First Reformed (2017, Paul Schrader)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

Rare is the modern film that understands the consequences of what it depicts and how it achieves this to the level of First Reformed. In many ways the perfect distillation of what Paul Schrader has sought throughout his career, its influences range from transcendental cinema to Classical Hollywood, yet its many concerns seem uniquely its own. Ethan Hawke, as an ailing reverend who undergoes an extended long dark night of the soul, is revelatory.

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SIFF 2018: Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary (Brent Hodge, 2018)

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Not much more than a DVD extra, this story of the seminal 1999-2000 TV series is fun but doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know. The show had a remarkable collection of talent, almost all of whom were unknown at the time it was made. Director Brent Hodge mixes some great archival material and clips with talking heads of the cast, creators, and executives. The latter interviews are the most heart-breaking, both from the producers who championed the show and the still-clueless executives who buried and then cancelled it.

Solo (Ron Howard, 2018)

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After three films and a few billion dollars earned, Disney has finally succeeded in turning Star Wars into a Marvel movie. Under the competent hands of America’s most consistently mediocre director (Ron Howard, subbing in for the LEGO guys), Solo is a perfectly fine bit of blockbuster action filmmaking, with a capable cast and some neat special effects upholding a wholly conventional screenplay with nary a hint of the idiosyncrasy that has marked every other Star Wars film, for good or for ill.

Solo is a superhero origin story, as such its ceiling is somewhat limited: it’s designed around the pleasure of recognition, rather than discovery, the solving of mysteries which didn’t need to be solved rather than exploration of a wider universe. But there are hints at broader issues: the film begins in the slums of Corellia, a manufacturing planet rife with orphans in thrall to a monstrous (literally) Fagin figure, from whom young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) scheme to escape. He does, she doesn’t, and the film skips ahead three years to Han’s desertion from the Imperial infantry to join a criminal gang led by Woody Harrelson. From there the film proceeds to its requisite three setpieces (a train robbery, a heist, and a showdown), with pauses for exposition and fill-in-the-blanks characterization. Some of the back story explanations are well-done: anything involving Chewbacca and Lando in particular, but some are just pointless or silly (how Han got his last name, Chewbacca learning to play Dejarik). The film makes a great point of fetishizing Han’s gun with pointed inserts and closeups as it takes shape, which is silly because we’re expected to believe that A) Han’s gun is iconic and B) he had the same gun for his entire life. This is I suppose part of the attempt at aping Westerns lying buried in the screenplay (though Westerns never unequivocally adored guns as much as this one seems too, even the movies named after guns like Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73), just as Harrelson’s character is supposed to recall Long John Silver or something (though with his unfortunate haircut all he reminds me of is Nazi buffoon Richard Spencer). But I don’t know, maybe someone should have read the room and realized that valorizing guns probably isn’t the best idea right now (or ever). I’m sure they hope to sell lots of toy versions though (yeah, I admit I had one 35 years ago).

Anyway, all that aside, it is a fun movie. Donald Glover of course is excellent as Lando and I really liked Ehrenreich’s performance as Han, a much more innocent take on the character than Harrison Ford’s in the original films, but a charming one nonetheless. Clarke fares less well, her character is not given much of a personality or even identity, and her scenes with Ehrenreich lack any real spark. Of the newer elements to the film, Phoebe Waller-Bridge comes off best as Lando’s friend and droid L3. Her outspoken demands for equal rights for droids are both funny and pointed, and in keeping with the ideals of revolution espoused in the last two Star Wars films (Rogue One and The Last Jedi), though it’s mostly played for a laugh, until it becomes sentimental (traditional the only two modes in Ron Howard’s directorial toolkit). Although even here Howard and his screenwriters (only the father-son teams of Lawrence and Jake Kasdan are credited) can’t resist making a call back all the way to a line in the original Star Wars, one which in a short sentence (“We don’t serve their kind here.”) conveyed more of a sense of an actual world than any of the speechifying and expositing in the Kasdans’ script. The world Han finds himself is peripheral to the Empire, and there are hints of interest to be found there, a kind of jianghu existing outside the bounds of everyday society ruled by five Triad-like gangs, only one of whom we encounter. But the film’s villain, a gang boss played by Paul Bettany, is underdeveloped and bound to a single set (a result of his late insertion into the film, replacing Michael K. Williams as an alien during reshoots, apparently), and his reputed army of henchman is weirdly small and unintimidating.

