Department of Geography University of the Philippines JosephPalis@gmail.com
In one of the early scenes of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006), the two cha- racters who are old friends took off to a journey in the Cascade Mountains in Oregon to spend the night in the wilderness and talk, albeit reluctantly, about their lives which have taken different trajectories. The free spirit Kurt (Will Oldham) is telling his reticent friend Mark (Daniel London) - a soon-to-be father who is taking a break before assuming the role of a family man - that he is taking evening classes in physics.
Kurt: I took some night classes.
Mark: Anything good?
Kurt: It’s all right. Some physics class. Here’s a thing about that, is that I know more than they did. All these quarks and superstring shit, I know all about that. It makes sense. Don’t get me wrong, I understand it but that’s not the final answer.
Mark: Do you think you understand it?
Kurt: Basically. It’s like this, see? Sometimes things look like they don’t have any order, and then from a different level you rea- lize it does have an order. It’s like climbing a mountain. Look around, you see trees, and rocks and bushes pressing around you and then you get above the treeline. You see everything you just went through and it all, like, comes together. You see that it has a shape after all. Sometimes it takes a long time to get high enough to see it but it’s there. It’s all about space and time and how they change the rules sometimes. I don’t know… Makes perfect sense to me. It’s like two mirrors moving through space and there is a single atom moving be- tween them.…. I forget. Whatever. The thing is I get it ... I get it on the fundamental level. The thing is that I have my own theory…. They don’t care about my theory. I don’t have the numbers for them.
Kurt’s narrative about understanding theoretical physics “from a fun- damental level” coupled by his non-reliance on Cartesian coordinates and cardinal points that define cartographic precision in the age of in -your-face geoinformation and fetish for geo-referenced data, speak of a post-cartographic imaginary that described and defines the films of American filmmaker Kelly Reichardt. When Tom Conley published his seminal Cartographic Cinema in 2006, he provided an intellectual road-map with an interesting and thought-provoking premise that provides a link between filmic images and maps and map-making practices. Cartographic Cinema outlines the importance of diegetic maps (maps that are present and part of the filmic narrative) and the emotional and mental states of the characters. He proposed the idea that a film is a text that can be read and discerned like a map, thus:
“[...] [F]ilms are maps insofar as each medium can be defined as a form of what cartographers call ‘locational imaging.’ As the person who gazes upon a map works through a welter of impressions about the geographical information it puts forward - along with his or her own fantasies and pieces of past or anticipated memory in dialogue with the names, places, and forms on the map - so also do spectators of a film who see moving pictures on a screen mix and sift throu- gh souvenirs and images of other films and personal memories” . (emphasis on the original; 2)
Sebastien Caquard and D.R. Fraser Taylor (2009) offered this observation linking cinema and cartography:
“Maps are ubiquitous in movies. They appear constantly and in a variety of forms: hung on the wall of a classroom, framed in an office, and unfolded by gangsters on a table. In movies maps serve a variety of purposes: They serve as decoration, as a means of location, to aid narration, as metaphors as well as to increase the dramatic tension of a sequence. They can play a prominent role in the unfolding of the action or appear only for a split second behind a closing door. They can serve to address the audience or as a mean of interaction between characters. They can be classic and static, or unique and dynamic”. (5)
A film, especially Reichardt’s cinematic oeuvre, offers highly subjective and alternative readings of embodied spaces and places that are not captured in conventional and mainstream cinema. These spaces that are mostly charted by lonely, lost and destitute characters that people her films serve as signifiers in a map that are not precisely drawn like the contour lines in conventional topographic maps.
Deploying Sigmund Freud’s uncanny [unheimlich], I argue that Reichardt’s films typify a lost-ness, a disconnection brought about by the fetish on ‘scientific’ precision in the age of identifying each individual through their exact location and position in the globe. Reichardt’s films typically show characters who are adrift in a vast and foreign wilderness and whose only compass is the forging of social connections with people they encounter. It is in the active practice of alternative map-making that one creates a highly subjective map to find one’s self and be situated, however temporarily.
