Review by Sean Boelman
Documentarian Alexandre O. Philippe has made films about some of the most important people and movies in history — from George Lucas to William Freidkin and Alfred Hitchcock. In The Taking, Philippe sets his eyes not on one individual and their work, but a symbol and what it means in the greater context of cinema history. While not as good as his other documentaries, it’s still a compelling watch.
The film tells the story of Monument Valley in cinema, and how the site became one of the most recognizable symbols representing America. Of course, there’s a story many of us don’t know about the site: before it became the foremost image of the “American West,” it was a traditional Navajo site that was appropriated by Hollywood.
This theme of cultural appropriation is incredibly timely and something that few movies have been willing to address, and The Taking gets serious merit points for that alone. That being said, while Philippe clearly seems willing to engage with this topic, there is also a feeling of nostalgia permeating throughout the documentary. It’s hard to both respect and condemn these films at the same time, and the documentary struggles with this balance.
However, like much of the iconography in the Western genre, there is much more to Monument Valley than it being merely a picturesque and desolate landscape. In the movie, Philippe dissects the myth of the American West — and America at large. Although the film’s occasional attempts to get political are often in vain, as the seventy-odd minute runtime doesn’t give the movie enough room to dig as deeply as it needed to be successful in this regard.
One thing about Philippe’s style that could prove divisive to audiences is that he entirely eschews talking head interviews. Instead, he uses interviews from experts, scholars, and filmmakers as voiceover accompanying footage and archive materials. Although his choice successfully puts the emphasis firmly on the imagery, it can also be a bit dry at times.
Thankfully, the visuals of the film are quite gorgeous, largely thanks to the natural beauty of the subject. Much of the footage we see of Monument Valley is taken from other movies, so the quality of the cinematography varies widely, but there is also some additional footage shot by Robert Muratore which is quite stunning.
It will also come as no surprise to cinephiles who have seen Philippe’s other films that the editing in this documentary is fantastic. There’s certainly a level of energy to the editing, which is welcome considering that the narration isn’t always done with the most captivating tone of voice. There are also some great uses of juxtaposition throughout.
The Taking is gorgeous to look at, and fascinating for anyone who is interested in cinematic history, but it doesn’t quite accomplish everything it sets out to do. It’s perhaps Alexandre O. Philippe’s most ambitious swing yet, and while it’s certainly not a miss, it’s also not quite a home run.
The Taking hits theaters on May 5.