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May 05, 2023

The Taking

The Taking.jpeg

Alexandre O. Philippe - 2021
Dekanalog Films

Alexandre Philippe's most famous documentary, 78/52 is a feature length analysis of the shower scene in Psycho. By contrast, The Taking introduces several different ideas inspired by the history of Monument Valley as a film location, each of which could be explored more deeply. There is the sense that there is a much bigger film, or series of films, than what is crammed within the 76 minute running time.

Unsurprisingly, much of that time is devoted to John Ford, his use of Monument Valley as the American West mostly of his imagination, and how a small portion with its notable rock formation became a visual cliche. The cranky, evasive Ford, through clips from Peter Bogdanovich's documentary, offers no explanations. What is striking for me is the visual analysis of how Ford composes his shots. While most discussion of Ford would center on narrative elements as well as the general composition of his shots, what is brought up here is that the background of the exterior shots reveal that Ford was filming within a small radius where the same giant rock formations are visible. It is also pointed out how Ford planted cactus for My Darling Clementine, appropriate for a fictionalized Tombstone, Arizona in a fictionalized biography. Ford was confident enough to use Monument Valley to stand in for other parts of the United States, especially in Cheyenne Autumn that neither audiences nor critics would take notice.

Philippe with a couple of Native American historians point out that Ford's use of Native Americans as extras in his Westerns was not simply based on authenticity. The area had been the site of uranium mining which was the main source of income for the residence. Between the destruction of part of the land through the mining, the adverse effects on the miners, and the decimation of the sheep population, working as a film extra was one of the few ways the local Native American residence could earn some money. There are shots of the some of the homes, a hodgepodge of earthen huts and mobile homes. The normally unseen poverty stands in contrast to the austere beauty presented on film.

One of Philippe's other tangents is the idea of how some locations are mythologized in film. I am not certain if Philippe was intentionally being ironic by citing a couple films by Andrei Tarkovsky but I flashed back to the reports of the Telluride Film Festival, 1983. At that event Tarkovsky and Richard Widmark were both guests of honor. Tarkovsky has gone on record objecting to Monument Valley as a location for westerns, a combination of his sense of aesthetics of the location and his dislike of film as entertainment. Widmark's response that there was room enough for different kinds of films, mentioning his own work with John Ford.

While Philippe nicely notes the titles for every film clip, I wish he had done the same for the various contributors who are heard though not seen. The best known of the historians and critics is Sir Christopher Frayling who compares the openness and sense of permanence of Monument Valley with the destruction and limited sense of space in post-war London. While one could easily expand on all the other filmmakers who used Monument Valley, what might be of more significance would be a documentary on the history of the area both before and after it became an official reservation, its time as a mining community, and the use of the local population as employed by film studios.

Following its festival run, The Taking will begin limited theatrical screenings.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 5, 2023 07:14 AM