Origin stories are nearly impossible to do well, as a sampling of any first installment of a Marvel picture will tell you. Really only Tsui Hark has managed to make a great movie out of an origin story (with A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon), and that was by turning the ostensible hero into a side character for much of the film, allowing it to be driven by his mentor. There was no way of course that Disney could allow Han Solo to be a side character in a Woody Harrelson picture, so I imagine that this movie is about the best that Ron Howard and the Kasdans could produce given the inherent limitations of the project. With a glimpse at a wider underworld and a few developments in the film’s final moments, there are hints of other, more interesting chapters to come in the Young Han Solo story. Here’s hoping the corporate overlords in charge of the project allow someone with a little more vision to tell them. I’m going to go ahead and nominate Soi Cheang for the job.

Lu Over the Wall (Masaaki Yuasa, 2017)

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Things have been bleak on the family film front lately on Seattle Screens, at least as far as I have seen. The last movie I took my kids to was The Last Jedi, and there hasn’t been anything they or I have really been interested in since then. After seeing several toy tie-in cartoons over the last few years (really the only animated film we saw with any kind of heart to it was the ballet movie Leap!, which even then diminished itself with kid-movie cliché chase sequences), something like Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over the Wall is an absolute joy, worth taking the kids to even in its English-dubbed version (I assume: the version I watched was Japanese with English subtitles). The mash-up of Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea and Linda Linda Linda we don’t know we needed, Lu is the best variation on The Little Mermaid of 2017.

Lu is a ningyo, a creature from Japanese folklore roughly analogous to a mermaid. In a reversal of Greek myth, she’s drawn to the shore by music, specifically the pop-rock stylings of a middle school trio named “Seiren”. Moved by the tunes, Lu sings and then jumps onto the land (a protective bubble of water around her head), sprouts legs and dances wildly. The legs go away when the music stops, and after some initial confusion the band members, especially the shy Kai, befriend her. It seems the small fishing village in which the action takes place has a complicated history with the merfolk, with stories of them eating people circulating among the elderly (in particular Kai’s grandfather, who saw his mother get bitten and disappear under the sea). There’s a giant island in the town’s harbor, a Gibraltar casting a shadow over the sleepy village and separating it from the wider ocean and the island where the merfolk are said to dwell. It’s a literalization of the walls separating the village from the outside world, the people from the spirits and nature around them, and Kai from other people. Catchy music and simple messages (“Like everyone!”) are the medium through which Lu breaks down all these walls.

While much of the animation and plotline recalls Ponyo (with a little bit of Kiki’s Delivery Service thrown in), Lu Over the Wall isn’t nearly as derivative as the otherwise pleasant Mary and the Witch’s Flower from earlier this year. Yuasa has a goofier touch than Miyazaki, trading the mystical beauty of Ghibli’s nature for a more Looney Tunes aesthetic. In an interesting twist, Yuasa’s merfolk are vampiric: they are allergic to sun, they can transform creatures into the undead with a bite, and they appear to have to hypnotic power to make people dance in spite of themselves. This leads to some of the film’s most memorable images: denizens of a dog pound transformed into an army of merpups; undead fish dancing their way out of a sushi restaurant. The film’s crisp primary colors and cartoonish character movements are both flatter and more fun than what we’ve seen in recent Japanese animated films like Makoto Shinkai’s experiments in photo-realism (Your Name.) or the more traditional anime Napping Princess, and the look of the film is vastly more appealing than the CGI blandness of recent American efforts. I haven’t yet seen Yuasa’s Mind Game, which is reputed to be quite good. It’s playing this week at the Grand Illusion, and I’m guessing pairing it with this would make for an excellent double bill. Probably want to leave the kids behind for that one though.

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

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.


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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 )

 

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The Westerns genre, though, contained some troubling ideas or myths that are important to recognize.

For example,

  • 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.

 

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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.

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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?

**

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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/ )

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 . . .

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. . . 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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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).

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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 .

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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.

**

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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. 
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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 )

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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.

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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 )

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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.

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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.

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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 . . .

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. . . 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.

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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.

