Sunday, January 29, 2012

Meek's Cutoff

My wife watches bemused as I drive about town – or wander about a department store – with an elusive destination evading me, always giggling just around the next corner. She doesn’t even bother suggesting that I ask for directions. What’s the point? I’m a man. I should be able to find things on my own – or die trying.

The new and terrific western Meek’s Cutoff toys tantalizingly with this sexual conundrum. It’s as if God instilled in the sexes the wrong occupations. Women are in charge of the hearth and home while their men venture out, often to their doom. Reverse the roles and women would simply ask for directions, get the food, and be home for supper, returning to their men who have a roaring fire waiting. And who have had little opportunity for self-destruction other than, I suppose, burning down the house.

The story of the movie is simple enough. Three families, their covered wagons pulled by cattle creaking and shuddering over ruts in the rough prairie and sloshing through rivers and streams, are lost. Actually, as one of the men carves into a fallen tree, they are all capital letters LOST. Their burly leader, Meek, has led them on a shortcut, through a cutoff. He should have let his wife draw the maps in the dirt and stuck to building fires.

And that’s almost all there is for a plot. Three families moving from an abundance of water – the opening scenes have the wet stuff flowing and dripping and splashing everywhere – to gradual, inevitable collapse from thirst. Along the way, director Kelly Reichardt treats us to some of the most poetic images I’ve yet encountered in this most poetic of genres. My favorite is an elegant dissolve (where one image replaces another by slowly superimposing over the first). Wagons exit the frame to leave an expanse of wilderness with a river running through it. Then a man on horseback followed by wagons appears like a mirage travelling through the clouds.

Midway through the movie, first appearing and then disappearing, ghostlike to Emily (Michelle Williams) and then gradually taking concrete form is a lone, aged Native American man. He doesn’t speak English, but he speaks a universal language that Emily intuitively understands. He’s a guide, their map just waiting to be opened. Meek just sees him as a threat, someone to shoot.

Emily, the movie, and Reichardt think of women and men using two simple equations: women are at home with chaos, men with destruction. Women realize that the world is beyond their control and humbly seek help toward understanding. Men draw rifles from their saddlebags and blow their problems away.

Emily, often photographed peering out through the folds of her bonnet, wants to take this strange, potential savior into their fold, feed him, and follow him, trusting blindly that he’ll lead them to water. Meek is introduced emerging from a tent as a wild animal of a man. Before turning toward us, all we see is a tangle and snarl of unkempt hair. He often takes just the men aside and plots their next move like a general orchestrating a skirmish.

Of course, Emily and Meek are at odds, leading to two confrontations. One is a tense standoff, him with a pistol, her with a rifle, their potential guide in the middle. The other another great poetic moment by a lone tree, proof that there is water to be found if he meekly surrenders to Emily’s better instincts.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Teen Writes: The Group that Opened the Box

“We want parents to understand. We don’t want to talk to them. It’s not like I don’t want to talk to them. I have this looming fear of disappointing them. When they were growing up, [what we are trying to do] was unheard of.”

Those words — spoken searchingly by a teenage girl in the new documentary “Teen Writes: The Group that Opened the Box” — occur during a relaxed dinner break. The girls in the group are wondering what their families think about their edgy project. They well capture the mixture of wisdom and honesty these girls are attempting to coax out into the open.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. So, what’s this Group that Opened the Box anyway?

Clinical psychologist Kathy Blohm, Ph.D., faced challenges with getting her young patients, especially often angry teenage girls, to open up. She and writer Karen Van Fossan decided to try an experiment. Get a group of girls together and encourage them to write about their concerns. And, just as crucially, get them to further open up by performing their words on stage.

They began by placing assorted objects — a book of matches, a guitar pick, a wrapped condom, etc. — in a yellow box adorned with flowers. The girls would then open the box, select an item, and write a free-associative poem or bit of prose. No rules, just honest feelings. And, before they knew it, the girls’ creativity and openness was proving boundless. They were expressing concerns ranging from sexuality and desire to harassment, the environment, war, cutting, and eating disorders.

