[Because DeAnander is still trying to figure out which way is up in Canuckistan [editorial note: this was intended as a satire on US wingnut usage, but I now realise it may give real offence, so apologies from DeAnander -- see thread below] we have been rather short of Friday Film Reviews. This one is a guest appearance by “Malooga” of MoA, x-posted here by DeAnander w/Malooga’s blessing.]
|Several weeks ago, Louis Proyect reviewed the Coen’s brother’s latest offering, “No Country For Old Men,” based upon Cormac McCarthy’s book of the same name (original review / followup). By chance, his review was featured on the website rottentomatoes.com, which, due to Proyect’s contrarian take on a film which had received over 98% favorable reviews, drove traffic towards his nominally placid Marxist blog, increasing the volume of posting there over tenfold – despite the fact that most of the film junkies barely noticed that the “film review” website they were feverishly posting to was entitled “The Unrepentant Marxist.”|
The majority of the posters were unabashedly in love with the film – the production values, the subtle plot twists, the spare existentialist overlay atop a West Texas-based action-packed, modern Western. Indeed, a number of prominent critics have designated the film a candidate for “Best Picture of the Year” honors.
In his first review, Proyect sketches out the plot and main characters:
There are three major characters in “No Country.” In the opening scene we are introduced to Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin in an impressive performance), a Vietnam veteran who is hunting antelope in the arid backcountry where much of the action takes place. He happens upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone bust, with dead or dying Mexicans lying on the ground next to their all-terrain pickup trucks equipped with high-power spotlights. After Moss notices a briefcase containing two million dollars, he absconds with it in a gesture highly reminiscent of the characters in the 1998 “A Simple Plan,” a much more successful essay on the moral and physical hazards of appropriating ill-gotten gains.
Hired to track down the cash is one Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a hit-man who lugs around a pneumatic stun-gun with a captive bolt that is ordinarily used for killing cattle. Chiguhr uses his to knock out the locks on doors behind which reside his intended victims or to knock out their brains slaughterhouse-style. Of indeterminate nationality, Chigurh is occasionally inspired to play with his intended victims, allowing them to toss a coin to decide their fate. His character is a mixture of a less interesting version of the Samuel Jackson hit-man in “Pulp Fiction” and the very first Terminator–the unrelenting evil one. Entirely missing is the kind of bent humor found in the kidnappers in “Fargo,” who despite being creeps were a source of amusement.
The third major character is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommie Lee Jones. Naming the character Ed Tom is a demonstration of Cormac McCarthy’s resolve to make his characters authentically “good old boy.” He is the counterpart of the female cop lead character in “Fargo.” Unlike her, Sheriff Bell never really gets involved in apprehending Chigurh or any other bad guys. His main purpose is to serve as an outlet for McCarthy’s cracker-barrel philosophy–a mixture of Reagan-era conservatism and nihilism. At one point, Bell tells a colleague that everything started going downhill when young people began to dye their hair green and put spikes through their noses.
Do check out Proyect’s excellent reviews. The onslaught consisted of over 100 postings essentially telling Proyect that he didn’t understand the film or its unorthodox ending. I felt that Proyect was caught up in defending his take on the film’s ending and had essentially “missed the forest for the tree.”
This was my response to both Proyect and the locust-like invasion of film junkies:
Coming late to the party.
Well, I’ve read the two reviews by our host and the 100+ comments, and I found a number of them interesting and even enlightening, and yet I come away from this thread of film criticism on a Marxist blog even more dispirited than from the movie itself.
Yes, the cinematography and the production values were top-notch, but one expects that from any Hollywood film, and has for a long time. It is hard to imagine that one would see a film for the sound production unless one worked in that industry; just as it is equally hard to imagine that one would bypass a film that had something important to say, but where the production values were not top-notch.
More to the point — and especially on a Marxist blog — is the question of what this film, and film in general, has to say about the human condition, and particularly the human condition at this critical juncture in time on this planet; what does the film have to say about the individual facing the contradictions and violence of modern society, coping with the ever-increasing material and social inequality and constraints on a stable and meaningful life posed by neo-liberal, late-stage capitalism, and the concomitant ecological collapse; what does the film have to say about the individual’s struggle against the very real violent and dehumanizing authoritarian and mass social forces in a time of rapid change; what does the film have to say about the search for community in a time of homogenization; what does the film have to say about the individual confronting the age-old forces of time, fate, change and death, and making a meaningful personal peace with them? Apparently very little.
