Sunday 1 May 2011

Diaries as film source in Meek's Cutoff

Last night I finally got to see Meek's Cutoff.  I was determined to get to see it at the cinema as the descriptions of the scenery and shots in the reviews I'd read sounded stunning and I wasn't disappointed.  Every single shot looked perfectly placed and I kept thinking of paintings as I was watching it - for example the mustard and blue of Millie's clothes really brought to mind Vermeer's 'Girl with a Pearl Earring'.  The lighting was wonderful as well, the colours were muted in most of the film which emphasised the barren and dry landscape they inhabited. 

Even before reading reviews I knew I wanted to see this film, firstly because it is directed by Kelly Reichardt, the director of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, both of which I really enjoyed, although some of the scenes in Old Joy did make quite uncomfortable viewing.  On a side note there's a really good video essay on the scenery in Old Joy over at Fandor.  Also the presence of Michelle Williams is always going to interest me as she picks some very quirky and interesting films, and she is just so super stylish too! However what I wanted to focus on here was an aspect that really intrigued me - the influence of diaries written by pioneer women on the director and, Jon Raymond, the scriptwriter.  Here's an example (from SodaPictures):

"When researching MEEK'S CUTOFF we were reading a lot of diaries from the period. Of course, the women were the diary keepers and the diaries offer such a specific take on the history. It's a very different tone and point of view than what we see in the Hollywood Western... The other thing you get from the diaries is the loneliness women felt. I remember one woman writing that she was keeping a diary in case her husband should ever want to know her. On the one hand you're never really alone and have no privacy on the trail and yet you’re incredibly isolated, too. The exceptions seemed to be the friendships the women formed with each other.
You also get the sense that the diaries are the only thing besides the weather that mark the passing of time. The journey seems trance-like with each long day bleeding into the next. These are some of the things we tried to get across. The stillness, the silence and the super unforgiving and dynamic landscape."- Kelly Reichardt

From reading other reviews and interviews I realise that the diaries were inspiration rather than literal source material for the story and it just really interested me to see the amount of research that was put into the film.  I spent so long cataloguing Lindsay Anderson's diaries for whom they seemed to serve myriad purposes - discussing the progress on whatever film or play he was working on, working out ideas, venting steam at people who annoyed him, noting his always continuing battle with his waistline, what he bought at the supermarket that day, but also, sadly, they also seemed to serve as his closest confidant and friend.  In addition to sometimes feeling like an intruder reading such personal thoughts his diaries also made me quite sad at times, to think that they were the best (or only) place he felt he could confide.  Kelly's memory from one of the diaries she read, that 'one woman was keeping a diary in case her husband should ever want to know her' echoes this use of the diary as a remedy or tonic for loneliness.  It also brings up the issue of whether or not people write their diaries with the hope that others might read them.  

Which leads me on to a few really interesting diary related projects I've been reading about recently.  I heard about Her Five Year Diary thanks to Casey's Elegant Musings
and I've been enjoying reading it since.  Sara, the creator of the blog, found the diary at an estate sale and was intrigued.   The diary is from 1961 - 1965 and from reading the entries she knows the diary writer was a female teacher in a deaf school in the Seattle area.  She wrote an entry every day for 5 years so Sara is now posting each day's diary online.  I love the idea of this and I think all the mundane everyday things are as interesting as special events.  

The other diary related project is a current project running at West Yorkshire Archives Service's where they are using Local History Month to highlight all the diaries in their Archive.  On their blog they discuss the huge variety of types of diaries they hold, from the everyday lives of people in the area, for example a farming diary from Bottom Boat Farm, to the diaries of soldiers posted abroad, to diaries from peoples holiday travels.  You'll be able to see the exhibition at all the Archive centres in West Yorkshire but for those who can't make it then you can read about it on their blog, Catablogue.

I don't keep a diary myself, though I do enjoy reading other peoples, when I'm cataloguing them, or reading about other people's projects with diaries, and also in published form.  Does this mean I'm nosy - I prefer to think it just means I've picked the right profession where I can get paid to indulge my interests on other people's news!


  1. Diaries are so much fun! I do hope you consider starting your own. It adds a whole new dimension to viewing other people's writing. Thanks for visiting my blog Kathryn. I look forward to keeping up with yours. :)

  2. You're right I should start one, as from reading other people's I can see it's a good practice. A good way to reflect on the day, or wider issues that are on your mind. It's interesting to read your views of why people keep diaries, and if they write wanting, or expecting,to be read by others. It's one of those things that's so personal that, in terms of diaries we find, or that we catalogue, we'll never know for sure unless the author explicitly states one way or the other.

    I'm really enjoying all your antique shop finds - in fact it was reading them that inspired me to pop into some local antique shops on a weekend visit to Guernsey. I found a lovely pair of earrings for myself, but no diaries unfortunately!