10/40/70 - Certain Women (Part 1/2)
In the book 10/40/70, author Nicholas Rombes recognizes the necessity of constraint as a means of liberating film criticism in the digital era. In this section of my reviews, I will be deploying the same techniques utilized by Rombes; analyzing the contents of the frames a film contains at the 10 minute, 40 minute, and 70 minute marks. These reviews will be posted every Wednesday.
Craigen Z Oster
This will be the first in a two-part post on Kelly Reichardt's slow, cold triptych. While watching the film, I noticed Kristen Stewart absolutely crushing a sandwich in a diner. That image in an instant became an icon in the same way that a prayer card I carried around as a grade schooler than featured an image of Mary imprinted on the cloak of St. Juan Diego. It embodied everything I felt. On a frigid night stuck between the wetness of fall and the darkness of winter, there isn't much else better than American-as-all-hell food to warm your soul in an over-lit coney island. But, hadn't I seen this image before? I rewound the movie (meaning, clicked my left arrow key to move the playhead back in 10-second increments) and found I was right. Here, Stewart was about to chomp down on a freshly halved burger. I had barely processed the shot earlier, but suddenly it was undeniable. My mind began bouncing around the film I was in the middle of; I realized I was seeing food everywhere. It was subtle, but a constant presence and link between the four women, criss-crossing in a lattice between each in every direction.
When going back through to capture the 10/40/70 stills, sadly none of the food made it in. It stuck with me so strongly that I wound up tearing back through the film after I finished it to find every instance of food appearing and being consumed on screen. I had to get inside of what this link was. Thus was born a new form I'll be using to consider the films I watch in a new way. Each week I'll be looking at food in movies: how it is consumed, what is being consumed, and what that tells us not only about the characters on screen, but about the people capturing and viewing them. Maybe food is what serves as a link, between what I can readily comprehend and what exists just outside the reaches of my understanding.
I'll begin this Friday, going through Certain Women once more, producing not only a writing on the topic but a video companion piece.
Until then, these images at 10/40/70 must quell my hunger for this film.
Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, 2015)
Two Lauras stare out a window: both Laura Dern the actress and Laura Wells, the small town attorney whom Dern portrays. What is Dern seeing when she looks out a the wet, drab parking lot of the Livingston, Montana mall through the eyes of Wells? Is she looking for someone? She is looking above and beyond the cars that we can see in the frame within a frame, so I sense she must be looking truly beyond. I can't help but think about this as I myself sit and stare out a window. Actors are often praised for disappearing into a role where who the actor is as a celebrity can no longer be seen beneath the veneer of who they have become as a character onscreen. Think Joaquin Phoenix and Cate Blanchett. This is obvious. I'm not saying anything remotely new.
BUT what of the actors who essentially play themselves? (or at least what the general moviegoing public perceives as being that person's "self," which is honestly unknowable). Dern is often this sort, frequently portraying attorneys, students, mothers, wives, all with slight variations of the same personality type and signature charm that comes from being a tall, blonde woman with a strong jaw and raspy confidence. I don't mean to reduce Dern's talent and ability, she is fucking incredible. This is what has me so transfixed.
Again, this has me still questioning what does Dern see as she looks out this window? If she is trying to look out as Laura Wells, how could one conceptualize of what an average person sees when you have lived a life that is wholly different from that of the vast majority of people? Would what Laura Wells sees be any different from what Laura Dern would see? I am asking a ridiculous amount of questions, questions I don't have the answers for. So why must a writer provide answers, when the vast majority, myself included, can never really say for sure what we see when I look out into the world?
40 minutes in, the film has shifted gears, containing only 1 character seen in the first 30 minutes of the film. This would be James LeGros' Ryan Lewis, husband of Gina (Michelle Williams), seen here driving. Their relationship is immediately jarring compared to the empathy Dern's character displays prior to this. There seems to be such a vast emotional gap between the couple. They speak to each other, but there seems to be so damn much unsaid. The beard though. That dusty, swirling mess of chin hair. It triggered a recollection in my mind. I had seen this beard before, and the man to which it was attached, in the opening scene as he left Laura Dern beautifully sad and alone in bed.
This is one of the great tools Kelly Reichardt has at her disposable; she can suck the so-called drama out of the most cliche tropes in films, turning them into moments and relationships that transcend the amount of times we as viewers have seen them on the screen. All this is conveyed with silence, and small, but unforgettable links. Sure, Ryan is cheating on his wife, but there is no massive fight, no cartoonish depiction of infidelity; it is merely something that happens and that the people involved must live with. The audience in fact is unaware if Williams even knows about the affair. One can assume, based on the gap, but again it is never spoken aloud.
