The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog ★★★★

like the day after the cattle drive Plemmons just... gets in his car and drives back to the town where they'd earlier ridden in on epic dusty horseback. takes him a couple hours. this is 1920s, the era and in the region of A River Runs Through It (also a relevant comp for the East-West nature-culture yin-yang brother thing), ranchers are long since land-owning elite whose children are sent East for education, so it's implicit that Phil is in cowboy drag even before they mention Yale.

A fairly straightforward irony, the gay cowboy, the prison of masculinity and toxicity of repression, but it develops into a much rarer thing about the Greek model of manhood and apprenticeship and Eros. Also I suppose how a patriarchal society will be organized around all-male outposts, like remote worksites or boarding schools or army bases or indeed in my latter-day case sleepaway camp, in which the youngest/weakest/most effeminate are designated as "the woman"—could be as simple as being the one who wears a dress in a skit—and become subjects of derision and proxies for desire.

So yeah—like Claire Denis Campion makes movies from almost insultingly simple thematic premises (this is her Beau Travail/"men would rather perpetuate rituals of colonial oppression than go to therapy" movie, as In the Cut is her Trouble Every Day/"what if i forgot your safe word... ha ha just kidding... unless..." movie) that become complex in the execution, which in Campion's case is that she's the rare filmmaker who is curious about, and able to imagine, what life and thought was like in different phases of history, how the material circumstances of scientific progress and media technology—player pianos and canvas sneakers and magazine clippings and anatomy textbooks, or again the car vs the horse—disseminate culture and define an image of the world and thus shape how individuals imagine and place themselves in it. Think about the Victorian sentimentality of "Bronco Henry – A Friend" or just the circumstances under which you would expect to hear music, live or recorded, at this historical and geographical moment, and what that says about where it comes from, who brings it.

Having always thought that The Piano plays like a novel with its historical-fiction milieu and motifs and structure of incidents, I was very amused to realize that Campion found a novel which is exactly like The Piano—a sent-for widowed bride, and the sexual frisson of savagery and civilization (the two genders) (and what a pleasant surprise that this Jane Campion Western isn't accidentally racist) represented by a piano borne a great distance—but which gives her a chance to explore the crucial moment of a child's duplicity with the benefit of real psychology and narrative agency. (Paquin's betrayal of her mother in The Piano doesn't actually make sense except in the vague way that she's a child and has no fixed personality or motivation.)

Though actually in terms of the novelistic retroactive introductory voiceover and eyes-of-a-child point-of-view tricks telling the quasi-incestuous story of a child's fatal power struggle with a father figure, an even better comp is Eve's Bayou.

Don't really care for how much of the movie snaps into place retroactively, but how appropriate that this treatise on mimetic desire includes a cameo from Keith Carradine. god i wish i was him.

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