Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"THE TRAIL": Reflections on the movie

Jasmin Jandreau in "The Trail"

It took me a while to realize that “The Trail” (2013) was not realistic, but rather a conflation of “Pilgrim’s Progress” with “The Little Prince.”  It was not until the very end when the story was tied off with a quote from the Book of Luke that it came right out and admitted that everything was metaphor, a classic Christian “trope” for life.  “The Loneliest Planet”, about the couple backpacking across Georgia, was the same trope but in realistic terms, though it was in a place most people don’t know, a little country between Turkey and Russia.  It could have been Oregon, or the Rockies, or Scotland.

The trail in this film is in woods, second-growth, with snow and a farm wagon rigged for migration with hoops and tent sheet.  A woman is stranded there by a mysterious attack, which is a realistic but unseen part, and then tries to walk to some safe place.  In a while a little Indian boy joins her.  They have no food except one small fish, some flour and a handful of beans.  There are no proper blankets.  She has no knife but finally realizes she can start fires with spectacles. The boy says nothing but often is a guide.

In an echo of the trip along the trail, the actual computer streaming of the film kept breaking down and telling me the film was not available.  “Go away -- watch something else.”  Maybe it was an atheist hacker.  But I discovered that if I left and then resumed, I could get another ten minutes before it shut off again, so that’s how I watched, jerking along. When I went to IMDB. the reviewers were all expecting authentic Western history and threw fits over the anachronisms.  Zippers!  Ghastly!   Even the Great Falls Tribune reviewer sounded puzzled.  Without knowing the major canons of our culture (Bible, Shakespeare, Kerouac) it’s not possible to pick up an author’s metaphors.  Somehow, people scorn Bible tales.

Richard Flanagan

The newest prize winning “big” book, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” uses a canon NOT from “our” culture but from Japan.  Luckily the reviewer for the Economist is nimble enough to coach us:  “The title is a clue. “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is the English name for “Oku no Hosomichi”, a prose-and-verse epic by an 18th-century Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho, about a dangerous and lonely journey on foot into the heart of Edo-period Japan. Most Japanese can recite one line: “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

Trails and paths and roads -- some built, some simply worn by feet, some not even dirt but rather water as in a river, or a beach going along the water’s verge.  There’s the galactic path across the sky (I can actually see the Milky Way from my backyard).  The Whoop-Up trail runs nearby, followed by whiskey traders, including the founders of towns like our county seat.   There are cat paths across my yard.  One arm of the cat path goes north to an unoccupied red house and one goes south and then veers west to an abandoned old church building.  Cat houses.  Lots of sex and resulting kittens.  Luckily they don’t write books.

Whole categories of theology are about the beginning of the path (ontological) and the end (teleological).  It is a characteristic of the Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity, that it’s all about journeys from one place to another, which DeleuzeGuattari characterize as rhizomatous:  a node or plant that extends a stolon or runner out to the next -- possibly subsidiary -- node or plant.  It’s the basic plan of a brain: neuron with long axon connecting to the next neuron.  The brilliance of the brain is that the connections can form or break according to use and an unused neuron quietly withers.  Culture does that, too.

Archibald Macleish and Christopher Plummer, who played Satan.

Archibald Macleish’s play “J.B.” begins with Satan walking down the aisle to the stage while God’s voice booms, “From whence have you come?”  Satan answers the LORD and says, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”  I enjoy teasing the cats when they squeeze in through the cat flap by asking if they’ve been going to and fro on the earth.  They say, “Meow.”  At least they’re not redundant.  

The Christian story begins with the trip to Bethlehem and ends with the walk up Golgotha, carrying a cross.  No one jokes much about that.  I didn’t catch the Gospel reference at the end of the movie called “The Trail” except that it’s in Luke, which is a Gospel very much concerned with survival by perseverance when things are tough.  Little old Christianity just starting out and determined to get there.  Whereever that is.   You can watch “The Trail” for free if you can keep the computer from changing the word “trail” to “trial.”  I found it finally by going to Google Images and looking for frames from the movie.  The trailer that is posted at the access to the movie is about some other movie, but it also looks interesting.  I suspect that its title might be “The Trial.”  Googling reveals at least a dozen movies either called “The Trail,” or with “The Trail” in the title, like “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” (the 1936 version) an iconic movie in my family.  We were so dedicated to trails that we belonged to the Mazamas, an organization of hikers and mountain climbers.  But our trees were Doug fir.

There are two ways to hike a trail and again my parents differed.  My father was goal directed, summiting mountains, driving to reach some goal before it got dark.  He took risks but never left the plan.  My mother was a wanderer who didn’t stay on the path.  To walk with her was to stop to taste the root of a licorice fern or to make a willow whistle.

One morning at Silver Falls State Park we woke up in our camp trailer and discovered she was missing.  We were the only ones camped there.  In those days it was a safe place.  We kids were small and it was scary, not because we thought she was kidnapped, but because sometimes she got mad at us and it was easy to imagine that she just left.  Until she came down the trail with her empty coffee mug in her hand, a jacket over her long nightgown, muddied up to the knees.  She’d done the entire several-mile loop through the trail that went behind waterfalls.  She said she hadn’t intended to -- just thought she’d wander a little ways but then ended up going around the whole trail -- several miles.

My own life has covered a lot of ground in the realistic sense, but never left this continent and never went very far south.  (Are you kidding?  There are ‘gators down there!)  I was always struggling to get back to the East Slope of the Rockies.  But in a virtual way (not virtuous) I’ve been on perilous trails, always going higher until now I sit in this back bedroom with my head whirling and sliding far, far away.  Not any more realistic than the heroine of “The Trail” in her flimsy print dress sleeping on a sheet in the snow.  (I was relieved for the actress when a cuff of long underwear slipped down through the sleeve of her dress.)  
"The Old North Trail"by Rob Akey

I just got an email from a former student, Robey Clark, asking if I remembered anything about a play in which he was required to kill a puppy that had been hit by a car.  I do.  I wrote the play.  I made the quite realistic puppy out of a Persian Lamb coat I got from Good Will.  The play was called “J’Accuse” and indicted adults for not understanding kids.  Seemingly, it made little impact and yet Robey has devoted his life to helping NA kids get a good education.  It wasn’t because of the play.  It was because he had the capacity to absorb the play and see that it suggested a life-path which he actually followed.  That's the way it works -- when it works.

PS.  If I were teaching these stories in a class, I would add the very powerful Somali film called "Sounds of Sand."  It's a family looking for water that finds mostly death.

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