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Hipster Holy Grail: Clearcut (1991)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

There's a good case to be made that Clearcut is the best movie I've watched for the Hipster Holy Grail so far.  It's beautiful, horrifying, and hilarious all at the same time.  If you can handle one particularly graphic scene of violence and you don't mind watching something that will leave you uncomfortable for hours (maybe even days), then you should definitely check this out.

My Rating: 5 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

The movie opens with Peter Maguire (Ron Lea) taking a chartered flight over some gorgeous wilderness in Canada.  At first it's lush and scenic, but then they fly over a huge swath of clear-cut forest that's been rendered a wasteland - and thus you are introduced to the first of many times when the movie tries to wring as much meaning out of the term "clearcut" as it possibly can.

Peter is a lawyer representing a tribe of Native Americans (Is that the right term when you're talking about Canadian Indians?  Technically it's still part of an "America," but I don't know if there's a preference for "Native Canadian."  Somebody post and educate me.) who are trying to prevent a logging company from deforesting their land.  The company, headed by a racist corporate type named Bud Rickets (Michael Hogan), has used a combination of legal trickery and out-and-out assholery to infringe on the Native territory, so as the movie begins they are more or less instigating a riot.

Peter lands in the chaos and tries to aid the protesters as much as he can, but it's useless.  Bud's logging is unstoppable at the moment, and the only way Peter can really help is to file paperwork with the courts.  Unfortunately, that's going to take too long to make any practical difference, so he just kind of stews in his anger and frustration.

Wilf (Floyd Red Crow Westerman), an older, stoic Indian, thanks Peter for his efforts, regardless, and invites him to partake in a ceremony involving a pipe.  (I would just call it a "peace pipe ceremony," but to be totally honest, I'm kind of dumb about these things and I'm not sure what the specifics are.)  Peter has some strange dreams that border on hallucinations in which he sees the face of a strange Native American he's never met before.  After coming to, he has a talk with Wilf and makes an offhanded comment about grabbing Bud and skinning him alive, since that seems to be the only way he could get him to stop the logging.

Peter and Wilf get in a boat to head to the city, and they are accompanied by Arthur (Graham Greene), the Indian from Peter's dream.  Arthur is standoffish, sarcastic, and cold, but even-tempered and calm.  He and Peter get into an argument about Indian culture and how much Peter thinks he knows.  This is the first of many, many great scenes where Greene plays Arthur with just the right amount of disaffected humor.  You know how there's a cliche where a white guy will say something like "you people" (referring to, I don't know, bank tellers or something) and then a black guy will go, "You people?" and put on a totally plain look, and then a bit later he laughs and you're supposed to breathe with relief and go, "Oh, he's just using racial tension to give himself a bit of power over a guilty white man for comic effect!  How charming!"

Well, Greene's performance is kind of like that, but without the breath of relief.  He plays the whole movie on a sustained, tense note of awkward racial ostracism.  Arthur screws around with Peter for virtually the entire time the two of them are on screen together, and at no point is it clear if he actually likes Peter and is having a laugh, or if he's simply manipulating Peter and trying to make him as uncomfortable as possible.  It's pretty brilliant.  Kind of like how Do the Right Thing pushes white buttons, but way more subtle.

This performance is honestly one of the best I've ever seen from anybody.  Greene is just so terrific throughout.  His temperament never heats up or cools down beyond four degrees of 72, but even within that tiny range, he brings so much subtlety and nuance that he manages to be at turns terrifying, charming, self-deprecating, hopeless, inspiring, and amiable.  He's a complex personality with a one-track mind.

Anyway, they get to the city and Peter checks into a hotel room.  He's planning to go back home and do what he can with the courts, but he can't sleep because his neighbors are too loud.  Then Arthur comes into his room and tells him he had a good idea when he made that quip about skinning Bud.  He offers to go get Bud tonight if Peter will help him.  Peter, not really sure if Arthur is being serious, tries to laugh it off and replies that violence isn't the answer.  Arthur argues that physicality is sometimes the only answer, and uses the loud neighbors as an example.  "Prove to me you can get them to quiet down just by asking, and I'll leave."

