This essay employs Anthropocene frameworks to examine United States independent director Kelly Reichardt’s quiet vignettes of American precarity through the interpretive cinematic apparatus. Reichardt’s slow style and lingering gaze are primarily read as affective interpretations of human exhaustion or as a critique of capital temporalities. However, the critical attention paid toward the human in Reichardt’s films overlooks the primacy of landscape as a site of knowledge in the visual aesthetic. It is the entanglement between the human and the landscape in Reichardt’s films that invites an Anthropocene reading based on core concepts of time, scale, and the disruption of the modernist nature/culture binary. In Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), local, global, and planetary scales are made explicit and conflict with human structures such as gender and neoliberal economies. Reichardt’s work explores the manufactured landscape of Oregon and the Florida Everglades (respectively) in Night Moves (2013) and River of Grass (1994), pointing toward larger structural issues at play in traditional conservationism and narratives of progress. Finally, in her Western-influenced films Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Certain Women (2016), Reichardt’s use of environmental sound provides the critique of American expansionist ideology’s depiction of and attempt to consume Indigeneity. Taken together, Reichardt’s filmography presents a compelling case for cinema’s role as mediator of the Anthropocene crisis.

If there is one word that defines Kelly Reichardt’s work, it is “slow.” Reichardt might be the United States’ sole slow cineaste, a broad categorization of avant-garde feature filmmakers engaged in a temporal aesthetic whose work is marked by a lingering and often static camera gaze. Discourse surrounding Reichardt’s films, both in the public and academic sphere, convey the weight of time and the array of affect seemingly bound up with it: a New York Times headline describes her filmography’s “Quiet Menace,” while Elena Gorfinkel’s article “Exhausted Drift: Austerity, Dispossession, and the Politics of Slow in Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff,” gives deference to the wear and tear of time and energy spent by the disenfranchised characters that Reichardt captures.1 Both Alice Gregory in the Times article “The Quiet Menace of Kelly Reichardt’s Feminist Westerns” and Gorfinkel address the issues underlying Reichardt’s slow aesthetic, either feminist or economic, respectively. Claire Henry takes the political potential of Reichardt’s temporal aesthetic beyond the embodied, arguing that Reichardt’s slow style allows for “a micro-level focus on [interpersonal relationship tensions] to highlight the fundamental structuring principles of the temporalities that shape our lives in capitalist societies.”2 Henry’s reading pushes the political implications of slowness from the human affective to the structural, arguing that Reichardt’s approach is subtler, tailored to critique capital’s temporalities in various settings. However structural, Henry’s analysis still concerns the human effects of capital and does not press the connection between a temporal critique and the visual, aural aesthetic of Reichardt’s intensely landscape-driven films.

Reichardt’s films operate on multiple scales, for while her slow pace allows for intimacy on the human level, her characters are surrounded by a much larger material, organic world on which the camera lingers equally, if not longer. It is her approach to time, scale, and the human-land relationship that invites a reading of Reichardt’s work through frameworks provided by the Anthropocene, a through line that can be best read by scaling up from the individual film as text to the broader view of her filmography. Reading the film aesthetic through Anthropocene concepts of time, scale, and entanglement between the human and landscape, I examine how Reichardt’s films evoke structures on human, global, and planetary scales, and provide a political critique of US mythologies and the country’s imperial past. I organize this analysis through three major themes that arise: scalar conflict, manufactured landscapes, and the use of sound to critique human positionality both in nature and social hierarchies. Through these nodes, I look toward an idea of what art in the Anthropocene looks like and how that art interrogates its own moment in time.3

