Kelly Reichardt’s “River of Grass” (1994)

Notable Festivals: Sundance, Berlin

As a filmmaker born and raised in Portland, Oregon, I naturally feel a kinship to its homegrown film scene— one that’s been infused from the start by a freewheeling DIY spirit.  The first ten years of my active filmmaking life were spent on reckless, ragged guerrilla shoots with close friends and like-minded artists, inspired by the dogged independence of such local cinema luminaries as Gus Van Sant or Todd Haynes as well as the rugged eccentricity of Portland itself.  Far from the watchful eyes of “The Industry”, we were truly free to make our shoestring epics and weirdo passion pieces. In the years since moving to LA, however, I’ve had to watch from afar as that eccentric hipster independence — the sort that fueled the bumper sticker mantra “Keep Portland Weird” — was co-opted, commodified, and trivialized by local-adjacents, if not outright outsiders.  Shows like “PORTLANDIA” and now “SHRILL” would use Portland as a backdrop to satirize the broader hipster culture that pervaded other, larger communities like Austin or Brooklyn, but in the process, would also conflate  the Rose City itself with a patronizing, cartoonish you reductive character that utterly negates the vibrant spectrum of humanity that actually inhabits the Willamette Valley.

This cultural identity crisis isn’t unique to Portland, of course— it’s been happening in nearly every mid-tier American city for the past decade or more as a side effect of many other intertwining factors like the sharing economy, the exploding tech sector, gentrification, and rising income inequality.  There are many other stories to tell about Stumptown beyond those of its white millennial creative class. Thankfully, there are still a few filmmakers who wish to tell them— the irony of ironies being that one of the most authentically “Portland” voices is something of an outsider herself. Her filmography has since moved beyond the region’s confines, but director Kelly Reichardt has managed to carve out a formidable body of work that draws its primary inspiration from both Portland and the Pacific Northwest.  Her vision of Oregon cuts through the asinine clatter of fixey bikes, mustaches and mason jars to uncover a rich valley of human tragedy and drama, populated by stunted middle-aged friends, hardscrabble loners, wary pioneers, and conflicted eco-terrorists. She remains steadfastly independent, primarily supporting herself not through the influence and resources of Hollywood, but through her career as a teacher and artist-in-residence at Bard College in New York (1). While only one of her to-date seven features has been able to crack the $1 million mark at the box office (2016’s CERTAIN WOMEN), Reichardt has nevertheless emerged as a major figure in American independent cinema– the figurehead of a resurgent minimalist movement that critic AO Scott has dubbed “Neo-Neo Realism” (2).  Beyond our shared cinematic affinity for the Pacific Northwest, Reichardt is also a director whose social orbit is closest to my own– one of my best and oldest friends counts her as a personal family friend, having worked with her on the shoot for MEEK’s CUTOFF (2010).

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If I had an editor, I’d undoubtedly be told to cut the preceding two paragraphs because, admittedly, this is all a lot of indulgent grandstanding about Portland for an article that is actually about Florida.  Oregon may be Reichardt’s adopted home, but her cinematic portraits of what Indiewire critic Eric Kohn has described as “characters trapped between the mythology of working-class American greatness and the personal limitations that govern their drab realities” (3), first reflected in her debut feature RIVER OF GRASS (1994), are informed by her upbringing in the Miami-Dade region.  Born in 1964, Reichardt fell in love with filmmaking via an interest in photography, which she cultivated first as a young girl on through to an MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (4).  In tackling her first feature, Reichardt drew inspiration from the geography of a childhood spent on the dividing line between Dade and Broward Counties: the exurban highways, ramshackle houses, rundown motels, and seedy bodegas that dot the Florida Everglades– dubbed by Marjory Stoneman Douglas as a “River of Grass” (and thus giving the film its title).  

