Ekphrasis

Film Commentary & Perspective

“Man’s Heart Away From Nature Becomes Hard”: Thoughts on Eco-Horror Films of the 1970s

The decade of the 1970s ushered in an unprecedented intellectual, philosophical, and scientific upsurge in the areas of environmentalism and nature conservation. Concerns with despoliation of nature and its concomitant effects propelled the scientific community to exhort legislators to be heedful of the state of the non-human environment during this period. Anxiety over potential/foreseeable/inevitable ecological fragility lead to the first observation of Earth Day in 1970 (March 21, the first day of Spring), creation of the Back-to-the-Land movement, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, major amendments to the Clean Air Act, the passing into federal law in 1972 of the Clean Water Act, the formation of CITES in 1975, and the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975).  These measures culminated in the decade-closing appearance of James Lovelock’s Gaia: a New Look at the Earth (1979), which promulgated the Gaia Principle.

As during the decade of the 1950s when apprehension over atomic power supplied Hollywood with material for innumerable ‘creature features’, so this new uneasiness over ecological entropy gave way to a resurgence of similarly-themed Eco-Horror films throughout the 1970s. With eco-system sustainability, biodiversity, and land ethics under fire, Hollywood responded with a liberal (Liberal) serving of Man versus Nature horror shows. One of the earliest of these was Frogs from 1972, directed by George McCowan and starring Sam Elliott, Ray Milland, and Joan Van Ark. In this ‘Nature-bites-back’ shocker, Jason Crockett (Milland) and his kin, a family of feckless and privileged southerners, are ‘besieged’ by the fauna surrounding their plantation-style manor: the croaking of the frogs keeps them awake at night. Complete with African American servants (slaves), the film seems an antebellum morality play. Waging war against the amphibians requires the constant spraying of pesticides. Crockett views man as ‘master of all’, a philosophical tenet that clearly allows him to effect his quasi-system of slavery, as well as his systematic environmental poisoning. Events unfold over Crockett’s birthday which, coincidentally, is also Independence Day. With the Crockett demesne draped in Stars and Stripes bunting, the film continually inserts shots of the advancing army of marching (hopping) frogs as they approach the homestead.

frogs

Intruding into this seeming southern idyll is Pickett (Sam Elliott), a freelance photographer capturing images for a magazine layout. The film’s opening credit sequence features Pickett paddling a canoe, hearkening back to a bygone era of serene exploration. This pacific and tranquil marshland setting is broken only by the soft lapping of waves and the gentle click of Pickett’s camera. He begins photographing images of the apparent pristine environs, of  the resident flora and fauna. This pastoral serenity is quickly vitiated when he begins capturing images of environmental contamination: sludge spewing from drain pipes, scum foaming the water’s surface, floating aluminum cans. This physical pollution is then accompanied by audible pollution with the discordant sound of a motor boat; a member of the Crockett clan drunkenly joyriding (Cole Crockett, believing he is entitled to do whatever he feels on, and to, the water). The swell from the motor craft causes Pickett’s canoe to capsize and leads eventually to his introduction to the Crockett patriarch. It is obvious the film presents an antagonistic duality between the two main male characters, especially given the similarity of their nomenclature. Pickett is the ecologically dedicated interloper, Crockett the equally dedicated despoiler. Pickett is young, virile, and idealistic. Crockett is old, pragmatic (in his view), and infirm, being confined to a wheelchair. Despite his abundant wealth, it is obvious Crockett is a superannuated capitalist, representing an unrealistic, antediluvian, and decaying way of life. Forced to comply with costly anti-pollution controls, he is particularly aggrieved. This is America, his property, and he should be free to do as he pleases. What he fails to recognize is that nature has reached its breaking point, and in consequence, the Crockett household is depleted through deadly encounters with tarantulas, lizards, alligators, snapping turtles, birds, and for Jason, frogs.

Released the same year, Night of the Lepus (dir. William F. Claxton), hues close to mutant-monster tropes of the 1950s. In the film man’s meddling with nature produces gigantic, carnivorous, chemically-modified rabbits which run amok through an Arizona town.  Attempting to control and combat an invasion of rabbits on his farm, rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun), turns to scientists Roy (Stuart Whitman) and Gerry Bennett (Janet Leigh). Their solution is to use chemicals to interrupt the breeding cycle of the rabbits. Of course, events go awry and instead of controlling the normal rabbit population, an army of oversized bunnies is created. While the film is arrant nonsense, and no more terrifying than a Bugs Bunny short, its metaphorical cautionary element about overpopulation certainly lends it a modicum of gravity and ‘70s pertinence. Generously, one can find themes of import within its ludicrous narrative framework: (i)the chemical procreative control of a species recalls the eugenic experimentation and the forced sterilization conducted by the Nazis;  and (ii) the folly of man tampering with the natural reproductive cycle of a species. The film works best as an ironic comment on human propagation. The ‘rabbit test’, for decades a means to determine whether a human female is pregnant, resulted in the death of the subject rabbit, whether the female turned out to be pregnant or not. Claxton’s film can be viewed as a crafty revenge tale, in which the rabbits get even, by not only reproducing unrestrained, but by becoming carnivorous as a result of their mutation, thus culling the human population which for years had decimated the rabbit population.

Lepus terror

Empire of the Ants (dir. Bert I Gordon, 1977), like Lepus, features another modified species. Exposed to illegal dumping of chemical waste, ants in Florida grow to the size of automobiles. Real estate developer, and “bitch”, Marilyn (Joan Collins), attempts to inveigle a group of prospective buyers into purchasing property in a new development called Dreamland Shores. She assembles the group for a tour of the land. Despite the halcyon-sounding realty, Dreamland Shores is actually worthless swampland; Marilyn is running a fraudulent beachfront property scam. A shyster, she is as culpable as the anonymous polluters who dump barrels of toxic waste off of Dreamland Shores during the opening of the film. When she announces to the tour group, “if we’re really lucky we may get a glimpse of the fascinating wildlife in this area”, irony is really all the film has to offer. Unbeknownst to Marilyn, the ‘clients’ she has lured on her tour are comprised completely of individuals nearly as duplicitous as herself: Miss Ellis has just been recently terminated, Joe has no job and owes a fortune in alimony, Henry and Velma, are retirees who have only come along for the free food, and Larry, although married, wastes no time in hitting up another woman. Marilyn, like the queen ant she is forced to confront at the conclusion of the film, is equally as predatory, herding her group of followers in a fashion similar to the natural trait of the ants. The ants instinctually attack other ants for supremacy and position-a characteristic which is observed within the tour group itself (though lacking the social component that makes the ant so formidable a creature). For example, rather than risk his life, Larry watches his wife Christine being killed by the giant insects. Marilyn’s group of possible buyers therefore suggests individuals at the low end of the human evolutionary chain. Much like Frogs, Ants presents a subverted Darwinian struggle with the worthless, cowardly, ineffectual humans being exterminated by a now advanced, aggressive dominant  non-human species. Total supremacy is seen towards the end of the film when one realizes that the ants, using pheromones, have indoctrinated the entire resident population. As the chief of police asserts, “we can work for them, feed them, that’s the way it should be, since they are superior”.

empire_of_ants_poster_01

Rattlers (dir. John McCauley, 1976) takes place in an oft-used setting for the horror films of the 1950s; that of the baked, harsh, arid, and barren desert. This setting of course deliberately recalls government sanctioned atomic explosions, the work at Los Alamos, and the 1945 Trinity Test at Alamogordo (New Mexico). In the film a herpetologist, Dr. Tom Parkinson (Sam Chew), is asked to investigate a series of deaths that appear to be caused by rattlesnakes. As Parkinson affirms, reptiles do not usually make unprovoked attacks. Since one victim was killed while asleep, the behaviour of the snakes thus becomes perplexing. The puzzle is eventually solved when Tom discovers an army installation in the desert which has been creating a new form of nerve gas, a covert, government-sanctioned bio-chemical weapon to be used should the Cold War heat up. Eventually ordered to scrap the project, barrels of this new nerve gas are buried in a mine shaft and ultimately infect the existing rattler population. Predictably, the base is operated by the renegade and hawkish Colonel Stroud. A fanatical Cold War warrior, he continues with the production of the viral CT3, justifying his insubordination with the paranoid proclamation “Do you think the Chinese or Russians care about the Geneva Conventions?” Enough films of the 1970s traded on a prevalent American belief in their government’s nefarious activities. Watergate confirmed that reality, while fictional films such as The Parallax View, Executive Action, The Killer Elite, and Three Days of the Condor, maintained that sense of shadowy CIA machinations and political mistrust. Rattlers depiction of a government installation producing deadly biological weapons, of bypassing safety protocols regarding disposal, of burying toxins in the ground, and the creation of homegrown environmental catastrophes mirror such actual calamities of the Seventies such as Love Canal and Three Mile Island.

rattlers_poster_01

Interestingly, Lepus and Ants, two films which are throwbacks to the era of 1950s gigantic creature features, attempt to mitigate their ostensible implausibility with prologues emphasizing and espousing scientific fact to support their dubious subject matter. The Night of the Lepus opens with actual newsreel footage depicting a plague of rabbits rampaging through Australia in the 1950s. Empire of the Ants uses documentary footage of the insects and provides narration in sonorous prophet-of-doom cadences to sell its message of impending peril. The Eco-Horror film of the 1970s attempts to not be the nonsensical cautionary parables of the 1950s atomic age. A decade’s worth of cinema which presented radioactive-mutated arachnids (Tarantula, 1955), ants (Them!, 1954), dinosaurs (The Beast From 20 000 Fathoms, 1953), and a giant octopus (It Came From Beneath the Sea, 1955), among others. It certainly helped that the  1971 documentary The Hellstrom Chronicles presented, (according to IMDB), “a scientist explain[ing] how the savagery and efficiency of the insect world could result in their taking over the world”, would end up garnering an Academy Award nomination. Two years later the film Phase IV (dir. Saul Bass) illustrated a fictionalized version of the above, with regular-sized ants attacking a scientific installation in the desert. The eco-horror film of the 1970s, despite its occasional fantastic narrative, ushered in an era of seeming scientific validity and authenticity. The cinema-goer of the 1970s was more willing to be informed and educated. The ecological fear these films attempted to exploit, persuasively had the potential for credibility, in comparison to the horror films of the dawning atomic age.

