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River of Grass  /  The Watermelon Woman

The Watermelon Woman
March 22, 2017 - 7:30 pm
film preservationist Jillian Borders.

Preserved by UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by Oscilloscope Laboratories, Sundance Institute and TIFF

River of Grass  (1994)

“A road movie without the road, a love story without love, and a crime story without the crime”—thus is writer-director Reichardt's own description of her sublime, semi-autobiographical feature film debut.  Taking a page from Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973), River of Grass employs the ennui-ridden housewife Cozy (Lisa Bowman) as its increasingly unreliable narrator as she and degenerate barfly Lee Ray (Larry Fessenden, who also produced and cut the film) embrace the misadventures that could only befall amateur, wanderlust criminals as they bumble and fumble back and forth across the sticky inertia of the Florida Everglades.

Sprinkled with a casual ‘90s nostalgia for the cool mid-‘50s, and with an indie spirit that barely survived to the next decade, the resulting kinetic energy of Grass was matched with enthusiastic praise.  Alas, this did not lead to immediate opportunities for Reichardt, but instead a brick wall of funding difficulties and the reality of rampant, industry-wide sexism.  Frustrated, she resorted to teaching film production, sidelining her feature filmmaking career for nearly 12 years in the interim.

Reichardt's uniqueness of vision and voice has only seen substantial appreciation in the last decade, as she has firmly cemented herself as an artist concerned with the poetry of place—a theme that would continue with Old Joy (2006), Meek's Cutoff (2010) and her recent minimalist masterpiece, Certain Women (2016).

For a time commercially unavailable, River of Grass was given new life thanks to a successful crowd-funding campaign by distributor Oscilloscope, in tandem with a preservation partnership between the Sundance Collection at UCLA and the Toronto International Film Festival, which oversaw the digital restoration and 2K scan of timeworn film elements.  Following the new restoration's brief repertory run in Los Angeles and New York City in early 2016, the Archive is proud to present this under-seen gem for audiences hungry to connect with the filmmaking roots of this fiercely American visionary.  —KJ Relth

DCP, color, 76 min.  Director: Kelly Reichardt.  Production: Good Machine.  Distribution: Oscilloscope.  Producer: Larry Fessenden, Jesse Hartman, Susan A. Stover.  Writer: Kelly Reichardt, Jesse Hartman.  Cinematography: Jim Denault.  Production Design: David Doernberg.  Editor: Larry Fessenden.  Music: John Hill.  Cast: Lisa Bowman, Larry Fessenden, Dick Russell, Michael Buscemi.

Preserved from the 16mm original A/B negatives and 16mm original track negative.  Laboratory services by Modern Videofilm, Fotokem.  Sound services by Deluxe Media Audio Services.

Digitally preserved and remastered by UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by 13th Gen, Outfest, The Andrew J. Kuehn Foundation, TIFF, First Run Features and Yves Averous

The Watermelon Woman  (1996)

Writer-director Cheryl Dunye’s debut feature centers on video store clerk-cum-documentarian Cheryl and her obsessive quest to unearth the forgotten contributions of African American women throughout cinematic history.  Concentrating on 1930s actress Fae Richards (listed in film credits only as “The Watermelon Woman”), Cheryl conducts interviews with Black film historian Lee Edwards, consults cultural critic Camille Paglia, and sifts through materials at the CLIT Archive in the hopes of unearthing more evidence of Richards' career, long buried by the whitewashing of time.

What could very well read as a synopsis for a personal documentary project is, in fact, a work of fiction, inspired by Jim McBride's parodic David Holzman's Diary (1967) and the actual careers of early Black film stars such as Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers and Josephine Baker.  Dunye's documentarian is an inquisitive, vulnerable version of herself cast in a romantic comedy by way of the essay film, à la Chris Marker, to create a self-portrait of one woman's investigation into her own identity.

Emerging from Cheryl's research is not only a clearer picture of Fae Richards' film career but also another, less expected discovery: Richards was known to spend most of her time in the company of filmmaker Martha Page, a white woman nearly analogous to real-life filmmaking pioneer Dorothy Arzner.  Running parallel to this revelation is Cheryl's own burgeoning, intimate relationship with Diana (Guinevere Turner), a white, well-off patron of Cheryl's video store, with whom she engages in perhaps the steamiest on-screen sapphic encounter since Rose Troche's Go Fish (1994).

Intent on creating a perennial work that would surpass the magical, democratized moment of mid-'90s prosumer video-making, Dunye imbues The Watermelon Woman, the first feature-length film directed by a Black lesbian, with a crystal clear mission: to tell those stories that have never been told.  Borrowing from the buoyant spirit of early Spike Lee and themes explored earlier by Troche, Dunye carves out a unique space for her own distinctive storytelling and fervently independent vision while reclaiming ownership of once-co-opted symbols of h(er) story.  —KJ Relth

DCP, color, 90 min.  Director: Cheryl Dunye.  Production: Dancing Girl.  Distribution: First Run Features.  Producer: Alexandra Juhasz, Barry Swimar, Cate Wilson.  Screenwriter: Cheryl Dunye.  Cinematography: Michelle Crenshaw.  Editor: Cheryl Dunye.  Music: Paul Shapiro.  Cast: Cheryl Dunye, Guinevere Turner, Valarie Walker, Emmy Collins.

Preserved as part of the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project from a 16mm interpositive and ½” digital magnetic tape.