An amazing essay style documentary about Monument Valley by Alexandre O. Philippe, The Taking examines American iconography involving the skyscraper-like red sandstone structures that dominate the area.
Sitting on the border of Arizona and Utah, Monument Valley technically is in neither as it’s located in Navajo territory. Philippe uses clips from over 100 films, commercials, cartoons, photographs, and paintings to unwind his thesis.
You have to have seen at least a few of the referenced images and that only elevates the content on display.
Philippe is known for his unique style of film history documentary that places films and filmmakers in a cultural and historical context. Examples include 78/52, which breaks down frame by frame the shower sequence from Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Since The Taking (2021), Philippe has made two other films, one about David Lynch titled Lynch/Oz (set for a mid-May theatrical release) and a documentary on William Shatner, You Can Call Me Bill, which had its world premiere at the recent SXSW Film Festival.
At the forefront is the appropriation of Navajo land to tell stories of white settlers. Yet, nature and its elements have inspired countless artists from western author Zane Grey (The Vanishing American) to Krazy Kat cartoonist George Harriman to filmmaker John Ford. Some of Ford’s films, and there are a lot, shot in Monument Valley include My Darling Clementine, which takes place in Tombstone, Arizona, and The Searchers, which take place in Texas in 1868.
Ford’s use of the West Mitten Butte is shown in multiple angles from each film he shot there. When John Wayne’s star-launching turn in Stagecoach establishes him with the butte in the background, he’s actually in a studio in front of a rear-projected image.
A moment that brings smiles shows Road Runner and Coyote play out their mutual hatred with Monument Valley as the background. That toon is Chuck Jones’ 1961 Beep Prepared.
One jaw dropping image is a 1964 Chevy Impala commercial, where a car was airlifted onto the top of Castle Rock, which is in Moab, Utah. Although close as the crow flies to Monument Valley, and graced with similar sandstone formations, the distance between the two is over 150-miles.
All the westerns depicting Monument Valley inevitably depict Apache or Comanche rather than Navajo. Rugged individualism and mythic landscape aside, there’s a bitter truth on display in Philippe’s film.
Various off-screen narrators range from film historians to academics to Navajo. Some of the best moments involve film or imagery that involve the subject but are set apart in space and time.
The use of location in other director’s work is shown on a split screen with Ford’s Monument Valley on the left and Kubrick’s labyrinth from The Shining, Scorsese’s city streets in Taxi Driver, Spielberg’s suburbia from E. T., and the Dali designed sequence from Hitchcock’s Spellbound on the right. There’s even a Dziga Vertov sidebar for true cineastes. Vertov, according to Philippe, “created geography through film language.”
Artists like Thomas Moran (The Golden Hour), and Claude Monet with one of his riverbank series Branch of the Seine near Giverny (Mist), and J.M.W. Turner’s The Pass of St Gotthard are given consideration for their depiction of pure landscape as are the filmic verdant Ireland horizon in Ford’s The Quiet Man, and Nolan’s water bound planet in Interstellar.
The Taking is an easy film to rewatch and gets theatrical release on May 5.