 – dszostak –

American Transients: Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy

We’re not in the American century anymore. Though it feels like most of Hollywood is in denial, using nationalist spectacle to cope with our undulant, post-9/11, pseudo e-world. Its studios churn out franchise pictures about heroes who save America from endless threats; stories that shore up uncertain pasts with pixelated certainty; and a plethora of revenge films that funnel American anger into images of mass destruction and therapeutic retribution.[1] Just look at some of the most recent Oscar nominees for best picture – Argo, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, and Django Unchained. Even these “prestige films” lean on the action-image to soothe a fractured American psyche.[2] Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the internet, Netflix, and the home theatre have convinced producers that multimillion dollar spectacle is the only way to get consumers away from their flatscreens and into the multiplex.[3] It’s tough to imagine a more oppositional or singular cinema getting much room to breathe in this climate (there are always exceptions). We’re not exactly in the seventies anymore.

Even so, a critical cinema persists on the outskirts, imbued with a sense of political outrage and exhaustion that opposes the spectacle’s dogged denial of reality. It is an anti-franchise cinema. It exhales slowly. Its narratives unfurl in open spaces populated with discomforting figures. Kelly Reichardt is one of its preeminent auteurs and her films Old Joy (2006) and Wendy & Lucy (2008) are windows into its form. They move to organic rhythms and pose uncomfortable questions about America’s social fabric and the persistent threat of its unraveling from the outside, in. One purpose of Ekphrasis is to point our readers in other directions, which we have done before with Winter’s Bone. We’re at it again.

Old Joy

The film opens on a small bird, which quickly flutters away from the corner of an eaves trough. Mark (Daniel London) is meditating in his sun-drenched backyard, though he doesn’t appear to be much relaxed. His feeble calm is disturbed by his pregnant wife blending a drink and Kurt (Will Oldham), an old friend who leaves a coy message saying that wants to get together for a hiking trip to a hot spring in the Cascade Mountains. Mark’s wife seems to resent Kurt’s intrusion, but he agrees to the trip anyway. So the plot is simple enough – two old pals go on a hiking trip to reconnect and relive their old joy for a few fleeting hours. But what follows is its own meditation on American transience and regret in the nadir of the Bush years.

Mark waits for Kurt.

Mark waits for Kurt.

Reichardt’s themes emerge through her characters, which are finely drawn but not overwritten. Their pasts and motives are left open and we identify with them through our own acts of imagination. There is a wonderful freedom of interpretation that resists the drumbeat of the escapist cinema of sequels and prequels that fetishize every detail of characters’ lives and universes to the point of boredom. We can participate in the making of this cinema, in a way, because our perspective is integral to its meaning, though the process is not wholly open. Reichardt builds the basic structure and establishes the thematic palette. Mark and Kurt go on a short camping trip to a hot spring in the Cascade Mountains. They get lost on the first day and end up camping in a dilapidated area of the forest where they talk about their lives over beer and BB guns. Kurt discusses his theory of a tear-shaped universe before bursting into tears, saying to Mark, “I miss you. I miss you really really bad. I want us to be real friends again. There’s something between us and I don’t like it…I want it to go away.” Kurt voices the unnamed tension that we’ve already felt and which lingers after his words dissipate. Mark tries to reassure Kurt that their relationship is fine and Kurt dismisses his outburst as crazy. They eventually make it to the hot spring the next day, where Mark cannot relax until Kurt massages his shoulders in a richly ambiguous scene of fleeting connection. They return to town that night and go their separate ways. The film concludes with a sense that the trip was not ultimately a reconnection, but an ending.

Kurt opens up to Mark.

Kurt opens up to Mark.

So we know that Mark and Kurt are friends who have grown apart, but the exact nature of their past is mired in the fog of time and unspoken sentiment. When did they know each other? What happened to their relationship? Why does Mark agree to the trip? Just what does Kurt want from Mark? We don’t know, but we don’t need to. The dramatic tension is cinematic, not literary. What we need to know about the characters surfaces through the cinematic means of composition, expression, cutting, and dialogue. The film’s form also brilliantly exploits our cinematically conditioned expectations, which privilege sex and violence. As Reichardt explained in an interview “The two things that are somewhat inherent in [a story about] going into the mountains alone with someone, especially if they’re going to a hot spring, are the loneliness and desertedness or whatever it is of being in the forest and then sexuality. They’re either going to kill each other or they’re going to fuck each other – one of those things is bound to happen! A lot of that is just the anticipation that people bring with them from a million years of movie watching.”[4] Of course as the film unfolds we don’t see them do either, at least not on screen. What we have is a metaphoric and emotional drama unfolding between the images. We see its shadows.

Mark, who might be in his early 30s, is anxious about the future and his imminent fatherhood. He is also plagued by latent regrets about the conformist choices that he has made : wife, suburban home, stable job, and soon a child. Meditation is an attempt to neutralize his anxiety. Mark listens obsessively to talk radio as he drives through shabby towns and landscapes – a brilliant use of diegetic sound to establish the film’s political anxieties. Old Joy is set in the middle of the Bush presidency after all and we hear Air America radio pundits endlessly debating America’s apparent lack of a viable third party and the GOP’s history of divisive political strategy. Reichardt is pointing out America’s deep divisions, which the GOP exploits and the Democrats are impotent to mend. Mark clearly shares these concerns, but the film posits a damning answer to the question of a third way and to the general sense of malaise in 2006. As Reichardt commented “I think of Mark as this guy who really wants world peace, but at the end of the day he can’t even be totally forthcoming and honest and giving to his wife or to a good old friend.”[5] Mark’s self-imposed isolation is a sign of his cruelty and a symptom of his investment in American individualism and its concomitant pursuit of middle class stability. It is a decision not to connect, rather than an inability, which ultimately infects his relationship with Kurt (which is paternalistic) and hints at America’s political quandary. Relationships are transient, just like the post-industrial communities of America that are holding onto a fast fading past. As Dave Kehr writes, the film is not about “…friendship but betrayal; not nostalgia but the impossibility of reliving times past; not about generational solidarity but lonely individualism.”[6] Old Joy is saturated with loneliness and regret at the passing of time. Mark and Kurt try to relive old times, only to discover that every remnant of their youth is fading. When Kurt learns their local record store, Sid’s, has closed to sell music on ebay, he sighs: “No more Sid’s. End of an era.”

Old Joy's landscapes are often melancholic.

Old Joy’s landscapes are often melancholic.

Kurt is Mark’s foil; he is non-conformist and non-committal. While Mark worries about doing “whatever it is people do” when his child arrives, Kurt is irresponsible, unreliable, and erratic. He is a transient who wafts in and out of other people’s lives, unable to commit to a relationship or a cause. He tells Mark that he is staying with a friend in town, but the film suggests that he lives in his van. He’s burned too many bridges. Later on, as Mark talks about his impending fatherhood, Kurt blurts out: “I’ve not gotten myself into anything that I couldn’t get myself out of. It’s just…having a kid is so fucking for real.” Kurt constantly pontificates about order and meaning in life and in the universe, but his own life is marked by disorder and chaos. Time and age have turned Kurt’s wandering life from romantic adventure into pathetic antic.

I would be remiss if I did not say something about Reichardt’s inspired decision to cast Will Oldham as Kurt. Oldham is best known as the songwriter and musician called Bonnie “Prince” Billy, though he has performed under a variety of names.[7] He is the kind of singer that lazy music journalists call a “troubadour”, though his work is far too singular and unpredictable to be summarized, and with such a trite label at that. Oldham began acting as a kid in the early 80s and he starred in his first big role alongside Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, and Mary McDonnell in John Sayles’s brilliant film Matewan (1987), which tells the story of a violent coal mining strike in 1920s West Virginia. Oldham played a child preacher named Danny Radnour who is radicalized by the company’s violent strikebreaking tactics. After landing a few other roles in the late 80s, however, he left Hollywood to pursue music.[8]

Oldham approaches music making cinematically, with an awareness of the dialectic between artifice and authenticity that is inherent in art – a tension that contemporary “indie” music often lacks, obsessed as it is with the authenticity of personal expression. Bonnie “Prince” Billy is a character and each recording is a performance of character in a way that is not just a musical expression of Will Oldham’s own thoughts and feelings, but a complex combination of himself and of his character. He has even said that he structures and conceptualizes each Bonnie “Prince” Billy album like a film and would prefer that record stores categorize albums by title rather than by “artist”.

Oldham never gave up acting in films entirely, but music is where he honed the kind of performance that suited him to play Kurt. His Bonnie “Prince” Billy persona shares many of Kurt’s qualities, though often in greater extremes; and many Bonnie “Prince” Billy songs share Old Joy’s concerns, not the least of which is brotherhood. Oldham’s classic song I See A Darkness is one of the greatest songs about a male friendship ever written and could in many ways be a theme song for Old Joy. Most important, though, is the physicality that Oldham brings to musical performance. He manages to get so much expression – so much character – out of his voice because of the way he moves, subtly contorting his face and angling his body more like a method actor than a singer. Oldham brings this ability to wholly inhabit a character in mind, body, and voice to his interpretation of Kurt and the result is mesmeric. Kurt emerges through Oldham’s movements, twitches, shrugs, intonations, and glances. We get a sense of Kurt’s impulsiveness and vulnerability just by watching him tell stories in close up in the car. And throughout the film, Oldham imbues his body with a subtle spastic energy that suggests Kurt’s carefree but erratic nature and gives us a sense of his past. Bearded, balding, and mischievous in his shabby clothes, Kurt doesn’t look much different from Will Oldham in the recording studio. The performance is marvelously crafted and beautifully executed and only Will Oldham could have pulled it off.

Old Joy revolves around its two longest scenes: the flickering campfire scene where Kurt voices the tension he feels with Mark, and the film’s narrative climax at the hot spring, where the tension accumulates before it briefly dissolves. Reichardt has described Old Joy as “a western in a way, with a new kind of competitiveness that challenges each other’s openness. Which comes to a head at the tubs.”[9] Western imagery abounds throughout the film, though this idea is most fully realized in the scene at the tubs, which plays like a western co-directed by Sergio Leone and Terrence Malick.[10] The entire film builds up to this point and Reichardt heightens the tension with an extended hike to the hot springs on the second day and excruciating cutting between Mark, Kurt, and nature once they arrive at their destination. This building tension is conditioned by the expectations of our film culture (as we have already seen), Reichardt’s subtle visual cues, and our questions about the direction Mark and Kurt’s relationship is going. What happened in the past and what is going to happen now? The narrative possibilities are nearly endless, from sex, betrayal, or murder, to the more mundane. Extreme close ups of each character are interspersed with abstract compositions of feet, clothing, flora, and fauna. Nature emerges as its own character and the air is thick with silent tension, running water. The scene is a confrontation of competing openness and its structure clearly comes from the western genre.[11]

The use of BB guns at the earlier campfire scene subtly establishes the sense of an impending western showdown.

The use of BB guns at the earlier campfire scene subtly establishes the sense of an impending western showdown.