In Wendy and Lucy (2008), the titular character Wendy (Michelle Williams) lost her dog - Lucy - en route to Alaska for a lucrative job. The whole search for the missing canine also charts Wendy’s own journey in a wasteland that has no reference points, offers limited technological gadgetry or cartographic safety nets to sustain the search. In an interview with Alison Willmore in 2008, Reichardt traced the origin of Wendy and Lucy as “very post-Katrina - what it was for everyone to be watching, but also the conversation of, you know, “Those people, living in such peril,’ they wouldn’t be in the shape they’re in, the position they’re in.” Commenting on the general helplessness and hopelessness of Americans because of poverty that magnifies when disaster occurs, a story was later written based on these conversations by frequent Reichardt collabo- rator Jon Raymond. The story - Train Choir - in turn became the basis for Wendy and Lucy.
In the film’s initial scenes, Wendy is travelling with Lucy from Indiana when her car broke down in Oregon, signaling the unreliability of machines and technology. A kindly security guard (Walter Dalton), who originally told her to vacate the property her faulty car was occupying, helped her regain her bearings. Wendy’s dire circumstances grow from helpless to desperate with a broken car and a lost dog. Yet it is the slow build-up of trust betwe- en the itinerant Wendy and the realistic and geographically-rooted security guard that keeps Wendy more grounded and less displaced despite being in transient and without a fixed location. In one of their conversations, the se- curity guard offers tentative words of empathy and encouragement to Wendy.
Security Guard: I had a collie once that was gone for two weeks before he came home. They’ll find [Lucy]. They always get their dog.
Wendy: (shakes her head) Yeah, I sure hope so. (Pause) Can I trade you for a quarter? I need to use that pay phone over there. All I’ve got is change and it only takes quarters.
Security Guard: (hands her his mobile phone) Lots of minutes. Feel free.
Wendy: No, no.
Security Guard: No one uses a pay phone anymore. Come on…
Wendy calls the dog pound office and was told there was no lead in Lucy’s disappearance.
Security Guard: You know, if you need a contact for the pound or anything…I’m just standing here with my hands in my pocket all day. You can use my phone number if you like, you know.
Wendy: Yeah. I might do that. That’d be good.
The machine and technology that derailed Wendy’s car and limited her own mobility become available in the form of a functional cellular phone to enable Wendy to connect to someone in her search for her lost dog. Commenting on the slippery positionality of someone in-transit and in-between places, Wendy and the security guard discussed the sad plight of those who fail to conform to government-mandated policies that place paramount importance on being locatable and having employment.
Wendy: Not a lot of jobs around here, huh?
Security Guard: (laughs) I’ll say. I don’t know what the people do all day. Used to be a mill. But that’s been closed a long time now. Don’t know what they do.
Wendy: You can’t get a job without an address anyway…or a phone.
Security Guard: You can’t get an address without an address. You can’t get a job without a job. It’s all fixed.
The security guard’s statement “it’s all fixed” speaks not only of the contra- diction of being indexed to a definable location, but also in the distrust and resigned acceptance to a much larger system that displaces people but also simulatenously emplaces and roots them to an unforgiving actual location that are sometimes invisible in a map. In an interview with Joe Carmichael, Denis Wood sums up the map’s function: “Maps are arguments about the way we think the world should be or could be. They are arguments made in graphic form” (Wood interview 2016).
Alternative map-making that comes from forging social relations, however
tentative and temporary, is likewise providing an alternative situatedness even if the cartographic coordinates do not align in keeping with classic way-finding. As Wood maintains:
“There’s clearly a huge anxiety about being lost, and a great sen- se of comfort that comes from being found. And this is, of course, one of the classic arguments about mapmaking: that mapmaking is about finding yourself, in as many senses as you possibly can”
(My emphasis. Wood interview, 2016).
With her car being fixed in a shop, Wendy’s lost-ness is amplified by Lucy’s own disappearance. Without a car and dog, she generated empathy from people whom she encountered however briefly but allowed her to form meaningful connections. Posting bills for the lost Lucy in public places, a man she met earlier offered sympathy for her lost dog.
Man: You lost your dog? Wow, bummer. Wow, where did you lose it? You don’t know? Well, I guess if you knew, you’d know where to find it.
Wendy: Yeah, I guess so.
Man: Well, that’s too bad. If I see it, I’ll give you a call. Good luck.
Wendy: Thanks. Appreciate that.
