On the road with Joan Didion and Kelly Reichardt

In Play it as it Lays (1970), Maria, one of Joan Didion’s typically etherised, affluent female protagonists, spends days on the freeway, from San Diego to the Harbour, through Hollywood to the Golden State, finding, in the metallic currents and eddies of the blacktop, a vitality and unpredictability absent from her own life:

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)

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). Driving with the “organism which absorbed all her reflexes, all her attention” (15) releases her, for a time, from the insistent emotional turmoil which characterises her life as a thirty-one year old former model and sometime starlet, now a quietly frustrated LA divorcee.

No such deliverance awaits the women who ride the roads of Kelly Reichardt’s films. Cozy, the central female character of Kelly Reichardt’s breakthrough River of Grass (1994), like Maria, quietly yearns to escape her dreary life, this time as a lower middle-class suburban housewife. As in Didion’s novel, 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, 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 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 a kind of post-Didion, from miserablist misanthrope to virulent dissident in the same subdued tones. Revising Didion’s dissatisfied middle-class ennui, and excising her conservative denunciation of countercultural outsiders, Reichardt instead gives us harsh neo-neo-realist truths and condemnation of the systems of control and regulation which make escape – particularly for women – practically impossible.

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~ by schoolboyerrors on May 1, 2012.

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