The Rider (2017)

Written and Directed by: Chloe Zhao


251038R1-1What constitutes a modern western? One answer is that it’s a film that involves a hero who rides into town, miraculously solves a problem and swoops out, but is not set in the old west. That’s one answer. But Chloe Zhao’s The Rider get’s at what’s perhaps truly most striking about Westerns: not their structures, but their blatant content: wide open plains, with cowboys and horses bursting through them.


The Rider’s protagonist, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) is an avid rodeo participant and horse trainer. He has recently suffered a major head injury: an injury that seemingly means he will never rodeo again. Temporarily unable to do his job Brady is left to find work at a grocery store and wilt under the judgmental gaze of his father (Tim Jandreau). The film follows his recovery, and the dreams and responsibilities he takes on along the way. It is a simple story, one that works within the confines of realism. It has a plot arc, but barely.


The Rider thus tells us what it means to be a real life, modern cowboy. It does not make the cowboy a metaphor for some “realistic” kind of adventurism, and heroism. Rather, it depicts a person with real cowboy dreams in his struggle to live those dreams within the trenches of reality. One way it does this is through depicting Brady’s affectionate relationships with his horses. The camera zooms in on them, and we the see the expression in their eyes. This in turn leads to another of the film’s themes: the relationship between man and horse. Horses can ultimately be treated as a commodity: they can, for instance, be sold when one’s family is in trouble.


Brady appears to differ from his father in that he cares for the individual horses. In Brady’s eyes, his father’s lack of care for the horses is inseparable from his lack of care for his son. The complex truth that the film exposes, however, is that this is not the case. Brady’s father’s love for him is never in doubt, even as he makes it frustratingly difficult for Brady to see tgat.


This different viewpoint on the equality of horse and man becomes important later in the film. Brady argues that both horse and rider have a purpose: and when a rider cannot ride, he has lost this purpose. This in turn raises another theme: the idea of purposelessness, of giving up. When a character falls to these depths, it can make for a gripping narrative element, but it can also feel forced. Life has much to offer and even in states of great pain and misery, people can find new ways to live it. Zhao’s decision to have Brady simply ponder giving up is thus cleverly nuanced. She successfully shows an overwhelming, personal, psychological drama, while acknowledging that such dramas need not become all-consuming or define a person’s life.


The Rider is based on a true story: Zhao says it straddles the line between documentary and fiction. Brady Jandreau is a real life, incapacitated former rodeo star. I discovered this while watching the film’s credits. In some ways it was a frustrating discovery. Could the film have the thematic depth I thought it did if it simply portrayed real life (granted, Brady Blackburn is not an exact recreation of Jandreau)? Perhaps you too will be struck by this feeling, but remember it is not necessary. Just because The Rider is based in truth does not take away the fact that it is a narrative: a narrative an author could have built from scratch. Furthermore, its basis in reality reinforces its educational character.


The Rider is a work that, unless your grew up with Lakota Rodeo culture, will show you a world you don’t know. It is sad, but not insurmountably so. It is simple, but engaging and therefore a work many should find enjoyable


Faces Places (2017)

Written by: Agnes Varda, Directed by: Varda and JR

Visages,_Villages      It’s not hard to find a good documentary film. There are plenty of subjects worth learning about in two hour sequences of moving, colored images. Great documentaries, however, blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction. In some cases, producing a documentary like this requires a huge historical coincidence. That was the case with Joshua Oppenheimer’s, The Act of Killing, which explored the eagerness of people who had committed horrid acts of political murder in Indonesia to explore their acts through participation in gangster films.

In other (lighter), cases, however, quasi-fictional documentaries requires the spark of their director’s. Yes, for instance, told the story of a Québecois-Separatist-artist’s journey to immerse himself in the Scottish independence movement. This year saw the release of a similarly inspired documentary: Agnes Varda’s Faces Places.

Faces Places features Varda following JR, a young photographer who prints out giant photographs of his subjects and prints them on public buildings. Varda explains her investment in the project by noting her desire to get to know more people. Each of the film’s subjects is brought to attention for very different reasons: some speak to a history of working class suffering, others ask us to reconsider the dominant farmer-farm-animal relationship, while others are simply locals offered the chance to gnaw on a baguette.