Mark shoots a BB gun.

Mark shoots a BB gun.

A shot of the hot spring that wouldn't be out of place in a western.

A shot of the hot spring that wouldn’t be out of place in a western.

Some abstract compositions from the film.

Some abstract compositions from the film.

OJ 23

OJ 17

Kurt, in the end, is the more open character. Unable to stand the silence, he tells more of his idiosyncratic stories and Mark finally begins to relax. Soon Kurt walks over to Mark’s tub and begins to massage his shoulders. Mark resists at first, but he eventually relaxes as his hand falls gently into the water. The scene is rich with ambiguity and sexual overtones, though I think that the reconnection here is fraternal and, the film suggests, tinged with finality. It is as if the two have finally come to a moment of understanding illustrated visually as a purity of experience that is only briefly unmediated by sorrow, regret, and selfishness. Kurt makes this understanding plain for us in a poetic summary of the film through his dream about an encounter with a Indian cashier who comforts him, saying: “It’s okay. You’re okay. Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy.”

"Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy."

“Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy.”

The hot spring scene, like the rest of the film, unfolds slowly and – one is tempted to say – naturally. As J.J. Walker has pointed out, Reichardt works in a different sense of time. We might even call it a more spiritual, Tarkovskian sense of time, resistant to the industrial capitalist structure of production that is in the very nature of the medium (still images rolling past us like an assembly line) and to the late capitalist barrage of images that persists in our digital cinema.[12] The slowness is contemplative but lonely. In one scene, the camera stays behind in the car as Mark gets out for a break from driving…and from Kurt. Reichardt keeps the shot going as Mark’s phone rings, he comes back to get it, and walks away again to talk to his wife (another source of tension) while Kurt watches and smokes. The literal and metaphoric sense of separation is palpable without cutting or music to cue our emotions.

Kurt waits for Mark in an extended shot.

Kurt waits for Mark in an extended shot.

Old Joy ends quietly. Mark and Kurt leave the hot spring in silence and the drive home is almost peaceful, as if something had resolved. They do not get back to town until well after dark. The film’s final shots suggest that the imperfections and regrets of their lives will be hard to escape and that the remainder of the Bush years will be hard on average people. As soon as Kurt gets out of the car, Mark returns to Air America. In a foreshadowing of Reichardt’s next film, the pundits discuss inflation and America’s uncertain future. Housing, healthcare, energy – the “overwhelming share of the budget of an ordinary family” is being squeezed by the rising cost of living. Nothing better is visible on the horizon to which Mark is always looking. Meanwhile Kurt returns to his life of impoverished transience. We see him on the street trying to find food that he can afford. But as Mark resumes his self-centered anxieties, Kurt gives to a panhandler when he can least afford it. Despite his problems, Kurt can still get outside of himself. Both men are lonely and insecure, but Kurt shows more humanity; the possibility for a third way. Directionless, he walks off camera into the night.

Mark returns to political radio.

Mark returns to political radio.

Kurt disappears into the night.

Kurt disappears into the night.

Coda: Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Reichardt’s next film, Wendy and Lucy (2008), takes place near the end of the Bush years, just before the “Great Recession” of 2008. It is a sympathetic portrayal of another spectral character, Wendy, and her struggle to find work in a crumbling American economy without a social safety net. The limits of sympathy in tough times and political failure are the heart of this beautifully realized film, which is Reichardt’s greatest achievement to date and one the best films of its decade. By way of conclusion, I want briefly to consider some of its thematic accomplishments as a critical cinema focused on American life on the outskirts.

Wendy and Lucy begins and ends with the movement of trains, evoking the desperate plight of thousands during the Great Depression as well Wendy’s tragic rootlessness. We first meet Wendy (Michelle Williams) walking in a clearing with Lucy (her dog), unobserved by the world. She hums quietly. Wendy is on her way to Alaska to find work when her car breaks down in a depressed part of Oregon. She has very little money and cannot afford to be unemployed much longer, but she has to wait for the nearest mechanic to fix her car. In the meantime, she gets caught shoplifting dog food in a grocery store (“The rules apply to everyone equally” says the young zealot who catches her). Lucy remains tied up outside the store while Wendy is fingerprinted and fined at the local police station. Lucy is gone when she returns. The rest of the film follows Wendy’s growing desperation as her money runs out and she searches frantically for her dog. Economic circumstance begins to dictate her decisions.

One of the film's opening shots.

One of the film’s opening shots.

Wendy and Lucy passing through, unobserved.

Wendy and Lucy passing through, unobserved.

The film’s soundscape, like much of its imagery, evokes Wendy’s transience and her alienation from mainstream America. There is no music (except for Wendy’s humming), only the sounds of trains, empty space, or cars buzzing by on the interstate. It is most often an ugly, postindustrial soundscape of constant motion and the forgotten, degraded spaces that it elides. The periodically beautiful natural landscapes through which Wendy walks pose a question about the relationship between our forms of movement and forms of nature. Reichardt also seems to be commenting on the atomizing effects of the pointless, mechanized motion that marks postindustrial society. In such a society, a tragic figure like Wendy wanders quietly by, unseen or heard over the din of traffic. But her own motive form is a source of dignity, even if her rootlessness is far from romantic.

Wendy sleeps in her car.

Wendy sleeps in her car.

Wendy and Lucy is also a critique of the conservative (sometimes libertarian) socioeconomic ideology that dominated America in 2008, and now. She has no community or family to fall back on. Rootlessness does not often beget stability in modern America, and so we watch her descend into grinding poverty and despair, as a matter of circumstance and design. As one character decries, “You can’t get an address without an address. You can’t get a job without a job. It’s all fixed.” So the film asks: how do people like Wendy figure in our society? What do we owe to each other? What kind of politics do we want to create?

An image of America in 2008.

An image of America in 2008.

Like Mark and Kurt, we are left in the dark about much of Wendy’s past. We do not know who she is or where she came from. We know only that she is poor and transient, just passing through, unknown. We do not know why she is jobless and apparently living out of her car. We do not know how she came to own Lucy or why she does not seem to have parents. When Wendy calls her sister about her situation, her sister asks “What does she want us to do about it?” We don’t know the story behind this tension either – is Wendy always screwing up or is she neglected? As in Old Joy, the audience is responsible for the backstory. But in many ways, it doesn’t matter. Wendy is a character who clearly needs a break in a system that will not give her one. The sympathy and generosity of strangers for someone passing through their already busy lives is limited and ultimately ineffective. She meets a kind Walgreens security guard who watches over her car, offers her company and the use of his phone, and secretly gives her what he can – six dollars. As the mechanic comes to understand her situation, he also gives her what break he can. But both the mechanic and the Walgreens security guard are embedded in the same system, ultimately helpless. Neither can give her the means to escape poverty. Both have their own lives and problems and limitations.

Wendy tries to call her sister.

Wendy tries to call her sister.

The sympathetic Walgreens security guard does what little he can for Wendy.

The sympathetic Walgreens security guard does what little he can for Wendy.

In an interesting, “meta” sort of way, the film itself is an act of sympathy, but just as impotent as its characters. Reichardt is clearly sympathetic to Wendy (and those like her), much more so than Mark and Kurt. Sure, Kurt was likeable. But Wendy is downright tragic and sympathetic. We want to help her. We are brought to indignation about her circumstances. Portraying a pivotal moment in her life in a semi-neo-realist way is a form of sympathy, which is, no doubt, indebted to Michelle William’s compassionate and careful performance. She brilliantly conveys the inner life of a person who is so often forced to withhold her emotions, except when she is most herself – alone with Lucy. We can see vividly that her mobile life is nightmarish, and not clearly the fault of any one individual in the film. This is a tragedy that personalizes the social.

The shot of Wendy peering teary-eyed through the chain link fence that separates her from Lucy encapsulates this sense of the film. Here is despairing young woman, banished by circumstance to the outskirts of life in the richest nation in the world. We the audience have spent 80 minutes in her life, as helpless as those who happen to notice her to do anything significant for her. And as she is forced to the economic decision that finally breaks her, we think of the parting words of the sympathic security guard: “I hope it all works out. I know it will.”

WL 14

-cwellum-

Endnotes

[1] One could add the recently popular “apocalyptic future” theme to the same effect.
[2] This, despite the fact that “We hardly believe any longer that a global situation can give rise to an action which is capable of modifying it…” Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, 206.
[3] “The loss of quality that is so evident at every level of spectacular language, from the objects it glorifies to the behavior it regulates, stems from the basic nature of a production system that shuns reality. The commodity form reduces everything to quantitative equivalence. The quantitative is what it develops, and it can develop only within the quantitative.” – Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 38.
[4] Quoted in J.J. Murphy, “A similar sense of time: The collaboration between writer Jon Raymond and director Kelly Reichardt in Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy,” in Analyzing the Screenplay, edited by Jill Nelmes (Routledge, New York, 2011), 169.
[5] Quoted in ibid, 164.
[6] Quoted in ibid, 165 – 166.
[7] Including, but not limited to, Palace, Palace Music, Palace Brothers, Bonny Billy, The Amalgamated Sons of Rest, and under his own name.
[8] At the time, Oldham was disillusioned with the filmmaking process in Hollywood. He recently recalled: “[I] didn’t want to be in that system and now making records it’s still a constant battle, swimming upstream. Maybe I just learned, eventually, that that’s what a person has to do, but at that time I thought there’s probably a life that’s more natural, that I am suited for, and it’s not this acting thing…” From Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy edited by Alan Licht (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012), 30 – 31.
[9] Quoted in Murphy, 164.
[10] Sergio Leone is famous for, among other things, his agonizingly long shoot outs, particularly in the “man with no name” series of films starring Clint Eastwood. Terrence Malick’s cinema is marked by a discursive poetics, loose narrative, and frequent visual/philosophical references to nature.
[11] It is not insignificant that Reichardt eventually made a full blown western, Meek’s Cutoff in 2010.
[12] This is a reference to the legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, who worked in extremely long takes in the second half of his career to sometimes, almost, transcendental effect. Tarkovsky’s sense of movement and visual precision has never been matched.

Old Joy/Wendy and Lucy on Monday

On Monday we will publish Caleb’s short piece on two Kelly Reichardt films – Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008). “American Transients” considers the political, outskirts aesthetic of these important American films, which resist American cinema’s current penchant for nationalist spectacle and hipster whimsy. Check out our “films” page for links to the trailers.

Mark and Kurt try to reconnect on a weekend hiking trip in Old Joy.

Mark and Kurt try to reconnect on a weekend hiking trip in Old Joy.

The poster for Reichardt's realist portrait of transience, Wendy and Lucy.

