Certain Women and Other Animals: a symposium on the cinema of Kelly Reichardt at the British Film Institute, London
Sunday 5 March
In the past year, I have seen various seasons on the films of Kelly Reichardt. Last March, Close-Up Film Centre revisited Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Meek’s Cutoff (2010); during summer, MUBI streamed these three films alongside her debut, River of Grass (1994). As an independent institution that long struggled to secure sufficient funding to open its cinema screen, Close-Up worked well as a venue for Reichardt’s films, which, in great measure, are about various endeavours involved in living in the margins. I was fond, too, of watching some of Reichardt’s films via MUBI, on my laptop; my intermittent tendency to drift in this mode of spectatorship mimicked, in a sense, the restlessness of the characters. Last month, to coincide with the UK release of Certain Women, Reichardt’s cinema was deservedly afforded the reach and resources of a retrospective at the BFI. All six of the director’s feature films were included in this programme, and the BFI hosted Reichardt for a number of discussions. In addition, on the 5th of March, it brought together an impressive set of academics for a symposium on Reichardt’s cinema. The papers of Michael Lawrence (University of Sussex), Richard Martin (King’s College London), Anat Pick (Queen Mary University of London), and Sophie Mayer were variably optimistic about Reichardt’s depictions of certain others (women and animals, in all their specificities, their differences); that Reichardt’s visions of America are intensely ethical was, however, a stance shared by each of the speakers.
River of Grass (1994)
If anything, it is uncertainty that characterises Reichardt’s visions. While it is somewhat trite to state that something defies categorisation, Reichardt’s cinema does waver in the in-betweens of ‘not this, but that’. Answers of an ‘either black or white’ nature are not written into these images; instead, spectators are asked to read and respond to the images themselves. Such absence of direction is echoed within the films. In several characters’ journeys (not of the pseudo-spiritual kind, but literal, lived journeys), direction and destination often fades from sight, dwindling and acquiescing to wandering, anew. This occurs in Wendy and Lucy, which depicts an ever-extended interruption in the migration of a young woman and her dog to Alaska. And this can be seen in Old Joy, which trails two old friends’ weekend of walking, marked with the fits and starts of a reunion attempted after a time apart. Even Reichardt’s more conventional thriller, Night Moves (2013), in which three environmentalists conspire to explode a dam, is quietly unpredictable. In Reichardt’s cinema, for both character and spectator, the end is rarely in view.
Questions of beauty arose in Martin’s presentation, which was accompanied by a series of stills from Reichardt’s six films. Though picturesque, for Martin, these stills – often featuring an indefatigable road – evidenced the hostile, inhospitable terrains that demarcate Reichardt’s cinema. Here, even rare moments of tenderness (the hot springs in Old Joy, the comfort of hamburgers in Certain Women) are polluted with a human manipulation of nature. As Martin elucidated, the control of water is a significant motif in Reichardt’s films (at its most explicit in Night Moves). Martin’s focus on the American road – caught in the in-betweens of urban and rural, interspersed with gas stations and diners – resulted in somewhat productive comparisons to Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016). Martin developed this parallel, and described Arnold as an extroverted version of an introverted Reichardt. And indeed, while I am ever wary of such an easy, symmetrical juxtaposition, Arnold’s cinema does seem more assertive than Reichardt’s, which, for me, is distinctive for working in terms of withdrawal. (Withdrawal, if not total negation – it isn’t that Certain Women isn’t a melodrama, but that it isn’t quite; Meek’s Cutoff is a not-quite-Western; Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy allusively circle, yet never fully follow, dictates of the road and the buddy movie.)
In this spirit of withdrawal, Mayer looked to the offscreen, to the invisible, in Reichardt’s cinema, with specific attention to the Native American other. In this shift from ocular-centrism, Mayer detailed invitations to ‘listenfulness’ woven into the fabric of the films. An absence of subtitles for the words of the Cayuse person in Meek’s Cutoff, for instance, asks the audience to lend an ear to the sounds, rather than the sentences, which make up dialogue: an oral relation growing aural, material, sensorial. For any non-Cayuse spectators and characters, a lack of linguistic understanding functions to instil some form of deferential distance towards the Native American other. While women within and without the film inhabit their own ‘axes of exclusion’ (to quote Mayer’s helpful phrase), these axes intersect little with those of the Cayuse. With Reichardt, we accept that we cannot proclaim to know profoundly their exclusion, their experiences.
Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
Reichardt’s act of not-translating is, to borrow from Pick’s film-philosophies, an act of ‘letting be’. Pick opened her paper by recalling a sequence from Certain Women in which a character falls asleep driving with no catastrophic consequences. The film is ‘letting be’: resisting the temptation of a lachrymose car crash. In Reichardt’s cinema generally, Pick noted, things are allowed to reveal themselves (and, indeed, are allowed not to reveal themselves). Our gaze is restrained, kept to quiet observation; it does not over-interpret, nor interrogate, nor does it impose any narrative needlessly.
Pick then proceeded to consider Reichardt’s late companion and collaborator, an adorable golden Labrador retriever, Lucy. For Pick, animals in Reichardt’s cinema tend to introduce a ‘spontaneity of movement’ into what is otherwise carefully written, directed and edited by the filmmaker. Lucy, defiantly, is not a performer. In films like Wendy and Lucy, her onscreen actions are for herself, as much as for the spectator. And, to run with the aforementioned Arnold parallel, unlike the horse in Fish Tank (2009) and increasingly tedious insect imagery in American Honey, Lucy is not reduced to symbolism. In her emphasis on Lucy’s autonomy, Pick (and Lawrence, after her), inevitably echoed Donna Haraway: ‘Dogs are not surrogates for theory; they are not here just to think with. They are here to live with.’
Wendy and Lucy (2008)
A need to attend phenomenologically, rather than theoretically, to animals troubled Lawrence’s paper, which was delivered with a kind of wonderful, compulsive repetition. Seemingly unsatisfied with limitations of single words, under Lawrence’s reiterative sway, our responsiveness came also to entail our responsibilities, and an animal’s abiding was also a bidding. Far more ambiguous about the ethics of human-animal relations in Reichardt’s cinema (speaking of ‘the problem of sentiment’, such as that associated with Lucy), Lawrence nonetheless stressed, like Pick, the authenticity of animal intentionality in the films, which often works effectively to unravel the lines that separate fiction from documetary.
In Mayer’s continued study of Certain Women (on Another Gaze and Twitter, in Sight & Sound and her TinyLetter, and at this symposium, Mayer is surely the most dedicated reader of this film), she accentuated its ‘chains of association’, an idea that lingered with me, more than others. In the triptych structure of Certain Women, the lives of women are associated, yet are never equated to one another entirely. Linked by chance encounters, and by a tireless tiredness, little else is shared between the wife, the lawyer, the teacher and the rancher that could come close to eclipsing their singularities. Though, in interviews, Reichardt is hesitant towards ‘feminism’, this relation (or not-relation, or not-quite-relation) between the individuals of the film is philosophically feminine, if not overtly feminist.
Certain Women (2016)
While Lawrence warned against the theoretical, the idea of ‘chains of association’ evoked, for me, philosophies of the feminine in the psychoanalytical work of Jacques Lacan (and scholars such as Jacqueline Rose, after him). Along lines of ‘not-relation’, one could state (after Lacan) that, in Certain Women, La femme n’existe pas: Woman with a capital W does not exist, Woman with a definite article (‘La’) does not exist. There is, in other words, no one Woman; as indicated above, there are three, four – and one or two more. As many critics have commented, the ‘certainness’ of ‘Certain Women’ is crucial, as indeed is the multiplicity marked by ‘women’. For Reichardt does not deal in definitive statements (hence her reticence towards the label of ‘feminism’), and Certain Women – in which chains of association imply as many withdrawals as connections – refuses anything like a wide-sweeping, universal statement on womanhood. In so doing, it approaches something like Lacan’s infamous reading of the feminine; however, it alters his negative (‘ne pas’) formulation, slightly.
And so, throughout Reichardt’s work, it would seem that La femme n’existe pas, yet certaines femmes existent: Woman does not exist, yet certain women exist. In place of a universal statement on what femininity is (or isn’t), her collection of short stories offers micro-statements: here, it is this; there, it could be that; what if it becomes this, or that, or…? In attending to various women’s experiences, and via an evasion of intrusive interpretation (on levels of form and narrative), Reichardt takes her cinema to a more positive, if still radically ambivalent position on the status of women, of animals, of certain others.
Laura Staab has previously written for publications including Sight & Sound, and has an MA in film-philosophy from King’s College London.