Not long ago, director Kelly Reichardt’s debut feature film, River of Grass (1995), underwent a restoration. We covered its run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque for a special series of screenings with some extensive coverage. This writer gave it a review in retrospect (River of Grass captures snapshot of disaffected Gen-Xers in South Florida — a film review) and even had a conversation with Reichardt (Miami-born Director Kelly Reichardt talks about finding inspiration in her hometown for debut feature River of Grass).
Recently, the film arrived on home video (purchase it via this link to support Independent Ethos). The studio sent us a copy to review, and why not? There’s a special kinship we feel with Reichhardt not just because she is from our South Florida area but also because the title of this website owes a debt to her. It was while we perused the extras of the DVD release of her 2006 film Old Joy that we stumbled across an essay she wrote where she used the phrase “independent ethos.”
She laughed when her influence is brought up during the interview and deflected the credit. “That probably came from [screenwriter] Jon Raymond, so that’s good,” she said.
Her films since River of Grass have been heavy affairs. Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Meek’s Cutoff (2010) are sensitive and thoughtful films that cut deep into how people relate with one another. But River of Grass stands out not only as a first feature, but also for its humor. And her humor and humility was on full display when we spoke earlier this month. It’s something actor Jesse Eisenberg, affirmed, as well. In a recent interview (Jesse Eisenberg on coming to work with Joachim Trier and the psychology of their new film Louder Than Bombs and his defense of Batman V Superman), besides asking him about his recent work with Norwegian director Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs) and Hollywood director Zack Snyder (Batman V Superman), I asked him about working with Reichhardt. He starred in her 2013 suspense film Night Moves.
“Kelly is the funniest person I know,” he said, “which you wouldn’t know from her movies, because her movies are incredibly serious and contemplative, and Kelly is the funniest person in the world. I kept asking her, ‘Kelly, let’s put a joke here in this scene,’ and she’d be like, ‘No, that would ruin the movie.'”
Eisenberg also described her as a genuine artist, assured in her vision. “Kelly is the kind of creative person that makes everyone else feel like a phony,” he said, “because she’s not only so talented, but she really sticks to kind of her taste and her vision for things in the face of some pretty uphill battles.”
With that in mind, the humor and humble insight on the commentary track for the video release of River of Grass by Reichardt and the film’s lead actor and editor Larry Fessenden comes as no surprise. Also, Reichardt already warned during the interview that she and Fessenden come across like Statler and Waldorf on “The Muppet Show” on the commentary track. Indeed, as she re-watches the film alongside Fessenden for the first time since shooting it, more than 20 years ago, their banter almost immediately establishes itself as self-deprecating.
During the film’s opening montage, Fessenden comments, “The synch on this is…”
“Questionable?” interjects Reichardt. “That’s how we did it back in the day.”
It’s a fun reunion between the collaborators, who last worked together on Wendy and Lucy. Reichardt sometimes has trouble remembering details, including the beach where she admits she hung out on while playing hooky from high school. “I can’t remember the name [of the beach],” she admits early on. “There’s gonna be a lot of that. Just not being able to actually remember.”
There’s a clear separation between the two filmmakers’ earlier selves and their current selves, which allows for a penetrating critical eye. They laugh about amateurish decisions in mise-en-scène and editing. There’s a running gag about a dissolve that they are both startled to find in another montage, at the mid-point of the film. When Fessenden remarks, “That dissolve is going to haunt me,” he isn’t kidding. You could make a drinking game out of how often he brings it up again during the commentary track.
But there’s also a genuine respect for the craft of the indie filmmaker. As much as they joke about how often they were stopped by police while shooting the film without permits (“We had several run-ins with the police running around pointing guns out the window and such,” admits the director), there is also a sense of pride in their work, revealing crafty techniques with a limited budget (she says it was $30,000). More than once Fessenden admits to creative editing for a lack of coverage, which includes some rather unnoticeable moments of establishing shots where the film was slowed down.
But Fessenden admits that the film also provided a key moment of personal inspiration. He says he needed River of Grass to make his 1995 film Habit, after “being beat up on” his previous movie. There are also instances where they both share their surprise by some of the exceptional camera work, which was shot by Jim Denault.
This film will also always stand out as a work of Reichardt’s unguarded humor. When the police detectives sardonically joke about their job, Fessenden asks Reichardt, “So what’s with all the jokes, Kell? Trying to buy screen time?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” she says, possibly embarrassed by it, before they share a laugh over the dialogue.
Besides this fun, informative and insightful commentary track, the only other extras are the film’s trailer and an interesting sort of slideshow that covers the intensity of the film’s restoration, which was done with the help of UCLA Film and Television archive and important film labs in Los Angeles. It’s a briskly paced featurette that’s under three minutes but captures the impressive detail that went into restoring the film resulting in a rather immaculate blu-ray release.
Photo credits: Images of Kelly Reichardt and Larry Fessenden are courtesy of IMDB. Jesse Eisenberg in Night Moves is courtesy Cinedigm. Images of the inside of Blu-ray release of River of Grass by Hans Morgenstern.