My husband’s been diligently watching the now defunct HBO series, Carnivàle, for several months now, and while initially a bit skeptical I’ve gradually grown fond of the show.
The series (which lasted a mere two seasons) traces two parallel stories: one about a traveling troupe of carnival workers (the most prominently featured include a tarot reader played by Clea Duvall, a worker with mystical healing powers played by Nick Stahl, and a cootch dancer played by Carla Gallo) and an evangelical minister named Brother Justin (Clancy Brown). Over the course of the series, these seemingly disparate story lines converge. We learn that Ben must confront the minister who, despite his popular image as a pious preacher, contains a deep-ceded evil (see promos for both seasons below).
I am late in coming to the Carnivàle bandwagon. I remember that while in grad school, I attended a panel at the first-ever Flow Conference featuring two organizers from the Save Carnivàle movement. These passionate fans petitioned against HBO’s decision in 2005 to cancel the show and continue to do so. Six years later, I’m beginning to understand their point.
But part of the reason I am enjoying the show has to do with its relevance to the current recessionary economy. The touring members of Carnivàle struggle to persist in an America hobbled by the Great Depression. Their impoverished audiences take in these amusements to distract themselves from the destitution of the everyday. Meanwhile, Brother Justin’s followers suffer from the same need for diversion, seeking a divine explanation for their troubles. In the series’ last episode, when the co-manager of Carnivàle, Samson (Michael J Anderson), and Brother Justin meet, Samson points out the similarities between what they do: both are performers stirring their despairing audience’s emotions, though to different ends and in different ways.
But while Carnivàle must move from city-to-city as a slow-moving caravan, the minister harnesses the power of radio to disseminate his populist message. Brother Justin’s fiery sermons combine theology and politics to tap into the fears of the era. Here’s a clip featuring one of these speeches:
The scene highlights the importance of mass media in summoning followers to Brother Justin’s ministry. In other words, Brother Justin’s power results from the technological innovations of modernity and, in effect, the series critiques modernity itself by imbuing these technologies with an evil power.
The famous historical figure, Catholic priest Father Coughlin, similarly utilized mass media to draw followers to his controversial message. This newsreel describes Coughlin’s impact on the national discourse:
Right now, we’re living in an age of so many Father Coughlins that I don’t even feel it’s necessary to name the television network and its particular personalities that emulate his approach. Needless to say, the conservative pundits of today paint Barack Obama with the same brush that Coughlin and Brother Justin use to tar FDR.
I cannot help but wonder, then, if Carnivàle would have resonated more had it been released about a half a decade later in the midst of the Great Recession. As with Brother Justin, today’s religious zealots assert that the Apocalypse is upon us (tonight at 6:00 PM, to be exact). In a recent New York Times article about this prediction, Courtney Campbell, an Oregon State University professor of religion and culture, remarks “Ultimately we’re looking for some authoritative answers in an era of great social, political, economic, as well as natural, upheaval.” Carnivàle presents a similar historic moment and a shaken populace looking for the same sorts of answers. Sadly, the show arrived too soon, but we can still appropriate it to reflect upon today’s uncertainties.
I saw Meek’s Cutoff a few weeks ago with my buddy, Tara, and the film far exceeded my expectations. While many critics praised the film, several reviews included caveats about slow pacing and failed potential given the brilliance of director Kelly Reichardt’s previous efforts, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. Such undercutting comments calibrated my expectations sufficiently that I found the film neither dull nor deficient in comparison to the director’s previous works.
But another factor, I believe, enhanced my appreciation of the film. At the time of the screening, I had worked through most of Livability: Short Stories by the film’s screenwriter, Jon Raymond. In the past month or so, Jon Raymond’s name continually popped up in the arts section of The Oregonian. Raymond resides in Portland, Oregon, and locals love stories about the successes of their own. Those recent successes include Raymond’s collaboration with Reichardt on Meek’s Cutoff (Reichardt’s previous films resulted from adaptations of Raymond’s stories in Livability) as well as his work with another Portland filmmaker, Todd Haynes, on the teleplay for the Mildred Pierce miniseries that recently aired on HBO. The press on Raymond often mentioned the award-winning Livability, inspiring me to check out a copy from the Multnomah County Library.
