Surviving the Frontier in The Revenant by Michael Punke

Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Hugh Glass in the upcoming film adaptation
Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Hugh Glass in the upcoming film adaptation

Michael Punke’s 2002 novel The Revenant is subtitled “A Novel of Revenge,” which hints at a major motivating factor for the protagonist, Hugh Glass, but belies a greater, more pressing motivator: survival.

Early in the novel—set in 1833—while going upriver with an exploratory party, Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear. The attack leaves him disfigured, disabled, and utterly susceptible to the harshness of the frontier. The severity of his wounds leaves Glass unable to continue with the party. While the rest of the group carries on, he is left to the care of two fellow expedition members named Bridger and Fitzgerald. Their purpose is to oversee his looming death, give him a proper burial, and rendezvous with the expedition as quickly as possible. When Fitzgerald spots a band of Natives coming close to their encampment, he decides that Glass’s dignity isn’t worth dying for, and after coercing Bridger to follow suit, begins to rob Glass of his knife, his rifle, and his possibles bag before running in the opposite direction of the native on-comers.

This act of betrayal sets the narrative in motion and provides for the dramatic through line of Glass’s journey: every step (or lumbering crawl) that he takes is one step closer to finding his betrayers and enacting revenge upon them. Early on he uses this hatred as fuel to continue when it looks like food and health will be out of his grasp, but as his journey progresses, the story takes a more somber, contemplative tone. The early, mythic, all-encompassing revenge gives way to a revenge mired in the practicality of merely surviving (and later, the practicality of civilization). And it is that self-reflective, solitary, practical mode—the stark passages of Glass at odds with man, beast, and the wild—which provides the best argument for The Revenant being a novel of survival before revenge.

Punke—who has said as a youth he was enamoured with wilderness and survival—seems to savour brief moments of description amidst the otherwise condensed prose driving the plot forward. The stylistic choice to write in a spare, historical, or even scholarly style in the midst of epic landscape and circumstance can be received as either uneven or wholly unique. Punke can—in the span of pages—go into the incredible minutiae of setting and maintaining game traps, or jump a month and many miles ahead in the story. I found both efforts enjoyable; the minutiae helps to create a sense of presence with Glass as he fashions rudimentary tools of survival, while the jumps in time create a brisk pace and thrust Glass further along in his journey.

This duality of prose permeates the novel—Punke can both accurately portray the economics of gulf coast pirating and beautifully paint an image of unimaginably massive plains. There is one particular passage where Glass encounters a pack of wolves which is especially well written, and an example of where this marriage of historical and descriptive prose creates an encompassing portrait. In short: the prose, while spare, fully renders the frontier in vivid imagery.

So while The Revenant is marketed as a novel about revenge, it is not a novel with such a singular purpose. There is much more contained within to enjoy; from the historically accurate maps and how they play into the novel, to the knowledgeable portrayal of french fur trappers, warring native tribes, and the expansion westward of the United States military. All of which would contain spoilers to further elaborate on, so I will only say that they help to mold the rich environment which Glass navigates. Punke was previously a history professor and the attention to historical accuracy shows. I would highly recommend this novel to fans of historical fiction or survival fiction.

As a side note (and more accurately, the reason I became interested in picking up this novel) there is a film adaptation releasing in December 2015 directed by Alejandro Iñárritu, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. After seeing the trailer I immediately wanted to read the book; now having read the book, I am eagerly waiting to see how the tenaciousness of Glass will be portrayed on film. Shot in British Columbia and Alberta, with Emmanuel Lubezki as the director of photography, it looks to be very promising in bringing to life both the beauty and violence of the frontier. I have included the first teaser trailer:

A Vacant Lot in Paris, Texas

Wim Wenders spent the better part of the late 70’s and early 80’s working on his first American studio film Hammett. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola and helmed by Wenders—one of the bright, young German new wave directors—the film failed to live up to the expectations set by the wealth of talent involved. It was through the trials of Hammett that Wenders met the playwright and actor Sam Shepard, who he had wanted to cast in the film but the studio denied. They agreed to work with each other in the future and thus planted the seeds of Paris, Texas. Shepard went on to write Motel Chronicles, which served as the starting off point on a film about the great American west, the allure of the road (and the road movie), and the mirage of the American Dream.

