The result is a pretty exemplary popcorn movie.
Meet Steve Park. You may know him as Sonny, the Korean store owner in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" (1989) -- or perhaps as a regular on "In Living Color" during the 1991-1992 season. While recently going through the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man" (2009) with an audience for a week during the Ebert Cinema Interruptus at the Conference on World Affairs, I came to the startling realization that the Steve Park who played Japanese-American Mike Yanagita in "Fargo" (1996) and the Stephen Park who played Korean-American Mr. Park 13 years later in "A Serious Man" were one and the same.
The Coens sometimes give a single-scene appearance to a relatively minor character who provides the key to understanding (or at least defining) the film's mysteries. In "Miller's Crossing" (1990) it's Mink (Steve Buscemi) who, in a rapid-fire exchange with Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) at the Shenandoah Club lays out the movie's convoluted map of relationships before we can take in everything that's being thrown at us.
In "No Country for Old Men" it's Ellis (Barry Corbin), cousin of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who, in the quiet scene that begins the last movement of the picture, spells out the harsh realities of the past, present and future for the retiring lawman who feels overmatched in the modern world and wants to opt out of it: "You can't stop what's comin'. Ain't all waitin' on you. That's vanity."
Park has the honor of appearing in two such key scenes for the Coens, years apart. His Mike Yanagita is funny, with a delectable Minnesota accent to bounce off Marge Gunderson's, but he's also a disturbing and even tragic figure. Mr. Park (Clive's father) is one of many forces buffeting Larry Gopnick. And, unlike Larry, he's a man who knows exactly what he wants, even if Larry's rationalist worldview can't comprehend him. (Watch the video, above.)
Excellent op-ed piece by philosophy prof Tom Dodd Todd May in the New York Times ("Happy Ending") about the ending of "No Country For Old Men":
The harm of death goes to the heart of who we are as human beings. We are, in essence, forward-looking creatures. We create our lives prospectively. We build relationships, careers, and projects that are not solely of the moment but that have a future in our vision of them. One of the reasons Eastern philosophies have developed techniques to train us to be in the moment is that that is not our natural state. We are pulled toward the future, and see the meaning of what we do now in its light.
View image Two doors, mirror images. Two sides of a coin that's about to be tossed, and called, by Ed Tom Bell when returns to, and enters, room 114. The crime scene tape stretches across both, visually tying them together.
Because I brought this up in a larger context in "The Uncertainty Principle (or, The Easy Read), I figured I may as well follow through with it. (If you don't want to read another post about that movie, here, just keep a movin' right on through. You can't stop what's coming.)
So, let's take a look at what's here, and what's not here. And by that I mean what's in the movie, not what we might have seen if we'd been somehow been able to enter the picture as invisible ectoplasmic entities, free to wander back and forth at will between the membranes of those motel walls. We may draw different conclusions about what we see (and about how important it is), but let's not invent extraneous fictions beyond what the movie shows us (like Chigurh hiding under the bed or slithering down the drain)....
Son (Michael Shannon). Opening shot: "Shotgun Stories."
In Sally Potter's "Yes," there's a scene in a restaurant kitchen in which a Lebanese chef and a young Brit-punk dishwasher get into fierce confrontation (you can't really call it an "argument") over politics and religion. The kid grabs a frying pan and goes after the chef. The chef picks up a knife. Standoff. The manager arrives. Summarily, he fires the chef.
In the Q & A after the screening at Ebertfest, some people said they thought this was clearly a race-based (or racist) decision on the manager's part. Others debated the choice of weapons: Didn't a knife appear more threatening than a pan?
He (Simon Abkarian), "Yes."
Back up two weeks to the Cinema Interruptus series of screenings at the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, CO: We're looking at the scene in "No Country for Old Men" in which Sheriff Ed Tom Bell returns to the scene of the crime at the motel. [Spoiler alert -- although why you would be reading this blog if you haven't seen "NCFM" is beyond me.] The way the scene is constructed, we expect Chigurh to be standing behind the door when Ed Tom enters the room. The door opens flat against the wall. Ed Tom steps over a pool of dried blood in the doorway, looks around the room, checks the bathroom window (which is locked from the inside) and, relieved, sits down on the bed. He notices an air vent that has been removed. Four screws and a dime are on the floor.
What more do you need to know? I'm not saying it's unreasonable to want to know. But take a moment to look before you start jumping to conclusions. What is there and what is not there. Does the movie provide the answer(s) to your questions, or does it not? If not, what does that decision tell you? That the Coens are sloppy or forgetful? That they're interested in something else, like the experience Ed Tom has just gone through? That maybe you're asking the wrong questions? What else?
View image Is Daniel Plainview really "finished"?