 

Manhunt (John Woo, 2017)

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After a decade in which all he put out were two two-part epics, one of which is great (Red Cliff) the other of which is half-great (The Crossing), it’s nice to see John Woo relax back into the kind of goofy genre fare that has always been his comfort zone. The plot is too complicated by half, with Zhang Hanyu framed by a pharmaceutical research company for murder because he wants to quit being their lawyer, or something, with a dogged cop played by Masaharu Fukuyama on his trail along with a variety of assassins. But the two leads are solid (Zhang you recall from Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain and Dante Lam’s Operation Red Sea, and Fukuyama from the Koreeda Hirokazu movies Like Father, Like Son and The Third Murder (coming soon to SIFF)) and they’re surrounded by all kinds of women: an earnest heartbroken potential love interest and a callow go-getter on the good side, and assassins of both the cold-blooded and heart of gold variety on the less good side (and wow is it both weird and a lot of fun to see John’s daughter Angeles Woo flying around as the more ruthless killer. She had a small part in The Crossing, but she almost steals the movie here). There’s even a small part for Yasuaki Kurata, enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately with key roles as well in Gordon Chan’s God of War and Chapman To’s The Empty Hands (also coming soon to SIFF). The action is exciting, with some truly exceptional moments, the rest of it is tolerable. In the battle of great 80s Hong Kong auteurs taking on corruption in the 21st Century medical-industrial complex, Woo is an easy winner over Ringo Lam.

Zama (Lucrecia Martel, 2017)

ZAMA

“What is dead may never die.”

The long-awaited latest film from Argentine director Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman, La Ciénega) opens this week at the Northwest Film Forum. It’s set sometime in the late 18th Century, in an unnamed Spanish colony in South America. Daniel Giménez Cacho plays Diego de Zama, an American-born magistrate who very much wants to get away, back to his family (from whom he hasn’t heard, as the film begins, in 14 months), or transferred out of the ramshackle outpost he’s assigned to and into something resembling a city. Zama though will be frustrated at every turn, and the film is a chronicle of his long, slow disintegration as he is ignored, confounded, ridiculed and betrayed by his fellow colonists and swallowed up whole by the flora, fauna, and pestilence of the land he’s invaded and so disdains. Early in the film, Zama is told by a child suffering from cholera that he is a god, born old but fated to never die. His progress, such as it is, recalls other descents into the wilderness, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Joesph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, and so on, with the notable exception that for the majority of the film, Zama actually doesn’t journey anywhere, at least not spatially.

Based on a novel by Antonio di Benedetto, which I own but have not read, Zama is a slippery film: half allegory, half deadpan comedy, half realist fever dream. Giménez Cacho drifts through the film to the sounds of mid-century Brazilian guitar duo Los Indios Tabajaras (whose “Always In My Heart” you can also hear in Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild, a very different kind of film about a very different kind of jungle, that nonetheless shares Zama’s sense of aimless alienation). His Zama never seems to understand what is happening to him or why, he’s only apparently motivated by the desire to leave, or, alternately, the lust for women (only to be satisfied, if at all, off-screen). He is a magistrate, but from what we see not a very good one. He attempts to romance a fellow official’s wife, but is endlessly rebuffed. He tries to defend the young girls at his inn from a thief who may not have been uninvited. Time passes by while his entreaties to the governor for a transfer are endlessly delayed. Martel gives us no real markers for the passage of time, outside of Giménez Cacho’s physical deterioration. His physical state matches that of his surroundings: out of favor with the government he is evicted, and holed up in a hovel (that may be haunted) he contracts a fever. Or maybe he’s had it all along, or maybe he hasn’t ever really been there: he seems to have an extraordinary talent for not being noticed—even the servants can’t seem to remember his name.

Eventually, Zama makes it out of town, but not in the direction he’d hoped to be going. He joins a party searching for the notorious fugitive Vicuña Porto, a man held responsible for pretty much every crime in the area, fictional or not. The name has followed Zama from the beginning, not unlike the llama that stalks behind him during a meeting with the governor, the sounds and images of wildlife ever-present, even in the heart of the colonial community. On their journey, the men, of course, run afoul of the native population, who act mysteriously (one group wears masks, the other paints themselves orange and forcibly paint the Spaniards as well), but not with any kind of special hostility. Throughout the film, the natives, free and enslaved, linger in the background, as workers and servants, eying the colonists but rarely interacting with them. They are, like the environment itself, the force of otherness that torments Zama just as much as the other colonists. There’s no escape into nature for him, nor to the city. No chance for assimilation, either among the Spanish, or among the natives. He is doomed to in-betweenness: neither European nor America, urban or rural, civilized or wild, alive or dead.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Anthony & Joe Russo)

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It is rare to find a film that so “neatly,” so thoroughly encapsulates not just a single mode of filmmaking, but the entire Hollywood apparatus and a national (almost international) culture to boot. Yet Avengers: Infinity War is just that: in theory and largely in practice, the culmination of a decade-long franchise, spanning nineteen films and counting, interweaving innumerable plot-lines and characters, all united against a single adversary. By design, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in no way limited to this, connected as it is in both narrative and fandom terms to a vast comic-book tradition as well as the cultural expectations that come with such a massive enterprise. If it weren’t for the multitude of MCU films yet to come (or that other franchise juggernaut), it might be safe to call this the most hotly anticipated film of the decade, perhaps of the century.

