SOUTHERN COMFORT (1981) and MEEK’S CUTOFF (2011)

October 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

“In Louisiana, if we’re not carrying guns we’re carrying ropes.”

That’s the point in Southern Comfort where writer-director Walter Hill mostly loses me, at least until his anxious zydeco-scored finale. The speaker of that line is Pfc. Spencer, played by Keith Carradine as a hyper-competent and self-aware version of his randy persona from McCabe & Mrs. Miller, urging his cohorts in the National Guard on through the bayou with the promise of paid-for pleasures awaiting them at the end, and later overtly seizing command. Carradine’s natural charm and easygoing screen presence go misused in service of Spencer’s pithy aphorisms about the South, more entertainingly when he ribs the black Pfc. Cribbs about being allowed to join the National Guard only to keep him occupied instead of wooing white women.

“Entertaining”, yes, because in moments like that Southern Comfort promises a dynamic between its characters that it ultimately fails to realize, Hill’s preternatural talent for the action picture (best epitomized in his ethereal crime masterpiece The Driver) delivering an examination of how these characters of different background, colors, and prejudices function together through high-stress situations. Southern Comfort works with such promise right up to the inciting moment, when the Cajuns whose boats the men steal to ease their trip downriver open fire and kill Staff Sgt. Poole, the one true authority figure among them. The bayou becomes the setting of both a siege and a chase film, in which the men slowly succumb to fatigue, hunger, and insanity as their hunters play on their unfamiliarity with the territory.

But as in that quoted line of Spencer’s, Hill’s script slides into an unfortunate political commentary that actually holds it back from being an effective work of genre. Just as Carradine pays lip service to the perceived barbarism and ignorance of the South, Hill’s affinity for sketching characters in a few faint strokes renders the soldiers of Southern Comfort paper-thin stereotypes that bog the film further down into the swamps. It’s deeply bizarre that the same filmmaker responsible for The Driver and The Warriors settles for such tactics.

In particular, the case of the deranged Pfc. Bowden seems like a missed opportunity. After the squad’s first real stroke of luck sees them stumbling upon the cabin of an uncooperative Cajun, with supplies and ammunition within, Bowden doubles back and paints a red cross on his chest before rigging the whole thing to blow. After apologizing halfheartedly for his rashness, he explains the cross to Spencer, apparently mystified that his intentions weren’t obvious: “Like the holy warrior, Spence. I thought for sure you’d get it.” Soon thereafter Bowden goes catatonic, and the squad binds him up so as to better lead him along with them, even as he trudges mute in their midst like the most obvious metaphor imaginable for the burden of the South’s history of hate. All this would be well and good if Bowden served a plot purpose beyond his symbolic function, instead, the impediment of lugging a comatose soldier behind them barely seems to slow down the squad, and adds no discernible tension to the remaining action scenes.

Hill’s way of writing characters really proves an ill fit for these sorts of political aims. His screenplay for The Driver fashions its nameless players, cops, crooks, and dealers into platonic ideals of genre tropes, crafting an entire worldview out of their lack of inner lives and total devotion to the games of chase, score, and getaway. The Warriors is even based on a story of Greek legend, Xenophon’s account of his desert journey to the Black Sea in the Anabasis, and the joy of its cumulative narrative is in seeing Hill’s gangland fantasy of New York elevated to the level of myth, a secret history playing out in neighborhoods and subway stations most viewers would never visit. Southern Comfort is too bound to social realities to benefit from this approach, resulting in a too-political genre picture that lacks necessary nuance. This doesn’t mean Hill lacks political awareness or that the film is necessarily a paradigm of liberal didacticism: it’s just not his forte.

I have buried the lede here – I like Southern Comfort overall, since its flaws give it an interesting place in the filmography of Walter Hill, and it contains some passages of intense beauty and a masterful finale. But I find it most interesting of all for its conceit, which seeks to build this weary squad into a microcosm of a region, though it goes about the task pretty clumsily. Intriguingly, it would be tried again thirty years later with greater success, by an independent filmmaker working for the first time in the genre to which Hill was most indebted: the Western. It might be that Southern Comfort simply didn’t have the benefit of the same imagery that Kelly Reichardt (director of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy) did when filming her wilderness trek, Meek’s Cutoff: there’s no Bayou genre, as worthwhile an approach as that might be.