I know, I'm sorry, that's two Entertainment Weekly covers in a row, but how was I supposed to avoid mentioning this? Where's the YouTube mash-up? I'd make it myself, but I don't really want to. I never thought of Anton Chigurh or Daniel Plainview as "Bad Boys," but...
From "Three Kinds of Violence: Zodiac, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood" (January 25, 2008): Like the chess-playing avatar of Death in Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," to whom he has been compared, Chigurh exhibits the occasional glimmers of personality -- pride, arrogance, annoyance, determination -- as do Zodiac and Plainview, but he never succumbs to the latter's fits of dudgeon. He kills not from anger, or even for money, but because it is his nature. Plainview is a petty bully, his unmanageable fury a sign of weakness that Chigurh would consider frivolous and self-indulgent. (That said, let no one suggest a "Chigurh vs. Plainview" sequel, please.)The "Alien" and "Predator" franchises are owned by Fox. Both "NCFOM" and "TWBB" are Miramax/Paramount Vantage releases (and they were both shot in Marfa, TX!). Will Javier Bardem's and Daniel Day-Lewis's people return the studio execs' phone calls?
View image A figure in the shadows.
1. I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed.
2. I hate most people.... I see the worst in people. I don't need to look past seeing them to get all I need.
3. I want to rule and never, ever explain myself. I've built my hatreds up over the years, little by little.
Match the above comments to the character who speaks or writes them:
a) Anton Chigurh, "No Country for Old Men" b) The Zodiac, "Zodiac" c) Daniel Plainview, "There Will Be Blood"
(Answers at end of post.)
* * * *
NOTE: Spoilers lurk sinisterly below.
View image Daniel Plainview, "There Will Be Blood."
Three of the most admired and fervently debated American films of the year move inexorably toward a climactic confrontation with a killer -- or someone's conception of a killer. Only Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" actually culminates in a eruption of savagery, while David Fincher's "Zodiac" and Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men" gradually steer their attention away from the assaults and into the psyches of the characters who are haunted by the brutality penetrating their lives.
View image Anton Chigurh, "No Country for Old Men."
View image The Zodiac, "Zodiac" -- or as close as we ever get to seeing him.
Much has been written about the violence in these movies, the darkness they find in the American landscape, and what some see as their bleak, fatalistic and/or nihilistic attitude. Does this somehow reflect the country's moral ambivalence about being mired in two bloody, confusing guerrilla wars on the other side of the world? A sense of No Exit hopelessness that the Vietnam nightmare is recurring? Mainstream (or art house) torture porn that allows us to vicariously groove on -- as we are simultaneously appalled by -- the crimes at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? Dissatisfaction with the materialistic emphasis on the American Dream? A cynical exploitation of artfully staged killings for our (cathartic?) entertainment?
The popular press likes to talk about violence in movies with a superficiality that assumes all violence and all movies are the same, that blood is blood (and that gore and gunplay are automatically more sensational than depictions of beatings or other forms of physical and psychological abuse). But that Sunday feature-section approach ignores what it's like to watch the movies themselves, and the diverse contexts in which they present acts of cruelty and lethality. To say that "Zodiac," "NCFOM" and "TWBB" are all "violent films" tells you as much about them as saying they all use the color red.¹ I'd like to consider how the violence in these films conveys its own meaning, apart from any op-ed political parallels that can be drawn, however legitimately.
Q. You said the final image of "The Assassination of Jessie James" was a Credit Cookie of the last shot of "The Great Train Robbery," with the cowboy firing his gun at the audience. That gave me an idea for a post-credits final image for "Charlie Wilson's War." As the film implies at the end, the aid to Afghanistan had an eventual blow-back, helping fuel the creation of our enemy Al-Qaeda. How about an Afghan fighter firing rockets at Russian planes, then turning his weapon on the camera and firing right at the audience. Rhys Southan, Richardson, Texas
View image A shadow in the light from a doorway.
It wasn't even close. In the MSN Movies 2007 Top 10 Poll, Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men" scored 106 points out of a possible 120 -- the only film to rank on all ten of the contributing critics' best-of-the-year lists. It was #1 or #2 on nine of the ten, and #4 on the other one.
Some of you may have gotten the impression that I think rather highly of "No Country for Old Men," so I was pleased to be asked by editor Dave McCoy to write a little blurb about it summarizing my appreciation. It goes like this: Shot by shot, cut by cut, sequence by sequence, no movie this year (or any other year) was more grippingly, cinematically exhilarating than "No Country for Old Men." Joel and Ethan Coen's first literary adaptation (from Cormac McCarthy's novel), crackles with an intensity that sharpens and stimulates your senses and reminds you of how little most other films do with the essential expressive properties of the medium: light, color, sound, movement, language. Movies are as much about the orchestration as the composition, and the Coens have orchestrated and composed a masterpiece -- one that embodies what most movies only describe.
