Joe cannot go back to whom he was after his orientation reveals itself - earlier he attempts to articulate his sexual longing - “it’s all just happening on its own.” And he can’t go back to how Bobbie Lee hoped to see him. Bobbie Lee, on the other hand, can only go back, in a circle of rememberance. Mediated by Bobbie Lee, we can only be presented with him from a distance, a figure that appears and disappears in her horizon. In the context of the late 1990s, as opposed to the 1950s or 70s, Reichardt’s film’s political subtlety focuses on the personal scale of loss – Billy Joe’s illegibility to himself as much as to Bobbie Lee. Their story is neither triumphal nor monumental, but a piecing together of the affective universe of longing and self-questioning, if not recognition, through the specific materials of a realist cinematic language.
In Reichardt’s films, the task of finding oneself becomes a struggle diffused into the relationship between bodies and landscapes. Hers is a lush, color saturated profilmic world, constituted by sculptural and ephemeral qualities of light, shadow, texture, matter. There is a sense of thrumming life, at times responsive, at time indifferent to the pulsations of another kind of pattern, of human interiority and of the social constraints that organize its character’s lives.
Location and place are incredibly central to Reichardt’s body of work. Here is an elemental world, full of opaque surfaces and mute landscapes, mottled, tactile textures of an enveloping, at times obscuring or hazy nature – tree branches, reflections in water, buzzing insects and floating pollen, leaves made semi-opaque – nature as both enclosure and as an optic. On the one hand channeling the interiority of characters, on the other a filter, something we strain to see through. Spaces and objects that at times seem to visibly, palpably engulf, much as we see Bobbie Lee in the beginning of this film shrouded and encased in a warren of hanging leaves.
Reichardt’s films often engage in and challenge the generic touchstones of the road movie, from River of Grass to Meek’s Cutoff: they are all stories in which destination is questioned. Things move forward, but they don’t always progress, make progress. Here mobility is organized, peripatetically and circularly, around a road and a bridge, evoking the world of the song, and the social and religious limitations on the young couple’s possibilities, their geographical and social limitation. In Ode, destination and orientation intermingle (destination– a goal, a place to reach - and orientation – a relation to direction, sexual desire, its unpredictable objects)– in a poignant, affective way. Moving forward, towards sexuality, towards the inchoate material palpations of the flesh which so define narratives of teenage desire and sexual awakening, is never so subtly rendered – as the heterosexual teenaged couple confront not only the inarticulate meanderings of their own desire, but also the intractability of their social places – Billy Joe a wilfull social outcast, with his earring and his refusal of the customs of devoutness, the practices of being proper and respectable, and Bobbie Lee, a good girl challenging the conditions of her traction in the strict confines of her religious home. Billy Joe is often seen running in the film, running through a town that offers few passages away or out – he is a figure that is moving against an unseen tide, and it is a form of movement that suggests a drive and insurgency to flee, to take motion in another way, towards another path – an exerted energy without a visible object or a legible goal. Bobbie Lee's first proper vision of him occurs through the hazy filter of a car’s rear window, in which she says, “he sure can run though.”
The pastoral landscape of the deep South is presented without idealism. The restrained space of a deeply religious Southern Baptist town limits the mobility of its young seekers and the perambulations of their desire. They meet surreptitiously on a bridge on a well trodden road – an in between place which is also an in-between-ness that embodies their relation to each other and to the remote, adult world. Geography and travel, the strivings of movement, are always emblematic of how a life can be lived, and how a life can be lost in Reichardt’s films. In Ode identity is engulfed in the unseen and unforeseen throes and rhythms of this movement, even if it appears without a direction.
This is the text of my introduction of a screening of Kelly Reichardt's Ode at the White Light Cinema, Chicago, August 2011.