Friday, November 16, 2007
No Country for Old Men
Part of me thinks that the Orwell quote with which Rosenbaum prefaces his review is really best suited not for "quality" films that are ideologically problematic, but in fact, the outright masterpieces still produced and exhibited within the Hollywood system. The films of which one approves, loves, and yet which still primarily play in commercial theaters and major festivals, and on nice DVDs, acting as cogs and props and diversions and even instruction manuals for barbarism. This puts Orwell's assertion in perspective. It's easy to use the words as a rhetorical device to attack a well-made but distasteful film, and more importantly than the fact that it's easy, it's of limited value. To think politically about the cinema we have to be willing to grapple with those things we cherish: to understand that the art we most love is sometimes the art most complicit. (Rosenbaum does deal with this issue, more cogently than with No Country I think, in his review of The Mother and the Whore.)
The center (and the quotidian): Tommy Lee Jones. The extreme (and the abstract): Javier Bardem. The film's lack of confrontation of these two aspects--experienced by Jones' sheriff as a failure, and not experienced by Bardem's killer at all--is the frustrating thing about this movie, I think, for unsatisfied viewers. (And also, I'd wager, one of the happily accepted mysteries for those who like the film.) Jones can't fathom Bardem but has to live with it; Bardem has no need to fathom Jones. Is Bardem a representation of something other than his own narrative role (as a peripheral figure bearing down upon the center, devoid of psychological, an aestheticized phantom-monster-nightmare)? Is he a repressed social element? Is he Evil? Is he even misunderstood, alienated by the narrative because the narrative form must cast things in terms of protagonists and antagonists? And what is Tommy Lee Jones but someone incomplete: an old man but not old enough (his curiosity drives him but he finds no satisfaction). Is Bardem in fact the thing, the object, that gives Jones ('the human subject') meaning, or at least its promise? If I had more of a psychoanalytic bent I'd offer a few hypotheses on that front. There is a philosophical problem here that prefigures any specific sociopolitical questions (such as that of the American popular relationship to serial killers, or the aestheticization of murder), which is not to say that the sociopolitical questions are of no significance--quite the contrary!--but their working out within the terms of the film is, I think, subordinate to how one cracks McCarthy's and the Coens' very neat philosophical chestnut. It is this philosophical crux, at least as much as, say, the cinematography, which allows everyone in the debate to at least agree that, indeed, this film is "well made."
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Not long ago I checked out a videotape of Jon Jost's Last Chants for a Slow Dance from the NYPL; I watched about twenty minutes before I got impatient with the subpar video (which wasn't horrendous, but as I said, I was impatient), and told myself I'd wait for a screening (or at least a better copy). But upon reflection I think I should have been more stoic. It would make a fascinating counterpoint to No Country for Old Men, I think. In fact I'm a little surprised that Rosenbaum (who puts it on his AFI alternative 100 list) doesn't mention Jost's film in his No Country review--I would not be shocked to hear that it figured into an earlier draft.
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In terms of mood, and feeling, the ending to No Country for Old Men reminds me of the ending to the only McCarthy novel I've read, Blood Meridian. I'd describe both as stasis-in-flux, that is, they both gave me a mental sensation analogous to a dolly zoom ...