The poster for Reichardt’s realist portrait of transience, Wendy and Lucy.

Sins Like Scarlet: On Wes Craven’s “Deadly Blessing” (1981)

When Wes Craven admitted his reluctance to helm a horror film as his first feature, his producing partner Sean S Cunningham assured the then college professor that he was perfect for the job. “You were raised fundamentalist …Use it!”[1], Cunningham declared. The resultant rape-revenge film, a fractured retelling of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1961), Last House on the Left (1972), was a film that critics (Roger Ebert [RIP] was a notable exception) at the time decried as reprehensible, repugnant, repulsive; in other words, box office gold. The film became an audience litmus test for permissible cinematic material.[2] Nine years later, Craven’s third feature would take themes from his Baptist upbringing: apostasy, fear, intolerance, repression and bring them to the fore in his film Deadly Blessing (1981).

deadly blessing 2

The film opens with a black and white montage of still images. The impression is of watching a succession of slides from an old 16mm educational film about an antiquated rural farming community. As the images progress from b/w to color and from still imagery to movement, sonorous narration informs us that this is an agricultural populace “untouched by time”: a community of Hittites, Craven’s fictional sect (and most likely modelled on the Huterittes)[3]; staunchly traditional and steadfastly insular, this is a society which embraces the rustic simplicity. If the opening moments of the film seem a paean to the wholesome pleasures of the bucolic, Craven belies this instantly with the beginning strains of James Horner’s score, discordant notes with a satanic-sounding choir. He furthers this impression with the film proper opening on scenes of the presumably quotidian lot of these individuals: phalanxes of sartorially (drably) and similarly dressed individuals bent-forward in backbreaking fashion, hoeing and raking the fields. Craven depicts lines of Amish automatons bound by conformity and overseen by the community elder Isaiah Schmidt (Ernest Borgnine). Borgnine’s performance is a series of severe scowls. He is so gruff, stern, and dyspeptic; he is like a Mennonite Yosemite Sam. Elder Isaiah is so unyielding in his veneration, so unswerving in his command of his flock he mars the solemnity of a funeral to make a public display of corporal punishment; thrashing repeatedly a little boy across the hands for his perceived disobedience.

Ernest Borgnine as the dyspeptic Isaiah Schmidt.

Ernest Borgnine as the dyspeptic Isaiah Schmidt.

The sameness of these men, the children who are miniature simulacrums, the impression of an assembly line, this drudgery elicits a feeling of monotony, tedium and cultishness. This ascetic farming work ethic is mocked by Craven with the first clue that this is not a period piece. Amongst the raking and hoeing is the sound of an engine starting. A massive John Deere tractor is deliberately juxtaposed with the work of the Hittites. Driven by one man, the machine can do the work of dozens of apostles. Riding the tractor is Jim (Douglas Barr), an excommunicated member of the sect, and former son of Isaiah (“He is dead to us”), but now happily married to his city-gal Martha (Maren Jensen), and living in a somewhat uneasy propinquity with his former congregation. When Jim’s brother John (Jeff East), still among the flock, waves at him from his horse-drawn buggy, Isaiah, admonishes John, ‘Do not covet what he has, we have no use for that kind of machinery’. Craven makes obvious the foolishness of such a position: a farming community shunning something that would make their life that much contented: an example of their stubborn traditionalist philosophy. This is made manifest when a group of young Hittites sneak into John’s “forbidden barn” and marvel at the magnitude of the machinery therein.

What Craven manufactures is a larger community of disparate individuals living in agrarian antagonism with each other. The deserter Jim lives alongside the Hittites, and beside them all are a couple of true outcasts, Louisa (Lois Nettleton) and her daughter Faith (Lisa Hartman). Boundaries are barely observed. William, a man/child Hittite, continually pesters Faith by calling her an ‘Incubus’, an ancient demon in male form who lies with sleeping women and has intercourse with them, basically a rapist. His exhortation ‘Death to the Incubus’ will prove surprisingly prescient when Faith is indeed killed at the end.

The ironically-named Faith is of course the fulcrum of the film. When first seen she is painting a landscape, an image of Jim’s homestead ‘Our Blessing’. Her canvas, with its inwardly warped and skewed imagery suggests a contorted Wyethesque landscape. Seen through her eyes, this is not surprising. Faith who, by the film’s climax, is revealed to be “half and half” as her mother describes her, is an oddity that a backward thinking community of traditionalists such as the Hittite’s would never know how to deal with. Faith’s hermaphrodictic biology would naturally be viewed as a deformity, unnatural and demonic by such an especially stringent and rigid thinking sect. Her feminine guise is the easiest pretense for her to maintain, and thus the one her mother Louisa insists upon. Her inherent gender amalgamation provides the sexual politics in the film; a commingling of the misandrist and the misogynist. Finding her daughter painting, Louisa asks why Faith “can’t paint her toenails like other girls do”. It’s clear that Louisa is doing her best to maintain the illusion of having a daughter. Abandoned after the birth of her strange baby by her husband, it is not surprising Louisa has misandrous feelings: “Men around here are hopeless..I swear if Faith had been a boy I think I’d’ve stuck her in the river like a sack of kittens…I guess my old man made me hate the whole breed”.

The patriarchal hegemony of the Hittites makes its female folk virtually invisible. Cloaked from head to toe in black with a white bonnet, they are a rabidly desexualized group. The one female sect member given any prominence is Isaiah’s niece Melissa (Colleen Riley). Betrothed to John, she suffers a near-rape by him, when he tells her how difficult it is ‘to wait’ for sexual release. Left slightly unhinged by the near sexual assault, she eventually unmasks Faith and kills her.

While Jim and Martha make love, someone, presumably Faith (Craven settles for the standard horror film P.O.V. shot) observes from outside the open bedroom door. Afterward, hearing a noise in the barn, Jim decides to investigate and is killed. Ironically he is crushed by his John Deere. Isaiah’s symbol of modernity, ease and technology ends the life of the former Hittite.

Devastated by the death, Martha is visited by two of her city friends Lana (Sharon Stone) and Vicky (Susan Buckner). Now ‘Our Blessing’ is home to a Trinity of attractive females. While the three lovely ladies have the look of Angels, the Hittite’s view them as Demons, whose biblical counterparts recall temptresses and witches such as Delilah, Jezebel, and Lilith. Their appearance, predictably, brings about a rift in the Hittite community; a seismic release in sexual pressure. John, unused to seeing a woman jogging braless and in short shorts, (and this being standard running garb, Vicky is unaware of her allure amongst this group of repressed males) is instantly besotted with Vicky. Although betrothed to Melissa, he is besotted by the modern, urbane woman. Shopping for wedding apparel with Melissa, he suggests the more revealing dress, the one with the low neckline. Melissa wants the “proper” dress, one that is far more modest. It is evidently his acquaintanceship with Vicky that roils inside and explodes in his sexually aggressive behavior; getting Melissa alone, throwing her on the ground in broad daylight (he is beyond caring about propriety) and pleading with her about “how hard” it is to wait. He rips her maidenly attire, but Melissa escapes back home. John is assured by Isaiah that he is now a “stench in the nostrils of God”. He deserts, and runs off to find Vicky.[4] Man/child William (Michael Berryman) sins by spying on a naked Martha. Craven plainly shows William’s voyeuristic act as transgressive by having continuous close ups of William’s eyes engorging with the sight of Martha’s disrobing. For his iniquitous behavior, he is promptly stabbed to death by an unknown assailant (clearly Faith, who we later learn is in love with Martha). Stone’s Lana is perhaps the cipher of the troika. With her boozing and pill popping (her vices/sins) she is the one most attuned to the possibility of the supernatural. These weaknesses seem to make her a catalyst (magnet?) for the imposition of the diabolical. Her first night at ‘Our Blessing’ she is confronted with a spider creeping slowly along her ceiling. The next morning she relates her nightmare about an arachnid metamorphosing into a man. Alone in the barn, she is stalked by an unseen presence; and there, is again victimized by spiders (one crawls inexorably across her chest making for her face, before she swats it away). She also warns continuously about someone coming for them (the Incubus?).

With Jim barely in the ground Isaiah offers to buy his property from Martha. She refuses. Martha’s independence and determination to continue to work the farm, to do a ‘man’s ‘work, leaves Isaiah condemning her to eternal damnation. There is certainly nothing neighborly and Christian about Isaiah’s sway over this rabidly insular community; as Faith tells Martha, the “Hittite’s tried to drive us out like everybody else”.

Like Last House on the Left which dealt with the brutality and humiliation of rape, sexual assault is a feature of almost all horror films according to Jason Zinoman:

“Rape has long been a theme of horror films, usually lurking right below the surface. At the intersection of sex and violence, the precise spot where the most disturbing horror films operate, anxiety about rape is on the minds of many audience members watching a young woman being chased on a dark night”[5]

Sharon Stone as Lana Marcus.

Sharon Stone as Lana Marcus.

The threat of rape, or subjugation of women, is not surprisingly a major theme of this film, given its depiction of the Hittites’ staunchly defended patriarchal ideology. The film’s most unsettling sequence takes place in Martha’s bathroom. Trying to find time to unwind, Martha decides to luxuriate in a bubble bath. Craven shoots this scene for maximum discomfort. While relaxing, an unknown intruder enters the house (apparently Martha never locks her doors) and releases a snake into the bathtub. Beyond the obvious biblical allusion of the serpent as Satan, Craven uses the herpetological threat for metaphorical rape (the elongated reptilian phallus). Martha is positioned less like someone enjoying a bath and more as a female undergoing a gynaecologic al exam. Her feet appear to be in stirrups awaiting the inevitable penetration. Likewise, Lana’s recurrent dream is presented as a disquieting rape fantasy. The first time she has the dream she describes it to Martha and Vicky in a breathy whisper; she seems equally unsettled and excited. This aforementioned dream involves a man who metamorphoses into a massive spider which, nevertheless, retains the human ability to whisper her name “as a lover would”. Craven shows us the next instance of her dream/nocturnal visitation. In an overhead shot, we see Lana lying prone in bed. We hear the same caressing voice whispering her name.

deadly blessing 5

A pair of hands grips the sides of her head, holding it immobile. That same lover’s modulated utterance implores her to open her mouth, wider and wider, until a spider from the ceiling drops into the inviting orifice. This is a comparable illustration of Martha’s near violent violation. Since Lana has already explained the mysterious dream man’s ability to shape shift into a spider, it is obvious that she is not merely swallowing an insect, but a representation of maleness. While the command may be given in the caressing tones of a lover, the two hands shown forcibly holding Lana’s head immobile for the assault repudiates any romantic or consensual intimacy.

deadly blessing 4

Deadly Blessing is a film of ambivalent notions of tolerance. The finale justifies Isaiah’s harsh position on interlopers and outsiders. The tacked-on, and tacky, just-when-you-thought-it-was-over climax vitiates any sympathy Craven engenders in film for the ‘different’, in favor of bolstering Isaiah’s deranged, paranoiac and hysterical religiosity against those perceived as odd or unique. The appearance of the actual demonic Incubus is shown to be a very real threat, and therefore validates the notion of Faith, the ‘other’ as conceivably being one of its minions.

