Over the past decade, Kelly Reichardt has been making films that grapple with the shifting meanings of the American landscape and its history in relation to the people that occupy it. Meek’s Cutoff, a treatise on women’s historical subjugation to the whims and sadistic impulses of men, does so directly, while Night Moves and Wendy and Lucy indicate an implicit sickness festering within a society that ignores human suffering. While this approach may sound familiar, a cousin of sorts to melodrama or neorealism, Reichardt strips all sentimentality from her films and unsettles the exact targets of her aim. As in the finest examples of neorealism, her films provide no scapegoat, no immediate person or entity to blame for the actions on display.
Her latest, Certain Women, pushes that concept even further, telling three compact tales of women at crossroads in their lives, whether caught in the crosshairs of an unhinged man, teetering on actualizing a dream home, stuck in one of career ambition’s curious detours, or realizing that the ranch isn’t a satisfactory end point. Reichardt’s film sees in the malls, law offices, two-bedroom homes, and diners of Montana a disaffected frontier where professional women, on the one hand, are still at the mercy of emasculated men, but also floating through a dystopic space of cultural fragmentation that never really welcomed them in the first place.
Prior to Certain Women’s theatrical release, I spoke with Reichardt about the effects of her teaching duties at Bard College, a career of grappling with varying forms of anger, and how empathy factors into her filmmaking.
I’m interested in how teaching has informed your filmmaking over the years. Do you teach both film history and filmmaking?
No, just filmmaking. But you have to take film history and film theory to take film production now, which I really like. In terms of how it informs me is actually really easy to talk about. Easy-hard. I used to get constantly asked during interviews, and I haven’t so much this round, when I thought I could quit teaching so that I could go to Hollywood, or whatever. And I always thought when I heard that argument, “Wow. You don’t know Peter Hutton or Peggy Ahwesh,” who are the people I teach with. They really help inform my filmmaking. We just lost Peter, who was a very important colleague and friend of mine. He’s the person who brought me up to Bard and his whole outlook on filmmaking and pacing changed me. He had such an umbrella over the whole department. But also Peggy Ahwesh. Actually, the title of Certain Women comes from Peggy. I think it has to do, in a lot of ways, with the particular school I’m teaching at and the particular colleagues I’ve been teaching with for the last decade. So that definitely influences the filmmaking. But it’s influential in other ways, as far as working in a small classroom with students who’re also studying film history and getting turned on to certain periods of film for the first time and seeing films projected. It’s a more avant-garde program and I’m the more narrative formalist in the mix.
I was recently reading interviews with Věra Chytilová and Pedro Costa where they expressed their frustration with young people for not being interested in political matters and that young filmmakers now lack a certain amount of anger. Have you found similar traits in your students?
Yes. The anger isn’t there [Laughs]. The class did ask me once, “What motivates you?” And I said, “Anger.” And they were like, “Anger at what? What do you mean?” One kid literally said: “Well, at least you had AIDS.” And I was, like, “Wow. Our generation had AIDS. Lucky for us, but you have plenty of shit too.” I think the fact that this is a generation that’s friends with their parents makes a huge difference. You don’t have that 20-year-old angst where you wrap up all of your political ideas and, if you do what I did, target them at your parents. [Laughs] Or that thing of wanting to flee where you came from and discover something on your own. I don’t think that’s a burning desire anymore. I did a whole class on working off your anger and none of my students knew what I was talking about. But teaching film production, you do have a feeling, especially with narrative, of battling against YouTube. I often ask, “Why is that camera being handheld beside the fact that it’s convenient?” Just trying to make filmmaking something other than following the dialogue…I’m trying to talk to them about the frame, how people move through the frame, sound design. They’re not allowed to use dialogue until the end of the semester. So, it’s hard to sum up a generation, but I haven’t asked if they’re going to vote because I don’t want to know.
How do you modulate your own sense of anger while writing a script or shooting a film? How do you make it into something that can be honed and expressed in a way that’s then accessible, I suppose, to an audience that you’re trying to speak to?
Self-medicating [Laughs]. No, not really. You know, it’s taken many decades to wear some of it off. I’m not so angry anymore. More now I feel really grateful. When I grew up in Miami and was interested in art, I felt frustrated. I grew up around a bunch of cops and I wanted to be around artists. I was mad when I thought things were happening in other places that I couldn’t get to. But then if you’re a woman and you want to make films…I don’t show the pie chart to my students of what slice of the pie is open to women or what slice of the pie is open to various ethnicities or races because I feel like they might just go take a nap. That would probably get them mad, if they could see the pie of what they were in for. But feeling like it wasn’t an inclusive world was enough for me. At the same time, I’ve had very generous friends and a lot of support from other filmmakers. I’ve had a really productive decade, so it’s hard for me to complain about anything at this point, though I can always manage.
But character anger finds its way into Certain Women, particularly through Jared Harris’s character, Fuller, who’s verging on an unhinged response to a society that he feels slighted by. It must be difficult at times to locate empathy with a certain character and their chosen response to the world. How do you work through that complex arrangement of emotions?
Fuller is in his mid-to-late 50s and he suddenly realizes that there’s injustice and the system isn’t working for him. And he’s taking it so personally and he just can’t believe it. He’s so frustrated and mad about it. He’s having his meltdown in a car with a woman [Laura Dern] who’s a lawyer. When you’re a woman, you find out when you’re 20 that the system’s not going to work. As soon as you get your first job, you realize you’re not going to make as much as the less qualified dude. You’re not going to wait until you’re in your 50s to find out the system doesn’t work for you. Same with the rancher character [Lily Gladstone], the Native-American woman, she just sort of takes her knocks on the chin. She doesn’t have this anticipation of things working out her way. On the other hand, Fuller’s been knocked in the head and he has an injury. I can feel some empathy for him because everybody’s felt up against it before and trapped. When Jared Harris is pulling on that seatbelt in the car—that’s his whole thing right there. It happened, and Jared worked with it, and I’m just like, “Oh yeah, his whole struggle’s right there in that seatbelt. Nothing’s working for him.” So yeah, I can find empathy with all of them.
The stories in the film remind me of a statement Luchino Visconti made about Rocco and His Brothers. When asked about one of the character’s turn to violence, Visconti said that we must always blame the system for the conditions of individuals and their actions, not the individuals themselves. Do you agree with that assessment regarding Certain Women when it comes to your characters’ individual responsibility for their actions?
I think we all play our parts. One question that seems to come up over and over again in all my movies is: What is our relationship to each other? This also comes up in Maile [Malloy] and John Raymond’s writing. Questions about community. Do you want to live in an each man for himself world or a world where you can bump into a stranger and give the benefit of the doubt to someone you don’t know? Are we in this all together or are we just supposed to make our way, keep blinders on, and not care about the person standing next to us? I think those questions about community keep coming up over and over again in these films because they’re seeded in the stories that the scripts are coming from. And, I think those are interesting questions.