Friday, December 30, 2011

Meek’s Cutoff

Meek’s Cutoff (2010; dir. Kelly Reichardt) extends and subverts the grand tradition of American film westerns. Its point of view is that of three women traveling west with their families. Although the film is episodic after a fashion, it doesn’t offer a series of climactic encounters of crises that we have seen in such films as Stage Coach—attacks by Indians or bandits, internal squabbles among characters. Instead, the challenges the travelers face are mundane—repairing broken wagon wheels, searching for water, encountering a lone Indian who (apparently) becomes their guide, and, most of all, searching for the right trail—their expedition leader Meek (a self-styled Wild Bill Hickock, an Indian hater, and a teller of lies intended to make the group more reliant on his leadership) led them through a cutoff from the main trail that was supposed to be a shortcut, and instead they became lost. They are lost throughout the entire film.

The setting for this film (mostly filmed in Oregon) is beautiful, though it is always arid. There is no sense of westward-ho in this film, of mighty settlers moving ever westward towards a new land of plenty. The film avoids John Ford-like shots of glorious landscape and instead keeps the wagons in a middle ground. (As Roger Ebert points out, it’s photographed in a 1:1.33 screen ratio, which prevents spectacular widescreen panoramic shots).[1]We get a sense of what they can see, but even more we understand how they feel--tired, bored, increasingly hopeless. There is boredom, monotony, and walking. Virtually no one rides on the wagons, to reduce the load and strain on the animals—oxen and mules—everyone walks, unless sick or injured. The travelers and their clothes are dirty and worn (frankly, not dirty enough, given that if they can’t find water for drinking they certainly can’t find it for bathing or washing). The film is muted, low-key, understated.

The three women are distinct individuals. One, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), has a family, another is Irish and pregnant, a third is prone to hysteria. For the most part, the film doesn’t press the idea that the women are being dragged through the western prairies against their wills, but one can infer. The big decisions are made by the men, on their own, though the women may express their opinions to their husbands—still, the women do not have a say in what’s decided. There’s never any question they will refuse to comply with what’s been decided. Given their plight, of course, lost on the prairie with no water, they have little option.

The cipher in the film is the Indian whom one of the women discovers spying on their wagons. He runs off, but the men pursue him and bring him back. Meek wants him killed, and talks of various indignities that Indians will inflict on their group, especially the women. But the group decides to let him live, hoping he will lead them to water and the trail. The trouble is that they can’t communicate with him, nor he with them. They talk at one another. They seem at moments to understand each other, but one is never sure. Emily makes the greatest effort to talk with the Indian, and he talks back, in his own language, so that he remains to us (we see the film from the settlers’ viewpoint and can’t understand his language either), a mystery as well.

The final scene in this film is astounding, frustrating, unsatisfying, and magnificent.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Secret of Kells, Despicable Me, and Megamind

I saw Despicable Me (2010; dirs. Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud), Megamind (2010; dir. Tom McGrath), and The Secret of Kells (2009; dirs. Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey) all within a 24-hour span. Each was entertaining. Megamind and Miserable Me are really animated science fiction films about comic villains who want to take over the world and who, either through becoming a foster parent or falling in love, discover they have human and redeeming dimensions. They rely especially on digital effects and are in fact digital creations, and although some preliminary manual sketches may have been involved for the most part they were developed entirely on computers, as most animated films are today. I don’t deplore this. Digital animation is a major new development. It is only natural that animated films would make use of it. But The Secret of Kells shows that traditional styles of animation are still relevant. It won’t necessarily appeal to the same audience as Megamind and Miserable Me (there will be some overlap), but it is a better, more imaginative, more entrancing work than either.

The Secret of Kells is animated with hand-drawn images, in the style of Warner Brothers cartoons from the 1960s and 70s. It is a largely, if not entirely fictionalized account of the creation of the legendary Book of Kells in the eighth or ninth century. Its main character “illuminates” hand-copied bibles. In the film, he is assisted by a sprite-like wood spirit. The book comes to be through a combination of magic and inspiration. It is also seen as a product of discord, as it is created while the monastery is threatened by invading Vikings. The film’s images are simple and stylized, drawn with an intense palette of vivid colors. While Megamind and Miserable Me rely on cute children, super heroes, loud noises, and bombast, The Secret of Kells is quiet, allusive, elusive, fanciful, and subtle. It’s a magical film, while the others are entertaining and forgettable.

