Tag Archives: Western genre

Meek's Cutoff (US 2010)

Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan and Michelle Williams as the three women on the trail

Beauty is suddenly back in the cinema. Following Norwegian Wood this is another film to invite the audience to experience the beauty of landscape. This is a harsh beauty in terms of its inhospitable face presented to travellers, but the magical light of early morning and evening sun is breathtaking – reminding us of films with similar settings (although in different landscapes) such as Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.

Kelly Reichardt’s film (she co-wrote, directed and edited Meek’s Cutoff) recounts a journey by hopeful settlers across the wild country of the Cascades in Oregon territory during the 1840s. Three couples have hired a guide with local knowledge called Stephen Meek to take them on a route that will shortcut the main Oregon trail – thus Meek’s ‘cutoff’. Other than a boy, who is the son of one couple, and their oxen and horses, this is the totality of the party – until they come across a lone Cayuse ‘Indian’. At this point they fear that they are lost and they are suspicious of Meek’s ability to get them through this country. Emily Tetherow  (Michelle Williams) is particularly assertive within the group and her contempt for Meek and his reaction to the Cayuse becomes an important narrative element.

The print I saw was digital and the detail of the image was at times breathtaking. In one early scene a character leans forward towards the camera to fill a water container and the effect is almost 3D-like. I felt that I could reach out and put my hand in the water. It was only later that I realised how important that water was going to be in the narrative. This high level of visual realism is framed in Academy ratio (1:1.33). An unusual choice in modern cinema and Reichardt has explained that it represents the restricted view of the female characters – i.e. from beneath their bonnets. This is an interesting idea and it certainly serves to mark a difference from the films which have presented the Western landscape in CinemaScope since the mid-1950s (as well as the earlier Fox Grandeur widescreen The Big Trail from 1930 – one of the first representations of the wagon trains on the Oregon trail). Academy means vertical compositions and a feeling of containment rather than the ‘open-ness’ of ‘Scope. Two technical issues raised questions for me. The first was simply to wonder how multiplexes have got on projecting the film since I remember seeing Academy prints of classic films which had been ‘topped and tailed’ to fit onto the 1:1.85 screen in many cinemas. (Most good independent cinemas are properly prepared to show Academy ratios.) The second was to query the sound design. I had some problems with the dialogue and the directionality of some of the sound effects – as if the Academy ratio was a problem with stereo sound design. Has anyone else experienced this?

This classic Western composition resembles the opening of Ford's The Searchers when Martha watches Ethan riding in the distance.

Ford's imagery in The Searchers presents the iconic landscape of Monument Valley in a widescreen frame (VistaVision). In both these images the woman is visually in the 'home' and the man is in the landscape. Reichardt can't alter this spatial arrangement easily (the women don't ride), but she can frame the action in the domestic space so that the women are less marginalised.

As to the film’s narrative, I’ve read that Reichardt and her collaborators were not particularly familiar with previous films on the same topic. (See the Sight and Sound coverage (May 2011). The film was motivated more by Reichardt’s discovery of the landscape when she was researching an earlier film – and by her co-writer Jon Raymond’s research into the local history of the region which turned up the Meek character. But Reichardt certainly was aware of the ways in which Westerns have traditionally marginalised women and her focus on the three women working together is clear. In some ways however I think that film pushes more towards allegory than social history. It made me re-think my own experience of watching Westerns and why I didn’t more forcefully resist the casual sexism and more blatant racism of so many Western narratives. In a typically solid summary of women’s roles in Westerns by Ed Buscombe (in the same issue of Sight and Sound), he mentions both Ford’s Wagonmaster and the TV series Wagon Train which I watched regularly in the 1950s. As Buscombe points out, the series format and the need for new narrative material meant that the TV representations of the wagon train were more likely to feature domestic scenes and it is interesting to see how Reichardt’s vision makes the collecting of kindling, cooking, sewing etc. much more realistic and much more part of the trail experience. The framings also emphasise this with the women often in central positions when the group is viewed in relation to the landscape (i.e. when they are discussing which way to go). Her women are clearly part of the survival discourse of the film and the interaction between Emily and the Cayuse demonstrates this. She is repelled by his stench, but she mends his moccasin. She explains this as a pragmatic decision but it is also suggestive of her humanity, her compassion and perhaps her sense of justice because of the way he is being treated by Meek. Jon Raymond refers to Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian as an inspiration and I can see that in some of the interactions between characters and with the landscape.

