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The Shortlist: 8 Journey Films

Mike Ewins takes us on a journey through journey films in this week’s shortlist.

This Shortlist is about films which present characters journeying into the dark realms of the unknown, whether it be in the jungle, desert or alien territories. They are films which see the landscape as a stark and hostile place; grounds for sex and violence and existential discovery. They are primal films of beauty and danger, and together take the viewer to places that are otherwise unimaginable. Hopefully upon reading this list you will want to embark upon these journeys and discover something for yourself…

8.) Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont, 2003) [main picture]
A problematic one to begin with and a film I’m not particularly fond of. So why include it? Well, because it pretty much defines what this Shortlist is about. The first 90 minutes sees a couple named David (David Wissak) and Katia (Yekaterina Golubeva) traversing the Southern California desert looking for a place to hold a photoshoot. The film is largely made up of silent static shots which observe the characters getting lost in the wilderness. They drive, they fight and they make desperately intense love, leaving themselves as bare as the landscape. They are hollow people filled with intense sadness, seeking salvation in the sands of time. It’s a torturously slow film which ends on a bizarre note of self-mutilation and savage violence, recalling the denouement of Catherine Breillat’s À ma soeur! (2001) in its base shock-value. A deeply troubling work, it divides audiences 50/50 so you should probably check it out.

7.) Gerry (Gus Van Sant, 2002)

The first part of Gus Van Sant’s ‘Death Trilogy’ which concluded with Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005), Gerry is another divisive and infuriatingly slow work about two friends (Casey Affleck and Matt Damon) who are hiking through the desert with no food or water. I think it’s a spectacular work which actually cares about landscape and contains some truly beautiful images courtesy of DoP Harris Savides. The most interesting thing about the film is the fact that the more the friends try to help each other the more lost and hopeless they become; their best efforts are their biggest mistake. It seems that they are on this journey for a reason that is beyond understanding. It’s a film about the insignificance of human life and the elegiac score by Arvo Pärt is a hymn to the desert which engulfs them. I hesitate to call it a masterpiece but I do find it pretty much flawless.

6.) Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)

Werner Herzog is one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today but back in the early 1970s, along with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, he kick-started something of a revolution in contemporary German cinema. Aguirre, Wrath Of God is one of his many masterpieces and a film concerned with the existential plight of man vs. nature. Set in the 16th Century, we follow the insane Spanish soldier Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as he leads a group of conquistadores down the Amazon River in search of the legendary El Dorado. Herzog’s films are deeply metaphysical in nature and search for the ecstatic truth within our hopeless existence. Along with Fitzcarraldo (1982) this is his strongest work about a man in search of the impossible; the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object, if you will. It’s a beautiful work and a decidedly odd journey; uncompromised and ethereal. If you haven’t seen it, what are you doing with your life?

5.) The King Is Alive (Kristian Levring, 2000)

The desert is an existential stage in this exhilarating drama, the fourth entry into the infamous Dogme-95 series. The film makes fascinating use of its environment – a desolate and deserted shantytown in the middle of the Namibian desert, inhabited only by a narrator named Kanana (Peter Kubheka) who may or may not exist. This is a place with no food or water and little hope. The group stranded there are tourists and have little knowledge of each other, and even less tolerance and dignity. It seems fitting then that within this great tragedy one character, the mysteriously grizzled Henry (David Bradley), decides to stage a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The probing handheld camerawork and grainy cinematography combine for a truly isolated experience, lending the aesthetic an oddly spiritual presence – as if this is all being observed by an omnipresent outsider. I don’t think it’s God though. I think this is a Godless land…

4.) Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)

The Zone. A metaphysical landscape which may or may not hold the potential to realize a persons deepest desires. It’s an alien place on the outskirts of an unnamed city, shot with Tarkovsky’s sepia-inflected eye; the environment is rusting, corroded by memory and war – there is a transcendental mist that obscures this city of god (my interpretation). Into this landscape wanders a Stalker (Aleksandr Kajdanovsky) – one who can guide people through The Zone. The film is about his journey with Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and Professor (Nikolai Grinko) as they search for a truth beyond this world. It’s a slow-burning excursion and not necessarily one with any answers. It’s a cerebral film which asks the audience to paint their own feelings an emotions onto the environment. It’s a difficult but ultimately rewarding viewing and a year after my first watch I’m still contemplating the possibilities of The Zone. Essential.

3.) La vallée (The Valley) (Barbet Schroeder, 1972)

Every review for La vallée must surely start in the same way, with the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s ‘Burning Bridges’…

Ancient bonds are breaking,
Moving on and changing sides.
Dreaming of a new day,
Cast aside the other way.
Magic visions are stirring,
Kindled by and burning flames rise in her eyes
.

That’s from their 1972 album ‘Obscured By Clouds’, which was formed from the score they provided to this gorgeously unsettling spiritual voyage through the jungles of New Guinea, shot by master DoP Néstor Almendros. Viviane (Bulle Ogier) is the wife of a French Consul visiting the lush region in search of rare exotic feathers to trade back home in Paris. She falls in with a group of hippie-like travellers seeking paradise in la vallée – a place in the mountainous regions from which nobody has returned; its enrapturing beauty puts them in touch with God. It’s a deeply absorbing piece of cinema, equally ethereal and dangerous, and a journey well worth taking.

2.) Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971)

One of the great works of 70s British cinema, Walkabout is also a chilling coming-of-age tale set against the harsh backdrop of the Australian outback. They are taken on a picnic by their father who suddenly, in a moment of savage violence, shoots at his children, sets fire to his car and then kills himself. The children are left alone; stranded. They wander into the unknown territory under sweltering sun, slowly adapting to the landscape. They soon discover that the outback is a dark place filled with dangers they have never experienced before. They soon meet a young Aborigine man on ‘walkabout’, and they treat him as a friend. But perhaps, in the middle of The Girl’s (Jenny Agutter) sexual awakening, he poses the biggest threat of all. Beautifully shot and directed Walkabout is an intense work of art and a masterpiece of isolated fear.

1.) Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

Released into UK arthouse cinemas yesterday, Meek’s Cutoff is best described as a feminist mumblecore Western, and certainly falls into the revisionist category of that genre. It reminds me of the writing of Paul Bowles, especially his 1950 short ‘The Delicate Prey’, which for me is the definitive work of Western literature. Meek’s Cutoff picks up in 1845 with a group of settlers travelling through the vast Oregon desert – specifically the Cascade Mountains. Where they have come from and where they are going is unknown, but they are being led by the mysterious rambler Meek (Bruce Greenwood; terrific). As they become ever more lost tensions reach boiling point, and matters aren’t helped by the capture of a Cayuse man (Rod Rondeaux). Recalling Malick in its minimalist approach to character and landscape, this is a beautiful slow-burner with probably the best ending to a film I’ve seen in years. Truly a modern masterpiece.

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