These casual conversations speak not only of Wendy’s alternative mapping practices to locate Lucy through her growing network of social relations, but they also allay her own cartographic anxieties. However the technological breakdown continues to follow her when she was told that in order to fix her car, funds much more than her meager resources can shore up, is needed. In the film’s penultimate scene, Wendy, through her social network, tracks Lucy’s whereabouts. Lucy was found by an unnamed native of the locale and decided to keep her in a rather well-kept yard. Sensing that Lucy will be in better hands, Wendy decided to leave town without her dog and car into an unknown destination. The last image of her aboard a train embodies the mythic figure of a vagabond that conjures the Great Depression in the 1930s. In a 2008 interview with Zachary Wigon, Reichardt said that Bush-era America has a “disdain for poverty”. In Wendy and Lucy, the security guard hands Wendy six dollars because “the bottom rungs have to look after each other” (Reichardt interview 2008). The same is true with Old Joy where a home- less person gives money to another homeless person in the film’s closing scenes. Social relations among people in Reichardt’s films, however fleeting, make for the creation of unsteady and messy maps that prove more significant and useful than the geo-referenced ones that are produced and curated by the establishment.
Two men in an unmapped terrain
The lost-ness once again resurface in Old Joy (2006) - Reichardt’s second feature film. When Kurt and Mark were seen driving in the mostly rural lan- dscapes of Oregon, their conversation reveals the stark contrast between the idealistic Kurt and the pragmatic Mark.
Kurt: Slow down, you may want to go left.
Mark: (skeptical) Really?
Kurt: Yeah. Trust me, Mark.
Mark: Okay, I’m in your hands.
(They drove for some time in a deserted road.)
Kurt: I remember that.
(Much later both were consulting a map.)
Kurt: I think we’re somewhere in this area (pointing to a large region in the map)
Mark: Yeah. I need a space. Sign up there is literally blank. Getting dark.
Despite consulting the map for information, Mark and Kurt still lost their way. They had to camp out somewhere in a clearing in order to get to the hot springs - their intended destination. Making sense of the strangeness of the new landscape that provided temporary shelter, Mark and Kurt bond together, if superficially, through a series of conversations that summon and recall their common past. Even when they consulted the waitress from a roadside diner the next day, the non-precision in the waitress’ description of their intended destination bespeaks of the lack of importance accorded to traditional maps.
Kurt: How far are we from Bagby Hot Springs?
Waitress: Oh you’re real close, I think. I’ve never been there but it’s around here somewhere. Maybe ten miles’ away. We may have a little map printout at the back. I’ll check for you.
The landscape both men trekked to get to the remote hot springs made Mark open up about himself and his impending fatherhood. The journey to the interior of a secluded forest unleashes a plethora of life narratives that map his own decision to pursue the career that is radically different from Kurt’s. When they were soaking in the luxurious warmth of the hot springs, Kurt gives Mark a massage which bookends Mark’s earlier statement to Kurt when they were lost: I’m in your hands. The idealism and childlike nature of Kurt resemble a map-making practice that makes possible their sentimental journey of the past, and of their shared history as fraternal friends. When both of them return home, Kurt is seen standing alone in the night suggesting that home to him means living on the outside. This artful ambiguity also highlights the film’s (and in all of Reichardt’s cinematic works) refusal for neat and tidied-up endings.
In Reichardt’s Night Moves (2013), the lost geographies once again encrypt the film’s narrative with a sense of helplessness and “of something uncanny” (Freud 1911: 11). Set in Oregon, a trio of eco-terrorists’ carefully planned modus operandi became undone amidst the moral landscape they find themselves in. Film critic Zachary Wigon from Tribeca Film observes that Night Moves is about the agency available to contemporary leftists. The geographies in these filmic lost-scapes recall Freud’s uncanny of the un- familiar terrains that offer a temporary paralysis for the individual. The figure of a lost stranger in an unmapped landscape recuperates the notion of creating imprecise maps that are highly subjective where the makeshift cardinal points serve as guideposts. The unfamiliarity experienced in a lost-scape emphasizes the adriftness, the disconnection, and the alienation of the disempowered indi- viduals whose marginalities in a rapidly-expanding McWorld, map a different, imprecise and messy path to make sense of their own lifeworlds. In the words of Caquard and Taylor: “Cinematic cartography is in a sense about “rehumanizing” the map.” (2009: 7).
