Thursday, November 15, 2007

No Country for Serious Cinephiles

I lost considerable respect for Chicago Reader movie critic Jonathan Rosenbaum when, as cinephiles everywhere were still getting used to the loss of both Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni (on the same day last summer), he published a rather disrespectful obituary on the former - "Scenes from an Overrated Career" - basically suggesting Bergman was now irrelevant (you can find it online if you look). Certainly Bergman has fallen from his previously held stature among the majority, but I see this as more of a comment on the times: most cinema-goers are simply not morally serious enough to want to grapple with the questions that Bergman frames, and to side with them (while praising, say, Joe Dante's Small Soldiers, a favourite of Rosenbaum's) is in fact far more revealing about the critic than the criticized. The problem wasn't really Rosenbaum's opinions of Bergman, however (friends of mine share his indifference to Bergman, and I don't hold it against them): the real issue was that I felt it indecent of him to publish such a thing so fast after Bergman's death. Perhaps he'd been waiting to do so, either not having the courage or the cruelty to publish it while he was alive; it seems more likely that he just thought he could maximize the attention it would convey upon him, to write so disrepectfully of a man whom others were mourning. In a way, it's a sort of backhanded compliment, to be so eager to capitalize on someone's death, but no less, it was in extremely bad taste, and proof that Rosenbaum's own opinions, however perceptive he may sometimes be, need to ever be regarded with some degree of skepticism.

I have to admit, though, I still read his reviews. There aren't many mainstream critics I do that with. I'll usually will poke my head in to see what Ebert says, or Vancouver-based Tom Charity; and I'll read Rosenbaum. I read, for instance, his views on Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men. Whatever his failings, they make for an interesting take on the film - questioning why we need another romanticized portrait of an invincible evil, and how that functions in the current political climate. One suspects that Rosenbaum was predisposed to dislike this film - he doesn't care much for the Coens, and has written well about their failings in the past (I'd recommend seeking out his review of Barton Fink, for those interested. I don't believe it's online, but it is in one of his books, maybe Movies as Politics. It's perceptive, well-written, and is so sensitive that it would almost suggest that Rosenbaum does have some fairly refined principles of taste and decorum, which simply don't apply to speaking ill of the dead). His approach to No Country for Old Men, however, is kind of lazy. He praises the craft of the film, but, since he doesn't want to be bothered at looking closely at it, he simply rejects it as a whole for the story it presumes to tell.

In fact, there are many, many more reasons to reject No Country for Old Men than Rosenbaum provides, particularly if one has read the novel on which it is based. Though this has been an issue of contention - a surprising number of members of the Criterion Forum completely disagree with me, and the film has 95% on Rotten Tomatoes at the moment - it seems to me, anyhow, that the Coens show the same contempt for folksy rural types that runs throughout Fargo, framing them as ridiculous throughout. They introduce various notes of humour that lighten the film's impact - smugly framing an overweight trailer court manager as being utterly ridiculous, for instance. Worse, they considerably bungle their depiction of one of three main characters in the book, an aging lawman driven to despair by the brutality of the crimes he's witnessing. Tommy Lee Jones is directed to portray the character as a weepy-eyed, blinking, often-near-comical version of Frances McDormand's character in Fargo. As I recall, half of the time we see him onscreen, he's eating - hardly the most dignified of actions. The idea that his point of view should be taken seriously is completely effaced in the course of the film, even though his voice, impotent though it may nonetheless be, is the closest to McCarthy's own in the book; only in the closing moments does Jones gain any degree of moral credibility, and by then, it's too late.
The story goes like this: good guy finds a great deal of money at the scene of a drug transaction in which all participants were left dead. Takes the money, is pursued by a bad guy, while a well-meaning Sheriff looks on. The bad guy - comparable to Judge Holden in McCarthy's most-praised, and most ambitious, novel, Blood Meridian - presents as an articulate voice of evil. He's the only character with a clear philosophy, and it seems to work for him. My copy of the book is elsewhere at the moment, so I can't do Chigurh's worldview justice, but it IS frighteningly compelling, and informs his peculiar choice of allowing matters of life and death - the life and death of others, that is - to be occasionally decided on a coin toss. If Rosenbaum had read the novel, he might have tried a different tack in condemning the Coens' latest film, since the meaning of the story would be clear: the opposition between a virtue that cannot compete (our powerless Sheriff Bell), but which our moral impulses side with, against a completely unacceptable, predatory, but coherent and strangely, brutally attractive philosophy of life, is a significant question for our time. What can mediocre virtue do in the face of great evils? Will virtue prevail, and if so - how?

Not only do the Coen's fail to get us to identify with the voice of virtue in the novel, however - they fail to make their evil force particularly great. Javier Bardem is creepy as Chigurh, but rather repulsive - more of a menacing, evil clown than a Satanic minion - and his exposition of his philosophy is so abbreviated that it hardly compels our agreement. An episode at the end of the film - I cannot be specific without spoilers, so I'll remain vague - that should seem like a black joke at Chigurh's expense, courtesy of the very forces that he believes he is allied with, comes across as random and meaningless. It's a great shame, really, that the Coens fail to bring this story to the screen; I would have been quite pleased if they'd kept their smarminess in check and did justice to the tale, since I think that McCarthy's voice, and this book - light though it may be, relative to the rest of his canon - are important to our times. And in an age where Ingmar Bergman can be blithely dismissed as overrated, cinema clearly is in a state of crisis. What was the last morally serious new film YOU saw?
I can bet you this: it wasn't No Country for Old Men.

