Musings and More on Meek’s Cutoff

Meek’s Cutoff

May 31, 2012

I finally got around to watching Meek’s Cutoff a couple of nights ago, and I recalled reading Michael’s post about the film, probably over a year ago now. I’ve also kept promising Michael I’d be getting back to blogging here or whatever again. So I’m going to seize the opportunity and add some of my thoughts about this interesting film.


It is sometimes fairly closely, other times rather loosely, based, as no doubt many of this site’s readers know, on an actual historical event. Stephen Meek was the older brother of the legendary mountain man Joe Meek. The actual party he was leading in this case was a large one, consisting of over 1000 people, 200 wagons, though there was a period where the group broke into two parties, Meek taking the smaller one on. The film cuts even that reduction down by a huge margin to three wagons and seven people. This change in the adaptation of the historical record seems to serve multiple purposes: it provides a manageable cast through which the audience can gain some insight into each character; it allows increased focus in numerous regards ranging from camera work to alleviating confusion; it furnishes sharper dramatic unity.


All told, only nine characters appear in the film after adding Meek and the Indian. A final element this narrowing of characters allows for is the casting of solid actors throughout the cast: Michelle Williams and Paul Dano may be the best known (though Will Patton and Bruce Greenwood are also familiar to me), but it is difficult to argue that any actor in this film, including the boy, ever misfires at all on screen, whether in speech, expression, or mannerism.


Beyond question it is a serious film, an “art film.” It makes many demands on viewers. Dialogue is less than sparse and doesn’t even enter the film at all until what seems like at least ten minutes or more into the movie but I think is only around 6 minutes in. The soundtrack dominates the audible features of the film, particularly odd sounds: the high-pitched squeaky wheels of the wagons, the later less high-pitched wheels, and a sound I assume is the wind (at any rate, a particularly mystical sort of background sound). The high-pitched sound reminds me a great deal of the squeaking windmill that is heard throughout much of Sergio Leone’s long, also-patience-demanding (yet wonderful) opening several minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West,though in this case it would seem overly forced to argue it is intended as a reference to LeoneAlso in terms of sound, the score is also a sort of undertow, moody, brooding, minimal—and haunting. It fits the film perfectly.


The use of 1.33:1 aspect may seem surprising—that is essentially the size of television screens, rather than the standard (especially for most Westerns since the size’s advent) wide screen aspect (16.9)—but it’s no accident. What it does for this film is allow at once a sense of heightened claustrophobia within a monsterously huge and overpowering landscape—that is, it constricts and reduces the landscape, causing viewers to experience it more as the characters actually at least arguably would given their circumstances (it is wonderfully shot/set up/etc.—much more so than say my much-beloved Lonesome Dove, shot in the TV aspect because, well, it was for TV).


Yet the frequent use of complete darkness, with conversations between the Tetherows in particular and occasionally the party, draw extra attention at those times to the spoken word. These scenes, many of them featuring some light and image at least part of the time via a lantern or firelight, again serve to add intimacy, to put the viewer into the characters’  world and experience—and at the least hint of symbolic suggestiveness, of words out of darkness.


More directly thematically, and linking to the above, I find three parts of the film crucial: Meek’s jovial conversations with the boy, when Meek directly addresses Williams’s Emily Tetherow about women and men and, naturally enough, the film’s ending. The film’s Meek is no common villain, arguably no villain at all. He is a creature of his time, but one we are to look at with both that fact and our own time in mind.


He is frequently likeable, especially with the boy.  He captivates the boy with stories of his brother Joe, stories of the legendary West before and “now” in 1845. The stories appeal to the boy, and to us. Granted, he is “sexist” and “racist” to our time, and this film skillfully weaves in those and other elements in reaching out to its modern audience and its sensibilities—yet does so without getting preachy or making Meek an abomination. He represents the Meek of his time, and the Meek of ours, but it’s clear this Meek shall not inherit the earth in either of these worlds—or the film’s.


But even in some of his bumbling conversations with Emily (and the other two women), he offers a clumsy charm. All three seem to believe he has little knowledge of women, to the point in fact that in a fine scene beginning at the 40:00 mark of the film, Zoe Henderson’s Glory White asks if he’s “never womaned.” He replies he has, with “squaws,” not even appearing able to recognize his inappropriateness toward the three ladies in bringing that up. Soon one of the most suggestive, meaningful lines in the film emerges from him, though, as he tries to reassure Emily: “We’re not lost—we’re just finding our way.” Her arguably overly harsh response is that he not “patronize” her, after which he entirely bumbles by speculating that she might be “flirtin’ with me.” He then embarks on a speculative journey about gender, discoursing on the main difference between women and men: women bring “chaos” and “disorder” and “new things” into the world; Men are the planet’s destructive side. It is creation versus nihilism, Brahma versus Shiva. The two are complimentary, however, more than foes. And this idea seems supported by the film’s ending.