After Wenders’ contentious experience with the American studio system it seemed fitting that his next films would be about America (the other being The State of Things about a Hollywood film production going bankrupt). Equally fitting is the simultaneous romanticizing of the American landscape (both natural and manmade), and the placement of a man alone, mute, and trying to find his way in the vastness of the country. And that is how Paris, Texas opens: a man, a desert, and a slide guitar soundtrack by Ry Cooder that twangs across the vista. Travis, played by Harry Dean Stanton, walks into frame looking as bewildered as we do as to why he is there. This is the harsh desert of The Searchers and The Man With No Name, only here the hero has traded in leather and a ten gallon hat for a worn down suit and trucker cap.

Harry Dean Stanton as Travis

We later find out that Travis has been walking these deserts for close to five years, trancelike, in search of something that can make sense of his alienation from his wife and son. It is a mythological and physically impossible amount of time to be lost in the desert and in one’s psyche. Travis finally stumbles upon a foreign hospital run by Germans in the middle of the desert, where he gets treated and his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell), who lives in California, is called to come pick him up.

This is where the film truly becomes a road movie. Travis refuses to fly back to California so Walt reluctantly agrees to drive. The landscapes that the two pass are shot with the picturesque quality of a postcard. The vistas of the Texas desert and the San Bernardino Valley are matched by the parade of diners, motels, gas stations, billboards, Laundromats, and mom and pop shops that litter the highway. I was reminded of Robert Crumb’s “Short History of America”, except rather than contempt Wenders finds beauty in the neon green and acidic hues of the great American pit stops. It may be because the America that Wenders chooses to portray is more idyllic than the corporate corner stores that Crumb clearly hates.

Robert Crumb's "Short History of America"

When they arrive at Walt’s house in California Travis is reunited with his son, Hunter, who Walt and Walt’s wife Anne have been taking care of since Travis’ disappearance. Hunter, who is eight now, has been missing his father for half of his life. Travis’s reappearance begins a complicated journey for the young boy as he rediscovers who his parents are. At first he is wary of Travis, but the two have an immediate connection. Travis decides that in order to redeem himself he must reunite Hunter with his mother, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), who lives in Houston. This begins the second road trip in the road movie.

They set back across the southwest towards Houston in the hopes of finding Jane at the bank that she has been sending child support checks from. They stop at a rest area with giant plastic dinosaurs towering over them in the dark, they stay at one of the many motels that Walt and Travis passed on their way home, and they finally come upon a city with a metallic sheen jutting up out of the desert. All this acts as a showcase for cinematographer Robby Müller to create a dreamlike, hyper-colourful version of America.

Arriving in Houston Travis finds out that Jane has been working at a phone sex booth where men pay to talk to women in fantasy settings that mirror reality. He ends up speaking to Jane through a one way mirror in the “hotel” fantasy room. Their encounter through the veil of a fantasy continues the isolation and disconnection from reality that began with the opening scenes of Travis the wanderer. She doesn’t know that it is him, and he isn’t ready to reveal who he is, so he leaves without confronting her.

The next day he goes back, and they begin two of the best expositional monologues I’ve ever seen. Expositional monologues can run the risk of feeling forced or prosaic, but these feel as genuine as anything. Travis reveals exactly what happened to cause him to go into the desert; Jane reveals that every man who comes into a booth sounds exactly like him. They are two people from a broken marriage speaking to each other through a thick glass window in a fantasy coffee shop. Travis decides that the only way to redeem himself from his past is to reunite son and mother and then slip back into the sunset of the west again.

Nastassja Kinski

One of the key aspects that sets Paris, Texas apart from an ordinary family drama is how the American landscape plays a role its genesis and its convictions. It swallows Travis up before the film begins, and it takes him back as it ends. He owns a vacant lot in Paris, Texas that he once dreamed of living on with his family, and the fact that the lot will stay vacant speaks volumes as to what Wenders and Shepard wanted to say about the dissolution of family and the American Dream. Men like Travis will fantasize about the ideal life—they will even go to sex booths to fulfill that fantasy—but it will all be just a mirage. So he takes to the desert, or the open road, or the myriad of escapes that come to him in the promise of a cleared mind.

Monterey Pop: The Hippies, The Film, The Music

The main stage ready to go

The Monterey Pop Festival began on a grey Friday afternoon in June 1967, and peaked two days later on a frantic Monday morning when The Mama’s and The Papa’s finished their set. There were an estimated 60,000 people on the festival grounds at that time, and over 100,000 visitors throughout the weekend. The festival was the product of a two month long organizational effort (headed by John Phillips of the Mama’s and the Papa’s), and the culmination of dozens of musical acts performing on one stage—all, due to festival policy, at no price. It was the first ever pop music festival in the United States, as well as the largest congregation of like-minded hippies, freaks, bohemians and beatniks the world had ever seen—100,000 of them, all in one place, to witness the height of the “summer of love” and music history.  And it was all captured by D.A. Pennebaker in the documentary Monterey Pop to be seen by as wide an audience as television allowed.