I suspect that some audiences will struggle with the film, partly because of the otherness of its look but mainly because of its narrative. In the goal-orientated fictional worlds of Hollywood, the ‘end is always in sight’ but Reichardt is much more interested in the journey itself. But I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I hope she either makes another Western or that she has inspired others to explore similar territory. More please!

Here is the film’s trailer illustrating some of the points presented above:

The Coen Brothers: Serious Men?

Ethan and Joel Coen at the 'True Grit' press conference during the opening day of the 61st Berlin International Film Festival on February 10, 2011 (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

I’m booked to run a day school with this title at the end of February and I’ve been working on some ideas in preparation for watching True Grit and then deciding how to structure the day. Films and filmmakers associated with major Hollywood studios are not the focus of this blog, but the Coens occupy an odd position, critically and commercially, a kind of no man’s land between mainstream and independent. At this time of year with virtually no high-profile releases from outside the US because of the awards season, they are getting a lot of attention. Their anomalous position is part of the their appeal to festival organisers – as in Berlin last week.

However, I realise that I’ve been watching Coen Bros. films since the 1980s without ever spending too much time thinking about them. What I do remember is an interesting presentation in the NFT by Julia Short, then of Polygram (?) explaining how the marketing of Fargo (1996) was handled in the UK (i.e. quite differently than in North America). Later I worked on a presentation about O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) which was mainly I think about Roger Deakins’ cinematography and the (then) new ways in which colour grading could be altered significantly at the digital intermediate stage. O Brother is possibly my favourite Coen Brothers film – primarily because of the music and the ensemble comedy playing of George Clooney, Holly Hunter, Tim Blake Nelson, John Turturro et al.

In a sense, I think I’ve just skated over some of the key Coen Brothers traits: excellent casting and performances, great music (e.g. T-Bone Burnett), great cinematography and a slightly odd position re Hollywood studios (UK production company, Working Title via Universal have been the consistent funding source since Barton Fink in 1991). Against this is a feeling that the Coens are talented filmmakers who sometimes just seem to make lazy choices of project. After the disappointing Intolerable Cruelty (2003) I decided to give The Ladykillers remake a miss. I’m not sure what I made of No Country For Old Men (2007) but I’m not sure it added that much to my experience of reading the novel, apart from the usual excellent ensemble acting and technical credits on cinematography etc. To begin my preparation for the school I watched The Big Lebowski (1998) and A Serious Man (2008). Predictably perhaps, I found the first entertaining with an interesting soundtrack, but not much more, whereas the latter seemed quite clever with an intriguing narrative structure and a refreshingly different approach to representing the Jewish community of their youth in the Mid West.

On Saturday Will Self, the novelist and once newspaper film reviewer, wrote a piece in the Guardian which felt rather like my own view of the Coens, though I suspect that we might disagree on which Coen Bros. films we preferred. I then watched the 1969 adaptation of True Grit directed by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne in his Oscar-winning role. I don’t think that I’d watched it before (Wayne’s Green Berets put me off him for several years I think) though I remembered the Glen Campbell song and the iconic Wayne/Cogburn charge towards the end of the film. I found the film entertaining, mainly for the dialogue which presumably comes from the novel and Kim Darby’s performance which was at least different. It is also beautifully shot by Lucien Ballard who also shot Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country (1962) and was one of the top visualisers of the West. I’m intrigued to see what Roger Deakins does for the Coens. At first, I thought that the film was very old-fashioned, reminding me of Western TV series and the ‘cleaner’ look of the 1950s movies. In the latter half when it becomes a ‘mountain Western’ I was reminded of Ride The High Country, in which a young woman is similarly in the charge of two (much older) men. In 1969, however, Peckinpah was bringing out The Wild Bunch and consciously changing the Western. The Wayne True Grit did seem more like a literary adaptation, i.e. of a classic novel – I’ve seen Mark Twain mentioned – rather than a Western novel. I’ve ordered the book to check out its style.

