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August 3, 2012
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August 10, 2012

Kelly Reichardt’s Roadworks

Last week I had the chance to see American indie filmmaker Kelly Reichardt’s brilliant and surreptitiously dissident Wendy and Lucy (2008) again. The following is an updated version of a piece I wrote about her a little while ago, which I’ll be presenting in an extended form at the “Circulations of/in Cinema” conference in Toulouse next year.

“Plaqued circulation in American heartlands: Kelly Reichardt on the road”

In numerous literary and cinematic texts produced in the United States in the twentieth century, the road in its myriad forms evokes images of escape and liberation, offering the promise of release from certain socially-determined constraints or lives of quiet desperation. The potholed highways which course beneath Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), to take the most obvious example, embody a conduit for the expression of a countercultural ethos within the circumscribed territory of 1950s’ American society. Even for writers like Joan Didion, antipathetic to the radicalism of Kerouac and the beat generation, the road – and the highway in particular – nevertheless symbolises a similar kind of freedom: the heroines who populate works like Play it as it Lays (1970), find, in the metallic currents and eddies of the blacktop, a vitality and unpredictability absent from their own lives as middle-class housewives and divorcees. Maria, one of Didion’s typically etherised, affluent female protagonists, spends days on the freeway, from San Diego to the Harbour, through Hollywood to the Golden State. The incestuous environs of the Hollywood movie business, the intrusions of her ex-husband, the demands of her lovers, the muted anxiety accompanying a forthcoming abortion, “she never thought about that on the freeway” (18).
She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour… (16)
Meanwhile, in the American road movie, as evinced by classic films of the genre such as Bonny and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969) and Thelma and Louise (1991), roads likewise function as paths for countercultural resistance, self-definition or the expression of non-normative desire: the variously bored, listless or subjugated figures that gravitate towards them and drift across them seek salvation and excitement in the hot, gleaming asphalt. In these examples, roads represent, I would suggest, tarmacadamed Deleuzoguattarian lignes de fuite [lines of flight] that, seeping or leaking out between the sedentary planes which constitute the socius, conduct their passengers towards affective experiences of liberation, curving inexorably towards deterritorialization and release: “as if something carried us away, across our segments, but also across our thresholds, towards a destination which is unknown, not foreseeable, not pre-existent” (Deleuze, Dialogues, p.125).
No such deliverance awaits the women who ride the roads of Kelly Reichardt’s films, however. Her work persistently portrays the road and its aura of exit and excitement as pernicious mythological constructs based on antiquated ideas that do not account for the ubiquity of contemporary (capitalist) regimes of domination and control. Cozy (Lisa Bowman), the central female character of Kelly Reichardt’s breakthrough River of Grass (1994), like Didion’s Maria, quietly yearns to escape her dreary life, this time as a lower middle-class suburban housewife. Here too, the freeway seems to suggest some kind of salvation: standing alongside a station-wagon filled with screaming kids, Cozy peers up longingly at the raised, distant expressway which lattices the outskirts of town and wonders what it’s for, where does it go? (Away, presumably. Which is probably enough.) Fleeing domesticity, she hooks up with the thirty-something stoner Lee (Larry Fessenden), seizing upon the gleaming hope that his blue Malibu seems to thrust before her when he almost knocks her down. On the run from the cops for a crime that never took place and breaking for the state line, the exhilaration of flight quickly gives way to yet more sedentary tedium as the couple is ensnared by increasingly slender means and avenues that lead only in circles. Ultimately they are forced to hole-up in a dingy motel not far from where the supposed crime was committed. One last, wild attempt to reach the freeway and freedom fails miserably when they can’t pay the toll and are returned, once again, to the streets which wind through the wastes of this nondescript Florida town; the same streets that cling to the fringes of Maria’s beloved expressway, where its “flawless, burning concrete just [stops],” bottoming out in scrap metal yards, small-town main streets or “nowhere at all” (17). River of Grass concludes, nonetheless, with an almost indiscernible glimmer of freedom as Cozy shoots and throws Lee from the car, gunning the Malibu down another street: this time, we think, perhaps it will lead out; now, at least, she is an outlaw…
Yet Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008), released more than a decade after River of Grass, appears to neutralise the meagre hope of escape suggested by the earlier film’s ending. The titular Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog Lucy surface in a small Oregon town on the way to a better life in the wilds of Alaska. Reichardt here has a far less benign, more depressing fate in store for her female protagonist than did Sean Penn in the previous year’s Into the Wild (2007), a biopic of one man’s successful withdrawal from the circulation of emotion and capital to the Alaskan woods. Wendy finds herself jailed for shoplifting, Lucy gets lost, the money soon runs out and, cripplingly, the car, their means of shelter and exit, breaks down, leaving a miserable Wendy alone, jumping a train to anywhere at all. You could say, when Cozy took that right turn out of the screen at the end of River, she turned into Wendy and turned onto another dead-end street, in a nowhere town, her prospects no better than before. As Wendy’s train disappears, moving left to right out of shot, it’s hard to shake the impression an infernal circularity is being perpetrated on these women.
Perhaps what we have in Reichardt’s work, then, is the suggestion that previous portrayals of the road that circulate within American culture, are no longer adequate or calibrated appropriately to the bleakness of the contemporary moment from which a road delivers no immediate or unconditional respite, despite all its promises. Reichardt offers us harsh neo-neo-realist truths and condemnation of the systems of control and regulation which make escape – particularly for women – practically impossible.