Photographic Realism in Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff

In his essay, ‘What is Digital Cinema?’, Lev Manovich famously says, “Cinema is the art of the index; it is an attempt to make art out of a footprint.” Manovich’s engagement with indexicality in cinema in the digital age begins as a departure from the focus on “the possibilities of the interactive narrative”. Instead, he attempts to historicize the visual techniques that go into the making of cinema and their differing relationship to the representations of reality through time, thus reflecting what Altman calls the ‘historicizing of genre theory’.

Manovich notes that since its very birth, “cinema was understood …as the art of motion… that finally succeeded in creating a convincing illusion of dynamic reality”. He looks at the progress of this idea by tracing it back to the 19th century, when cinema relied on hand painted or hand-drawn images that required manual action to create movement. By the last decade of the 19th century with the mechanization of motion, this movement was accelerated, leading to the birth of a “particular regime of the visible”, where the machine spits out images, “all moving at the same speed, like a line of marching soldiers”. These techniques removed the traces of the human body from the making of cinema: “once the cinema was stabilized as a technology, it cut all references to its origins in artifice”.

He goes on to distinguish Animation from Cinema, by emphasizing on their respective privileging of the ‘graphic’ and the ‘photographic’. Thus, animation openly admits its constructedness by projecting its images as representations of rather than, unadulterated recordings of reality. Manovich notes that while cinema, since its very beginning bore traces of the human body, the “new visual regime of cinema” by erasing traces of its production process, pushed the relevance of graphic art such as paintings, in the discussion of cinema, to the fringes.

However, Digital Cinema challenges this distinction between recorded and constructed reality by making possible the juxtaposition of the two. Manovich lists the following principles of digital cinema—

  • Rather than filming/recording physical reality, it is now possible to generate film like scenes directly in a computer.
  • Once live-action footage is digitized, it loses its privileged indexical relationship to pro-filmic reality.
  • With the possibility of editing now, live-action footage functions as raw material for further composition. (Thus, retaining visual realism unique to the photographic process, yet obtaining the plasticity possible in animation)
  • The computer collapses the distinction between editing and special effects.

All these features, stress on the “mutability of digital cinema” that erases the distinction between a “photograph and a painting”. Manovich gives examples of hand-painting digitized film frames in digital cinema, that allow us to think through the differences between “re-arranging reality” to “re-arranging images”. Thus,  the computer allows the meeting of the cinematic with the graphic. A significant consequence of this, especially in relation to Meek’s Cutoff, is the possibility of recreating spatialized narratives by fusing images together, allowing for the possibility of the spatializing of time: “time becomes spatialized, distributed over the surface of the screen.”

It may be interesting to read Egbert’s and Gregory’s reviews of Meek’s Cutoff in relation to Manovich’s discussion of Digital Cinema. Both, Egbert and Gregory in their reviews of the movie, applaud Reichardt’s realism, in so much as it relies on her proximity to the landscapes where her stories are set. Thus Gregory, talks about the hostile setting of Meek’s Cutoff, complete with “rattle snakes and tornado winds…110 degrees during the day and 20 degrees at night” where “actors came down with heatstroke and hypothermia”. On the other hand, the representation of the actors and the authenticity of their costumes is set against the backdrop of a landscape that increasingly represents a painting. While, Reichardt’s films may be seen as instances of stark recorded reality, how may we read these painterly landscapes in relation to the characters?



In a characteristic scene in Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También, Luisa asks Tenoch and Julio how they pleasure their girlfriends. The duo go on to enumerate in vivid detail, their bedroom escapades, in a classic scene of male sexual braggadocio.  However, when she gestures and inquires, “You ever wiggle your finger up the ass”, they are shocked and the car breaks down. I find, the sequence that follows (49:09-52:02), instrumental in weaving together some of the key concerns that the film articulates regarding national/Mexican cinema. The breakdown of the car is followed by a classic scene of provincial life (what Hind call ‘provincia’), where rural folk stand by a horse under a tree and watch the three urban dwellers. The car is then pulled by a tractor to a suitable location and an interesting array of frames are carefully juxtaposed with each other. A provincial woman chops a coconut and offers coconut water to Luisa, Julio talks to a provincial man, complimenting his hat and the latter offers it to him as a ‘present’. The camera slowly moves from Luisa contemplating Dona Martina’s toys to Tenoch and Julio pointing at a picture of a sculpture of David. The scene where they point at David’s genitals has a voice-over of Luisa leaving the farewell note for Jano. While she speaks, the camera shifts from the two boys, to a group of locals engaged in routine activities, to a shot of Luisa in booth 2, to Luisa’s house and finally ends while positioning the gaze outside the house through the window.

This sequence is interesting for a variety of reasons. It begins by interrupting the masculinist/patriarchal narrative of urban Mexico symbolized by the two boys, with Luisa’s suggestive shaming of their sense of male sexual entitlement, a classic case of the castration complex. The fact, that it is this that pushes them from the comfortable space of the car and leads to their direct contact with the people who inhabit the space of the ‘provincia’ is significant. Further, to borrow from Aldama’s piece, we have two shots that help us comprehend the global economic links between first, Mexico and Spain (the exchange of coconut water) and secondly, the urban/Mexico City and the provincial (the present of the hat). The latter scene is an uncomfortable reversal of class roles, as Hind points out in her essay. Luisa’s interaction with Dona Martina is an extension of the motif of death that the film toys with and may be read in terms of what Aldama calls turning “psychological categories into ontological ones, such as an ostensible Mexican fixation on death and an inferiority complex as a bastard race”(3). This inferiority complex is articulated in the film by pitching a sexually experienced Spanish woman against two misguidedly confident, young Mexican men.

However, what fascinates me about the sequence is its array of aesthetic objects and how the camera navigates through them. With reference to ‘Locations’, Aldama points out how Cuarón uses “carefully chosen objects tied to a location to evoke an interface with other times and spaces… the objects Cuarón chooses to fill his locations-… create a palimpsest of time and space”. The sequence of frames from Dona Martina’s toys to the ragged picture of David’s sculpture, to the slightly obscure collage of pictures on the wall to the pictures and paintings in Luisa’s home , is precisely such a carefully selected array of objects. I am interested in how the narrative about Dona Martina’s extraordinary memory is connected with the theme of death and Luisa’s ruminations on it for obvious reasons. Is it possible to read this narrative in terms of national memory and the role that the space of the provincial plays in restoring/constructing this national memory? Considering that the toy with Luisa’s name on it was intended for the now dead Luisa Obregon, who died of a heat stroke while crossing the Arizona border with her parents, is further indication that it is meant as a prop connecting private memory with a national consciousness. This narrative is told, while the camera focuses on the pictures on the wall of Luisa’s house. Y Tu Mamá También allows us very little insight into the minds of its characters. The camera shot of the house is perhaps the only time, we get a glimpse of Luisa’s interior life. What is the generic implication of the boys looking at David’s sculpture (in a poster), especially in context of the “Pop over poetry’ declaration in their Manifesto and how might it affect our reading of the film? (a digression of course)

Lastly, as a student of comics, I find the use of window frames in the film (and this particular sequence) very telling. In an earlier shot, the boys attempt to see Luisa dressing through the window, in this particular sequence, Luisa is framed within the window of booth 2, in a frame later in the film, resembling a comic panel- we see the boys playing and Luisa breaking up her marriage through two simultaneous window frames and then the last shot of this sequence looks out at Mexico through the window of the house that Luisa has left behind.  How may we think of ‘representation’ in the film through the trope of the window? How does it bring together themes of sexual voyeurism, the insider-outside binary and the private and public in the framing of national identity?