In the review of Kelly Reichardt’s latest, ‘Meek’s Cutoff‘, I mentioned several of her previous features. I neglected to mention a little film she made back in 1999. As an omission, it’s understandable: running at 48mins, ‘Ode‘ is neither feature nor short and, unsurprisingly, remains without proper distribution. (The copy I saw was a rip from a broadcast on German TV.)
It’s a peculiar little film. Reichardt shot on Super 8 with a friend (Susan Stover) and a handful of actors. The informality of that method seems to suit her work; the interest in small things, subtle transparencies of character. Her next film, ‘Old Joy‘ was a similarly-scaled enterprise: a crew of friends, a few actors, a cabin in the woods. (It also starred Will Oldham, the alt-folk musician who supplies the music for ‘Ode‘.) The do-it-yourself method, though not exactly ‘guerilla’, was empowering. As she commented in an interview in filmmaker magazine: “Shooting Ode was such an amazing experience for me because I realized that I had the power to make a film and that I didn’t have to be in a holding position waiting on all these outside entities.”
I hadn’t realized ‘Ode‘ was inspired by Bobbie Gentry’s country ballad, ‘Ode to Billy Joe‘ – or rather, according to the end titles, based on the Herman Raucher novel also inspired by the song – but then, at the end of the opening sequence, the mother steps out of the house and delivers lines which paraphrase the famous lyric:
“And then she said I got some news this morning from Choctaw Ridge. Today Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
A tragic suicide. The film and the Raucher novel provide an answer to the immediate question: why? According to them, Billy Joe had discovered he was gay. He’d got it on with a guy he met at the local fair and couldn’t get his mojo back to consummate his love affair with the conflicted daughter of a Baptist minister. It could happen, I suppose. The boy wasn’t especially religious – which is a pity, as he might have found a chaste marriage and closet homosexuality would have fitted him well for a career in the ministry.
The song focuses on the irony of the parent’s indifferent attitude to the tragedy, unaware of their daughter’s sense of loss, as they serve dinner. The film evokes a degree of irony by leading us through the star-crossed romance in flashback from the news of the boy’s death and back again, but the heart of it is this awkward, urgent, ingenuous adolescent love captured with tremulous, shaky Super 8 camerawork. What is it about Super 8 that is so apt for summer love? Is it the strong contrast, the saturation of colour? Is it the way it the image shimmers and distorts when blown up to 16mm? Of the curious tension between these artificial qualities and its handheld immediacy, its voyeurism. I don’t know, but it works nicely here.
Reichardt experiments with voice-over too, but this is less successful. It’s implied by the non-synchronous audio recording required by Super 8 – or in other words, by the fact, that it’s all dubbed. The girl’s reflections are welcome, but the ole southern narrator is an unwanted intrusion. It doesn’t sink the film the way the affectless, tranquilized voice of the heroine does in ‘River of Grass‘, Reichardt’s first feature.
“You took all my clothes off. I always figured, when that happened, I’d be a woman ‘fore they went back on again.”
“You are a woman.”
“I’m not. … I’m just a bruised girl.”