Cinema in the Anthropocene

This article is an exploratory reading of Reichardt’s work through the Anthropocene, bringing film studies approaches into conversation with key concepts that define the epoch: time, scale, and the collapse of boundaries between the human and an exteriorized nature. While this reading falls under the broader umbrella of ecocriticism, the analysis differs distinctly in scope and scale. Emerging from literary and critical theory, ecocriticism is almost an individual practice rather than a prescribed model as scholars bring diverse disciplinary backgrounds to what Ursula Heise describes as “a common political project.”4 That political project is to break down binary concepts central to modernity, especially the misconception of nature and culture as separate entities. Although the ecocritical approach inspires my broader project, in this article I attempt to develop a film-specific approach that directly speaks to the Anthropocene’s and cinema’s role in mediating the epoch. As a geological epoch, the Anthropocene’s inherent scale presents a conflict between the vast spans of deep time that it denotes and the relative insignificance of human time frames. Further, the epoch fundamentally disrupts the nature/culture binary as its very existence indicates that humanity is itself a natural force, its industry able to alter earth systems. Therefore, the Anthropocene implies an ontological flattening, due to its massive scale and implied complicity of all humanity (Anthropos). But the unevenness of the epoch’s effects, such as climate change, point toward the unevenness of its causality. Human structures such as extractive capitalism must be accounted for, as those who contribute the least to Anthropocenic activities are often first to feel their effects. Jennifer Fay proposes that through its “production of artificial worlds and simulated, wholly anthropogenic weather, [cinema] is the aesthetic practice of the Anthropocene.”5 Yet while the medium produces the Anthropocene it can also lay it bare, through the reproduction of global and planetary systems in the intimate space. Cinema also plays a central role not only as a product of modernity, but as what Miriam Hansen terms “vernacular modernism,” a process by which modernity circulated, modelling the modern as well as the imagined—frequently Indigenous—nonmodern, globally.6 Therefore, cinema could be the prime site for mediation of the Anthropocene. And Reichardt’s work provides a prime object for an Anthropocene reading, as Reichardt is a filmmaker whose work evokes scales both small and immense through elapsed time and a meditative approach toward landscape.

I invoke the term “vernacular landscape” in the title of this essay because of its inherent dissolve between nature and culture, but also for how it also implies a language written or spoken through the land itself. Geographers call the landscapes of daily life vernacular—meaning native, ordinary, or of a place or inhabitant—to refer to the shaping of land to its use by those living within it. These uses range from paths trod by animals to burial in human cemeteries, in a constant state of creation by those who dwell in these landscapes. It is precisely this entanglement between the human and the land that Reichardt’s films suggest, her characters shaped by their worlds in a dialectical relationship between the land and the living reflected in the visual and aural aesthetic. The vernacular landscape is shaped by those living within it, but as Reichardt’s work shows, it also performs the work of Gilles Deleuze’s fold, reflecting the exterior enfolded into the interior. Of her films’ characters, Reichardt notes that “[they] are just sort of an extension of the landscape they’re in. They’re a product of the places they’re from and their troubles—their everyday troubles.”7 So, Reichardt’s characters are inseparable from the contexts and environments that produced them, whether readily perceived or alluded to by textual elements.

For an Anthropocene reading of cinema, I proceed first from the entanglement between humans and their living and nonliving ecological environments. I take a slow aesthetic as an entry point to the perception of time and scale, although in a manner more complicated than “slow cinema” implies. In the same manner that the Anthropocene flattens humanity, slow cinema as a strictly aesthetic category without territorial and cultural context flattens political meaning. To read Reichardt’s work without attention to the signification of landscape in relation to US histories of colonization would be to lose the subtleties of how the land itself bears meaning. Reichardt’s measured pace allows time to process the visual and aural excess in her films, excess produced by her choice of settings. Her camera passes time on location, whether in natural or manufactured landscapes, in ways that exceed narrative expectation or needs; the sheer duration allows for space to consider the very materiality of the film world. Further, Reichardt is a deeply specific filmmaker—from filming primarily in the Pacific Northwest, to the small but devastating crises that trouble her narratives. Although small, these disasters evoke larger structures in a scalar vacillation between the intimate and the global.

Reichardt’s films eschew universality by taking in small perspectives, niche narratives in specific places. But it is through the specific that the global structures behind them become perceptible, in a cinematic reiteration of Donna J. Haraway’s “situated knowledges.” Though writing on science, Haraway’s insistence on “the embodied nature of all vision” rings true to Reichardt’s work, which hews closely to those stories it films. Situated knowledge refutes the idea of absolute objectivity or “infinite vision” as “an illusion, a god trick,” arguing for the recognition of one’s position as only ever capable of a partial perspective.8 So, Haraway’s situated knowledges are not only partial but dependent on positionality, a perspective reflected in Reichardt’s constrained narratives. From the standpoint of situated knowledges, it also makes sense that the Anthropocene would not be readily perceptible in one film, but better understood by scaling up to a body of work. What follows is an initial Anthropocene analysis of time, the clash between human and planetary scales, and the nature/culture dichotomy in Reichardt’s filmography through the vernacular landscape. This analysis represents a developing methodology, an exploration of film theory’s capacity to make interventions into the Anthropocene.

