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Friday, December 2, 2011

Meek's Cutoff




Is it Oregon? I couldn't help but feel it was Australia. On film hardly any place but Australia has left such an impression of a complete lack of human infiltration. Sure, you get a glimpse of a half-nekked aborigine, but that just makes it worse. "You should see the cities we built," Michelle Williams grumbled to the lone Indian captured by the white men. The Indian didn't understand her, of course. I wondered whether she was only trying to remind herself of what cities looked like.

The movie is slow, oppressive, and pretty much a long journey into the belly of desperation. In a male filmmaker's hand, no doubt at some point insanity would take over and someone would get killed in a mad struggle. She generally avoided blood and death, but the sense of doom hung heavy without release, even in the end. Even I find it a bit unbearable and fast-forwarded to the ending.

The ending, ha! A cursory Google search can tell you that a lot of viewers are enraged by it. Mightily pissed off. Is it a reaction typical to American moviegoers? Or is it universal? I digress. Anyway, I suspect that if the movie were merely a slow and artsy *film* but spared us the uncertainty and doubt, if there were some relief of closure at the end (even if tragic), people would not have been so angry about it.

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There is hardly any dialog in the movie, except for the endless boasting of Stephen Meek, played by an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood (I wouldn't have known it was Bruce Greenwood if it weren't printed on the cast list). This character makes me chuckle (but without mirth). Why? Because I know this guy. I have met him a number of times before. I met him in a friend's husband, with whom I had an unfriendly argument that spoiled my friendship with the wife. I met him in a pot-bellied government bureaucrat, spewing bullshit as his subordinates listened in hushed reverence. You can see him on TV on Fox News, CNN, or other news network's talking heads that they use to pass for news. He is the art professor, some sort of expert, or resident intellectual who keeps dropping big words but makes no sense. He is so sure of himself that people look up to him with awe. He freely dispenses truisms that are vaguely profound but entirely meaningless. He is the charming snake-oil salesman. He is usually male, but I have seen him in a woman or two with Ph.D. in social science.

It is really funny (funny ironic, not funny haha) that, in the beginning, the men in the wagon train, which got lost under Meek's guidance, were whispering doubts about Meek and even suggesting that he be hanged. Yet, faced with Meek's bravado, they continued to follow his lead, relinquishing their power and judgment in his hand. He had no idea where he was going, but neither did they. And people would rather follow a blind man than follow their own instinct. Ain't that the truth.

I know that man. Don't you? I often wonder why such a guy is so popular, so revered, so trusted. "Do you see he has no idea what he's doing?" I want to yell at people and shake their shoulders. But people love him and beg him to tell them what to do. Considering the poignant but subtle social commentary in "Old Joy," I was convinced that Kelly Reinhart was making reference to contemporary events.

Surprisingly, "Meek's Cutoff" is a true story. There really was a Stephen Meek, and he really did lead a wagon train lost in the Oregon wilderness. Only there were a lot more wagons following him and the consequence was more disastrous than in the movie. Amazingly, Meek was not killed by the disillusioned mob after many died on the road, although there were rumors. In fact, the real Meek died of old age. Ain't that what always happens?

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Back to the enraging uncertainty of the ending. I was reminded of John Sayle's "Limbo," which also has an equivocal ending. "It could be water or blood," as Meek says in the movie.

Just recently I was thinking about the human perception/illusion of time as Brian Greene explained. The past and the future may be equally elusive, but the constant, weak electrical impulses and neuronal patterns that are memory give us the feeling that we have access to the past, but not the future. It is not the past that we know, but rather the ghost of the past still living in our brain. What if we didn't have this ghost living in our brain? (Think anterograde amnesia. Think "Memento.") What if we had a similar ghost in the brain that feeds us knowledge of the future in the same way?

So, anyway, what the heck was I trying to say? Oh, the unknowable future. Right. Hmm. We don't know what awaits us in the next minute, day, week, month, year. We could be hit by a bus and die tomorrow. Or gets killed in a plane crash next week. Or get lost in the Oregon desert and die of thirst. At least, living in this era gives us a false sense of certainty. The whole world has been mapped out. If we get lost, click on the GPS. If we are thirsty, turn on the tap. We know the mathematical probability of dying in a car crash or plane crash. We know the treatment for pneumonia, the cause and prevention of cholera, and the way to get to the nearest hospital. We have this cemented sense of safety through our access to a huge amount of knowledge. However, in the time before maps were charted, what was it like, PSYCHOLOGICALLY, to walk into a desert or sail into the sea without a map, without satellite, with no end in sight? I don't know about you, but it scares me shitless. Perhaps this is why we like our movies predictable. Yet isn't this unknown landscape the same as our everyday reality? The desert of tomorrow is as unknowable as the Oregon desert for the westward emigrants? Isn't it also the same for "the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns"?

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