The Coen’s True Grit has been hyped to the skies and has been rewarded with a strong box office and heaps of critical praise. They have spoken at length about their intentions and how they have ignored the Wayne version. In another Guardian piece they are quoted as saying that their film isn’t really a Western at all. My feeling is that much of what they say could be just flim-flam, but I’ll wait and see what I make of their film this week. In some ways the most interesting aspect of all of this is to try to work out what audiences are getting from the film, the most successful ‘historical film’ from Hollywood in recent times. Why does something that at least looks like a Western appeal now? Is it because there is a more satisfying story than most contemporary Hollywood films – or because the folk memory of the Western as ‘the great American story’ is comforting during a recession (i.e. that genre recognition means more than the Coens claim)? After the first couple of weeks of the film’s run outside North America we’ll know if the feeling is similar for audiences globally. If it is, that prompts other questions. (The opening weekend in London saw True Grit topping the chart. In the rest of the UK it also did very well but couldn’t dislodge The Kings’s Speech from No 1 film outside the children’s market.)

I’m hoping to explore these ideas at the National Media Museum in Bradford on 26 February.

Westerns: A Routledge Film Guidebook

Westerns, A Routledge Film Guide Book by John White (2010), £16.99, 208pp ISBN 9780415558136

The Routledge Film Guidebooks are slim A5-sized books. The list so far includes director studies (James Cameron and Jane Campion) as well as genre guides such as Horror and Romantic Comedy. With the imminent UK release of True Grit by the Coen Bros., the appearance of John White’s guide is timely.

The first task for the reviewer in this instance is to consider exactly what can be fitted into a relatively small guidebook when dealing with a genre as extensive as the Western. Inevitably, what to leave out and what to make a focus becomes a major issue. The decision will also determine the address of the book to a particular audience. Unfortunately John White doesn’t give any direct indication of who he thinks his readers might be. Since he teaches undergraduates at Anglia Ruskin University but also writes textbooks for A Level film students in the 16-19 sector, his target presumably spans this range. The book’s blurb and the short explanation of the film guidebook project inside suggests that this will be an ‘introductory book’ and indeed all the guidebooks seem to have a similar structure: the evolution of the genre/movement/directorial career, discussion of a variety of critical approaches that could be applied to the films and then a more detailed discussion of key films.

Herein lies a problem. White argues in his opening that many books on the Western spend too much time re-telling the stories of a wide range of films. His focus instead will be on the exploration of different critical approaches, so he tells us that his outlines will be kept to the minimum and he will assume that “readers are already familiar with the basic plot”. Well, he may well be right since the repertoire of elements of the Western has permeated not just American but global culture over a long period. On the other hand it seems to me that younger audiences viewing one of the relatively rare Westerns in contemporary cinema (such as Brokeback Mountain or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, two of his key films) are coming to the Western in quite different ways than similar-aged audiences in the 1950-70s. Apart from any other contextual/conjunctural factors, audiences now are not being exposed to Westerns as ‘genre texts’, available everywhere in a more or less constant stream (during the 1950s literally dozens of different Western TV series played on American television every week). Instead, a Western is now a ‘one-off’ (unlike horror films which do still appear in a constant stream, even if some of them are marketed heavily as single titles).

But perhaps I am being unreasonable? John White lays out his aim and pursues it. The chapter on ‘the evolution of the Western’ manages to cram a great deal into under 30 pages and I found the material on ‘silent Westerns’ in particular informative and helpful. For students without detailed knowledge of the genre, this short section will provide a useful primer. White references key films and important scholarly work – and at the end of the book he provides a timeline of important historical events that inform the narratives of many Westerns set in the nineteenth century. He then continues the timeline to include the release dates of key films and the events in later American history that help to contextualise production and reception of the films. The guide overall is well served by its bibliographies, index and endnotes.

The second part of the book offers 5-6 pages on each of a range of critical approaches: genre, semiotic analysis, representation, ideology, discourse analysis, narrative structure, realism, auteur theory, star theory, psychoanalytical theory, postmodernism and audience response. In each case, two or three films are used as case studies. The film choices seem to me to be pretty sound, but the brevity of each analysis means that students will probably need supplementary material to get the most from them.

The third section then applies combinations of the critical approaches from section two to eight key films: Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Shane (1953), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), Unforgiven (1992), Brokeback Mountain (2005) and The Assassination of Jesse James (2007). Again, this seems a good selection and offers a film from virtually each decade from the 1930s onwards. All the films are easily available and many of them are accompanied by extensive online critical commentaries. I do wonder if some films/directors could have overlapped a little more – enabling more depth at the expense of more examples. For instance, the critical approaches section references another two John Ford films, plus John Wayne and Clint Eastwood as actors and directors. But suggesting other ways of organising the material is not particularly helpful – we will all have our own preferences.

This little book does what it sets out to do. It’s well-referenced and will provide a good introduction. You can’t ask for too much more.