The following is a loose transcript of a presentation I gave on Meek’s Cutoff, a film that was part of the Pickford Film Center’s repertory series, West of What?!, that ran from June 2017-May 2018. The presentation included a slideshow; the images below correspond to the slideshow images.
Good afternoon and welcome to the screening of the Kelly Reichardt’s 2010 film, Meek’s Cutoff.
Today’s film is a part of the Pickford’s West of What?! Westerns series, and, so before we begin the film, I’m going to talk for a little while about the film and its place in this series.
The Westerns genre is, of course, a significant part of the American cinematic landscape, and it was, for a certain period, enormously popular.
Between 1930-1954, approximately 2,700 Westerns were released. (Source: http://www.b-westerns.com/graphs.htm )
The Westerns genre, though, contained some troubling ideas or myths that are important to recognize.
- The genre often promoted myths of westward expansion – the idea of Manifest Destiny – this sort of God-given right (to white people) for westward expansion into the indigenous peoples’ land.
- It often defined a very narrow, traditional view of masculinity
- It presented often absurd, gender stereotypes for women. Women were often depicted as purely domestic beings, side characters mostly useful as a civilizing force over men
- It often normalized genocide, specifically of Native Americans
One of the most interesting things about Westerns is that the popularity of the genre might have a lot more to do with how many Americans tend to see and explain themselves (Looking at Movies, Barsam and Monahan), rather than with a connection to historical accuracy or to the true, often troubling, complexity of our country’s checkered history.
So one of the goals of the West of What?! series – given these things – has been to consider the problematic ideas or ideologies in the Western genre both by looking at Westerns that contain them and by looking at Westerns that subvert them in some way.
Today’s film, Meek’s Cutoff — starring Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson, Rod Rondeaux — offers a particularly interesting entry into the Westerns genre in the ways that it meets the genre conventions but also completely overturns them.
Reichardt’s film might even be conceived as a sort of answer to some of the most troubling myths of the Westerns genre, but it is also, itself, unmistakably, a Western.
A bit about the film’s story:
It’s an Oregon trail story, tracing the journey of a caravan of settlers, three families, heading West towards Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1845, about 3 years before the founding of the Oregon Territory.
They are a group that has broken off from a larger group of travellers on the Oregon Trail, and they’ve decided to throw their lot in with a man named Stephen Meek, who claims to know a short-cut – or a cut-off – that will get them to their destination more easily and quickly.
Very early in the film though, as we see one character scratch the word “LOST” onto a fallen tree, we realize things haven’t gone as planned for this little group, and the question becomes one of who to trust, as they wander farther and farther into the Oregon desert, farther and farther from known sources of water:
-Do they trust Stephen Meek, this confident, rather flamboyant man, who continues to claim he knows what he’s doing?
-Their own befuddled instincts?
-Or perhaps the Native American man they encounter along the way?
Reichardt did base her film on an historical event:
“There was a real Stephen Hall Meek, a fur trapper, surveyor, and sometimes mercenary who, in 1845, did lead a train of about 200 wagons bound for Oregon.” The real Stephen Meek also really did take a shortcut, but found he did not any longer recognize the land he thought he knew, could not find the water he thought was there. And while Meek’s caravan did eventually find their way to The Dalles by the Columbia River in Oregon, “at least 2 dozen travellers had died on the way,” a fact “Meek omitted” from the memoir he wrote late in his life. (Information and quotation from Scott Foundas, Cinemascope, http://cinema-scope.com/spotlight/spotlight-meeks-cutoff-kelly-reichardt-us/ )
Reichardt is known, in her films, for a stripped down spare quality. Her films have small casts, laconic characters, and very little in the way of what we might call a grand climatic of action.
Rather, her films offer an immersion into the specific details of the daily lives of her characters, where we sort of live along with them in a often slowly growing sense of the tension, and because of our immersion into the specific daily detail, we gradually feel the emotions that run just below the surface.
