An Aesthetic of Anxiety
(Meek’s Cutoff and Neo-neorealism in the Wake of Financial Crisis)
An Essay by Kevin Thomas McKenna
In February 2020, I found myself in a small, packed fifty-person capacity screening room at the Mad Cow Theater in Orlando, Florida leading a screening of Kelly Reichardt’s 2010 neo-neorealist, slow cinema, feminist western Meek’s Cutoff. As I introduced Reichardt’s third and concluding installment to her “Oregon Trilogy,” preceded by Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), it was important to establish that the depiction of these three families—the Whites, Gatelys, and Tetherows—lost in the Oregon desert after following their guide—Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood)—on a shortcut along the Oregon Trail in 1845 is based on historical events. Screenwriter Jon Raymond based the script on diaristic accounts from some of the 1,000-1,500 immigrants who braved “The Terrible Trail” that resulted in forty deaths (Dawn Hall 87). However, I informed the gallery that more compelling than the script’s historical basis is Reichardt’s minimalist production style in capturing the characters’ desperation during this frontier sojourn and advised them to attend to the film’s aesthetic as much as its plot. As the screening progressed, the rustle of bodies adjusting in their seats and whispers between the spectators cut through the conical light piercing the darkness and filled the lengthy silences of the film. What did she just say? Can you see who is in this shot? How far have they traveled now? Once the house lights flicked on, I began our discussion with a provocation: Meek’s Cutoff speaks to contemporary national and global concerns more than it services a historical critique. Stylistically indebted to Italian Neorealism, the film functions similar to how Torunn Haaland describes its predecessors as an optique, an “ocular and ideological perspective and a set of aesthetic and thematic possibilities available within a moment of cultural history” (Haaland 32). “But, how?” some of my students in attendance asked in response to my opening remark, to which I replied “neoliberalism.”
With a term so polyvalent, my monolexical response could turn to many different schools and political-economic lineages for definition, but economist Friedrich Hayek and social geographer David Harvey provide the most insightful definitions for this analysis. Hayek, a Nobel Prize laureate and one of the founders of the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS), a neoliberal think tank, grounded his philosophy in market triumphalism. For him, the globally networked market stands as both the locus of freedom and the greatest modality for the discovery of knowledge: “‘the market’ is posited to be an information processor more powerful than any human brain” (Mirkowski 435). Hayek’s credulous optimism in the market must be buttressed with Harvey’s skepticism, as the latter is more interested in the political applications of the former’s theorizations. Harvey explains that as a system, neoliberalism is “an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (A Brief History 2). As a philosophy or set of principles, rather, he turns to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s explanation: “all forms of social solidarity were to be dissolved in favor of individualism … personal responsibility, and family values” (23).
Meek’s Cutoff, at first glance, may appear as an odd expression of neoliberalism’s philosophy and structure since most scholars link its aesthetics to the New Hollywood Blockbuster. In Post-Cinematic Affect, Steven Shaviro “affectively maps” neoliberalism’s global technocracy in the blockbuster’s “post-continuity” style, characterized by “a preoccupation with immediate effects,” abandonment of “broader continuity, … cynical manipulation of the audience,” and “cinematic barrage” (123). Post-continuity style’s slavish devotion to immediacy and barrage points to the ubiquitous mediation of our world, but also to the tools necessary for neoliberalism’s global flows. Immediacy is also slightly relevant for Scott Ferguson’s attention to the New Hollywood Blockbuster’s neoliberal aesthetics in his analysis of the money relationship in Declarations of Dependence. Ferguson contends that the most dominant global cinema form presents a “hyper-Newtonian phenomenology,” amplifying force, mass, and gravity via sound and special effects to transform abstraction into an illusory swaddle for an impoverished and displaced victim of neoliberal exploitations (176-77). High-budget, action-driven, computer-generated films are an ideal site to analyze neoliberal aesthetics as they are a global commodity, produced by multinational conglomerates. Reichardt’s film, shot on location in Oregon with only a two-million dollar budget, certainly does not fit this mold. However, it stands as an important addition to this discourse as it attends to the political-economic logics through the experience of dislocation and desperation, the very conditions post-continuity style embraces, and hyper-Newtonian phenomenology attempts to comfort.
