Last night, after a few minutes into “The Destiny of Lesser Animals”, a movie showing at the always bountiful New Directors/New Films Festival at Lincoln Center on Friday and Saturday night, I had a sense of déjà vu. This movie, written by and starring a Ghanaian and directed by an American, tells the story of a cop named Boniface Koomsin (Yao B. Nunoo, the screenwriter) whose false passport is stolen by a motorcyclist in the opening moments of the film. Needing access to the police department’s database in order to find out the identity of the thief whose license number he wrote down, he claims that his gun has been stolen—something that routinely gets high priority in the Ghana police department and those everywhere else in the world.
That rang a bell. Wasn’t that the plot of Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog“ with a very young Toshiro Mifune playing a cop whose revolver had been stolen? I was also struck by the director’s obviously affectionate view of the Accra bazaar with its street vendors hawking their wares: “I have your Adidas here!” There is a scene like this in “Stray Dog” that gives the audience a bird’s eye view of a shabby but vibrant Japan in the immediate postwar period, a society that faced the same kinds of ills that post-colonial societies in Africa are now facing.
My suspicions were confirmed after doing some research on the net after this fascinating film ended. The press notes state:
[Director Deron] Albright and Nunoo first met in late 2004, when Albright was casting his short, “The Legend of Black Tom.” The two found themselves enjoying their work together enough to begin looking for opportunities to collaborate in the future. Two years later, Nunoo was developing a ‘policier’ script set in Philadelphia. But when Albright returned from screening “Black Tom” at FESPACO, and pitched to Nunoo the idea of shooting in West Africa, the script and the project sprang to life. Soon after, the two formed Bright Noon Pictures, and set forth to realize their dream of making the film in Ghana. But not just any film. First, it had to be a film for people who loved films. Nunoo’s inspiration for the script was Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (Nora inu), and for Albright, the vision was to wrap the genre pleasures of the policier with the humanity of Neorealism and the best of the West African cinematic tradition.
Well, “a film for people who love films” certainly describes me.
Even more so than Kurosawa’s classic, “The Destiny of Lesser Animals” delves into the motivations of its main character. The cop in “Stray Dog” is pent-up, visceral, and impulsive—just the sort of character that Toshiro Mifune was born to play. By contrast, Boniface Koomsin is reflective to the point of indecision, trying to decide in Hamlet fashion whether to be or not to be—a Ghanaian. The whole point of the fake passport was to get him to America, where he dreams of “making it” in a country that is not burdened by petty crime, corruption, greed, and all the other problems that drive people into emigration, legal or illegal.
This leads to some poignant scenes involving Boniface and a more experienced and senior cop named Oscar Darko (Fred Amugi) who becomes a father figure to him, mirroring the relationship between Mifune and Sato (Takashi Shimura), the senior detective who counsels him.
Their discussions revolve around Boniface’s desire to emigrate, an act that Oscar considers disloyal to the country. Oscar remains committed to Nkrumah’s vision of the country even though corruption and poor governance have taken their toll.
“The Destiny of Lesser Animals” succeeds much more as a human drama rather than an action-driven policier. One hopes that after the two-night run at Lincoln Center, it will receive a wider distribution. With the death of Ousmane Sembene, Africa has been deprived of one of its leading cinematic geniuses. The team that made “The Destiny of Lesser Animals” is made up of younger talents who show great promise. Their efforts should be rewarded by acceptance among the people described in the film notes as those “who love film”.
When I learned that Kelly Reichardt had made a Western about a wagon train in Oregon in 1845 relying on the help of an Indian, I had high expectations. Her earlier films, also set in Oregon, were penetrating character studies about contemporary life. “Old Joy” was about two men bonding in a hot tub in a forest retreat with homoerotic overtones, but more generally about the regrets of unfulfilled dreams. “Wendy and Lucy“ was about the struggle of a homeless woman to keep hold of the thing that she loved above all, her pet dog.
Unfortunately, “Meek’s Cutoff” is a complete disaster, a pretentious, boring, and insufferably “arty” work that gives independent film a bad name. I suppose that when I learned beforehand that Paul Dano was part of the cast, I should have avoided it. For my money, Dano is the worst actor in Hollywood since William Shatner who at least had the saving grace of not taking himself too seriously. Dano, like Reichardt, thinks he is involved with making a Big Statement. It is enough to drive one to spend a full day watching Adam Sandler movies.
The Meek referred to in the title is Stephen Meek, a character in a ridiculous looking buckskin fringe outfit who has been asked to lead a small wagon train into Oregon along the famous Oregon Trail. Unlike Daniel Boone or any other legendary mountain man, Meek could not find his way out of Grand Central Station even if you drew a path in red paint along the floor for him.
The net result is that the pioneers are stuck on a vast and arid plain that shows no signs of yielding into a green and fertile destination for homesteading. At the beginning of the film, Paul Dano is shown carving the word “Lost” into a board just so you get the idea.
For around 1/3 of the movie, there is absolutely nothing going on except the group of 7 settlers and Meek plowing ahead in futility. Reichardt has put a lot of effort into recreating how such people really lived and one of the more dramatic moments involves the women making breakfast. They grind coffee by hand, for example. I don’t know. If this is your kind of thing, I suggest a visit to one of those museum villages where you can see blacksmiths working on horseshoes, etc. In any case, Reichardt would have been better served if she had spent more effort on character and plot development than authenticity.
All in all, the movie reminds me more of Gus Van Sant’s monumentally boring “Gerry” that starred Matt Damon and Casey Affleck as two guys, both named Gerry, that get lost in the desert. Fifteen minutes of this movie is enough to drive one to drink a bottle of absinthe.
The worst part of “Meek’s Cutoff” is the Indian character that is first seen lurking near the camp. After Meek pursues him and brings him back to camp bound by rope, a debate takes place whether to kill him on the spot or use him as a guide to finding water and a way out of the wasteland, sort of like Lewis and Clark using the Blackfoot woman Sacagawea.
The film notes make a huge to-do about the efforts to recreate the past. Production Designer David Doernberg stated:
We went to the Oregon Historical Society, which was a great resource. There were exhibits and pictures of the rugged travelers and Meek himself. But the most interesting part of my research was contacting the individuals out there that are devoted to preserving our past. For a scene where Emily Tetherow grinds her morning coffee I needed the right grinder.
The one thing that the production company did not research is how American Indians lived. The Indian they capture is described as being a lone wanderer. If you have spent more than an hour reading about American Indians, you will understand that Indians always did things together. The idea that a member of a tribe would go unaccounted for like this is not just improbable, it is an insult to both the audience’s intelligence and a sign of Reichardt’s indifference to the Other she so piously invokes.
The press notes see the film as an allegory of today’s conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan:
The clash of cultures in the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan is felt in the friction between the emigrents [sic], Meek and the Indian. The arguments over the necessity of violence to obtain information from a prisoner, the lingering doubts over an elected leader, and the basic question of whether to “stay the course” are topics in the film that have also been prevalent in the national conversation of the past decade.
My suggestion to Reichardt is the next time she wants to make a movie that has such ambitions she should hire a consultant that actually knows something about American history. As it turns out, she is a film professor at Bard College. I can’t say I am completely surprised by her fecklessness. I imagine that if she really had something important to say about colonialism and war, she probably wouldn’t be teaching there.