The film exhibits a moralistic and inflexible perspective on sexuality and enforced gender. Near the end of the film, one finds sympathy for Faith and her predicament, as she cries to her mother: “I tried to be a little girl, I tried so hard”. Since the feminine half of her persona is the more prominently apparent, Faith has been forced to live in the world as a female, despite her biological sexual persona being masculine. Louisa, in maternal mode, says they have to silence Martha now that she knows about Faith’s real nature: “we ain’t got no secret no more, not if she lives”. Louisa is a woman betrayed by men, forced to singly parent a wholly different child in a prejudiced and hateful world that shuns and despises the unique, abnormal and unusual. Louisa, like every mother, merely wants to protect her child from ridicule, scorn and hostility. When Melissa stabs and kills Faith, and Isaiah pronounces “the messenger of the Incubus is dead” , the link between Faith’s distinctive self and her demonization is abundantly clear.[6]

– dszostak –


[1] Zinoman, Jason, Shock Value, The Penguin Press, New York, 2011 p. 74

[2] At least, perhaps, on commercial American cinema screens

[3] The Hittites were an ancient group of non-Semitic people of Asia Minor and Syria

[4] They are eventually both killed in one of the film’s numerous ‘What-the-fuck!’ moments

[5] Zinoman, Jason. Shock Value , The Penguin Press, New York, 2011, p.74

[6] I suppose some may point out Faith’s earlier denunciation of man/child William as a “pig-brain Hittite” as evidence of her intolerance for someone simpleminded. I see it more as a defense against constant verbal abuse and continual torment

On the Margins: Winter’s Bone, Independent Cinema, and Rural America

Several months ago, I sat in a bar and declared with an emphatic and slightly drunk thud of my fist that Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010) was “the future of American cinema.” Aided by a pitcher of domestic pale-ale, and with the confidence usually associated with having “one too many,” I loudly asserted that this was one of the greatest films to be released in the last decade. Looking back, the bold proclamation that Winter’s Bone was the “future of American cinema” seems downright silly. I’m not even sure what that phrase actually means (although it certainly has a controversial élan to it). It was a Schnaps-idee as the Bavarians say– an idea seen through the bottom of an empty glass of alcohol. Still, it’s hard to ignore the sparse and distilled brilliance of Winter’s Bone. And although the film may not be “the future of American cinema,” Winter’s Bone is a prime example of filmmaking that challenges the melodramatic escapism of contemporary Hollywood. Winter’s Bone will not revolutionize Hollywood’s investment in mega-buck epics and what author David Foster Wallace labeled, “special f/x porn.” But that’s the point. This is after all, a film about living close to the bone.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is left to care for her siblings

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is left to care for her siblings

Winter’s Bone begins at the shanty with the sagging roof deep in the rural Midwest. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) lives here with her younger brother and sister, and their mentally ill mother. It’s a measly existence, but she scrapes by. When the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) tells Ree that her father, Jessup, put the family’s house up as bond after an arrest for cooking meth and has fled, Ree is forced to pick up the pieces. In order to stop the law from taking her house Ree throws on her Carhartt jacket and hunts for the deadbeat Jessup. She starts by questioning the small-time crooks and vagrants she’s seen at family reunions. Suppressed resentments boil over, accusations of mistrust multiply, and carefully concealed secrets slowly crack open as Ree tracks down her father with the reluctant aid of her brutal uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes). Eventually she tracks down local kingpin and distant relation, Thump Milton (Ron “Stray Dog” Hall) who has all the answers but refuses to give any. Her prying and prodding raises the ire of the obdurate locals who are intent on keeping Jessup’s disappearance a secret.

On the surface, Winter’s Bone’s narrative is straightforward, using familiar tropes found in both the noir and western genres. Ree’s reluctant determination recalls the grimaced heroism of Bogie’s Sam Spade. In other ways, Ree’s search for truth is reminiscent of the lone cowboy whose moral acuity is misplaced in a land of savagery and lawlessness. Granik draws from other sources of inspiration too. The film’s representation (based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell) of the hollowed out heartland is hewn from the same literary imagination that spawned the works of Charles Bowden and Cormac McCarthy. The sallow countryside of scab-ash earth and twisted brush, the hard chatter of crows and the crack of a gunshot in the distance, the sparse dialogue and eruptions of violence, are all gothic in their rendering.

Winter’s Bone’s mise-en-scene reminds me of my own birthplace. I was born just outside of Marmora, an expired mining town in central Ontario. Not many people live there anymore and fringe habitations like those seen in Winter’s Bone are scattered across old logging trails and dirt roads in the Canadian Shield. Small cabins with tin roofs house the descendants of ambitious prospectors and fortune seekers whose claims were taken from them in men in three-piece suits during the gold craze. They are the grand children of sooty-faced miners whose hopes were swallowed up in the mine’s cavernous maw.

A Different Side of America

A Different Side of America

The gouged landscape, and the thick texture of the Ozarks captured by Michael McDonough’s photography, gives us a glimpse into a world whose anemic features are a revelation to most of us. The barrenness of the Ozarks is so pervasive, one only takes in stray details. Even the chickens, for want of better fare, pick away at the litter of rubble and mud. And yet, the filmmakers imbue the cold and austere Missouri backcountry with a strange beauty (*it’s a privileged beauty that only a comfortable outsider can have, I think. It’s doubtful that the locals in Granik’s world find any sort of “beauty” here.)

Like most alien places, there is also something unsettling in the woods. The viewer feels out of place here. The tension we feel is not merely a product of the drama onscreen, but also in our spectatorship. We are interloping, and the signs out here clearly state: No Trespassing! The feeling of intrusion is intentional. Winter’s Bone’s is fundamentally a meditation on alienated relationships whether they are national, communal, familial, or our own detachment from this part of America. Even the long arm of the law does not quite extend here. The Sheriff’s ability to enforce the State of Missouri’s decrees is met with resistance by the intransigent locals. Granik deftly ratchets up the tension in the film by playing these two opposite worlds off each other. The first instance occurs when Ree is first told that she must turn over her house to the court of law, and it sends her reeling into uncertainty and danger. The collision between civilization and “frontier” happens again when Ree resolves to join the U.S. Army in order to benefit from its financial package. She is shocked when the recruitment officer informs her that she does not meet the requirements for service. Ree tries to explain to the soldier that she needs the money, but he shrugs, clearly unable to help. Rules are rules after all.

Ree is Rejected by the U.S. Army

Ree is Rejected by the U.S. Army

Granik demonstrates that the rationale of the “real” world is incongruent with the material realities of Ozark life, and some people like Ree and her siblings are left to find other solutions. This consternation between civilization and outsider communities is evident in one of the film’s most taut scenes. The Sheriff, exercising his marshal authority, attempts to arrest Teardrop. Unable to reign in the outlaw, the sheriff is forced to back down when Teardrop pulls out his shotgun. Granik uses a series of closeups and obtuse angles to heighten the mood in a style reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s famous westerns. Teardrop’s threat of violence is (at least to the sheriff) irrational and nihilistic. Of course, Teardrop isn’t really being self-destructive here; he is guided by an ethic that is unrecognizable to rationale city folk and their deputies.

Winter’s Bone’s representation of rural life in the 21st century extends the boundaries established by the important films of the 1990s, which generally focused on the urban malaise of deindustrialization, American empire, and crises in masculinity. By repositioning the lens of the camera away from the city and suburbia toward America’s agrestic interior, Winter’s Bone reveals a forgotten America fractured by military conflicts and financial crises. This is the end of the line. America’s terminus. The refuse of Free Trade, outsourcing, and rampant, unchecked Capitalism. Washington’s urban-centred effort to reinvigorate the national economy and the faith of its people has overlooked these “wasted” regions. Left to there own devices, the periphery has adapted in unique and sometimes brutal ways. Winter’s Bone’s implicitly questions the rhetoric of American “prosperity” by contemplating life, death, and rebirth in the economic and social margins of the United States. The cinematic image’s strength is that it reveals a deeper sort of truth than those found on the surface. By constructing an inverted form of the mythologized American landscape, Granik challenges Hollywood’s partiality for banality and emptiness.

Some critics have accused Winter’s Bone of being “poverty porn.” I don’t think this criticism is accurate though. Granik doesn’t languish in the disenfranchised or the filth; she is more nuanced than that. True, this world is fascinating because of its alien-ness, but it isn’t fetishized. Without moral judgment, Granik documents the seedier facts of life on the fringe in almost utilitarian fashion. The poverty in Winter’s Bone is of the generational sort and there is no ”getting out.” Beneath this grimy exterior, however, there is also self-reliance. These people have huddled at the edge of an abyss and forged a hard life greased by subsistence hunting, drug trafficking, bribes, and squatting. Most notably, the Dolly’s family are involved in the Chrystal Methamphetamine trade, and although we feel ambivalent about whom to sympathize with, we begin to understand why things are the way they are.

Granik uses, I think, the bleakness of Ozark life (the drug trade, spousal abuse, violence etc.) to challenge the affluence and conservatism represented in Hollywood cinema. By recasting the aesthetic traditions and themes of Americana and outsider art previously explored by the likes of Robert Frank, Charlie Chaplin, Woody Guthrie, Jacob Riis, and Terrence Malick, amongst others, Granik creates a portrait of outsider cultures. In doing so, Granik authentically documents a world whose aspect is receding from our cultural memories. Symbolically, Granik creates a landscape that is entombed in the past and at the same time an apocalyptic photograph of the future. Symbolically, the mausoleum of ancient machines covered in blood-red rust, windowless school buses, and John Deere tractors tangled in weed, represents the past, present, and future of the American hinterland.

