River of Grass has a structure like a scrapbook. At first still images fill the frame, like photographs glued onto the screen (dimestore Godard). Meanwhile voiceover by a Dade County housewife named Cozy (Lisa Bowman) provides the caption for each snap (in a Malick-derived monotone). She describes her birth over a crudely animated rendering of a medical building (“I was born in 1962 at Coral Gables Hospital.”) She describes her moniker over a school photo shot during her elementary years (“I was given the name after my father’s favorite jazz drummer.”) And she describes her family over scratchy footage of teenage makeout sessions and lined notebook paper (“Though Bobby and I had never touched, he wrote me poems all through high school. Later I accepted his proposal for marriage. I knew Bobby loved me, and I figured someday I’d love him too.”) The film that follows—which was directed by Kelly Reichardt and first released in 1995—depicts the run away from home that inevitably happens once Cozy realizes that she’ll never love Bobby back. And even after the stills have given way to more traditional scenes, she continues to speak over the movie, always in a tone as flat as swampland. Like her predecessor in Malick’s Badlands, Cozy talks as though she were reading aloud from paperback romance novels. Or maybe it sounds more like she’s describing events to a jury—maybe the scraps are meant to be evidence.
Cozy’s stream of consciousness narrration introduces us to a series of men, most of whom try to corral her into their own chosen location. There’s Bobby, whom she already wants to get away from; her daddy Ryder (Dick Russell), a full-time detective and part-time drummer; and finally Lee Ray Harold (Larry Fessenden), who directs her in that runaway while brandishing a drink and a gun. Finally there’s Ryder’s investigator friends, males all, who gang up to find their small-town Bonnie and Clyde. But Lee Ray’s comically blase about that whole chase scenario. He’s a consummate drinker, and Fessenden plays him as though he’s got molasses in his bone marrow. The actor barely even walks across the sets—it’d more accurately be described as a slump. He’s passive in both the psychological and physical sense, the joke being that it makes him the ideal man for Cozy.
She, to wit, proves dedicated to her own sort of observational passivity, more interested in contemplating actions than in doing them. According to Reichardt, all this character work forms a sort of skewed autobiography—not the gun part and not the run part, but the detective dad and the Dade upbringing, among other things. You sense that quality, without even really knowing it, in the way that the film keeps skidding away from its “plot” and toward its beloved longueurs: a couple removing palmetto bugs from a motel wall; a driver trying to light a sad little joint roach with an empty lighter; a mother smoking a cigarette and passing her baby Coca-Cola in a bottle. There’s a constant sense of momentum, driven by Ryder’s oft-heard drums, and by the constant rumble of the new couple’s automobile. Yet it’s all motoring towards nothing in particular: Hurricane Andrew tore through all this land back in ‘92, but from the looks of things it might have went down the week of production.
A restored digital print of River of Grass will be playing at the Brattle Theatre this week, in a three-day run that just-so-happens to unofficially cross over with two other Brattle happenings. The first is Fessenden himself: he’ll be presenting a film of his own, Wendigo (originally released in 2001,) during next week’s Boston Underground Film Festival (3.24, 9:45pm).
The second is the Brattle’s ongoing “History of Noir” program: With River of Grass, Reichardt takes that form and skids away from it, creating a work that subverts the genre—its hallmark road trips, its soulful detectives, its class-specific pessimism, its femme fatales—by injecting it with the banality of a reality wrecked by disasters, natural and otherwise. A New York Times review from the film’s initial release called it “a pointed antidote to the hyperbolic romance of violence evoked by such movies as Natural Born Killers and True Romance”; Reichardt herself often refers to it as “a crime movie without the crime.” But no matter what tradition of “crime movies” in which its framed, River of Grass reclaims the mode from all the past-generation filmmakers who had written it in their own male image, as well as from her contemporaries doing the same. If anything, this is noir twice removed.
And indeed Reichardt has rewritten that form in a woman’s image, to some extent or another: the tragedy of noirs past was often that a duplicitous woman would exhibit a sense of agency; meanwhile the tragedy in River of Grass is that Cozy doesn’t have much agency to exhibit in the first place (hell, she barely even has bullets). If there had ever been a sense of hope in this place off the side of the Everglades—economic, romantic, or otherwise—then it seems to have gotten swept away alongside the rest of the hurricane’s debris. All that’s left are those textural memories. Reichardt sands noir down to a blank page, and then fills it back up with the contents of a diary. She emphasizes a life’s memories, documenting the folk tales (a furious wife depositing her hacked-up husband behind a shower wall,) the clothes (faded t-shirts and acid-wash jeans,) and the culture (“within two years, there will be a shopping center every fifteen miles.”) Like a real scrapbook, her debut film is an heirloom.
RIVER OF GRASS. BRATTLE THEATRE. 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. FRIDAY 3.18—SUNDAY 3.20. $9-11.