Archive for February 22nd, 2012

By Peter Lenihan

The name of this series is half-borrowed from a very short post of screen captures I did for Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A Screaming Man a while back that I entitled “Rediscovering John Ford in the Twenty-First Century”. That’s the purpose of this post as well, and I hope you all forgive its somewhat digressive nature.

2010 saw the release of two superb oaters—Kelly Reichardt’s defiantly allegorical Meek’s Cutoff and the Coen brothers’ endearingly eccentric adaptation of the Charles Portis classic True Grit. I’m not interested in elevating one of these movies (or a particular style of filmmaking) at the expense of the other—they’re both great, and although more different than similar (it’s instructive that the two films are set on virtually the opposite sides of the country), they do share an awareness, if not a pre-occupation, with their cinematic forbearers, even as they supposedly distance themselves from a “classical” approach (…which they don’t, but that’s a discussion for another time). True Grit’s most obvious point of reference isn’t Henry Hathaway’s uneven, disappointing 1969 effort as much as The Night of the Hunter (which had been explicitly alluded to in several of the boys’ previous productions), but the palpable, almost omnipresent sense of giddiness has nothing to do with Laughton and everything to do with the fact that they’re working on the same terrain that Mann and Boetticher once did. As such, they’re less interested in referencing specific films (although both Ride Lonesome and The Naked Spur are at least suggested) than doing justice to a certain milieu, and their refusal to go for the easy landscape shot or the obvious “lonesome violin” soundtrack cue is an unusual, old-fashioned choice that should be celebrated.

Reichardt’s film is a bit more complex in this regard—although its scenario shares a lot with those of Wellman’s Westward the Women and Ford’s own Wagon Master, they probably aren’t the best points of reference, and even comparing it to a kinda-feminist western like Richard Pearce’s neglected Heartland paints a less-than-accurate picture. The “existentialist” (can’t believe I’m using that word) finale owes something to Hellman, certainly, and while the modesty of the plot could be compared to that director’s spaghetti China 9, Liberty 37, the bleak, ambiguous framings of an unknown desert stretching out into infinity has far more to do with the amorphous, mysterious landscapes of silent cinema. There’s nothing enigmatic about the Coens’ Arkansas; it’s rough, unpredictable country that has given birth to rough, unpredictable people, but it’s geographically and historically grounded, and the directors’ (or, more accurately, Portis’) emphasis on Greil Marcus’ oldweirdAmericaisms guarantees that for all the moral disorientation (articulated most clearly in Bridges’ magnificent “I bow out” soliloquy), the characters still know the way back to town. Meek’s Cutoff, by contrast, seems to use the word “lost” in every line of its not exactly verbose script, and we’re never completely certain that the characters are in Oregon or, for that matter, on Earth. Generally, dialogue contextualizes and familiarizes and grants a sense of realness that moves beyond the physical; by making a talking silent picture, Reichardt foregrounds the material that makes up this world, and generates an uncanny atmosphere that seems more tied to the films of Victor Sjostrom or Mauritz Stiller than the aforementioned Boettichers and Manns. (more…)

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