Writer-director Katherine Dieckmann’s latest film, Strange Weather, starring Holly Hunter, is in theaters now. Her previous features are A Good Baby (2000), Diggers (2006),and Motherhood (2009). Dieckmann was the original director on Nickelodeon’s groundbreaking series The Adventures of Pete & Pete, and directed music videos for R.E.M., Wilco, Aimee Mann, Throwing Muses and Vic Chesnutt, among other bands. She is an Associate Professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts Film Program, where she teaches screenwriting.
When I traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, in the fall of 2015 to shoot my most recent feature, Strange Weather, the Democratic primary was in full swing. The Clinton-Sanders agonists duked it out on social media, each side a little too entrenched against the other – and, of course, that particular battleground feels almost quaint now. I was setting out to make a film with a bunch of women (producers, main cast, key crew), many of whom were intensely interested in Hillary Clinton’s prospects, in part – but certainly not exclusively because – she was a woman. We talked a whole lot about politics and feminism in and around my set. I remember riding in vans and sitting at dinner with my forthright and whip-smart actors (Holly Hunter and Carrie Coon) and producers (Rachel Cohen and Jana Edelbaum), and our conversations so often turned to aspects of being a female – as a creative being, a body in space, and a probing consciousness.
This week Strange Weather launches into what once seemed like an inconceivable universe, one in which Donald Trump represents our country as the elected president. The friends I made during my time shooting the film like to remark, “Now you know what it feels like to live in Mississippi.” Our current national reality reflects far too many of the attitudes that up until this past election one associated more with that most regressive of Southern states – one that always seems to struggle most with issues around poverty, public education, racism, etc. (Although I hasten to add that my experience of Mississippi was of a place of genuine complexity, and I worked hard to steer clear of stereotypes while bringing a vision of the South to the screen.) Our current reality means that the film I conceived and wrote in a time of far greater latitude and grace, politically-speaking, reads very differently to me now than when I shot it – as a regional film, as a female character-driven film, and in some ways as a particularly American film, one that affirms truths both positive and negative about life in this nation.
I like to believe that even a seemingly gentle drama can possess covert edges, ones that are almost buried, or presented without show, as part of creating some larger, plausible, textured world. I’ve made four features now, three of them interested in exploring the specifics of life in non-urban settings: landscapes, characters, class dynamics. In my first feature, A Good Baby, an isolated young man in Appalachia comes of age by taking in an abandoned infant, and grows into himself by embracing his feminine aspect. My second movie, Diggers, explores the tenderness and fragility in traditionally straight male friendships on working-class Long Island (with women standing tough on the sidelines). Motherhood was about the apparently taboo topic of a middle-class woman discovering the challenges to a coherent sense of self posed by raising children. In Strange Weather, I was interested in exploring how a woman of a certain age (the character of Darcy Baylor, played brilliantly by Holly Hunter) could be a whole bunch of things simultaneously – funny, rebellious, sexual, angry, unresolved – as she navigated an unfathomable grief.
That a woman over 50 can be throbbingly complex is presented in my film as a given. Also in Strange Weather, a close female friendship is more central to that woman’s life than her heterosexual relationship. The female best friend’s lover is a black woman, and nobody talks about it, or about aging, or about the fact that the best friends have a couple of decades between them, because those decades do not loom, they merely exist. All these things now feel to me like tiny acts of resistance. They are small, personal and handled organically, because they are facts of life as it is lived.
Also treated as facts in Strange Weather: rich people have access to clean and plentiful water in times of drought, and people without means do not. Sometimes lower-class and non-white communities have too much water, meaning their neighborhoods are left to flood out, while the homes of affluent folk remain safe and dry. This is also a reality, not just in the South, and it’s a reality that is only going to become more and more prevalent.
The “villain” in Strange Weather, if he can even be called that, is a privileged white guy who has coasted along his entire life without ever being questioned about his actions, and has fashioned his success on another, less fortunate person’s back. He’s committed a kind of crime – not a huge crime, a petty crime, a crime of presumption. But it’s the kind of crime that entitled straight white men take for granted as theirs to commit, every single day, and now those same sorts of men are dictating how all the things mentioned above are being handled or not handled in our country: women’s rights and the rights of the LGBT community and people of color, public education, the environment, and on and on.
As I have traveled the festival circuit with Strange Weather since premiering it in Toronto last fall, audiences have occasionally asked me to explain my title, which is borrowed from a favorite Marianne Faithful album. I am always a little taken aback – isn’t it obvious that our weather is strange? That class and race and income and even gender tend to divide us in terms of who is impacted by climate and who is not, and not just climate in the literal sense, but in a larger, enveloping sense, which is the dominant reality (or irreality) we live under today? Isn’t it clear that Darcy’s turbulent emotional state forms its own kind of strange weather – sometimes giddy, sometimes pensive, sometimes dismantled by lingering grief? And that these two kinds of weather, external and internal, can’t help but reflect on one another?
As the film is released, I see it in a way I never saw it when I made it – as quietly radical in this Trumpian moment. Strange Weather insists on the validity of everyday truths that are increasingly under question, and those truths are couched within highly naturalistic storytelling. Like most people, I am thinking a lot these days about our fundamental humanity and its exigencies in a country now dominated by an effort to push as many disempowered constituencies as possible to the margins. A couple of months ago, Jackson, Mississippi, elected a black socialist mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who has declared that he wants to make Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.” This happened in 2017, in Mississippi, a place all too often trailed by the word “goddam.” And so, a smaller gesture pushes at the borders. I hope that these smaller gestures begin to accumulate in the films we make and experience, and just about everywhere else, to insist that our world is as various as the people who inhabit it, and as the one we imagined it to be before we were forced to imagine otherwise.
Picture by Caroline Wallis, courtesy of Katherine Dieckmann.