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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

No Country for Old Men

Olaiya, in an heroic display of patience, came with me to see a impromptu double feature of Beowulf and No Country for Old Men last Monday night. O isn't known for having double-dip fortitude to begin with, and these were two heaping helpings of testosterone.

Beowulf isn't really worth commenting on except to say that 3D f/x have come a long way. It's fun to feel like you're being shot in the head with a volley of arrows when you're sitting in a darkened theater. No one can see you flinch.

The squirming got a lot worse with No Country for Old Men however. First off, Javier Bardem has made himself into one freaky mofo, and every time he's on the screen you cringe in dread waiting for something completely awful to happen. It's been a while since I've taken a joyride with a sociopath, and this is one of the most disturbing portrayals in cinematic history.

Creepiest haircut ever!

The film itself lives up to the hype, sort of. The cinematography and acting are uniformly excellent. The Coen Brothers render atmosphere masterfully. Everything is still and ominous Texas prairie... until it isn't... and then you wish it would go back to being still and ominous because the punctuation marks in NCFOM push the envelop of cold brutality. Bardem's character sees the human race as cattle, and appropriately uses a pneumatic bolt gun (among other weapons) to butcher whosoever he chooses.

Without giving out too many spoilers, I'll say that the film follows two parallel character arcs: Tommy Lee Jones as an old-fashioned lawman trying to make sense of the new breed of criminals, and Javier Bardem as a sociopathic bounty hunter inflicting his own skewed sense of honor on the world. The conclusion is very untypical of Hollywood films, and I'm glad no one tried to force a satisfying ending on this film.

I've only read one Cormac McCarthy book (All the Pretty Horses) but I figure him to be a man who cultivates his nostalgia for the old West, and feels that we've all lost something precious with its passing. All the Pretty Horses tells the story of an honorable man whose skills no longer fit the changing world... an anachronism. In this film, Tommy Lee Jones provides that same character type. While there are lots of unanswered questions, symbolism both cryptic and blatant, and empty spaces where the audience must fill in their own conclusions, it's the image of Jones riding off into the sunset that we're left with (even if we never actually see him riding off into any sunsets.)

This is where I have difficulty with the film. I'm open to being disproved (and I've heard some pretty far out interpretations about what this film "means") but it felt to me that McCarthy (and the Coen Bros) are mostly portraying the tragedy of change. They seem to be harping on the idea that traditions and honor cannot compete with the new nihilism. The problem I have with that is that alarmists have always (at least since the days of Plato) lamented about the next generation's descent into thuggery, lechery and moral decay. People who imagine that previous eras enjoyed a perfect world (e.g. the way some people feel about 1950's) are conveniently ignoring all the child abuse, rape and lack of civil rights that was rampant in those years. People who wish they could live in medieval times would all be dead before they were 30 from diseases, famine or war. That's just not a realistic view of the world. These "Chicken Littles" strike me like the evening news: sensationalistic ambulance chasers profiting off of our collective fear and fascination. I refuse to believe we've fallen off a cliff of nihilism, or feel sad that old cowboys no longer have a distinguished place at our societal table. Nor do I believe that the 80's (when NCFOM is set) produced more sociopaths than the 50's.



At 11/28/2007 04:32:00 PM, Blogger Walaka said...

In reply to your last-mentioned "difficulty," I would offer one word: postmodernism.

In the past, as western culture moved through classical reason to Xtian faith to capital-S Scientific world views, although new generations may have rebelled/changed/disagreed, there was still the sense that the universe was knowable and that an Answer could be reached. There were certainly dissenting views, but the overwhelming mindset of the culture was such.

Pomo throws all that out the window: reality and truth are negotiated, not discovered. If that view becomes the cultural norm, doesn't it make it a very different game in some real sense?

For example, pre-H-Bomb, we could have all kinds of views of war, but after that event, we had to include the possibility of the total destruction of the human race - an outcome which hadn't been on the table before. That changed everything, in a way that it hadn't ever changed before. (And it's one of the points at which postmodern thought began to take hold, according to some timelines.)

Just my $.02

At 11/29/2007 01:23:00 PM, Blogger John said...

Interesting post Walaka. So you're making the case that the generation between the 50's and the 80's really did experience changes that no other generation endured, and therefore is a unique case in the course of human history. It could be that the threat of the atomic bomb, and the popular acceptance of post modernism, created special circumstances... but I'm not convinced.

And I'm surprised at how much power you ascribe to post modernism. I feel, in daily life, that most people don't understand the concept at all. Or maybe they embrace some of the aesthetic cliches, but not the philosophical ramifications.

My suspicion is that if someone had asked Cormac McCarthy in 1980 to predict a vision of America in 2007, he would have invoked Road Warrior imagery... I think he's one of those who expects society to unravel at any second because people have stopped saying "sir" and "ma'am". And those arguments alway seem to say more about the person doing the complaining then they really do about society.

At 11/29/2007 07:32:00 PM, Blogger Walaka said...

I hope it didn't sound like I was ascribing too much power to postmodernism - I'm not sure that it is yet a prevailing cultural mindset (in fact, there's strong evidence that it isn't), I was merely offering it as a foundation for a position that might be taken my a creator wondering about such things. I have never read McCarthy nor have I seen the film yet, so in the immortal words of Lou Costello, I don't even know what I'm talking about.

Your last-paragraph sketch of McCarthy describes a Type with which I am familiar, and seems a more likely source for his positioning.


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