Archive for April 26, 2011

Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on April 26, 2011 by dcairns

MEEK’S CUTOFF, directed by Kelly Reichert, is an unusual arthouse western, following a small wagon trail across parched desert, on a seemingly endless quest to find water — by half an hour in, the ideal of finding land to settle in is forgotten, and mere survival is the goal. Different from TRUE GRIT in nearly every particular, it does bear some resemblance in its evocation of historical speech patterns, agreeably strange to modern ears, and in the character of the guide, Meek, who shares some of Rooster Cogburn’s bluster and bullshit, but seemingly none of his redeeming competence.

Fiona and I went with my parents, who like their westerns. Though this one is unconventional, relying not on onscreen death and action for dramatic high points, but on creeping uncertainty and desperation, it still gave them some pleasure. Unfortunately, Dad didn’t wear his hearing aid — movies are usually so over-amplified he doesn’t need it, but MEEK’S CUTOFF goes the other way, presenting most of its speech at the fringes of audibility.

This is part of the film’s you-are-there aesthetic, and its identification with the female characters, who are excluded from the major policy decisions of the party, even those which affect their chances of survival. So much of the key talk is eavesdropped upon from a distance, and the soundtrack reflects that. The you-are-thereness is reinforced by impenetrably dark night scenes where the campfire illuminates only itself, long, numbing scenes of trudging across the plains, the arrhythmic squeak of a wagon wheel producing highway hypnosis of the ears, and a refusal of all but a little atonal droning in the way of music.

The you-are-there approach can be quite a powerful thing, and it can be used with taste or otherwise. Mel Gibson’s religio-snuff flick actually turned a soundtrack of dead languages into a commercial asset, by making viewers feel present at the authentic crucifixion. That makes sense of Gibson’s preference that the film be screened without subtitles, to make the ancient-world jabber as incomprehensible as it would be to a church outing of chrononauts. The excessive gore wasn’t just Gibson’s sado-masochistic impulses at play, although it was mainly that, it was also an attempt to make us feel uncomfortably close to the spectacle of torture and murder.  I suspect most devout Christians, if they could time-travel, would choose to go back and see Christ — but since they wouldn’t be able to understand a word he said, I guess they’d have to settle for watching him in action — what’s odd is that his death is judged of more interest than his miracles. Possibly, in fact certainly, the walking on water could not be portrayed with the brute viscerality Gibson brings to slaughter, the need for special effects would take us out of you-are-there literalness, so as he saw it the film’s are of effectiveness was violence, pure and simple.

With MEEK’S CUTOFF, the effects aimed at aren’t violent (there’s only one blow struck onscreen, I think), and the purpose behind the approach isn’t rubbernecking at a martyrdom, but participation in a fearful state of unknowing. I was reminded very much of John Sayles’s LIMBO, only here the domain of emptiness is more powerfully evoked. At first the travelers are uncertain as to their guide’s ability — he seems to have gotten them lost, but can he get them unlost? As doubt turns to the certainty that Meek is no reliable guide — “The only question is, is he evil or merely stupid?” — a new guide is discovered, a lone indian who speaks no English. Given his probable hostility (he’s been wounded and kidnapped by Meek), his inability to communicate verbally, and his alien culture, this man may be no more reliable than Meek, but putting faith in him seems the only way to proceed with hope…

The appearance of the line “Stay the course” made me wonder if the film was in any way a political metaphor for present American embroilments in the Middle East. I think it can read that way, but it doesn’t force the thought upon us. If we follow that line, cowboy Bush is succeeded by non-white American Obama, and the journey through the wilderness is one where the outcome cannot be known: all that’s clear is the mistakes already made, which it’s too late to correct. That seems, at least in part, reductive, though, since the film’s thematic openness is part of it’s strength, and the tactile dustiness seems to insist that the film is about exactly what it is about — THIS journey, THESE people.

Excellent performances all round, notably from Michelle Williams and Bruce Greenwood. Haunting cinematography. Bold, mesmeric pacing. I don’t award stars, but imagine lying on your back on the prairie at night, looking up at the sky.