Working with producer Jesse Hartman, Reichardt subsequently devised a Gen X riff on Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS (1976); an anti-genre story in which a pair of would-be criminals attempt to go on the lam only to find they’re already trapped in a prison of economic circumstance.  Cozy (Lisa Donaldson) is a disaffected, lonely housewife in her 30’s with absolutely nothing going on in her life beyond her absent husband and young children. Fed up with her loss of personal freedom, she simply walks out of her house one night and winds up at a local dive bar across town, where she meets an aimless townie named Lee Ray Harold (played by associate producer and editor, Larry Fessenden).  Their booze-soaked flirtation, driven out of boredom rather than a genuine connection, leads to an impromptu midnight swim at his “friend’s” house, where he shows her the revolver his buddy found on the side of the road (not realizing the gun actually belongs to her father Jimmy Ryder, played by Dick Russell as an incompetent detective more interested in his yellow suits and drum sets than actual police work).  When they’re startled by the pool’s owner coming out to investigate the strange activity in his backyard in the middle of the night, they instinctively fire the gun and take off into the night before they can examine whatever damage they’ve done. Assuming they are now bonafide murderers, Cozy and Lee decide they have to flee Florida and forget their old lives. There’s just one problem– they’re short on cash. RIVER OF GRASS subsequently follows their increasing disillusionment with their newfound fugitive status, as Lee’s inability to generate enough cash to even pay the daily rent for their motel room prevents them from leaving the immediate neighborhood of the supposed crime scene.  Meanwhile, Jimmy Ryder commences the search for his missing daughter– an investigation that quickly reveals that Cozy and Lee are hardly the cold-blooded killers they think themselves to be.

Reichardt and cinematographer Jim Denault shoot RIVER OF GRASS with an unadorned, scrappy look befitting both its subject matter and its truly-independent production.  While Reichardt’s later work employs a minimalistic, 16mm celluloid approach for aesthetic reasons, RIVER OF GRASS does so out of sheer necessity.  Strapped for cash like her onscreen protagonists, Reichardt opts for functional, observational setups designed for the square 1.33:1 frame.  Her camera rarely deviates from a locked-off point of view, save for the occasional handheld shot or traveling landscape captured from a moving car.  The hard brightness of the Floridian sun washes out most of the image’s color palette, save for the azure pop of the Atlantic ocean, the cloudless skies, or Fessenden’s t-shirt.  In her commentary for RIVER OF GRASS’ recent Oscilloscope home video release, Reichardt claims (or jokes) that she shot the film on a 1:1 shooting ratio– that is, nearly everything that was shot made it into the finished product.  Low shooting ratios were once common among budget-conscious independent directors to looking to stretch paltry film stock budgets, but a 1:1 ratio for a commercially-distributed feature is virtually unheard of.  Regardless of the veracity of Reichardt’s claim, Fessenden nevertheless was able to quickly and easily assemble the film when it came time to don his editing hat. He and Reichardt borrow liberally from Malick’s aforementioned BADLANDS to shape RIVER OF GRASS’ narrative structure, right down to the usage of a disaffected and somewhat-rambling voiceover as a framing device and lingering close-ups on wildlife.  That said, the film steers clear of overt carbon copy, using its similarities to instead highlight the differences between the two films– the searing tar of exurban Florida is a world removed from the organic beauty of BADLANDS’ pastoral surroundings, and while the characters of Lee and Kit are both aimless losers, Lee’s on another level entirely: pushing 30, insufferably lazy, and living rent-free out of a spare room in his grandmother’s house.  RIVER OF GRASS’ distinctive approach to music also stands in stark contrast to the childlike wonder embodied in BADLANDS, driven by percussive snare drums diegetically performed by Dick Russell in-character as well as cheap rock and jazz muzak one might expect to find in a royalty-free music library from the era.  These bland, lifeless needle drops may seem a weird choice on their face, but in retrospect manage to reinforce the colloquial reputation of the narrative’s swampy Floridian surroundings as “God’s Waiting Room”– a flat landscape populated by people far past their prime, utterly bereft of genuine culture, passion or inspiration.

