Walker Art Center

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Filmmakers Kelly Reichardt: Off the Beaten Track

Dialogue: Kelly Reichardt and Scott Foundas

  • Retrospective: May 5–14, 2010

“An indispensable American filmmaker.”—New York Times

Working outside the Hollywood system with a bare-bones crew of friends and co-collaborators, Kelly Reichardt has created a body of work that is stunning despite its remarkably small scale. Her deceptively simple character studies, stories of friendship and loss, and melancholy road narratives quietly address contemporary class identities and cut across the grain of archetypal romantic American myths.

Born and raised in Miami, Reichardt first discovered photography through the camera lens of her father, a police detective. In 1988, she moved to New York City and worked in the art department on several influential debut films, including Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth and most significantly, Todd Haynes’ Poison. Her own first feature, River of Grass (1994), took its title from a Native American term for the Everglades and was set in her hometown. Here, as in subsequent films, location plays a crucial role; as Variety noted, Reichardt has a “richly atmospheric feel for regional American landscapes and the characters that populate them.”

In the ensuing 12 years, she concentrated on experimental short work that she shot on Super 8 film, which was praised by Artforum as “delicate and emotionally harrowing.” Then, while visiting Portland, Oregon, Reichardt was sparked into a return to feature filmmaking. Old Joy (2006), based on a Jonathan Raymond short story and produced by Haynes, was shot in less than two weeks in Oregon. Setting breathtaking vistas against exquisitely small moments, Reichardt’s efforts to capture the mid-decade sense of liberal alienation and ineffectuality met with acclaim: the New York Times called the film “one of the most persuasive portraits of generational malaise—and tentative hope—to come from an American director in recent memory.”

Buoyed by the success of Old Joy, Reichardt and Raymond collaborated on Wendy and Lucy (2008), creating a concept and story line together. Countering what she sees as this country’s obsession with middle-class values, Reichardt said, “We were kind of asking ourselves, hypothetically, how [do you] improve [your] station in life if you don’t have anything?” The film was also made in Oregon with a small crew. Its resonance in post-Katrina America was particularly stinging, and Wendy and Lucy landed on more than 60 top-ten lists, including those in the New York Times, Newsweek, the Village Voice, and the National Board of Review.

Reichardt’s fiercely independent vision has become a touchstone of a new realism in American cinema. Telling stories about those living (by choice or not) on the so-called fringes of society, her poetic work has a visual intimacy that shows this country’s landscape in all its heights and depths.

Kelly Reichardt

Photo courtesy Oscilloscope Pictures