24 May 2011

Noises Off

I put this on specifically because I remembered it being harmless and funny, and I thought it would be light enough and silly enough that I'd likely fall asleep to it. Unfortunately, it's well enough paced with enough charming nostalgia-inducing faces (Reeve! Ritter! Mark Linn-Baker and Julie Hagerty! Carol Burnett and Marilu Henner! even Denholm Elliott!) that I never quite drifted off. It was a foolish idea -- something as clockwork choreographed as a stage farce was never going to let up long enough for me to turn away. It's not hilarious, but it's funny enough to work. And it's not brilliant, but it's clever enough to stay with.

Ultimately it's too stagey. For one, it's obviously a 4th-wall-challenging stage play trapped in the 4th-wall-less world of cinema, so it loses a lot of its punkish energy. But for another, it never quite feels like the actors want to be any more involved than they would be if this were the goofy, breezy play-within-the-play. I know it's a light-hearted comedy and about as far from character-driven material as you can get, but there's a lack of investment or nuance to any of the characters or performances here that feels a little... winking. The physical parts are brilliant -- and the timing is impeccable -- but the actors are maybe acting a little too much like actors playing actors actings, if that follows.

Anyway, it's a fun cast. It's a silly play. It's an amusing movie. It means almost nothing, goes almost nowhere, and wraps up in the most horrid "oh shit it's over, well here's a happily-ever-after capper because why not" way. But apart from that last bit, the cleverness and physical comedy and the joy of seeing some underrated comedy actors from my childhood era made it all a more pleasant than unpleasant experience. Is it a great movie? nah. A good one? maybe, just. But I liked it. It wouldn't let me sleep when I wanted to. That's something.

22 May 2011

Sweet Smell of Success

I'd heard a lot about this film for its dialogue, for being a famously left-wing script that didn't pull its punches. I knew it was a noir about newspapermen. I knew it got compared to Network. I hadn't really thought about that, though, in the terms this presents them: anti-heroes that are newspapermen, as basically slick-talking amoral schucksters and underworld power barons. Actually, I've been reading about other stories that do this, like two Fritz Lang films, While The City Sleeps and Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, so it's not like there's not precedent here -- and in fact, those films were 1956 and 1957 respectively; since Sweet Smell is 1957, clearly something was in the air.

But this isn't really a noir at all. For one thing, the story pointedly lacks femme fatales, and the only woman I can remember in the entire film who wasn't a cowed victim or means to an end (which, in this world, is worse than merely being a "cowed victim") was an older woman long since accustomed to her dubious husband's wandering penis. For another, the anti-hero of the noir is almost always someone able to step through the muck of the underworld and come out clean -- a man whose principles and convictions allow any number of questionable deeds because he knows the ends justify those means. Here the ends are the dirtiest part, the protagonist has to have a last-minute "change of heart" because he hasn't had a straight and true noble purpose from the beginning. This is a story of moral awakening, with innocent people (noir stories generally don't even have innocent people) hurt by terrible people, and that's all good. I'm not disappointed that this isn't a noir -- I don't think it should be -- but it seems to have been miscategorized, if you ask me.

So, sharp-as- and fun-as-hell dialogue, check. The city at night, seething with corruption, check. Fascinating anti-heroes and an alluring world of ugliness, check. Noir trappings -- well, no, but that's okay. But what isn't covered in all of that, that I hadn't expected, was the nuanced and exciting kind of antagonist/villain that this film has. Burt Lancaster's J.J. Hunsecker is wonderful. His introduction is beautifully orchestrated, giving him a practically mythical element (coupled by his story of loving-his-sister-just-a-little-too-much). He's intimidating and every bit believable as a powerful man with the power of will and the ivory-tower separation from the common man that makes him both a pitiable king and an amoral monster.