In Night Moves, the landscape that the three characters find themselves in is neither Jeffersonian America nor touristic views of Oregon. In an interview with Wigon, Reichardt says: “[...] [I]t’s like landscape - there are no beauty shots in the film, the landscape has to work in the shot.” The paradoxical nature of filmic landscapes is that it serves as background to an unfolding narrative that simultaneously acts as a non-human character that gains agency in the course of the film’s narrative. In Reichardt’s filmography, the landscape where lost geographies are staged becomes the alternative, if subversive and radical map that obfuscates the linearity of conventional mapping.
In one early scene, Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) were driving in the night with a newly purchased boat that will be used for the bombing of the dam. The dialogue recalls the conversations of Kurt and Mark in Old Joy in terms of the imprecision of distance seen from the perspective of two different individuals who are united in a common goal.
Dena: Are we almost there? We must be in Wyoming by now coming up from the Dakotas.
Josh: I don’t know. Half an hour, maybe. He’s pretty out there.
Dena: I thought you said he lives close.
Josh: He does. This is close.
Dena: This is close (She makes a small gesture). We’ve already gone like this (She makes a big and wide gesture). Are we going like this (Making an even wider and bigger motion of her hands). You can tell me if we are.
Josh: It’s close. For here. This isn’t Connecticut.
Unlike Kurt and Mark’s shared past, Dena and Josh are recent acquain- tances and their initial conversation which is an attempt to assess each other’s commitment is indicative of two individuals who are forming a social rela- tionship that is necessary to carry out the task of destroying an infrastructure both believed to be violating unspecified environmental standards. If Wendy’s lost-ness is attributed to her lack of mobility (car), lack of companionship (Lucy) and inability to make it to Alaska for the promise of a lucrative job, the lost-ness that Dena and Josh found themselves in bears closer affinity to the ambivalence in the morally complex undertaking of performing a crime against the property of the big establishment.
When Dena and Josh met Harmon - the third person in the plan - the ensuing relationship that develops between the three demonstrates that in spite of the differences, a map of meaning can be drawn that ensures and makes possible everyone’s full commitment and participation in making an environ- mental statement. The three youth’s idealism fueled them to undertake a plan that does not flow smoothly. In the film’s closing scenes, when the act was done and carried out, what they did not realize is the moral weight such an act impacts on their lives. The full realization of their destructive environmental statement was deep and lasting. Unable to relate to one another, they find spaces of affirmation to forge ahead with their lives.
In Meek’s Cut-Off (2010), a group of 1845-era emigrants in the early years of the Oregon Trail are stranded in the desert with only a promise from a charismatic leader - Stephen Meek - who claimed to know the way to the Cascade Mountains. Upon realizing that Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is no more useful than any of them, a captured Native American (Rod Rondeaux) was interrogated - and held captive - to show the way out of the vast and foreign landscape. The ambivalent and ambiguous relationship between the emigrants and the Native American prisoner highlights yet again the failure in the creation and production of an alternative map forged through social relations between people who were taught to be adversarial enemies. While there was a deliberate transgression of borders when one of the headstrong emigrants reached out to the Native American captive, the alternative maps borne out of a series of protracted conversations bear highly subjective and personalized markers. As the emigrant - Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) attempts to decode and understand the secret language of the prisoner, a bond developed between them through gestures and a common recognition of their lost-ness. However, the diegetic map’s absence in the story also creates something new - the recogni- tion that social relations can serve as an alternative map that reimagines new and productive spatialities (Massey 2005). The alternative map then becomes a condition of possibility to overcome lost-ness. In Emily’s conversation with the Native American, she spoke to him in English - in a language he cannot understand - but which conveys Emily’s own despair of modernity:
Emily: We can’t even imagine what we have done. The cities we’ve built.
In the film’s pivotal scene, frustrated at the way the emigrants cannot find their way out of the barren wilderness, Stephen Meek, aimed his gun to the Native American. Seeing this, Emily Tetherow, pointed the gun in Meek’s direction in a show of solidarity with the prisoner. This gesture of support and camaraderie marked a turning point in sketching out bold lines in a shared cartography of feelings and emotions no traditional map can adequately portray.