Beginning in medias res, the film opens with a drawn-out sequence of daily chores—moving wagons, washing clothes, collecting water, and Thomas Gately (Paul Dano) carving “L,O,S,T” into a fallen tree. Almost circularly, the film concludes with the party, now dehydrated, frustrated, and skeptical, happening upon a lone tree in the Oregon desert. Topped by barren branches, half-alive, half-dead, this sign ambiguously straddles ominous notice and prosperous manifestation. Along the way, the film focuses on daily imperatives of frontier travel, walking, cooking, repairing wagon wheels, walking, conserving resources, washing clothes, and more walking. Katherine Fusco and Nicole Seymour describe Meek’s Cutoff’s temporality as laborious, slow-moving “task time,” governed by the real duration of survivalist labor (51). Task time is elongated by what E. Dawn Hall calls the “secondary score”—silence and hushed dialogue (90). Elena Gorfinkel characterizes this temporality as an “austere slowness,” compounded by the materiality of sound and props in the harshly bare Oregon desert, which allude to the neoliberal order’s demand for austerity: “that citizens do less with less” (124). This essay hopes to expand upon Gorfinkel’s political-economic attention to temporal austerity by turning to Reichardt’s neo-neorealist aesthetic. Meek’s Cutoff’s narrative attention to futile meandering and gendered distancing while searching for a home, prosperity, and security in the northwest allegorizes the impacts of the 2008 financial crisis to critique neoliberalism’s structural and ideological incompatibilities by representing its violences. Additionally, Reichardt’s naturalist lighting, hushed dialogue, and near-academy ratio complicate Bazinian realism’s potentials and it unsettles neoliberalism’s dogma of freedom and individualism. Her resulting complication of individualism affirms more democratic epistemological networks, which combat neoliberal atomization.
Figure A. The opaque image of “task time” as Emily Tetherow prepares provisions for the day’s journey.
Neoliberalism, The Story
As the traveling band’s detour continues throughout the film, their devotion to neoliberal values becomes evident in their desires and sacrifices. Thatcher is famous for proclaiming: “There is no alternative” (T.I.N.A.) to neoliberalism. Forsaken in the barren Oregon desert, the characters also accept these beliefs as the only alternative. In one morning scene, the three wives, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), Millie Gately (Zoe Kazan), and Glory White (Shirley Henderson), are making coffee and breakfast for their families, establishing provisions for the day’s yomp. But while they share a single frame in the long take, the depth realizes their division. Mostly identifiable by the fires in front of each woman—as this is the only source of lighting in this early morning shot—each character appears below or beside their family’s respective wagons. The distance between each fire conveys individual self-sufficiency rather than collective resource distribution. A segmentation of labor and resources predicated on familial provision as indicated by their proximity to each’s own family wagon. Similarly, despite skepticism of Stephen Meek’s aptitude or nefarious intent, the film opens with the three families having abandoned the larger collective colonizing party and placed their trust in an individual guide. Beyond just affirmation of neoliberal values, which are admittedly ingrained in the classical western, these characters also exhibit a faith in neoliberal market practice. One of the husbands, Thomas Gately, in search of gold and other bountiful resources, valorizes private property in his search and upholds fidelity to free markets when he offers the captured Cayuse Native American (Rod Rendeaux) blankets in exchange for guidance. After the tethered man grabs the blanket while he is surrounded by eight colonizing strangers, Gately proclaims: “That there is the law of the land, Mr. Meek: barter.”
And yet, as the three families continue their circadian drudgery and suspended motion, these burgeoning values approach their limits, revealing Reichardt’s political-economic critique. While Gately seeks private property, the ownership of objects and land is either abandoned or elusive for him and other characters. Along the journey, Emily must discard personal items including her husband’s heirloom, his mother’s clock, which he describes as “just weight now.” And waiting is what Gately must do when the White’s son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson) discovers gold, but Gately cannot establish a property claim as they are still removed from civilization and survival trumps prosperity. The search for the prospective private property in this instance paradoxically requires the destruction of possessions. Moreover, Gately’s exchange with the Cayuse man is anything but free, reframing dispossession as accord metaphorises Harvey’s neoliberal ontology as an “accumulation by dispossession”—one that purposively constructs asymmetrical power relations across its global network to acquire and distribute the taken rather than producing anew (New Imperialism 181).
