This week’s selection consists of three films in which the act of walking is key. Walking is a way of inhabiting the landscape, of appropriating it. Very slowly, by the rhythm of each footstep, the landscape transforms itself. The national myth of the United States is connected to a slow conquest of the land by people on foot. With only their bodies as means of transportation, they embodied the uninhabited land. In these three films, characters are one way or the other bound to walk, leaving the old behind but above all in search of something familiar.
Victoria (Sofie Benoot, Liesbeth De Ceulaer, Isabelle Tollenaere, 2020)
The new film by Belgian filmmakers Liesbeth De Ceulaer, Isabelle Tollenaere and Sofie Benoot was supposed to have a cinema release, but unfortunately it got cancelled due to the Covid-19 restrictions. Luckily it is now possible to watch the film at home via the online film platforms ZED vanuit je zetel, Cinema@Home and Cinema Bij Je Thuis. Victoria features Lashay T. Warren, a young man who moved from Los Angeles to California City. This desert-city was designed in the fifties to become the second mayor city in the state, but its construction was never finished. Today, few people live amidst thousands of streets that cross the desolate space of the desert. Lashay wanders the empty roads, and by his itineraries he is linked to the pioneers who arrived some 150 years ago by foot.
Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)
It is 1845 and three couples of settlers are walking westwards, guided by Stephen Meek, a cowboy-like mountain man. The film starts at the moment the group is already suspecting the cut-off has led them astray. As water is running out, they walk in silence through the empty land, until they meet and capture a native. As they take him along, hoping he could lead them to water, it becomes visible how the pioneers are venturing though the desert completely alien to them. To them, the land is untouched and unhuman, otherworldly. The Indian moves at a different stance, with a familiarity to the landscape that puzzles them. One at a time, they leave behind their inherited furniture to get rid of its dead weight. The colonists are walking into the open, guided by the unknown. You can rent the film on iTunes.
Gerry (Gus Van Sant, 2002)
After a lazy car drive, two friends jokingly follow the beaten track of a National Park, until they decide to wander off, taking a detour away from the crowd. But the landscape is unpredictable and soon their perseveration turns into alienation when they discover they are walking in circles. The two friends initially walk in rhythm, but slowly their walking becomes lagged, out of tune with each other but evolving into a musical and cinematic reading of space and time. Gus Van Sant presents a palette of variations of walking, transforming physical and mental spaces. You can rent the film on iTunes.
In the Mojave desert, not far from Los Angeles, lies the unfinished California City. Lashay Warren (25) left behind his turbulent Los Angeles past to build a new life within this grid of thousands of crumbled streets. Being a contemporary pioneer, he pushes through the obstacles ahead as he resolutely enters this new world.
“It started with an anecdote, a story picked up somewhere. About a city in a desert, California City, which hadn’t fulfilled its promise (yet) to become the third largest city in California. Driven by curiosity to this unfinished place, we ended up there together and found ourselves going back regularly during four years. In search of what our film might become, in this place always coming into being. We met countless people, stranded in California City. People who started over, seekers of gold and fortune.
That’s how Lashay came across our path by chance, or better still, how we walked onto his, and we hit it off immediately. Even though we don’t share the same background, there and then we shared the same place and a bond developed. A commitment rose because of the temporarily shared space, as well as a mutual fascination for and empathy towards each other, and the longing to make a film together.
Lashay told us about a violent past which he had trouble leaving behind, about his new life in California City, and about his dreams of the future. About how it’s like to grow up in America as a young black man. About how hard it is to break away from a predestined and strongly limited socio-economic reality.
We discovered Lashay’s playful personality and his enormous creative potential. How he injects the often disappointing reality with a dose of fiction. The creative approach to his identity, by continuously imagining a different self, a different future.”
From the Directors’ Statement
The year is 1845, the earliest days of the Oregon Trail, and a wagon team of three families has hired the mountain man Stephen Meek to guide them over the Cascade Mountains. Claiming to know a short cut, Meek leads the group on an unmarked path across the high plain desert.
“Reichardt's film-making palette is determined by the parched, scorched landscape and the grim faces of those travelling across it. It is a world of tough browns and ochres, pale greys; the blue of the sky is bleached out with glare and haze. And with its long, silent takes (music is used sparingly on the soundtrack), it is a film which compels you to examine the details. For the first 10 minutes, it is entirely wordless, and long stretches will go by in which you can hear only the repeated whine of the wagon wheels as the pioneers grimly trudge along, rather like the squeaky wind-wheel in the famous opening of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. Sometimes, this sound is only just audible above the roar of the wind across the plains.”
“An absence of subtitles for the words of the Cayuse person in Meek’s Cutoff, for instance, asks the audience to lend an ear to the sounds, rather than the sentences, which make up dialogue: an oral relation growing aural, material, sensorial. For any non-Cayuse spectators and characters, a lack of linguistic understanding functions to instil some form of deferential distance towards the Native American other. While women within and without the film inhabit their own ‘axes of exclusion’ (to quote Mayer’s helpful phrase), these axes intersect little with those of the Cayuse. With Reichardt, we accept that we cannot proclaim to know profoundly their exclusion, their experiences.”
“At a key moment in Meek’s Cutoff, a significant conversation takes place virtually out of earshot. Three men debate their next course of action with the eponymous fur trapper who has led their wagon train astray; in watching the discussion in long shot, we assume the vantage point of the men’s wives. Sound levels are appropriate: like the women, we have to listen intently to pick out words from the exchange. (...)