In such a male-dominated profession, it’s all too easy to make the mistake of confining a female filmmaker to her femininity; to assume she is incapable of telling stories outside of her inherently-feminine worldview.  Reichardt’s artistry proves why such assumptions are so misguided and unfounded. While she certainly doesn’t shy away from womanhood as a major theme in her work — indeed, RIVER OF GRASS pivots on the idea of a woman undergoing an identity crisis, abruptly rebelling against expectations of her as both a wife and mother — Reichardt resists reductive attempts to box her in as a strictly “feminist filmmaker” (5).  Rather, she’s more interested in glimpses of what she describes as “people passing through” (6): drifters, loners, and outcasts relegated to the margins of society, trapped in a restless search for a better life. As such, Reichardt is able to illuminate distinct aspects of the American experience that studio movies rarely portray.  Despite its casual slacker vibe, RIVER OF GRASS manages to paint a vivid portrait of working-class Americana that’s further shaded by the cultural nuances of the Gulf region.  We see Cozy fill up her baby’s bottle— not with milk, but with Coca-Cola. The seedy motel, which in most lovers-on-the-lam pictures serves as a temporary hideout, becomes a kind of prison for Cozy and Lee; their daily need to scrounge up enough cash to pay for the room entraps them in the very same neighborhood as the scene of the “crime”.  When they do manage to hit the open road, bound for New York City, they quickly find that they don’t even have enough cash to pay the freeway toll— and what’s more, they make the demoralizing discovery that they lack the criminal conviction to blow past it. The realization leads not to an explosive finale like we’ve come to expect from films of this type, but the rapid fizzling out of their criminal partnership.  This speaks to another trait that’s emerged through Reichardt’s subsequent work, wherein her narratives avoid conventional, tidy endings. The Guardian’s Xan Brooks perhaps puts it best when he writes that Reichardt’s films tend to “dissolve rather than resolve” (6). Her open-ended conclusions reinforce the narrow time window in which we are allowed to watch these protagonists, while alluding to the larger life they live beyond the confines of the screen.

RIVER OF GRASS had the extremely good fortune of being made during a boom time for homegrown independent cinema.  Whereas the film might have struggled to get seen had it been made today, the higher barrier to entry in a pre-digital cinematic landscape allowed for the film to receive greater exposure at prestigious festivals like Berlin and Sundance, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.  Reichardt and company’s success on the festival circuit was followed by three Independent Spirit Award nominations, fueled by a limited theatrical release just large enough for RIVER OF GRASS to cement itself as an idiosyncratic cult film in the minds of adventurous cinephiles.  Reichardt had also managed to assert herself as the rare female voice in a male-dominated industry; a counterweight to the swinging machismo of 90’s indie cinema, embodied in films like RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) and SWINGERS (1996).  Despite her ascendant artistic profile, it would be quite some time before Reichardt could parlay that into another project— a regrettable development that’s since been rectified several times over, and yet prompts speculation as to whether the film’s modest success might’ve gained more traction had Reichardt been a man.  Indeed, for the bulk of its aftermarket lifespan, RIVER OF GRASS has stood as something of a lost artifact of 90’s indie cinema, relegated to a poor DVD transfer from an obscure boutique label.  Thankfully, Reichardt’s continued success in recent years would provide an opportunity to revisit her debut. Oscilloscope Films, the home video distributor for later Reichardt works like WENDY AND LUCY and MEEK’S CUTOFF, would procure the rights to RIVER OF GRASS and harness the director’s small but passionate fan base to crowdfund a brand-new 2K restoration in 2015.  While the result isn’t quite exactly pristine or sparkling— nor could it could ever be, considering its shoestring budget 16mm origins — we now have a clear, vivid, and lovingly-preserved iteration of the idiosyncratic debut that launched one of the most important voices in contemporary independent cinema.

RIVER OF GRASS is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Oscilloscope Films.

Credits:

Written by: Kelly Reichardt

Produced by: Jesse Hartman

Director of Photography: Jim Denault

Production Design by: David Doernberg

Editing by: Larry Fessenden

Music by: John Hill

References:

  • IMDB Trivia Page

Via Wikipedia Brooks, Xan (2014-08-21). “Kelly Reichardt: ‘My films are just glimpses of people passing through'”. the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-11-17.