Thursday, December 27, 2012


I claim special privilege of insight for this movie.  One is that it’s my family history:  I’m entitled to belong to the Daughters of the Oregon Trail since my great-grandmother could easily have been one of the women in this film.  The Philpotts and Cochranes were early immigrants and my great-grandfather donated the land for the Pioneer Park in Champoeg.  No matter how much I question such things: the mythology of endurance and tenacity in the face of hardship, the faith in relocation as a form of salvation, the belief that one is privileged by ancestors -- all remain part of my identity.

A second qualification is that my family camped across the country, particularly in the Northwest, by means of a folding tent trailer, not that different from a covered wagon.  The scent of sage, the yellow blooms of rabbit brush, the slow burn of alkali dust, the twisty shredded bark of found wood for a campfire, and the steady brushing of wind are all part of my sensory vocabulary.  When I see someone trying to find footing in a swift stream up to their waist, I know that slow and uncertain progress.

Third, because Montana has the same green wet strip on the west edge that sustains easy prosperity, unlike the eastern vast flat dry ancient seabed -- far more of a challenge -- and because my life has rubbed along among the indigenous people of all these places, I’m prepared to think about issues most people don’t know.  Especially the larger context of culture, ecology, and spiritual balance.

No art form can replicate a reality entirely because then it wouldn’t be an art form anymore -- it would be a second reality.  An art form selects those aspects of the reality that can configure meaning and transmit it to someone else.  When one draws a tree, one draws the closest leaves in detail but lets the others recede into a blur, the same as one’s eyesight is edited by the brain.  

Here is an historical account of the actual facts of Meek’s Cutoff.

And here is the website for the movie:

From my point of view, these are the best reviews.

Kelly Reichardt had done mostly wet green stories until she came to this one, which is drily existential, a peneplain of suspense with a vague beginning and an even vaguer end.  Her specialty is the small moment, the quiet gesture, the authentic detail.  The only thing inaccurate in this case was that no animals were killed or hurt in the making of the film.  In reality the Oregon Trail was as hard on the animals as it was on the people, who also died -- gaunt and sick.  One of my female ancestors went mad.  Well, was “never the same again.”

Once the script has been developed and the location scouted, casting is crucial.  I’m always interested in the way the faces rhyme: these are distinguishable but similar enough to be related, even Peter Greenwood except for his Spanish moss hair.  (More usually he plays a Kennedy or a gallant, upper-class gent in a tux.)  The women have almost doll-faces.  It is the Indian who has the very different look.  Rod Rondeaux has had a deliberately invisible but long-time presence in movies because he has been a stunt double.  You’re not supposed to recognize him.  He was in “Comanche Moon” so I watched it this afternoon to see if I could recognize him, but I did only once:  he was putting a horse away.  None of his acting in “Meek’s Cut-off” was corny, like the acting in “Comanche Moon,” which was an entirely different kind of Western: self-mocking Cormac McMurtry, a Texas hybrid, very violent.

For those who couldn’t handle a slow, realistic, no-explosions plot, the end of the movie -- just the Indian standing at the edge of what look to me like the cliffs of the Columbia Gorge (though you can’t see over that edge), just looking, with the woman’s sewing basket (her “possibles kit”) in his hand -- is too ambiguous to be borne.  What has come out of that impatient criticism is very interesting: an intense curiosity to know what it is the Indian says when he speaks “Indian.”  (There are no sub-titles.)  Rondeaux is evasive.  (Do not play stick game with this guy.)  He knows the trick of film-acting:  don’t act.  Just be real.  This is a man who has been around, been hurt, seen a lot, thought a lot.

The lines were written in English, translated to “down river Nez Perce” and probably augmented by Cheyenne and Crow since Rondeaux is from the Crow rez.  Judging by his French surname and receding hairline, he’s got a bit of Metis in him.  The trick riders around here undoubtedly know him -- probably the rodeo crowd as well -- and they will know that the Crow -- unlike the Blackfeet -- were allowed to keep their language and also allotted an excellent piece of land for their reservation.  They were, in WWII terms, collaborators with the US Cavalry.  He’s complicated.  The pioneers are not.  They have locked onto a goal and intend to get there, no matter what.  By the time of the movie, they have no choice anyway.

Kelly Reichert wanted us to have to interpret the guide in the same way that the pioneers do -- read the body language of someone from a different culture.  The heroine who succeeds in this understands that he’s not stupid, that he will negotiate, that he’s very much engaged in the world and will participate in their lives as much to see what will happen as for any big reward.  She knows that moccasins need to be maintained and that kindness is an investment in the future.  

The Meek character (note HIS “possibles kit” with all the elk teeth sewn onto it!) has his tall tales to sustain him. (“An’ he ET that thar bear!”)  The Indian character has his mythic vision to guide him.  In fact, the Christian baby Jesus and Moses promised land stories aren’t a bad fit.  And so they all rub along together, walking separately, embracing in times of trouble.  A story is a river is a trail is a life. 

I’d love to read the original short story by Jon Raymond that this script came from.  There were three Jon Raymond books on Amazon.  I ordered all three.  Sixty cents for the books. (Forty cents for one, nineteen cents for another, a penny for the third.)  Twelve bucks for the shipping.  I think they are all set in Oregon.  Is this an existential peneplain or what?  Just keep walking, reading, writing.  Wading.

1 comment:

Ron Scheer said...

Thanks for the commentary on this film. I saw it many months ago and took away some of the same impressions. I liked how it told a story of the west as though the western never existed.