There are three moments in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women that speak volumes about its own central dilemma.
The first one happens right at the beginning, in the first of the three short individual stories that comprise the film: Laura (Laura Dern), a lawyer who’s been trying to convince her client (Jared Harris) that he’s not entitled to what seems to be a fair compensation from a previously settled lawsuit, expresses her discomfort after seeing him promptly agree when a male lawyer tells him the exact same thing she’s been saying all along. “It would be so lovely to think that, if I’m a man, I could explain the law and people would say ‘Okay’.”
The second moment lies at the crux of the second story: after Gina (Michelle Williams) has easily convinced a local elder to give her a stack of sandstones that she can use to add an authentic local flavor to her new family home, her husband (James Le Gros) suggests the man should give it another thought before committing – a disagreement followed by a beat of stupefied silence. The conversation ends outside, where she asks her husband why he always makes her look like the bad guy, verbalizing what the pause had made clear.
The third one is slightly more discreet, but its forced comedic timing makes it no less jarring: when Beth (Kristen Stewart) teaches a class about School Law reading from cue cards to a room full of adults, a male voice jumps from off screen interrupting another student in two different occasions, with questions that roam around maintaining privileges, such as special parking spots for teachers.
The three moments aren’t problematic because of their fair denouncement of a society deeply rooted in male privilege – a pervading theme that beautifully fills the space between the silent actions and the mostly fragmented dialogue, as well as the space between the viewer and the film. What makes them stand out under harsh light is the reliance on the spoken word as means of highlighting, with bold neon markers, what the drama and the situations themselves have already made evident. These eruptions of speech serve as the eyelets through which the thin threads of narrative weaved by Reichardt pass, but the crudeness of their literalness stand out like vulgar embellishments on a boot that needs no shoelaces, wrapped around them like bandages to cover imaginary holes. They are few and far between, indeed, but the boldness of their placement gives Certain Women a topical quality that is foreign to the work of Kelly Reichardt – not excluding this film. As Terence Davies’ rendition of Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion (2016) says: “Clarity is one thing; obviousness, quite another.”
After all, Reichardt’s films – often adapted from literary works – have always been especially slippery regarding what they’re about. In part, the dubious feeling that her movies carried a lot of meaning while giving you no indication as to how or even what they really wanted to mean is what makes them so fascinating. Old Joy (2006) actively laid out geopolitical topics and major current events to let them slowly swirl down the drain, leaving the viewer with very little but the presence of the three main characters – two men and one dog (Reichardt’s own Lucy, to whom this new film is dedicated). The following feature, Wendy and Lucy (2008), slowly shifted its central theme of homelessness from the human characters to the dog – again, Lucy, now costarring alongside Michelle Williams – repositioning Agnés Varda’s Vagabond (1985) against a new, and not less deafening, void, clear of any meaning except those expressed through pure physicality – a bark, more than a speech. In Meek’s Cutoff (2010), a tale based on a historical incident of a group that traveled across the Oregon High Desert in 1845 without any certainty they were going the right way was slowly dissolved as abstraction against the expansive landscape of the West, making it a Western that recalled more Bill Viola than John Ford. And while Night Moves (2013) indeed took a sharp turn toward political commentary, it is also her weakest film to date, more interesting for its few ambiguities than for its spelled out machinations.
At an age when art seems more and more content in catering to a spectatorship in search of moral confirmation, rather than challenges of perception – a viewer that chooses religion over politics –, this ghost of a choice hangs over Certain Women with the anxiety of a compromise. If Reichardt’s films have always avoided the tyranny of subject matter, it’s because it is matter, itself, which has always been her main subject. Around the aforementioned, stated and reaffirmed pillars of obviousness that spike through the text, the director agglutinates a muted, fascinating palette of textures, actions and vibrations that carry deeper meaning and reveal more about the characters and their relationship than any verbal outburst: the tracks left by the tires on the snow; a blue-eyed horse covered with a dusty layer of ice; a long truck drive that ends in the middle of a field (a shot that brings to mind the ending of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1996 masterwork, Goodbye South Goodbye); the immanence of napkins, wallpapers and cheeseburgers. In a world where pure existence speaks this eloquently, words are futile devices.
