A brief, further example of the director fetish

17 April 2011

Following my lengthier entry earlier this week on the director-centric approach that guides a large part of film culture, I thought I'd comment briefly on a particular article in the May issue of Sight & Sound, the magazine whose editorial in the same issue sparked the previous post.

The article in question is Graham Fuller's "The Oregon Trail", and concerns Meek's Cutoff, which I reviewed yesterday. From the outset, Fuller's piece attributes the film's authorship to Kelly Reichardt, its director. I don't have a particular problem with this; in fairness, the second paragraph mentions scriptwriter Jon Raymond and his creative input and influence alongside Reichardt's own. One might say, What's new?

Fuller begins his third paragraph by telling us "Neither Reichardt nor Raymond is a western buff." Again, I think: okay. The subsequent elaboration is to contextualise the film and understand how it works against and within genre traditions. To look to its authors for genre influences seems reasonable, and again in fairness, Fuller mentions both writer and director.

And so on and so forth: Meek's Cutoff's Academy ratio is highlighted, as is its minimalist style and sparse approach to incident, all of which become meaningful discussion points when placing it alongside what film fans understand by "a western".

Kelly Reichardt, director of Meek's Cutoff (2010)
 Critical padding

But then the article veers into a biographical tangent, after a sub-heading just like the one I've just used. I quote at length:

The first of Reichardt's four features was River of Grass (1994), a comedy-cum-road movie about another constrained woman (Lisa Bowman), bored with marriage and motherhood, and a pathetic slacker-hipster (Larry Fessenden) aimlessly on the lam near the Florida Everglades. A wry suburban take on Gun Crazy (1949), it punctured its studied desultoriness with delightful dabs of actorly business. Her second feature Old Joy (2005) marked the start of her collaboration with Raymond, a novelist based in Portland, Oregon, who had been introduced to her by mutual friend Todd Haynes. It was with this contemplative piece that she established her miniaturist style, which makes maximum use of long takes and long shots. Both Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy were adapted from short stories by Ramond, whereas Meek's Cutoff derives from historical accounts and journals. But all three films are set in distinctive outdoors Oregon locations, and all concern the existentially tinged travels of alienated souls.

In Old Joy, Mark (Daniel London), whose wife is about to give birth to their first child, goes on a weekend hiking trip with old schoolfriend Kurt (Will Oldham). Driving to and from their rendezvous, Mark listens to a talk-radio channel on which the callers lament the absence of a viable Democratic opposition, which colours his own sense of the America in which he will bring up his child. Needy Kurt rationalises his faliure to settle down and talks about his spiritual vacations. The beauty of the Cascade Mountains and the calming atmosphere of the hot springs where they take a bath - and where Kurt unsettlingly gives Mark a neck massage - can't allay the sense that the two men are bound on divergent paths.

In Wendy and Lucy, young homeless woman Wendy (played by [Michelle] Williams) is driving north to get a job in an Alaska fish cannery when, after being held in jail for shoplifting in a suburban Oregon town, she loses her beloved dog Lucy. Set free, she receives help from a garage owner ([Will] Patton) and especially an elderly security guard (Walter Dalton), but faces a final heartbreaking decision. The willingness of strangers to help in times of severe economic deprivation is encouraging, but Wendy's future remains even less hopeful than that of [Meek's Cutoff's] pioneers.

Though I've quoted this passage with minimal context, I do so in the hope that its verbosity is clear and its critical relevance at least questionable. Beyond being wordy synopses of two films, these few paragraphs exist only to introduce thematic discussions of Meek's Cutoff. After a brief interlude in which Fuller relates some information about the historical facts on which the film is based, he writes: "If Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy imply political critiques, Meek's Cutoff suggests a full-blown allegory - but an allegory of what?"

That last question is no doubt a legitimate one, and Fuller gives some insight as to what significance the film might have with regard to America's current and recent political climate. But the build-up to such a question strikes me as padding. At the point at which the article veers into a summation of Reichardt's previous films only to observe or forge a thematic link to her latest work, it becomes fetishistic. Frankly, its critical padding isn't necessary.

Why not? Because in simple and to me obvious terms, everything Fuller tells us about Meek's Cutoff can be said without reference to Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. Henceforth, I call for greater scrutiny to phrases like "If Films A and B by Director 1 are that, then Film C suggests this..." At least if the link is as irrelevant as the one used here; indeed, it seems to me like the article in question subscribes to notions of film authorship without realising the fetishism of such tendencies. 

Kill the fetish, not the director

But directors do exist, and are a crucial part of the filmmaking process. In authorial terms, Meek's Cutoff is Kelly Reichardt's film as much as it is Jon Raymond's. But in calling for a greater scrutiny in vague, not very productive wording like the above, I'm calling also for a greater understanding of how directing in cinema actually works.

It seems an embarrassingly obvious point to make, but if a director is accepted (incorrectly or not) as a film's author, she is still called "just" the director; not, it's telling to note, the author. And film directing involves just that: directing a team of other creative personnel, as part of a complex collaborative process.

As such, directors should be a large part of film discussion, but in a more specific way: directing should be a large part of film discussion, as a creative process linked to (and linking) many others. There are meaningful ways of discussing direction, that aid our understanding of the way films work, on-set and during pre- and post-production. Critics who actually spend time on film sets gain the advantage of seeing first hand that the director is only one of many creative people.

How removed is criticism from the actual artistry it analyses? How far has film criticism come to resemble literary criticism? Or how little textual analyses are there out there? How much are we in need of a wider, more wholesale integration of (to use grossly crude terms) "making" and "teaching"? I'd be interested to know how many film critics these days acquire access to sets.

As it stands, though, sentiments like this - from the same Graham Fuller article - are unforgiveable: "In shooting the film, Reichardt opted for the Academy ratio, the near-square frame showing the influence of Robert Adam's photos of the American West." Firstly, I'll grant director Kelly Reichardt may very well have decided upon a 1:1.33 aspect ratio. But she didn't shoot the film.

Fuller makes no reference to Chris Blauvelt, the cinematographer of Meek's Cutoff, whose first feature as DoP this is, after serving a lengthy apprenticeship as focus puller for Harris Savides, the cinematographer on the Gus Van Sant-directed and visually complicated Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005), and on the technically accomplished Zodiac (2007), directed by David Fincher.

There, I mentioned a director. Two, in fact. But I never said Gerry, Elephant or Last Days were "Gus Van Sant's", and in mentioning Fincher with regard to Zodiac, I did so with the informed assumption that a cinematographer doesn't primarily work on-set with a film's writer - which is why I didn't mention James Vanderbilt.

Chris Blauvelt films Joe Jimenez in the 2008 short film El abuelo
This post is already longer than I originally planned. I think I've made a point, though. Directors do exist, unquestionably; but discussion of them should be meaningful and productive, and certainly not at the expense of the other creative principals involved in making something as practically complex as a film.

I should note finally that I'm in no way attacking Graham Fuller here; his is only one example of the director fetish that I've come across in the past few days, and it was doubly relevant given this blog's content this week. There are plenty other examples out there, though; should you happen across "critical padding" or outright "fetishisation", call it out and send me it via the Comments section on this post, so we can gather a more substantial list in order to then understand and help re-shape this curious craze.


There's a good if selective list on Wikipedia of director-cinematographer collaborations.

Also, I posted a brief follow-up to this article at Front Row Reviews, in which I write again on Chris Blauvelt's cinematography on Meek's Cutoff: Rooting for the underdog, or championing the cinematographer.