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Frames from Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff

The first image above is of the character name Meek, in Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” just released – I suspect to a fast BO swoon, to speak Varietese.  In the story he’s a grizzled guide, wild-man of the west.  However in the image, he is fresh out of something like Hollywood costumes, with a thin patina of showbiz “dirt” gracing his buckskin outfit, though we notice his purse is untainted with anything so vile.  As someone who lived “rough” for five years in rural Oregon and Montana (no electricity, no running water, no money) I can assure you, out of experience, that a mere week or two of such living makes your clothes a lot dirtier than those seen in these images.   Meek is an ostensible frontier mountain-man and his purse should be dark with oil and fat as well as smoke from fires and just plain dirt, all well attracted by the greasy base, as would be his buckskin clothes (which one doesn’t wash).   In the next pictures the clothes are so spick-and-span they look incongruous next to the theatrical “dirty faces” make-up job on the actors (which, again, for anyone with experience reads false as to how faces and skin really get dirty – dirt is most visible in wrinkles, where it gathers and stays).

Which then makes one wonder about the rest of the matter at hand, a “story” set in the out back of Oregon’s Eastern desert, which apparently weaves in supposely true-grit Americana, echoes of “cowboy” movies (which were often shot on transparently false Hollywood sets, or conversely set in real western places, like Monument Valley, where no one lived except for the weakest Indian tribes, forced by circumstances to such inhospitable climes), and then sub-textually of present-day concerns about just how we are.  Meek’s Cutoff is a so-called “independent” film, relatively low-budgeted, and yet it persists in the usual historical drama of getting all the gritty details of history wrong while purporting to set itself in that reality.  Sounds like it also has a sort of feminist angle.  Why not just admit one doesn’t know a damned thing about this and either go Kabuki, a totally obvious theatrical falsity, from which curiously truth can emerge, or just stick to contemporary which one might have a clue about.  The images above (confirmed by a few glances of clips from the film) just underline that movie people know very little about the real world, and in turn any truths they might seem to uncover become suspect.

I know this is kicking a dead horse.  I already dealt with this before.  See this.

James Cameron’s Avatar

The only real difference between Avatar and Meek’s Cutoff are the budgets and the profits.  Both traffic in fraudulent perceptions of the past or future, and devolve into formulaic drama.

Little addition a few days later, to show if nothing else, a certain consistence.  Funded by an Omaha businessman, Robert Redford, the Sundance man, has just directed a new film, The Conspirator, a period piece about the group which assassinated Lincoln.  The budget was a mere $25 million for this “indie” film, as he claimed it to be (i.e., indie here means “not funded by a Hollywood studio.”)  From this picture we see his veracity meter is about as good as the one used for Meek’s Cutoff:

Note the pristine powder box (never used, I guess the soldier didn’t see much action in the war); or for that matter the clean uniform.  On the other hand note Robert Redford’s actually used and worn jeans (and his paunch).


  1. Jon – I love how you are hung up on the issue of dirt. I agree on this point, but I think you should give Meek’s a look. I haven’t seen it yet, but I think Kelly Reichardt’s work like Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy are some of the better things to come out of American Independent cinema in years. If you are seriously talking with Will Oldham to be in your next film then you owe it to yourself to check out Old Joy.

    As for Meek’s, it is new territory for Kelly Reichardt because its a historical piece. Perhaps, she slips up on this snag, but I would guess that from her previous work, if sh gets the exactly look wrong, she probably won’t misfire when it comes to tone and emotions.

    • Well, OK, I am hung up on dirt. But dirt as a metaphor for something else – shall we say, “the truth.” I recall once in the first scene of some film with Tom Cruise playing an Irish peasant, digging away in a potato field, and then, clothes spotless, walking toward the camera in an outfit that looked like Armani’s version of a rustic jacket. I laughed and got up and left. A few seasons back in our cultural cycle there was a fad for the word “truthiness” (like the last few seasons there’s been one for “pivotal” as in “turning points in history”), and it is that which I object to when people who don’t seem to know about, or actually see, deal with such a simple thing as dirt. It probably tells you they don’t know/see/understand something else. And therein is my problem. And dirt, and what it represents, is so easy to understand. If you live in it a while. So I look at this, or some other historical drama of this kind, and note that clothes that have never been worn are to stand for one’s that would have been well-worn. And it usually goes right on through to the ideas. If you don’t understand how clothes get worn and dirty, it is very unlikely you understand how a person whose clothes get worn and dirty think and feel. Crude summary: rich people can’t meaningfully talk about poor people whom they simply cannot understand. I recall some decades back seeing Reichardt’s first film, River of Grass, I think that’s the title. It was something set in the deep south, and in the 30’s. It had the same air of clothes too clean, and I felt it a kind of drawling slow-mo Dixie cliche done “indie” style.
      I did see some clips of Wendy and Lucy on the net, and what I saw certainly didn’t convince me to want to see it. Again, it just rang false to me. Too “truthiness.” I saw clips of Meek’s Cutoff too, and it was the same thing. Too clean, too much a lack of real observance or understanding how things would be with these characters (if you go see the movie look at the Indian’s moccasins – never touched by dirt and grime, but the sewing is worn. What a joke!). It is all scriptwriter fantasy, yoking some misunderstood or simply not understood perception as a hook to “tell a story,” one in which you hang your hangups. I have no problem at all with an artist using their hangups as a tool, and in fact one can’t really honestly escape that. The problem is hanging those on a character who wouldn’t have them. And a major trouble is that these days most people who make films/media, have studied it, wallowed in it, and as Daniel here points out, end up thinking the media actually represents reality. The problem with most our filmmakers is they have not had much life outside their media-studying and then making life. And when they wander a step or two away from what they know – media – it shows.

