Zombie Western Takes the Stage

And Just a Few More

Yet More Photos from the Cather Seminar 2011

Photos from the Cather Seminar 2011

The Spirit of John Wayne

Wrapping up The Killing

Day 13 (and episode 13, “Orpheus Descending”) of The Killing finally wrapped everything up into a neat bow, revealing the murderer of Rosie Larsen, allowing Mitch and Stan Larsen a sense of closure so that they can begin the healing process, and sending Detective Linden out to San Francisco to reconcile with her fiance. The final shot of the season shows Linden and Rick Felder standing with the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop as the soon-to-be-married couple exchange their wedding vows.

I am, of course, joking. The Killing, throughout the series, has consciously evoked the conventions of the police procedural in order to depart from them, and the final episode from season one is no different.  If you haven’t seen the episode yet, read no further, as SPOILERS follow.

For those of us who have seen the British series State of Play, the increasing investigative focus on mayoral candidate Darren Richmond has felt a little too obvious. We’ve seen this twist before. Certainly, by the end of season one, Richmond has been arrested for the murder of Rosie Larsen. But did he actually kill her? All we know for certain is that Det. Holder falsified evidence, supplying a security camera photograph  (“I’ve got the nail,” for Richmond’s coffin,  “if you’ve got the hammer”) from a camera that turns out to have been out of operation for 6 months.  Det. Linden discovers this when she receives a phone call while sitting on the airplane getting ready to taxi out for the flight to Oakland.

Is Richmond guilty? Will he actually live to go to trial? Who exactly has Holder been meeting with? He told Linden it was his AA sponsor, who, he said, was keeping Holder’s paycheck and doling out the money slowly to prevent Holder from giving into the temptation to buy drugs. That doesn’t seem to be the case. Was Holder supplying false evidence in order to frame Richmond (at the behest, perhaps, of a political rival)? or because he indeed thinks Richmond is guilty?

The Killing has been renewed for a second season, so I guess we’ll see (eventually) how the answers to these questions play out.

The Killing: Beau Soleil

As The Killing moves toward its conclusion (assuming, of course, that the final episode of the season will be conclusive), the penultimate episode, “Beau Soleil,’ provides several revelations. I will mention only a few of them here, as the episode is still airing on AMC. Most importantly, we learn more about the secretive life or Rosie Larsen, which, it is revealed, is a shadow of her aunt Terry Marek’s own secret life.  Terry, Mitch Larsen’s sister, has been working for an escort agency known as Beau Soleil, and, ATM photos and records suggest that Rosie has been following in her aunt’s (expensive) high-heeled footsteps.

A client going by the code name of Orpheus has been acting in a particularly creepy manner, including asking one woman if she ever wondered what it would feel like to drown.  Detectives Linden and Holder suspect that Orpheus is one of Rosie’s clients, and that he is her killer. The question, which seems to have been answered at the end of the episode (and which I won’t spoil her), is who is Orpheus?

In Plain Sight: Something A-mish

The most recent episode of In Plain Sight takes Mary and Marshall to Amish country, to Intercourse, Pennsylvania, specifically (and, yes, the expected Intercourse jokes follow).  The episode focuses on an Amish woman named Sarah, who is played by Ashley Johnson (who also plays the pregnant wife of Rosie Larsen’s teacher  in The Killing—important information only in that I spent much of the episode trying to figure out why the actress was so familiar).  Sarah was one of the more sympathetic guest stars (especially in comparison to the run of less than sympathetic witnesses we’ve encountered this season), and Ashley Johnson played her very effectively, suggesting a hidden strength beneath the surface of the character.  Okay, SPOILERS follow, if you haven’t seen the episode. Sarah’s Amish husband turns out not to be the most dedicated of the Amish people, a fact we begin to realize when immediately upon relocation to New Mexico he brings home a 55 inch flat-screen television set. We think he’s just adjusting quickly, but his past history of drug dealing is part of what got his wife into the witness protection program—she witnessed a group of bikers killing another Amish man they had mistaken for her husband.

However, the big news of the episode, other than the fact that Marshall collects first editions of books (okay, not a big surprise there), is that Mary is pregnant, apparently the result of a brief fling she had with her ex-husband in an earlier episode. Mary’s pregnancy reveals itself via her increasingly voracious appetite for pie (okay, that’s a normal Mary characteristic), a distaste for coffee (that’s definitely not a normal Mary characteristic), a bosom that seems to be enlarging (which she complains about throughout), and, yes, occasional throwing up.

Mary’s pregnancy was inspired by the real-life pregnancy of Mary McCormack, the actress that plays Mary Shannon, . . . .

For an interview with Mary McCormack, see Inside TV.

James Arness (Obit)

On Meek’s Cutoff

Director Kelly Reichardt’s new film, Meek’s Cutoff, is one of the more interesting westerns to come along in a while.  You may know Reichardt from her earlier film Wendy and Lucy (a story of a woman and her dog that gets me all misty-eyed just thinking about it). Like Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff stars Michelle Williams, and like that earlier movie, Meek’s Cutoff is set (and filmed on location) in Oregon, but it takes place in 1845 rather than the contemporary Oregon of Wendy and Lucy.