Time and Scale: Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy

I begin with an analysis of how Reichardt vacillates between scales, focusing on small human moments that gesture toward the global and planetary. Although they seem synonymous, I use the term “global” in the sense indicated by Dipesh Chakrabarty to imply human international conceptions of the earth, in opposition to the scientific “planetary” that supersedes the human.9 I open by considering how Reichardt’s use of time and landscape suggests deep time scales beyond the confines of the cinematic text. Reichardt’s 2006 film Old Joy features a sequence that invites the viewer to consider the material world and time itself through the image of human debris in a campsite where the protagonists have spent an evening drinking beers and catching up (or not, as the film’s theme of missed communication would suggest). Traveling toward the promise of an idyllic forest hot spring, the protagonists lose their way and are forced to make camp in the dark. The light of the car’s headlights illuminates the “turnoff,” or what looks more like a dump site: a spot full of debris and, most notably, an orange and green floral sofa on which one man sits throughout the tense nighttime conversation. The subsequent sequence opens on a low-angle wide shot of the dawn sky, gray clouds rippling in the wind. What follows is a montage of shots in the morning light: a torn lampshade sits on rocky ground strewn with beer bottles and cans, a close-up of charred wood reveals a shredded aluminum can in its midst, and an empty camp cooler lies open on its side. In the morning light, the protagonists silently gather their gear and leave the site more or less as trashed as they found it. A classic conservationist lens would read this sequence as critical of human presence adulterating the landscape, a reading that reifies the presumed separation between human and pure nature. But neither dialogue nor filmic technique implies indictment. The light of day reveals a beautiful landscape, littered with an almost comical number of beer bottles, but silent and pacific. In conflict with the past evening’s failed reunion, the debris might remind the viewer of the very scenery’s memories of parties long past, a campsite that has been used many times before these two men borrowed it for the night. The debris brings to mind Deleuze’s description of the cinematic image wherein “there is no present which is not haunted by a past and a future, by a past which is not reducible to a former present, by a future which does not consist of a present to come.”10 In Reichardt’s image, the trash embodies erstwhile joy in contrast to the present of current miscommunications, and its future as part of the Earth’s strata. The litter merges into the earth as it is swallowed by soil and rocks, entering the landscape itself.

Reichardt’s filmography is dense with similar moments, a signature aesthetic choice in her repertoire being to drift toward or linger on landscape in ways that break with Hollywood cinema’s dominant tradition of subordinating image to narrative. Instead, Reichardt’s use of time implies a dialectical relationship between time scales: the human and the nonhuman, the living and the inert. The clash in scales, human and geologic, also heightens the precarity of Reichardt’s human characters. Her characters are quite unlike the typical protagonists of Hollywood cinema who exert agency and mastery in their lives. Instead, Reichardt’s taciturn protagonists seem lost in their surroundings, lacking mobility due to financial instability or other misfortunes and facing choices that eclipse their ability to reason a way out. Their inability to “rise above” their station seems located in attachments, or lack thereof, to a certain place and space in the world.

Image 1.

Beer bottles and trash enter the strata in Old Joy (2006) by Kelly Reichardt.

Image 1.

Beer bottles and trash enter the strata in Old Joy (2006) by Kelly Reichardt.

Reichardt’s 2008 follow-up feature to Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, focuses on a woman out of place and quite literally without mobility. En route to Alaska in search of work, Wendy is stranded by auto troubles in a small Oregon town where, after an arrest for trying to shoplift dog food, her dog Lucy goes missing. This summary is accurate in terms of plot but does not reflect the barely veiled crisis present at all times throughout the film as Wendy struggles to keep from slipping into homelessness, abject poverty, or separation from her only companion. Wendy and Lucy is one of the best examples of what Katherine Fusco and Nicole Seymour describe as Reichardt’s trademark themes of “emergency and the everyday.”11 It is the grind of precarity, the seemingly ever-present crisis that must be endured or deferred by inches in the midst of banality. But Fusco and Seymour’s description of Reichardt’s work could very well be taken for a description of the Anthropocene itself and the clash between human and planetary scales: “emergencies are both slow and accumulative…living through emergency may in fact be an everyday experience.”12 The accelerating crises of altered earth systems are hard to perceive at the individual level when one’s survival is always threatened. For the financially secure, Wendy’s three-day ordeal would be a nuisance, but for someone who lives on the knife’s edge of poverty, the stakes are massive. So, on the human level, scale is critically important. But the film’s aesthetic choices, in terms of framing, setting, and color palette, bring echoes of global structures into consideration.