Best moment in the film, for what it's worth: when Moss finds the crime scene at the beginning of the film, he looks through his binoculars to see a wounded dog running away. The dog looks back over its shoulder at him. It's a chilling image - it has the quality of an omen. It's a shame the rest of the film doesn't live up to it.


Mark said...

I wanted to know how much of the "silly" dialog Ed Tom says is from the book, so I've looked it up:

pg.75 (from the scene of Ed Tom and Wendall examining the drug-shootout crime scene)
"Supposedly they wont eat a Mexican"

Ed Tom - "No. I believe this one's died of natural causes."
Wendall - "Natural causes?"
ET - "Natural to the line of work he's in."

W - "It's a mess, aint it Sheriff?"
ET - "If it aint it'll do till a mess gets here."

from earlier (pg.70)
ET - "You ride Winston."
W - "You sure?"
ET - "Oh I'm more than sure. Anything happens to Loretta's horse I can tell you right now you damn sure don't want to be the party that was aboard him."

The scene between Chigurh and the trailer park clerk is taken almost verbatim.

The scene where Ed Tom and Wendall examine Moss's trailer is a bit extended and not in the book, but I don't think that they went overboard in doing so.

The last scene (you liked it, correct?) is also taken pretty much verbatim, though in the book it's one of Ed Tom's monologues, and in the film it's a conversation.

Either way, there's literally tons of jokes or humorous quotes that the Coens' left out of the film. Ed Tom isn't some hugely grave and serious person. Humor and looking at things a bit cock-eyed is what gets him through the day and allows him to function in a world that has people like Chigurh in it. I also feel that the Coens admired the trailer-park clerk as well, for having her principles and sticking to them, even though it's made quite clear to her that Chigurh could kill her without caring less.

Regardless, I do agree that the Coens often feel superior to their characters. But it's in their best films (Blood Simple, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men) where they admire and love them, imperfections and all.

Allan MacInnis said...

Oh, I realize several of the humourous lines in the film are taken from the book. There's still a question of delivery, of the overall tone of the scenes that are selected (versus those left out), of the way Jones' is framed, of the blank look his character delivers the lines with... He's not without humour in the novel, to be sure, but he's also not the BUTT of McCarthy's humour; he IS the butt of the Coen's, at times, I thought.

Re: the trailer park clerk, yes, that episode too is taken from the book - but it's still a question of framing, of how her character is treated: the moment she appears on the screen, you can tell its a Coen brothers' film - the way she is dressed and made up, she's clearly meant to be a rather comical figure, almost ridiculous, an assault on taste and style, however fond of her on some level the Coens may be. That she bests Chighurh doesn't mean that the Coens don't feel superior to her, find her ridiculous, etc - the one does not follow from the other. In fact, they may be INTERESTED IN THE SCENE because it shows a "superior human being" being bested by a buffoon (a similar logic may explain why Steve Buscemi ends up ground meat in FARGO).

Actually, it occurs to me that there's something in the Coen brothers' humour that owes a bit to that of Flannery O'Connor, who will also take innocent, guileless, rural folk, with quaint and backwards mannerisms and no taste or self-awareness, and make them her heroes or heroines, showing how in their backwards innocence, they best the intellectuals and morally ambitious contemporary people around them... The Coens should adapt, maybe, "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

Thinking about it, I think I agree that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is among the Coen brothers best works.... unfortunately, for me, that isn't saying much.

Tom said...

Thanks for the name-check. I do disagree with your reading of the film though, which seems to me a very faithful take on McCarthy's novel. I certainly didn't think the Coens' dishonoured Ed Tom – this is Tommy Lee Jones we're talking about, an actor who exudes craggy integrity. We laugh with him – as he says (I forget the exact quote) sometimes all you can do is laugh. I'd have to see it again to comment on the scene with the trailer park clerk in terms of mise en scene, but I was impressed that she stood up to him.

Allan MacInnis said...

Hey Tom -

Yeah, everyone likes this movie but me and about three other critics, but dammit, I'm gonna stick to my guns and refuse to see the fucker again for a couple of years (at least). PARANOID PARK I'll probably revisit, because I'm curious why it irritated me as much as it did (I'll have an interview up with the author of the novel in the next week or so, btw). I guess I'm becoming quite hard to please.

Funny: there's quite the slapfight in the comments on Rosenbaum's review. I realized, on rereading it, that in fact, HE was the one who got me thinking of Flannery O'Connor. It's an interesting point of comparison...

Anonymous said...

The last morally challenging film I saw. What comes fast to mind is "Matchpoint" by Woody Allen, an admirer of Bergman's... An elegant piece of work that plys on chance as well.

Allan MacInnis said...

Well - didn't really dig Matchpoint, but I can't say much about it, since it didn't really linger (which is part of the problem). I DID like Michael Clayton a lot, which I saw a little later in the year, and saw as attempting serious things, and was even impressed by Before the Devil Knows Your Dead on a number of levels... It actually turned out to be a far better year for cinema than I expected.

And in fairness to the Coen's, I must admit - on second viewing of the film, which I just got back from about half an hour ago - while the same things that I found annoying, smarmy, or at best, tonally wrong the first time through still seemed annoying/smarmy/tonally wrong on second viewing, they bothered me far less, while the things that I enjoyed initially were far more enjoyable. I don't recant anything I said: even if it pissed me off less the second time through, the degree to which it pissed me off the first time still counts against it. But I probably was a bit unkind.

Liked it a helluva lot more than There Will Be Blood, in any case.