To my mind, those are the important questions of our day, and to the extent that modern cinema engages and struggles with those questions is the extent to which it remains relevant. To the extent that a film addresses those issues and reveals some truth, some sense of humanity standing up to the dehumanizing and implacable forces confronting the modern condition, that film remains important and relevant. To the extent that it fails in this challenge, it is no more than escapism – an adult version of cartoons (OK, if it is acknowledged as that.) – or nihilism, and the belief in the impossibility of finding individual meaning and dignity: a condition which the elite who run this world would love to see the great masses reduced to. Where is the nobility in this? Or are we just reviewing cartoons for our entertainment in elevated language here?
At this point, let me say that I watch very little film because I find so much of it disappointing, or merely reinforcing of the most jéjune values of contemporary society, albeit dressed up in pretty wrappers. I have been greatly influenced in this regard by the reviews on the wsws.org website, and particularly the deep and far-ranging discussion between John Steppling and John Walsh on the
Film, as a product for mass consumption, is less than 100 years old. Television is half that age. As John Berger points out, industrially produced images, themselves, are only about 500 years old, and we have gone from seeing the rare painted or sculpted image in a church to being bombarded with mass-produced images at the average rate of one every two seconds or so. Our habituation has been total. I spent whole years of my childhood watching cartoons, sit-coms, movies, game shows, and really everything that played across the phosphorescent screen. Did all of those hours teach me anything about life; how society works; how materials and products are grown, mined and manufactured, and the social conditions and structures involved in maintaining such processes; or how society is run, mass belief and thinking channeled, and dissent controlled? I think not; rather it filled my head with all manner of silly notions and illusions about the benignity of American Exceptionalism, and the glorious, religious wonder of endless technological growth.
Reduced to the mythic level, there is the story: The story tells us about other’s experiences in life so that we may incorporate those experiences and lessons learned with our own. The moral narrative story was transferred to image. The average person I know cannot go more than one or two days without the overwhelming need to see (with their eyes) a story – either a movie, a rented video, or something on television. We have moved beyond mere habituation to complete capitulation. We probably view 500-1000 such complete stories a year. For the average 40 year old, that amounts to a total of perhaps 30-50,000 stories, replete with artificially constructed sets, and moving images, since birth. (For others, numbers may go as high as perhaps a quarter of a million or more such stories over the course of a lifetime.)
Even if we consciously disbelieve the values and social conditions put forth by the vast majority of the images and stories we view, over time these values and visions become a part of us – and the science of public relations is exquisitely aware of this. (For instance fighting in space is more exciting and important than healing this planet.) Does the average person know more about the forces controlling society, and the struggle against subjugation than, say, the person of 1848 (who incidentally, in this country, was highly literate and read many books)? And if not, than why not? Does the average person have more highly developed moral, ethical, or even aesthetic values than the person of 200 years ago? Has film served a useful social purpose — the “instruct” part of Dr. Johnson’s immortal “instruct and delight” rationale for art, and if, by and large, it has failed at this, then why pontificate against the desire for a coherent ending – if this is only entertainment, why not give the masses what they want? Or at least refrain from arguing that one ending is in some way better than another, except to voice one’s own preference.
More to the point, is the question of why the average person needs such constant flow of visual stimulation in our society. When people go away on vacation and get away from such a bombardment of imagery, they usually report a greater sense of well-being and happiness. Are the forces of modern society, and the work we are often forced to do in order to survive, so oppressive that we cannot function without anti-depressants and a constant deluge of either escapist fairy-tales, or the perpetual reinforcing of conformist societal values (albeit, often dressed in pseudo-rebellious garb)?
