It’s a biological principle (for a minute there I had a typo that said “biolegorical” -- bio-allegorical -- quite relevant) that life forms in the edge ecologies around meadows or forests or lakes are richer and more diverse than those in the middle. This comes to mind -- here in Valier on the edge of a lake, the edge of the Blackfeet reservation, at the edge of the Rockies, near the edge of Canada -- because I have a strong awareness of inventing my own way of life along those edges, partly made possible by technology: the Netflix/imdb/Google world which are also an edge.
Out the window I watch the poplars and storm skies go through the seasons. On the “window” of the computer and the television screen (which has long been detached from either cable or broadcast television) I’m back to a self-imposed course of study that began in 1957 when classmate Stu Hagmann took me along to film series and classes. It was definitely edgy. (Stu went back to the mainstream.) It was the time of a terrific explosion of film: Bergman, Fellini, Truffault and so on -- technically and culturally challenging. Though these were considered “foreign” films and “auteur” films, I was not a film student and so they washed over me as experience, no differently than “Joan of Arc” with Ingrid Bergman, or “Prince Who Was a Thief” with Piper Laurie, or “The Quiet Man” with Maureen O’Hara, and hundreds of other studio films. In the television years of my childhood (after the Fifties) I was as devoted to Westerns as anyone, which is partly how I ended up here in Montana.
But now, without leaving Montana, I’m going back to film, partly just roaming and partly with some specific inquiries. Lately I’m looking at what are evidently called “structuralist feminist” films. That is, movies like those made by Sally Potter and Jane Campion. For me, Jane Campion’s “The Piano” is a link with Montana. If Harvey Keitel’s role in that movie doesn’t remind you of Bob Scriver, you didn’t know Bob Scriver. At least not the way I did.
And yet, I’m nothing like either Campion or Potter with their boomer-generation, head-trippy, sometimes over-intellectual and pretty Marxist (I mean that ambiguously) approach to life. My trip from theatre to theology has been anchored in blue-collar work and the very real community of small congregations (not unlike the community of theatre and film creation). My sensory life is aesthetically influenced but not at all dominated by art of the American West and it doesn’t exclude the abstract, but it does carry an interest in costume and setting that is shared by Campion and Potter. We examine and criticize culture through those elements.
One point of departure from the “feminist” thing is that I don’t feel it as a political problem so much as a practical problem, like where do big fat old women buy clothes that fit except in the men’s department? I’ve always been uncomfortable with “ists”, more interested in how the unique can demonstrate the universal than making the unique precious.
Another is that the romantic dyad is pretty much “solved” for me. I mean, I bypassed children, bypassed financial success, bypassed dieting and makeup (mostly -- hey, even Gary Cooper wore eye liner!) and fancy clothes. Still, I’m not into that tango personally, but I’m not past thinking about it in a more abstract way.
I do not confine my attentions to “nice people” which is the way many thinkers avoid anxiety. I’ve been exposed to people “in extremis” and though I don’t go out of my way to look for them, I feel that I should respond to them and do my best. I have been out on the edge myself and appreciate the help I got.
So I’m not the feminist -- am I the structuralist? MUCH closer. It does seem to me that everything has a “song,” an algorithm, an inner pattern, and that they are the source of meaning. Changing one’s religious pattern from the three-layered world of the tribal Mediterranean to the cosmic world of waves and particles, all connected and all moving, has major implications in the way human life is considered. For one thing, this conversion or “paradigm shift” deeply challenges the idea of the romantic individual who can do as he/she pleases without affecting the lives of any others. This notion is still alive in the work of Campion and Potter, as nearly as I can tell. Less in Potter, who thinks about things like world peace. Maybe it is necessary for anyone working in the “auteur” tradition.
Last night I watched Potter’s “Orlando,” based on Virginia Woolf’s novel which I have not read. It’s philosophical fantasy, but openly so -- right out there in plain sight, rather than hidden in a fancy story like, say, the “Elizabeth” with Cate Blanchett. But it is equally beautiful and seductive, pulling us into vignettes of enormous power. The first scene especially, which shows the young “Orlando” in 1600 in a long sequence on ice -- literally -- is strange and horrifying, from the girl frozen into the lake causing the men to laugh, to the old woman carrying her burden of sticks, a sight also archetypal in the art of the West context. All those so-familiar court pavanes are quite new when done on ice! The costumes are beyond gorgeous. But nature as winter, uncontrolled and killing, is something we know in the high West.
We also know desert and strange cultures, as the Arab sequence illustrates; we know the relief of a culture that doesn’t press everyone into the Euro-dichotomies of gender. The high intellectual drawingroom/salon sequences mean nothing to us but dispossession of the property of the weak by the strong is our preoccupation.
Campion is from New Zealand, which is much like the Pacific Northwest. Potter is English. Kimberly Peirce, writer/director of “Boys Don’t Cry,” is the US rough equivalent. Follow Hillary Swank from that stunning film (based on a real story of a girl passing as a boy) to “Million Dollar Baby” and who do we meet? Clint Eastwood. And isn’t that a gender-role challenging film?
Maybe the “edge” meets the frontier in the ethnic persons of Katy Jurado and Tantoo Cardinal, though they don’t so much question their cultural assignments as just overwhelm them. I like that game plan. But in the meantime I really like this impromptu nighttime wandering back and forth over boundaries between Westerns and foreign film, feminism and BBC costume drama. Maybe no product will be produced by me. Who cares? I’m subsidized by Social Security.