Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Michael Clayton - Looking at Horses

Thinking about Cave of Forgotten Dreams reminded me of a movie that's really never left me since I saw it. It's not a movie about horses any more than Cave of Forgotten Dreams is about horses, but horses appear in Michael Clayton just as powerfully as they appeared in Herzog's documentary. And two years after seeing it, I still think of those horses.

Michael Clayton is an interesting and complex legal thriller starring George Clooney and Tilda Swinton. Among its plot points are a lawyer who may or may not have had a nervous breakdown, a defense attorney who may or may not be corrupt, a death that may or may not have been a suicide, and a car explosion that may or may not have been intentional. Clooney plays the title character, an attorney with a gambling problem who's been working as the "fixer" for a high-powered New York law firm. He's called in to clean up messes caused by clients or members of the firm. Because his own life is a wreck, he can hardly judge the lives of those he bails out of ugly situations, but it's wearying work.

Michael Clayton depends on a four-day flashback that makes up most of the film. That flashback begins during a scene with horses and we return to the same horses when the story has caught up to the present day. It's a simple scene. The tired, burned-out Michael Clayton pulls over on a country road and gets out of his car when his attention is drawn to a hillside. He walks up the hill. There, three haltered horses stand side by side at the corner of their pasture. He approaches them, lifting his arms a little, palm up as if to tell them he won't harm them, and then he just stands there, looking at them. They look at him (and they really do). The camera cuts to each horse's face, then pans across them as a group. There's an occasional cut back to Clayton, whose expression is that of a troubled man seeking solace, understanding, redemption, peace.

The thing is, I don't know if the horses were in the original script or they were added by the director. What I'm sure of, though, is that whoever included them knew something about horses. It's why they chose to use them rather than, say, deer. It seems to me they knew that looking eye to eye at horses can strip you back to yourself if you've added too many layers or bring you back to yourself if you've forgotten who you are.

Sometimes I just step back from my mare and I look at her. She looks at me. I look at her. I don't do it enough, but I do it. Each time, I get that subtle recalibration that reminds me who I am, whether I like it or not. That's exactly what happens in Michael Clayton, and that's why I'll always think of it as a horse movie.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

You know how there's that dinner list thing, where people talk about who they'd invite for dinner, anyone from any time? Werner Herzog, the director of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, has been on that list of mine for a long, long time. I see every film he makes, documentary or fiction. I believe he's an archivist by nature, profoundly interested in excavating human truths and preserving them for the future. Perhaps that's why he felt such a deep urge - and sense of urgency - to film the paintings discovered in the Chauvet Cave in southern France.

In a way, the modern mind can't quite relate to the drawings in the cave. Grasping that you are looking at images created some 32,000 years ago is akin to knowing in real senses what one billion dollars is. In the end, it's theoretical.


Except for these horses...

We can look at all of the images (but for those that are concealed behind stalactite and stalagmite formations) from Chauvet Cave because they are widely available on the Internet. We can see drawings of human figures, bears, big cats, water buffalo, bison, and some animal species that vanished thousands of years ago. They are all interesting to look at, even as the mind searches for any kind of foothold to know what kind of people created them. Because to know they weren't people like us tells us nothing, really.

But in his film, Werner Herzog returns again and again to these horses. (I wish I knew how to make and link in a sound file of his voice as he says "the horses" in that wonderful round, slightly thick German tone of his.) I don't know what pulled him back to the horses, but I know I couldn't wait for the camera to return to them. Because these horses stand apart from the rest of the drawings. Maybe it's how they were drawn, the complexity of the group of them, the four different colors and sizes of them, the clarity with which they were depicted. It's as if the artist meant to paint them in exacting, painstaking detail, meant exactly to capture the what-they-are-ness of them. I think that intention is there. But what does that mean, what does that say about horses, I wondered to myself, watching the film. Herzog mentions in his running commentary that horses were hunted as food, among other things. Yes, but still, I can't help but feel that the human being who painted these four horses saw something more in them, understood something more. And oh, to know what that might have been.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

If I Didn't Have Her...

Then I would not have felt the ocean-like rhythm of her rocking into me, who was leaning there against her while she grazed.

I would not have felt her choosing where to reach next as I accompanied her, lead line just loose in my hand. 

And I would not have felt the simple, deep lift and pull of her spine and shoulders when she leaned long and forward, too lazy to lift a hoof toward that tuft of grass.

If I didn't have her, I would not have been able to return her gaze when she turned to look back for me. 

I would not have been able to feel the delicious shiver that ran the length of her when she snorted in pleasure, nose deep in the last-gasp grass.

And I would not have been able to feel her lift herself back up to look at her world, nose skimming the breeze.

If I didn't have her, I would not have been able find my own silence, which I have been awaiting for some long months, or notice the lulling call of the winter train, whistling out our journeys to come.