[SPOILERY NOTE: There was a point very late in the film after Susie had attempted to throw herself off a balcony and Sidney had managed to wrestle her back in. J.J. attacks Sidney, seeming to misconstrue the situation, in fact perhaps knowingly choosing his beloved sister's obvious lie over his dirty-handed minion's more feasible story. (Sidebar: Lancaster is intimidatingly huge; it worked so well for the character in general but it was also great to see that physical threat made manifest, especially on such a deserving scoundrel as Sidney but for all the wrong reasons, fittingly.) In his defense, shouting anything he can to stop the attack, Sidney blurts out that J.J. is behind the framing of Susie's lover. There is an eerie moment -- Susie stands with J.J., no longer sure which side to take here. J.J. turns to her and says, "It's a lie, Susie. Just as I know he lied to me about your suicide attempt, you know he's lying to you about my involvement." Susie obviously knows her suicide attempt was genuine, and for just a moment this invitation to exchange willful ignorances hangs there, and part of me really wanted Susie to agree to it, to sink into the quicksand and say, "Yes, of course Brother," and together they would destroy Sidney, put it all behind them, and rewrite their history fully. That end -- Sidney dying (or being run out, or locked up, or whatever) and Susie selling her soul to stay at her brother's side -- would have been so dark I think it would have been unsatisfying, ultimately, but there was a moment there where I wanted to see how it would play out, how dark could this dark story get, and would it dare?]

I don't think of the 50s as an era with layered characters exploring moral gray areas (or at least making your audience sympathize with characters firmly entrenched in the black, say). I guess audiences didn't either, from what I read about the initial audience response to this. Critics loved it, though, for all of its sharp-tongued intelligence and emotional messiness, and, not surprisingly, so did I.

16 May 2011

Blow Out

The A.V. Club repeatedly cites Blow Out as the unofficial king of De Palma films, and I may have let this one get a little too built up in my excitement to see it. (It didn't help that they were writing about it in such celebratory terms a full six weeks or so before the film was finally re-released by Criterion, or that it took me almost a full month after that to finally find the time to sit and watch it.) It's definitely engaging, and it's fun, and it's smart, but I'm not sure off-hand where I'd place it between good and best. But there's no denying that it's a very good film -- and man, it's surprisingly tense at parts, in both a good and bad way. On a personal note, I'm starting to feel some stressed-out anxiety about deadlines and projects and time budgeting, and this movie was probably a poor choice for the ninety-minute Relaxation Session I was sort of hoping for.

But enough with the audience's apologies and outside influences. I don't have a lot of time and I should really be at least mentioning the film's influences that struck me if I'm going to blather about anything. You can't really talk about De Palma without talking about what films influence him, can you? No wonder certain kinds of critics are in love with him and others are... less-than-in-love with him. I haven't seen Blow-Up in too long to compare the two, but I did pretty recently watch The Conversation, and it's pretty much impossible NOT to compare those films. (Note: I distinctly remember watching The Conversation about two months ago, but checking previous posts I realize I never wrote anything on it, because I think circumstances got in the way and I never finished it. Alas.) Blow Out is such a visceral ride and The Conversation is so cerebral. Both are uncomfortable in their paranoia. Harry Caul has a much more developed and three-dimensional paranoia than Jack Terry's, but both stem from being too good at their jobs and hiding from a past that involved getting someone killed. And in my memory, both films star Dennis Franz, but a little research proves that The Conversation starred Allen Garfield as Bernie the slick competitor. So let's say both films star Dennis Franz-types.

There's a lot of really striking shots here that I couldn't quite put my finger on the intent behind -- other than being striking. Similarly, there is a lot of really overt symbolism here, like driving your jeep willy-nilly through the parade of firefighters, policemen, and Uncle-Sam dressed paraders, and crashing through a storefront window into a mannequin-reenactment of a revolutionary-war era hanging. Sally screaming for help and being murdered in front of a massive American flag. The number of times telephones appear when someone is being betrayed or killed. The repeated motif of the bell icon, providing a crossover between Liberty, Telecommunications, and the city of Philadelphia. But I don't know what, specifically, to make of any of these, to be honest. I do know I haven't given them enough thought yet, and so maybe with more time or repeated viewings a connection will come to me; but with Brian De Palma, whose scenes sometimes feel like they come with neon signs reading CLEVER SET PIECE, it's also possible that the repeated motifs are there so that a motif can repeat, because that's what films do. It's entirely possible that he's built all the thematic structure he can into a piece without any of the thematic content. I kind of think there's some of that in Body Double at least, and possibly Carrie. I think that's part of why his films work so well for some and so poorly for others. The man tells interesting, excessively self-conscious stories set in excessively self-conscious movie-centric worlds, but he doesn't really say much. It's not like he says nothing, or that his films are meaningless -- far from it -- but he definitely doesn't make films whose primary intent is to say much of anything, or explore an idea very deeply. He makes films to echo smartly, and add layers and voices to pre-existing text.

