Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Fifth World Movies: Pathfinder

I'd thought that discussing movies with hints of The Fifth World's tone, like Nausicaä, would give me enough to post regularly. We see how well that plan worked out!

Well, today, I'd like to talk about a much less well-received movie: 2007's Pathfinder. Rotten Tomatoes gives it just an 11%. I won't really argue the critics there: I won't vouch for the dialogue, or the plot, or the pacing. It seems like a simple gore-fest, and I have no doubt that to the director and most of the audience, it held little more than that.

I even had some gripes beyond that. For instance, one scene has a Norseman calling to his fellows by mimicking a bird call. Peter Charles Hoffer makes some excellent points about this very thing in Sensory Worlds in Early America. To the Europeans, "the woods" seemed dark and scary, home to witches and warlocks. They yearned for the comfort of calls and cries that broke the native pattern, that created a sharp distinction between the "natural" and the "artificial." Meanwhile, why wouldn't natives rely on techniques like "concentric circles"? You simply can't sneak up on a true native in his own home—every bird and animal in the forest has already announced you from miles away.

I'd expect many would feel disappointed at the bizarre aesthetic of these "Norsemen." I can forgive the heavy metal, anachronistically gothic look, though; it plays with perception cleverly, presenting us not what they actually looked like, but instead captures some of how they must have seemed to the Algonquin people they encountered. The shots of the Algonquin village in the beginning provide one of the best visions of what the Fifth World might look like that I've seen on film.

But what makes me give Pathfinder any consideration at all actually has to do with that non-existent plot. Yes, it begins with the classic action film set-up. The protagonist, orphaned protagonist, Ghost, fights against his biological relatives on behalf of the family that took him in, along the way contending with his anachronistic identity issues. But he fails. He fails so completely that the titular Pathfinder must take his place and die violently, instructing Ghost to exchange paths. The Pathfinder dies the violent death that Ghost's violent quest for vengeance sent him towards, and instead becomes pathfinder to the Norsemen. Only then does he manage to succeed; not by his own strength, but by following a Trickster's path, and bringing his enemies to the place where the land defeats them.

In that, Pathfinder traces a very interesting contrast between the Western action hero who succeeds by overpowering his enemies, and the native Trickster hero who succeeds by aligning himself with the land, and then the land defeats his enemies. It shows the grisly, violent end of the Western action hero, and the eventual triumph of the Trickster, nto by his own strength, but by the land's.

Yes, Pathfinder has no shortage of flaws. Despite that, it has something very valuable in it, I think. If you don't mind a violent, gory movie, it might even make watching it worthwhile.

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