And Meek does change, as that ending makes clear, to the point that we realize that he’s never been closed minded. He’s also never really been a “fierce patriarch,” except in his violence toward the Indian, nor is he by nature mean-spirited or dominating. But his way must be left behind, too—by the others and by him.  So, in another key scene, running only for about a potent minute, from 1:35-1:36, he concedes to the group gathered by the tree of hope and whatever else it may signify: “I’m takin’ orders from you now, Mr. Tetherow . . . Miz Tetherow. We’re all takin’ our orders from him [the Indian], I’d say. Just playin’ our parts now. . . . written long before we got here. I’m at your command.” These are the last words spoken in the film. So in one sense Meek gets the last word, the last number of words. But they are his surrender, his acknowledgment that he has been wrong, that better ways are available. The bi- or even tri- (or more?) levels of meaning here are fairly fascinating.


Thus at film’s end we realize that this journey has been a Zane Greyesque (in some ways) crucible journey. Not only for the entire party, but also most of all for Meek. The term “cutoff” itself takes on several ramifications.

Historically, we know that the Indian led the group safely to water, indeed did so for a blanket. The film, however, leaves the outcome uncertain, with even the discovery of the tree ambiguous, given that its lower half is leafy, its upper reaches bare. The tree would also seem to offer a connection to the male-female issues raised in the film, particularly since the boy early on reads aloud from Genesis about Adam and Eve. Six of the emigrants—three paired groups of male-female (the boy standing in for his father)—are gathered under the tree. Meek is off separate as he makes his concessions, the Indian off separate ahead, then walking away. It emphasizes the choice they have, as if between the patriarchal “God,” Meek, and the “Heathen.”


I feel there is only one clichéd moment in the film: when Williams’s character first comes upon the Indian. It is still made more believable than usual, however, as her gaze has long been fixed on the ground, searching for firewood, but I’m sorry, it still doesn’t work to have someone come suddenly and surprised upon someone else straight in front of her and out in the open. I expected the clichéd convention, and sure enough, it hit. However, the number of other times in the filn I expected a cliché, none came to pass.

In short, this film truly asks, demands, we enter it—not merely experience it as a viewer, but as a member of the party. While it is tempting to label it as “too precious” or “overly arty” or to accuse it of calling attention to itself, I don’t think it really does, not at all. It is instead organic, unified, and it given the chance (which most viewers won’t give it), it succeeds wonderfully at what it is intends to do. And it is a film that will stay with you, one that lends itself to pondering.


The Left-Handed Gun (and Peckinpah’s Kid)

The Left-Handed Gun (and Peckinpah’s Kid) created on 5 September, 2010 @ 18:56 [Autosave]
Title The Left-Handed Gun (and Peckinpah’s Kid)

For anyone who reads this and doesn’t know me or the terminology for the blog, let me note that I’m David Cremean, Past-President of the Western Literature Association (2009), and “Paha Sapa” is Lakota Sioux for “Black Hills,” where I teach and live, in Spearfish, just off of I-90, near Deadwood and a scant 10 miles from the eastern portion of Wyoming.

Well, it’s only been a bit over a year-and-a-half since I created this blog, and I’m finally using it for the first time. I doubt the world was any poorer for my non-blogging or will become any richer now that I’m trying to kick start it like a stubborn horse, but here it is. Last night I rewatched (on Netflix direct feed) this post’s title, Director Arthur Penn’s “classic Western” for the first time since, well, childhood or adolescence, and I’m now 52.

Penn is, of course, most famous for Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man, and as far as I can tell is completely unrelated to Shaun Penn or the other two Penn brothers. Well, in keeping with both of those films, this one is another 3 word title if we count the hyphenated term as a single word: The Left-Handed Gun (1958). It was Penn’s first film, and that fact shows all too well. It was also one of Newman’s earliest roles, and I think that shows a bit too well, too, though as always, Newman has his moments. The best-acted part is John Dehner’s Pat Garrett, though he too is given some awful lines and scenes.

So, as for Penn here: this black and white film, based on some type of script originally written by Gore Vidal and rewritten by Leslie Stephens, is pretty much an incoherent mess with little plausibility or believable suggestion of cause and effect and no apparent themes. It doesn’t even have a mood. Perhaps in the existential and Beat-laden late-1950s that incoherence is the point, though I doubt it. LHG also probably sticks too close to history in some ways (though not close enough in others; see below), or at least fails to use the historical or even the legendary aspects very well. Of course, with a director’s first film in particular, it’s hard to say what a studio may have done to destroy it all. Nevertheless, the outlaws themselves are made far too “good” and thus one-dimensional in Penn’s version.

