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Countdown to Top Ten 2K11: “Meek’s Cutoff”

Countdown to Top Ten 2K11: “Meek’s Cutoff” (photo)

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Countdown to Top Ten 2K11 is a column with one simple goal: to help you decide what films you need to see before making your end of the year top ten list. Each installment features my thoughts on a critically acclaimed 2011 movie, a sampling of other critics’ reactions, the odds of the film making my own list, and the reasons why it might make yours.

This time we’re covering “Meek’s Cutoff,” one of the most divisive arthouse indies of the year. Is it a brilliantly original take on a classic genre or a steaming plate of “cultural vegetables?” Let’s find out.

Movie: “Meek’s Cutoff”
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%
Plot Synopsis: Three families and their hapless guide lost on the Oregon Trail in 1845 struggle to survive as their water supplies dwindle lower and lower.
What the Critics Said: “Bracingly original,” A.O. Scott, The New York Times
“Cinematic as it is, ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ has an uncanny theatricality,” J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
“A grippingly original work, with gorgeous cinematography,” Dana Stevens, Slate

Were They Right? I’m with Scott and Stevens: this is an undeniably original take on a very old genre (Stevens is dead-on about the cinematography as well; stunningly beautiful even in the old-fashioned 1.33:1 pan-and-scan aspect ratio). This is not the Old West of other movies. There’s no awe-inspiring cattle drive, no hard-charging cavalry riding to the rescue. Forget all the posturing from Ford and Hawks movies about taming the savage landscape, clearing the way for civilization, and proving your manhood. Those are all frivolities; Reichardt’s West is too unforgiving for that. Meek’s brigade faces much more basic problems, like figuring out where the hell they are and finding water before they all die of thirst.

The earliest scenes are both the wettest and the driest. Three wagons slowly cross a river. Then they clean their dishes in the gurgling water. After resting, they press on, in a journey to who knows where. There’s no exposition and less action. The characters’ faces are hard to see and their words are hard to hear; I actually had to plug in my headphones to hear the dialogue because the audio on the DVD was so faint through my computer’s speakers without them. This is surely the portion of the film that inspired Dan Kois’ controversial “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables” piece in The New York Times, and led him to describe the movie as “closed off and stubborn as the devout settlers who populate it.” This sequence certainly is.

If you stick with the film, though, the prologue’s importance becomes clearer. The river crossing looked uneventful, but it was also the last time any of the characters saw water. The wagons, led by a big-talking, big-bearded huckster named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), have gotten themselves lost. If they don’t find their way back to a river soon, they’ll be in serious trouble. Meek, who’s supposed to be in charge, doesn’t seem all that reliable.

As one character notes, Meek could be “ignorant” or “just plain evil.” It’s hard to say, which suggests he may intended as an allegorical stand-in for George W. Bush, another overconfident cowboy who led some naive and foolishly trusting people into uncharted territory with similarly disastrous results. And Greenwood is terrific in the role, though he may not receive the Oscar nomination he deserves for no other reason than he’s so completely unrecognizable behind a wall of facial hair and a frontier accent that voters may not recognize him. They’ll surely recognize Michelle Williams, also good as the strongest and most independent of the three wives on the wagon train. Reichardt’s focus on the women’s perspective of this doomed expedition and her curiosity about their daily lives of chores and toil is another way in which the film diverges from traditional Western narratives.

That’s supposing that “Meek’s Cutoff” has a narrative, Western or otherwise, at all. At times, it feels like it doesn’t. The only break in the monotony of the trudge through the Oregon scrub is the addition of a captured Native American (Rod Rondeaux) to the brigade. As the water supply dwindles and civility amongst the emigrants breaks down, identifying the native’s mysterious motives becomes yet another source of tension. In a quiet way, this is a devastating ticking clock movie. Every time the settlers stop for a drink or bicker amongst themselves about whether to follow the native or Meek they’re one step closer to death. By the end of the film, the desperation in their faces and their voices is absolutely haunting.

That said, even though I disagree strongly that watching this movie is an unpleasant experience akin to eating your vegetables, “Meek’s Cutoff” isn’t quite as successful as Reichardt’s last two efforts, “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy.” I was particularly unsatisfied by her choice of endings — although, according to this Village Voice interview with the director, it wasn’t a choice at all, but rather an economic necessity of a budget that ran out before shooting was completed. I don’t know what Reichardt’s original ending was, but I’m sure it would have been better than the one that was forced upon her, in which one person in the group says and does something completely out of character, and another performs an action that is open to a variety of equally unrewarding interpretations. The conclusion’s ambiguity leaves you with the feeling that going on this journey with these characters was a huge mistake. Admittedly, that may have been Reichardt’s point.

Could Get Oscar Nominated For: Best Supporting Actor (Bruce Greenwood)
Chances of Making My Top Ten: Slightly better than the emigrants’ chances of finding water with Meek.
It Might Make Your Top Ten List If: you dig revisionist Westerns; you’re a big fan of Reichardt’s previous films; you miss playing “Oregon Trail” on your Apple II.

“Meek’s Cutoff” is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and iTunes; you can also rent it on Netflix. If you see it, tell us what you think; leave us a comment below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Previously in Countdown to Top Ten 2K11
“Margin Call,” directed by J.C. Chandor
“Bill Cunningham New York,” directed by Richard Press
“Hanna,” directed by Joe Wright

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.