A Western, a crime picture, a chase thriller, a ghost story (though not in the supernatural sense), "No Country" is the story of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a man chasing a dream ($2 million in drug money he's found in a satchel); Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a messenger of death who's tracking down Moss for the money; and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who's trailing both of them. Tension builds as the film progresses, even as the violence recedes. This isn't a movie about murder; it's about the awareness of inevitable death that stalks us all. Check out our individual lists here. My Scanners list (with blurbs on all my favorites) will be somewhat different...
View image Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem): You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't.
(A comment by Phillip Kelly in reply to an earlier post made me chuckle and got me thinking. He wrote: "I guess my theorizing [of] Anton Chigurh as main character doesn't stand now that Miramax is touting him for Best Supporting Actor. Too bad." That's the jumping-off place for this entry.)
The New York Film Critics Circle gave Javier Bardem its 2007 Best Supporting Actor award for his role as Anton Chigurh ("shi-GUR") in Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country For Old Men" (which was also named Best Picture). The funny thing is, so much of the discussion of the of the movie centers around Chigurh that you'd think he was was the lead. And critical reservations about "No Country" tend to focus on interpretations of Chigurh, and whether the critic accepts him as a character or a mythological presence or a haircut or some combination thereof.
"No Country" traces the path of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), from his opening narration to his closing monologue, from his nostalgia about the "old times" and his fear of the violence in this modern world to his account of two dreams about his father. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), sets things in motion by taking the satchel of drug money, and Chigurh spends most of the film relentlessly tracking him down, while Ed Tom follows a trail of blood to catch up with them both. None of these characters is a conventional "lead." We never even see Moss or Ed Tom come face-to-face with Chigurh. He exists in the physical world, but his presence is strongest when it's felt by these other two characters, even though they don't share screen space with him.
View image And the Exploding Head goes to... Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd in "Knocked Up"?
I'll publish my annotated "best of" list next week, but while thinking back over the year's movies I recalled some things that seemed to me "beyond category." Or the usual categories, anyway. One way or another, they made my head feel that it might explode. So, while everybody's preoccupied with all those other awards, here are the 2007 Exploding Heads for Achievement in Movies:
Best endings: • "The Sopranos" (final episode): blackout • "No Country for Old Men": "Then I woke up." • "I'm Not There": Dylan's harmonica on "Mr. Tambourine Man" • "Superbad": Baby-steps toward adulthood, separating at the mall escalator • "Zodiac": Stare-down
Most electrifying moment: A dog. A river. "No Country for Old Men."
Best grandma: "Persepolis"
Best surrogate grandpa: Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"
"Arrested Development" Award for Best Throwaway Lines: • "Keep it in the oven..." -- Jason Bateman, "Juno" • "... Terrorism..." -- Michael Cera, "Superbad" (actually, Cera has so many astonishingly brilliant under-his-breath moments in "Superbad" and "Juno" it's uncanny)
Best performance by an inanimate object: (tie) The cloud (and its shadow), the candy wrapper, the blown lock housing in the motel room door, "No Country for Old Men"
Most cringe-worthy lines: • "My cooperation with the Nazis is only symbolic." -- "Youth Without Youth" • "That ain't no Etch-a-Sketch. This is one doodle that can't be undid, home skillet." -- "Juno" (the cutesy moment at the beginning when I nearly ran screaming for an exit; cutting this entire unnecessary scene would improve "Juno" immensely)
Funniest double-edged observation: "He's playing fetch... with my kids... he's treating my kids like they're dogs." -- Debbie (Leslie Mann) in "Knocked Up," watching Ben (Seth Rogen) play with her daughter, who is loving it. That's her point of view, and she's right, but she says it like it's a bad thing.
View image Ain't nothin' but the real thing, baby: Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener in "Into the Wild."
The Real Thing: "Non-actor" Brian Dierker, rubber tramp, "Into the Wild" (and, of course, his "old lady" Catherine Keener, actor extraordinaire)
Best film about the way The Industry really works since "The Big Picture": Jake Kasdan's "The TV Set." The moment I knew it was going to be exceptional (sharp, precise and, therefore, extraordinarily funny) was when the writer's choice for the lead role gives an audition that's just... underwhelming. He isn't good. He isn't terrible. He just isn't enough. Which then allows the network execs to push for the "broader" alternative ("To me, the broad is the funny"). And even he proves himself capable of being not-awful -- in rehearsal, at least...
Best political film: (tie) "12:08 East of Bucharest" and "Persepolis" -- a pair of smart, funny movies about the effects of political revolutions on individuals in (respectively) Romania and Iran.