And beyond the founders’ wildest dreams, the girls really blossomed in performance. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two of their live shows, once with my older daughter and once with both my teenage daughters. (They both loved the shows.) The girls find such a beautiful way of approaching touchy subjects with humor and a wink.

“Teen Writes” does a fine job telling this story. It’s a breezy and engaging 56 minutes. Local area teens Michaela, Rachel, Megan, Alexis, Caitlyn, Ray (Rachel), and Breeanna — a diverse, creative, and charismatic bunch — are introduced and we get a feel for each personality. My only criticism of the movie is that I wish it was longer. I could’ve spent hours with this cast.

The movie also, necessarily, includes the group’s most controversial episode. Accused by some of promoting homosexuality and of brainwashing, the group was told by a Fargo radio station that they could only join a program on woman’s issues if a hostile counter-voice shared their air time. This violated Blohm’s and Van Fossan’s core principle, always make the girls feel safe to express themselves. The radio appearance was cancelled.

One thing I don’t hear mentioned enough is the crucial role the girls’ parents have played. It’s their open-mindedness and trust in their daughters that has made this whole experiment possible. I’m grateful that these girls and these parents are talking and setting such an example. And seeing how much the girls have grown and accomplished fills me with optimism. Everything is possible if parents and teens open their boxes together.

Sunday, January 8, 2012


Hugo is a joy from start to finish. It’s a colorful, delightful evocation of 1930s Paris as playground for two fanciful, imaginative kids – both orphans, one living by his own resources in a train station, the other living with her grandmother and grumpy, peculiar grandfather. It’s full of slapstick chases and funny moments involving dogs. Most kids of all ages should enjoy it.

Definitely see it. Grab the DVD right away and curl up with the whole family. It should be available shortly. The crowd was pretty sparse both times I saw it. But, this isn’t really the type of review I wish to write. I’d rather tell you why it so grabbed me and won’t let go.

I’ve long had a love affair with the work of Georges Méliès – the first wizard of the movies – and that grumpy and mysterious grandfather turns out to be one and the same. By way of the clever “children’s” book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, director Martin Scorsese – here eschewing his usual gangster mayhem and finding a gentler expression – has crafted Hugo as a loving vision of the legendary rise, fall, and redemption of the man who invented movies as a place where dreams come true.

The story of Méliès is all here, mildly fictionalized. Beginning his career as a magician, he one day stumbled into a sideshow screening of a train pulling into a station, causing the startled audience to scurry to safety. As if already seeing King Kong and Star Wars in his crystal ball, he immediately approached the creators of this new magic, the Brothers Lumière, and offered to buy one of their cameras. Offer spurned, and being the genius he was, he simply built one his own.

Within 17 years, the infinitely creative Méliès had made over 500 movies, even wowing crowds with the seemingly impossible feat of A Trip to the Moon. Then, sadly, people lost interest in his type of movies and he became a forgotten man, many of his movies melted down to be reformed into heels for women’s shoes (in real life it was heels for boots). He burned his sets and props in despair.

Hugo is more than mere history lesson though. Its fabric is woven out of images and ideas from the many works of Méliès. He built the first movie studio, a glass building allowing in sunlight, and staged his movies in depth, perhaps shooting through a fish tank toward a stage where actors frolicked in front of layers of backdrops. In Scorsese’s hands, this becomes the most dazzling use of 3D I’ve seen.

Méliès loved dreams and trains and used models to depict an elaborate train station crash in his movie The Impossible Voyage. In Hugo, these become the inspiration for a deliriously impossible dream sequence.

Méliès adored flowers and this infatuation assumes life in the character of a lovely train station florist. Méliès spent his post-moviemaking years running a toy stand. After his death, the same space became poetically re-occupied by a flower stand. Hugo’s combining of this love with this fortuitous bit of history is one of its loveliest touches.

Having once flirted with entering the priesthood, Scorsese has forever sought ways of exploring religious themes, his favorite being redemption. His pet project for decades has been the tireless championing of movie preservation. These two concerns come together in Hugo. After years of sadness, early movie historians began to discover lost prints and rekindled interest in Méliès’ movies.

He ended his life seeing his work treasured anew. His fans have only blossomed ever since.