The bulk of the film is spent close to Wendy as she searches for her lost pet, and quite literally close in terms of shot length and framing. Cinematographer Sam Levy follows Wendy tightly, allowing less drift toward other people or the surrounding landscape than Reichardt’s earlier work, or later films with long-time collaborator Christopher Blauvelt. Frequently shot in close-up or medium to medium-long shot, the film’s framing isolates Wendy, keeping her at a visual distance from other people in the unfamiliar town. Proximity refuses the viewer’s ability to mentally drift from Wendy’s situation, a discomfiting confinement to her daily grind. But it also puts the viewer in contact with the town’s architecture, particularly its poverty. Her search takes her throughout the town’s manufactured landscape, in the backyards of industrial sites, through city streets, and the halls of the dog pound. Without personal transportation, her car having broken down at the film’s opening, Wendy pounds the pavement by foot allowing for extended time to view her surroundings. The town is economically depressed, indicated by its run-down architecture and aged cars. Sound too plays a role as the whistles of a nearby trainyard echo in the mix at all hours. The trains add to the claustrophobic sense of Wendy’s world, seemingly taunted by the mobility they promise while she remains marooned by hardship. But along with the images of depression and infrastructural decay, the overall impression is of a boom-and-bust town, a site discarded by extractive capitalism and likely a victim of neoliberal economics.

Wendy often seems to be in danger of being virtually swallowed by the landscape itself, as though she were going to be consumed by the town’s poverty. Her clothing, the same ensemble of brown cutoff shorts and yellow top for the film’s three-day diegesis, visually matches the town’s color palette of industrial progress long past. Wendy’s visual match to the town’s depressed economy does not bode well for someone looking to escape her situation, as even the most hopeful of scenes illustrates. After an unsuccessful visit to the pound, Wendy returns to her car to scrape for change for a phone call. A store security guard, Wally, aware of Wendy’s situation, offers her use of his cell phone. His offer is one of the few two-shots of the entire film where the human body is shown unobstructed and whole, both Wendy and Wally framed in a balanced long shot as they speak. The two-shot connects the two characters: Wally as a potential ally to Wendy, and Wendy allowing her guard to drop enough to accept a stranger’s help. Their connection takes place at the guard’s accustomed post, outside the drugstore where he watches the surrounding parking lot. After returning his phone, Wendy settles into a weary squat against the drugstore wall. To this point, she has worn her accustomed blue sweatshirt, a match to Wally’s own blue guard uniform, but now she peels it off to reveal her dingy yellow button-up shirt. No longer visually connected to Wally and with only a backpack and her drab yellow pillowcase of worldly belongings, Wendy fades into the cement wall of the same shade. Although the equal balance in the initial two-shot signals a potential connection, the promise of collectivist action is quickly dispelled. Wendy’s subsequent absorption into the town’s manufactured landscape belies the promise of liberal individualism, the eventual outcome of which is the loss of her animal companion, her personal mobility, and even the precarious position she once sustained.

Image 2.

Wendy (Michelle Williams) fades into the manufactured landscape in Wendy and Lucy (2008) by Kelly Reichardt.

Image 2.

Wendy (Michelle Williams) fades into the manufactured landscape in Wendy and Lucy (2008) by Kelly Reichardt.

Manufactured Environments: Night Moves and River of Grass

Wendy and Lucy’s human portrait of economic insecurity gestures toward global structures, but as Old Joy indicates, landscape also evokes the planetary. Reichardt’s 2013 film Night Moves centers on the extremist actions of a radical environmentalist group. Despite its premise, the film is an anthropocentric thriller at its heart. But in dwelling on interpersonal drama, it also demonstrates how human constructs intervene in ecological discourse that purports to rise to what Chakrabarty terms “species thinking.”13 As an early scene establishes, even actions motivated by planetary concerns are still heavily influenced by structures embedded in small human political circles. Fewer than ten minutes into the film, Night Moves would seem to announce its central thesis as protagonists Dena and Josh attend a small-scale documentary screening in their community. Afterward, Dena asks the filmmaker what exactly her “big plan” to address climate change would be. The filmmaker answers, “I think this ‘one big plan’ thinking leads to a lot of the problems we’re facing.…I’m not focused on big plans. I’m focused on small plans, a lot of small plans.” Watching from the back of the room, a close-up of Josh’s face reveals his dissatisfied reception. Although it passes quickly, this quiet moment lays bare the intersection between agency and gender at the heart of the film and the environmentalist movement. The question of how to enact political action in Night Moves is unquestionably gendered, an interplay between the small, nonlinear change commonly represented as feminine or feminist, and the masculinist large-scale action ultimately chosen by Dena and Josh. Dena’s alignment with the spectacular and disruptive terrorist act is foreshadowed by her earlier flippant questioning of the filmmaker and an indication that positionality does not indicate one’s political alignment or solidarities. Instead, Dena and Josh’s “big plan” is to destroy a hydroelectric dam, thereby calling attention to their cause and reverting the river back to its natural ecosystem. The film opens on the dam itself, a humming and sterile space in contrast to the woods surrounding, setting the stage for a film that pointedly spends most of its time in manufactured environments rather than the natural spaces that its protagonists long to conserve.