As spectators can see in the morning scene, while the women are working among their individual fires, the husbands who are presumably sleeping in the wagons, are both above their wives, in the screen’s two-dimensional schematic, and roughly equalized on the same horizontal plane. The rectilinear 1.37:1 aspect ratio and absent protracting background emphasize the vertical and horizontal axes of the frame, confirming a hierarchical patriarchal structure. The husbands present a unified horizontal power structure over their wives, suggesting family devotion and subservience is an imperative rather than a choice. This hierarchy is reinforced via recursive gendered spatial and aural distancing throughout Meek’s Cutoff.
Figure B. [Video Clip] Gendered division of space.
Reichardt’s cinematography, specifically her pairing of pans and limiting frames, presents this cleaving demand as a systemic process. After an ambiguous period of walking, the panning shot of the wives passing water suggests their desire to freely share necessary resources communally. The frame, however, individuates each wife as the water flows among them; an imposed atomization confronts the desire for collectivity during this moment of austerity. Contrastingly, the men, whom we see in the next shot, are gathered in the shade beneath a rock, establishing a path forward through collective speculation. And here, critiquing patriarchy mimetically bears out neoliberalism’s inherent contradictions. Though the political-economic philosophy presents itself as a horizontal, and therefore equal, global network, the Mont Pelerin Society proliferated their philosophies through hierarchical institutions such as universities, think tanks, and politicians, while espousing lateral individual freedom. Philip Mirkowski refers to this inherent contradiction as neoliberalism’s “double truth doctrine” (426). Though Hayek and MPS bemoan expertise and profess the wisdom of the masses, they obfuscate the hierarchical division between one truth for the “masses and another for those at the top” (Ibid.). As the wives are barricaded into silent space, the husbands freely and collectively aggregate information in a decision-making process. Harvey also notes neoliberalism’s inherently unequal and contradictory structure, not between its origin and rhetoric, but its values and rhetoric: “While individuals are supposedly free to choose, they are not supposed to choose to construct strong collective institutions … that put restraints on capital accumulation” (A Brief History 69; 75).
Akin to Reichardt’s attention to the materiality of westward voyage, her philosophical critique resonates due to the film’s realistic context for the historical spectator. While the film’s period costuming, props, and Oregon desert setting establish a sense of realism which New York Times critic A.O. Scott attributes to “neo-neo realism” through the “authenticity of the setting” in relation to its historical period, the aimless, anxious desperation of Meek’s Cutoff authentically realizes negative impacts of neoliberal capitalist systems. During the 2008 financial crisis, “U.S. foreclosure filings spiked by more than 81% in 2008 … a total of 861,664 families lost their homes to foreclosure” and “there were more than 3.1 million foreclosure filings issued during 2008” (Christie 2). According to a report from the National Coalition for the Homeless, “unemployment reached 9.4% in May 2009” (NCFH 1). Desperation and necessity were the primary affects in 2008 America, at least more-so than the triumphalism classical westerns promote with trail westerns’ certainty in Manifest Destiny. Debates concerning the 426.4 billion dollar Temporary Asset Relief Program, intended to halt foreclosures and stabilize the economy, also unveiled neoliberalism’s hypocritical hierarchical ladder and language of self-sufficiency. CEOs and investment banks were seen to be kept safe in their wagons while everyday Americans were abandoned in the desert. However, the film’s critical mode abounds with Reichardt’s neo-neorealist choices as much as it derives from the analogous narrative.