Reichardt doesn’t so much streamline or typify her characters as allow them to emerge, gradually, from their environment. Again, if we can take the severity of their environment for granted, we can also count on their built-in ruggedness. Stephen Meek boasts: “I live with this world, not just in it.” Here, notions of dwelling are paramount. The dissolves employed early on in Meek’s Cutoff are so slow that they mark passages in space as much as they do time: rather than convey landscape as successive, they show two landscapes seemingly merging.”
“After the group meets a stranger – played by Apsaalooke/Crow actor Rod Rondeaux and credited in the film as “the Indian” – Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) sews the ripped seam of his shoe in exchange for safe passage to water. “I want him to owe me something,” Tetherow explains. As she binds the fabric together and reconstructs his boot one stroke at a time, the unsolicited gesture becomes a form of chaining.
To push through the thick leather, Tetherow uses a heavy pin and thimble to protect her fingertips as she guides the stiff thread around the folds of the stranger’s shoe. Piercing the fabric, manipulating the thread, and knotting it in place – stitching with a needle and thread can involve violent steps. In this fantasy of the Oregon Trail, the repetitive action of sewing echoes in the fabric of the film. While embroidery signifies the collective trail in the title card, the movement of Tetherow’s needle initiates a bargain for mutual survival, strings attached.”
“Reichardt, known for her naturalistic films, says she deliberately stripped the film of excess to focus on the settlers' heightened sensations of time and space in the desert.
“After reading journals [from real settlers making their way across the Oregon Trail] about this whole idea of space and time, I realized that it’s just completely different,” she says. “There’s a trancelike quality about the journey that I haven’t really experienced in tales of going West.” Before filming began, Reichardt set up a pioneer camp in order for her actors to become comfortable around everyday 19th-century chores. “For a week before we started shooting, we learned how to do all of those things to make it look like it was second nature,” Williams says. “We learned how to knit and how to handle yourself around oxen – so those things that look like they might be simple tasks actually had a lot of preparation [and] time around them.”
One of those simple tasks was learning how to wear a bonnet, which extended a foot on either side of her head and cut off her peripheral vision. The idea of the bonnet – and of cutting off space – was also the main reason Reichardt says she chose to shoot Meek’s Cutoff in a 4:3 aspect ratio – rather than a wider perspective.
“I felt like the square [aspect ratio] gave you an idea of the closed view that the women have because of their bonnets,” Reichardt says.””
- 1. Peter Bradshaw, “Meek’s Cutoff - review”, The Guardian, April 2011.
- 2. Laura Staab, “Certain Women and Other Animals: A Symposium on the Cinema of Kelly Reichardt at the British Film Institute London”, Another Gaze, April 2017.
- 3. Michael Pattison, “Cows Aren’t Built to Swim: Kelly Reichardt’s Essays on the Unvoiced”, MUBI, August 2016.
- 4. Taylor Bradley, “Sewing Spaces / Needlework in Meek’s Cutoff”, The Brooklyn Rail.
- 5. Terry Gross in conversation with Kelly Reichardt and Michelle Williams, “Going West: The Making Of ‘Meek’s Cutoff”, NPR, April 2011.
Two friends, both called Gerry, decide to go hiking in the American desert. After wandering off the beaten track they soon end up lost, leaving them no choice but to keep walking and try to find a way out.
“In a big, protective car, they are peacefully driving on well-defined roads, neatly delineated by markers and safely punctuated by directional signposts. The smoothness of their driving is even heightened by the stability of the camera and its relatively fixed framing, by the subtraction of the sound of the car in the soundtrack, as well as by the use of Arvo Pärt's soft, delicate music. In the opening sequence, driving is thus tantamount to an easy, fast, fluid; and forward way of travelling. In the rest of the film, walking contrasts sharply with this modern speed and hypermobility. As opposed to driving, walking takes a lot of time, effort, and energy. The film insists on the slow and continuous temporality of walking through its numerous and extended sequence shots and its (consequently) rare cuts and ellipses. This stretched temporality, as well as the timelessness of the landscapes, induces a form of temporal ungrounding that heightens the characters' spatial disorientation and existential displacement, as much as it gives them time for philosophical questioning. This all seems to suggest that in our contemporary societies, people live in a signposted world with already traced spatial and existential trajectories; that there is not much space (and time) for exploring the back roads, for going the wrong way and learning from mistakes.”
Sophie Walon 1
Scott Macaulay:What about the sound design? You told me that it was inspired by Tomb Raider — the minimalism of the design and all the crunching sounds when the characters are walking. In a weird way, the Tomb Raider movie should have been like your movie. If you’ve ever played Tomb Raider, there is a lot of walking and not much action.
Gus Van Sant: Actually, when I heard they were doing Tomb Raider, I was kind of interested in it, but I also knew that they were thinking in terms of an action movie, and the game’s not like that. I mean, there are action moments, but there’s lots of other stuff going on — swimming, walking, climbing through great expanses. One of the cool things about it is the sound, but also the camera. I showed the game to Harris before we shot. The way the camera works in Tomb Raider, if you want to call it a camera, is that it sort of swings and swims around, always keeping the central figure somewhere in the middle of the frame. I showed it to Harris, thinking it would be really great if our camera could do exactly what this camera does. He thought we could do it, but only at a very great expense. You’d need some kind of bizarre Hovercraft to make the camera behave like that! So we tossed that “Tomb Raider-camera” point of view out the window, but we kept the silence of the soundtrack. In some ways, Gerry is Béla Tarr fused with Tomb Raider!
Scott Macaulay in conversation with Gus Van Sant 2
- 1. Walon, Sophie. “Existential Wanderings in Gus Van Sant's "Walking Trilogy": Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days.” In Walking and the Aesthetics of Modernity, edited by Klaus Benesch & François Specq, 213-226. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
- 2. Gus Van Sant, “Sands of Time,” interview by Scott Macaulay, Filmmaker Magazine.