Meek’s Cutoff (2010, Kelly Reichardt; Cinematographer: Christopher Blauvelt)
There seems to be, among certain film-goers, the egregious mentality that 4:3 is, as an aspect ratio, inferior to its widescreen brethren. Now, this isn’t as infuriating as hearing ludicrous harangues about having to sit through a black and white movie, or worse, that watching a foreign film with subtitles is like (ugh) reading a book, but it’s in the same vein. Almost all modern cinema and television is shot in a widescreen format, and yes, the viewer is technically getting “more screen” on which to feast their eyes, but the name of the game has never been quantity over quality. Early auteurs, working in 4:3, framed and blocked each shot with the same precision future generations would use with 16:9, and concepts of lighting, kinetics, and space were equally as important to them. David Lean became the master of widescreen, shooting Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm, but he mastered 4:3 first.
When Kelly Reichardt began preparations for her meditative, revisionist western, Meek’s Cutoff, the choice to shoot in 4:3 was an aesthetic, not a fiscal one. For her, a full frame image could better convey her artistic vision of a western landscape that suffocated instead of liberated, that offered nothing outside its periphery except darkness and fear. In fact, much of Meek’s Cutoff is about the binaries between what is seen and what is not, as bordering hills hide the constant threat of attacking natives, and night scenes are shot without the aid of studio light, rendering them visually incomprehensible.
The format also helped Reichardt stress the sociological subtext of the film. "I felt like the square [aspect ratio] gave you an idea of the closed view that the women have because of their bonnets," the director explained in an NPR interview. Likewise when Michelle Williams’ Emily pulls a musket during a crucial moment of rising action, her presence fills the screen, and she has carved out her new space as a woman, the threshold of which is not to be crossed again.
Visually, director of photography Christopher Blauvelt never once allows 4:3 to limit his scope, seen in the above still, a gorgeous, subtle, composition of humans and their landscape. Notice the clever use of negative space that exists between Will Patton and the rest of the travelers, emphasizing the power shift that has occurred between him and his wife, Emily. The yellow of Zoe Kazan’s dress, which covers a fallen friend, stands out unobtrusively, and mirrors the sickness and misfortunes that have overcome the group. Blauvelt displays a startling balance of focus in 4:3, one that, in 16:9, may have been compromised, and led to the compromise the film itself. There is no “wrong” aspect ratio; there is only what’s right and what’s wrong for the film in question. Kelly Reichardt made a bold aesthetic choice for Meek’s Cutoff, and Blauvelt delivered, simple as that. Even Sergio Leone would be proud.