Thursday, May 04, 2023

The Taking: Monument Valley and What it Represents

Far more westerns were shot on-location in Bronson Canyon, but those that were made in Monument Valley are among the absolute best of the genre. Unfortunately, to some culture warriors, their status as westerns amounts to an original sin. After documenting the horror genre in previous films (78/52, Memory: The Origin of Alien, Leap of Faith), director Alexandre O. Philippe turns his attention to westerns and the power of landscape in The Taking, which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

Monument Valley is absolutely not in Texas, but John Ford shot
The Searchers there anyway. The resulting film remains un-cancel-ably iconic. It and the other six films Ford shot amid the famous Colorado Plateau landscape supply the most memorable images of Philippe’s film. Many critics take issue with the geographic liberties Ford and other filmmakers took. Yet, Bronson Canyon is not in Texas either, but none of the commentators complain about the scenes from The Searchers that were filmed there.

Without question,
The Searchers is the film Taking is most concerned with. It is universally recognized as a classic, yet widely misunderstood. In many ways, it is a blistering indictment of white settler prejudice against the native tribes, but those who have never seen it, often assume quite the opposite. Frustratingly, little of the analysis in Taking addresses this misunderstanding.

Monument Valley is indeed on Navajo Nation land, which
Taking repeatedly emphasizes. However, it ignores the good will Ford and John Wayne earned with the Navajo community. (Reportedly, Wayne halted production of The Searchers for a few days, just so Beulah Archuletta could attend her son’s wedding.)

That leads into the film’s critical shortcoming, which is the lack of differing opinions.
Taking really could have used some input from a sympathetic John Ford or John Wayne biographer. Instead, all of Philippe’s commentators basically have the same viewpoint. Since they are never seen on-camera, it is almost like hearing the same, uninterrupted voice, repeating the same opinions.

Frankly, that uniformity of perspective becomes rather boring. As a point of contrast, one of the reasons why Mark Hartley’s
Not Quite Hollywood is so lively is due to the presence of dissenting critics who argued Australian exploitation films were really just a pile of rubbish.

The lack of point and counterpoint means there is no synthesis. As a result, it is unclear what viewers are supposed to “take away” from the film, so to speak, except that Monument Valley is not in Texas, but rather on land re-entrusted to the Navajo Nation, who always got a bad deal from the Federal government. To his credit, Philippe is not looking to cancel any of the films under discussion, but the supplemental context adds little to the viewing experience of these classic westerns.

There is something hypnotic about the Monument Valley rock formations turning up in film after film. Someone could probably shape an interesting narrative out of a Chuck Workman-esque super-cut of film scenes with the monuments in the background. Unfortunately, the cultural commentary is one-sided and rather shallow. There are some legitimate points raised, but the film becomes an echo chamber—alas, this shortcoming is far from unique to
Taking. As a result, The Taking is not recommended when it opens tomorrow (5/5) at the Lumiere Music Hall in Beverly Hills.