Film review – Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

31 May 2011
Meek's Cutoff: Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams)

Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams)

At first glance Meek’s Cutoff feels like a western in name only as apart from its time and place – the Oregon Trail in 1845 – it doesn’t seem to bare many of the other features that define what a western is. Based on a story about a group of emigrants who became lost in the Oregon Desert, with inspiration taken from the diary records of women who lived during the period, Meek’s Cutoff feels more like a social-realist film that happens to have a period setting. The focus on the monotony of day after day of travel and chores, plus the naturalist performances, situates Meek’s Cutoff in closer proximity to independent director Kelly Reichardt’s previous understated films rather than classical Hollywood or revisionist westerns. However, through Reichardt’s subversion of many of the western’s generic traits, Meek’s Cutoff does become a sort of unique anti-western and explores the genre’s general theme of what it means to be civilised.

Reichardt depicts the landscape not as a frontier that can be tamed, but as an all encompassing and vast element that the characters are at the mercy of. Long shots are frequently employed to re-enforce how small and vulnerable the human figures are within the landscape, where they are literally lost and increasingly in need of water. Dialogue and music are minimal with the ambient sounds of the windswept plains dominating the soundtrack. Elements of nature, such as bushes and tree branches, are often filmed in the foreground of shots to overlap the characters. The results are almost like watching a documentary and the combination of static shots and slow camera movements sometimes evokes the meditative style of Yasujirō Ozu’s films. It is achingly beautiful to look at.

Meek's Cutoff: Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood)

Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood)

Meek’s Cutoff also contains a strong political allegory. The settlers are lost in the wilderness because of the mountain man Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) whom they hired to take them over the Cascade Mountains.  They placed their trust in Meek and now he has led them astray, although it is unclear whether this is due to him being incompetent or having a more sinister agenda. In order to deflect attention from his immense failings, Meek resorts to stirring up racial hatred against their Native American prisoner, known simply as The Indian (Rod Rondeaux), in order to make him into the group’s scapegoat. The interaction between the group serves as a microcosm for what has happened in recent contemporary politics, particularly in America, when charismatic leaders drum up resentment against ‘the other’ to deflect attention away from their own inadequacies.

Reichardt’s final significant subversion of the western tradition is that she delivers the point-of-view of the female characters, as opposed to the men, and later also the perspective of The Indian. Throughout the film The Indian, Meek and one of the women Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) gradually take on particular characteristics to reflect various social attitudes and power struggles. The way the characters perceive each other, especially The Indian and Emily, becomes the core of the film. Reichardt ultimately resolves the various tensions through her representation of perception, as opposed to conventional narrative closure. By privileging the dynamics between the characters over story, Reichardt has created an extremely rewarding cinematic experience that is rich in political commentary, pathos and visual beauty.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

30 September 2009
adult Li Cunxin (Chi Cao)

adult Li Cunxin (Chi Cao)

Li Cunxin was born into a very poor peasant family who lived in a rural Chinese province during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In 1972 a team of visiting inspectors selected him to accompany them to Beijing to train as a ballet dancer at Madame Mao’s Dance Academy. Despite not seeming to initially have the necessary qualities that are required to become a great dancer, Li eventually honed his skills with such dedication and discipline that he was sent to the United States to dance for the Houston Ballet. Li, who has since moved to Australia, wrote the very popular and acclaimed autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer in 2003, which has now been adapted into a film by Australian director Bruce Beresford (Black Robe, ‘Breaker’ Morant, The Getting of Wisdom). Unfortunately, despite all its potential, the film version of Mao’s Last Dancer is a very pedestrian affair that is only redeemed by its very powerful conclusion.

The biggest problem with Mao’s Last Dancer is that the contrasting in Li’s autobiography about his life in Communist China compared to his life in Texas during the 1980s, comes across incredibly bluntly in the film. What may have originally been a series of considered personal observations translates cinematically into the sensation of somebody screaming at you, “China equals poor! America equals wealthy! Communism is bad and oppressive! Democracy is good and free!” Hence, Li is repeatedly depicted looking dumbfounded at the wonders of American life while the Chinese officials are all suitably villenous. The representation of ideology in Mao’s Last Dancer is incredibly shallow and crude. The exploration of racial and cultural differences are also very clichéd and reducing Li’s early dialogue to pigeon-English is simply embarrassing.

teenage Li Cunxin (Chengwu Guo)

teenage Li Cunxin (Chengwu Guo)

Mao’s Last Dancer suffers in general from poor plotting and direction to the extent that many scenes resemble daytime soap operas. There is even one moment when a character throws themselves onto a bed in melodramatic anguish. The acting is overall not bad considering the limitations of the adaptation and it is always refreshing to see underrated actors Bruce Greenwood and Kyle MacLachlan on the big screen. Chi Cao, who is a trained ballet dancer, plays the adult Li Cunxin. However, although the heavy use of slow motion and various editing techniques in Mao’s Last Dancer want to give you the impression that you are witnessing great dancing; you are not. Unlike the performances in classic ballet films such as The Red Shoes and the more recent 2003 Robert Altman film The Company, the dancing in Mao’s Last Dancer is only adequate.

Yet despite all its very large flaws Mao’s Last Dancer does end on a triumphant note. The film has two big emotionally cathartic ‘final’ scenes and although you can see the heart-string-tugging mechanics of these scenes a mile off, they are executed brilliantly. Mao’s Last Dancer is a very good example of why you should never leave a film early because to do so in this instance would be to miss 20 minutes of truly impressive filmmaking. If only everything that preceded it wasn’t so mediocre.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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