Sure, the human mind has the ability, and often the desire, to be in two places at once: to use our imagination. On a personal level we use much of our imagination in fantasizing about an improvement of our condition (for instance, sleeping with someone who we can’t, or owning a house or car we can’t afford). Perhaps cinema, in this sense, frees us from the need to exercise our own imaginations. It helps us escape the bind of the temporal condition, and be somewhere else, face new challenges and see new images: Sun and sea, when we are enmired in snow and ice, for instance. For a time we feel that we own the house and car, and have the mate of our dreams. Is it any wonder why the vast majority of Americans then believe they are much better off than they are, and thus can be manipulated against their interests on issues like welfare, and the inheritance tax?
But the real question remains: Why does modern man feel such a strong need to escape these temporal bonds? Why does modern man feel such a strong need for cinema? What ever happened to the Zen ideal of being hot in the summer and cold in the winter? Why not engage in a hobby, like woodworking or gardening, to relax and engage our creativity and imaginations? Why the overwhelming desire to spend 10-20 hrs/wk., or even much more, watching other’s stories? These are choices we make, consciously or not. I once lived high up a hill in a tropical rain forest, and when I got home from work (I did have an ordinary stress-filled, conflict-ridden job), I used to just sit and watch the opposite hillside: the flora and fauna, the changing conditions of light and cloud and wind, and the sounds of life, for the same hour or two that I had previously devoted to TV, every evening. Was I any less well off for not having seen some blood-thirsty killer stalking my field of vision for two hours? These are serious questions and, in our society, they demand serious consideration. What is the meaning and relevance of art?
Back to the specifics of this film: It seems there are two ways to treat the film: either by attempting to understand the storyline literally, or by viewing the film metaphorically.
Most of the problems with a literal reading have already been brought up, but here are a few more from my perspective. First off, neither I, nor my partner, understood a number of scenes, for instance, the scenes where Bell was speaking to a relative in the trailer. Who was the relative? Secondly, there were the usual string of illogicalities which propel any storyline. Who goes hunting in the desert without water, and if Moss had water, why didn’t he share it immediately? Does dark, oily, unprocessed, crude cocaine paste (it wasn’t pot) really come in from the Mexican border, or is that a myth, to scare the present public into closing the border?
There are perhaps a dozen, or more, questions along those lines I could easily come up with. Most persuasive in arguing against a literal treatment is the absolute lack of caricature and character development; the characters were limned as flat and two-dimensional as possible; little hints of their past or any sense of development, or maturation, was provided. The only one who had a sense of past and self-reflection, of course, was Sheriff Bell, a man of such limited beliefs and views (meant to pass as some sort of mythic Western wisdom), that if I had met him alone in a coffee shop in West Texas, I would have been hard pressed to sit still and listen to his banal explanations of society and its forces. And believe me, I have met enough Bells in my life. Also problematic in this sense were the Mexicans: evil, swarming homunculi that would make even me want to close our borders to prevent their infiltration. Clearly, West Texas was a stage set, not a real place, and modern cityscapes, as well as social and economic relationships, were noticeably absent.
The crowd that gets excited by interpreting the implicit details of a storyline sure liked the haziness of this film. I found myself unable to empathize with the individual 2-D characters, and, hence, uncaring of all the subtle details. After reading everyone’s interpretations on the comments, I’m still not sure if it matters who killed who, and who got the money. It was all fairly run of the mill action film – I’ve seen perhaps 10,000 of these – and without caring about the characters, and their ultimate moral disposition – that, of course, is the key — the details were almost irrelevant.
Noticeably missing from the all the comments and reviews was any reflection about the supposed driving force behind the plot: the money itself. In a sense, it was the ultimate Mcguffin, and treated as meaningless, really — just a way to drive the action and the violence which, in this film, was the actual point, and took on a life (and death) of its own. What are the social forces behind drug running, how much is $2M really, and would a cartel go to such lengths and dangers to recover such a sum? (Having personally known small-to-medium size drug dealers in Colombia, I think not.) What effect would $2M have upon Moss’s life (Where did he find meaning anyway? Does $2M turn you from an antelope hunter into a Cheney with buckshot?); would taking out only $100,000 have had the same effect? Clearly, the film does not want us thinking about money, and how it controls so many of our actions and decisions in our society in any real way. This is probably the film’s greatest limitation and defect, if we are in any serious manner to attempt to understand the film literally as anything more than escapist entertainment.
