Meek’s Cutoff, Etsy Culture, and the Evacuation of Meaning

Meek’s Crossing is the excellent new movie by Kelly Reichardt, both of whose previous films are definitely worth watching.  (Actually there’s one more, her first, River of Grass, that I have not seen).  Wendy and Lucy (2008) was her breakthough: it features Michelle Williams as a young woman in the present day heading for Alaska for work with her dog Lucy, in an unreliable car with a small amount of money to last her until she can find employment.  Her car breaks down, she gets arrested for shoplifting, and Lucy disappears.  The movie is to a significant degree about her relationship with her dog… and about life in recessionary America for those with few resources.  It’s very good although I did find it a bit of a downer.  I prefer Old Joy (2006) which I see as a key representative film of the late Bush era, offering a haunting portrayal of varieties of liberal or counter-cultural states of mind in this period.  It co-stars (the alt-indie cult Americana singer) Will Oldham as an exasperating, sad slacker/hippie — his strong performance gave me new respect for him.  (Both films are based on short stories by Reichardt’s collaborator Jon Raymond.)

Anyway: the new one is in some ways a big departure, in others very continuous with Reichardt’s previous two.  A departure in that it must have had a larger budget and is a period drama — a revisionary, female-perspectived Western set in 1845 on the Oregon Trail.  Continuous in that it again features a Michelle Williams character on a sad, possibly doomed odyssey through the U.S. on a search for a better life, landing in what may turn out to be the dead end of an Oregon that delivers much less than promised to those without the means or skills to take advantage of it.  Williams’s character Emily Tetherow is part of a group of three couples, one child, and a disreputable guide named Meek (who’s kind of a cross between the Jeff Bridges character in True Grit and that scary character wearing the bear skin they encounter in the woods) they’ve hired to help them make their way to the Willamette Valley in Oregon in 1845.

Sarah made a good observation that Meek’s Crossing could be seen as an expression of Etsy culture.  Etsy of course is the very popular online forum for mostly homemade crafts made and marketed by nostalgic indie types: hipster embroidery, knitting, and the like.  The movie begins and ends with extremely-Etsy credits cross-stitched on homespun cloth, and the movie’s perspective is always that of the women on the journey who are locked into the “domestic” world of their wagons; they have little say in the major decisions of the journey which they (and we) often overhear the men discussing, and which frequently involve whether or not to hang or shoot someone.  (There’s an Altman-like effect in the way the men’s conversations are sometimes difficult to make out from our perspective positioned with the eavesdropping wives.)

The women are always making bread in little wooden bowls and knitting; the movie can be very slow, offering real-time depictions of the process of loading a gun or making bread or a new replacement wooden wagon axle.  In one scene, Emily Tetherow repairs (with cross-stitching) the leather mocassin of the Native American man they’ve captured and have been debating whether to kill on the spot (Meek’s preference) or to allow to accompany them as a guide.  The men either want to murder him or temporarily use him, but in repairing his leather shoe, Michelle Williams’s character demonstrates how Anglo women’s domestic knowledge and skills, along with their marginalized perspective, allow them to forge sympathetic bonds with Native Americans and to make a cross-cultural connection.

So one way to read the film would be to see it as a revisionary feminist Western that celebrates 19th-century “women’s work” and that arguably (in the Etsy manner) fetishizes homemade crafts and laborious manual labor as an implicit antidote to 21st century soulless white-collar work.   The critical reading of this could be that there’s a potential self-satisfaction or wishful thinking in the implication that this kind of craftsmanship, and the set of perspectives and attitudes associated with it, offers an utopian alternative to the masculine cruelty and ethnocentrism of the dominant culture.  Well, self-satisfied insofar as, as per Sarah’s reading, the movie implicitly suggests some kind of link between 21st century cross-stitching Etsy/home-crafting culture and that of the world depicted in the movie.  (J. Hoberman hints at such a link in his quip that the film’s women are “alt-Bedouin in their protective gingham dresses and heavy bonnets.”) I personally have no problem at all with hipster/indie/Etsy neo-hippie craftsmanship, but I do suspect that its practitioners can be prone to wishful thinking about how much of a challenge to mainstream culture their knit beer cozies and the like constitute.

The movie certainly doesn’t pan out in any kind of self-satisfied or celebratory manner, however.  [Spoiler alert — in what follows I will give away plot details from the movie’s conclusion).

In an imagined upbeat version of the movie, Emily Tetherow’s bond with the captive would save the group, with “the Indian” leading them to a source of water. (This is the only way he is identified, btw.)  In actuality, however, the journey apparently ends in disaster.  The Anglos interpret the Indians’ mutterings (he speaks no English) to be suggesting that water lies on the other side of a ravine and hill that will be difficult to cross in their wagons.  Desperate, they attempt to lower the wagons to the bottom of the ravine via ropes, but one rope breaks, crashing the cart and spilling their remaining water.  In the shocking final scene, the Indian simply walks off, muttering to himself, leaving the party to what would seem certain death.  Cut to embroidery/ cross-stitched credits.  As J. Hoberman observed, the movie ends up recalling Aguirre, the Wrath of God in its depiction of a journey into the wilderness that winds up in circular movement leading nowhere but to destruction and death.

The Tetherows and companions have been obsessed with the possibility that “the Indian” is either reading or transmitting signs to potential hidden companions.  He scrawls drawings and marks on stones as they travel — other rock drawings are visible throughout the journey — and when the party catch him leaving inscribed stones behind that may serve as markers of their path, they almost kill him on the spot, in terror that he is leading them to slaughter.  Yet as they realize their only hope may lie in his ability to read the landscape for signs of water, they must place their hopes in his signifying abilities.

But the final scene strongly implies the possibility that he may be insane or at least at least as confused as the Thetherows & friends; as he wanders away, he seems not purposeful but lost in his own world, and the film left me with the sense that all the speculations about his powers of receiving and transmitting signs have been beside the point, since he is neither a shrewd enemy nor a valued native informant but simply a confused soul severed (or “cut off”, as per the title) from any sustaining community or cultural system.  (Again, even more cut off than the white settlers, who at least can die together.)

This is just one possible interpretation, but my sense was that all “the Indian”‘s scrawlings on rock were meaningless… giving the whole movie a final sense of futility and evacuated meaning that’s quite powerful and that demands a rethinking of much that’s preceded it.  The film becomes an exploration of what it means to be culturally “cut off,” severed from any sustaining culture’s web of signs, wandering in a world filled with signs that appear pregnant with significance but ultimately reveal themselves as empty or at least conveying nothing to us.  If “the Indian” is slyly communicating with his people, at least we’re in a meaningful (albeit enemy) world; to realize that he has just been scrawling on rocks and can neither offer help nor harm is, in a sense, a much bleaker conclusion. And in one final turn of the screw, we could read the film’s “handmade” end credits as a parting allusion to our own futile desire to reconnect ourselves to lost whole pre-industrial cultures.  In this sense a revival of homemade crafting could be analogous to the Western as a nostalgic genre.

A fun Saturday night, in other words!  Actually, it’s really good — almost everyone in the theater sat through the entire final credits, just soaking it in.