In that light, Reichardt’s choice to shoot Certain Women in grainy Super 16mm film is one of the most vital parts of her storytelling – beautifully engraved by Christopher Blauvelt’s work, both strong and restrained. The embossed texture provided by analog film’s indexicality covers every prosaic setting, sighting or sighing with a sense of history and expression that elevates the director’s ability to heighten the mundane, making the stories paradoxically both time specific and timeless. Blauvelt’s camera dramatizes the ordinary with very little interference, bringing out the specificity of place and time without rendering it stylized or washed out by a desire for universality. It is through the smallest and most humble crumbs that the world of Certain Women reveals itself, and it is those very crumbs – of narrative, of emotions, of life – that keep the characters together or push them apart.
Towards the end of the film, Laura visits her client in jail and, as they socialize over milkshakes, he asks her why she’s never written him. She says she didn’t know what to write. He shrugs: “Talk about anything. Talk about your day. Just put it in an envelope” because the pleasure and the sense of belonging that he craves for will not come through words, but through the texture of the paper, the color of the ink, the weight of the unopened letter. The postal date shall fade, the addressee might move to a different house, and the words are bound to start losing sense the very second they are uttered. Yet the paper will acquire color and smell, the envelope will be progressively curled by time and the “anything”, the mere description of a regular day, will reveal hidden words, the meaningful subtext written with lemon juice that only shows itself under the right kind of light.
The work of Scottish visual artist and filmmaker Douglas Gordon gravitates around ideas of abundance, permanence and duration. Famous for museum works that revisited classic films with an added extreme manipulation of time – 24 Hour Psycho (1993), slowing down a VHS tape to make Alfred Hitchcock’s classic’s running time match that of a day; Five Year Drive (1995), which held back The Searchers (1956) so that its screen time would match the actual time span of the events depicted in the movie, resulting in each second of film lasting over 6 hours on screen – or manipulation of space – in left is right and right is wrong and and left is wrong and right is right (1999), Otto Preminger’s Whirpool (1949) played simultaneously in two screens, side by side, with the one on the right reversed, mirroring the original film – the artist debuted in the feature film format with Zidane, un portrait du 21e siècle (2006), codirected by Philippe Parreno, using the footage of seventeen cameras giving every possible angle of French soccer superstar Zinedine Zidane during a single match. In all of them, reigns the common gesture of overvaluing the ephemeral moment by emphasizing its struggle towards permanence through artificial prolongation or the multiplication of points of view and representations of a same event.
It makes sense then that Gordon would choose Jonas Mekas as the subject of his new film, I Had Nowhere to Go. One of the most important figures in American independent cinema and one of the greatest filmmakers alive, Mekas is mostly known for his contribution to the diary film format, bringing some sort of permanence to life’s most fleeting wonders. From his early masterwork Walden (1969) until his recent 365 Day Project (2007) – through which he released one new short film every day for a whole year on his website – and beyond, the work of Jonas Mekas combines an extremely personal point of view with the longevity of a true historic testimony. The modesty of the filmed journal offers understated glimpses of his meetings with other extraordinary fellow artists – Stan Brakhage, Carl Dreyer, Hans Richter, Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground – as well as major world events – his series of videos and installations about 9/11; his recollections of the Second World War which forced him to immigrate from Lithuania to the United States; the emergence of a world-changing countercultural scene in New York City – creating a personal account sprawling most of the 20th century as well as the early 21st. It is, then, no surprise that such abundance would be of interest to Gordon’s own investigations about the limits of totality and the cursory character of being. What is surprising is that I Had Nowhere to Go chooses a completely different, if not opposite, way to look at its subject than one would expect.
How can one tell the story of an artist who’s already told his own story, in his own words and shots and recollections, with such great detail? How can one film the life of a man who’s already obsessively filmed his own first-hand account of so many crucial moments in History? How can one make a biography of a man who has biographed an entire century? Douglas Gordon’s answer is fairly simple: one shouldn’t.
I Had Nowhere to Go finds a solution, or rather an interest, by focusing exactly on the period before Mekas started making films – mostly, his last days in Europe and his first years in the US. The film is then not really a biography or a memoir, but an adaptation of Mekas’ 1991 book of the same title, which consists mostly of diary entries of what is now seen as his early years – the years before he started making his film diaries. The period makes the man’s formative years, since it is marked by the traumatic condition which has made his work so distinct: the experience of displacement.