The situation in the film is that a group of settlers following a guide named Stephen Meek have departed from the main stem of the Oregon Trail, but, rather than the cutoff providing a shorter way to their destination, the group seems to be wandering aimlessly in the Oregon desert. Early in the film, one member of the group despairingly carves the word “Lost” onto a fallen tree. When we meet the settlers, they have been off the main trail for several weeks, and whatever faith they had in Meek’s guidance has also been lost. The only question in Emily Tetherow’s mind is whether Meek is “ignorant or evil,” whether he has led them astray intentionally (as part of a larger conspiracy against immigrants) or is just incompetent as guide—despite his considerable assertions of self-confidence.

Emily (played by Michelle Williams) is the central character of the film, and the movie alternates between viewing the settlers dispassionately and objectively and showing us events from Emily’s viewpoint.

One of the elements I liked about the film was its use of sound. There’s very little music, and most of the sound is diegetic. The settlers sing “Closer My Lord to Thee” (and, indeed, the only destination they seem to be approaching is death). Nondiegetic music is rare, mostly in the form of brief interludes of string music, eerie and distorted. Mostly what we hear is the sound of travel: the persistent squeak of a wagon wheel, the sounds of oxen teams and other animals, the creak of harnesses and yokes, the banging of objects in the wagons, the constant rumble of wagon wheels over the hard ground. In one scene, the camera is on Meek, who has ridden ahead in search of water. We know the settlers are catching up with him because we hear them first—the high-pitched squeak of the wagon wheel that gets louder and louder, and then the rest of the sounds that don’t carry as far as that squeak. That squeaking wheel is so persistent in the film, that I swear I heard it for the next few hours after I left the theater.

I also greatly appreciated the patient cinematography demonstrated in Meek’s Cutoff. I’ve seen too many movies recently that seem like they were filmed by having two cinematographers toss a camera back and forth to each other, and what we see of the action on-screen is a frenetically-edited jittery incomprehensible blur. And, while the camera is being tossed back and forth, add in frequent and random zooms (in and out). The overabundance of this style of filmmaking has made me all the more appreciative of two things: tripods and long takes. (As Stephen Colbert says, “We can put a man on the moon, so, surely, we can put a camera on a tripod.”)

One of the things that I liked best about Meek’s Cutoff was the use of long takes. Often, a stationary camera distantly observes the action. We see an empty landscape; we hear the noises faintly of the wagon train moving; the noises get louder; the first walker appears and moves slowly across the screen; others follow, oxen pulling wagons, humans walking along beside them or trailing behind; one of the walkers collapses; the camera remains where it is, objectively observing as the rest of the party rushes toward the fallen man.

While the men are off searching for water, Emily (almost literally) runs into an Indian man while she is picking up firewood. Terrified, she rushes back to the camp, and, in one long take, we see here prepare a muzzle-loading rifle with powder and shot, shoot it, and then prepare and fire a second shot. It’s a brilliant scene, the long take effectively demonstrating  the details of how the weapon operates and giving Michelle Williams a chance to show us something significant about her character, the mixture of frantic (but not quite panicked) terror and clear-headed competence. Emily is a sensible woman, but she is a realistic character, one whose reasonable fears are part of her portrayal.

So, I loved the long takes, and I loved the film’s observational patience, but that’s clearly not the case for every audience member (as I heard the person seated behind me say at the end of the film: “It was like watching paint dry”).

I wonder if the advertising campaign establishes the wrong expectations for this film. The movie poster, which features a drawing of a determined-looking Emily with a raised rifle, makes it seems like the film is going to be another version of True Grit. Although clearly a western, the aesthetics and philosophy of Meek’s Cutoff have more in common with Samuel Beckett than Samuel Peckinpah. This is, in a sense, like Waiting for Godot, a drama in which nothing happens, and in which the characters’ situation by the end of the film has not been greatly altered from the beginning (except that our characters may be getting closer and closer to death—or, maybe there will be water over that next hill).

A key dramatic event in the film is when Meek and Solomon Tetherow capture the Indian who has been following the party. Meek wants to kill him, but Tetherow wants to use him as a guide. Surely, the Indian knows the territory better than any of them and can lead them to water (and, undoubtedly, he knows the territory better than Meek). The ambiguity of the Indian (as the character is listed in the credits, or The Cayuse as he’s called on the film’s website) is well played by actor (and stuntman) Rod Rondeaux.   Is the Indian leading them to water or to perdition? or is he just as lost as they are? should they place their trust in a captive (who has no reason, other than saving his own life, to do the bidding of his captors) or in Meek, who has proven himself unreliable?

There are moments in the film (and especially the final shot of the Indian walking away from the camera) that remind me of Dutch artist Guido van der Werve’s experimental films, especiallyNummer acht: Everything is going to be alright,” which consists of one long take of the artist walking across ice with an icebreaker ship seemingly following behind.

No single take in Meek’s Cutoff lasts 1o minutes (as does van der Werve’s film), but there’s a similar sense of endless walking through a landscape that is menacing, whether because of seen or unseen (possible) pursuers or because of moving through a natural space that is in itself threatening to human life (because of heat and lack of water, or because of cold and ice as in “Nummer acht”).

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