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Kelly Reichardt: Finding meaning in the space between

Thank heavens the films Kelly Reichardt co-writes and directs don't have to survive Hollywood pitch meetings. The synopses of her last three features wouldn't exactly set the room on fire:

Old Joy (2006): Two male friends drive into the mountains, get lost, spend a night by a campfire, hike to a hot spring, and drive home.

Wendy and Lucy (2008): A jobless woman passing through town loses her dog, and suffers many anxious hours trying to find her.

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Meek's Cutoff (which just opened in select cities): A group of settlers crossing the Oregon high desert in 1845 watch one day melt into the next as they search for water.

Reichardt's oeuvre is so minimalist, it's almost as if she's messing with us, trying to formulate the exact least amount of conventional movie stuff - plot, dialogue, narrative - that's required to constitute a movie. But surrender to her work, and eventually you discover that all that space between the stuff gives you a rare gift: infinite room for your own thoughts. And films that seemed to be about little turn out to be about everything: the tenuousness of hope, the fragility of connection, the failure of the American dream.

"When I go to current American films, I feel really bombarded with information, and I don't feel room to have any of my own ideas or question anything," Reichardt said in a recent phone interview. "I just feel led around, whether emotionally or information-wise. When you find films that give you room to be more of a participant, to have some of your own reactions, that's a kind of film-watching that is more appealing to me."

That's also the kind of filmmaking she teaches at Bard College, a fiercely arty enclave on the Hudson River 145 kilometres north of New York City. "My goal is to train my students to get everything across visually, and not be reliant on dialogue or music cues," she said.

It's harder than it sounds. In too many current films, "The camera just chases the dialogue," Reichardt said. "It follows whoever's talking, instead of telling its own story." Characters tend to be hyper-articulate types who know exactly what they feel. "I call it Gilmore Girls-style dialogue, where everybody talks super-fast and is smart and funny and with-it and cynical. It's all dacketa-dack, yakety-yak, 'We're both reasonable,' and 'We're both giving interesting points of view.'" Not only does that not ring true to Reichardt, "it doesn't ring interesting to me."

In fact, she once tried to teach a class called The Conversation, but couldn't follow through. "I kept making the students take out the dialogue," she said, laughing. "They'd say, 'It's called The Conversation!' And I'd say, 'Nevertheless!'"

Reichardt prefers films where the characters are "out of it, off-base, not in touch with themselves, or where the story they're telling is revealed by the camera to be a lie," she said. "It's in the punctuation and the space in between the words, or the inflections. Or where people are in the room when they say something to each other, or the snow that's falling out the window. But it's not that everybody has their finger on the pulse of what's happening to them at that moment, with a bird's-eye view of it."

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She also shuns music cues, preferring silence or sound design to create and enhance emotion. "If time is getting expanded and quiet is getting expanded, that in itself in this day and age causes a certain amount of tension," she said. "People are really used to where that edit should be, or where the pop or excitement should be."

Meek's Cutoff puts all her theories into practice. It's loosely based on the true story of Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a guide who led 200 wagons south in a failed 1845 effort to find a shortcut west; many did not survive. Reichardt and her frequent collaborator, writer Jonathon Raymond, distilled the 200 wagons down to three. "I use the term 'desert poem' rather than 'western,' to try to curb anybody's expectation of what we were doing out there," she said. Reading the journals of women wagon-trainers gave her "this perspective of travelling west that is so anti- the western, really. It's not a series of heightened moments; it's this super-hypnotic, trance-like experience, with one day rolling into the next into the next."

She kept the dialogue to a minimum - "If you've been walking across the country for six months with the same people, you're pretty chatted out," she said - and was acutely conscious of how she moved her figures through the frame (always going from right to left, or "east" to "west"). She also used sound to enhance the tedious monotony of the days (repetitive rumblings of cart and squeaks of wheel) and the "intense silence" of the nights. "It's what's between the lines that has the weight," she said.

Just try telling that to your actors - who in addition to Williams and Greenwood include such pros as Paul Dano, Will Patton and Shirley Henderson. "The first couple of days of shooting," Reichardt admitted, "there were certainly some moments of, 'Yes, that's your big scene. However, it will be in a wide shot, with your back to the camera. And the close-up will be on this woman who has no lines.' That's an adjustment to make, for certain. But everybody had seen my other films, they knew what they were in for. People dove in and came along for the ride."

"You have to be ready to think in a different way," agreed Greenwood, whose character is by far the yappiest of the bunch. "Talk about a guy who believes his own press! And the faster he talks and the more he says, the smarter he feels. But the film is elegiac, a bit of a haiku. Everyone who sees it will think it's about very different things. It's a Rorschach."

Even Reichardt isn't always sure what her process is going to yield. "I'll say, 'I want a river crossing,' or, 'I want a bird,'" she said. "But a lot of what I want is really internal and in someone's head. And I try to figure out how to physicalize that, and get that feeling across. That's the experimental part of the filmmaking, and that's the part that's exciting. It always feels like a chance - is this going to work, is it going to happen?"

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That approach might not gladden the hearts of bean counters and marketing departments. But for film lovers, it's a welcome respite.

A retrospective of Kelly Reichardt's films is playing at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox until May 18.

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