So how does a “single” film handle such expectations? The short, only mostly accurate answer: as well as the individual viewer might expect. I can say with a great deal of confidence that much of one’s enjoyment of almost any MCU film, especially one as pointedly summative as this, is directly related to their engagement with the wider mythological universe. Nevertheless, Avengers: Infinity War offers much in the way of determining just how one relates to this film, its franchise, and indeed modern Hollywood at large.

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You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2017)

Joe in shadow

“Where are we going?”
“Wherever you want to go. . . . Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know either.”

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, Psycho, a past-haunted man cannot escape himself or the violence he has known and inflicted, and he preserves his own guilt and trauma, literally, in the body of his mother. He could not bear to live with her and the man she called her husband, and so he killed her. He could not bear to live without her, and so he keeps her, tucked in her bed, a “boy’s best friend.” It’s an impossible, stunted existence, an embalmed life, where the dead cannot be buried, and it is a life that splits Norman Bates’s identity in two. His body becomes a sort of prison, a site of ever-present struggle between two selves, between life and death, past and present. “We scratch and we claw,” Norman says, “but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.”

Lynne Ramsay’s newest film, You Were Never Really Here, beautifully recalls this earlier cinematic classic both overtly and obliquely.  Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a war veteran, a sort of walking dead man like Norman Bates. Joe carries the suffocating horror of his past around in his scarred body while violent images of that past crash, unbidden, into his mind, disrupting his path in any given moment. The voices of the dead, too, and of his younger self force themselves into his ears. His is a divided existence, and his body contains a mind that won’t obey him. “What am I doing?” he mutters to himself when one of these images or voices shatters his attention and a task at hand. He is often, then, cut off from the world around him, the trauma of his mind wrenching him towards itself and away from an exterior, Other reality.   Continue reading

The Green Fog (Maddin, Johnson, Johnson, 2017)

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“San Francisco’s changed. The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast.” — Gavin Elster, Vertigo, 1958

I’ve never seen Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho. I know the consensus opinion is one of distaste, if not disgust, but from afar I have always kind of respected what I think Van Sant was going for, the experiment behind the film. Can someone take the elements of a stone cold classic and manage to replicate its power? In their bizarre, Canadian way Guy Maddin and his collaborators, Galen and Evan Johnson, have taken the baton from Van Sant with their new film The Green Fog, which uses clips from a century of cinema and television shot entirely in San Francisco to retell the plot of another Hitchcock masterpiece, Vertigo.

And damn it, The Green Fog is Vertigo, albeit filtered through the manic Friday night-to-Saturday morning antics of Joe Dante’s Movie Orgy. (Dick Miller is even in it!) There are clips from ’40s film noir like Dark Passage and scenes from ’70s cop shows like The Streets of San Francisco. (Apparently one episode had Karl Malden dressed as a clown, which gets a surprising amount of mileage here.) Knowing Maddin’s house style there are not as many clips from silent films as one would expect but the filmmakers did include scenes from the mid-’90s David Caruso joint, Jade, so its a wash. However, the joy of The Green Fog comes less from playing I-Spy with the copious array of film clips–this is not Maddin’s Ready Player One–but from seeing how a bunch of disparate moments from all kinds of films can be repurposed to recount one of cinema’s most enduring mysteries.

The experiment could come off as tedious or pretentious in the hands of anyone else but thanks to a concise one-hour running time and the lowbrow high jinks of Messrs. Maddin, Johnson, and Johnson, The Green Fog is a piece of entertaining and hilarious art. A young and dashing Michael Douglas watches video footage of a naked, middle-aged Michael Douglas and nods approvingly. N*Sync shows up for an inexplicable musical interlude. Nicolas Cage screams. But the film is not a farce. It is not taking malicious aim at Vertigo. The filmmakers are playing deliriously with something they love.

The Green Fog works because it chooses to replicate Vertigo specifically. The consensus pick for THE GREATEST FILM OF ALL TIME is perhaps the only choice that would make sense. Because of its placement atop the Sight and Sound poll, Vertigo is required viewing for all budding cinephiles. It has become homework. Like Citizen Kane before it, the distinction as cinema’s ideal makes viewing Vertigo on its own terms difficult. The film has so much baggage. It is getting harder to separate the movie from the accolades and analysis. The Green Fog gives us a new way of coming to Vertigo. It boils the film down to its essence and reminds us what was so intoxicating in the first place.