Name: Alice McCredie-Dando
Twitter handle: @mccrediedando
City I call home: Sydney
Area of cinema I am most passionate about: Jacques Rivette (filmmaker and critic) once remarked that each film is a documentary of its own making. I’ve always liked this idea, and I am particularly passionate about the cinematic tradition that incorporates aspects of documentary into a narrative context.
A film that changed me/my mind: 2001: A Space Odyssey because it’s all about evolution, so it’s entirely appropriate that my experiences of watching the film would correspond to the perhaps more modest fact of a personal evolution in the area of my taste. Basically, I remember finding the film a pretty elusive and frustrating object as a teenager. It was an ‘all style no substance’ kind of critique. But gradually 2001 won me over with its perfect framing and its willingness to entertain wonder – and what had once been frustrating came to seem the expression of a pretty grand ambition.
MIFF film I’m most looking forward to: Boyhood
I’m looking forward to Critics Campus because: I’m excited to meet other people who write about film!
A publication I’d one day like to write for: It’s old school, but I’d love to write for The New York Times.
Favourite critic and why: I really appreciate Manohla Dargis’ film criticism. Her writing is never about her: it’s always about the film.
Feature: No Eden – Kelly Reichardt’s Cinematic Take on Ideology and Contemporary American Experience
In the Hollywood Western, the hero typically encounters a series of obstacles, which, once overcome, seem to confirm the fact of his masculinity. This trajectory mirrors America’s own myth of origins; the becoming of the man is the becoming of the nation as a whole.
Even before the first wagon had set out for greener pastures, the notion of the frontier had begun to take root in the American psyche. Out West, a man could reinvent himself according to a principle of self-sufficiency, and perhaps finally achieve the autonomy seemingly contained within the promise of the new world. Where the covered wagon trod actual ground, the Western evolved as a figurative vehicle for the frontier dream. But empty space was a lie that obscured the brutal fact of dispossession, and although not belonging to the same order of atrocity, reinvention does itself describe a necessarily destructive act.
It is the reality of this unacknowledged violence that drives anti-Westerns such as Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010). Here, the filmmaker contrasts an inhospitable landscape – Reichardt’s West is no Eden – with the hostile relations between three pioneer families and their incompetent guide. At one point, the refugees from the East (who by now are completely lost) capture a Native American in the desperate hope that he will lead them to water. But the unnamed prisoner resists any effort at communication, and even as his fate is wound up in that of his captors’, his intentions remain unclear.
The prisoner’s refusal coincides with Reichardt’s own rejection of the traditional roles that the Western typically assigns its players. When Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) trains a shotgun on her guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who has himself raised a knife to the group’s captive (Rod Rondeaux), the chain of possible action speaks of a volatile dynamic that could at any moment self-destruct. Meek surrenders, but not without first betraying the fact that the West of the settlers’ mind is little more than a fantasy.
The Western’s complex negotiation of history and myth is fertile ground for a filmmaker such as Reichardt, whose work often references the destructive power of ideology. Old Joy (2006) is a less overtly political film than Meek’s Cutoff, but even here, a series of tense exchanges between former college buddies stems from a commitment to a friendship that has failed to adapt to the men’s changing circumstances. Over the course of a weekend, it becomes increasingly apparent that there is a discrepancy between how things are and how the men would like them to be.
In Wendy and Lucy (2008), the reality of destitution challenges the dominant American ideology that equates personal liberty with freedom.
Reichardt’s latest film, Night Moves, marks her most explicit treatment of ideological effect to date. In the opening scene, the film introduces Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), an environmental activist who apparently lacks a history or a life beyond his cause. By some unspecified route, the young man has found his way to an organic farm dedicated to changing the world one cabbage at a time. But the farmhand has other ideas, and has begun to plan the bombing of a nearby hydroelectric dam. His plan requires cash, which he secures from disaffected rich girl Dena (Dakota Fanning), and it also requires the technical know-how, which is where a former Marine named Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) comes in. It is an unlikely trio, but Reichardt’s cinema often devotes itself to exploring the dynamic that emerges between people thrown together by circumstance.
The protest’s planning stage provides the perfect backdrop for an examination of this dynamic: forced into cohabitation, Josh, Dena and Harmon begin to express something of their individual prejudices. There is a brittle quality to the trio’s exchanges; it is never entirely clear what is motivating each member. And the farm where Josh lives, in providing an eerie parallel to his terrorist activities, places a further question mark over the ideological soundness of the protest. The seasonal work – much like the bombing – is dependent on processes and planning, and the chemicals that fertilise the vegetables are also those used in the more destructive act of blowing up the dam.
