Tuesday, 1 February 2011

VHS Quest #1. Clearcut (Ryszard Bugajski, 1991)

Graham Greene stars in Clearcut (1991).

Imagine if Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972) were an existential revisionist Western; a modern-day exploration of territory and the native man - his ruthlessness and spirituality in a fight against capitalism. Starting as a political drama it soon transforms itself into a hostage thriller, finally ending up as a mystical, allegorical revenge piece pitting a naïve lawyer (Ron Lea) against an arrogant radicalist who may or may not exist. Got that? Nope, me neither.

Clearcut begins with a distorted wind playing over the top of a gentle, atmospheric score (Shane Harvey). A shot trails underwater, eventually surfacing and looking up to the sky, taking in the view of a plane flying overhead. We're not shown, but the man emerging from the water is likely Arthur (Graham Greene), although he's just as likely to have been conjured by a dark ritual - a sweat lodge ceremony that leads to savage, disturbing hallucinations of a dark, blue-tinted desert-land; as blood oozes from the ground the camera pans around a crouched man with an orange glow. He looks into the camera revealing himself to be Arthur - the mysterious native extremist who makes himself known to Peter (Lea) in the next shot. Back to the opening scene, the plane flies over a forest, the aerial camera taking in the sight of woodland destruction. "Looks like the moon on a bad day" Peter notes. "Looks like money to me" his pilot responds, and this is the view director Bugajski instills into the white man throughout the film; presenting him as a violent thug with a mask of authority, or a coarse businessman who veils greed with goodwill. These lines are not definitely drawn, however - at first Peter and the Indians are sympathetic, but Arthur warps our view and as Peter becomes more desperately violent and moral-issuing our allegiances begin to shift to the tortured mill manager Bud Rickets (Michael Hogan), whose sentiment for the family unit gathers weight as he is put under extraordinary strain.

There has been a recent movement of dark, moody art films that take place on treacherous journeys through forests, jungles and deserts - Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009), Deep In The Woods (Benoît Jacquot, 2010) and Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010) among them, each descending into mystery and violence. Clearcut prefigures all of them, presenting an equally stark, oblique landscape - a place of lawlessness and isolation - where vengeance takes the form of a malevolent spirit, a teacher and warrior who represents the heart of his people. Perhaps. He may just be the pawn in a game played by Wilf (Floyd 'Red Crow' Westerman), the mild-mannered and long-suffering chief who seeks to teach the white man, bring peace and prosper the native folk. He, like Arthur, is able to shift through time and appear in two places at once, so he randomly appears to dispense advice to Peter, who it seems must defeat (kill) Arthur in order to understand his place in a fight with more angles than his optimistically narrow mind allows him to see. As Arthur, Peter and Bud go further into the landscape things grow ever more violent - the skinning of a leg, cold-blooded murder of two police officers and terrifying (but superbly shot) ritual which ends in the chopping of a finger.

In the end Arthur retreats back into the water, and Wilf takes Peter and Bud back to safe land. With all its politics, mystical allegory, ritual violence and genre-swapping flair Clearcut is a dark, violent mystery that is as intelligent as it is unique. Having never heard of the film before (it seems to never have been released on DVD, and the VHS is widely unavailable) I didn't know what to expect, but I'm left with far too many questions than I know how to answer here. The performances are terrific, the photography stunning even on video and there is a genuine sense of the supernatural. I'll have to re-watch the film before I settle on this closing statement but for all its flaws I feel as though I've discovered a forgotten masterpiece - the meeting point between Deliverance and Meek's Cutoff, it's a vital genre entry (if it has any genre at all) that asks questions and presents scenarios that many films dare not touch. Unique, bold and captivating, I accept the problems with this film, but remain positively awe-struck.

No comments:

Post a comment