Newman was in his early 30s when he played this role, supposedly a late teen-, earlier one-score-aged character. This problem has of course been a common one for so many Hollywood films (including many a Western, perhaps most egregiously in recent memory All the Pretty Horses). Of course, Yosemite Sam Peckinpah’s Billy, Kris Kristofferson, created a similar stretch, but in Peckinpah’s case it works because being older is intentionally a major part of the theme and the film’s world: KK’s Billy is not supposed to be “historical” or young. And Penn was reined in a great deal by the restrictions of his time: so many laughably bloodless shooting deaths here. As well, Newman seems too busy trying to do his best Montgomery Clift/Marlon Brando/James Dean (for my money, the greatest of these is Clift, a major influence on the other two). Newman also often overracts, though in this film he’s hardly the only one who does.

Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid obviously owes a great deal to this film and clearly references it at many a turn. Granted, both follow a lot of the historical/legendary facts about “The Kid,” but Peckinpah makes them fit his film. Typical of the Wild Buncher–see also Major Dundee–confusion surrounded his version (there are 3 different film cuts of it still available). Peckinpah’s film, at least in “his” preferred version, is easily the better of these two and to my mind easily the best of the many BTK films: it is at once more focused and more profound. Both films are full of cruciformic imagery of surrendering or dying men (though at least as I recall, it’s only with Billy in Peckinpah’s, and in Penn’s it is each of the 3 main outlaws: Billy, Charlie Boudre, and Tom Folliard).

One wonders if Cormac McCarthy’s kid/man’s demise in the Dantean “jakes,” the end-game in _Blood Meridian_, is an ironic reference to Billy’s use of the outhouse in Peckinpah’s film (in LHG, it is simply the semi-veiled Billy’s need for a trip “outside” that covers anything scatalogically). Even Bob Dylan’s mysterious (and alas, badly acted role) “Alias” in Peckinpah’s film has a precedent in LHG: Hurd Hatfield playing an odd and mysterious hero-worshipping southerner, Moultrie. (Hatfield is most famous as the star of the film version of The Picture of Dorian Gray.)

In addition to Dylan’s fine soundtrack for the Peckinpah film–though Peckinpah had few kind words for Dylan (of course, like John Ford, he rarely had many kind words for anyone). Riding along the same trail, the score for Peckinpah’s film involves the hymnic Dylan classic “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” used in the film’s single most poignant, memorable, greatest scene, the death of the gutshot Slim Pickens character (one of Garrett’s allies) in the arms of his wife, played by the equally legendary Kay Jurado, as he moves down by the river for a variety of suggestive/symbolic reasons. One of these reasons is that he will never sail in let alone finish his boat (referenced by Gene Hackman’s Bill Daggett in Unforgiven, who never gets to finish his house, which produces William Munny’s greatest line of all, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it”).

Finally worth noting is that Billy the Kid was, of course, apparently right-, not left-, handed, since the famous photograph of The Kid holding a rifle in his right hand and wearing his revolver on his left resulted from a reversal of the negative. This photograph is actually part of Penn’s film and portrayed incorrectly, when at Garrett’s wedding Billy is photographed holding a rifle in his right hand and wearing his revolver on his left side.

Trivial Pursuit elements (along the lines of iMdb): At least one song I’m aware of and own on a vinyl album directly mentions the Peckinpah movie, is built around it in fact: the late, great folk-singer John Stewart’s “Take Me to Durango” (Mexico, where SP’s version was filmed): “I could play that part just fine you know,” “I never saw old Peckinpah,” “it’ll be the best Billy the Kid of ’em all,” and “shot him down in (New) Mexico,” among other lines. . . . Denver Pyle (as the ill-fated Ollinger, a part that in Peckinpah’s film is utterly inhabited by RG Armstrong) and James Best as Billy’s sidekick Tom Folliard later became Pa Duke and Sheriff Roscoe P. Coletrain, respectively, in _The Dukes of Hazzard_, the ridiculous but for a couple years of its run fun hit television show with plenty of Western elements built into it. . . . And speaking of Cormac McCarthy, likely one of his reasons for interest in “the kid” is that Henry McCarty (not William Bonney) was apparently Billy the Kid’s real name. This kicks up even more interesting serendipitous dust, at least forme: as I learned only 4-5 years ago, the Cremean family name descended from McCruimmen/O’Cruimmen/ McCrimmin/etc., which comes out of Counties Cork and Kerry in Ireland–and was a sept of the McCarthy Clan (also out of Cork and Kerry) and uses the McCarthy/McCarty coat of arms. McCarthy often seems to play with elements of his heritage, such as this. Adding to the serendipity: Hurd Hatfield from LHG died in either Rathcormac or Monkstown, County Cork, Ireland.