Saturday, April 9, 2011

Manifest Destiny in Smaller Scale

Meek's Cutoff (2010) - Reichardt
I bet Kelly Reichardt has had several infuriating experiences sitting in the passenger's seat of a car driven by male drivers who suffered from 'never-ask-for-directions-when-lost' syndrome and been wanted to make a movie about it. This slight anti-western takes place in Oregon Trail in 1845. Three ox-carts driven pioneer families- the Tetherows (Will Patton, Michelle Williams), the religiously inclined Whites (Shirley Henderson, Will Huff) and the young Gatelys (Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan) with a blowhard guide named Meek (the great Bruce Greenwood, buried in stringy hair & beard and sounding like beetlejuice) get lost in the arid surroundings.

Stephen Meek is a quintessential foolhardy outdoorsman- arrogant, irrational and full of vanity. Soon the band picks up on Meek's bullshit, especially Emily Tetherow. She lets her displeasure known. He then asks her opinion on his philosophy about man and woman: "Woman is chaos and man is destruction." Emily answers with "I'll have to think about it." Whether Reichardt believes this to be true or not, in the end, it's Emily who becomes in charge of their destiny.

The drinking water is running low and the pioneers start dumping family heirlooms to lighten the load. The tension amongst them doesn't actually materialize until they capture a spying Peyote Indian (a violent savage, according to Meek). Meek wants to kill the savage right away but the Tetherows want to keep him alive since he might lead them to where the fresh water is. Gately girl (Kazan) takes the role of 'the one that goes crazy in the wilderness'. Ok, this being Reichardt movie, known for her minimalist aesthetics, nothing on the screen is too dramatic. Even Emily (with her bonnet tightly around her head, covering her facial expression most of the time- reminding me of a burqa on Muslim women) doesn't stand out much from the subservient the other two girls. Everything is understated.

Meek's Cutoff is a frontiers movie with a tinge of Aguirre. It's just a less dramatic take on manifest destiny. If Aguirre would register at 10 on the dramatic scale, Meek's Cutoff would be at about 0.5. But with good ensemble cast and beautiful yet pragmatic, mostly static cinematography and great tension creating soundtrack by Jeff Grace, the film is a quietly engrossing experience that doesn't provide you with an easy way out.

Moving Life

Still Life (2006) - Jia
The Three Gorges Dam, the largest man-made project in human history, has become a symbol of China's ambition to be a global superpower where some sacrifices are regarded as inevitable. Sound of hammering and sentimental pop ballads always in the background, Still Life's new urban development against picturesque mountains is nothing but still. It concerns two relationships being tested - the human cost of changing times. However small and trivial, Jia applies communal activities to connect people, dividing the film in to separate chapters - Cigarettes, Liquor, Tea and Toffee.

Unlike some of my peers, I was never wowed by Jia's films. I'm still not 100 percent convinced that Jia is a great director. Still Life, another one of his carefully composed, thoughtful narrative/doc hybrid on changing times in China, is very good indeed. Jia regular Zhao Tao's story of a wife of a workaholic is not really necessary and leaves the film somewhat asymmetrical.

My main gripe with him has always been his too polished style which betrays the subjects he's documenting. Same with this film. I like 24 City a little better.

My 24 City Review