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (Viking Adult, 2006) contrasts and interweaves two themes. First, the struggle of the Pilgrims to find a place to settle and worship as their conscience dictated. When they decided that Leiden, in the Netherlands, was no better than England, they chose to go to the New World. The first group travels over to New England on the Mayflower. Other groups follow. Initially they live in terrible conditions. Disease wipes out half the group during the first winter, but they persevere. Their society evolves as it enlarges, especially as outsiders gradually join them. They are not religiously tolerant, they don’t like nonconformity, and they are devious and bloodthirsty in their dealings with the Indians. Of course, the Indians are more than capable of bloodthirstiness and deviousness themselves, especially since they are struggling to survive, especially as it becomes clear that to the Puritans the Indians are not a people to be accommodated but rather are a people in the way. The second theme, no surprise, is the changing, evolving relationship of the Puritans and the Indians to live with, accommodate each other. Ultimately, the native tribes of new England resist these new occupants of lands where they’d lived for centuries, and disastrous wars result.

Philbrick’s account of the Puritans is detailed and highly readable. The book’s narrative force is one of its great attributes. Philbrick is an elegantly descriptive writer of a straightforward, unadorned prose. He relies on other historians, journal entries, letters, and an assortment of primary and secondary documents, yet the book is not overridden with footnotes and scholarly references (these are documented in the book’s final section).

The Mayflower, the early Puritans, the first colonies in Massachusetts are the subject of a deeply engrained national mythology. This book brings welcome and chastening illumination to the story.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011) seeks to remind us of our links to the distant past through images of the recently discovered Chauvet caves of Southern France, which contain the oldest examples of art ever encountered. Many of the images on the cave walls are so fresh they appear to have been painted yesterday, but more surprisingly many of them are rendered with a skill and style that make them seem almost modern. Herzog’s documentary films are his own meditations on the stories and pictures that interest him. In this film he meditates on the nature of the past and its connection to the present day. The cave is nearly pristine, virtually unchanged from the moment when some 20,000 years ago a massive landslide sealed off the entrance. Although no human bones have been found, it is full of the bones of animals—deer, cave bears, even a golden eagle. Some of these animals lived in the cave while others were brought there and consumed or used for ritual purposes by the people who visited the caves. The images on the walls have meaning, of course, but what exactly they mean or meant is beyond reach. Herzog speculates, with the assistance of archaeologists and scientists, that they may have had spiritual significance and that in some way they signify the prehistoric belief that the divisions between the worlds of men and animals were permeable and sometimes could be crossed. Men could change into beasts, or beasts could change into men, or beasts and men could share one body. Herzog speculates that in the Chauvet caves and surrounding regions the modern mind was born. It is inescapable that as modern intruders into this cave we along with Herzog would impose our own philosophical questions on the paintings. It’s natural to ascribe significance, maybe religious significance, to the images in the cave. But who knows what the cave’s residents believed about them? Maybe they just loved to draw. Maybe they were bored, and painting on the cave walls was a way of passing time, having fun. Herzog displays the images with reverence and awe. The film is especially worth viewing in 3-D, which is especially effective for showing the twisting, narrow passageways of the caves.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams makes clear that whatever we wish to make of it, however we strive to interpret it, the past is beyond recovery.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Emma, by Jane Austen

I listened to a complete text of Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) on the treadmill. I find that it is easy to “read” books with strong plotlines on the treadmill. Not so with Emma. It is a novel about a closely bound social set. Much of it is conversation back and forth between characters, and it took me quite a while to grab hold of this book and be carried by it. The novel is first of all a book of social manners focused on the courtship of young women. Emma as the main character is self-absorbed and much concerned with the lives and business of others. She spends a good bit of her time trying to arrange matches for one person or another, especially Harriet Smith, whose illegitimate birth, virtually never spoken of, is nonetheless widely known and a primary reason why gentleman of the upper class would never seriously consider marrying her. By setting the young woman up with one gentleman after another, Emma causes her much embarrassment and pain. In believing that she knows what is best for people around her, Emma is largely unaware of what is best for herself. In Austen’s world, what is best for a woman is a good marriage—a marriage to a suitable man, a man of means, of her own social class or better, a man whom she chooses or who she allows to choose her. Much of the novel is concerned with Emma’s interest in people who are not interested in her, or whose interest in her is unwelcome. The obnoxious Mr. Elton, who Emma tries to set up with Harriet, is one example. Mr. Churchill, who seems to be interested in Emma’s company for much of the novel, is another. Emma’s misjudgment of character, her limited appreciation of the feelings of others, is at the center of many of her errors.-

