By Christopher Renton
Strange Faces is an ongoing film series highlighting the best independent, foreign and documentary films being shown in Chicago theaters.
Kelly Reichardt’s estimable reputation has been built, rather remarkably, on just two films: Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008). Both established the filmmaker’s spare, subtle-to-a-fault style and have garnered her not only praise but a surprising number of avid fans, myself included, eager for her to keep pumping out films. With her latest offering — Meek’s Cutoff — she proves herself worthy of the anticipation and hype.
Based on a true story, this period piece centers around a hopelessly lost, Oregon-bound wagon party led by the blustering Stephen Meek. We enter the narrative at a tipping point; some members of the party, most importantly Michelle Williams’ character Emily, have lost faith in Meek and are beginning to voice their doubts about his abilities as a guide. Their water supply soon begins to run out and patience and politeness start to wear thin shortly thereafter. After encountering a lone native, the party is forced to choose allegiances. Do they follow Meek or the Indian to find water?
As in her two previous films, Reichardt cloaks her purposes in a style that remains so clear-eyed, steady and silent that searching for allegory or metaphor feels almost obsequious — like complimenting a person for not trying too hard. She’s an iceberg theory filmmaker, giving us only the salient details of something far greater lurking beneath. If Terrence Malick is the American poet filmmaker, then I feel comfortable calling Reichardt his prose counterpart. Where his camera sweeps and searches for meaning, hers waits and watches. She is undoubtedly saying something about America and our post-Imperial, post-Manifest Destiny future, but she refuses to let her characters verbalized her intentions. The world she creates does not feel written so much as observed. This film does refreshingly act as a feminist correction not only of the western film genre, but the hyper-masculine ideals that ostensibly won us the west. Meek’s Cutoff will struggle to find an audience, unfortunately, as it asks the viewer for both patience and retrospective interpretation. Most contemporary filmmakers fear leaving too much left unsaid. Reichardt revels in that ambiguity. The performances she captures from Williams, Bruce Greenwood and the entire cast are worth noting, as well. Each of them inhabit their characters and bring authenticity to their quiet, frontier struggles. See this film as soon as possible.
Meek’s Cutoff is currently showing at the Music Box Theatre.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is Werner Herzog’s latest non-fiction effort. He and a small crew were allowed unprecedented access to Chauvet Cave in Southeastern France. The cave is home to the oldest known Paleolithic paintings in the world, and the film is, essentially, a guided travelogue of a place that very few people will ever have the opportunity to see. Herzog introduces us to various experts along the way, but the film is more of a meditation on the cave and its artworks than a comprehensive scientific analysis of either.
This is Herzog’s first foray into 3D, and his inexperience with the medium shows. Adding physical depth to the experience of the cave is a master stroke, but the effect is cloying and unnecessary at times. In fact, at certain points it makes viewing downright difficult. Sadly, the best use of it may be the opening dolly/crane shot through what appears to be an old vineyard.
I should take a moment to say that I loved this film. I never grow tired of hearing Herzog wax poetic about…well, about anything really. His willingness to indulge his interests and pursue people and places that fascinate him makes every release essential viewing for anyone interested in the bizarre or remarkable. His oeuvre is a veritable news-of-the-weird and films like Grizzly Man stand up on their own artistic merits without the bolstering effect of Herzog’s reputation. Cave of Forgotten Dreams does not, sadly. It is beautiful and captivating but lacks anything resembling a cohesive narrative structure. The filming appears to have been an incredible experience, but the finished product feels disjointed. Herzog is obviously fascinated by the wonders of the cave and their implications for the birth of man’s artistic consciousness (deservedly so–the paintings are spectacular).
But the film does suffer from its director’s own enthusiasm and veers haphazardly, at times, into distraction. Like an over-excited child, he appears incapable of articulating exactly what the cave represents to him and its implications for the world. The film is at its most effective when Herzog is doing the least, paring it down to the essentials of undulating, three-dimensional paintings and the cave’s natural music of drops and echoes. Any Herzog fan will still find great satisfaction in his patented voice-over and his wonderful quirks are on full display. I recommend it unequivocally, but this is not Herzog at his best. For better or worse, he has now so fully embraced his eccentricities that his documentaries have become stages for him to parade his own caricature around for our amusement. Not that I’m complaining. Personally, I can’t get enough of him.