Image 3.

The hydroelectric dam hums to life in the opening shot of Night Moves (2013) by Kelly Reichardt.

Image 3.

The hydroelectric dam hums to life in the opening shot of Night Moves (2013) by Kelly Reichardt.

That the film spends most of its time within manufactured environments seems unusual, given that environmentally themed films often romanticize the natural landscape, a process that David Ingram links to a melodramatic mode that opposes the ambiguity of realism.14 Reichardt’s minimalist drama eschews sentimentality and, when on location, refuses to idealize the late autumnal Oregon woods by employing an austere, brown color palette that saps the surroundings of vibrancy. But Night Moves’ investment in the humanmade environment has more to say about the politics of conservationism itself. On a narrative level, the eco-terrorists bomb a dam to serve as a bellwether for the politically and environmentally apathetic, but also in an attempt to reverse the effects of the human footprint and revert to what they perceive as a past, pristine, natural order. But the dam is also a source of hydroelectric power that provides untold levels of carbon-neutral energy and potentially protects the area from other, more damaging forms of energy extraction. Thus, the entanglement of human infrastructure in the natural landscape proves more complicated than a conservationist outlook would presume. And, to romanticize an untouched landscape also serves to erase its earlier inhabitants.

Indigeneity is a recurring theme in Reichardt’s films, often hinted to in asides or in the landscape itself. Oft overlooked as a debut film that lacks her more mature signature look, the 1994 film River of Grass importantly introduces a recurring theme in Reichardt’s work: tying the US landscape to its colonial past and present repercussions. The film’s title references the Florida Everglades where the plot is set, a detail revealed by protagonist Cozy, a bored white housewife trying to escape her lower-middle-class life. In an early sequence, Cozy draws attention to the contrast between undeveloped, natural spaces and the encroachment of industrial development. In a montage of cuts from wetland to highly developed, landscaped cityscape, the sequence visually portrays Cozy’s voiceover narration linking industrial development to progress. Cozy’s blasé narration complements the montage by drawing attention to the economic and cultural undercurrents that led to the shift from natural to manufactured landscape. She equates “civilization” with capital through the invocation of shopping malls, visually represented by the geometrically equidistant palm trees and bushes that line the highways leading away from the Everglades to more scenic tourist destinations. The Everglades, or “river of grass,” is figured as wild, remote, and economically depressed, unable to properly serve as a site of extraction and therefore useless to capital until rendered as such.

Cozy’s vision of progress is also weighted in a racialized context; directly before Cozy’s narration, the montage opens with a long shot of Everglades grasses waving green and gold by a river, loud birdsong in the background. From the grasses, the montage cuts to a slightly low-angle medium shot of a Black couple; the woman sits in profile nearer to the camera, adjusting the straw hat that shields her from the bright sunlight and revealing the black scarf in which she keeps her hair wrapped. She wears a blue plaid shirt while her male companion seated just behind her wears a white tee shirt and a dark ballcap. The next shot reveals the couple’s task, as the woman pulls a fish from her line and grasps it in a toweled hand. Again, birds can be heard noisily squawking in the background. This couple never reappears in the film, but their appearance at this moment, just after the film’s title card and just before Cozy’s river of grass narration, loads their brief cameo with meaning. First, the couple is fishing, an activity both leisurely and nourishing, requiring long periods of time spent for little return, although only when viewed in terms of capital. Next, the image of the couple also introduces the undercurrents of race, a subject that although never explicitly discussed weighs heavily in the film. The film makes no distinctions about the couple’s identity, but the long history of intermarriage and absorption of slaves and freed people of African descent into Seminole tribes is certainly hinted at in Cozy’s evocation of “Indians” in her narration. Cozy’s casual mention of Indians and their naming of the Everglades undercuts the gravity of the Seminole Wars fought from 1816 through 1858 and the subsequent forced removal of Native peoples to Oklahoma territory. Her flippant attitude will bear fruit halfway through the film when, trespassing in a backyard pool, she carelessly points a pistol and accidentally discharges it at the Black property owner who appears to investigate. Cozy’s lack of awareness toward race and structures of injustice is less malicious than reflective of the same casual attitudes often expressed by mainstream white Americans, pernicious though those ideas are in the long run. Cozy’s general alienation from those around her, especially the disenfranchised to whom she could potentially relate as a member of the working class, indicates how racial privilege can obscure opportunities for collaboration.

Image 4.

A Black couple fishes in the Everglades in River of Grass (1994) by Kelly Reichardt.

Image 4.