The Hippies

In many aspects, including in its filming, the festival marked a new era for both the counter-culture movement and the way that it reached a wider audience. It came at a time when the hippie movement was reaching its zenith as a counter-cultural movement, and continuing on afterwards as a popular cultural movement. Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane considers it the birth, and the death, of the 1960’s pop music festival.

There was at least one patron (which is probably indicative of many) at Monterey in 1967 who shared the same sentiment—a woman who was interviewed for Pennebaker’s documentary who stated that every few years a new wave of rock bands form, and with it comes “all the other bullshit”. Her implications were that at that moment in San Francisco they were witnessing the zeitgeist of their form of psychedelic rock, and soon would follow the bullshit. For that reason Monterey can be seen as much an end to something as a beginning—the end of the formation of the hippie counter-culture movement and the beginning of the hippie popular culture movement.

“I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me”

The backlash was even happening as the festival was going on. The song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”, written by John and Michelle Phillips and performed by Scott Mackenzie to promote the festival, was already receiving criticism from the die-hard hippies of Haight-Ashbury for being too on the nose, too much of a simplification of what the movement was supposed to be about, and too inviting of people who would act as cultural tourists. This, of course, is terrible. You can’t preach peace and love and host events called a “human be in” and then exclude those who wish to join.

The Mama’s and The Papa’s performing “California Dreamin'”

We can see the same occurrences and reactions in modern movements: Counter-culture, acceptance, and backlash. It isn’t anything new. The hipster movement and backlash is one that is happening right now, and has been for a few years, as is the more concentrated Occupy movements which have sprouted up all across North America and share similar values to hipsters (which I won’t even try to touch, the mere mention of which brings looks of disgust: Am I a hipster? Are you? Is contemplating whether one is a hipster or not constitutional of hipster behavior? Is everyone I see as trying too hard or trying too little a hipster? It’s been said a million times before).

Examining that place in time—a movement at its zenith—is why the Monterey Pop festival and the film which immortalized it is so interesting to me. It seems, whether by virtue of itself or other factors, to have come right at the peak of the summer of love, stamped its mark in history, and left never to be replicated. Four months later the people who began the movement in hopes of achieving some euphoric humanism and peace, declared the “death of the hippie” and told people to stop coming to San Francisco. Summer was over, and the fervor of the moment dissipated as quickly as it had swelled.

Merchants on the Fairgrounds

The summer of love in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco had began, strangely enough, in January of that year with a 30,000 person “human be in”. By mid spring it had a council and an organizing party, and by June it was in full swing. Its name implies an idealistic and organic movement, which it most certainly was, but it wasn’t as idealized as our modern signifiers of flowered hair, free love, good acid, and rock-and-roll make it out to be. It was organized to be organic. And as such, among the movement there was a growing fear of being co-opted by outside forces, commercialized, and stripped of its humanistic roots. Even at Monterey there was dissention between the Los Angelos and San Francisco cliques, the latter accusing the former of being “too L.A.”, with the connotations of record labels and surfer commercialism that came with it. If there were these trivial problems between two scenes that were relatively sympathetic to each others’ philosophies, how would they then react to the public at large when they caught wind of the movement and wanted in on it too?

As stated before, with bated acceptance, and with the knowledge that with popular growth came a host of logistical problems. Although Monterey was a large festival, it was a fraction of the 500,000 that would camp out at a farm in Woodstock two years later. It was even small compared to the 200,000 that would inhabit the Altamont motor speedway in December 1969. For that reason Monterey didn’t have the organizational hazards of Woodstock, or the security hazards of Altamont. There is a short clip in the beginning of Monterey Pop which shows a Hell’s Angel’s member sitting in a chair, having a conversation and laughing, which can be juxtaposed to the violence seen by the Hell’s Angel’s security forces at Altamont in Gimme Shelter. That festival was plagued with violence and unease. Something had changed. Hunter S. Thompson captures this sentiment perfectly:

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave ….
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark —that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

In a recent interview Grace Slick said that, for the musicians, Woodstock was hell. Jefferson Airplane was scheduled to go on at night, but didn’t make it on to the stage until mid-morning due to poor scheduling and management. The musicians were flown in by helicopter and sequestered in hotels, away from the fans and the music of their peers. There were drug overdoses. in actuality, the rain that brought about famous clips of people frolicking in the mud put a damper on the festival. Woodstock, like Altamont, was plagued with problems that were largely missing from Monterey. Whether this organizational degradation is inherent in the growing of a movement, or Monterey was just lucky, is something which I don’t know, but it is still interesting to observe.

