Who Will Survive in America?

Wendy and Lucy--the 2008 film that represented a giant step forward and the arrival of a major auteur in Kelly Reichardt--told the story of a young woman (Michelle Williams) trying to make it up to Alaska, but who gets stuck on the way in a small Oregon town, without money, without resources, and without her dog, Lucy. Many admirers at the time remarked upon the fruitful coincidence of this hard-luck tale appearing right in the midst of America's worst recession since the Great Depression. But such serendipity aside, Reichardt's larger concerns were the potentially dangerous myth of upward mobility and the "American Dream," how easily ordinary people can fall helplessly between the cracks, and where the promising frontiers of our collective imagination end and prosaic reality begins. Yet none of this is ever directly articulated or hammered home in big, histrionic moments; Wendy and Lucy is never not the story of a woman trying to get back the dog she loves very much. It's shot through with a sort of Bressonian grace, and it's quietly devastating.

Meek's Cutoff is set in 1845, more than a century and a half before the present-day Wendy and Lucy. Both films, however, take place in Oregon (albeit in the case of Meek's Cutoff, 14 years before Oregon would be incorporated as the U.S.'s 33rd state--characters in the film speculate whether the territory will "go American"). Reichardt, an East Coast native, seems acutely fascinated by the space that the West Coast and, in particular, Oregon and the Northwest occupy within the American cultural psyche. Way off on the continental margin, it's a land that's stranger and less quintessentially "American" than Boston or New York or Philadelphia, while ostensibly promising opportunity and danger in roughly equal measure. There's a peculiar sense of deja vu in Reichardt's Oregon, of struggles endured and inevitably forgotten over time against the backdrop of an unfeeling physical landscape.

The problems encountered by Wendy are of a decidedly contemporary nature (chiefly, the absence of a solid social safety net). Those faced by the small company of immigrant pioneers in Meek's Cutoff are more dire: increasing shortages of food and water; innumerable miles of travel in a harsh desert terrain; the looming threat posed by the region's Native inhabitants; and maybe most of all, the unreliability of their contracted guide, the titular Stephen Meek. As played by Bruce Greenwood (reminiscent of Daniel Day-Lewis' charismatically sinister There Will Be Blood turn, though more reined-in and sparingly deployed), Meek is arrogant and mercurial, insisting, when his sense of direction is questioned, that "we're not lost, we're just finding our way." His most vocal critic, Emily Tetherow (again, Michelle Williams, who is fast becoming the De Niro to Reichardt's Scorsese), wonders aloud to her more mild-mannered husband (Will Patton) whether Meek is "ignorant or just plain evil."

If Meek is one of the great ambiguous screen villains of recent years, Williams' Emily, following Jennifer Lawrence's Ree Dolly in Debra Granik's marvelous Winter's Bone, is one of American cinema's most compelling feminist creations. As in her previous work, Reichardt is understated in her politics, making engrossing movies first and polemical statements second, but here, she's clearly interested in the evolution of female agency in American society and how that connects to or correlates with the extreme circumstances of the pioneer experience. In Meek's Cutoff, the men of the group huddle together making tenuous plans for their company's troubled passage, while we, the audience, remain amongst their wives and later a Native captive--just barely, or sometimes not quite, within earshot. We are privy, however, to private conversations between Emily and her husband. From these moments, it becomes clear that she's actually the one calling the shots and that she has an impeccable bullshit detector.

It's tempting to read Meek's Cutoff as a kind of historical prequel to Wendy and Lucy, with the outsize expectations of Manifest Destiny, of limitless gold and fertile land, evolving into Wendy's vague hopes regarding the even further frontier of Alaska. One of Reichardt's favorite motifs is the nocturnal campfire, that archetypal forum for pipe-dream myths to take shape before they soon evaporate in the light of day. Her latest makes excellent use of both these night-time gatherings (with Meek's over-confident tall tales taking on a ghostly quality in the flickering fire-light) and the oppressive, sweltering sun of the days that follow. Meek's Cutoff is unshowily gorgeous--often, at once, painterly and palpably grimy. The film's unforgettable final scene brings Reichardt's myriad concerns to a pointed head, closing on an image that's as haunting as the last shot of Ford's The Searchers.


Waiting for the Man

Adam Cook, over at Cinemezzo, has invited some guest writers, including yours truly, to reflect on Terrence Malick's first four features in feverish anticipation of The Tree of Life. The feature kicks off tomorrow, May 21st, with Edwin Davies of Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second covering Badlands; my contribution on Days of Heaven will run this coming Monday; our gracious host's piece on The Thin Red Line will follow on Wednesday; and an essay on The New World by Nathaniel Smith, also of Hope Lies..., will bring us up to date on Friday.

So stay tuned for that, if you're so inclined.