So, I guess we are left to wrestling with the film’s purported greatness on symbolic and structural levels. I can’t underscore how few films, especially Hollywood types, I actually see, and yet it is obvious what is in vogue these days. One of the last films I saw, a full eight years ago, was “American Beauty,” and, while that was a much better film, the similarities are glaring. It is in vogue to mix genres — in this case, Action, Film Noir, Southern Gothic, Post-modern, etc. It is implicitly assumed that such mixing of genres results in a product that is somehow superior (in a cathetic sense) to the pure genre itself.
But such a line of thinking denies the fact that such genres originally developed to emphasize certain qualities: In the case of Action, heroism and good-vs-evil; in Film Noir, the hidden, implacable forces of evil itself; in Southern Gothic, the sense of cultural and economic entrapment and strangulation; in Post-modern, the absurdity of life itself. It is apparent from the comments presented here that this genre-melding has left viewers with a greater individual range of interpretations of the film’s meaning and quality, depending on their feeling of which genre prevailed, and yet, consequently, a diminished sense of the overall emotional impact of the film. In any event, it seems obvious to me that such a trick has been done before – there is no need for the viewer to be perplexed about it – and that it is neither original, nor even very difficult.
The second point I would like to comment upon is the currently fashionable technique, again used in “American Beauty,” of post-modern irony — Chigurh’s hairdo, and bizarre mannerisms, the interview-like quality of Bell’s disquisitions, the tacky hotel settings. All of this has the quality of distancing the director from the film and the statement being made. It is as if the director is saying to us, “This is just a construct, an artifice I am creating; don’t take it too seriously; it’s just a movie, it’s a joke and you’re in on it – so, don’t really listen to what I am trying to say, because I’m not really trying to say it.” Again, this has been done before — it is all the rage in what passes for “serious” film –or so it seems to me. So, we become like children watching war films: we are shocked by the licentious violence, but at the same time, we know it is not real. To which I reply, “Great device! But, so what?”
Along a similar vein, what was the point of Chigurh’s odd weapon – a bizarre looking contraption used to kill cattle – would the film have been as engrossing if he used a common shotgun, and does this gimmick have any other meaning? One is hard pressed to make the argument that there is any substantial commentary concerning our violence to animal life in this film; only, perhaps, that human lives are being treated here with the casualness with which we treat animal life in our society. But, again, why? Is there anything we can do about it, or must we shudder in our apartments until Chigurh blows in our own lock? Why should we stand for human life to be treated this way, much less pay to see it, when we can read a blog like “Iraq Today” and see such violence in reality, and struggle with it personally, and the pain it causes both its victims and us, and struggle with either how to stop it, or grudgingly accept its real implacability. Perhaps I betray a fundamentalist streak, but I find it troubling that people pay to see such violence for enjoyment, but cannot bring themselves to follow the very real violence which is the principle product of our “way of life;” that is simply, boring. Yet, this is treated reverentially; this is “serious” cinema.
Finally, is it really so amazing and brilliant that the Coen brothers provided us with such an unclear climax and dénouement, with an open-ended resolution and incomplete catharsis? Has that not been done a zillion times before? It is just a style; either you like it or you don’t. Maybe it says that life is open-ended; maybe it doesn’t. Who cares? About ten years ago, I watched a few episodes of the TV show “Law and Order” (With that Fred guy who was running for President. I think that was the title, and a fitting one for mass media, too.); it seems even TV had figured out the trick a long time ago. When simple tricks such as these continue to create such a stir among “serious” cinema viewers, I would argue that the cinema, as many of our other art forms, is stuck and at a crisis. It seems that the great technological and emotional innovations have all been worked out, and, rather than confront the world as it is head-on, meaning and relevance have become rare indeed, and taken a back seat to faddish stylistic manipulation.
