Long and Short of It

Amy Taubin on Kelly Reichardt’s short films

Kelly Reichardt, Then a Year, 2001, still from a color film in Super 8, 14 minutes. Kelly Reichardt, Ode, 1999, still from a color film in Super 8, 51 minutes.

KELLY REICHARDT’S extremely promising debut feature, River of Grass (1994), suggested that she, unlike her protagonists—a pair of wannabe outlaws, too hapless and depressed to escape their Broward County backwater—was capable of a big move. Instead, she retreated from theatrical feature filmmaking for more than a decade, explaining that she found the experience of dealing with crews and financing alienating. The melancholy indie two-hander Old Joy (2006) was hailed as her comeback, as tough and tender in its revision of the “bromance” as River of Grass was of the road movie. She followed with the even finer, more wrenching Wendy and Lucy (2008).

With Ode (1999), Then a Year (2001), and Travis (2004), the three short films that she made during her hiatus from features, Reichardt returned to her experimental roots. She shot all three herself, using a Super 8 camera, producing images of lush, ephemeral beauty by exploiting the limited contrast ratio, low resolution, tendency toward overexposure, and Impressionist splotched color of the narrow-gauge film stock. Ode, the most ambitious of the three, is based on Herman Raucher’s novelization of his own script for the 1976 Warner Brothers movie Ode to Billy Joe, which was inspired by the more familiar 1967 Bobbie Gentry hit single “Ode to Billie Joe.” Despite the discrepancy in spelling, the titular B. J. is in both song and movie a teenage boy, surname McAllister, living in rural Mississippi, who commits suicide by drowning. The reasons that “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge” (that should jog your memory) are not disclosed in the song, and the mystery may be the reason it exerts whatever hold it has had on the imagination. (It’s number 412 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.) It has been speculated that Billie got his girlfriend, Bobbie Lee, pregnant and the object they were seen tossing into the river was a stillborn or aborted fetus; another theory has it that Billie Joe was black passing as white, which made his romance with the sixteen-year-old daughter of conservative Baptist parents doubly forbidden. Raucher, after interviewing Gentry (who herself never offered any public explanation), wrote a screenplay in which Billy Joe, frustrated in his attempts to get Bobbie Lee to go all the way, gets drunk and has gay sex in the woods with the boss of the sawmill where he works. Given that it was produced by a major Hollywood studio in the mid-’70s and starred teen idol Robby Benson, Ode to Billy Joe seems a ripe object for someone’s gender-studies thesis, but I have never read any serious analysis or, for that matter, encountered the movie itself.

Reichardt fully embraces the gay-teen suicide angle. The narrative is told in an extended flashback through the eyes of Bobbie Lee, who falls head over heels for Billy Joe, despite the fact that everyone in town thinks he’s weird. (For starters, he wears one gold earring and looks like a lankier version of the young Todd Haynes, whose support is noted in the end credits.) While it is Billy Joe who dies, it is Bobbie Lee who has our sympathy, for she will have to live with the trauma of a first love that ends in death and the irresolvable question of whether Billy Joe loved her for herself or was merely using her as a beard to prove to himself and the world that he was what he was not.

At fourteen minutes and twelve minutes respectively, Then a Year and Travis marry fragments of texts recorded from radio and/or TV “documentary” programs with images that are abstracted from narrative meaning. In Then a Year, the images are of nature at its most lyric (a waterfall glimpsed through deep summer foliage, a bright red bird perched on an electric wire), and the text, taken from a “true crime” special, suggests that a woman has been murdered—perhaps by her lover, her husband, a one-night stand, an unknown intruder . . . who knows which. What matters is the connection of sex and violence. In Travis, the visuals are entirely abstract—moving color fields created by unconventional camera placement or focus. The audio comes from an NPR program in which an anguished woman describes the experience of learning that her son has been killed in Iraq. Delicate and emotionally harrowing, both films evoke a condition of the psyche in which images and words, separated from narrative cause and effect or concrete references, are repeated in an endless loop to defend against the full realization of loss and horror.

Digital transfers of Ode, Travis, and Then a Year are screened continuously between 12 PM and 5 PM on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays until February 11 at Esopus Space, 64 West Third Street in New York. For more details, click here.