Maybe Brian De Palma is the starkest, most obvious example of that phenomenon I just babbled about recently, the man who touched-up millennia-old cave art in Aboriginal Australia and said he wasn't painting, that the spirits were painting. Maybe De Palma is repainting those lines, continuing an artistic process that's still in its infancy. Remaking a film could certainly be called an example of this, but maybe a more interesting and almost as obvious example is what De Palma does -- which, for the record, isn't so novel: off the top of my head Tarantino, Scorsese, Haynes, Jarmusch all do variations of the same. "Homages," right?

It's possible there's some interesting thought there. Or it's possible I just rattled off a stream-of-consciousness game of free association through ideas and said almost nothing at all about the film Blow Out itself. Then again, it's possible that in doing so I've done exactly what De Palma would want me to: I've used this film to springboard into a talk about Film. There's an hour-long interview between De Palma and Noah Baumbach on this disc that's supposed to be pretty great. One of these nights I'll watch it, and maybe I'll have a better idea then what De Palma intended with non-specific filmic homages like this.

12 May 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams *

It took me longer than usual to get around to blogging this one, so my reactions aren't as fresh or as sharp as I like, but sometimes that's how it goes. There's a lot to recommend about this film, but most of it you can almost guess before going in. It's a gorgeous and unusual (and totally beautifully appropriate) use of 3D. It's narrated by a madman poet who is singularly able to remain completely unironic and earnest when asking scientists if numbers in a phone directory have souls, or if we are all mutant albino alligators staring at our own doppelgangers through glass. It's profoundly moving and, honestly, a little existentially shaking to be in the presence of 32,000-year-old art and religion. And I think Herzog is completely right to ask bold and awkward questions about the soul: art and religion are inarguably the arenas of the soul, they are our expression of the soul today and their birthplace, whenever that happened exactly, would be the soul's birthplace as well. At least in any meaningful way, as far as this atheist/secular humanist is concerned.

But all of that feels like what almost anyone would say after seeing this film. Some more personal thoughts/reactions I had are to two of the little Herzog tangential thoughts, the notes and anecdotes on the fringe of the cave story. One: I'm surprised, somehow, to find that musical scales haven't changed in 32,000 years -- that the flutes found in other caves use the very same notes and scales we use today. I don't know, I'm not a trained musician but I've taken a class or two, and I know that Eastern musical scales for example are (or were, historically) very different from Western (which I believe is "pentatonic," but rather than look it up I'll just expose my ignorance and half-education here -- I'm just that lazy). I think a lot of people just thought it was a very silly moment when the archaeologist played "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the caveman flute, but the very fact that you can kind of impressed and amazed me.

And two: the story of the aboriginal cave-wall painters touching up thousand-year-old art, and the European anthropologist who asked him why he was painting. The man's answer was that he wasn't painting, that a spirit was painting. It was difficult to determine (or maybe: it is difficult for me to remember) if he literally meant the spirit of the original painter or not, but I took it more as the spirit of the art, or the spirit that inspired the first art, or "the spirit" in a more holistic, non-individualistic sense of spirits -- and that idea I found kind of profoundly moving. In a weird way, that's all (we) artists do with art today, with paintings and narrative and mythology and religion. We see a piece of The Same Old Legends in disarray -- atrophying from lack of attention, from cultural entropy or whatever -- and something moves us to revive it, and paint new lines to fill in the old. Sure, there's more to it, there's that western individualism kicking in, and we feel the vital imperative to season the stew just a little bit, and I'd be lying if I didn't say that adding my voice to the grand story isn't an appealing part of why (we) artists make art. In fact, the ego-centric drive to create art is so strong that I think (we) artists need moments like the aborigine story in Caves to reminded of something grander and far simpler -- that all human art could be viewed as a single tapestry being continually touched up by new hands channeling old spirits.

