Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Endurance Factor

Many filmmakers seek to take their audience on some kind of a journey. It may be a journey from one geographical point to another, a journey in time, or a journey into the soul. Back in the 1950s, much of the Cunard Line's advertising was built around the slogan "Getting there is half the fun!' Alas, that isn't always the case in film.

Despite what might seem like a clearcut goal, some filmmakers have extreme problems establishing a beginning, middle, and end to their narratives. Sometimes the viewer ends up wondering why the film was  made. At other times, the viewer finds himself constantly checking his watch to see when the film will mercifully come to an end.

Testing an audience's patience is rarely the goal of a filmmaker who may have fallen so deeply in love with a project that he has lost touch with the viewer's perspective. More often than not, the filmmaker may simply be a lousy storyteller.

Two films recently screened at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival  demonstrate the inherent danger of losing your audience. Each film was inspired by events that took place in the 19th century. Although these films were undoubtedly made with the best of artistic intentions, both proved to be monumental failures in the narrative department.

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In her director's note for her new film, Year Without A Summer, Tan Chui Mui writes:
"I am quite obsessed with unnecessary knowledge. When I was 12, I read an encyclopedia cover to cover. I found the title Year Without A Summer from Wikipedia. It was 1816, and there was no summer in that year. In some places in America and China, there were even snowfalls during summer. I can imagine the climate abnormalities must have stirred a sense of doomsday at that time. The crops died, the sky was often orange tinted, famines and war broke out everywhere... the fear, and the confusion. Many years later, scientists believe that the climate abnormalities were mainly caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia of 1815, the largest known eruption in over 1,600 years. My story is not about volcano eruption, nor climate abnormalities. My story is about how people often live, without knowing much about what happened to them. In a way, my film is about the history of sadness."

The film has to be about something, but exactly what that is is never really made clear to the audience. The official description of the plot reads as follows:

"Azam comes back to his village to look for his childhood best friend, Ali. Ali and his wife Minah are overjoyed to meet this long lost friend, who had left the village thirty years ago. They have been following Azam’s news since he became a famous singer, although now Azam is over his peak. Ali and Minah invite Azam to their house. At night, Ali asks Azam to go out fishing at the sea. They visit the Pulau Ular island. The whole night, the three of them talk about love, marriage, village folklore, mystic creatures, and the wild boar hunting once upon a time. As the night is ending, Minah demonstrates that she can hold her breath underwater for three minutes. Azam tries to do the same, but he never appears again..."

While Year Without A Summer has its distinctive moments, most of them should be credited to cinematographer Teoh Gay Hian. Anyone who sees Tan Chui Mui's film will find it difficult to forget the image of a mermaid washed up on the shore. Why? Because, whereas most Westerners envision a mermaid has having the head and body of a woman and the tail of a fish (think of Darryl Hannah in 1984's Splash), this film's mermaid has the head of a giant fish and the legs of a human.

Otherwise, there is a great amount of footage shot late at night in a fishing boat, with barely enough stars to keep the audience awake. Here's the trailer:

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When I exited the press screening for Meek's Cutoff, a publicist asked me what I thought of the film. I promptly replied "What a boring piece of shit!"  Perhaps I was too kind.

Set in 1845, Meek's Cutoff follows a wagon train of three families that have hired a scruffy mountain man as their guide. Some may claim that this film speaks volumes about the struggles of pioneer women crossing the prairie, especially when their men refused to stop and ask so much as a snake or lizard for directions. Reading some of the quotes being used in the film's publicity campaign, I found myself wondering what kind of drugs these people were taking when they saw the film.

Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) peers off into the desert

In her director's note, Kelly Reichardt writes:
"When researching Meek's Cutoff we were reading a lot of diaries from the period. Of course, the women were the diary keepers and the diaries offer such a specific take on the history. It’s a very different tone and point of view than what we see in the Hollywood Western. You get the idea of the daily labor and the monotony of that labor. I very much had in mind Nanook of the North when I was thinking about making Meek's Cutoff. Build the igloo, catch the fish, make the fire…or in our case, set up the tent, build the fire, search for water. The other thing you get from the diaries is the loneliness women felt. I remember one woman writing that she was keeping a diary in case her husband should ever want to know her. On the one hand, you’re never really alone and have no privacy on the trail and yet you’re incredibly isolated, too. The exceptions seemed to be the friendships the women formed with each other. You also get the sense that the diaries are the only thing besides the weather that mark the passing of time. The journey seems trance-like with each long day bleeding into the next. These are some of the things we tried to get across. The stillness, the silence and the super unforgiving and dynamic landscape. The harsh conditions of shooting in this place with oxen and period wagons really forced us into this other space. Everything takes time. Nothing is accessible or at your fingertips. Everything is a struggle. Time becomes a very different thing."

Three of the women in Meek's Cutoff

While it may be true that, at one point, some 200 wagons and 1,000 people turned off the primary Oregon Trail at Vale and followed Stephen Meek into the Oregon desert where no wagons had traveled before, reading some comments from an interview with the film's screenwriter offers a peculiar insight into where the motivation for this pitiful drek across the desert really lies. According to screenwriter Jon Raymond:
"A few years ago there was this housing boom in this country. During that time, the market in Bend, Oregon, experienced a particularly intense period of irrational exuberance, to the point where developers out there were hiring branding companies in Portland to name their properties and imbue them with some kind of instant aura of luxury and heritage. I bellied up to that golden trough for a little while myself and was involved in the naming of a golf course out there. In doing so, I ended up doing some research into the local history and came across the story of the Meek Cutoff, one of the more infamous tales of the early Oregon Trail. It was just an amazing story about a group of emigrants that hired a mountain man named Stephen Meek to guide them across the Cascades but found out, to their chagrin, that he didn’t really know the way. The group spent weeks circling around in the high plain desert, starving and dying of thirst and perhaps, apocryphally, even discovering gold, debating the whole time as to whether their leader was evil or just stupid.
That scenario kind of rang a bell for us, as far as national leadership models at the time. Evil or stupid. Who can ever tell? There’s an obvious sense, I think, about Meek's Cutoff being a potential allegory of the Bush years. It’s about white racism, ultimately. And so the trick is creating an Indian character that both serves the purpose of developing that theme but doesn’t devolve into a mere totem or symbol of white fantasy, you know? These big Western mythologies continue to inform our politics on such a profound level. I’m thinking about the Bush-era -- that whole “Round ‘em up, dead or alive” stuff -- all the cowboy bullshit that still dictates how people here envision the world. Good guys and bad guys. Vigilante justiceRedemptive violence."
What a steaming heap of artistic crap! Contrary to Hollywood thinking, Meek's Cutoff is not really helped by the work of Michelle Williams (who resorts to her usual bovine pout as Emily Tetherow, one of the lead women in the film). Indeed, I wonder if this film could even have been made without the participation of such a "bankable" star. Thankfully, there are carefully etched supporting performances from Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson and Ron Rondeaux (as the Indian who is captured and abused by the white men who have done a splendid job of getting lost).

Rather than a study in the challenges faced by pioneers heading west, Reichardt's vapid 104-minute film comes across as a doomed leviathan. Furthermore, it should be noted that if you need to lighten the baggage in your prairie schooner, you don't jettison a wooden rocking chair when that wood could be used to build a fire for the evening's campsite!

Although the film is immensely bolstered by Jeff Grace's original and slightly surreal score, Meeks' Cutoff is the kind of film one turns to in desperation when sleeping pills just can't seem to get the job done. Here's the trailer:

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