Saturday, May 21, 2011

Reclaiming Chaos

Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, which came out a couple of years ago, was an achievement rare in any era – a small, highly specific and localized narrative of enormous, terrible implications. In just an hour and a half, it devastatingly illustrated how little validity still attaches to America’s bloated myths of mobility and renewal. At the time I described it here as “a superb exercise in form reflecting content. It’s quiet, precise, careful, and desperate, taking on, without any cinematic ornamentation, a sense of escalating threat.” The film was also beautifully ambiguous though, supporting a multiplicity of readings. Rick Groen, in the Globe and Mail, gave it four stars (it won the Toronto film critics’ award for best picture and actress), emphasizing its upbeat or redemptive aspects and describing its ending like this: “..the weakest among us delivers a lesson in uncommon strength – a pure act of selfless love, with none to bear witness and no reward in sight. Then, alone, she passes through.”

I didn’t see it that way, and responded like this: “Uncommon strength and selfless love…you can call it that, but isn’t it the raw material of survival every day at the very bottom of the food chain, that people somehow keep going, way beyond a point that (to those of us who’ve never lived under such limitations) seems impossible. It’s not selfless, it’s just the best self there is. The ending, I’d say, is a pure tragedy, a capitulation to a horrifying dead end.”

Meek’s Cutoff

Reichardt’s new picture Meek’s Cutoff has a similar kind of effect – virtually everyone agrees it’s a strong film, even a masterpiece, but there’s unusual disagreement on the nature of its achievement. The film, set in the 1860’s, depicts a small group of pioneers heading west, wandering off the main trail after their guide, Stephen Meek, leads them astray. With water running low and anxiety climbing, they capture a lonely native, disagreeing over whether to kill him or whether he might lead them to water. Frankly, that’s about as much of a narrative as the film ever provides.

The debate about the fate of their captive leads some to see the film, in part, as a commentary on Guantanamo Bay, or more broadly on the limits of morality in a time of strain. But I think this only speaks to the eternal and universal nature of uncertainty about making our way in the world. To me, the movie isn’t primarily interesting for its possible specific parallels, but rather for its broad vision of a collective ethos in the process of coalescing. It takes a long time to show us the three women on the trek; they’re filmed in long-shot, or in darkness, or hidden behind big bonnets. They’re also excluded from decision-making; when a vote is taken at one point on the next step, there’s no thought given to including them. We see this as clearly a remnant of the communities they’ve left behind, as ill-suited to the way ahead as the caged canary and grandfather clock they’re hauling along.

Meek says women embody chaos while men embody destruction, an inherently grim view of human capacity, hardly likely to yield much positive momentum. By the end of Meek’s Cutoff though, this inefficient structure is breaking down - you might say chaos is slowly asserting itself over destruction. Groen again senses the divine in his summing up of the ending: “a young country faces a fork in the road, wondering where to put its trust: in the flaws of a familiar leader, in the hope of a complete stranger, or in the love of an invisible God. Coming on to two centuries later, the road may be paved now, but the wondering continues.”

The Wondering Continues

I don’t really see where the invisible God comes in, but it’s true that the superb final moments are mythically charged in a way Reichardt rigorously avoids up to then (it’s the only time I thought of the much more fanciful way a film like Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout engages with the desert). And as Groen describes, those final moments sum up how the deliberate but self-deluding linearity of the opening scenes has been replaced by fundamental, terrifying uncertainty. Also, crucially, the implicit negotiation has become one between a woman and what we’d today call a “minority,” with Meek having explicitly ceded his last vestige of authority. This certainly resonates against the sociological realignment lying far ahead in America’s future, realizing the promise of this strange new chaos, but the big point is that it lies ahead, with no apparent hope of reconciliation in the film’s present. As Groen says, the wondering continues. And the wandering.

Meek’s Cutoff is entirely satisfying as a follow-on to and extension of Wendy and Lucy, confirming Reichardt as one of America’s most important filmmakers. There’s not a strained or ill-considered moment in the film; everything conveys a superbly considered weight, all the more remarkable for its extreme economy of means. It carries the most satisfying kind of complexity, flowing from a gloriously intuitive artistic personality, serious and reflective while avoiding strain and pretentiousness in a way that’s simply beyond most directors, even the good ones.

Mother and Child

For example, take Rodrigo’s Garcia Mother and Child, which was released last year and is now available on cable and DVD: it’s another unusually engrossing and intriguing film, focusing even more specifically on women. Annette Bening plays a woman who got pregnant at fourteen and gave up her daughter for adoption; thirty-seven years later, she’s still tortured by it. Naomi Watts plays the daughter, professionally successful but personally twisted and dysfunctional. And in the third interlocking story, Kerry Washington is a woman wanting to adopt.

Mother and Child is full of the kinds of coincidences, contrivances, twists and self-discoveries we’re used to from such multi-strand narratives, and I can’t say it ultimately amounts to much more than this: motherhood is a strange and wonderful thing, it’s glorious when it works out, and tragic when it doesn’t. Yep, I think that’s about it. But it’s continuously elevated by a psychological daring of a kind you don’t often see in such calculated works, aided by often sensational acting (Bening is once again amazing). Watts’ character, for instance, isn’t just screwed up – she’s flamboyantly so, and her treatment of a doctor played by Amy Brenneman in just two scenes is as deliciously cruel as anything you’ll ever see. At such times, you only wish Garcia took things even further. That aside, you can’t help having some misgivings about a film that, for all its means, seems ultimately less interested in separating women from their traditional biologically-defined roles than does Meek’s Cutoff, despite a century and a half of “progress.”

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