Jefferson Airplane Performing High Flyin’ Bird

The Film

D.A. Pennebaker was fresh off of releasing his great Bob Dylan Documentary Don’t Look Back when he came to film at Monterey. In that documentary—and here—he employed a verité style that would become his hallmark. When I watch Monterey Pop it is amazing how modern the filmmaking techniques look, and that is because it had such a huge effect on all concert films after it. Woodstock and Gimme Shelter would have a very different look if it weren’t for the success of Monterey Pop, and may have never been filmed in a feature format at all.

What is also amazing to me is how much this documentary acts as documentation. It is weird to think of it so literally, but documentaries are polemic in nature, so when presented with something that merely presents the event it becomes refreshing. There were still editorial decisions like including Simon and Garfunkel’s “Feelin’ Groovy” in the final cut instead of “The Sound of Silence” because it fit better within the documentary, but those artistic decisions were done to create a flow rather than enforce an argument for what the festival should be. I’m not saying that the film transcends the confines of documentary, which can never be truly impartial; I’m saying that the style that Pennebaker chose lends itself to the creation of what appears to be an unbiased representation of what it was like to be at the festival,rather than an argument for what the festival supposed to be.

What the festival was, and what the focal point of the documentary was: music. Michael Lydon, in his article for Newsweek that was written immediately after the festival, says that there was rarely a break in the assault of noise throughout the day and night. The film mirrors that sentiment; aside from very sparse interviews, and an opening scene showing John and Michelle Phillips manning the phone lines to organize the event, the film is entirely about the music. One act seeps into the next; there is very little downtime.

I mentioned earlier that the way the concert was filmed contributed a large amount to the legend of Monterey. Pennebaker admits that for the majority of the concert his film crew and himself were experimenting with new angles to shoot, new ways to focus on performance, and new techniques to do it all in a confined space. The modern steadicam wasn’t invented until the mid 70’s by Garrett Brown, but here we can see early incantations of that prototype in the rigs that the cameramen use. The mechanism was a bridge between hand-held and steadicam styles of shooting; at the same time it could shake to produce a sense of immediacy, as well as be capable of taking smoother shots when stabilized—something which lends itself to shooting the psychedelic acts and stoned reactions. Pennebaker also experimented by shooting the concert from behind the stage, which produces two of the most lasting images from the film: Grace slick backlit in profile, and the seizure inducing image of Otis Redding as he moved in and out of blocking the lights.

Otis Redding performing his cover of the Jay-Z and Kanye West song “Otis”

Crowd reactions are edited into the performances (most famously Cass Elliot proclaiming that Janis Joplin’s rendition of Ball and Chain was “heavy”). The camera weaves throughout the crowd showing people’s reactions to the music and to their surroundings. It’s fun to guess which people are tripping out of their mind and which are just into the music. In trying to do so one of the most surprising things to me was how normal most of the people looked. Not everybody was a hippie, or at least outwardly appeared to be. My shock at this is probably a product of my own lack of perspective on the time period, and a subsequent stereotypical image that projects in my mind of “hippie”.

Monterey Pop presents such a vivid representation of the time and place that it spurred a realization that my preconceptions about the 60’s culture were simplistic and overly reliant on its signifiers: flower, long hair, colourful clothing, stoned, etc. It is a powerful thing when a film can act as a historical document just by showing what a thing wasn’t, rather than what it was. In this case, what it wasn’t was the image that one see’s on the “Flower Power” infomercials, where for 150 bucks sent to TIME you can buy back a piece of the 60’s.

Okay, maybe the stereotype was true
Damn, it was.