Neoliberalism, The Form
Reichardt’s numerous long shots in long takes are designed to liberate the spectators’ eyes, as Bazin notes about Italian Neorealist cinematography: “[I]t is the mind of the spectator which is forced to discern [significance], as in a sort of parallelepiped of reality with the screen as its cross-section” (“An Aesthetic” 28). The image is a fragment of reality, both in the materiality of the cinematic frame and in the material representation of the world contained in the frame. Gathering as much of the world as possible in these framings allows greater assemblages and relations to appear, negating, at most, and, minimizing, at least, any a priori significance to the frame or matter within. In addition to Reichardt’s authentic cinematography and depiction of narrative desperation, Meek’s Cutoff’s task time offers verisimilitude. In his book, Realism of the Senses in World Cinema, Tiago de Luca explains that slow cinema is “characterized by a sensory mode of address based on the protracted inspection of physical reality … on the basis of phenomenological surplus” (1,8). For de Luca, prolonged shot durations are necessary to grant spectators time to recognize assemblages in the mise-en-scéne and to import or discern symbolic significance in the shot’s material reality. Bazin places this element of the Real upon audiovisual or somatic exchanges with ambiguity, aesthetically achieved most successfully in his theorization of “image facts”: the image is “a fragment of concrete reality, in itself multiple and full of ambiguity, whose meaning emerges only after the fact, thanks to other imposed facts between which the mind establishes certain relationships” (“An Aesthetic” 37). Bazin noted Italian Neorealist form, to which Reichardt’s style is indebted, “give[s] back to cinema a sense of ambiguity of reality” (“The Evolution” 37). In Bazinian terms, the Real is the discovery of freedom in ambiguity; a multitude, if not an infinity, of potentials emerge with greater depth, materiality, and duration of the image.
Figure C. Shared “impingement on visual freedom.”
However, Reichardt’s attention to authenticity–naturalistic lighting’s dark night time images, hushed dialogue through whisper or environmental sound effects, and opaque dialogue in the form of absent subtitles for the Cayuse character’s dialogue–reveals the limits of sensory mastery for the individual spectator. I, the lone viewer, confront, in de Luca’s terms, “opaque and elusive images” that render the phenomenological reality epistemologically insufficient for narrative cinema’s cinematic representations (“Slow Time” 29). Reichardt’s shots are full of phenomenological data, to de Luca’s claim, but the saturation of pure darkness, unimpeded sunlight, or obscuring grass presents this sensory stimuli as a lack, an empty Other. The multitude of this effect is perhaps best envisaged in Reichardt’s aspect ratio. In an interview with Leonard Quart, Reichardt explains that she chose the 1.37:1 aspect ratio to “provide more height and foreground and less width” (42). In a separate interview, Reichardt states that the aspect ratio sympathetically links spectators with characters because it “changes time. It keeps you in the present, where the characters are” (Fusco & Seymour 59). Elsewhere, she says: “I felt like the square [aspect ratio] gave you an idea of the closed view that the women have because of their bonnets” (“Going West” 6). Whether applied to land, time, or a marginalized gender, Fusco and Seymour capture the effect of the aspect ratio on neoliberalism’s most vital grounds: “[it] feels like a denial, an impingement on visual freedom” (59). The individual spectator is denied the opportunity to explore the beautiful vistas of the northwest as a reprieve from the characters’ tense drudgery. One is unable to look beyond the frame, to see potential paths forward or signs of life. Spatiotemporal orientation in the Oregon desert becomes an impossibility.
Spectatorial senses thus continuously find demarcation in ambiguity’s potentials, blurring the boundary between narrative and spectatorial anxiety. In his book Cinema of Anxiety, Vincent Rocchio leans on Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic structures to read anxiety in Italian Neorealism through “its temporal dimension, its relationship to object loss, its displacement of danger, and its redirection of desire” in regards to the narrative (39). We can adapt Rocchio’s psychoanalytical analysis to Meek’s Cutoff and apply it to the form rather than the narrative.
Reichardt’s slow cinematic appeal not only saturates the film in duration, but a rupturing timelessness, where movement and action forestall spatial progress. The long takes of walking, obscured shots of the grass, or preparation of food and supplies—task time—run for so long and recur so often that the action in the scene appears to disrupt forward progress. Paradoxically, this timelessness vacillates with real time, in which an absent narrative temporality forces the individual spectator to confront the relationship of protracted activity and the viewing body’s inactivity during the film’s hour-and-forty-two-minute duration. Rocchio explains object loss in relation to cinema as “a lack of information from the loss of exposition” (41). By losing an assertive, clear, omniscient sense of the image, the individual spectator is dispossessed of an implied mastery in the spectatorial role. If neoliberal ideals of individual self-sufficient mastery result from the long take, the long shot’s presented freedom fails to communicate expository information. Displacement of danger “operates both in the appropriation of cultural signifying practices and in the transformation of social phenomena into the structure of the individual” (42). Reichardt’s abstruse aesthetic displaces the danger of neoliberal philosophical hegemony and its violent dispossessing effects and replaces them with signifying values capable of being conceptually divorced from neoliberalism itself. This displacement duplicates the spectator’s projection of lack onto the image-fact rather than confronting the self’s incapacities. Helplessness, spectatorial anxiety, then displaces neoliberalism as the danger; the spectator comes to desire sensory relief or grounding more than narrative resolution, thus formulating a redirection of desire.
