A sacred cow. The first to arrive in the new garden of Eden. A virgin and unexplored space, which bears the full weight of border symbols, to which decades of fables have attributed a complex duality between the historical and the mythological.
“There is no modern nation in which a similar« dialectical »relationship between myth and History is maintained as much as in the USA (…). It is, therefore, normal that an extensive work of mythification – or fabulation – has been produced at a literary and folkloric level throughout the nineteenth century, foreshadowing in some way the cinematographic mythification, almost waiting for it, since, in fact, the conquest of the Oeste will only reach its surprising dimensions thanks to the cinema. ” [Astre, G.-A. y Hoarau, A.-P. (1997). El universo del western (4ª ed). Editorial Fundamentos.]
On First Cow, Kelly Reichardt goes back to an almost primitive stage in the conception of the Far West. Fundamentally, because its history is set in the Oregon of 1820, where photography had not yet been able to leave a trace to cling to. And it offers us a traditional western, which rests on the beauty of the domestic, where we even feel a certain nostalgia for a failed home.
This exercise practically in cinematographic archeology (the initial sequence unearthing, by chance, the skeletons …) has its resonance, of course, in the very questioning of the construction of the myth of the West. But also, by extension, it investigates the cracks of other myths embedded in the founding legend: the land of opportunities, capitalist individualism, the self-made man, the American way of life …
In the practically square format of her film, shot with the austerity and attachment to the land of an artisan, there is no room for the epic or the heroic. Poetics resides in the small gestures that acquire universality; in the recreation of all its textures and subtle sounds. Where even the penumbra has a more powerful symbolic weight than the luminosity.
Friendship is the backbone of a story that, due to its simplicity, is not exempt from deep reflection on what really configures us as human beings. The “primary” universe of the western Reichardt and its inhabitants makes us think of the contemporary variations of the gender, and of other female names that have reflected on its axes.
The skeleton of the western
The codes of representation and the great themes of a genre that already questioned itself in its twilight years, more than 60 years ago (or more than 70, if we take The invincible legion from John Ford as the first example of the canonical hero embracing his decline), they have not stopped mutating since the 1990s.
The drifts of the contemporary western o neowestern, Through their revisions and hybridizations, they have shown us throughout the new millennium that the story of the North American founding myth can fragment and detach from practically everything, until it remains in its most elemental essence, its skeleton: the struggle between the “civilizing” mission and the drives of the “wild”.
In that same bipolar struggle, the own revision of the colonialist archetype of the ‘cowboy’ and the ‘Indian’ has been distilled in many films until reaching the analysis of the meaning of otherness and its representation: in which margins is each of these located? figures when the border landscape engulfs us?
That essentiality of the western allows, precisely, that fictions continue to be built around its imaginary and debates about our contemporary societies continue to be established. As well pointed Quentin Tarantino in the context of your Django unchained (2012), “there is no other genre that better reflects the decade in which (those films) were made or the morals and feelings of Americans. Westerns are always a magnifying glass. “
Let’s do a brief review of five western titles led by women who turn to genre to draw new narratives around their mythology.
Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)
We return to Reichardt in his first obvious foray into the Western genre. And I say obvious because her filmography is full of elements that connect her with that elemental essence of the western that we mentioned: characters that live on the margins (outcasts) and that cross bordering spaces, “characters that are a kind of extension of the landscape in which they find each other. (…) Whose problems, the supposedly civilizing force of border justice never proves to be strong enough to solve. ”
Films that also lead us to reflect, ultimately, on American identity. And about his own vulnerability.
Meek’s Cutoff It is set in 1845, on a true journey of its protagonists, pioneer settlers, towards what is emerging as certain death. The landscape itself becomes a beautiful, desert shroud that wraps around the defeated figures of the characters.
Reichardt’s mastery of framing returns us to shots configured with such intelligence and narrative economy that it is impossible not to remember Ford; where each character occupies a symbolically powerful place in space.
Again, the square format (1.33: 1) It serves the director to contradict the epic gestures of the great hopeful horizon that dominates the most canonical narrative of the genre. And the questioning of the archetypes is produced from that game with the ambiguity that so superbly (and bravely) dominates the filmmaker.