Given the fact that Meek’s Cutoff has just three families in its cast of characters, not 200 wagons of settlers, like in the historical event, we get a hint, right at the outset, that Reichardt is going to give us something intimate and detailed in scale, rather than something grand and sweeping.
We should note though that in spite of the resistance to a big tale with a huge cast, as would have been historically appropriate if she were trying, merely, to replicate the actual event, Reichardt is a stickler for small, historically accurate, details.
She pays scrupulous attention to the specifics of time and place in any given film, and this film is no different.
To prepare, she read the journals of the travellers, particularly focusing on the women’s journals. (Source: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/apr/09/kelly-reichardt-meeks-cutoff )
She made sure every bit of period detail was correct – from the costuming and the wagons to the filming location in Burns, Oregon – (a tiny town, 2 hours from anywhere, 1 hour of that on unpaved road). ( Source: https://www.twincities.com/2011/05/06/meeks-cutoff-director-kelly-reichardt-says-filming-took-place-in-remote-locations/ )
And in pre-production, she and the cast and crew spent several weeks in the Oregon desert, learning how to do all of the things settlers of the time would have done: they all learned to handle cattle, the women learned to knit and do daily tasks (Source: https://www.npr.org/2011/04/14/135206694/going-west-the-making-of-meeks-cutoff ). And for the duration of the shooting, Reichardt essentially refused to let the cast wash their clothing.
She did finally concede to a some washing, commenting later that the cast “threatened to stage a mutiny if they weren’t allowed to wash out their costumes, which had become so smelly. We reached a compromise where they could wash the inside of them.”
Further commenting on the importance of the cast being immersed in Oregon trail life, she also said:
“There was a struggle to get to set every day with all the animals, but it put everyone in the frame of mind to think about what conditions were actually like on the Oregon Trail.” (Source: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/apr/09/kelly-reichardt-meeks-cutoff )
So Reichardt’s attention to specificity and detail, her resistance to something grand and sweeping with a big cast should indicate to us, too, that she wanted to do something different from the classic Western.
In Meek’s Cutoff, as we’ll see even from quiet, methodical opening scenes, is “one of those rare Westerns, that, unlike the mythologizing so many Westerns do,” is much more dedicated “to the harsh realities of the West—both physical and psychological—than anything else.” (Scott Foundas, Cinemascope, http://cinema-scope.com/spotlight/spotlight-meeks-cutoff-kelly-reichardt-us/ )
Reichardt’s film, in other words, is a not a film for people who want a heroic image or a grand myth.
Something I want to do then, is take us through a few of the generic Western tropes and think about how Reichardt is rejecting those tropes and the assumptions that underpin them and creating a new vision of the West, a new vision of ourselves and our history, perhaps, as Americans.
And I’m inclined to think, if there’s been any time to reassess our vision of ourselves, our stories of our history, and our stories of who we are and who we claim to be, perhaps this current political, historical moment is a particularly good one.
Since Reichardt’s film starts with the land, with people silently, slowly, moving through it, and since the land and the landscape are enormously important to the Westerns genre, let’s start there.
Perhaps more than any other genre, “the American Western is linked to place” (Looking at Movies).
In almost all Westerns, the landscape is the dominant visual: lots of daylight exterior shots, big skies, seemingly wild and uninhabited land, sweepingly wide-open spaces.
Westerns, in fact, were among the “first films to be shot almost exclusively on location” (Looking at Movies).
The land, of course, too, not just a physical thing in the classic Western was also a kind of symbol: its bigness symbolized “both limitless possibility and an untamable environment” (Looking at Movies).
So Westerns often “have these extreme long shots in which the landscape dwarfs human” figures (Looking at Movies).
Reichardt’s film, true to the Western, is almost nothing but these exterior scenes and throughout, we get a sense of an unending land, a sense of distant horizon that can perhaps never be reached.
But while the landscape is essential in the film — and the camera, in fact, sometimes lingers on shots of the land, long after the characters have trudged out of it – the film forces a kind of intimacy with the domestic space, too.