A Black couple fishes in the Everglades in River of Grass (1994) by Kelly Reichardt.

Vernacular Landscapes: Certain Women and Meek’s Cutoff

While my analysis thus far has examined how the temporal interacts with landscape and visual imagery to evoke global and planetary scales, sound is also a crucial element in Reichardt’s overall aesthetic, particularly in how she shapes and positions landscape as a living element. It is in Reichardt’s Western-inspired films that the vernacular landscape speaks—in a buzzing, humming soundscape that teems with the sounds of life: human, nonhuman, and often industrial. Land and Indigeneity, hinted at in her filmography, also come to the forefront in Reichardt’s Westerns where her critique of US ideologies is most keenly felt, and its histories of settler-colonialism are connected to the Anthropocene.

Sound is so important to Reichardt’s films as to consistently spill over from the diegetic world. With the exception of her debut, River of Grass, all of Reichardt’s feature-length films have opened on a title card with an element of diegetic sound, usually a Foley effect, as a bridge to the opening shot. Night Moves features the hum of the dam, Old Joy opens on birdsong and the ring of a (diegetic) meditation bowl, and Wendy and Lucy begins with the clangor of trains. Certain Women also opens on a title card, accompanied by the sound of bells jingling rhythmically. The sound effect is somewhat destabilizing until the addition of a distant train whistle and an atmospheric wind sound that accords with the image—an extreme long shot of a train passing through a mountainous landscape. For viewers, the sound effect might not make immediate sense, Western conventions excepting, although later in the film the sound returns, diegetically revealed to be the bells worn by Native American jingle dancers. Partway through the first third of the film, which comprises a triptych of stories, the film cuts suddenly to the sight of a Native American dancer in full regalia standing at a shopping mall food counter. In an eyeline match cut, the viewer sees Laura Wells, the protagonist of the first story, gazing absentmindedly, almost quizzically, at the dancer, at the discordant image of ancient tradition within modern crass capital before her. Laura’s reaction to the dancer reflects colonial attitudes that perceive what Kevin Bruyneel describes as a “tension between traditional [Native] cultural practices and existing as a modern independent people,”15 a tension imposed by binary conceptions of Indigeneity as static and outside of the progression of time. But the moment also recalls the opening sound bridge, a sonic overlap of the ancient (bells, ceremony) and the modern (train, industry). The concurrence of both, visually and aurally, works on two levels: imposed on a landscape, it implies a living memory of the land itself in connection to its first inhabitants, while also acknowledging their continuing presence in the modern landscape.

Image 5.

Shot: An Indigenous dancer in regalia purchases a mall food court meal in Certain Women (2016) by Kelly Reichardt.

Image 5.

Shot: An Indigenous dancer in regalia purchases a mall food court meal in Certain Women (2016) by Kelly Reichardt.

The realities of US settler-colonialism come to the forefront along with sound in Reichardt’s breakout 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff, a Western period piece about white settlers lost in the Oregon desert. Without adequate water, the settlers begin to question their guide, the Meek of the title, eventually kidnapping a Native American man, named only “the Indian” in dialogue and the credits, and therefore the title by which I will refer to the character. The white settlers hold him hostage in hopes of forcing him to lead them to resources, specifically a viable source of drinking water. The film’s opening again centralizes the driving force of the film through the use of a sound bridge to connect the nondiegetic title screen to the place where the settlers are introduced—a river crossing. Meek’s Cutoff opens ominously with a simple, mournful string composition and the rushing sound of running water. The opening title screen, made to resemble an early-American primitive cross-stitch, fades along with the music into the first scene while the water grows even louder, seeming to engulf the oxen, covered wagons, and attendant human figures. The water sound is overwhelming, drawing attention to the precious resource whose absence will form the empty center of the coming narrative. Although naturalistic, the river soundscape is not realistic. At one point, a woman crosses the waters with her pet canary perched on her head; shot in extreme long shot, the river’s sound should drown out the canary’s tiny chirps, yet we hear them ring out clearly amid the flow. The empathetic sound in this sequence is another indicator that the knowledges produced in the film will indeed be situated, positioned from the vantage point of the settlers, and most often from a female perspective.

Image 6.

Reverse shot: Laura (Laura Dern) watches the dancer in Certain Women (2016) by Kelly Reichardt.

Image 6.

Reverse shot: Laura (Laura Dern) watches the dancer in Certain Women (2016) by Kelly Reichardt.