Debra Granik’s grasp of her subject, and the precision with which she directs her actors in this tense thriller is impressive. But it is impossible to discuss the film’s significance in American cinema without mentioning the critical role of gender in Winter’s Bone. Granik takes the traditional masculine depiction of rural life and subverts it by framing everything that unfolds through Ree’s piercing gaze. As Granik noted in an interview, “every few years we need a gal on screen who can walk the walk of a hero…” Winter’s Bone is a feminist film about an anti-feminist world. In the movie, men represent power, and authority, with Thumper serving as the tribe’s patriarch. Most of the dialogue between the women characters is about men and their power. However, the men in the film fail abysmally through cowardice, greed, and spite. Ree on the other hand is a hero while still maintaining her femininity. Throughout the film, we see Ree in a nurturing role as she protects her family and seeks non-violent solutions to her problems. But she also confronts danger head on with courage and tenacity. “Ain’t you got no men that can do this?” Thump’s incredulous wife asks when Ree won’t get off her front porch. No. She is her family’s only hope in this sordid life. As David Denby writes in the New Yorker Winter’s Bone, in its “lived-in, completely non-ideological way…is one of the great feminist works in film.” Even the medicated Teardrop played by the chilling John Hawkes is more of a sidekick than a savior. Lorded by chemicals, Teardrop is unpredictable and violent.  He is a man of sinewy power and riven with crude tattoos. And yet, he is unable to bully Ree into giving up. In fact, Teardrop, inspired by her determinism, offers his help. Significantly, Winter’s Bone is not only directed by a woman, but also includes a strong presence of female artistry, craftsmanship, and leadership, within the crew. One hopes that this promotes change within the film industry to embrace more women both onscreen and off.


Teardrop (John Hawkes), the lithe and deadly Uncle of Ree

Teardrop (John Hawkes), the lithe and deadly Uncle of Ree

– mclemens –

Landscapes, Inversions, and Absurdities in Cobra Verde (1987)

In Ingmar Bergman’s world the cinematic face is the landscape of the soul.

The inverse is true for Werner Herzog. The cinematic landscape is the soul’s face. Jungle and plain, cliffs and oceans – desert – these are “inner landscapes.” There in the crafted image of nature breathes “the spirit of the characters…” One can direct a landscape.

Herzog: “…the landscapes are not so much the impetus for a film, rather they become the film’s soul, and sometime the characters and the story come afterwards, always very naturally.”[1] Colonial Brazil and Africa are the soul of Cobra Verde. They are its heart of darkness – Kinski’s madness captured and projected at 24 frames per second. It is, of course, a slippery slope! Herzog has trouble shaking an imperial past.

A weather-beaten man materializes on the screen, a flickering light. He plays an old violin held sideways to his ear. He resists eye contact. An image of narrative’s immorality? The man tells us that it will cost money to hear him tell the story of Francisco Manoel da Silva (Klaus Kinski), “the poorest of the poor and the master of the slaves…the alonest of the alone.” This is an ancient tale filtered through the memory of a mystic. It is mythic; a “great metaphor for slavery,” says Herzog. It figures slavery as an absurdist crime; a bizarre inversion of civilization. And thus, as a demented Cobra Verde declares by its end, “Slavery is an element of the human heart…to our ruin!”

A rare extreme close-up introduces da Silva.[2] Francisco’s mother (earth?) feels “only aches and dread” and succumbs to a drought of eleven years. The land is dry and barren, strewn with the skulls and carcasses of livestock in a macabre mis-en-scene. All is arid – rock and dirt. God is perplexed by the cracked earth. Francisco’s tormented mind is as bleak as the desert.

Klaus Kinski as Francisco da Silva/Cobra Verde.

Klaus Kinski as Francisco da Silva/Cobra Verde.

A barren landscape of drought.

A barren landscape of drought.

Da Silva lives as a greedy, lascivious bandit; a green snake. He is a colonizer who sloshes around in muddy waters searching for gold. Mud coats his body, as oil coats the body of another of cinema’s madmen – Daniel Plainview, insatiable imperialist. Money as absurd obsession that sullies the soul. Da Silva’s first words – “where is my money?” “Ruin” – his last.

da Silva covered in mud, looking for his money.

da Silva covered in mud, looking for his money.

Daniel Plainview from PT Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007). Oil as metaphor.

Daniel Plainview from PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007). Oil as metaphor.

Da Silva is an impulsive, violent, anti-social outsider. He is a notorious outlaw, equally feared and maligned. He compels a slave to submit himself to the town’s whipping pole; a woman to forfeit her life. He distrusts shoes and horses and longs to “go forth to another world.” The slave owner Don Octavio Coutinho (Jose Lewgoy) hires da Silva to oversee his vast plantation because he knows that the slaves fear da Silva. It takes a madman to run a plantation. But da Silva impregnates Coutinho’s daughters and declares himself “the bandit Cobra Verde”. Coutinho and the colonial authorities seek revenge by sending Cobra Verde to the West Coast of Africa to re-open to slave trade and certain death.

Herzog’s 12th principle: “Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species – including man – crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.”[3] Verde dreams of the ocean, stares out over it, travels it, escapes into it. A Devil’s will to return?

From The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner:

I should be all alone in this world
Me, Steiner and no other living being.
No sun, no culture; I, naked on a high rock
No storm, no snow, no banks, no money
No time and no breath.
Then, finally, I would not be afraid any more.

Verde stares out over the Atlantic Ocean.

Verde stares out over the Atlantic Ocean.

Colonial Brazil is a grotesque farce. The slave trading kingdom of West Africa likewise inverts reason and civilization. Both partake in a criminal folly. A “sinister, demented king” rules the African kingdom that Verde confronts. His priest is a philandering pimp who feeds wafers to goats. With the help of the drum major Taparica, the last remnant of the old slave trade, Verde compels the kingdom to bring him slaves. They cross the continent in long, slithering lines. Slaves once again cross the Atlantic. But soon the fickle king turns on Verde and sentences him to death. To kill Verde, a white man imbued with the devil, the king paints his face black. He cannot kill a white man, so a black face renders Verde helpless. Blackface minstrelsy subverted, now a tool of African power over a white man. Verde’s isolation deepens, marked on his body. His lunacy swells like a tempest.

Verde and Taparica captured by an insane king and sentenced to death.

Verde and Taparica captured by an insane king and sentenced to death.

The white devil's face painted black.

The white devil’s face painted black.

“Model. It is his non-rational, non-logical ‘I’ that your camera records.” – Robert Bresson[4]

Verde escapes death. The king’s apparently insane nephew wants to overthrow his uncle and enlists Verde. And so Verde trains an army of “Amazons” to conquer the king and maintain the trade in human souls that enriches him even as it drives him mad. The army of Amazons inverts the colonial patriarchy that sells African women, offers daughters as gifts, and perpetrates sexual violence. Cobra Verde is not shy about such violence. The Amazon army as revenge fantasy. The Amazon army as inversion and parody of Triumph of the Will – an artifact of yet another supremely grotesque travesty – a historic crime.

“The omnipotence of rhythms…Bend content to form and sense to rhythms.” Robert Bresson

Herzog parodies the visual rhythms and motifs of Nazi pageantry – Riefenstahl’s overwhelming marches and formations, which trade thought for awe. Herzog’s army of African women as ecstatic truth to counter Riefenstahl’s ecstatic lie. Herzog subverts our assumptions about him.

“… it is possible to reach a deeper stratum of truth—a poetic, ecstatic truth, which is mysterious and can only be grasped with effort; one attains it through vision, style, and craft…” – Herzog.

A typical marching scene of strict visual rhythm from the infamous Nazi propaganda film "Triumph of the Will" (1935)

A typical marching scene of strict visual rhythm from the infamous Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will” (1935)

Cobra Verde's Amazon army parodies Nazi rhythms.

Cobra Verde’s Amazon army parodies Nazi rhythms.

A still from a mesmerizing marching shot that abandon's Nazi orderliness.

A still from a mesmerizing marching shot that abandons Nazi orderliness.

Verde’s Amazon army is victorious and the demented king is strangled by his many wives. Despite his success, Verde bemoans his isolated, unholy existence. He sees the roots of his destruction in his criminal trade. Someone asks “who are these women?” and he replies “Our future murderers.” A “nun’s choir” likely sired by the monstrous priest sings in a trance and speaks a word of prophesy to a thoroughly bewildered and lecherous Cobra Verde.

"Who are these women?" "Our future murderers..."

“Who are these women?” “Our future murderers…”

An inexplicable moment.

An inexplicable moment.

The new slave trade is short-lived. The Portuguese soon outlaw it and the English put a bounty on Verde’s head. The new king, apparently sane all along, deserts Verde, sending him only cripples as slaves. Slavery as crippling, devastating, bizarre, grotesque. And so Herzog captures Kinski’s finest moment in the film’s climax – a moment of unparalleled ecstatic cinema.

“However, we also gain our ability to have ecstatic experiences of truth through the Sublime, through which we are able to elevate ourselves over nature. Kant says: The irresistibility of the power of nature forces us to recognize our physical impotence as natural beings, but at the same time discloses our capacity to judge ourselves independent of nature as well as superior to nature . . . I am leaving out some things here, for simplicity’s sake. Kant continues: In this way nature is not estimated in our aesthetic judgment as sublime because it excites fear, but because it summons up our power (which is not of nature) . . .” – Herzog.

Verde brushes past Taparica and heads to the sea, where he has always kept “one foot.” A man, stricken with polio, stalks him on the beach, chasing him away. Here is Francisco Manoel da Silva – an insane barefoot criminal who re-started the slave trade, now intent on crossing the Atlantic in a giant rowboat. The whole mis-en-scene is absurd. But of course it is. Slavery is madness, Kinski is madness. Both end in total defeat. Death.  The beach is beautiful and true, but the waves of the seascape are a tumult. Verde desperately pulls on the boat, which will not budge. Kinski throws his whole body into the effort, only to be overcome by the waves unto death. Is this still a performance? We come to an end of words for these moving, flickering images. The lines between fiction and documentary; past and present, are all a blur. A kind of poetic truth.

“Cinematography is a writing with images in movement and with sounds.” – Robert Bresson

Verde tries desperately to sail away as a man with polio watches.

Verde tries desperately to return home as a man with polio watches.

Kinski's desperation.

Kinski’s desperation with elements of German Romanticism.

Verde overtaken by the ocean in one of Herzog's most beautiful scenes.

Verde overtaken by the ocean in one of Herzog’s most beautiful scenes.

Herzog cuts to the rolling, shining ocean. “The slaves will sell their masters and grow wings.” Here is another inversion. As if to prove the point, the credits roll over the nun’s choir, which is impossibly confident and joyful – unbroken. For Herzog this is an image of a different future for Africa, separate from the bizarre, criminal spectacle that shackled the land and its people.

But as always, a final warning, from principle 10: “Don’t you ever listen to the song of life.”

– cwellum –


[1] The context for this quotation about landscape is a discussion of Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1973) in Herzog on Herzog (2002). Cobra Verde is loosely based on Bruce Chatwin’s 1980 novel The Viceroy of Ouidah. Herzog made significant changes to the story to suit his purposes.