Reichardt co-wrote Night Moves with Jonathan Raymond, and the case for nonviolent action as an alternative to eco-terrorism is clear. Early in the film, the farm provides the setting for a movie night preaching small-scale, local action. Later, after news of the bombing hits the papers, the property’s owner, Sean (Kai Lennox), rails against what he perceives as a futile act.
The blowing up of the dam has, according to reports, led to an accidental death – which provides the most potent symbol of the paradox inherent in any destructive action undertaken in the name of conservation.
At this point, Night Moves takes a surprising turn: the fact of the homicide pushes Josh into a state of true paranoia. Where he had once claimed global concerns, the young man is now content to pursue self-preservation. Guilt does not appear to weigh on his mind.
Josh is a modern-day Raskolnikov, and much like Crime and Punishment’s antihero, the eco-terrorist appears to believe himself exempt from the normal laws of society.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel holds a special place in the cinema, and has been loosely adapted for the screen on a number of occasions. The author’s description of the gulf separating an idea from its actualisation – which for Raskolnikov, as for Josh, manifests as a post-homicidal paranoia – is a theme broadly pertinent to Reichardt’s work. Like Dostoyevsky, the filmmaker is preoccupied with the moral conviction that drives ideology. In Night Moves, such conviction is acted upon to devastating effect.
The land of the free does not provide a blank slate in Reichardt’s cinema – as it might in the Hollywood Western. Her characters are often enslaved to an ideology operating in direct opposition to their own self-interest. For these men and women, alienation is a common experience, and one that would seem to challenge the American narrative of the self-made man.
In Night Moves,Josh’s efforts at countering this alienated state quite literally involve getting back to nature. But the activist’s violent protest is a contradiction, which – in its unintended consequences – only serves to compound the corporate violence that he originally wished to disrupt.
In uncovering such paradoxes, Reichardt’s cinema makes a valuable contribution to the representation on screen of contemporary American experience.
Review: Ne Me Quitte Pas
In Ne Me Quitte Pas, documentary filmmakers Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden were apparently content to leave middle-aged drinking buddies Marcel and Bob to manage their own conversation. Booze – and copious amounts of the stuff – is involved, so what’s on offer is a familiar script encompassing regular bouts of self-pity, silence and half-hearted attempts at jocularity. This is an apparently observational approach to documentary making: absent on-screen, Bakker and Koevorden come across as an unobtrusive presence in their subjects’ everyday lives.
However, in opening with a quote from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Ne Me Quitte Pas offers a caution of sorts. To what extent are Marcel and Bob unwitting actors in their own 21st-century tragicomedy? The friends talk freely, and Marcel demonstrates a particular lack of reserve in front of the camera. But Bakker and Koevorden, in making the formal choice to edit their film into chapters, establish a distinct authorial voice. It is impossible to escape the suspicion that Marcel and Bob’s story is being shaped by hands other than their own. The soundtrack, too, is loaded with narrative meaning – and with the older, quieter Bob providing the perfect foil to the more volatile Marcel, even the question of genre comes into play. If Ne Me Quitte Pas is a buddy film, is it also an anti-western, focused on masculine isolation in its most miserably failed form?
Following a brutal separation from his wife of 16 years, Marcel retreats to a dilapidated forest shack in southern Belgium. The move is emotionally fraught, but Bob proves to be a stabilising and surprisingly resourceful presence. The backstory to the friendship is unclear, but the two men have apparently known each other forever; their interactions display a level of intimacy that creates a space where even delusion is calmly accepted. Marcel makes repeated reference to his goal of self-improvement, and one of the film’s chapters is even devoted to the younger man’s stint in rehab for alcohol addiction. But no one is trying to change anyone here. Marcel and Bob are alcoholics, as well as self-described failures as parents, who have been brought together by the mutual fact of forced isolation.
Somehow, the two men find a way to go on, and Marcel never gives up on his hope that he will one day get better. Ne Me Quitte Pas is a gentle investigation of precisely these stories that we tell ourselves and that we tell others. The apparent aimlessness that characterises each man’s existence only emphasises the degree to which their experiences have been reshaped by the filmmakers for dramatic or thematic purposes. But Marcel and Bob are not figures of fun. Bakker and Koevorden’s self-conscious intervention in the men’s lives is a reminder of how impossible it is to stand in another person’s shoes; the filmmakers document the friend’s regular failures (and rather less regular success) with affection and with humour, but rarely with judgement.