Michelle Williams' Gina stares at her reflection, but only she sees what stares back at her. Her daughter is looking into a screen and LeGros seems to be gazing off into nowhere ahead. What does Michelle see? Is it Gina looking back at Gina? Michelle looking back at Michelle? Or could it be an uncanny combination of the two, with Michelle looking back at the woman she is playing, or inhabiting the woman looking back at the woman who is playing her? This we can never know, and I can't even tell if I know how to convey just how much this question troubles me. The gap grows wider.
When I look in the mirror myself each day, am I truly gazing back at myself? Am I seeing the self that exists (a relative term) in my mind? Or am I staring back at some conception of how I believe others see me, what my self is to the world? If I were to get up and go look in the mirror right now, I doubt I could clarify this.
We've seen two middle aged blonde women sitting in cars so far, but what exists within them couldn't be further apart. Another gap. The viewer is allowed to see Dern directly, with only the glass of the lens and the screen on which they're viewing it between them and her. But with Williams, the lens sits underneath the screen, which sits in front of the windshield that sits in front of the flip-down visor. A wider gap, this time between viewer and the viewed. In mathematical distance, the gap between is likely the same, but in emotional, visceral distance, Williams is miles away.
This movie is filled with so many beautiful still images, but the three that have appeared via this process are comparatively some of the most drab and asymmetric. Maybe it is just the nature of the method that you will find meaning if pressing hard enough, so it works as intended!
BUT I believe that these three images come together to form a perfect triptych of the triptych. They appear to be a seemingly ideal distillation of what Reichardt's film strives for while also opening up the movie to something beyond that, creating a vast, vast gap within which one's mind can begin to fill up.
The three women we get images of are all immediately recognizable to most of the movie-viewing public. But this is not a true triptych. A fourth woman is at the heart of this film, fully embodying the quiet desperation that Certain Women puts forth as a theme. Each image stands as a symbol for who they are as characters, as does the absence of an image for Lily Gladstone's Jamie. The 10 Minute image of Dern is filled with isolation, empathy, and constant work for slight gains. Williams' 40 minute image is embedded with the desire to keep intact who one is as presented to the world without full sacrificing one's dignity. At 70 minutes, Kristen Stewart contains the passion of youth, but the burden of ambition. Gladstone, a ranch hand pining after Stewart in silence, is invisible, just as her feelings for Stewart remain unspoken and unseen for the majority of the film.
Still though, I am drawn to what these women see. Stewart's Beth, a young attorney stuck teaching a night class on education law to teachers halfway across the state, looks out at her class. I'm reminded of the Joans of both Bresson and Dreyer. A pure truthe masked by tired young eyes. Another link.
A map of Montana, a state that unquestionably looks like the face of a man, bears down on her. The map is topographical, displaying the mountains, ravines, and landscape of the state. It is rough and oppressive, stoic and empty. I could read this in many of the typical symbol-deciphering ways:
1) Beth has put the weight of the state on her shoulders as a woman who has pulled herself up from poverty in order to turn around and pull everyone else up with her. But this weight may break her.
2) I could also read it as the uncaring nature of the state towards the individual. This is an eyeless face, bearing down on her without seeing her for who she is. Despite her best efforts at playing by the rules of the system, she's still fucked, working endless hours, for little to no pay, for uncaring people.
3) A feminist critique could also fill the gap created by this image. The unmistakably male gaze bears down on Stewart, and all women constantly. In films, tv, and life (are these three things really any different?), women are subject to this constant look of scrutiny, affection, and sexualization. It is carried with them wherever they go, always seeking to push them back into their predefined roles.
BUT the gap is still not even close to being filled by these (valid) readings. Unlike Dern, Williams, and Gladstone, Stewart is full exposed. There are no extra screens, no cars, no absent images to keep the viewer from fully being aware of the gap. It is laid bare. We are looking into the eyes of a woman as she looks back at all of us. Again I'm reminded of Robert Bresson, who spoke of screens in his own way as devices in the filmmakers toolkit that separate the viewer from the image, distracting them from developing an awareness of the gap, a void in which the transcendent can become apparent. Bresson was wary of these screens, and sought to eliminate as many screens as he could, eschewing everything from expressive acting to camera movement. These screens, as Bresson says, merely exist to allow the viewer to identify with the characters. But this identification is false, as it is accomplished through these screens that are merely tricks.
Reichardt does not go full Bresson in this film; she doesn't use voiceover or "doubling," and even utilize elaborate (albeit incredibly subtle to the point where I almost didn't realize) long takes that move about a diner to enter a scene. Bresson himself would likely even critique this film as merely using the everyday as a stylization. But I am not Bresson, and in this image at least, Reichardt does reach those Bressonian heights, drawing open the gap that exists between someone living a life not there own on a camera and someone watching a life not their own on a screen. It is within this gap that transcendence becomes a possibility, so long as the viewer is willing to give themselves up to it.