All of the above innovations of the Coen brothers – the mixing of genres, the ironic distancing, the inexplicable character quirks, the dramatic and narrative incompleteness — I would argue, only muddy the mythic quality of the film, while, arguably enhancing its stylistic value. Mythic value, for better or worse, is the reduction of the messy real world into an idealized war of human value against its opposite, a kind of Manichean moralism. By mixing genres, the emotional effects the individual genres are expected to produce mix into a confusing mess, a Jackson Pollack pallette of emotions thrown heedlessly against the spare West Texan canvas. Stylistic unorthodoxy invites stylistic criticism, not high theatrical treatment. In any event, such stylistic “experimentation,” as mild and unoriginal as it is, is hardly revolutionary, or even progressive, in any sense of the word. How then can we seriously treat such limited innovation by Hollywood as representing even the tiniest change in social relations — even that between viewer and auteur, viewer and critic, viewer and industry, or viewer and viewer – much less between viewer and society?
It seems, after digesting all of the comments, that the message of the film was, “Shit happens. And often, inexplicably.” Deep. I really learned something. In Shakespearean tragedy — Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, for instance – this is a given. Even the illiterate groundlings of the sixteenth century Globe Theater got that. The interesting part is how a character deals with the shit, with injustice, with fate, especially when the “jig is up.” Well, here they just shoot each other up, or soliloquize in some meandering pre-Alzheimers sort of way until the celluloid runs out and the credits roll. I, for one, was glad when they did.
A final way of interpreting the film is to see the major players as representing different aspects of property law, that is to say, our relationship to material things. After all, all the action in the film was driven around the money — representing private property — and the individual quest for it. Bell, who McCarthy and the directors seem to have no small amount of sympathy for, represents governmental law in its best Western reactionary, racist, unquestioning tradition, “The law is the law, but unfortunately, it don’t work no more.” Moss, also portrayed sympathetically as a sort-of libertarian sleeper, represents property law in the neo-conservative, “possession is nine tenths of the law,” “I own it and I’m going to do what I want with it” sense. The Mexicans represent entrenched power: “We had it, you stole it, and we’re going to get you.” Apparently, they did come away with the money in the end. Radical, man.
More complicated, in the novel, Chigurh, and the Harrelson character, represent the co-ordinator class in its good and bad cop aspects: paid by the elite to unquestioningly protect its property interests, either nicely or not so nicely. One is free to draw one’s own conclusions as to why the Coen’s were not comfortable portraying Chigurh as the bared fangs of violent servitude to the propertied class – the hired killer, the mercenary; I’m sure there was no personal element to that decision. In any event, the novel was changed, and Chigurh was depicted as simply lust for wealth, at all costs. While he suffered greatly, he persevered, and was even portrayed as having some personal integrity and arcane deeper personal moral code. All the minor characters were innocent spectators, and yet even some of these paid with their lives in the ruthless quest for lucre.
Nowhere in the film was a progressive voice ever heard, that is, one arguing in any fashion, for a more just and equitable distribution of property, much less any deeper consideration of the meaning of property, in general, for society — even if that character were to get its head blown off amidst gales of Mexican laughter. To me, the nihilistic quality of the film lies in its deeply cynical denial of altruism as a quality, indeed the quality sine qua non of humanity. Again, we are not even speaking of the relative value of altruism as a human endeavor, we are talking about the mere existence of it.
Louis’ personal page contains a beautiful quote from Max Horkheimer:
“a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.”
I assume that all of us who read this blog, absent the rotten core of the Rotten Tomato crowd, are activists in one manner or another. All of us have made personal sacrifices in one way or another, whether in money, recognition, time, or some other manner, because we felt deeply, to the core of our beings, that what we were doing was for the benefit of more than ourselves. Some of us have made very deep sacrifices and suffered greatly for it. Many of us have been ridiculed and shunned for our thinking. Much of the so-called “sympathetic world” has merely termed us “underachievers.” To my mind, a film which doesn’t even acknowledge our existence, and those like us – even if it is only to show us getting our heads blown off (and we all know that would not necessarily be an inaccurate portrayal of our type in West Texas at any point in history) — a film which doesn’t even acknowledge any love for that which is greater than ourselves whatsoever, is a deeply cynical, distasteful, and reactionary film – rotten to its very core. Perhaps it is a “serious” post-modern, Fukuyama type of world where all activism will be extinct. But they will have to kill me, and my brethren off before that happens – and then who will the Coen’s get to watch their reactionary screeds?