Best of 2011, pt. 5

February 17th, 2012 by Raj Ranade

Frontier metaphysics, tragic and comic..

RAJ: One of the many remarkable things about Kelly Reichardt’s latest film Meek’s Cutoff is the way that its mythic and mundane elements not only coexist, but end up enriching each other. Neo-neorealist darling Reichardt has always been a director obsessed with process - in her Wendy and Lucy, there’s a scene where the impoverished protagonist lists out a detailed budget of the money she has left for her journey to Alaska, and Reichardt makes sure that by the end of film you how every penny of that money was spent.

Cutoff has the same kind of fetish for detail. Consider a scene where an Oregon Trail traveler (Michelle Williams), alarmed by the sudden appearance of a Native American, rushes to the rifle in her wagon and fires off warning shots. The easy play for a director is to focus on the frenzied emotions and fear of that moment. Reichardt instead frames a long shot (above) where you can’t even see Williams’ face. She’s more interested in the arduousness of the moment - the slow stuffing of gunpowder into the barrel and the addition of powder by the firing pin. It’s less emotional empathy she’s after than a more physical kind - what does it feel like in a point-A-to-point-B tactile sense to be in their position?

But the remarkable development of Kelly Reichardt’s style now reaches from gutter-level grit up to the metaphysical, as suggested by a remarkable dissolve early on which fleetingly paints her protagonists as iconic riders in the sky, as the old country song goes. And it’s the realistic context in which these grace notes are found that makes them “pop” all the more.

The concrete story of Cutoff - of lost settlers growing suspicious of their supposedly-omniscient guide Meek (Bruce Greenwood) and debating whether to throw their trust to a Native American captive - is straightforward and gripping enough on its own, but there’s a heady existential dimension also present here. Though it couldn’t be more different in style and tone, there’s a marked similarity in this film to David Fincher’s Zodiac - another process-obsessed work with epistemological queries of its own. By the final scene of Cutoff, our characters have not only had their faith in their guide (leading them to their promised land) challenged - they’ve begun to grow skeptical of the very idea that even is a guide who can take them there in the first place. (Much has been made of the political subtext brought up here by a character’s use of the phrase “Stay the course”, but just as relevant is that old Donald Rumsfeld chestnut about “known unknowns”.

This is crystallized by the final scene, which critics of the film have called maddeningly ambiguous. That is entirely true, but then, that’s the entire point.

The scene opens with the characters coming across this tree. It’s a symbol of hope (the thirst-plagued travelers quickly note that water must be nearby for a tree to survive), but a compromised one - do the empty branches at the tree’s top mean the whole tree is dying? Are they just a fluke next to the verdant remainder of the tree?

The characters discuss whether they should continue trusting the captive that has led them here. Cut to a shot of Meek, looking dejected atop his horse - an iconic Western figure emasculated. “I’m taking my orders from you now, Mr. Tetherow … Mrs. Tetherow. And we’re all taking our orders from him,” he says, pointing at the Native American. “We’re all just playing our parts now. This was written long before we got here.” Note that even in Meek’s capitulation, there is certainty - there’s a firm belief in destiny evinced in his statement. The loss of his followers has not made this prophet of sorts any less rigid.

Two shots later, we see Williams framed by the branches - immersed in the hope the symbol provides. Despite being generally ignored and undervalued by the macho men running the show, it’s Williams’ hard-bitten frontier wife Mrs. Tetherow who is the best example of steadfast determination and morality - she is crucially the only one willing to confront Meek in the film’s climax. The most certain thing the film has to say is about this modest woman’s immense value.

We then see the Native American through her eyes, again framed by the hopeful “lens” of the branches. Meek’s Cutoff is largely told through Mrs. Tetherow’s eyes, through which we see the consequences of masculine bluster and racism*. This viewpoint is linked with wisdom, and so we are briefly meant to view the Native American guide in a positive light and believe that his intentions may well be good.

