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.