"Shh, Don't Look at Them"

When we're out doing things--running errands, going for a walk, getting a bite to eat, etc.--and our two and a half year-old son visibly needs an in-stroller nap and seems on the verge of nodding off, one of us will say, "Shh, don't look at him." Which means, of course, stop talking for a moment, don't make eye contact, and hopefully the lack of visual and aural stimulation will allow him to him to relax and fall asleep. Sometimes, this strategy works. Other times, he gets more restless and fussy, annoyed that we're ignoring him, and ends up throwing repeated tantrums that don't seem to be about anything in particular (I know--he's 2, that's what they do). When this happens, it's retrospectively clear that we should've further investigated why he wasn't quite falling asleep in the first place--did he need a cup of milk, perhaps, to help soothe him, or maybe a quick run around somewhere to burn off the excess energy keeping him awake?

I mention this because a similar (ultimately ineffective) policy of "Shh, don't look at them!" seemed to apply to this season's Lakers, who were humiliated in a four-game sweep by the Dallas Mavericks. From the players and coaching staff themselves to the sports media and fans, the general attitude all season seemed to be one of looking the other way when significant problems arose. Blown out by the horrendous Cavs (a team that set the record for the longest losing streak in league history)? "Don't worry about it, it's just the regular season." Inching within contention of the West's top seed, then sleep-walking through games and barely holding on to the 2-seed on the final day of the season? "Sure, they don't look great now, but they're the two-time defending champs--they know what they're doing." Losing two games to a Hornets team that, without David West, was basically just Chris Paul and a bunch of spare parts? "They're playing down to a mediocre opponent. They'll 'turn it on' when it counts." we are.

What actually happened to the 2010-11 Lakers is something of a mystery. Because hardly anyone bothered to ask the tough questions months or weeks ago, it's probably too late to conclusively know now; it's certainly too late to matter. What is readily apparent is that you can't just "turn it on" in April or May and expect everything to be fine. The similarly aging Spurs found that out in the first round, and the Lakers likely would've, too, had they drawn Memphis instead of New Orleans. Yet, while age seems to be the single biggest factor in the Spurs' early exit, can the same really be said of the Lakers? Father Time can't, by himself and within a single year, turn two-time NBA champs into a lifeless bunch of non-starters who couldn't manage one measly second-round win against a not-that-great Dallas team. Ditto the line-of-thinking that blames a lack of team chemistry; the core of the team remained identical to last year's.

One also can't attribute the sweep, or today's demoralizing blow-out, to the absence of identifiable motivators. If your legendary coach attempting, in his final season, a book-ending fourth threepeat and your franchise star trying to tie Jordan's ring-count (and thus merit mention in best-ever discussions) aren't motivation enough, I'm not sure what more could possibly be needed.

Whatever the case, barring major off-season shake-ups, things don't look terribly bright for the brave new post-Jackson Lakers world...


Victory Lap

In Bill Simmons' introduction to his Book of Basketball (a terrific read, by the way, recommended to all NBA fans), he mentions a conversation he had with Isiah Thomas concerning the so-called "secret of basketball." Simmons pressed Thomas for an answer to this elusive question, and Thomas responded that "the secret of baksetball is that it's not about basketball," but rather about teamwork, chemistry, and myriad other elements not directly related to putting the ball in the hoop. While this, at first, might sound slightly cryptic, it makes sense and probably applies equally to most other team sports (baseball, where an individual pitcher or hitter can almost single-handedly win games, might be a bit of an exception, though over a 162-game season, the "secret" certainly factors in to some extent).

With that in mind, the secret of Friday Night Lights the TV series was that this show about high school football was really about everything else: family, both in the literal and broader definitions of the word; the social health of a community; what we give to and take from the relationships we forge; personal responsibility and integrity; the role of education in American life; the state of race relations in the South; the way that where we live serves to shape who we are--these, more than touchdowns, field goals, and state championships, were the ingredients that made Friday Night Lights such an indelible work of art.

And that's also why watching the show's final season is such a bittersweet experience. It means saying goodbye to Dillon, Texas, the Taylor family, the Riggins brothers, Buddy Garrity and the boosters, the Alamo Freeze--the whole nine yards (no pun intended). This is something the cast and crew of the series seemed to anticipate and probably feel themselves. Season 5 is fittingly wistful, as warm and often heartbreakingly tender a final act as any devoted fan could've hoped for. This is especially true of the last couple episodes where we're given just enough resolution, but also a kind of poetic open-endedness that suggests unwritten futures, allowing these people we've come to love to live on in our collective imagination. The decisions arrived at by Matt and Julie and by Coach and Tami seem, together, to encapsulate the very heart of the show.

This season also did a superb job of balancing the more recent East Dillon characters and storylines with the return of original cast members. Seeing Jason and Tyra back in Dillon made for a very satisfying surprise. Their appearances didn't feel shoe-horned in either, but fit naturally into the current narrative; while I would've liked to have seen Smash and Lyla come back, as well, too many reappearances might've sidetracked the focus of the season. My only (very minor) gripe is that the new characters introduced this season didn't feel all that necessary; little was done with the Hastings character after successfully recruiting him to join the Lions and Epic mostly seemed to serve as a cipher to illustrate Tami's inclusive educational philosophy. But with such rich developments in the lives of Vince, Jess, Becky, Billy and Mindy, and everyone else, this small point hardly matters. Friday Night Lights was one of television's great dramas and it will be sincerely missed.