When one of the emigrants fell ill towards the end, the prisoner chanted an unsubtitled sound that is alternating between song and speech - part prayer, part funeral chant. Speaking in an interview with Joy Dietrich in 2011, Reichardt said: “I didn’t want to give the audience any information that the immigrants didn’t have. They have to figure out what this person’s all about without the resource of language. The Indian is Cayuse but he’s speaking Nez Perce. Nez Perce is the tribe that swallowed up the Cayuse and they took on the Nez Perce language… I’m not going to tell you what he said. It’s for you to read him in the other ways that we have to read people that are culturally different.” In the context of the film, the captive’s incantation is clearly an indigenous ritual of imploring someone to make a person feel well and get better. This gesture would not have been possible if Emily Tetherow did not forge an emotional and spiritual connec- tion with the Native American. In indigenous mapping, performative maps are common and do not adhere to Western standards in the delineation of boundaries and territories (Sletto 2009). What the Nez Perce chant is a form of performance that maps the contours of the heart that make visible the invis- ibility of complex emotions.
At the conclusion of Meek’s Cut-Off, the emigrants came across a single tree standing in the dry and arid landscape. The emigrants use the tree as basis for reflection whether to move on or go back. Looking at Stephen Meek for advice, he said:
Meek: I’m taking my orders from you now, Miss Tetherow. And we’re all taking our orders from him, I’d say (pointing to the Native American). We’re all just playing our parts now. This was written long before we got here. I’m at your command.
Emily Tetherow and the Native American looked at each other silently as though communicating in a silent language, then the latter started walking away. The film’s ambiguous ending invites the film spectators to provide their own ending. Whether the Native American and Emily Tetherow will now lead the journey, or wther Emily is letting him go to be with his tribe, the bond that links the two is more lasting and will outlast the way-finding mission of these emigrants to overcome their lost-ness.
Denis Wood’s cartographic outputs on mapping spoke about various mapmaking practices that do not just rely on GIS or other modalities that most digital cartographers employ. His focus on lived space through non-conventional mapping (i.e. mapping Boylan Heights in Raleigh, North Carolina by using jack o’ lanterns as signifiers of houses) parallels a post-cartographic imaginary that embodies the cinematic oeuvre of Kelly Reichardt (Wood 2010b). Reichardt’s films are the alternative maps that are subjective, forged and produced by a collective through a complex web of sometimes ambiguous social relations, subversive in its eschewal of practices that demand exactitude but, to paraphrase Kurt in Old Joy, ultimately aware of the fundamental order of things.
From the textual standpoint, Reichardt’s films - Old Joy, Meek’s Cut-Off, Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves - practically eviscerate the idea of a film reso- lution or denouement. The ambiguities of the final images in the films’ endings subvert the genre that the film audiences are familiar with (i.e. heist thriller for Night Moves; western for Meek’s Cut-Off; road movie for Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy) and who expected Reichardt to follow and adhere to the conventional tropes of these film genres. The lack of a final twist or tidy ending in her films points to the transitory, in-transit, and transient quality that makeshift maps have as created by people who are lost and/or making sense of the strange landscapes. The unknowable eludes the Cartesian precision that people expect to find in conventional films as well as conventional maps. An online blogger who dismissed Reichardt’s films remarks: “We have a film [Meek’s Cut-Off ] that ostentatiously refuses to end, instead settling on a sub-Malick nature-awe note of ambiguous something or other…[I]f Reichardt’s narrative was a tease, her thematic choices were the equivalent of then walking away.”
In this chapter, I argue that film is a text that can be read as might a map.
Using Tom Conley’s arguments in Cartographic Cinema that discusses the multiple functions of diegetic maps and how to read films as maps, I propose a post-cartographic cinema that makes visible the ambiguities, the disconnec- tions, the imprecise (non)legibility of Cartesian-based films and filmmaking practices. Kelly Reichardt’s films show the tenuous lives of people who are inhabiting lostscapes and grappling the unfamiliarity of a strange and foreign land whose alterity made even more unknowable due to the lack of cartographic coordinates. By using non-conventional ways to tell a story of these people, Reichardt draws and writes a filmic map that while drawing from fragments of knowledge learned, fundamentally creates an alternative world with its own set of coordinates and cardinal points. Her filmic works reconceptualize the idea of reference points and by extension, the whole practice of mapping.
Thanks to Max Adams, Michael Smith, Denis Wood and Anish Savjani.
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