      I sincerely doubt that Meek’s Cutoff provides any real insight into its characters, its setting, or the history which is purports to deal with: it only provides insight into the limitations and mind-set of the writer and makers (like why didn’t the cinematographer point out that the wagons, the clothes, etc. are all just too damned clean? he, presumably was looking right at them with his keen eye)? I guess I am a bit more demanding or wishful thinking about so-called “independents.” I wouldn’t expect anything else from Hollywood. But when “indies” do the same thing, then I wonder, just what is so “indie?”

      Frankly, of America’s “indies” (that word apparently applying only to narrative films) that I have seen in the last decade or so I haven’t really seen anything that I felt was remotely independent of the conservative ethos of the times and its basic Hollywood/TV model. Except maybe Harmony Korine’s Gummo and Julien Donkey Boy. However Trash Humpers should drop the second word in the title. There probably are some others, but I haven’t seen them.

      • I completely second you on Gummo and Julien Donkey Boy. When I’d say I liked Gummo to acquaintances, they would say it was exploitative trash and lump it with the work of an absolute charlatan like Gaspar Noe, saying it was all shock value. However, for a summer I held a job renovating and cleaning out apartments after evictions and saw living environments far more dirty and grimy than those in Gummo. One guy, having been given a fairly wide swath of time to move out, actually had his kids shit on the furniture and left several pounds of raw hamburger meat out to rot; it took 8 garbage bags to get it all out of the place. Gummo was an Ikea display case by comparison. But people just refused to believe anyone could live like that.

        The modern “independent” cinema has gone in the wrong direction. The proliferation of cheap hi-def cameras has mostly encouraged the other younger filmmakers I know to go towards more commercial concepts since they think of it as simply one less barrier between them and that big paycheck they’re going to get someday. There’s no political element in the narratives, just lots of carefully observed narcissism and playing dress up. But why am I bothering to tell you this? You’ve seen a Joe Swanberg movie.

  2. I think you’re right. Better to just do tableau or something like. Make a painting instead or take a picture. I’ve harped on this, too, often. I remember Oliver Stone repainting buildings in downtown Dallas for “JFK”. I remember thinking, what is he going to do about the clouds? How will he make them look the same? If clouds don’t matter, then why should the other stuff? I’ll tell you why. Notwithstanding that even Mr. Stone must have known his limitations (I mean, what could he do with the clouds and skies, for Heaven’s sake?)I doubt that he really gave a shit about clouds and skies. And he didn’t give a shit simply because he lacks the capacity as an artist to concern himself with details that do not “move the plot forward” or some nonsense like that. Mr. Stone isn’t really interested in discovering anything, apparently. Likewise I would guess (and it is admittedly only a guess) that Ms. Reichardt probably doesn’t give a rip about dirt in wrinkles. So, why do the actors have to wear clothing that may or, for all we know, may not be right? Dunno. It’s silly. It’s “oh, lookie what I can do when I play pretend.” The tones and emotions will amount little more than platitudes. How could they be anything more, for one thing, when the audience is purposely, though perhaps not altogether intentionally, distracted by costumes? “Wow it was SO REAL!” No, I think it is usually wiser to stick with what you know. And I doubt that Ms. Reichert knows a darn thing about even being really dirty, to say nothing of living in the nineteenth century west. Thus, she can’t honestly be concerned about the people she wants to portray. In a word, she can’t love them. In movies like these, the characters are usually looked down upon by the filmmaker, regardless of the intention, the motives, the purported concern of said filmmaker. There are exceptions, “The Unforgiven”, perhaps one of ’em?

    I saw just a little bit of “Avatar”, another period piece of sorts. For my money, if I must insist that a formulaic American film can be good, then a better example of this type of movie might be one or two things by the late John Hughes. “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”, of all things, comes closer to evoking something that lasts, that is real, than something like Avatar. Maybe even more than something like “Schindler’s List”, another formulaic period piece with that unforgettably realistic and therefore supremely meaningful and important gunshot to the head sequence. For that matter, maybe “Jaws” is superior to “Shindler’s…” now that I am thinking about it. The shark is so obviously fake at turns that is can only represent something bigger and more lethal than a shark, whatever that may happen to be.

    • The shark clearly represented Steven Spielberg!! What could be bigger and more lethal?? As testimony to my miserable spectatoring, I never saw Jaws, nor Schindler’s List, nor JFK, nor The Unforgiven, nor…

      I should go live under a rock… Well, my computer is kind of like one…

  3. Dirt is extremely important. If the film isn’t set within something the filmmaker has experienced, then the claim of “realism” is mostly a sleight of hand. American society as a whole doesn’t really have any realistic conception of history; part of this is due to the movies. When realism is employed, the artist can use the escape hatch of saying “Gee, that’s just how it was then.” The audience, if they’ve been moved by the piece, or see how it benefits them either by affirming their world view or some political cause, will say “That’s how it really was!” It’s telling how desperate critics and filmgoers are to claim things as “reality”; they want to fill a void of it with something.

    This becomes especially ridiculous in terms of say, Holocaust movies or slavery narratives. I had more than one history teacher in high school show “Glory” or “Schindler’s List” or “Roots” (actually the most embarrassing one was probably “Gladiator”) in order to show us “how it really was.”

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