[2] This is likely a reference to Kinski’s career in spaghetti westerns.

[3] From Herzog’s cryptic statement of principles, “The Minnesota Declaration.”

[4] All Bresson quotations come from his Notes on the Cinematographer (1997).

Cobra Verde on Monday

On Monday we will publish cwellum’s piece on Werner Herzog’s slavery film, Cobra Verde (1987). Featuring Klaus Kinski’s final and most insane performance in a Herzog film, Cobra Verde is a striking work of simmering madness. Caleb’s piece explores Herzog’s ecstatic landscapes, bold inversions, and quest for truth in the absurd.

Klaus Kinski as the bandit Cobra Verde.

Klaus Kinski as the bandit Cobra Verde.

In Country (On Rolling Thunder)

When the British film publication Sight and Sound presented its list of the “10 Best Films of All Time” in August of last year, the magazine invited numerous directors to list their own favorites.  Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Guillermo Del Toro, and Quentin Tarantino, among others, all proffered their ranked selections. Within his list of predictable rarities, obscurities, and b-sides, Tarantino included the 1977 film Rolling Thunder, directed by John Flynn and co-scripted by Paul Schrader (and Heywood Gould).  Its inclusion by Tarantino is axiomatic. He has said all his films are revenge thrillers and Rolling Thunder is an inimitably American Revenge Film; a movie that begins as the ‘coming home’ story of  an American Hero and is transmuted into a Walking Tall-type vengeance film.

Returning to San Antonio, Texas after seven years in a “Hanoi Hellhole”, Major Charles Rane (William Devane ) steps off the plane looking resplendent in his full uniform.  Asked to say a few words to the cheering crowd welcoming him home, he laconically, tersely encapsulates the idiom of the stoic American serviceman. Although ruthlessly beaten, interrogated, and tortured, he philosophically summarizes his imprisonment as having made him “a better man, better officer, better American”.  Devane is an appropriate casting decision.  Having played John F. Kennedy in the 1974 television film The Missiles of October, Devane steps onto the tarmac of the runway echoing that earlier role. Clean-cut, ramrod straight, and clear-spoken, outwardly Rane exhibits no signs of the physical or psychic perturbation one would expect from years in captivity. Rane evinces the strength of American might: the Viet Cong failed to break him. We soon apprehend that he ‘beat’ the enemy by learning to “love them” and their techniques of torment. While this external Rane belies any expected mental anguish, his fellow POW, John Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) is clearly a casualty. He barely responds to the embraces of his wife and family, shambling off the runway like a zombie.

William Devane as Rane.

William Devane as Rane.

Since the film opens in 1973, the war is still officially being waged, and Flynn’s film makes explicit the ongoing turmoil of that conflict on the home front.  Rane has to contend with minor surprises and adjustments (shock at discovering his wife doesn’t wear a brassiere, ignorance of the word ‘groupie’) to the more potentially debilitating. Although safely on American soil, Rane faces continued defeats: he has a son who doesn’t remember him, a wife who wants a divorce, and an all-consuming need to isolate himself from others.  Despite the embrace and comfort of the family home, Rane imprisons himself in the backyard shed, an environment which spatially recalls the parameters of his Vietnamese cell.  He is seen passing the time rocking back and forth on his cot, doing push ups, making (and re-making) his bed sheets with military precision, and being besieged by nightmarish flashbacks of his  torture by the Viet Cong. The most significant change from the drab, grey walls of his prison cell and that of his backyard shed is the arsenal of weapons affixed seemingly to every available inch of wall space. This is Texas after all.  A present from his son is the first domestic image that Flynn provides: Rane is shown waxing the barrel of his new shotgun, one, his son assures him, is “as good as they come”, and one that will prove essential in his eventual plan of revenge.

Schrader makes the point that being back on American soil is equally fraught with unforeseen dangers and battles. After receiving a new Cadillac convertible and one silver dollar for every day of his captivity ($2555), he is confronted in his home by a group of worthless, bloodthirsty thugs  (2 Americans and 2 Mexicans) who demand those silver dollars.  Rane, of course, refuses to tell them where the money is hidden.  One of the thugs, the leader, is simply referred to as the Texan.  He is presented as an archetype of American criminal. He doesn’t need to be personalized, he simply exist as a fact of life, especially in Texas. Another of the invaders, Automatic Slim, a vet himself, is manifestly contemptuous of this ‘hero’, because as a pilot Rane never had to get down face first in the mud, unlike Slim. Of course, Slim ignores the fact that he did not have to spend seven years in a Vietnamese prison.  Camaraderie, and respect for fellow warriors is a fabrication. Once home, Schrader makes apparent that it is every man for himself. Flynn deliberately intercuts Rane’s beating here with black and white memories of his abuse at the hands of the Viet Cong. The forbearance that sustained him in Hanoi, Rane believes, will also sustain him in San Antonio. What becomes evident is that as brutal as the beatings may have been in Hanoi, there is an underpinning of justification: this is a consequence of being at war with an enemy.  The villains who break into Rane’s home have no such political or philosophical grounding; they are motivated purely by greed and power.  Rane’s treatment at the hands of his Vietnamese captors has  left Rane tenacious though. Rather than disclosing the location of the silver dollars, he repeats only his name, rank, and serial number. Is he just being a ‘badass’ or has he reverted psychologically to a Hanoi cell? Regardless, he can resist this torment because of the seven years of practice he has endured.  Even when one of his hands is fed into a garbage disposal, he doesn’t make a sound.  When the Texan avers, “he’s one macho motherfucker”, is it with awe or exasperation? Probably both.   Unfortunately his wife and son stumble upon the burglary and are murdered by the invaders, even after getting the $2555.

Rane is now the victim of another forced captivity.  Confined to a hospital room convalescing he is patently biding his time for release and revenge (though he cunningly claims amnesia about the events to the police).  He is also forced to deal with the loss of his arm and the trial of adjusting to a prosthetic limb. Intertextually Flynn and Schrader show Rane’s prosthetic apparatus, the over-the-shoulder elastics holding the artificial arm in place, as alluding visually to the gun sleeve that Travis Bickle creates in the Schrader-penned Taxi Driver, another Vietnam veteran forced to deal with hell on the home front. His home-made firearm itself looks like metal affixed to membrane.  Bickle, who was honorably discharged from the army and Rane are both soldiers who acquitted themselves well in the war. It’s their re-integration into American society that is troublesome.  A seemingly daily and mundane exercise by Rane, using the hook to put cigarettes back into their package, is cleverly shown later as having been practice for putting shells into a shotgun which, once back home, he handles with commendable speed, accuracy, and dexterity.  The irony is that while the Texan, Automatic Slim, and the others think they’ve rendered Rane incapacitated, emasculated, and impotent, Schrader and Flynn show the opposite.  The artificial limb becomes an appendage of a more formidable soldier.  Rane’s first task once back home is improving the limb, using a grinder to file down the hook to a dangerously sharp point.  He then converts the present from his son to a sawn-off shotgun for maximum damage.

Rane's homemade tools of violence.

Rane’s homemade tools of violence.

Travis Bickle's homemade tool of violence. Taxi Driver (1976)

Travis Bickle’s homemade tool of violence. Taxi Driver (1976)

His new appendage becomes a weapon.  It is a modulation of his soldiering.  As a pilot, he probably did little killing, or at least it must have been highly impersonal, dropping napalm and bombs on villages and suspected Viet Cong terrain.  Now forced into combat, he has been equipped with a new body part, forged flesh that allows him to be a more accurate and deadly avenger.  The sharply tapered point of the hook becomes especially practical for impaling someone’s hand to a table or hooking someone in the genitals.  It’s flesh that has become steel.  When he confronts the Texan at the climax in a Mexican brothel, you are shown the steadiness of the new arm, the way the shotgun sits still, comfortably, unwavering in the crook of the prosthetic.  Devoid of nerve, muscle, tissue it is not tethered to the whims of sinew, flesh, bone i.e. life.  His arm is dead, yet never more alive.  This is material that is impervious to bullet and more permanent than skin. Rane becomes a precursor to the ‘metal fetishist’ of the Japanese film Tetsuo. He will use this new arm to blow off the hand of the Texan in a nasty display of visual symmetry and comeuppance.

The above may seem like overstating the case, but even the promotional material makes clear this sense of added potency with the grafting of steel on flesh.  The central image on the film’s poster is the hooked arm of Rane.  The thrusting forward of the arm is almost presented in a frame-by-frame fashion, denoting movement that suggests a three dimensional effect. One can practically envision the hook tearing through the paper of the film`s one sheet.  His sunglasses also augur the iconic image of Schwarzenegger’s cleanly efficient killing-machine, the Terminator.

Devane prefiguring the arrival of the Terminator.

Devane prefiguring the arrival of The Terminator.

The climatic shoot out occurs, as mentioned, in Mexico, which despite its proximity to Texas is a foreign country.  This is presented as American aggression invading a foreign clime, regardless of how moral or justified that aggression may seem.  Rane, who enlists the aid of Vohden, for this excursion into enemy territory is taking the law into his own hands, it`s vigilantism, but American-approved given the attack on fundamental American values:  family, freedom, the respect accorded one who fights for his country.  The only noble and correct response is the instant cessation of anything that can endanger these values.  Similar rhetorical persuasion was employed during the beginning years of the conflict in Vietnam and Laos to bolster the belief of the necessity for an American military presence in Indochina.  Jones` Vohden is a character who is still clearly traumatized by domesticity.  When Rane comes to his house, interrupting family dinner, Vohden sits in a chair looking shell shocked by the racist patter and inconsequential domestic prattle coming from his family members.  When Rane informs Vohden that he has found the bad guys in a whore house in Juarez, we see the first spark of life exhibited by Jones` character. One senses that he was part of the infantry, seeing killing close up and it has defined him as a person.  Given the opportunity to `clean em up“, he leaves the family dinner fully dressed in uniform. Since they both are clothed in military insignia, Flynn makes it abundantly apparent who is fighting whom. Once in Juarez, Vohden is told by Rane to stake a place in the whore house since he won`t be recognized.  Vohden is told to take a hooker and wait for the signal, the sound of Rane`s hook tapping against the barrel of the shotgun.  Entering the brothel, he rebukes the advances of a Mexican whore for, presumably, a more appealing “nice American girl“. This comes across as an unfortunate moment of xenophobia and American superiority. In fairness though, Schrader does allow this puta a vulgar rebuke about Vohden’s sister, which, perhaps if he had not been left so psychically hollow, Vohden may have had a reaction too.  What Schrader immediately evinces by this exchange though is the enmity normatively ascribed between ‘others’. Taken to an upstairs room, Vohden barely registers any emotion while his whore begins her ministrations.  Hearing the pre-arranged signal though, one sees his beginning arousal, and when the shooting starts his smile never seems to leave his face.  Cleaning up by basically murdering all the criminal scum, Mexican and American alike, Rane and Vohden have avenged the deaths of innocents, and although bloodied, leave victorious, unquestionably the victors this time. Rane’s final line of dialogue Let`s go home, John“, may be ironic on Schrader’s part-what really do either have to go home to?