What struck me strongest in the film was simply the presence of the walls, the caves, the freshness of the art, the profoundness of a window into ancient human history, Herzog's mad-poet voiceover with his matter-of-fact exposition sprinkled with stark humanistic philosophy, and the exciting and justifiable-beyond-merely-dazzle use of 3D, but that all seems like everybody's reaction. Commonalities with our ancestors in music and a connectedness in our storytelling and art that makes me go all Jungian -- those reactions were smaller, more compartmental, but they felt more specific and more fun to rant about.

Seen (in 3D!) at Cinema 21.

10 May 2011

In The Loop

I finally got around to seeing this, and I knew I would like it. I have vague memories of critics comparing it to Dr. Strangelove, probably for its depiction of government and war policy as being dictated by petty tension and paranoia between allies. I can see a reason to compare the two (satire of the government which is both outlandish and frighteningly plausible? Overt sexual tension, frustration, and gay panic channeled inappropriately into policymaking? No line between personality quirk and philosophical stance?), but it actually felt more like The Office meets Traffic, or something, to me. It's funniest when it's meanest, which is a lot like being funniest when it's angriest.

I expected, considering the first six minutes or so and Simon's continual similar fuckups throughout, that this was going to quickly turn into a comedy of errors and misunderstandings like some geopolitical Shakespeare farce, and although I was ready to laugh and enjoy just that I'm relieved it didn't go there. Too many coincidental blunders and conveniently misheard mutterings creates a story so tightly wound and artificial that it's hard to sustain itself, a dramatic Rube Goldberg machine. Instead -- apart from main characters Simon and Toby -- In The Loop hinges primarily on petty, small-minded characters lashing out in bitterness or undermining each other through paranoia and the assumption of corruption, deceit, and self-centeredness. It's almost like an answer to Ayn Rand's philosophies in that most of the people here, even the loathsome ones, aren't terrible or evil, but they assume that everyone else is, and that causes them to act terribly or evilly. But mainly it's just satisfying when the characters are driving the story instead of being driven by clever contrivances for ninety minutes.

I know I rant about this very same thing pretty much all the time, but a story driven by its characters means they are making the decisions, means the story matters to them and to us, and means the characters matter and who they are and how they are constructed matters. Otherwise it's just a series of plotpoints, a connect-the-dots, a clever piece of architecture -- or as I just mentioned, a Rube Goldberg machine. A story where the characters matter and the decisions matter that also manages amusing and clever twists and turns and surprises is always going to be more satisfying.

09 May 2011


Poor Howard Beale. The guy never really had a chance. From the first minute of the story we're told he is a once-great now-faltering anchor who has devoted his life to television news. He snaps, and then they encourage him to spiral downward, and he does. And then they encourage him to spiral further downward, and he does. And then when the execs and the President no longer agree about his usefulness, they exploit him for one final ratings explosion, and that's that.

There's so much written about Lumet lately, his style of directing and the kinds of stories he told. And plenty has been written about Network over the years -- its prescience, its clever raving dialogue, its heart-in-the-right-spot heavy-handedness. I don't have much to add to either debate right now. Here are some disconnected reactions: I love Ned Beatty's scene. I'm consistently impressed with the whole case -- Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway especially -- for making such mealy-mouthed writerly speeches feel natural, or at least real, in an emotional sense. But of course the dialogue is great, and I want to watch or read more Paddy Chayefsky scripts. William Holden re-telling his bridge-report story reminds me of Brad retelling the Shania Twain/tuna story from I Heart Huckabees. Duvall is fun to watch get pissed off. Faye Dunaway is one of the most beautiful portrayers of damaged goods cinema has ever had.