And this is where Reichardt departs from the classic Western.
Reichardt also puts us in that very closed in domestic space around, for example, a woman grinding and making coffee, or knitting, or kneading dough.
It’s a Western that shows us the detail of human life within a vast landscape.
In that vein, too, Reichardt chose, in a rather extraordinary move, to make her film in a 1.33: 1 aspect ratio.
This is a screen size ratio, also called Academy ratio, that looks much closer to a square. It’s different from the wide, rectangular screen that’s almost twice as wide as it is high that we’re used to these days, usually a 1.85: 1 ratio.
Up until the 1950’s, Westerns, like other films of the time, did use this 1.33 aspect ratio. Things changed with the advent of TV, and filmmakers wanted to give viewers a reason to go to the theater, rather than staying home watching their boxy screens.
So they switched to 1:85, which is what we generally see today.
So even though many Westerns before the 50’s were in 1:33 ratio, everything after the 50’s was wider, and I think we more frequently associate Westerns with a more sweeping prospect and a wider screen . . .
. . . so Reichardt pushes back against our expectation, choosing a more claustrophobic vision of the land.
In her film, then, we will get a sense of its vastness at the same time we feel a sense of claustrophobia with the characters, who, of course, cannot really enjoy the vastness if they do not know where they are going.
Classic Westerns, too, even though the landscape is wide and human figures are often small, contain oversized men – specifically, oversized, grand, white male personalities.
There’s a celebration of the fact that while the landscape is wild and huge, someone who is a man of action, a man with enough strength, determination, and grit, and usually a bit of wildness himself, can tame the vast, wild land.
So in a Western, we get the wide sweeping scenes of landscape, but we also get lots of hero shots as well: these unflappable men, rugged individuals, who never, ultimately, met a land they couldn’t cross, or an enemy they couldn’t beat.
While some filmmakers, e.g., like John Ford, cast some doubt on the heroism of these male figures, generally speaking, the generally heroic flavor to the mythology of these men is pretty clear.
By contrast, in this film, Reichardt gives us different kind of man.
Key among them is Stephen Meek himself, playing against the laconic “man with no name” figure we associate with Sergio Leone Westerns and Clint Eastwood.
Far from being a man of few words, Meek glories in telling tales about himself.
He does look the Westerns hero part though – he’s a gun-toting, self-determined, rugged and grizzled man. He’s confident and rides tall on a horse while the others walk beside their wagons. He’s the sort of man who boldly compliments another man on his fine choice of a young wife – the sort of man who views land and women as rightfully belonging to the man who has the strength to take them. He’s a Westerns hero figure in many senses.
But the more he talks, and the more lost the wagons get, the more we doubt everything he says.
The other men on the wagon train, too, we might consider as foils of the man of the classic Western: though the decision making falls to them, and they do hold frequent discussions about what to do, they are more frequently defined by their indecision, insecurity, and doubt than rugged self-determinism.
When off-set by Meek’s bluster, of course, these men are far the more agreeable to us, but we feel, just the same, they aren’t heroes leading a journey across a desert.
So while in most Westerns, the good men are usually men of clarity, self-sufficiency, common sense, and action, the men in this film, we must either openly doubt because they are so clearly self-aggrandizing (like Stephen Meek) or because they have no idea what they’re doing or where they’re going.
These men are, in fact, merely human.
But we can’t talk about the men without talking about the women, because if this film is from any perspective, it’s from the female perspective.
Most Westerns in cinematic history are, decidedly, from the white male perspective (and most were directed by men, too, though there were some women screenwriters).
And Reichardt was impatient with that perspective. She said in one interview:
“Women [in Westerns] are usually the objects. But I always wondered what, say, John Wayne in The Searchers must have looked like to the woman cooking his stew.” (Source: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/apr/09/kelly-reichardt-meeks-cutoff )
In that vein, Reichardt gives us multiple scenes where we stay with the women, and we look, from their POV, at the men. We, with the women, strain to overhear what the men are saying, what they’re arguing about, what they’re deciding.