In one scene that recurs in discourse around the film, the wives of the group cluster together to watch warily as their husbands discuss their dire situation at a distance. In a shot–counter shot sequence, the viewer again experiences a form of empathetic sound—positioned at a distance with the wives, the viewer cannot quite make out what the husbands discuss with their guide either. Although distance does seem to be a minor factor, clearly human voice has been lowered in the mix for this scene and the sound of diverse insects has been added and amplified. This scene is often, and deservedly, read through a gendered lens, noting the exclusion of women from essentially life-and-death choices.16 The typical Hollywood film would place the viewer in the male audio space, a space of action and decision, while the women in the distance remain unable to participate even within their own narrative. But it also serves as a moment where the human voice, usually the most privileged sound in cinema, is nigh consumed by its environment. Throughout the film, the human figure is at the will of the natural landscape.

Image 7.

Shot: Emily (Michelle Williams) takes a last look at the Indian man in Meek’s Cutoff (2010) by Kelly Reichardt.

Image 7.

Shot: Emily (Michelle Williams) takes a last look at the Indian man in Meek’s Cutoff (2010) by Kelly Reichardt.

For the settlers, the Indian is undoubtedly considered to be another part of the natural landscape. His introduction to the film is tied to the land: he first appears briefly on a distant ridge, and then quite suddenly at protagonist Emily’s feet. The first contact with Emily is almost mystical; the camera follows Emily closely in medium-long shot as she gathers firewood in the setting sun. Her bonnet obscures her face and she looks only at the ground as she gathers wood, thereby failing to see the man standing before her until her hand reaches for a stick at his feet. A reverse shot shows her stunned face as she rises, and a cut to her eyeline match reveals the Indian’s back as he runs almost silently to his pony tied on a ridge. His sudden appearances and disappearances function similarly to the sound at the opening, indicating that his stealth derives from the settlers’ perspective of his silence. The Indian’s seeming ability to spring forth from the earth partly lies in how the settlers equate his selfhood with the natural landscape.

Kidnapping the Indian becomes a form of wresting control from the natural elements through resource extraction, as the settlers attempt to either beat or bribe information about a source of water from him. He is tied to the ground like their animals and food is thrown to him like an animal as well. The Indian does not speak English and his language goes untranslated for either the settlers or the viewers. The lack of translation places the viewer in the same position as the settlers, for no one else in the diegesis speaks the character’s language, a form of nearly extinct down-river Nez Perce spoken by the Cayuse. However, the Indian does speak despite knowing that he will not be understood. The impossibility of knowing the Indian’s interiority rebuffs colonial figures of the “friendly Indian” who serves the white settlers’ interests and needs, exemplified by American mythmaking around real historical figures such as Pocahontas (Matoaka of the Powhatan tribe) and Squanto (Tisquantum of the Patuxet tribe). Nor is he openly hostile, never shown rising against his captors, although the possibility that he is leading them astray hangs in the air. The Indian offers a different model of Indigeneity, outside the colonizing imaginary of the servile or hostile native, as a figure that occupies a third space between colonial narratives. Bruyneel defines the third space as “a location inassimilable to the liberal democratic settler-state, and as such it problematizes the boundaries of colonial rule but does not seek to capture or erase these boundaries.”17 The third space arises from the ambivalence of colonial rule, an ambivalence that also allows unwitting space for a postcolonial resistance that “refuses to be divided by settler-state boundaries.”18 The Indian resists his captors by continuing to behave in a rational manner according to his customs, carving petroglyphs on the journey and singing a prayer for a settler who collapses from thirst. Yet he is positioned to remain unknowable, both to the settler colonialists and the elite film festival audience to which Meek’s Cutoff likely appeals, an audience that skews white and higher income. The film’s refusal to allow viewer positioning within the Indian’s character forces a reflection upon the manner in which the Indian himself is denied personhood by the white settlers.

Image 8.

Reverse shot: the Indian (Rod Rondeaux) returns Emily’s gaze in Meek’s Cutoff (2010) by Kelly Reichardt.

Image 8.

Reverse shot: the Indian (Rod Rondeaux) returns Emily’s gaze in Meek’s Cutoff (2010) by Kelly Reichardt.

Perhaps it is this critique of America’s Manifest Destiny myth that dispels the potential optimism of Meek’s Cutoff’s final sequence. Finally spotting a tree growing in the desert, the settlers look to their guide, Meek, who acquiesces to the power shift that now leaves Emily and, by proxy the Indian, in charge of their choices. In close-up, Emily gazes through the tree, framed by its sparse but green leaves. An eyeline match reveals the Indian walking in extreme long shot, suddenly also framed by the tree but uncharacteristically turning to look directly at the camera and therefore at Emily. Up to this point the Indian has avoided direct eye contact with anyone, maintaining a non-confrontational posture. Further, he continues to walk into the desert as the film fades to black, seeming to disappear back into the landscape. That he seems to return to the landscape, even from the point of view of Emily, the most sympathetic settler, indicates that her willingness to reach outside her perspective is still limited and spells little hope for the reconciliation of her newfound white feminism to Indigeneity.

