This week, New York cinephiles have the rare opportunity to meet Kelly Reichardt, director of Wendy & Lucy and Meek's Cutoff, who will be in attendance this Friday, April 29th during Film Forum's 7:50 PM screening of Meek's Cutoff, which was one of my favorite films at the 2010 New York Film Festival. Actor Paul Dano, who portrays Thomas Gately in the film, will be in attendance during the 7:50 screening on Wednesday, April 27th. Herewith, my review of Meek's Cutoff, and the excellent, overlooked documentary, Sweetgrass.
On Meek's' Cutoff & Sweetgrass -- OR, Once Upon A Time In The West...OR, How The West Was Won?
"The reaction of one man could be forecast by no mathematics; the reaction of a billion is something else again." This sentence, taken from the very first page of Isaac Asimov's Foundation & Empire was in my mind powerfully during Meek's Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt's deceptively weighty staging of a day in the life of westward settlers losing their way, circa 1845.
Meek's Cutoff focuses on a pivotal (and unresolved at film's end) moment in a challenging trek, one burdened with both the weight of history (to come), and, in the immediate sense, the settlers' survival, the urgency of which gets halted in its pace through the director's masterful, throttle-grip sense of a powerful time-creep through fateful instances -- and the subsequent anti-climaxes -- that will determine an outcome far larger than the relatively mundane episodes which host them, and larger for that matter, than the seemingly endless terrain (made painfully finite) in the mise-en-scène of this macro-micro period-piece (as it were), on The Other, Manifest Destiny, governance, and the manufacturing of consent.
Kelly Reichardt's is a universe wherein pivotal vignettes unravel like Hemmingway's Jake Barnes' oft-referred to bankruptcy: gradually, and then suddenly; bluntly deterministic episodes are watermarked with doom, rather than punctuated by it. In Wendy & Lucy, Reichardt's 2008 minor-chord study in capricious martyrdom, the shoplifting arrest of a woman in a jam, by an ambitious stock boy eager to make an example of her, subsequently leads to a downward spiral depicted in a beguilingly naturalistic camera and human-scale drama -- which is not so say small-scale, especially as regards our capacity for causal, near-mindless passivity in harming others, and letting them suffer. Through an almost clinical, episodic descent into poverty, Wendy & Lucy also delivers a layer of film-as-sociology.
Inasmuch as it would feel superfluous to explain the too-simple-on-paper plot of Wendy & Lucy, it also feels pointless, perhaps even dangerous, to share any more abut the "plot" of Meek's Cutoff, because 1) there isn't much more to it and 2) the extent to which I do, may, through the unavoidable superimposition of structure on the first-time screening experience, deny you the pace that this stagecoach theater (and I do think this would work on the stage as well) affords the sociological, behavioral, historical, political and philosophical imagination. As my ramblings affirm, this is a film best viewed without introduction.
Nonetheless, Meek's Cutoff essentially depicts the mounting pressures and increased arguments and discussions between and amongst men, women, and guide, over whether they are lost, and whether to continue to let said guide choose their path, or trust the navigational advice of an Native American they've taken prisoner, and over whom they'd argued whether to kill, or keep alive.
In addition to being a novel study in human nature and the character of the societal compact, Meek's Cutoff takes both sides of a debate which speaks to the dual intuitions constantly at battle within our national psyche: Trust, versus what is often called realism about the threats an enemy -- usually painted as The Other -- poses to our survival.
The film's most pressing dilemmas, leaders whose certainty could prove fatal, and the question of what to do with a prisoner who may or may not be an enemy - are best summed up by the simple line, "I don't blame then for not knowing, I blame them for saying they did", which speaks historical volumes. Through its subjects' deliberations, Meek's Cutoff offers also a meditation on the difficulty in reckoning a need for consensus, and the need to protect non-negotiable boundaries which are set by conviction. It is worth noting that this is three years before one of the most globally revolutionary years in civilization --1848, which has more than a little in common with our present day.
In many ways, Meek's Cutoff emerges as a morality play, (albeit, one in which the conferring of historical virtue and villainy upon the dramatis personae is left to the viewer) so much so, that I half-expected the final scene (which delivers not, dénouement, for those used to getting it) to pan from the desert back up through the sky and into the dark heavens as Rod Serling submits for our approval: "File under "Lost": a few settlers, a dubious guide, an accidental hostage, dwindling supplies and a punishing desert. Their instinct and their prejudices will determine not just their survival but possibly the soul of a nation yet to be fully born..."
Meek's Cutoff was part of the mind-blowing line up of NYFF #48, where it fit nicely alongside other politically relevant films, capping off - or kicking off? - ten years which might rightly be called The Karma Decade.
As credits rolled at the NYFF screening, one person said aloud to no one in particular, "All that sexual tension; why don't they just go fuck behind a rock and get it over with?" Which had me conjuring up images of a Zabriskie Point sand dune orgy twixt Settlers and Native Americans, scattered in every coital and gender combination, all along the trail, in a scene making for very different historical ramifications. As regards our bloody history, more is the pity.
Fast-forwarding, as it were, from Meek's Cutoff's chronicle-from-a-history-foretold, the documentary Sweetgrass offers up a rich strand from the myriad of epilogues that have played out in the U.S. during the century and a half hence, by way of another pivotal moment: the very final running, in the spring of -- of all years! -- 2001, of a Montana sheep drive, an annual multi-family tradition spanning generations.
Inversely to Meek's Cutoff's history-imbued episodes of real-time anticlimax, Sweetgrass despite its actual, historic, end-of-the-line significance, feels devoid of history, concerned as it is with the moment, defined by the task at hand - namely, that bizarre symbiosis (bitter co-dependency?) between man and beast, known as the long distance cattle drive, the obsessive, unrelentingly fresh-angled gadfly photography of which takes Sweetgrass to the level of great documentary filmmaking.
Sweetgrass's star camera also artlessly captures punishing moments of despair, perhaps most notably a cowboy standing on a mountaintop holding a cell fone and crying to his Maw about his knee and the woeful state of his dogs, beautiful, imposing beasts who, unbeknownst to him, devoured one of his sheep, in a scene which on an obvious, surface level conveys a larger metaphor, one seemingly inherent in the poetically burdened concept of The End of an American Shepherding Tradition, but one which in the full idiosyncrasy of a camera's truth also reveals a powerful moment of maternal comfort and filial solidarity, unforgettably. Like kids in Toy Story, we never truly outgrow the eternally mythic -- even when deconstructed to the point of tragicomedy and redux -- cowboy. Not for nothing did a video still of a cowboy become an icon of Institutionalized Art and not for nothing do cowboys -- be they senile (Reagan) or make-believe (Bush) -- get re-elected.
In Sweetgrass, the camera respectfully -- and by this I mean with an untiring metaphysical curiosity and a palpable, kinetic sense of the omnipresence of beauty -- watches the end of a vocation and the end of a very old ritual, in the first year of the 21st century. It is, upon reflection, stunning; we feel a net loss as would-be masters of our world, wherein practical knowledge may be what saves us from over-confidence in presumed turn-key automation -- and by extension (or root cause), dependence and abuse of (or by?) same. You can never tell what one sheep is going to do, but knowing what an entire flock will do is another matter.