Emma is also a comedy of manners, or, simply, a comedy. Satirical portrayals of characters such as Emma’s father and Mrs. Elton and others reveal Austen’s talent for caricature, for humor in general, and the vehicle for her satire of her society.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011; dir. Joe Johnston) offers one of the better film adaptations I’ve seen of a comic book hero. It’s set in the early 1940s, with the United States preparing to engage Hitler’s troops in combat. The United States needs a secret weapon, and a scientist has devised a means to turn ordinary soldiers into super-soldiers. The process involves needles and iron-maiden-like machines and green liquids and numerous other devices (most of which glow, make noise, and emit sparks), but it does work. That’s how our hero Steve Rogers, a puny weakling who begs and lies his way into the army because he wants to serve his country, becomes Captain America. None of this makes much sense, of course, unless you’ve read enough comic books (as a boy, I read them), in which case it makes perfect sense. The Nazis make great villains, of course, as do the public relations people who try to turn Captain America into a swill for selling bonds and recruiting soldiers.

There’s no real break-out moment of super hero glory in this film, as there have been at moments in the early Superman and Batman and Spiderman films, but noise, action, guns, military trucks, and fighting abound. The film is entertaining and never boring and requires no thought. In fact, it’s better if you don’t apply to much thought to the film—just watch it.

The end of this film, which moves Captain America from the 1940s to 2010, is a bit contrived and forced. The 1940s plot doesn’t really come to a conclusion. It just stops. Then Captain America, catapulted by some absurd 1940s contrivance into the future, finds himself in Times Square of New York City, all in preparation for another film, The Avengers (2012; dir. Josh Whedon) in which Captain America teams up with Iron Man and Thor and some other super fellows. Oh boy.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Bangkok 8, by John Burdett

Boundaries are at issue in Bangkok 8, by John Burdett (2003)—transgressed boundaries, American vs. Thai boundaries, colonial boundaries, sexual boundaries, racial boundaries, criminal boundaries. This murder mystery set in modern Bangkok and narrated by a half-American, half-Thai detective who is ridiculed by his colleagues for having scruples, has one of the most terrifying crime scenes I’ve encountered—it involves baby cobras, a boa constrictor, dry ice, and a Mercedes limo. American imperialism and its consequences are another issue. The years of the Vietnamese conflict transformed Bangkok, which became a self-made pleasure dome for American soldiers on leave. In the modern-day Bangkok sexual tourism remains a major source of income for the city. The Vietnamese war also helped create a new population of Asian Americans who are always, or at least in the case of our narrator, at some sort of odds with the rest of the population.

The narrator, Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, loses his partner early in the book, and one wonders whether their close friendship is the reason he avoids falling into a relationship with an American CIA operative who is attracted to him. She’s been assigned to the murder investigation because the murder victim was a former American soldier, and for other reasons

I was never comfortable with this novel. It has the tone of tough-guy noirism, but its protagonist, who on occasion you might compare to Philip Marlowe, never makes clear exactly where he stands. He’s elusive and slippery. What you do realize is that his strong sense of virtue and of moralism won’t allow him to let the murder go unsolved, even when his life is at risk.

The novel imbues its scene and story with claustrophobia, from the tiny apartment where the narrator lives, to the sex shows, to the jade shop. And this is claustrophobia not simply of a spatial sort. Everyone is watching everyone else. No one moves or acts without someone else’s being aware. Corruption, human exploitation, deception are rampant. Bangkok in this novel suggests the Los Angeles of Blade Runner (1983; dir. Ridley Scott).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Source Code

Source Code (2011; dir. Duncan Jones) is one of those time travel films wherein the hero travels continually back into the past and triers to prevent an event from happening. In Source Code that event is the explosion of a bomb on a train where the pretty young woman that the protagonist gradually falls for is killed. There are wrinkles to this story, one in particular that changes our view of the protagonist Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) in a significant way. This is one of those time travel films wherein the viewer must constantly suspend belief in rules of logic, reason, and science. The film never explains how the protagonist is thrust back into the past, only that it is possible, in some instances, for an a person of the present to be thrust back into the consciousness of an individual in the past who is eight minutes away from death. (If you find this plausible, then this film is a holiday for you). When Colter travels back into time, he takes over the body of a young man whom the woman is planning to marry. By the end of the film he has permanently taken over the poor man’s body and stolen his fiancée, and when the film concludes and all is easy and well with the universe, no one pauses to think about him. He’s the real victim.

Source Code is a puzzle. As we return repeatedly to the past, we gradually gather clues about the bomber’s identity, and about the bomb he has planted. We gradually gather information about our hero. Time travel as a way of ordering the plot gradually becomes tedious, and only our interest in seeing how the pieces of the puzzle fall into place keeps us holding on.