Geoff Pevere: Even in the Quietest Moments

The best recent American movies compel you to shut up and pay attention. Close attention. If you don’t, you’ll not only miss what’s going on, you’ll miss one of the most fascinating cultural developments of the past several years: in an apparent reaction to the snap, crackle, pop and splatter of mainstream Hollywood and the post-Tarantino pre-millenial school of ironic hyperactivity, a generation has arisen that’s turned the volume down, the ambiance up, and – possibly — the direction of the American independent cinema around.

If you’re interested in testing the theory, here are some of the movies I’d suggest you close the door, watch and listen to: Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, JC Chandor’s Margin Call, Nichols’ Take Shelter and Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. All were made in America and released in 2011, all by filmmakers either early in their career or right out of the gate, and all demonstrating an assuredness in their command of the elliptical art of filmmaking that’s matched only by their confidence in our ability to sit still and concentrate on what we’re watching. There are no smart movies without smart viewers, and these movies are extending the benefit of that doubt.

Although we’re talking about films that range in subject matter from frontier settlement (Meek’s Cutoff) to creepy neo-hippie communal cultism (Martha Marcy May Marlene), and from Old Testament-style apocalyptic visions (Take Shelter) to financial sector armageddon (Margin Call) there’s a shared tone of cool, detached precision in these movies – which is best exemplified in their use of quietly moving cameras that usually hold the action in carefully composed middle distance — that only makes them that much more powerful, disturbing and hard to shake because of it. There’s also a recurring fascination in each with the fact of looking: we spend a lot of time watching people on screen watch other people on screen, and it reminds you how much action – of the most true, most common and most dramatic sort – is the kind that takes place in our heads all the time, just as we’re simply trying to sort out and give some kind of coherent shape to the riotous parade of sensory events we’re subjected to just about every moment of our lives. What these movies understand is that looking isn’t just about seeing: it’s also about understanding, interpreting, selecting and finally, acting. There’s a very good reason why that ancient saying suggests looking before leaping.

So watch the eyes in these movies: the way that Michelle Williams’ frontier woman observes so warily from a distance as the men in her tiny little westward wagon train make increasingly bad navigational decisions; the way Michael Shannon looks toward a restless sky in Take Shelter; the eyes on the young executives witnessing a ruthless corporate purge in Margin Call; and – most hauntingly, for me – the look of utter, rapt transfixion on the face of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) as she listens to the song sung and composed for her by the cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) in Martha Marcy May Marlene.

If you do watch as closely as the characters do, you’ll also know everything you need to, and this is important, because something else these movies have in common is a faith in our ability to think for ourselves.

– 30 –

Geoff Pevere‘s column appears every Friday.

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Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and popular culture for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

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