This post should probably be titled “Oh right, I have a blog”.
Okay, wow. In the seven years I’ve been writing this blog, I have never completely checked out and stopped updating it before. (At least not without a good reason.) Then August happened and I suddenly had absolutely no desire to post anything. None. Zero. Zilch. I don’t even really want to be blogging right now but I’m forcing myself to because, in theory, someone is reading this. (I’m blogging through my writer’s block right now. Bear with me.) The strange thing is I don’t know what I did last month instead of blogging. I definitely wasted hours on the Internet and I watched some good movies. But I wasn’t invested in writing. Anyways, these things happen and if you have read this far, then you may be interested in the movies I watched last month.
For more than a week, I have been trying to grasp exactly what I want to say about Meek’s Cutoff. My head has been swirling with many thoughts about the story, characters, performances, direction, and cinematography. What is it all working towards?
Fundamentally Meek’s Cutoff is a revisionist Western that centers on the lives of women as they cross the Oregon High Desert with their families. The group is led by guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) who may be leading them no where. Tensions mount as water becomes scarce and the two-week journey becomes more arduous. When the group encounters and captures a Native American (Ron Rondeaux), the film shifts from a story about survival to a story about gender differences and fears of an ethnic other.
The women, played by Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan, represent three very different types, visually marked by the contrasting colors of their dresses and bonnets. They differ in age, are in different stages of their marriages and have different levels of individual agency. They are given little authority to make decisions although their work – cooking, cleaning, minding the children – is no less important.
That fact that director Kelly Reichardt focuses the film on these women emphasizes that their presence is more important than their male counterparts. We never hear the conversations these men have about what to do with their wayward guide or the Indian. It is instead the women, their conversations, their solidarity with one another, and above all their morality, that drives the narrative.
Meek’s Cutoff is less about its characters and performances (Williams’ character is the only one with any depth). It is more about how this story is stylistically told through realist tendencies and a slow, methodical progression.
I can’t help but turn my attention to the other post-9/11 independent films that fascinate me and how Meek’s Cutoff relates. Like Reichardt’s 2008 film Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff explores notions of identity. Yet the historical context of Meek’s Cutoff causes this exploration of self to encompass many complex layers. Gender, class, and Americanism all play a part in how the settlers exist and define themselves. Most telling is how these white settlers pit themselves against the non-white other emphasizes the early foundations of a long-standing American fear of the other. Kazan’s character Millie is a hysterical woman convinced that the Indian will kill the group; her hysterics are matched by the actions of the men. In a way this is on par with Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, which places the fear of an ethnic other in a contemporary setting, a setting that revolves around post-9/11 anxieties. Meek’s Cutoff seems to ever so slightly offer a commentary on current relations with immigrants and how we define ourselves against someone else.
This post is a part of my ongoing Thesis Redux project. More here on the films I will be watching and writing about.
Directors and screenwriters Bradley Rust Gray and So Yong Kim know how to make exceptional movies. Since 2003, the married filmmaking team has created some of the most poignant, understated and underappreciated independent films of the past decade – Salt (2003), In Between Days (2006), Treeless Mountain (2008), and most recently, The Exploding Girl (2009). The quality of their work stems from an appreciation for minimalist storytelling and outstanding character development. Long, extended takes where seemingly nothing significant happens and an eye for the slightest details creates scenes of poetic beauty unlike any other onscreen. Kim’s In Between Days and Gray’s The Exploding Girl are both films dependent on these techniques to tell moving coming of age stories about their young, female protagonists.
In The Exploding Girl, Zoe Kazan (Elia’ granddaughter) stars as Ivy, a 20-year-old college student returning home for her spring break. Her best friend Al (Mark Rendell) spends the week with her at her Brooklyn apartment. As Ivy’s relationship with her boyfriend Greg, who we never see, begins to crumble and Ivy spends more time with Al, she reevaluates her life and her relationship with Al.
The film’s title, The Exploding Girl, refers to Ivy’s little mentioned epilepsy, although the possibility of Ivy having a seizure causes some tension throughout the film. What the film effectively captures is not this literal explosion (so to speak) but rather the slow, gradual implosion of Ivy’s life and how it weighs on her mind and understanding of herself. And this realization is just stunning to watch.
For 79 minutes this very simple story of finding oneself and love unfolds on the screen. Ivy and Al attend parties, sit in the park, play cards, share meals; they just exist. These scenes are often shot in either tight close-ups, through door frames, or in long takes, where the action takes place in one single shot. This minimalist editing allows the viewer to focus on the subtlety of Kazan’s performance – the tone of her voice as she speaks to her off-screen boyfriend, the pain in her eyes as things slowly fall apart – and to recognize that director Gray is capturing the most banal yet significant moments of a life.
In some ways, Ivy is an extension of Aimee, the shy immigrant in So Yong Kim’s In Between Days. Ivy is an older, more refined version of Aimee, if Aimee had been dealt different cards in life and had she not been a young immigrant adrift in the world. Like Aimee, Ivy is on the verge of collapse although by the film’s conclusion Ivy reaches an understanding about her life that Aimee never finds.