Now, I’ll have to admit, reading the book was a classic act of Portlander narcissism: I wanted to see my city interpreted artistically. There’s always something thrilling about that moment of recognition–I know that place; I’ve been there. I was particularly pleased that “Train Choir” (the story upon which Wendy and Lucy is based) took place in North Portland where I went to school for four years. That sound of train whistles that haunts the story’s protagonist also resonated through my dorm room. The Walgreen’s in the story is blocks from the first house I rented, and the lampshade store on Lombard is an oddity I always noticed. This story, as with every piece in Livability, is as much about Portland’s landscape as the characters that occupy it.
But Raymond’s descriptions of Portland always undercut the romanticism that many residents (myself included) feel about this place. In one of my favorite stories, “Benny,” Raymond addresses how gentrification has transformed many of the city’s neighborhoods. A fantastic series of recent articles in The Oregonian demonstrates that in the past ten years (since about the time I first moved here) Portland’s inner city has become dramatically whiter and more affluent even as the larger metro area grows more diverse. I was reminded of this trend while reading “Young Bodies,” a story about a teenage child of Russian immigrants who commutes from her family’s home at the outer edges of the city to work in the mall adjacent to my central neighborhood (yes, I’m certainly implicated in this trend). While conservatives might chalk such trends up to the invisible hand of the market, The Oregonian articles show that government policies benefit some to the detriment of others, and Portland failed to gear those policies toward the communities of color long established in these urban neighborhoods targeted for development.
With all of this in the back of my mind, I watched Meek’s Cutoff with great fascination. The film follows a group of pioneers trekking along the Oregon Trail in 1854. Led by guide Stephen Meek the party gets lost in the desert with a limited supply of water. In the midst of their distress, they come across an Indian (I use this problmeatic term here intentionally) and capture him. Meek argues that killing him would be the safest course of action while the rest of the men in the party debate the merits of this plan. They decide to keep the Indian alive in hopes that he might guide them toward a source of water. One of the pioneer women clearly at odds with Meek, Emily (played brilliantly by Michelle Williams), goes so far as to threaten the guide with a shotgun to prevent him from killing the Indian (see poster below). The Indian’s intentions, however, are difficult to decipher, and to describe exactly how these dynamics play out would be to undercut the power of the film’s conclusion.
What struck me as I watched Meek’s Cutoff was the ways in which the themes of Livability recurred in the narrative. As with “Train Choir” and “Benny,” the setting plays as much of a role in the story as the characters. The dry, remote landscape, gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Chris Blauvelt, feels at once vast and enclosed, like it could go on forever and is hence inescapable. Tara pointed out that the camera angles often create a claustrophobic affect. The viewer, like the settlers, feels an anxiety about what might be over the next hill.
Also as in Raymond’s stories, the story vividly depicts the mundane activities of daily life. Scenes detail the labor involved in pioneer living, such as washing laundry, mending clothing, cooking, and knitting. These scenes show that pioneer women in particular played an important function in the labor of immigration, despite their subservient role in decision making processes. The camera places us in a similarly disempowered position, filming the conferences of the men from a distance and muffling their dialog accordingly. Critics point to such scenes as evidence of the film’s feminist intentions.
But the film also operates as post-colonial allegory with the pioneers not so unlike the urban gentrifiers of Raymond’s more contemporary stories. Their presence signals the transformation of the landscape that decimated and displaced tribes across the West. It would be a false equivocation to say that this is the same is the current patterns of gentrification (it’s clearly not), but gentrification and colonization both involve a dominant group claiming a space as their own to the detriment of previous occupants. In this respect, Meek’s Cutoff aligns nicely with Livability and it’s depictions of the evolution of Portland. The current whitening of the city center may not be history repeating, but most definitely it’s rhyming.