All posts filed under “1840s

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Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt (2010)

meek_s_cutoff02
Great movie to watch the same week you discuss Hayden White’s “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality” with a room full of smart graduate students. (I know: I have the best job ever.)

A group of settlers are headed for Oregon territory in their covered wagons. We think we know this history, because we know its story, and we know the story largely through the movies. There will be challenges — broken axles, hostile Indians, typhoid, etc. — but the wagon will eventually come over a crest, and the sun will rise over the fertile valley awaiting the plough and cross.

Except in this story, the narrative literally takes a fork. The settlers’ hired guide, Stephen Meek, diverts the group from the “main stem” seeking a short cut. After several weeks, the settlers (and, crucially, we too) become unsure about the trajectory of their narrative. Are they headed toward the expected climax, or have they gotten into a story that is all middle, with no end at all? In their confusion and anxiety, they reject Meek, their professional guide, because the story he’s telling no longer conforms to their narrative expectations. Meek reminds me of Asimov’s Mule. He not only disrupts this particular story’s predicted arc, he calls into question the possibility of narrative closure in general.

Reichart has the great good sense to let her “story” stop rather than conclude; any ending, happy or sad or surprising or reassuring or anything else, would have wrecked this movie’s accomplishment. This is a radical gesture for a western, since the politics of the genre’s narrative conventions usually demand resolution. What we have here is something that approaches a non-narrative representation of a historical reality, and, following Hayden White, perhaps a representation that thus avoids moralizing as well.

The other interesting conversation to have about this movie concerns the roles of women and men; if I weren’t in such a historiographical frame of mind this week that’s probably what I would have led with.

Oh, and I’d like to say just one other thing and then I really have to quit, everyone said this was like a Terrence Malick movie. I think that’s really shallow. Reichart’s deliberateness is rooted in completely different motivations than Malick’s. And no one gets to own a penchant for golden hour light on calico.

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Ketchup

On sabbatical and taking my notes elsewhere, but here’s what’s been passing in front of my eyes.

Tarabas, Joseph Roth (1934). Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. A parable of eastern Europe’s transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries.

The Good Soldiers, David Finkel (2009). Up close account from embedded journalist during the “surge” of 2007. Mayer and Hersh remain the most impressive political accounts of the Iraq war; this book demonstrates better than any other I’ve read what it’s like to fight in Iraq.

In the Loop
, Armando Iannucci (2009). Not as fun as I thought it was going to be; the jokes are repetitive and eventually predictable. I was fixated on the mise-en-scène, which sometimes felt like that ersatz-documentary kind of The Office vibe and other times like a cool Michael Clayton slick.

Office Space
, Mike Judge (1999).
Idiocracy, Mike Judge (2006).
I was pleased to see these at last, after having realized how often they get referenced. They’re pretty dumb, but fun.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
, Phil Lord & Chris Miller (2009). Charming cartoon about believing in yourself and not wasting food.

The Curtain
, Milan Kundera (2007). A history of the novel, an argument for its importance, an education on nationalism, an intellectual memoir, and, here and there, a manual for being human. I stopped underlining because I was underlining everything.

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert
1830-1880, Francis Steegmuller, ed. (1980 & 1982). Went here at Kundera’s behest. Delicious, wicked, vital.

The Hurt Locker
, Kathryn Bigelow (2008). Yes, good, fine, and all the more reason to love Bigelow if you didn’t already, but kind of a disappointment for me, since I’ve been reading so much nonfiction about the war, and I chafed a bit at seeing the soldiers’ experiences shaped into a narrative and invested with pathos. The terrifying thing that Finkel (vide supra) makes so clear is that just because a tour of duty elapses over linear time, that doesn’t mean it’s a narrative. He shows how the soldiers struggle with that fact; when they’ve got a month left in their tours, they’re aching to have a sense of the story of the year, of progress made, crises resolved, etc., but that’s not how it works. All that said, this is a terrific movie; my complaint is basically based on the fact that it’s a movie, and that’s really not fair.

Our Nation Unhinged: The Human Consequences of the War on Terror, Peter Jan Honigsberg (2009). Repetitive, smug, and unnecessary if you’ve read Philippe Sands’ Torture Team. A great disappointment. Massively dull and technocratic one minute, puffed up with bombastic indignation the next. Ugh. Big regret that I got it in hardcover.

Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, Tony Hoagland (2010). My thoughts here.

Also:
The Long Meadow, Vijay Seshadri (2004). Mannerist, but I like it.
Squandermania, Don Share (2007)
Deniability, George Witte (2008)
Factory of Tears, Valzhyna Mort (2008)
National Anthem, Kevin Prufer (2008). This is a terrific book.
On Crimes and Punishments, Cesare Beccaria (1764)
War Bird, David Gewanter (2009)