Like many other artists of the time, the highly-controversial outbreak of the Iraq War weighed heavily on director Kelly Reichardt’s mind. Easily the most divisive conflict since Vietnam, the Iraq War was waged by the George W. Bush administration as a drastic pre-emptive measure based on faulty, misleading, and downright false intelligence. As the years dragged on, and the quagmire claimed an ever-higher number of American soldiers, the artistic call to action grew more and more undeniable. When Reichardt heard hers, she was in the midst of a professional struggle; after making a splash at Sundance with her 1994 debut RIVER OF GRASS, she was now thrashing underwater, laboring to come up for air with a worthy follow-up. Said follow up would ultimately arrive in 2006 in the form of OLD JOY, but in the interim she used this period of obscurity to experiment with form and technique.
After completing her 8mm featurette, ODE, in 1999, and the short project THEN A YEAR in 2001, Reichardt created TRAVIS (2004), an experimental meditation on grief as informed by war. The piece is less of a short narrative than it is a video installation one might encounter at a museum. Also shot on Super 8mm film, TRAVIS is set to droning, ambient music as a blurry sea of color lulls us into a serene, contemplative mood. A short audio snippet of a woman talking enigmatically plays on a loop, giving us fragments of a vague story about some kind of personal tragedy. As the loop continues to repeat, Reichardt populates the soundtrack with more snippets of audio— as if filling in the missing pieces of this woman’s story. All the while, the picture never strays from its soupy color show, although a fleeting glimpse of a boy’s arm poking out of a red t-shirt tells us we’ve been looking at something that’s been blown up to the point of abstraction. Without ever saying as much explicitly, the woman’s audio eventually reveals itself as a lament over the loss of her son, a soldier in the Iraq War.
TRAVIS is more consequential within the context of Reichardt’s filmography than it lets on, setting the stage for her career-long juxtaposition of hard, everyday reality against the romantic myths of working class Americana. This sect of the population produces the most soldiers by a wide mile, mostly because armed service immediately asserts itself as a viable alternative to a successful life when college is uncertain. As such, we accord a kind of stoic dignity to soldiers and their families, commensurate with the grave sacrifice they’re asked to take on our behalf. We pay lip service to their courage in public forums, glossing over their unimaginable pain of loss with cheap platitudes and lionizing invocations of heroism. TRAVIS lays that raw pain bare, with the mother questioning the need for his sacrifice in the context of a controversial war with a flimsy justification.
This period of relatively obscure short-form works — comprised of ODE, THEN A YEAR and TRAVIS — nevertheless marks an important milestone in Reichardt’s artistic development: namely, the infusion of political subtext into her storytelling. Whereas other directors such as Oliver Stone or Michael Moore wear their politics on their sleeve, imposing it upon their subjects, Reichardt cedes her convictions to her characters, choosing stories that are colored by a specific political ambience but can still exist outside of them. ODE and TRAVIS are more overt in this regard, what with the former’s meditation on homosexuality in an oppressively religious community and TRAVIS’ lamenting over Iraq. These, and other tenets of the conservative doctrine of the George W. Bush years, would go on to become core themes of Reichardt’s work, allowing her films to stand as both a firm (albeit quiet) rebuke to said policies as well as humanizing portraits of the people affected by them.
TRAVIS is currently available via the YouTube embed above.