Meek's Cutoff and the Golden Age of the Western by James Edwards

Aside from the fact that it belongs to that most unfashionable of genres, the Western, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff declares itself an anachronism in several respects, primarily the director’s decision to shoot the film in Academy. An aspect ratio used sparingly and deliberately in the post-classical age, perhaps most notably in the last decade or so with Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and several films by Gus Van Sant (Elephant, Paranoid Park), it lends itself to the psychological claustrophobia paradoxically felt by Reichardt’s characters as they confront the frontiers of 19th century America, but it can also quite interestingly be read as a political choice that speaks to the very heart of the genre and its many reconstructions. If modern Westerns are rare and modern films in Academy are rarer, then films that straddle both may as well be non-existent — Meek’s is the first since the 1950s, and its dogmatic time-displacement may be far better to absorb its implications. It’s odd, then, that the film’s aspect ratio itself has been so consistently cited as a hallmark of its “anti-Western” philosophy — have we so quickly forgotten the genre’s origins, or is it that writers who invoke such a description have the cinemascope vistas of Sergio Leone’s spaghettis in mind when the word “Western” pops up?

While it may seem a direly unfair — not to mention untimely — example, the list composed last summer by video game hub IGN of the “Top 25 Westerns of All-Time,” is symptomatic of the lack of consciousness regarding the genre. In addition to the presence of tired-even-fifty-years-ago selections like Shane and outright — yet not interesting — puzzlements like Silverado, three works by Leone are featured with Once Upon a Time in the West unsurprisingly topping the entire heap, a film that, while receiving no personal ill will from me, stands as a kind-of shrine to the attitude that has seen the classical Western take a beating as a dated collection of white-hat-black-hat symbols and a showcase for the drawls of Hollywood hams. Now, again, cutting down a list compiled solely to draw up anticipation for a video game (Red Dead Redemption) and one which obviously wasn’t meant to be taken seriously (the Oscars are cited as legitimate proof that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a Western [it is not]) could easily be described as dirty pool, but it’s even harder to let off the hook a group of listmakers that haven’t even caught up to the revival of Budd Boetticher, a filmmaker whose implacable impact is aptly summarized by Chris Fujiwara: “After Boetticher came the decline of the big-budget Western into rambling and joky tedium, the shunting off of the small-budget Western to TV, and the flourishing of the Italian Western with its stylized exoticism and gore.”

Randolph Scott in The Bounty Hunter
Indeed, the key to understanding the Western’s continued relevancy in American cinema may lie in understanding Boetticher and his collaborative relationship with Randolph Scott, with whom he made his most famous films. Scott, perhaps the most iconic of Western stars, seems emblematic of the cycle that both plagues and enhances the Western. On his own, Scott can be seen as a memory for aging film viewers, a plainfaced symbol of the Golden Age of the Western before revisionism became the standard, yet also awaiting perpetual rediscovery for those willing to look. And “memory” and “symbol” do in no way correspond to “antiquated,” but more a division in time and philosophy between generations and movements. Those in the know from either camp are well aware that Randolph Scott makes anything watchable and the otherwise dire even pleasurable (Andre De Toth’s underwhelming 3D Westerns are the first to come to mind). As for the revisionism that seems to bisect modern Western aficionados, it primarily stems from disillusion with convention, a not-uncommon feeling of intellectual rebellion often afflicting the headstrong and ambitious viewer. Moral issues are often a primary concern of literate ones who covet the more “realistic” violence and pessimism of Leone and Sam Peckinpah, a concept to which I give little credence. That the horrors of lawlessness in frontier America were whitewashed in the Hollywood Westerns of the classic-era is not in dispute, but to prize such as paramount to a film’s value as art is to skirt dangerously towards watching movies as an act of back-patting ideological assuagement, at which point you should probably just stop altogether.

A key piece of irony is this moral outrage often acts as a reductive blinder to the subtlety and beauty to be found in the works of the genre’s classical age, as well as the already-burgeoning post-modern tendencies of many of its key filmmakers. Nicholas Ray, cinephile sacred cow numero uno, is a sterling example. Ray’s Johnny Guitar has made the rounds as a bona fide cult classic, riding his trademark idiosyncrasies to the arthouse pantheon, though 1955’s Run for Cover, showcasing James Cagney’s surrogate fatherhood of a young John Derek, may just beat it beat-for-beat in weirdness. Sterling Hayden, so interesting in Johnny Guitar, one-upped himself two years later in Joseph H. Newman’s Terror in a Texas Town as a Swedish whaler eyeing vengeance at the end of a giant harpoon. Newman, a gifted visual stylist whose moderate renown stems more from his influential noirs (Gun Crazy among them) than his atypical Westerns, was an undervalued filmmaker whose A Lawless Street, made in 1955 with Randolph Scott, has Scott uttering a line that, in retrospect, seems prescient enough to highlight here: “All I’ve got is one chance, and that’s to outlive the times. And I’m gambling I’ll live to see it.”

Sharon Stone in The Quick and The Dead
And you could say that, in the past thirty years, Randy’s had quite a storm to weather. If Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is truly the elegy it’s made out to be, then the ensuing two decades haven’t done much to help the genre out of its grave. The few noteworthy examples have, for the most part, been either minor if intermittently amusing hokum (Tombstone, The Quick and the Dead), or painful, “safe” exercises in empty pageantry (The Missing). 2007 saw a fleetingly interesting resurgence with James Mangold’s classically-minded remake of Delmer Dave’s 3:10 to Yuma paralleled with Andrew Dominik’s lugubriously elegiac The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The former is quite easily the usually unbearable Mangold’s most successful feature to date, an admirable if dim throwback, while the latter, for all of its hazardous pomo trappings, contains a striking poignancy in its study of image and fading identity. Ed Harris’ Appaloosa is one recent Western I would define as a success, but primarily for Harris’ faithful-without-becoming-hollow eye for classicism (Harris narrated Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That, the fawning documentary included on the director’s 2008 Columbia DVD set, and Boetticher is one of the many influences apparent in Harris’ film, along with Jacques Tourneur, Wichita in particular).

So where does Reichardt’s film fit in to the modern pantheon? Its feminine perspective certainly isn’t without precedent in the classical era — Wellman’s Westward the Women, Fuller’s Forty Guns, de Toth’s Ramrod, Ray’s aforementioned Johnny Guitar, all films that in some way or another invert or challenge the genre’s intrinsically patriarchal trappings, but where Meek’s Cutoff succeeds most compellingly is its fervent urging of the Western as still strongly-relevant, politically and artistically. Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy spoke sans-prosthelytizing to her country’s financial crisis, and Meek’s Cutoff skilfully averts obtuse real-life parallels in its examination of uncertainty and dread amidst a drifting and desolate community. Formally, it’s Reichardt’s most impressive effort to date. It promises great riches if only the genre were tended to by genuine artists and not test audience-pandering boobs, and my vainest fanboy fantasies hope that Chantal Akerman was at a screening and thought, “Hey! I taught her everything she knows, maybe I should try that…”

Photo: Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff


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