The hypnotic figure of the Native American (the only one that we will see in this squalid representation of the conquest of the West, in the same way that only three caravans will accompany us) exerts a special attraction on Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), establishing a splendid “dialogue” despite the inability to communicate verbally between them: two figures that connect from their own margins in the official story. And also because of that “wild” and “primitive” drive, related to Emily’s survival instinct, which leads her to doubt at all times the boastful (and suicidal) “civilizing” speech of the guide. Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood).
The Rider (Chloé Zhao, 2017)
The Oscar winner, Chloe Zhao, maintains an undeniable link with the essential codes of the western. Connections with Nomadland they are evident, in that capture of the vulnerable beauty that the inhabitants of a border cosmos carry. Where the corset of civilization suffocates too much and (again) the drive towards the “wild” is an inalienable and liberating instinct.
The title of the film itself, The Rider, it is as concise and direct as the cinematographic proposal it houses. A rider rides, rides, and rides to exhaustion. And what else can he do if he is denied the very meaning of his existence?
The approximation of Zhao to the western (which was already predicting his first feature film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, 2015) also draws on the initiatory story and is configured as a naturalistic, observational bet (most of the figures that pass through his works are real characters or non-professional actors), where the power of the indomitable seeps through all the cracks of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota (the location and its reminiscences of the Badlands do not seem casual, either).
The Wind (The Wind, Emma Tammi, 2018)
The barren and cursed prairie insists on swallowing every possibility of life, snatching the very fruits of their wombs from women. As if he wanted to take revenge on all those who carried out the looting, building their “civilized” homes on piles of corpses.
The film of Emma Tammi connects the mythology of the western with the codes of horror cinema (impossible to forget in this hybridization the cannibal madness concocted by Antonia Bird in 1999, Ravenous, which in a way paved the way for the splendid Bone Tomahawk, 2015). But the reference to atavistic fears and satanic iconography serve to emphasize the agony of loneliness of its protagonist. (Caitlin Gerard) in the border area, away from a pure and simple exploit exercise.
The role of women as custodian (and enabler) of the home is blown to pieces, shotgun in hand and lashed by the incessant wind. The wild and the demonic, in this case, are confused. As the authority figures (the husband, the reverend …) vanish into their own mirage.
Again, the frictions between civilization and barbarism that he conceived John Ford in the staging of the iconic porch of Desert centaurs they serve here as an obvious reference.
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (Mouly Surya, 2017)
The sweaty and fierce echoes of the spaghetti western and the fury of the subgenre rape and revenge they slip between grimaces of black humor and cracks of surrealism in this Indonesian proposal.
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts It tells us in four acts the initiatory journey through the desert of its protagonist, a widowed woman, who walks her way with the bearing and circumspection of a lone ranger, carrying a machete and the still fresh head of her attacker.
In this universe, survival goes through the irremediable fight against oppression, and the rugged and rugged landscape becomes the perfect setting for the journey. Again, the wild drive as an instinct for preservation.
Western (Valeska Grisebach, 2017)
When we talk about the deconstruction of the western imaginary, stripping it of everything until it is left in its purest skeleton on which to build contemporary radiographs, the reference to the extraordinary film by Valeska Grisebach is inescapable. The synthesis of his title already predicts his laconic poetry.
The border microcosm here stands on a double meaning (multi-layered), both physical and metaphorical, by settling in a geographically bordering space: a town in Bulgaria bordering Greece.
There a group of German construction workers establish their settlement who, as if it were a settler expedition, seek prosperity in an environment that is not free from conflict with its original settlers. With whom the border (again) of the language seems to make any understanding impossible.
Rough men who seem subject to the sole purpose of fulfilling their adventure to return home as soon as possible with a little more wealth.
But among them Meinhard stands out, a lean and imperturbable figure, absolutely twilight, who seems to bear the mark of uprooting on his face and gestures. Who perhaps, precisely because of his indomesticable character (with an accent on the absence of ‘home’), seems to be the only one capable of forging ties with the inhabitants of the town (and with the horses, as happened with the young and badly wounded star of the rodeo in The Rider).
But Grisebach’s ambiguity shies away from any kind of Manichaeism and slips into the cracks, offering some of the most sincere, tender and emotional gestures about male brotherhood and camaraderie that we have seen in film. Something that connects his film, in some way, with the intimate gaze of Reichardt in its First Cow.
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