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."

* * *

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.

* * *

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 ...


Alex said...

"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."

No, Rosenbaum is actually correct here in his emphasis. Because McCarthy and the Coens are simply mistaken in their depiction of the non-existant theory they want to have us view as something called evil. Note that I object to the use of word "evil", specifically because that word is primarily freighted with the post-WWII discussion of fascism through the guidance of Hannah Arendt. (and it will come as no suprise that I find Arendt's "evil" simply untenable - which means I find both the serial killer trope - which really surprisingly is an outgrowth of a combination of Arendt and Freud - a dead end and the Coens' use of it misguided). I.E. the Coen's philosophy is ultimately fairly trite. That's precisely why Rosenbaum's evocation of Orwell and the discussion of Iraq War II is so apropos here, since contemplation of Iraq War II can be greatly aided by contemplation on Orwell and avoiding the false comfort of Arendt and vulgarized Freud.

ZC said...

How to prove what specifically the Coens are depicting ("mistakenly" depicting) is in fact evil as such. I think it's a highly tenable reading of the film, but my point is that the abstract form of the film, the storyline, need not define this enemy/other/Bardem as such. One must interpret it as evil: and that's a pretty sound interpretation, but it's not the only potential one.

I don't disagree that there are meaningful resonances to be found in the film and Rosenbaum's evocation of Orwell and Iraq. Even so, I think Rosenbaum is clearly limited by directing his critique only at a "well made" film he finds (reads as) ideologically distasteful, instead of a complicit film (in the political economic sense: meaning basically any commercial film) he finds to be masterful, which is a more complete application of a real 'Orwellian wall' theory. (I don't know if Orwell himself would support this reading, as I don't know much Orwell. All I assert is that this is true.) THAT is indeed an example, itself, of lack of contemplation and a certain false comfort ...

The political and cultural resonances between American serial killer fascination, our wars, our media, No Country for Old Men are real, but I am not convinced they come from the structure of the film, the fact of the film, but rather the invited reading of it. Because I think that Hollywood cinema has more or less perfectly a kind of openness or reversibility in which meanings and their alternates can be read. (How else to explain the remarkable counterintuitive--and frequently reactionary faux-radical--dexterity of someone like Zizek?) No Country for Old Men is an "open" film, and one (very good) reading of it would be the one you and Rosenbaum are proposing. But structurally I think it is more abstract than this ...

Anonymous said...

My take on the film was that the philosophical question (not about evil necessarily - I did not respond to Cigurh as "evil") was set up structurally as a thesis/counterthesis (or maybe counterthesis/thesis) with the final three scenes/conversations either resolving or unresolving what came before.

What I find the most interesting is that (with the exception of the final lines) these are places where the Coens very deliberately veered from McCarthy - but, I think, managed to deliver the same thesis he does in a way that was somehow both more subtle and more deliberate. It may be one of the few cases where I think I prefer the film.

Ed Howard said...

I think Rosenbaum's reponse to No Country as some kind of symptom of the public's passive response to Iraq is exceptionally limiting and, to my mind, misreads the film itself to a near-ridiculous extent. The Coens have made a very complex and difficult to interpret film, especially when one starts looking at the ways in which they deviate and converge with McCarthy's original novel.

Nevertheless, if there's one thing No Country unequivocally discourages, it's a passive response to violence or images of violence. The Coens have their own little Funny Games moment halfway through when they intercut a quick shot of the cackling deputy, laughing with gallows humor in response to a brutal newspaper story. The shot, and Tommy Lee Jones' disapproving response shot, serve to implicate the audience for laughing along. And Jones himself is ultimately treated with much less sympathy here than his character gets in the book, because of his failure to confront Bardem's Chigurh (and evil is as good a word as any for what Chigurh represents, a very human evil nonetheless).

The Coens' choice to drastically condense the final quarter of the book, and excise much of Sheriff Bell's material, more than just a necessary choice to keep the length manageable, is a way of emphasizing the moral implications of his failure to confront Chigurh. His passivity and his sense of helplessness in the face of Chigurh's ruthlessness are intimately tied to his conservative moral outrage at the supposedly new violence represented by the killer -- but the coda, with its story of Old West brutality, reveals that Bell's outrage is just an unconscious ploy, a way of avoiding the confrontation with a violence and evil that is in fact nothing new, that has always existed in men, and that must be confronted and dealt with.

Bell's lame attempt to associate Chigurh with the decline in people saying "sir" and "ma'am" is another indication of the extent to which his conservative moral philosophy has failed him, because it fails to see that violence and immorality are constants, not tied to any one era but perpetual elements of humanity that must be confronted in all their forms. This point is in the book as well, but the Coens' condensations serve to emphasize and strengthen it, though apparently not enough for some commentators who just seem confused by the film's ideas, or worse yet accuse it of not having any.

I talk about some of this in my review from the day after I saw this, but the Coens' film has been percolating in my brain ever since, and it continues to awaken new associations and trigger new ideas as I think more about what exactly it's doing. I think that alone should be an indication that there's more going on here than Rosenbaum's reductive review would suggest.

Alex said...

"One must interpret it as evil: and that's a pretty sound interpretation, but it's not the only potential one."

