For the Fall 2016 Yale Film Colloquium film series, we planned a series of films on the theme of transportation in cinema, including the films Speed, Closely Watched Trains, Luna Papa, Meek's Cutoff, Christopher Strong, and Thelma and Louise. I wrote the program notes for Meek's Cutoff, the fourth film in the series on November 7th, which I thought I would share here as well.
Meek’s Cutoff, the 2010 western directed by Kelly Reichardt, counters the relentless speed which began our Start Your Engines: Transportation in Cinema series with a style of filmmaking prioritizing the slowness, the silence, and the uncertainty in a form of transportation that cinema has memorialized as a dynamic and triumphant movement westward. While John Ford’s Stagecoach gave us the thrill and terror of the encounter with the “Wild West” through a chase and a gunfight canonized in film history forever, Reichardt’s approach to a group of unlucky travelers on the Oregon Trail divests the West of bursts of adrenaline in favor of a long, increasing tension, a tension which maintains the irreconcilable ambiguity of western settlement and the modernizing impulse which underlies cinema’s own fixation on the machines of transportation and the mechanics of speed.
The genre of the western, eternally returning in new forms throughout film history and in national cinemas around the world, centers on the struggle of modernity to spread to the places and the people whose exclusion from the realm of civilized society is what gave civilization its definition and its power. This negotiation has never been straightforward; even the most stereotypical cowboys versus Indians style of western has embedded in it a love of wildness, a celebration of freedom despite the inevitable filmic conclusion of civilization’s victory over its alternatives. The balance between “primitive” freedom and “civilized” control is the contradiction at the center of the hero of the classical western, a masculine figure whose position on the fringes of the society he upholds makes safe the contradiction we suspect lurks at the heart of every attempt at defining the self, the present, and the nation which relies on the clear exteriorization of all that is other.
In Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt counters the traditional dichotomies propelling the western genre with a vision of western movement which prioritizes everyday labor, decisions, and anxiety. In the space of the trail, neither civilization nor natural landscape can be fully beautified: the attempts at settled culture the travelers repeat are inevitably dwarfed by a vast unsettled space, promising no water or life for miles, completely unknown. During the day, their faces are always hidden under brimmed hats or bonnets or otherwise shadowed, divided sharply from the brightness and expanse of the landscape which menaces them with heat and thirst; during night scenes, they are obscured in a darkness so complete you will be happy see this film on a big screen in a darkened theater (believe me.) They can trust neither their hired guide, Meek, whose arrogance suggests the rugged masculine individuality deified in western conquest, nor the Native American they find and capture, who has every reason to prefer to lead them into a trap. Centering the narrative on the women travelers, who must sit and listen while their husbands discuss life-and-death decisions, Meek’s Cutoff offers no heroic figure in the classical sense; instead, Emily Tetherow, played by Michelle Williams, emerges as the central figure of a collective, a woman who learns to make choices with no narrative guarantee of a settled conclusion.
Most noticeably, the film’s pace is slow to the point of being anticinematic, working against the teleological logic of the western, the film, and modernity itself, which pushes narratives and progress forward on the rapidly spinning wheels of cause and effect as they clatter through firefights and love affairs to arrive safely in a settled town. Film developed for global consumption a form of time which was chopped into pieces, occurring simultaneously, based on visual logics which, at some point, we spectators must have learned to understand, because they are utterly different from how we experience everyday time. Filmic time was, perhaps, a later, mechanized offshoot of the time of modernity, which transformed and often dominated understandings of time by conquered and colonized people as Western European powers expanded in power and influence. By slowing and stretching the filmic time, Meek’s Cutoff works against America’s own favorite narrative of modern progress, that of the western, with a story that returns to the west its unsettled time, a time with no promise of ending.
Beyond these concerns of genre and time, Meek’s Cutoff expressed for me something which I often have trouble describing to people I’ve met in adulthood. I didn’t grow up in the American West, but in the landscape of Meek’s Cutoff I can feel something that reminds me of the countryside where I did grow up, a space where silence is so complete every conversation feels like an intrusion, where the sky dominates the visual field down to an endless stretch of unreadable alien land, and where we’d walk for miles in boredom and communion, remarking only on the land and the work. While contemporary Pennsylvania farmland lacks the sense of jeopardy of the Oregon Trail in 1845, that landscape remained within me as a source of silence and of dread even as I escaped to the overbuilt coasts. Sometimes, in the middle of an action movie fight scene, when the average shot lengths are dangerously approaching the milliseconds, I think about that space. Watching Meek’s Cutoff, I wonder if, underneath the current speed of cinema and its rebellious media children, is a fear of that space which cannot be framed and that time which cannot be cut.