Meek’s Cutoff never grants the audience stasis, except for the kind formed by a band of characters huddled together in the inhospitable nighttime, around a fire, too weary from thirst and hopelessness to speak to each other. It begins in medias res, with its group of westbound pilgrims becoming increasingly convinced that their guide, Steven Meek, has lost the way. The photography indicates as much with the opening montage that keeps the camera nearly still as the wagons wind their way through desert passages, etchings in a landscape that has no use for them, recalling the winding movement down a mountainside in the opening shot of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The montage is punctuated with a the gloomy intrusion of language, as Paul Dano’s Thomas Gately etches a single word into a trunk of wood: “LOST”.

Discussions of Reichardt’s Western as a somehow radical or arthouse take on the genre are a sore spot with me; I think that this argument holds weight only in its elliptical final scene, though I consider it less of a lady-or-the-tiger proposition than it is the closing of a loop, much like Hill’s own The Driver, a scene that signals the conclusion of one story but teems with the possibility of many more. It’s crucial to the historical dimension not only of Meek’s Cutoff but of the genre as a whole, which is why so many Westerns end with hillscapes, sunsets, or their heroes glimpsed from behind. The Western tells the story of a landscape, not a malleable one but a specific one in a specific time, and the naturalist concerns that bleed into both this and Reichardt’s earlier films are right at home in this storytelling mode. From this perspective, her choice to shoot in the square Academy ratio that defined the pictures of Anthony Mann and John Ford is a crucial one: there are only a couple of hard rules one must follow when making a Western, and in capturing images after the fashion of her classical forebears, Reichardt creates a style that can stand alongside them.

Like Hill, she is concerned with characters who separately seem thin and underdeveloped, but taken together form something like the nucleus of a nation. There is much at work in the themes of Meek’s Cutoff that seems to point forward to Where We Are Now, in particular the character of Stephen Meek himself, a rambling ideologue who wears the image of supremely confident gunslinger like a suit he patched together out of old scraps, but walks as if it fits him perfectly. The travelers’ encounter with a Native American Indian on their journey forces a major shift in the group dynamic, as Meek’s surprisingly intense racism feeds on the fear of the more religiously inclined members of the party and the level-headed Emily Tetherow must step in. Reichardt doesn’t make it clear whether Emily and her husband Solomon are atheists or simply people of more internal spirituality, but their furtive glances during nighttime prayers and silent pragmatism as Shirley Henderson’s Gloria falls easy prey to Meek’s sermons provide all the knowledge of them we need.

Meek’s Cutoff succeeds because even though one could read the Meek character as a stand-in for George W. Bush, the desert as Iraq, and the Indian as any number of foreign peoples subjugated by the interests of the United States, no such interpretation proves essential to the story that Reichardt is telling. This may be an obvious or too generalizing principle, but perhaps genre movies simply work best when they are principally concerned with the subject matter of their particular modes; in other words, when they are first and foremost about what they’re about. Reichardt has the advantage over Hill because though her politics may be more obvious, they are not the stuff of allegory. Her Western is actually a story of a country being forged in the hot desert sun, about how westward expansion and the process of actually realizing that fabled Manifest Destiny puts people through an ordeal they may not be equipped for, and as the ending dramatizes so succinctly, how the result of the ordeal remains nebulous and evolution always continues.

This is the essence of the Western, and how it allowed Kelly Reichardt to accomplish what Hill couldn’t, along with a finer script and keener sense of purpose. Southern Comfort works with a self-imposed handicap, gesturing toward the movements and workings of genre but never fully committing to them. Reichardt’s film is a Western before anything else, beginning with the closing of the curtains onto the sides of the screen and the first shot in the Academy ratio. It is committed to its language and to its ideas, which hum in harmony with the stuff of its images, not standing in for metaphorical landscapes but actual landscapes, caked with sweat, tears, and blood drying in the summer heat.

Southern Comfort is a tall tale. Meek’s Cutoff is a history. – Brendan

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