Even those who’ve never heard its name know Monument Valley, that collection of stunning sandstone features rising out of the desert where Utah meets Arizona. Their silhouettes, and images inspired by them, are as embedded in myths of the American West as cowboy hats and six-shooters. But few will have thought about those buttes anywhere near as deeply as the interviewees in Alexandre O. Philippe’s The Taking, a surprisingly thorny doc by a filmmaker whose work usually tackles easier pop culture subjects like George Lucas (The People vs. George Lucas), sci-fi (Memory: The Origins of Alien) and Alfred Hitchcock (78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene). As much an essay on national identity as a dive into film-buff lore, it should be an easy sell on the fest circuit before winding up as go-to viewing for college courses in a number of disciplines.
Interviews happen entirely off-camera, as the film’s visuals rely almost solely of scenes of the valley. (Clips shot elsewhere are used now and then to illustrate a point.) The unseen speakers, unfortunately, are also unidentified until the closing credits — a frustrating decision that leaves viewers wondering about their backgrounds and credentials. Expertise comes across clearly when one is speaking of John Ford’s biography or another discusses Navajo history, but it would be very useful to know from the start whose voice we’re hearing. To save you the frustration: They’re pretty much all historians or academics of some sort, with a slew of books and Ph.D.s to their collective credit.
The Bottom Line
A visually rich doc with much more than scenic vistas on its mind.
Things begin with some general talk about what those distinctive formations have come to mean in the context of Hollywood Westerns. If the heroes of those films are seekers, dreamers who don’t fit into more civilized communities back east, perhaps these lonely, massive rocks assure us of the misfit’s strength and capacity for endurance. When set in stark contrast with tiny homesteads in a shot’s foreground, they also might remind us of the vast challenge nature presented to those attempting to live there.
The film is much more specific in its discussion of John Ford, who shot so many films here there’s an outcropping named for him today. After a biographer explains how his Irish heritage inspired an affinity for landscape, we see how his use of this terrain changed over time: Used for scenic rear projection in Stagecoach, it took on threatening overtones in My Darling Clementine, only to later become “a jolly place”; by the time of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Ford was shooting in Technicolor and could make even the valley’s sky play a role in the drama, with colors that changed to suit the action. We look at how repeated shots and camera placement became shorthand in Ford’s movies, as with a certain formation, known as the Totem Pole, which would signify the point at which white pioneers crossed into tribal lands.
Of course, filmmakers barely seemed to notice which tribe was which. Though Monument Valley is Navajo territory, we see clips in which settlers clash with many other tribes against this backdrop. (Filmmakers were similarly indifferent to geography, repurposing these square miles to tell stories set everywhere from Wyoming to Texas.) Taking gives much of its attention both to the Navajo (or Diné) people, for whom this land is anything but an abstracted signifier, and to more general ways in which these movies create problematic cultural understanding: “The West,” we’re told, “is a white idea entirely generated by the culture industry in the U.S. to tell a particular story of the American past in which whites are heroic, brave and innocent.”
On one or two occasions, the political and semiotic talk may overstate its case. It’s nutty, for instance, to suggest that every single picture taken here by an outsider is “a form of cultural violence.” But any viewer who has never reflected on the weirdness of tourism, the rephotographing of famous places, or context-blind selfies will walk away with much to think about.
Seventy-six minutes is hardly enough time to do justice to all the ideas Philippe wants to raise, and some viewers will tune out the headiest stuff to focus on seeing the Mitten Buttes, the Three Sisters and Merrick Butte from just about every angle, and under every lighting condition imaginable. Philippe delivers on that front, even as he keeps his interviewees moving toward ever more pointed talk about American mythmaking and self-delusion.