I began to doubt the film’s potential about a third of the way in. While Varda and JR were certainly finding original subjects to portray, I found the art that the film focused on to be getting a bit repetitive. Furthermore, I questioned the approach of always decorating walls with giant cut outs of people. If this film was truly a celebration of faces and places, wouldn’t it be a better idea to make some smaller cut outs, so as not to obscure buildings in their entirety, and so as not to deny the chance of other people involved in the history of a site to be represented?

My fears were soon assuaged, however. While I may maintain some artistic differences with JR, those differences became increasingly irrelevant as the film came to be about Varda and JR, not so much their art. For instance, one of the subjects that Varda proposes JR document is someone she photographed in her past, not necessarily a person with an area defining story. The film also shows us their conversations along the way. We see Varda’s ambivalent relationship to her age (approximately 88 at the time of the filming). On the one hand, as in previous works, she exposes her aging on film via depictions of medical procedures performed on her eyes. On the other hand, she is insistent on maintaining her youth, through example, through her bright orange hair and by contrasting herself with JR’s 100-year old grandmother. JR’s personality, meanwhile, remains more mysterious. Varda, however, regularly questions his reserved tone, particularly his decision to always wear sunglasses.

Faces Places, in short is a little bit political, a little bit educational, and a little bit of an homage to film history. More than anything else, however, its a buddy comedy like none you’ve probably ever seen. While its premise may prove a hard sell, those who do choose to see it will find that it is an easy work to love and perhaps one of the most creative cinematic concepts of the year.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World (2017)

imagesDirected by: Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maioran 

Perhaps you’ve heard the narrative that rock and roll music was born when a teenage truck driver by the name of Elvis Presley did an upbeat cover of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mamma.” Perhaps you’ve also heard the criticism that this story erases the degree to which rock and roll was a black invention developed by figures like Crudup, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. The seeming ambition of Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, is to look at where another of America’s defining racial groups fits into this story. It is unsurprising, therefore, that this documentary opens in the 50s. We see black and white footage, a dance hall, side burns, and Link Wray, the Shawnee rockabilly who wrote the film’s titular song.

After telling some of Wray’s story, the film goes on to explore the likes of other indigenous musicians from the 20th century: we hear the rhythmic blues guitar of Charlie Patton, the drums of Randy Castillo, the jazz vocals of Mildred Bailey and the rhymes of Taboo. The films biggest success, can thus be said to be the scope of who it covers. The film spans decades and genres and in doing so makes visible numerous indigenous icons in American musical history. This itself is a feat worth commending: representing members of marginalized groups in popular media is one way of making that media become even more inclusive in the future.

On the other hand, the film is plagued by serious narrative and pacing problems. Part of this stems from the fact a number of the featured artists were instrumentalists. As compelling an artistic choice it was for the film to open with Wray, an indigenous Elvis-figure of sorts, there are only so many interviewers one can hear about the sound of his power chords before losing interest. While Wray had a lengthy career as a vocalist and lyricist as well as a guitar player, the film made the odd decision to reduce his legacy to one, albeit iconic, instrumental track. Similarly, Randy Castillo and Jesse Ed Davis come across as having interesting, and tragic stories, yet their segments are underwhelming to the film’s over focus on snippets of their instrumental work. I say this, I must emphasize, not as a non-connoisseur of music, but out of the realization that music is a language of its own that can’t always be readily described with words. Davis’ solo in “Dr. My Eyes,” is indeed phenomenal, but even hearing the reliably cool and articulate Jackson Browne talk about it, does not make for good entertainment.

The strongest moment of the film comes when it discusses artists from the 60s: Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Peter La Farge (and by extension Johnny Cash). These artists were not simply indigenous musicians who produced hypnotic sounds, but radical lyricists and storytellers. Their presence in the film therefore is more dynamic than that of their peers. Not only can Sainte-Marie and La Farge be celebrated for being representation of indigenous peoples, but also as ambassadors of indigenous causes: singers whose lyrics terrified American authorities with their calls for a just, decolonized world.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World is replete with interesting information and has the potential to intrigue popular music fanatics. Unfortunately, it is still a bit lacking as an artistic work. Perhaps the presence of a narrator, unifying the film’s many figures could have made it more engaging. Alternatively, the film could have covered fewer artists but with better depth. Regardless of its shortcomings, Rumble’s release is still a cause for celebration: a reminder to fire up the old turn table and give tracks like “The Weight,” “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” and “Rumble,” a spin.