In this sense, Meek’s Cutoff problematizes neoliberal values of freedom, which Bazin implicitly associates with realism’s ambiguity. The resulting tension is best understood by attending to Jacques Lacan’s notion of the Real: “that which resists symbolization entirely. The Real as remainder, as ‘impossible,’ marks the limits of both the Symbolic identification as being incomplete, as inevitable lack” (Rocchio 21-22). The neo-neorealist western offers us reality in a rich, saturated fullness; frames filled with darkness’ expungements, perceived stasis of the sky, the wilderness’s natural sounds, and absent subtitles convey our world as it occurs in an unmediated fashion. Reichardt, then, fulfills the neoliberal films’ intentions. Shaviro’s “affective mapping” and Ferguson’s hyper-Newtonian readings of neoliberal form in the New Hollywood Blockbuster imply the importance of density to neoliberal aesthetics (Shaviro 5). Neoliberal aesthetics “[o]rient the sensorium toward a sublime haecceity–a materially expansive nearness, or propinquity” (Ferguson 10). However, unlike the Hollywood neoliberal form which artificially (CGI and intensified sound effects) constructs lived-reality to present a soothing “thisness,” Meek’s Cutoff offers proximity to the Lacanian Real (125). We are drawn closer to the referent in its minimally altered presentation, but our sensorium is paradoxically further detached from the cinematic image. Though viewers confront a full image-facts, their product–tenerous illegibility–prompts spectators to dispossess this image of its density, displacing individual perceptive limits onto the film’s representational mode. Reichardt’s refashioning of neoliberalism’s aesthetic codes, one, exposes the falsity of neoliberalism’s promise of fullness or proximity, and, two, upend the notion of a masterful gaze to reveal the individual spectator’s inherent and irreconcilable “lack” in attempts to maintain subjective status. Spectators who claim Meek’s Cutoff to be boring, static, or confusing are projecting individualism’s deficiencies onto the film as much as they are espousing their particular taste. And yet, the film’s aesthetic of anxiety not only laconically critiques neoliberalism by foregrounding individual perception’s limitations; it also produces an alternative to neoliberalism’s epistemological structures.
Towards a Conclusion
Though the individual spectator struggles with securing a firm knowledge within Meek’s Cutoff, can we resolve the private uncertainty? This returns us to the scene at the Mad Cow theater I described in my introduction. As I listened more carefully to the whispered dialogues of the students and the public in attendance, I realized that their conversations illustrate two interesting products of the film. First, all their questions were a form of knowledge production, focused on discovering what they were failing to perceive. Second, in this production model, the audience formed decentralized information nodes, intentionally sharing knowledge with theatrical neighbors but also unwittingly contributing to a networked information system in the theatrical space. De Luca argues in his essay “Slow Time, Visible Cinema” that slow cinema, such as Meek’s Cutoff, is better displayed in a film theater than in a museum exhibition or on an individual device because the “slow film in fact greatly heightens a sense of the collective precisely because it quickly exhausts the image’s representational dimension” (38). He elaborates that exhausting the image’s representational capacity forces the spectator to turn to the real time and space of the theater and to others to find affirmation. This turn offers the production of an “ethical spectatorship … with a renewed awareness and appreciation of the principles of sociality and proximity” (41). I wish to extend de Luca’s attention here beyond time to sight and sound to argue that the individuals at the Mad Cow sought not just affirmation but information, framing this ethical spectatorship as an interdependence in response to the alienating, anxiety-inducing cinematic image.
