fredag 18 juli 2014

Fordian Women

Defying a male point of view? Michelle Williams in Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff.
This is a picture from a Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, a film from 2010 that was never shown in Swedish cinemas and went straight to dvd. I don't know why and it's a terrible shame because it's a most magical film. The story brings back both some of the most poignant histories from the wild west, and other memories of other wonderful films, such as the westerns of John Ford. My husband, who also loves westerns, picked up a dvd of Meek's Cutoff while standing in line at our local food store, which in a way makes it even more magical.

The picture above is from the end of the film. One of the three women in the wagon caravan trailing across the wilderness of Oregon in 1845 seems to be trapped inside the frame. But she keeps looking, defiantly, and then we see what she is looking at. There is an Indian walking up ahead and now he is the leader of the caravan. He came out of nowhere and the men wanted to kill him. She gave him food and mended his shoe, in a beautiful scene she also tells one of the other women that she wants him to owe her something. 

He talks in his own language, which is never translated or understood. He is referred to as the man with the scar. Although the men talk about killing him, he seems to want to stay with the immigrants, and at the end of the film he remains their only hope for finding water. They only have enough water left for one, maybe two days. 

During the film, we seem to share this woman's point of view. She is resourceful and brave and Michelle Williams plays her like a muted heroine, because women in those days could neither carry a vote nor aspire to be a leader on any kind. That is probably why Kelly Reichardt tells this film in the Academy ratio, with its strikingly narrow picture frame in a genre where we are used to the much wider screen. There are several things in this film that point to this censured vision of the world, a bit like experiencing the wild west through blinders, like a horse. When the woman first meets the Indian, she is gathering wood for the evening fire. She wanders slowly out of the camp where the wagons huddle together, and all we see, along with her, is what is just close by on the ground, in front of her. Her hat helps her in blocking any attempt at wide screen and I smile as I remember the similar way that Jane Campion used hats in The Piano. Suddenly, a pair of mockasins appear inside the frame, her frame and she sees him. Startled, she drops the bundle of dry wood and runs back to the camp. 

But there are also wide visions of the seemingly endless landscape of dry, barren plains. There are several shots from far away, maybe seen from the perspective of the Indian, where the caravan moving through the landscape is like something both alien and curious. One shot is especially wonderful, a most carefully done blending from one picture to another where you first think that the caravan of horses and wagons are walking in the sky, or coming out of the sky.  
The wagon trail descending from the sky. Cinematography by Cristopher Blauvelt. 
There are seven people in the caravan. Three women, four men and a boy. One of the women is pregnant and one of the men have fallen ill. Also, one of the wagons has been destroyed during a passage down from a steep hill. The caravan is lead by a trapper in buckskin and a wild beard who seems to be drunk or crazy, talking gibberish most of the time. His name is Meek and the three families decided to follow him because he said he knew a short cut. As the film slowly moves on, we understand that Meek doesn't have a clue. They are lost in the big wilderness. Will the Indian save them? The film ends in a big question mark, as illustrated by the gaze of the woman played by Michelle Williams.

So why should I like to compare this film with any film of John Ford, even though there are some references to play with, such as the theme of the search and the Indian with a scar? John Ford's films, and especially his westerns, have not attracted much attention from feminist film critics. Ford's westerns seem to sing the exclusive praise of the alpha male, as played by John Wayne and others, while the women in his films must simply be content with being either the kind of fiery redhead played by Maureen O'Hara, or the patient, motherly figure that waves the men goodbye.  

The inspiration for these thoughts comes actually from a book I've been reading: Women in the films of John Ford by David Meuel. On the cover is a lush and totally irresistible picture of Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner in Mogambo, the rather corny romantic adventure set in Africa that Ford made in 1953. It also happens to be the very first film by John Ford that I saw, during a time when I was young and hated westerns because they were not about women. But later on I was also mesmerized and today I am counting The Searchers (1956) and My darling Clementine (1946) to those films that I can see innumerable times and always see new things. And then I haven't even seen the films Ford made where there really are some interesting women's parts, like Jean Arthur in the comedy The whole town's talking (1934), Joanne Dru in Wagon Master (1951) or Anne Bancroft in Seven women (1966) - just to name a few.

Meuel writes with new insights and clarity about these films, and many others, and manages to enlighten the great variety of women in Fords films. Meuel's search for the women in Ford's films shows us how many women actually are depicted and vital to the stories he tells, like the classic The Searchers, for instance, and how he often avoided portraying women within the restraints of the innocent-lady-and-sexy-dame-stereotype. 

"Dare we call Ford a feminist?" Meuel asks towards the end of his book. And yes, we do. From loving films and getting to know John Ford's women, it is perhaps not surprising that a new take on the western film looks like Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff - a film that will be remembered for its Fordian women.
The women coping in a hostile world. Costumes by Victoria Farrell.