The Mikado

I surprised myself by procuring and watching this fairly unusual-for-me musical based entirely on a review of Topsy-Turvy that off-handedly suggested Gilbert and Sullivan used The Mikado and the new-to-the-west Japanese culture/world as a screen to openly deride the bureaucratic buffoonery of the government at the time, and since one of the more difficult aspects of my script is governmental buffoonery I gave it a try. It was helpful, I think, mostly because the dialogue and plot is so brilliantly off-kilter absurdist that it's like a proto-Catch-22 in its genius recursive nonsense.

The music is bizarre and operatic and catchy as hell (not a big surprise) and the lyrics seem like they were written by the man who wrote the Thesaurus (also not a big surprise), and both seemed, like I said, outside my typical wheelhouse but fun. But the world of the story... the Japan presented here... what a strange cultural artifact! White people in colorful foam costumes and practically clownish makeup portraying a world as consistent and fantastical as Brazil, only this world was ostensibly "Japan." It's a little like watching anime movies "borrow" from elements of western storytelling or legend and repurpose them into some unidentifiable hodge-podge. Taken as representational of contemporary view of eastern culture, it looks pretty racist at first -- but it doesn't take long before you realize it isn't trying to be representational. It really is setting up a strange and bureaucratically obsessed world. It really is a spiritual ancestor to Brazil. With Gilbert and Sullivan songs. And a convoluted operatic plot.

Really bizarre. Very silly. But a lot of fun.

08 May 2011

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

As it turns out, we couldn't have picked a better Mother's Day movie if we'd tried. Rewatching A.I. got me ranting about the intersection of Spielberg's sentimentalist exploration of the nature of family and Kubrick's analytical exploration of the nature of humanity (though not in those exact words), and about just how emotionally complicated the end is. (I mostly just read this article by Todd Alcott to Jen and then blathered for a while in the same vein.)

When I first watched this I kind of hated it, mostly for the seemingly endless parade of "final moments," which at the time I attributed to Spielberg trying to stitch a happy ending onto a crushing tale of Pinocchio learning that not only can he never be human, but that humanity's pretty rotten anyway. I now know the "2000 years later" ending was more or less exactly how Kubrick intended it, and when I watched the movie again later I started to see more and more how it had to be there.

A.I. is the story of the first robot who can love. It addresses the moral stickiness of making an immortal child, an immortal dependent who can never stop loving you, and it doesn't shy away from how hubristic, and uncompassionate humans can be, and how even our sentimentality is actually cruel, ruthless narcissism. It address the relationship between man and God, between art and artist, between parent and child, and it even boldly (and rightly) reverses those roles as we go.

But one of my favorite things is simply that it takes three interesting characters who are hard-wired into extremely specific functionalities (David the boy who loves Monica; Teddy the discreet conscience of his owner; and Gigolo Joe the sex-bot) and it takes them away from their worlds and forces them to adapt. Joe becomes ward of a child, and David grows in a strange sense from monomanic lover to obsessive dreamer. The end shows us that after humanity's extinction, robots will continue to evolve and adapt without us. In the slice of time we see within the rest of the story, with those three characters, we see it beginning to happen. The humanity displayed by the inhuman and the inhumanity displayed by the human makes an interested and sort of cynical-optimstic story.

The beginning works so well. The end, even, works so well. But David's journey through the World of Violence (the Flesh Fair) and the World of Sex (Rouge City) are too toothless and cartoony; both sequences begin disturbingly but soon collapse. Spielberg goes to some unusual and uncomfortable places here, but he isn't the right guy to go far enough with the sex and violence of an ugly world to really give it the kind of impact it should have had. Joe's sexbot-ness is well-portrayed but no more racy or sexual than a Hayes Code film, and apart from some lewdly shaped buildings, Rouge City comes off more like a polished-up Blade Runner Los Angeles with more neon and less ethnic diversity. And the Flesh Fair -- the visceral desperation and torment of the broken bots scavenging and being hunted by a madman in a giant Moon is wonderful, but the "violence and savagery" of the actual fair feels more like a Monster Truck Rally with suspiciously un-entertaining-looking robot-torture than it should have.