Meek’s Cutoff’s interdependent production among spectators reimagines alternatives to neoliberal networks and knowledge production. The value of decentralized networks can be traced to Hayek. In his famous 1945 essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” Hayek analyzes the capitalist price system to promote something, that at first glance, appears similar to what I describe from the Mad Cow Theater: “the whole acts as one market, not because any … members survey the whole field, but because their limited individual fields of vision sufficiently overlap so that through many intermediaries the relevant information is communicated to all” (526). However, what Hayek describes and what I witnessed are fundamentally different. Hayek treats the single market super-processor as a transcendent entity, akin to a Platonic Form, claiming civilization exists because it “happened to stumble upon a method which made it possible,” outright denying that the price system, or capitalism itself, is a cultural, socially manufactured product (528). Elevating the system to a divine primordial status causes Hayek to miss an important contradiction. The dispersal of information from the processor’s aggregated inputs in order to reduce facts and produce “the right action” is arbitrarily decided by economic elites with greater access to the controls, understanding of the data inputs, and dissemination of its output, a consequence of the double truth doctrine. The doctrine’s Manichaean divide is possible because, in Hayek’s decentralized network, individuals input into a single system and receive its output as individuals, returning to the same suffrage Hayek pointed to as the impetus to promote such a model. Thus, Hayek proposes a network that is anything but decentralized.
What made the collective epistemological experience at the Mad Cow Theater possible, in my estimation, requires us to note decentralized collective spectatorship. Traditional notions of the individual, passive spectator in a crowded cineplex are refashioned to an active participant in a joint audience via shared confrontation with Reichardt’s aesthetic of anxiety. Spectators engaged in communal action with group discussions during and following the screening, during which small groups freely shared observations, explications, and analyses. This collective mode of production struck me as eerily similar to Meek’s Cutoff’s scene of the wives sharing water in the shade. Reminiscent of the matriarchs straining for and offering communal support in response to imposed alienation, the audience sought propinquity with each other in response to the shared anxiety indebted to the film’s dense realism. Fundamental to this behavior is the ethical attention to others in the audience that de Luca believes possible only in the film theater. Recognition of the shared experience draws the spectator from the “me” to a “we,” abandoning the devotion to individualism when approaching media. Such drive and action is productive because Reichardt’s neo-neorealist form unseats the film from a legible, objective presentation; the work is displaced from a factual center easily observed. Additionally, evidenced by her fluid responses to questions concerning the near-academy aspect ratio, Reichardt does not offer her directorial role as the centralized site of epistemological certainty. Consequently, as the moderator as well as fellow spectator, I shared in the uncertainty with the audience. Therefore, my role was less to provide the knowledge necessary to exit Mad Cow Theater with a mastery of the film but open the conversation for intellectual relationships to organically form in the theatrical network. Akin to how the characters in the film are interdependent, regardless of recognizing or desiring this fact, the audience’s trust is relocated from a cinematic center to their decentered body; their desire to build shared understanding, and respect for each other endorse a collectivity which neoliberalism has historically tried to limit to the individual and Reichardt seems to hope to advance past her ambiguous ending.
To conclude, Meek’s Cutoff critiques neoliberal structure and philosophy by offering an aesthetic in service to its philosophical principles, but it results in anxiety. As a result, spectators must defy neoliberalism’s decree and exercise their freedom in a social rather than sensorial register and construct more democratic epistemological frameworks. However, in our present pandemic moment, looking ahead into the post-COVID-19 era, we must consider whether the theater is becoming a target for neoliberalism’s dispossession of these alternative methods. Jeet Heer notes that the current pandemic is not the cause for several film theaters’ “deaths,” but it is being used to hide their “murder.” Major streaming corporations are crafting disproportionate relationships in media services to extinguish an empowering communal environment in favor of a media “future that is favorable to capitalism: a deeply privatized, fragmented world where everyone watches in their own individual cave and is incapable of forming a collective identity” (Heer 19). The question then becomes, however, what level of political and economic power are we sacrificing by throwing this space out of the wagon? Are we unwittingly succumbing to a neoliberal ideology that is slowly transforming the media topography into the barren Oregon desert? As David Harvey rightfully notes when he questions neoliberalism’s conception of freedom by citing cultural critic Matthew Arnold: “‘Freedom is a very good horse to ride, but to ride somewhere’” (A Brief History 6).
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