Accepting the Robby Muller award online this week, ahead of a talk at the International Film Festival Rotterdam to celebrate her work, Kelly Reichardt appeared delighted with its form.
In its second year, the award has taken the guise of an enlarged Polaroid print featuring a solitary tree, which was taken by Muller on a winter’s day in Munich during the eighties.
Both Muller and the award’s recipient have a talent for capturing landscapes and Reichardt said that she studied the late cinematographer’s work closely early in her career to “try and figure out the connection between what you dream of and what you can actually capture.”
She recalls making her first film, “River of Grass” in the early nineties, which focused on her native Miami landscapes, as she honed her own distinct voice and vision.
“I knew I needed to school myself in lenses after that film because every set up of that camera informed me of what I didn’t know, and what I needed to figure out,” she told IFFR’s online Big Talk audience.
Reichardt added that she also learned to edit during this feature, under the tutelage of jack-of-all trades filmmaker Larry Fessenden.
This debut marked the start of many reoccurring themes in her work including corporations’ lasting impact on landscapes, society and individuals.
“Lots of those landscapes don’t exist in Miami anymore. I remember the first McDonalds being built and in a very short time the other three corners of that intersection had a subway and three other outlets.
“Even as a kid, though I liked the food, I sensed that this was not good. The lots that were there before were missing. There was a strong sense of something being taken away that has persisted in me as an adult,” she added.
Her most recent feature, “First Cow” puts America’s entrepreneurial spirit under Reichardt’s studied lens as it examines the ruthless logic of supply and demand in 1820s Oregon.
Her seventh feature screened this week in IFFR’s Limelight section following a brief run on the festival circuit last year, which started at Berlinale before the pandemic took hold.
The film had a limited U.S. release in March before cinemas closed, and in July distributor A24 took the decision to release the title on VOD in July.
At the core of “First Cow” are two gentle outsiders, King-Lu (Orion Lee) and Cookie (John Magaro), both of whom are struggling to make a living when they stumble upon a neighbor’s cow, reputed to be the first in the region.
They hit upon a plan to siphon off its milk and make doughnut-like, oily cakes that soon prove an outpost hit – not least among the ruthless people they’ve stolen the milk from.
As the character of Cookie memorably observes: “Some people can’t imagine being stolen from.”
Based on the novel “Half Life,” written by her regular screenwriting collaborator Jonathan Raymond, the book spans four decades and there’s not a cow in sight.
“The idea was how to get some of these themes of early industry from the novel so the cow kind of allowed that to happen and gave us the vehicle on which to latch everything else on to,” Reichardt explained.
Like her other films, Reichardt likes to subvert genre: there are no macho cowboys in this Western, just a tender, interracial friendship between two men trying to get by without hurting anyone.
“Because I’d already made a Western with ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ I felt much freer and less tied to a genre. I also felt that I wasn’t following in the footsteps of something that had come before me, I just tried to focus on the characters and how to tell their stories,” she said.
Reichardt added that she particularly appreciates these characters given the violent start to the year in American politics.
“Who could stand one more tough guy, right? But it’s not gone away – if you look at those people who stormed the Capitol building last month, they’re just like our trappers – these ridiculous men – times haven’t changed.”
While the indie filmmaking community of the early nineties could hardly be described as the Wild West, Reichardt admits to “not feeling invited” during the early days of her career.
“I got my heart broken to find out that the independent film community was so unwelcoming. It was not open to women and it certainly wasn’t gay-friendly either,” she recalled.
After the promising reception of her debut, 12 years passed before Reichardt would make her second film, “Old Joy,” which saw her become the first U.S. filmmaker to win IFFR’s Tiger award.
During her fallow feature period, she says she taught (she’s also now a film professor), and shot shorts on Super 8 and 16mm. There was even a spell working on “America’s Top Model” – a gig she landed through her association with the late “Still Alice” director Richard Glatzer, whose career veered between hit reality TV shows and indie filmmaking and indirectly helped finance “Old Joy.”
Reichardt is reassured that more female figures are being recognized for their work right now, but given her past struggles to get her early work financed despite their success, it’s clearly hard for her not to feel cynical.
“There’s so much celebration of women and people of color this year and I’m thinking ‘that’s great,’ but a cynical part of me is thinking ‘Is this just Covid?’ Are they just thinking ‘Let’s just let women in and give them the awards this year – no one’s actually coming to watch the films’ … I don’ know, we’ll have to see where the lasting power is.”
She adds that it’s a shame that many women filmmakers are only ever celebrated retrospectively.
“It’s good that Agnès Varda is so central now to any conversation about independent cinema – but at the same time – the work was always there and that wasn’t true when she was making it.”
Over time Reichardt has built up her own close-knit community of filmmakers for support, who, as well as Fessenden and Raymond include the indie director Todd Haynes, Christopher Blauvelt – her cinematographer since “Meek’s Cutoff” – as well as the actress Michelle Williams.
Some of this Reinhardt ensemble, including Raymond, Blauvelt, Williams and Magaro, will join the director on her next project, “Showing Up,” about a group of young ceramicists in Portland who are working towards an exhibition.
On Zoom, she shows a small audience of journalists her picture book of visual images from the new project, which are scattered over her living room floor. She explains that the book is a guide Reichardt always uses with Blauvelt to devise the look, tone and basic shooting strategy.
And while she’s still talking about “Showing Up” it’s equally clear that she could be talking about her own work when she says “It’s all about process – about getting up and showing up at your work table and that daily process of making art.”