Peter tries exactly that - and fails.  Then Arthur busts into the neighbors' room with a knife and forcibly gets them to turn off their radio and straps them down to some chairs with duct tape.  Having proved his point, he grabs Peter and tells him they're off to get Bud.

From hereon to the end, the movie gets more and more surreal and dreamlike.  I don't mean that there's a lot of trippy images or swirls of color or metaphors or anything like that - I just mean that it gets harder and harder to tell if we're seeing things through an accurate filter.  Time passes at a rate you can't quite decipher and it gets harder and harder to figure out what Peter's motivation is.  He follows Arthur's commands for the most part, yet insists that he's doing so under duress.  He has ample opportunities to run away, yet he never does.  It's surreal more in the unnerving "is this really happening?" sense rather than the "that has to be a hallucination" sense.

Telling all the specifics won't quite capture the effect, but the general plot points go like this:

Arthur and Peter find Bud at a gas station and abduct him, then take him out into the wilderness and keep him captive for a few days.  Bud is kind of funny in the way he reacts to being a prisoner; he mainly just scoffs and insults Peter's manhood while being an asshole.  It's very much a White Man's reaction.

Until about halfway through the movie or so, it's a relatively "peaceful" kidnapping, as Arthur is mostly just imposing by his presence rather than his actions. Things take a gory and horrific turn one morning when Peter wakes up to find that Arthur is, in his words, "debarking" Bud: he has pulled up Bud's legs and is cutting off the top layers of skin.  This is a particularly gruesome scene, which I ordinarily would criticize because I think gore is often unnecessary.  However, I think the violence was used to great effect in Clearcut, and while I don't really want to rewatch this scene, I think it works fantastically.  The wretchedness of the blood is perfectly juxtaposed with Arthur's calm dismissiveness of Peter's screams: "They killed thousands of my people.  This is just a guy's legs.  Calm down."

In another scene, a couple of police officers track Bud down.  Peter tries to talk to them, but they ignore him and walk straight into an ambush, where Arthur kills them both.

They keep venturing deeper and deeper into the forest, occasionally joined by Wilf, who may or may not have been in on the plot to kidnap Bud.  At one point, Wilf tells Peter about the legend of the Washakeajack, a spirit who was summoned to bring peace but ended up turning violent and had to be stopped.  Peter doesn't really grasp the meaning of the story, and Wilf leaves again.

Eventually they reach a mountain where the surrealism peaks.  Bud's resolve finally breaks and he becomes hysterical, praying for his life and finally fearful of what will come next.  Peter tries to sneak Bud away from Arthur so they can escape, but when Arthur finds out, he and Peter get into a prolonged lakeside brawl.  Eventually Peter gets the upper hand and there's a break in the fight where he stops just short of killing Arthur.  Arthur puts up his hands in surrender, then walks out into the lake and drowns himself.

Wilf, Peter, and Bud make it back to civilization, where the cops immediately arrest Peter and Wilf and the movie ends.

The Part About the Ambiguity and Evil

With a title like Clearcut, you know the movie's going to be ambiguous.  It's a little bit telegraphed, isn't it?

One of the things I loved about this movie is that it's challenging on virtually every level.  There are moments of inexcusable, undeniable cruelty connected by huge chains of uncertainty.  There is neither moral nor narrative clarity.

Even something as simple as whether or not Arthur is a real person is difficult to say for sure.  It could be that Arthur is the Washakeajack that Wilf mentioned, and his "drowning" is simply his way of returning to the spirit world.  It could be that Arthur never existed in the first place - that Peter was actually carrying out all the deeds you see in the movie the whole time, and Arthur is merely a mental manifestation of his restrained anger.  It could be that Arthur was very much a real, flesh-and-blood Indian who simply had so much self control and willpower that he could carry out any act of violence - even suicide - with total emotional restraint.

The morality of the tale is even murkier.  Is it bad that they kidnapped Bud?  Sure, it's wrong... but it's also a last resort act of self-defense, which is not indefensible.  Despite being a victim for most of the movie, Bud is a reprehensible character who never actually does get the punishment you expect to be coming.  When it ends, you get the sense that he'll keep on plundering the land with abandon and further doom a race and their culture to oblivion.  But does that mean the "good guys" lost?  Isn't there some victory in the fact that a violent person was stopped and his victim was saved?  There's no easy answer.