There are moments, in fact, when we quite literally can’t make out what the men’s words are because that’s what the women observing them, shut out of the formal decision making process, would have heard – only bits and pieces of conversation.
The women of the film also wear these bonnets, accurate to the historical costumes of the time, the sides of which go out about a foot on either side of the women’s heads. (Source: https://www.npr.org/2011/04/14/135206694/going-west-the-making-of-meeks-cutoff )
Their peripheral vision then, as it were, is constantly cut off.
So while they can look straight ahead into the endless landscape, there’s the sense that they cannot see as much as they should be able to see either – and, so, along with hearing things from their perspective, we get a literal sense of looking with them, too: our vision is thwarted and limited, too, since it’s from the women’s POV .
We should note that the aspect ratio – this sort of square frame on the screen, that we discussed earlier – mimics the women’s lack of peripheral vision.
Terry Gross, in her Fresh Air interview with Reichardt about Meek’s Cutoff, said that when she first saw the film, she thought there must be some mistake, and that perhaps the theater staff had not opened the curtains all the way. ( https://www.npr.org/2011/04/14/135206694/going-west-the-making-of-meeks-cutoff )
She thought she wasn’t seeing the full image, being so used to the 1.85 ratio, rather than what Reichardt uses, the 1.33.
We’re bound then, visually, and aurally, in unique ways to the female perspective, from under a bonnet, as it were.
We should also note, though, interestingly enough, it is often the women, particularly Emily, Michelle Williams’s character, who seems to be the most observant member of the group noticing things before anyone else does.
The camera often calls our attention to what she’s seeing and no one else is seeing.
Our association with Williams (who is the closest thing to a protagonist in an ensemble cast), puts us, then, not with a heroic, mythic male character, but more with a fallible human, a woman, specifically, who is quietly taking in everything she sees, and, when she does need to take action, she is ready to do so because she has the lay of the land, via those quiet observations.
This female perspective is essential to the film. Taking her cue from the women’s journals written on the Oregon trail, Reichardt said,
“When you read these accounts, you see just how much the traditional male viewpoint diminishes our sense of history. I wanted to give a different view of the west from the usual series of masculine encounters and battles of strength, and to present this idea of going west as just a trance of walking.” (Source: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/apr/09/kelly-reichardt-meeks-cutoff )
She also said,
“There are a lot of westerns that I like, except the macho element gets so tiresome . . . These constant completely heightened moments, as if that’s all a day is: moments of confrontation where people outman themselves. That part of the western is not interesting to me.” (Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/movies/meeks-cutoff-from-kelly-reichardt.html )
Much of the film, then, mimicking what must have been the real experience of the travelers, is not a series of shows of strength and heroism.
Rather, it’s men who don’t seem to know the way – or only pretend to. It’s closed off but observant women. And it’s a lot of walking, the squeaking of wagon wheels, bright sun, and growing thirst.
Complementing those things, too, there’s a minimal score. It’s an undertone of music that doesn’t give us those dramatic emotional cues we might expect in a classic Western.
And the conflict or confrontation, while it is there, is embedded more in a growing tension, and embedded in petty but dangerous outbursts from people who are tired and confused or too arrogant to admit defeat, rather than, in heroic battles or shows of strength.
We also have to talk about the Native American character in the film.
Most Westerns, of course, are peppered with the Native American figure, figures the white people encounter as part of their confrontation with the West. They are figures who usually represent savagery. They are associated with wild untameable West something to be conquered and “civilized.”
Or, if there is any nobility in these figures, it is often a romanticized, exoticized nobility, a non-human sort of Other (Looking at Movies).
A major supporting Native American role in a classic Western might even be played by a white actor. ( https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/movies/wind-river-native-american-actors-casting.html )
Among them, Burt Lancaster (Apache), Rock Hudson (Winchester ’73), Burt Reynolds (Navajo Joe), Elvis Presley (Stay Away, Joe).