Conclusion

Reichardt’s work is not straightforwardly “environmentalist,” or concerned with the most visible markers of the Anthropocene such as climate instability. Nor would it readily be classified as ecocinema in the sense of inspiring an ecological activism or sentiment, although that definition remains unsettled. Yet connections have been made, as Fusco and Seymour address Meek’s Cutoff as a potential metaphor for the current climate crisis: “First, it is a film of environmental crisis. Second, it is a film of the Anthropocene…What is unusual, of course, is that the film is set in the mid-1800s.”19 Fusco and Seymour note that the film is unusual as an Anthropocene piece, given that the current dating for the epoch is roughly 1950, matched to the Atomic Age. Then again, looking at Meek’s Cutoff from the viewpoint of the unnamed, hostage Indian man, the Anthropocene began the moment he first saw those white settlers from the top of a ridge. Thus, it should come as no surprise that a period piece like Meek’s Cutoff could evoke our current crisis, as it merely illustrates that the Anthropos of the Anthropocene implies a specific type of human—the human with the most political agency in modernity: the white, cis-male, colonial citizen.

Although still emergent, analyzing cinema aesthetics of and in the Anthropocene can offer a crucial cultural component to its theorization, particularly as culpability is assigned. Although I do not argue for cinema as the sole mediator of the epoch, examples of slow cinemas like Reichardt’s films can serve as one of the entry points for that analysis, given their temporal and contemplative aesthetic approaches toward land, which highlight the global and planetary scales inflected in the specific. But while both the Anthropocene and slow cinema offer conceptual affordances, their encompassing natures inevitably erase knowledges that complicate and enrich easy conclusions. Looking to the specificities captured by a slow aesthetic mode reveals the political and potentially activist implications that might help mitigate coming crises or better assert accountability for the epoch that will remain a shared planetary present and future.

Notes

1.

Alice Gregory, “The Quiet Menace of Kelly Reichardt’s Feminist Westerns,” New York Times, October 14, 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/10/16/magazine/the-quiet-menace-of-kelly-reichardts-feminist-westerns.html. Elena Gorfinkel, “Exhausted Drift: Austerity, Dispossession, and the Politics of Slow in Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff,” in Slow Cinema (Traditions in World Cinema), ed. Nuno Barradas Jorge and Tiago de Luca (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).

2.

Claire Henry, “The Temporal Resistance of Kelly Reichardt’s Cinema,” Open Cultural Studies 2, no. 1 (December 1, 2018): 287.

3.

Coined by chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000, the Anthropocene, or Age of the Human, denotes the current geological epoch dated from the mid-twentieth century to the present time. The Anthropocene was proposed in 2016 and accepted by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy in 2019 as successor to the Holocene epoch (which began after the last glacial period) due to the drastic impact of human activity on earth systems including, but not limited to, environmental degradation, global warming, rising sea levels, and the introduction of synthetic elements such as plastics into the strata. See “Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene,’” Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, http://quaternary.stratigraphy.org/working-groups/anthropocene.

4.

Ursula K. Heise, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Ecocriticism,” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 121, no. 2 (March 2006): 506.

5.

Jennifer Fay, Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018), 4.

6.

Miriam Hansen, “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 6, no. 2 (April 1999): 22.

7.

As quoted in Gregory, “The Quiet Menace of Kelly Reichardt’s Feminist Westerns.”

8.

Donna J. Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (Autumn 1988): 582–3.

9.

Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Human Condition in the Anthropocene” (Lecture, The Tanner Lectures in Human Values, Yale University, February 18, 2015), https://tannerlectures.utah.edu/Chakrabarty%20manuscript.pdf.

10.

Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 37.

11.

Katherine Fusco and Nicole Seymour, Kelly Reichardt (Contemporary Film Directors) (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 3.

12.

Fusco and Seymour, Kelly Reichardt, 4.

13.

Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 213.

14.

David Ingram, Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema (Chippenham, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2000).

15.

Kevin Bruyneel, The Third Space of Sovereignty: The Postcolonial Politics of U.S.-Indigenous Relations (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 203.

16.

Fusco and Seymour, Kelly Reichardt, 63.

17.

Bruyneel, The Third Space of Sovereignty, 21.

18.

Bruyneel, The Third Space of Sovereignty, 21.

19.

Fusco and Seymour, Kelly Reichardt, 63.