Meek’s Cutoff would be a very different film if we ended on that last shot, but instead we cut back to Williams, and then make a shifted reverse cut back to the Native American walking away, no longer “hopefully framed”. Reichardt has stripped away the positive linkages from that last shot and emphasized that, though we may have been looking through the eyes of the most decent character, her viewpoint is still a subjective guess. Mrs. Tetherow may have trust in this mysterious stranger, but he is ultimately unknowable, and if some kind of faith or trust is necessary for searchers to journey forth, that trust is still an inherently fraught proposition. It’s a stunner of an ending, conveyed with both economy and force, and it makes me very excited about what Reichardt’s work may have to offer us in the future.

FAREED: British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom’s comedies often astound for their formal ambition. 2002’s 24 Hour Party People captured the energy of the 80s Manchester punk scene by gleefully smashing the fourth wall and crossing the line between documentary and fiction. That all seemed like child’s play when compared to his 2006 adaptation Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story capturing the spirit of a supposedly unfilmable 18th century novel by framing a period piece through the lens of a film production crew which struggles to bring the novel to the screen. The end result? An exhilarating trans-temporal comedy.

Compared to these breathlessly innovative films, Winterbottom’s hand is almost invisible in his latest comedy, The Trip, a pseudo-documentary focused on the adventures of British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they voyage to northern England’s best restaurants. The fierce banter of the two actors so tickles that it appears all the filmmaker needed to do to create a comic masterwork was set up a few cameras and let roll.

A visual motif where shots of the duo conversing in dining rooms are intercut with ones depicting the concentrated efforts of the chefs in the kitchen hints at the directorial craft that underpins the romp and the effort involved in creating the picture’s effortless veneer.  The visceral impact of The Trip’s most memorable comic sequence, where know-it-all Coogan receives a splendidly appropriate comeuppance, stems as much from the filmmaker’s careful editing and subtle use of metaphoric imagery as it does from the razor sharp comic timing of his star.

The joke is first set up in the preceding scene when the actors amble towards a sheer cliff face. Some wide shots illustrate their immense surroundings; however, Coogan ‘s droning voice undermines the majesty of the setting as he enumerates in minute detail how the rocky environment was formed eons ago.

Brydon desperately attempts to shush his nattering friend crying out, “I don’t want to listen to you all the time!” An offended Coogan mimes that Brydon is the pair’s blabbermouth. When he performs his mocking hand gesture, the camera violently zooms out, as though taken aback by his supreme hypocrisy. Fate will soon punish Coogan.

Leaving his disagreeable companion behind, Coogan hikes to the cliff’s top to soak up an expansive view of the English countryside. The film presents a series of establishing shots that make the actor appear insignificant against the expanse before him.

Just after Coogan lets out a sigh of contentment, an old hiker appears from behind. His appearance in the scene immediately follows a tight close-up of the actor which framed a fleeting look of serenity.  By cutting back to a more distant vantage point during the hiker’s approach, the film juxtaposes the erect, strong posture of the actor against the hunchbacked position of the more elderly gentleman thereby laying the groundwork for the surprise that the old hiker will supplant him.

Sounds of the other hiker’s footfall further break the scene’s tranquility heralding how the man will shatter the actor’s reverie with his seemingly endless account of, irony of ironies, how the rocky environment was formed eons ago.  The old man’s monotone lecture renders the formerly verbose Coogan almost mute, interjecting little more than a few grunts during the man’s verbal tirade. Coogan’s doppelgänger forces the actor to experience the very suffering he had previously inflicted on Brydon. His anguish becomes our delight.

When Coogan attempts to make a dignified getaway, Winterbottom cuts to similar view of the natural setting that opened the scene.  Now the image has crucially changed - the words of the rambling old man fill the once-quiet soundtrack, and it is he, not Coogan, who stands near the frame’s center.  Whereas once this view of nature initially seemed inspiringly vast, as Coogan attempts to move beyond the edge of the frame it now seems oddly confining. By this final image, Winterbottom has transformed the picturesque landscape into a purgatory of boredom.

Coogan the talker gets his due in a scene whose comic force depends on the cinematic chef behind the camera. With a finessed touch, Winterbottom takes high-quality star ingredients, Coogan and Brydon, and creates the most divine comic dish of 2011.

Entry Filed under: Miscellaneous

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