It was as if Hollywood was extending a sort of Manifest Destiny onto Native American bodies, too, as if white actors had an inalienable right to such roles.
In contrast, in Reichardt’s film, the Native American character is played by Rod Rondeaux, who is a member of the Crow tribe (Source: http://www.rodrondeaux.com/ ), and one reviewer calls the depiction of the character he plays in the film “maybe the most humane depiction of an Indian ever in a Western, one in which the native is neither savage nor holy man nor catch-all symbol of American imperialism.” (Scott Foundas, Cinemascope, http://cinema-scope.com/spotlight/spotlight-meeks-cutoff-kelly-reichardt-us/ )
The white settlers’ encounter here with this character, (named in the credits only as “The Indian”) is uniquely characterized by the white settlers’ utter inability to understand him and what he wants and where he’s from.
The camera makes clear to us as viewers his humanity, but the settlers themselves cannot put him into a known category. The categories they have do not fit.
They do hope he can provide something for them, but they do not understand a word of his language, and it is left absolutely unclear whether or not he can understand them.
And notably, Reichardt forces us in the settlers’ perspective here, not translating for us the Nez Perce language he’s speaking.
Because of this lack of basic understanding on the settlers’ part, Stephen Meek’s character, when he resorts to vicious stereotypes (stereotypes that none of the others argue against), is clearly all the more foolish.
And Meek’s tales of apparent glory about killing indigenous peoples, strikes us as all the more disgusting. He killed, crudely, without any understanding.
We do see Emily, Michelle Williams’s character, make attempts to make a connection with “The Indian,” but even though this film is from a female perspective and thus may, in some sense, be called feminist, it’s clear, too, that William’s character is a woman of her times. Reichardt is not interested in more agreeable revisionist history.
Emily is no heroic woman of the 21st century, fighting for indigenous rights.
We’ll hear an outright racist term she casually uses, and like the other settlers, she fears and does not understand the Indian either, and it is not clear she wants to understand him – except for her own very practical purposes.
It is in her best interest, perhaps, to be kind, rather than to be violent.
And if there is any feminism in the depiction, it’s to do with the fact that she’s willing to pit her life on her choice of utilitarian kindness against Meek’s choice of violence: she forces a kind of equality of determination with Meek, even if she is still, in the end, a woman of her time: a 19th century white woman.
Finally, we must note, Reichardt’s films are known for their lack of resolution. So if we’re familiar with her style, we know won’t get, here, that final shootout at the O.K. corral . . .
. . . where the protagonist and antagonists have been clearly defined and where we as viewers are itching for a fight; where our hero will finally win a victory, both physical and symbolic, over the the space he inhabits, and where we are left with that heroic figure, riding off into the sunset.
There is a figure who goes off towards the horizon near the end of this film, but what it means is left, in the end, to us.
Indeed, Reichardt said of her films and their lack of resolution:
“[My films] do end more with a question usually, I guess, than with an answer. . . . [A]n ideal situation would be that . . . you could leave the theater with a person that sat next to you and that you would both have different ideas about what comes next.” (Source: https://www.npr.org/2011/04/14/135206694/going-west-the-making-of-meeks-cutoff )
By contrast, the New York Times called that classic Western with John Wayne, True Grit, when it came out in 1969, “a marvelously rambling frontier fable packed with extraordinary incidents, amazing encounters, noble characters, and virtuous rewards.” (Source: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?_r=1&res=EE05E7DF173DE077BC4C53DFB1668382679EDE&scp=3&sq=%2522Charles%2520Portis%2522&st=cse&pagewanted=print )
And Kelly Reichardt’s film might be the opposite of just about all of that, except that it is set on the frontier, and it is, in fact, marvelous.
It’s a film full of silences and open spaces – and those silences and spaces force more questions than answers.
It’s a film that makes us uneasy, in all the right ways, asking us to think back on the myths so deeply embedded in the fabric of this country and in its assumptions about itself.
Meek’s Cutoff screened at the Pickford Film Center in Bellingham on May 6.