The Music

I can’t say much about the music other than it is—above all else—the reason to see the movie. Acts like Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, and Ravi Shankar came onto the world stage because of the festival. The music speaks for itself, so I’ll list my five favourite performances from the festival and call it a day:

5. Jimi Hendrix – Wild Thing 

4.Otis Redding – I’ve Been Loving You Too Long 

3. Big Brother and the Holding Company – Ball and Chain 

2: Eric Burdon and The Animals – Paint it Black

1: Jefferson Airplane – Today 

The Night of The Hunter and Audience Expectation

    The Night of the Hunter is the first and only film directed by stage actor/director Charles Laughton. It follows Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who goes down the Ohio river murdering widow’s and taking their money. He comes upon his next victim Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) and her two children John and Pearl, but finds that they are harder to trick than his previous victims. The children hold the secret to their dead father’s stash of money, and the film’s main focus is the chase that Powell gives in search of that money. Upon its release it was panned by critics and largely ignored by audiences, and subsequently Laughton was never given the chance to direct for a studio again. He died in 1962, but had he lived long enough to see the film’s reputation grow throughout the years he would almost certainly be given another chance to direct.

    In the realm of failures the film has some good company. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) received mixed reviews and didn’t gain as much box-office attention as Capra was accustomed to, and has since become one of the most iconic holiday films ever. Citizen Kane (1941), despite being nominated for nine Oscars and winning one, was still booed at the ceremonies—largely due to pressure by Hearst—and failed to make a profit on its original theatrical run, but has since been christened the greatest movie of all time™. Not to mention the dozens of other movies that went on to become cult classics after failing horribly in their initial openings.

    But the reasons for The Night of the Hunter‘s original failure are somewhat of a mystery to me. Part of it might have to do with a disconnect between audience expectations for a traditional narrative, and Laughton’s desire to create a “contemplative” film. What this tells us is that critics, audiences, studio executives, and even you and I might not know a good film when we see one, or that we might let our preconceived notions blind us to a new experience.

    In the case of The Night of the Hunter I can’t claim to know what audiences were expecting when they walked into the theater because I wasn’t alive until decades later, but what I can see is the trailer:

    The original trailer is exciting. It has blaring horn music and climactic action sequences; it has a menacing evil figure and Lillian Gish holding a fucking shotgun while sitting in a rocking chair. All of that is in the final movie, but what the trailer doesn’t show is the contemplative minutes between the action. The trailer shows a torch-and-pitchfork mob walking zombie-like down the road to presumably get the Reverend Harry Powell, but what it doesn’t show is that that mob is an afterthought rather than a climax in the film, and Laughton never seems interested in following where the mob goes, instead he shifts the focus back to the children on a quiet Christmas morning.

Say 'what' again. Say 'what' again, I dare you, I double dare you motherfucker, say what one more Goddamn time!

    In the full film, for every near miss between Powell and the children there is an extended period of floating and meandering. There is suspense, but there is much more than that. So while the trailer is an accurate representation of the film’s genre, it fails to convey the tone that Laughton sets throughout the film. When the film’s presentation doesn’t align with the trailer then usually it can be called a marketing mistake and not something that is inherently wrong with the film itself.

    For that reason The Night of the Hunter might have been doomed at the outset for being ahead of its time in technique and narration, but still being marketed as a standard studio film. Innovative narrative techniques are something that we as post-modern superviewers have become accustomed to, but at the time it was largely unheard of for a “contemplative” film to come from within the Hollywood studio machine, and thus audiences left more confused than enlightened. The same backlash would occur now if the next James Bond movie had a trailer full of explosions but turned out to be a slapstick buddy comedy starring Daniel Craig and Mr. Bean and was directed by Judd Apatow. Or people would embrace it ironically and it would make a fortune.

    So while audiences didn’t warm up to The Night of the Hunter, and it fell too far under the radar to be considered revolutionary or to cause an immediate effect in Hollywood, it still contributed in its own way to an evolution. With each passing year its reputation grew and was seen by more and more future directors and writers, and in that respect it helped mold a style that was prevalent in the new Hollywood of the late 60’s and early 70’s. It is impossible to view a Terrence Malick film and deny the influence that Laughton had, especially during the scene where John and Pearl are floating down the river. Laughton even has shots of turtles and trees that come out of nowhere!

    The Night of the Hunter is in part an example of why certain films can’t be judged wholly until there is a period of separation where their context can be fully seen. It seems that there are numerous films that are either poorly received or not received at all that later go on to be heralded as some of the best films of all time. Why some films require that period to become successful (i.e. The Rules of the Game (1939) and others don’t (i.e. La Grande Illusion (1937)) is confusing and the answer could very well be an arbitrary way to explain the randomness of success in the film industry.