But rather than making this movie confusing and frustrating, it works in favor of constructing a strong message about evil.

I like to think of "evil" in metaphorical terms, as I do for most things.  To me, evil is kind of like a slippery sponge that's completely soaked in ink and sitting on your dining room table.  It's tough to get rid of it without getting any on you, and even if you do get rid of it, there'll probably be some stains left behind.  You can't ignore it, you can't dive right in with your bare hands, and you can't just recklessly throw it around or you'll make the mess way worse.

Clearcut is a film about the futility of violence even in the face of obvious and overpowering evil.  Bud is absolutely in the wrong and should be stopped.  And Peter is absolutely ineffectual in his legal efforts.  But that doesn't mean the right thing to do is commit another act of evil.  Arthur is, metaphorically speaking, picking up the sponge and hurtling it across the room.

If there's any downside to the movie, it's that it doesn't try to teach a message about what should be done.  And I don't even know that I'd call that a "downside," since the topic is too tricky to answer with a simple epilogue.  Clearcut isn't a movie that pretends to know what the right answer is - it's just a movie that says, "I can tell you which answer is wrong."

There's not much comfort in the film's conclusion.  Like an ink-stained table, some atrocities will just leave their mark permanently and there's nothing you can do.  But maybe you can still lay down a tablecloth and have a good dinner.

The Part About the Violence

Clearcut is a movie where the only solace you can take is that one of its most heinous characters didn't get tortured to death.  And in that respect, it's so much more rewarding and effective an exploration of our desire for violence than most other movies that claim to be exactly that.

I'm thinking of something like Funny Games, a movie which purports to be "icky" because it makes its viewers complicit in the terrible deeds of its antagonists.  But I didn't really care for Funny Games and I didn't really buy into its criticisms of our violence-loving culture.  (To be totally honest, the movie kept putting me to sleep and I've been meaning to re-watch it for a few years now to give it another shot, but I just can't justify that when there's more interesting stuff available.)

I'm also thinking of something like I Saw the Devil, which tried to use the pulpiness of revenge fantasies for horrific effect and ended up being a borderline exploitation movie.  I kinda liked it overall, but I didn't feel like it necessarily decried either revenge or violence.

Where Clearcut succeeds is in making the viewer an accessory to crime not by any kind of trickery, but through pure, simple honesty.  It presents Bud as a horrible person because it wants you to want him to get hurt.  It wants you to feel rage toward him.  And it wants you to feel awkward and guilty when you realize the happiest ending does not involve him being killed.

It's not necessarily an easy pill to swallow.  Most people don't watch movies for grim self-reflection or hard lessons about cruelty.  But it is an important lesson and one that you don't often see.  Most movies about non-violence take the easy way by showing you simpler scenarios.  An oppressive government that can be toppled by a hunger strike, for example.  It's so much more complicated and requires such a skilled hand to construct something like Clearcut, and the fact that it works as well as it does is all the reason I need to recommend the film to everyone.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Not a ton, really.  Or at least, not very much traditional hipster cred.

It doesn't rack up a ton of points for obscurity - only 10 since it barely comes in under the 500 IMDB-rating obscurity threshold.  I'll give it maybe a "you've probably never heard of them" bonus for most of the cast, although Graham Greene as a lead makes it hard to give the full one.  So instead of a 15 point bonus for that, it gets 5 cred for the cast.

I'm happy to give it the full 30 point recommendation bonus, but that's about where the bonuses end.  It adds up to a meager total of 45 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  The thing is, Clearcut's cred is a very specific kind.  Most hipster cred is about one-upping people with how ironic you can be, but every once in awhile you're not trying to snottily win some debate about who's watched the weirdest movie - sometimes you just want to recommend that people check out a hidden treasure.

So, I'm going to do something a little different with Clearcut and say that even though it only gets 45 hipster cred, it gets twice as much sincere fandom cred.  Let's call it 90 underrated cred.  You should try to see it regardless of what kind of hipster you want to be.

Where You Can Watch

If you hurry before it gets pulled for copyright infringement, you can watch Clearcut on Youtube.

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