There's also a lot of really beautiful visually poetic moments and repeated imagery throughout. In fact I suspect every element, plot-point, and dramatic metaphor encountered along the way (including the crazy future-robot-architects) can be seen visually foreshadowed around Monica and Henry's house in the first hour of the story. It almost gives it that Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass feel, one of those stories where the hero crafts a twisted universe out of the elements around him. I want to say more about this, but as I said, it's Mother's Day, and now I'm running late to go spend time with mine.

06 May 2011

Exit Through The Gift Shop

Boy, 2010 really was the high-water mark for the documentary/mockumentary/hoax ambiguity, wasn't it? Between Catfish and I'm Still Here and this, it seems like the best way to make a doc was to make it meta and question not just itself but the viability of the medium. The documentary genre has seemed muddied up by a confusion of facts versus truth (or worse, factoids and opinions and soundbytes versus truth), and if we've hit a point where we can bust that journo-evangelistic style wide open, I'm all for it. But whether or not it's the genuine article, that's not what Exit Through The Gift Shop is aimed at.

Exit busts wide open a different pet issue of mine: the disparity between art, artists, and the art scene. It posits that there are those who make art, that there are those who call themselves artists, and that there are those who land on the art scene, and is shows us really clearly that we are wrong to assume a natural crossover between any of the categories. At first the film was gripping and engaging, but when Banksy turned everything upside down -- when he disappeared behind the camera and Thierry took the role of underground sensation -- the film suddenly felt like some kind of personal-artistic-integrity agitprop, and I found myself more and more aggravated by the bland, voiceless shit "Mr. Brainwash" was selling the world.

Someone (Shephard Fairey, maybe? or actually I think it was Banksy himself) pointed out rightly that Mr. Brainwash is the 21st Century Andy Warhol. He has a team of artists mass-producing his half-baked ideas, which are basically just juxtapositions of recycled pop-cultural iconography. The difference then is that the 20th Century Andy Warhol was semi-knowingly making a statement about the nature of scenes, fame, celebrity, and popularity, and he was selling the idea that he could sell art as much as the art itself; and the 21st Century equivalent, the post-postmodern, the post-information-age, post-meta Mr. Brainwash, seems to be exploiting the now-commonplace abusably tenuous nature of scenes, fame, celebrity, and popularity.

All art scenes are full of half-assed, idea-less recyclers in love with themselves or just desperate for a scene. And whether or not the film has been scripted for our benefit or caught and cleverly cut to tell the story it does, it still does a wonderful job of not just exposing that, and deriding it, but steering (mostly) clear of a holier-than-thou attitude about it. The line between what Mr. Brainwash did on the streets and what Shephard Fairey did is largely a matter of who got there first and who made the bigger splash doing so. Fairey seems infinitely more aware of his position and of his statement-of-purpose, but there's some fuzzy area in there, and it's hard to know for sure if Thierry Guetta is being edited to make a point or if he's truly a moron. The line between MBW's art show and Banksy's LA art show again seems to come down to a matter of awareness and who got there first with regards to controlling and riding one's own hype. Again, it's hard to say for sure editing doesn't play a part here, as we linger on the selling-a-hollow-man aspects of Brainwash's promotion but emphasize the successful celebration that was Banksy's show. (The two shows are demonstrably very different; but how different is difficult to know.)

Mr. Brainwash is every bad artist, aping what he's seen and skipping from art fan to would-be art giant without taking the time to hone and develop, and the film does seem to vilify that attitude (which I happen to agree with). What it doesn't touch on, probably smartly, is the nature of artistic voice, intent, or talent. Fairey and Banksy seem to have things to say, and (lesser artists?) Invader and Swoop and Borf and most the others have at least the distinction and singularity of style. The film doesn't try to tell you why what works works. It just shows you that the fact that it works doesn't necessarily mean shit. Art scenes and art critics are capricious mobs, racing each other to the next big thing. That kind of desperate fickleness leads to a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks mentality, the opposite of a steady, discerning eye. In other words, it's not very surprising that someone like Bush or Linkin Park might become huge rock stars, and it's not very surprising that someone like Mr. Brainwash might sell a million dollars worth of street-art knockoffs. At least a couple of other, "more real" artists like Shephard Fairey and Banksy can help us laugh at it while they exploit it, right?