– dszostak –

Rolling Thunder on Monday

On Monday we will publish dszostak’s piece on John Flynn’s Americana revenge film Rolling Thunder (1977). Written by Paul Schrader, and starring William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones, Rolling Thunder is a cult film that commands our attention. Dave’s piece considers the persistence of captivity and the elusiveness of home for Vietnam War veterens struggling to forget their habits of war.

William Devane as Major Charles Rane.

William Devane as Major Charles Rane.

Excerpts from a Scene: The Last Meeting of Jeremiah Johnson and Bear Claw

Across the snow-covered plain, a man approaches on a white horse. At least it looks like a man on a horse. It’s hard to distinguish any form on this crystalline oasis and the vague shape is constantly shifting as it hobbles along.  Cut to a Reverse-Shot: Jeremiah Johnson sits in the snow and watches an obscure figure trot towards him. Johnson (Robert Redford) is handsome in that rugged, hard way, but don’t let his good looks deceive you: he’s wild. He wears the scalped head of a black bear as a toque and he’s cooking flayed rabbit over an open fire in the dead of winter.

Johnson’s eyes are squinting now as he tries to discern the identity of the visitor (trespasser?) struggling towards him. It’s Bear Claw (Will Geer), the gruff mountain man who first taught Johnson the wiles of the trade. Johnson pulls off his bear-hat – a strange act of civility in this bawdy landscape. Bear Claw looks even wilder than Johnson; almost Neanderthal with his pelts and large wolf skin hat. “What’s on the spit?” he growls as he waddles forward. A rude query considering he hasn’t been invited. Johnson’s reply is terse: “grown particular?” Bear Claw lets out a choked laugh. “Not about the feedin.’ Just the company I keep,” he says. Johnson tosses him a limb from the rabbit carcass anyways. Out here, manners and words are in short supply.

The last meeting of Bear Claw and Jeremiah Johnson

The last meeting of Bear Claw and Jeremiah Johnson

Jeremiah Johnson, now a Mountain Main.

Jeremiah Johnson, now a Mountain Man.

Silence. And then, Bear Claw observes that Johnson “has come far.” It’s true. Since Johnson left the tutelage of Bear Claw, we’ve seen him rescue a small boy, Caleb, from an insane widow, marry an Indian at the behest of the strange and enigmatic Del Gue, and watched him settle down at the foot of a mountain. We’ve also seen Johnson lose his new family in a brutal raid by the Crow tribe – an enemy that pursues him zealously thereafter. He’s come far, indeed.

Was it worth the trouble, all this gallivanting and mountain man-ing, Bear Claw, in a feeble attempt to start a dinner conversation asks. Johnson’s dismissive “huh, what trouble?” is shocking in light of Johnson’s desolate tenure as a mountain man. One might read Johnson’s rhetorical question as denial, after all he buried the brutalized corpses of his adopted son and wife, but his reply betrays something much deeper than that. This isn’t denial; this is the reality of a man who has become indifferent to the tragedies that have befallen him, whose isolation is so complete, that he forgets that he even had family. Even for the grizzled Bear Claw (who, remember, traded his own wife, a squaw for a hawking gun), this answer is cold. You’d think this would be a clear sign that Johnson wants to be alone and that Bear Claw is an unwelcome guest, but the old man persists. He wants table talk dammit! The taciturn Johnson evidently makes Bear Claw uncomfortable and so Bear Claw rambles on about the weather. “It’s cold up here,” he observes. This conversation is quickly deteriorating but Johnson doesn’t seem to notice. What we notice, however, is the silence and the bleak looks. After awhile Johnson attempts to humour his guest and tries his hand at conversation. His interaction is forced, and he is clearly struggling with basic as small talk. That’s how “far” he’s come. “What brings you up so high?” Johnson tries. Now we’re getting somewhere. Two friends chewing the (literal) fat over some rabbit. “Grizz,” says Bear Claw not unexpectedly. (Apparently, an Avalanche took his mule.) Johnson snorts unimpressed. He doesn’t have time to listen to other folk gab on about the dwindling Grizzly Bear population in the lowlands. Well that ends that, as they say. There appears to be no conversation to be had. Then, curiously, as if seeing the snow for the first time, Johnson asks what month of the year it is. It’s at this point, we begin to realize (as does Bear Claw), how far Johnson has drifted away from modern society. It’s not just the fact that Johnson is no longer able to keep track of time, but it’s the curious way he cocks his head and blinks at the sun when he asks. There is something chillingly non-human about this sequence. His descent into the wilderness is complete. Bear Claw, who has come from considerable distance, decides that he has over stayed his welcome and leaves Johnson alone to ponder this question. There is no communion here. Johnson’s isolation has rendered him mute and evidently, inhospitable.

This last supper of sorts, with its sparse dialogue and muted expressions, illumes the true essence of the film: in the wilderness, man is stripped of his humanity and becomes a wandering specter; unable (or unwilling) to associate with the civilization he left behind. And therein lies the contradiction of human contact with the non-human world. In nature, he is both unmade and made. He loses his social self (his humanity, if you will) and becomes a new creature, part sage, and part animal – similar to the Shaman in Haida Gwaii culture whose life is completely affixed to the rhythms of the natural world. Perhaps, here, there is also an elegy for the disappearing wilderness, and the individuals who populated it without disrupting it, given Redford’s environmentalism and love for the wild.

Unlike his real life contemporary, the naturalist John Muir, Johnson’s immersion (and subsequent transformation) in nature is unromantic. Director Sydney Pollack makes it clear that Johnson’s choice to live in the mountains is self-imposed exile. Muir, on the other hand rapturously declared the alpenglow of the mountain ridge and the sublime aspect of all “God’s terrestrial manifestations.” For Muir, nature contained an imprint of God’s divinity. The mountains were replete with transcendent beauty and harmony, and spiritual power emanated from the wilderness. In contrast, Johnson has no aesthetic taste for the transcendence of Nature, but views it practically as a place where the malaise of civilization is absent and a man can exist independently without want or worry. That’s not to say that living in the wild is easy. Nature’s refining power comes from the fact that it is difficult and filled with sweat (and quite often, blood). It is unforgiving, brutal in its aspect. There is, as Werner Herzog explains in Grizzly Man (2005), ‘no kinship, no understanding, no mercy’ in nature.

Director of Photographer, Duke Callaghan’s cinematography evocatively captures this gritty frontier: the wide shots of mountain vistas, the sparse deserts, and the lush photography of the lowlands are some of the finest in any Western. But Callaghan’s photography is not just beautiful; it is also foreboding and dangerous and Johnson’s decision to leave society behind is obviously full of peril. Callaghan’s work is reminiscent of the sublime paintings of Thomas Cole and Caspar David Friedrich, which capture both the splendour of Nature, and its crudeness. In fact, Friedrich’s haunting “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” could be mistaken as a piece of concept art for the film, with Jeremiah Johnson staring out upon the precipice into the world unknown.

A landscape by Thomas Cole.

A landscape by Thomas Cole.

Casper David Friedrich's "Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog"

Casper David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog”

Landscape at the beginning of Jeremiah Johnson

Landscape at the beginning of Jeremiah Johnson

The final landscape of the film.

The final landscape of the film.

These paintings and Callaghan’s cinematography both elicit an emotional response to the mystery, ephemerality, and the terror of nature – a place where one’s future is uncertain. The potency of landscape as an idea in cinema often depends on a filmmaker’s ability to render it both obscene and tranquil, and to make us see beauty in the contradictory power of that landscape. Jeremiah Johnson initially depicts the untrammeled, 19th century American frontier as bucolic, if not benign. Although the photography of the film is extraordinary in its primeval-ness, it’s also strangely ordinary and I recognize it from my own memories of exploring the acreage behind my Grandparents home in the Canadian Shield – which accounts, in part, for why the film resonates so deeply. However, this rustic place  (a place that looks ideal for camping!) becomes a more ruthless place when Johnson is confronted with the savage reality of snarling wolves, Indian war parties, starvation, and harsh winters.

Johnson’s journey into the dangerous wild is therefore an ascetic choice, whereby Johnson welcomes the trials of being a mountain man because it will shape him into something more elemental, primal. We’re not given much in terms of Johnson’s backstory, and all we know, according to the narrator, Tim McIntire, is that he was “a man of proper wit and adventurous spirit, [which] suited to the mountains.” He purchased a “good horse, and traps, and other truck that went with being a mountain man, and said goodbye to whatever life was down there below.” But this is the point. Johnson’s backstory doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t matter to him. He hardly mentions anything about his upbringing in the film and is completely silent about what he left behind. He has completely cut himself off from “life down below” and there is no sense in recalling something that is no longer important. At one point, Jeremiah asks the commander of a cavalry troop on a rescue mission about the war in Mexico. The perplexed commander tells him that the war has long been over. Johnson just shrugs at the news and asks disinterestedly “who won?” Evidently Johnson doesn’t care. He left that life behind, a life of territorial disputes, Manifest Destiny, and political boundaries. “I’ve seen a town, Del” Johnson says to his off/on companion, Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch). Johnson offers no commentary, but his message is clear: towns are meaningless and only isolation from modern nausea and the congestion of civilization can allow for true feeling and self-expression. Johnson’s lifestyle resembles in practice, William Wordsworth poem, “The World is too Much with Us” (1807), which also challenges the value of human artifice and modern systems in comparison to nature.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

The peripatetic Johnson is a man who, for his own mysterious reasons, occludes himself from society to recreate himself in the high country. For the wanderer who discovers a new life in the hills, civilization is a far away place, whose mechanisms and systems are irrelevant. So when Johnson asks what month of the year it is, it is an admission that he is no longer a citizen of a world that is governed by the calendar, but is rather guided by the turn of the weather and the changing of seasons. Or perhaps, time, the most fundamental measurement of humanity, does not even exist up here in the mountains. To emphasize this timelessness, Pollack ends the film on a freeze frame of Jeremiah Johnson as Tim McIntire sings “and some folks think he’s up there still.” Johnson has escaped Time itself and has become more than human. He’s become Myth.

Jeremiah Johnson as spectre.

Jeremiah Johnson as spectre.

Jeremiah Johnson as mythic figure.

Jeremiah Johnson as mythic figure.

– mclemens –