No, it's about the depiction of evil - or, at least, what conventionally appears as something interpreted as evil in a post-Holocaust world. All the other interpretations of Cigurh start with disproving that convention. "Evil" is really banality within authoritarianism (Arendt) or "evil" is really deep medical / pyschological problems (vulgarized Freud) or a number of other interpretations of "evil". Even though those interpretations end in contradictory places (and sometimes end up denying the existance of "evil"), they start with this post-Holocaust depiction of "evil" - which is extremely frequent within post-Golden Age Hollywood film: that's why we see so many serial killers, Nazis, superpowered terrorists, etc.

"managed to deliver the same thesis he does in a way that was somehow both more subtle and more deliberate."

What's that thesis? Because I find the thesis of both McCarthy and Coen freres fairly trivial.

andrew tracy said...


you seem to have misremembered one of your key examples from the film. The deputy certainly doesn't "cackle" at the newspaper story, he quickly and embarassedly stifles an involuntary laugh. And Jones' response is certainly not judgmental, but positively indulgent: he smiles slightly and offers that "Sometimes all you can do is laugh." If you'd care to extrapolate the implications of that statement (and I don't necessarily want to take it quite so far, at least without supporting it with other evidence from the film), it could be read as advocating a complacency in the face of horror - a 'realistic' stance that easily shades over, in inverse fashion, into the kind of 'false comfort' Zach and Alex have mentioned (world's fucked, always been fucked, so whaddya gonna do?)

I agree with your overall point, however, though from a significantly different angle. The Coens certainly don't advocate a passive response to violence: the neatness and speed of Chigurh's killings brought shocked laughter from both of the audiences I saw the film with. This (completely legitimate) response is hardly condoning the application of such violence in the real world - but I think it's telling that the film's cut and dried moral allegory, which certain commentators are loudly proclaiming as a Profound Statement about Our Human Condition, can be so safely contained within the realm of distanced, purely onscreen entertainment. We in the audience are not scared of Chigurh one iota. Allegorical figures can't touch us, can't hurt us, and thus Chigurh's methodical pursuit of Moss and neatly dispatched murders provide the suspense and the bloody climaxes that give us our thrills.

That said, I would disagree somewhat with Alex: in the aesthetic realm, a theme or thesis is only as trivial or trite as its treatment. And the material fact of the theme as enacted in the film of No Country (haven't read the novel) is not so much trite as monotonously schematic - a monotony which, as it is largely conveyed through actions performed in the film, necessarily translates into the film's aesthetics as well.

Pace Ed, I'd say that the film is not difficult or complex at all, but rather studiedly understated in conveying its entirely obvious point. I'll air that word again - "neatness" - to sum up the film as a whole. As Zach points out, the film's "well-madeness" percolates down through every level of its construction - and ends, in my opinion, in stifling any weight or resonance to its motivating theme, outside the skillful impressions of authenticity brought off by Jones and Brolin, and Bardem's entertaining extraterrestrial caricature (neither of those are intended as backhanded compliments).

So what does that leave us with? A very well-executed thriller with metaphysical pretensions which cannot be extricated from its thriller mechanics. And while that's perfectly OK by me - I simply reserve the right to not be moved by it or prompted to philosophical meditation on the nature of evil - it certainly does contain a sociopolitical overtone: one that results not only from the physical evidence of the film itself but from the ecstatic response it's been greeted with. If Rosenbaum's enjoying-a-thriller-equals-support-of-Iraq-War proposition is rather undertheorized, it nonetheless hits - in a propagandistic, rather than calmly contemplative, vein - upon real qualities of the film's aesthetics and the climate which can generate such unreserved enthusiasm over them.

Ed Howard said...

I don't think I misremembered quite as much as you're saying. The deputy suddenly burst into an awkward laugh at Bell's comment, and I interpreted his stifling of that laughter as a response to Bell's disapproving glare, which the Coens immediately cut to right after the laugh shot. There's no mistaking the meaning of that first shot of Bell, casting an angry look at his deputy. The fact that Bell then softens up, and admits that sometimes he laughs too, doesn't really negate the immediate effect of the two preceding shots, which is to make the audience at least think about their own laughter.

I also take issue with your complaint that we in the audience are not scared of Chigurh, which I don't really see as much of a problem. Chigurh, as a killer, is basically a businessman. A great part of the film is about the process involved in his killings, the extent to which murder for him is sort of like following a set of instructions, like you would to assemble a piece of equipment. It's hard to be frightened of a killer like that, because he's so divorced from the usual depictions of evil -- much more like evil as described by Hannah Arendt, indeed. And being scared of the killer is usually a function of the thriller genre, something which the Coens are studiously avoiding. I think that fact actually contradicts your thesis -- Chigurh's murders give us few enough thrills, because they don't really scare us, they don't involve us emotionally, and they don't have any suspense. We know Chigurh is going to kill everyone in his path, because he's like a businessman who always makes the sale, and won't give up until he does.

The failure to resolve the film in the conventionally expected confrontation between Bell and Chigurh solidifies that provocation. The Coens even tease us with the confrontation, making it seem that Bell and Chigurh are on opposite sides of a door, about to face off, but the situation defuses when Bell opens the door and finds no one there. This leads directly into the contemplative coda, which finds Bell struggling to come to terms with his morality in light of what's happened and what he's left unresolved. To this end, the film leaves this unresolved tension even more open than the book.

Winstrol said...

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