Such condition is the fundamental root in the filmmaker’s work, entirely devoted to finding shape or form to a condition that remains painfully present in daily life – hence, the diary format. It is only fair, then, that this portrait of a displaced person, but also of the artist before he’d found his medium, is shown as a missing picture: for most of the movie, Mekas reads passages of his book over black screen, accompanied by sound effects and occasional music. The years before the filmeur started filming are presented as memories that were still waiting for images – not necessarily incomplete, but untranslatable, attached to another art form which the artist himself often claims (even more than movies, perhaps): poetry.
This bold decision finds parallel in another great movie in film history: João César Monteiro black screen epic Snow White (2000). Both projects share a common core: while the great Portuguese director kept the black screen as a reaction to a technical problem that damaged the footage he’d already shot, Douglas Gordon includes an expressive excerpt of Mekas talking about the first image he never shot – Russian tanks rolling down a Lithuanian street in 1940 – because his camera was destroyed by a Soviet soldier. The black screen is a representation of the images (not) captured by the broken camera, equivalent to Rithy Pahn’s clay figurines in The Missing Picture: a way to restage loss without bringing it back to life, avoiding to make trauma happen one more time for illustration’s sake.
“You’re welcome to read this as fiction”, grants Jonas Mekas in the beginning of the book/film, and in fact the only tool Douglas Gordon uses to approach reality in a seemingly more direct way in I Had Nowhere to Go is no less ambiguous: sound design. In a central sequence of the film, the narration ceases, while the soundtrack is taken over by a long and elaborate sound landscape of explosions and sprinkling debris, in a tour de force that is paradoxically both immersive and repulsive, due to its overbearing artificiality. While, on the one hand, the construction is designed in such a way as to create a perverse physical experience of the spectacle of war, the absence of image enhances the ghostly nature of sound, which arrives with the clarity of a memory, more than the immanence of a current experience. As in William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops (2002-2003), the resonances – the prolonged sound waves traveling through a grand piano on the soundtrack – and the failing ghost notes carry the history of the defeated, while Mekas’ crisp and sharp narration speaks the language of the living.
Said contrast is not exclusive to the sound track: the overarching black screen is occasionally interrupted by images that work both as the glimpses that have resisted the self-destruction of memory imposed by trauma and as the brief peaks of the present in a prolonged timeline (not only Jonas Mekas’ fortunate longevity, but also the repetition of patterns in a broader History). These images can be roughly separated in two categories: 8mm footage of mundane events, such as vegetables being peeled, bare footsteps in the snow and smoke coming out of a chimney; and hi-def widescreen footage that mostly shows animals in a zoo – including a striking long shot of a gorilla which stands out as one of the most penetrating images seen at this year’s NYFF.
While the video imagery illustrates both the feeling of displacement (animals removed from nature) and a wordless quality that alludes to the silent ballet captured by Mekas 8mm work (his after-the-fact narration on the soundtrack being one of his most distinctive tools), the 8mm footage points at another sense of displacement, starting with an apparent appropriation of Mekas’ own style of filmmaking, but stripping it down of the singularity that his images rely on. However, the juxtaposition of these banal snapshots with Jonas Mekas spoken history often creates a striking synthesis: the smoke immediately triggers the memory of explosions; the steaming vegetables materialize the poverty generated by the war; the moon blurred by the falling snow brings out ashes from the past – memories preserved in Mekas’ diary that the spectator is invited to loosely stitch together. The wicked nature of trauma is brought back by the lightest and most prosaic events, the same way that a dialectal montage awaits in the juxtaposition of any two elements; like trauma, the possibility of meaning is everywhere.
Such leaps of meaning would not be possible were not Jonas Mekas such an noteworthy orator. If I Had Nowhere to Go can only speak of Jonas Mekas, the extraordinary filmmaker, through negation, it does not shy away from celebrating Jonas Mekas, the poet, the narrator, the singer. An eulogy to the broken camera, the film is also a tribute to the unbreakable resistance imposed by desperation and the infinite possibilities that await, dormant between the words. When reality resists and inhibits any chance of expression, it is the poet who can retrace, reveal and recalibrate all the meanings that can fit in the words “fuck you.”