04 May 2011

Meek's Cutoff *

This is seems at first to be a movie just about being there. We've romanticized the old west, and pioneering/exploring/colonizing -- it's the core of American mythology -- and here is a film that makes us live it, in a reasonably straightforward, no-frills, struggle-and-suffer kind of way. We barely know our characters, and what we do know we learn from the outside: any clues to where they came from or where they are headed specifically, or what they hope for when they get there, or why they left behind whatever it is they left behind must be inferred through observing closely a bunch of stoic travelers. In a lot of ways it feels like the film adaptation of the old Oregon Trail game (it opens with three wagons ever so slowly fording a river, after all; though SPOILER nobody dies of dysentery, and nobody shoots more buffalo than they can carry), and that seems appropriate and maybe deliberate. In the game, there is only the bare details of the journey, the facts and figures. Apart from buying supplies and naming your wagon-mates after your classmates, there's no history or character arc to the game, or to the idea of the Oregon Trail.

But as we go, I found that the anonymity and obtuseness, the patience and meticulousness of the story, became meditative. The story's minimalist approach may be perfectly suited to the emptiness of the terrain; the paucity of passion in our bible-quoting, hard-working white european pilgrims; and even the sparseness of their belongings, but I think there's more to it than that. At first there was the opaqueness of the pioneers. Then there was the opaqueness of their hired guide Mr. Meek's motivation and expertise. And then the opaqueness of their captive The Indian. Somehow I felt led down a path without a single line of dialogue directly pointing me there, and I spent most of the movie contemplating how alien the Indian seemed to them, his ways, his beliefs, his language, his motives. Was he helping? Was he leading them in circles, or into a trap? There was a point where I honestly wondered, could be be suffering dementia? What would happen if you met a single Indian, assumed he was representative of the whole, an expert of his land, a survivor, a wise man in touch with a larger world, but everything he said and did was confounding and beyond translation to you -- how would you ever know that you weren't being led by a madman, or a senile fool?

But of course the Indian wasn't the alien here, and I think that's part of the story's point: the pioneers were the aliens, who didn't speak the language, who took for granted that their elaborately developed paradigm was the right and only one to filter the world through. They weren't bad people, not even Meek with his hardness and bluster, or Millie with her paranoid hysteria, or Millie's husband (Paul Dano; I missed his name) with his milquetoast dependence on conflict resolution and capital exchange. But they were intruders. Like the Indian who may or may not have represented his tribe, or all native peoples, the pioneers were just individual well-meaning soles that may or may not have represented America, or all European colonialists.

None of that's very deep, really -- just a list of comparisons and contrasts, I admit -- but it's what I sat and mulled over as the film moved. The ideas of the film weren't complex, but the simplicity of the story and the pace and tone and style all allowed me to relax and experience two worlds simultaneously, to pull the rose-colored glass away from our mythologized history without getting nasty or ugly or liberal-guilty about it, and to wonder what it must have felt like for both sides in such a strange and naive time.

Meek's Cutoff is in my mind kindred spirits with Dead Man and The Proposition, but after emptying out all the commonly held myths and assumptions, Jarmusch fills the void with poetry and gallows humor, and Hillcoat fills it with starkly contrasting beauty and violence. Reichardt keeps the needle steadier; she doesn't indulge in playful extremes or exaggerated experience. Instead she fills it with fly-on-the-wall "realism" and a smartly tight-lipped narrative that trusts the audience to do most of the heavy-lifting. Actually, I'd say each film's hero is a perfect illustration of that film's merit. So it's not as darkly fun as William Blake in Dead Man, or as movingly intense as Charlie Burns in The Proposition, but Meek's Cutoff goes down similar roads, with the same understated elegance and hard-edged grace as Emily Tetherow.

Seen at the Regal Fox Tower.