Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Realist Cinema: Meek's Cutoff

Meek's Cutoff by Kelly Reichardt, 2010

After the masterworks that are Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, director Kelly Reichardt has become one of my favourite directors working today. Her attention to observation and simplicity give her works a humanistic feel – one driven more by the subtle nuances relationships evoke instead of flashy action scenes.

Reichardt’s newest film, Meek’s Cutoff, screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this month, and after slight debating, I bought a ticket. I knew I had to see the film no matter what, but as a rule I try to see the festival films that may not get a theatrical release in the city. Word on the street is that Meek’s Cutoff will probably not screen in Toronto until 2011, so I decided to break my rule and spend the extra cash to watch the film in Toronto’s new cinema Mecca, the TIFF Lightbox.

Set in the 19th century, Meek’s Cutoff is the story of a group of families traveling the unending plains of the Western United States. Led by the titular Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), the immigrants are walking to a destination where Meek states they will be able to settle and make a better life for themselves. When we first meet our clan, they are wading through a river with their provisions and wagons, three weeks past their promised arrival date. The families struggle to traverse the dusty landscape and to feed themselves and the animals that assist them in their transport.

As each day passes, the more the characters question their leader. Paranoia leads to discussions by the men about Meek possibly being in cahoots with Natives who want these travelers led to their deaths. When a Cayuse man (Rod Rondeaux) is spotted and captured, tables are turned, and the group decides to use the man to lead them to a source of water to quench their thirst and fill their barrels. Meek, untrusting, tries to sway the decision.

Meek’s Cutoff plays out as a series of simple events: the travelers collect wood, sit to eat and pray, set up camp then pack up again. Many of these scenes play out in almost silence, and as a means for simple, documentary-style observation, they are beautiful to look at, but never really add up emotionally. Their journey is one that could be described as hell, but the immigrants’ actions and discussions never really made me feel connected to their plight. Their origins are never discussed and after an hour passes and “nothing happens”, one is left clinging for some sort of drama to appear.

Now the phrase, “nothing happens” can be interpreted in different ways. One may argue, “nothing happens” in both Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy. The characters in those films spend much of their time sitting around and ruminating about their situations. But with her first two features, Reichardt succeeded enormously on the subtlety of her surroundings and the performances. We learned much about Mark and Kurt’s complicated friendship through a small campfire discussion, and really felt for Wendy when she called her family back home and received only a short, unhelpful response. In Meek’s Cutoff, we are distanced from the characters to a point where we never really connect to them. Other than watching these people learning to trust a Native man who is completely alien to them (even this seems a little inconsequential – Michelle Williams’ immigrant wife character, first terrified, appearing all of a sudden willing to approach him) we are offered very little in the way of the human drama we have come to expect from Reichardt’s realist storytelling.

The film has its redeeming qualities in the beautiful cinematography (that many of you are now familiar with as shot in the classic 1.35:1 Academy ratio) and Rod Rondeaux’s solemn, stoic performance. Miscast are Shirley Henderson and Michelle Williams, as two wives in the group. Henderson’s British accent came through during many of her lines and made me wonder if her character was meant to be British. Williams is not particularly bad in her role, but the world-weariness the Oregon landscape called for seemed missing from her performance. She simply didn’t feel like she belonged. Bruce Greenwood’s Meek is simply a caricature, what felt like a cringe-inducing Yosemite Sam impression. The musical score also felt tagged on. It was minimalist and used to minimal effect.

With such beautiful, previous results, I could not help being nervous before viewing Meek’s Cutoff. Reichardt secured herself as a master of observing modern living and relationships that I wondered if a period piece could evoke the same feelings. Upon leaving the theatre, other than feeling thirsty, what came to mind was not necessarily the time and place that mattered, but the content. And in this case, the proverbial water barrel felt half-empty.

2 out of 5

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg

Like her, love her, or completely loath her, Joan Rivers is one hardworking woman. Since beginning a stand-up comedy and acting career in the 1960s, she hasn’t stopped. Seriously. Just watch A Piece of Work and you should have a new-found respect for the crass red carpet staple.

The insightful documentary follows the then-75 year old working diligently on a new play about her life, playing comedy clubs big and small and constantly trying to find new gigs to pay her bills and feed her hunger for stardom. She is down on her knees in the bathroom writing jokes (how many 75 year-olds are able to do that?), and performing pratfalls during rehearsals for an upcoming comedy roast. As Rivers states in the film, she is one of those “if she isn’t performing, she’s no one” types of people.

A Piece of Work is a sympathetic study of a workaholic outsider. Although she has been working in the industry for almost forty years, many will agree that Rivers has yet to be appreciated as much as some of her peers. Tracing the history of the comedienne’s career, the filmmakers explore how a career that was once so promising, has, in some circles, become a bit of a joke. They wonderfully interweave the past and present, letting Rivers tell her story as her continuous struggles as a performer wage on.

Stern and Sundberg must be commended for the material Rivers gives them. She candidly speaks with such insecurity and emotion that we are given a woman that is a complete opposite to the one we’ve been exposed to over the years. One may think plastic surgery would hide emotion, but even that specific subject brings Rivers to tears - real tears. To earn Rivers’ trust on such revealing topics is a great achievement and skill. But my wish is that more of these moments existed throughout the film. Sitting down and talking with Rivers and experiencing how frail and honest this woman is was definitely a game-changer on how even I, a fan, felt about her. I think these instances were very heartfelt, and true, so I would have been happy with more attempts to show her humanity.

The film also could have used more footage from early on in the performer’s career. I understand expense might have been an issue, but it really would have helped a younger fan like myself understand just how revolutionary her subject matter was for its day, and how established she was before many of her setbacks began to pile up.

Winning an award at Sundance this year for Documentary Editing, A Piece of Work is very deserved. Creating a story with no narration and pretty much letting Joan Rivers’ words guide the path for the narrative would not be an easy task, but the film was engaging and easy to follow, if only a little long. The comedienne’s presence is undeniable and you can’t wait until she lets loose another one of her vulgar tirades. It’s all for a good laugh and I hope to experience more in the future.

3 1/2 out of 5