The Taking, 2021.
Written and directed by Alexandre O. Philippe.
Following his acclaimed documentaries on Psycho, Alien and The Exorcist, Alexandre O. Philippe turns to Monument Valley for his latest inspiration.
Genre film documentarian Alexandre O. Philippe (78/52, Memory: The Origins of Alien) takes a swift move away from horror for his latest project, a deep-dish meditation on the use of Monument Valley throughout cinema, predominantly in American Westerns.
Even those without much affinity for the genre will find a still image of Monument Valley familiar, such is its permeation throughout pop-culture, largely due to its placement as a backdrop in so many formative Western films. The naturally sublime cluster of towering buttes have taken on a mythic status over the last near-century, serving in cinema as literal monuments to human “progress,” man’s battle against nature, and of course, America itself.
All the expected touchstones are considered here, though Philippe’s doc – which cuts between footage of the valley featured in films and shiny new B-roll, accompanied by considered voiceover from academics – becomes decidedly more interesting when it ponders the more problematic aspects of its appropriation.
No filmmaker in history has perhaps been more intimately associated with a single location than Ford with Monument Valley, as one subject aptly points out, the valley being co-opted by Ford and dozens of artists who followed him to support the mythopoeia of white American primacy.
The visual of the valley has been mediated, elevated, fetishised, and perhaps even run into the ground by this point, cementing it as a colloquially white space, no matter that it resides on Navajo land. Rewriting the valley’s story to be centered around rootin’ tootin’ white heroism is wholly at the expense of Indigenous agency and visibility, their local stories and culture marginalised by both Hollywood and the long tail of contemporary tourism.
That rewritten mythology cannot ever be put back in the bottle, such is the stature of Ford and John Wayne’s impact on the region, and while this aspect of Philippe’s film is by far the most interesting, it’s also nudged out of the way disappointingly expediently.
The remainder is comprised of compartmentalised think-pieces from essayists – who are unidentified until the end credits but largely consist of scholars and writers – whose theses range from curious to entirely unconvincing. A late-film attempt to parallel Monument Valley with this year’s U.S. Capitol attack proves especially risible, and several other asides come off as needlessly turgid, even self-satisfied. It’s perhaps a demonstration of restraint that not one academic dares compare the edifice-like rock formations to male genitalia or masculinity as a whole.
Possibly sensing a less-fruitful subject than his prior works, Philippe at least keeps his new doc to a breezy 76 minutes. And even if you’re not taken with every spoken word, the eye-watering vistas on offer ensure the runtime flies by easily, along with clips from films as disparate as How the West Was Won, The Blair Witch Project, and Transformers: Age of Extinction.
Above all else, The Taking should at least give viewers something to consider the next time they watch a John Ford Western, or just generally see the valley depicted on-screen. It’s less persuasive and more dryly academic than Philippe’s other docs, but provocatively asks audiences to rethink their relationship with one of cinema’s most iconic locations and the Western genre as a whole.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.