Deadliest stare: (tie) Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), "No Country for Old Men"; Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), "Atonement"
Young comedy whippersnapper stars of the year: Michael Cera (19), Ellen Page (20), Seth Rogen (25), Jonah Hill (24), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (18)
Game savers: J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney, who come to the rescue of "Juno" not a moment too soon
Best torture porn: The excruciatingly funny baptism scene with Paul Dano and Daniel Day Lewis (both of 'em overactin' up a storm -- but in a fun way), "There Will Be Blood"
Most worthless critical label: "Independent." A movie should not be viewed through its budget, financing or distribution. And in these days of studio "dependents" (Miramax, Focus Features, Paramount Vantage, Fox Searchlight, etc.), the term "indie" is frequently misleading at the very least.
Best bureaucrat: Dr. Fischer (Alberta Watson), "Away From Her"
Best negotiations: • Chigurh and the gas station owner, "No Country for Old Men" • Chigurh and the trailer park lady, "No Country for Old Men" • Chigurh and Carla Jean, "No Country for Old Men" • "4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days": The painfully protracted, ever-shifting moral balance (and exhausting power-struggle) in the hotel room, between the friend and the abortionist -- while the pregnant woman herself passive-aggressively bows out of any responsibilities for what has happened, or will happen.
"Perfume" Award for Best Portrayal of Synesthesia: "Ratatouille"
Best Supporting Crotch: Sacha Baron Cohen, "Sweeney Todd." An squirm-inducing scene-stealer that makes you long for a change of angle: Please give us an above-the-waist shot! (Did they have spandex in mid-19th century London?)
View image Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is no city slickster. Still, he thinks knowing how to use a camera might possibly be a good thing when it comes to making a movie.
Two sentences in the New York Times story announcing the line-up for the 2008 Sundance Film Festival jumped out at me as symptomatic of a fashionable but misguided attitude toward the art and craft of filmmaking today: And some of the more striking, original documentaries were quite unpolished, [Sundance festival director Geoffrey] Gilmore said. “You’d get a sense they’d never touched a camera before.”Now, I am all for striking, original films -- including unpolished ones. Among my favorite documentaries of recent years are Chris Wilcha's "The Target Shoots First" and Jonathan Caouette's "Tarnation" -- both films made with small consumer video cameras by people recording their own experiences over long periods of time. Neither man considered himself a "filmmaker" when he started shooting, but both discovered what they needed to express while making these films. I could not be more enthusiastic about the means of production finally being within the reach of the proletariat (people like me).
But, as I've been wondering for some time now: What is behind this popular and patently false critical suspicion that a "well-crafted" movie is automatically phony or inauthentic, while a film that is "unpolished" is considered genuine -- automatically real or truthful? This is especially troubling to me when the people expressing this attitude fail to convey a recognition of the distinctions between artistry and production values -- or between validity and lack of skill.
Likewise, I've never understood why a so-called "independent film" (a term that usually refers to the source[s] of the production financing, if that) should be appreciated or evaluated any differently than a studio-bankrolled film (which may well be a negative pick-up distributed by a major or one of its "dependent" arms). It's unbelievably hard to get a film made either way, and just because you have studio financing doesn't mean you won't be fighting for money or time or resources (and, probably, creative control as well). It definitely means that more of your budget will go to overhead costs. Studios also force you to deal with development execs who may consume a lot of your time and energy trying to put their unwelcome fingerprints on the movie (just to justify their salaries). But even if you get your movie made more or less the way you want to with your indie financiers, there's no guarantee that your indie distributor (if you get one) won't demand cuts or changes that don't necessarily make the film any better or more marketable.
I've seen plenty of big-budget Hollywood films made by professionals who evidently knew little or nothing about what they were doing. It's like they'd never touched a camera (or an editing table or a mixing board) or even encountered an actor before. And it's not pretty. It isn't any good, either, but there it is. I've also seen low-budget films, shot on video or 16 mm, that exhibit an affinity for cinema, for communicating through images and sound, that no budget or payroll could ever buy. And I've seen way, way too many indie movies that have no reason to exist except as somebody's lottery ticket for a Hollywood deal. They're as empty as any studio product, just more dishonest about their commercial ambitions.
View image The light and the landscape.
View image Signs of man.
I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five. Hard to believe. Grandfather was a lawman. Father too. Me and him was sheriff at the same time, him in Plano and me here. I think he was pretty proud of that. I know I was.
Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lot of folks find that hard to believe.... You can't help but compare yourself against the old timers. Can't help but wonder how they would've operated these times.... -- Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) The land is black, swallowed in the shadows. The sky is beginning to glow orange and blue. This is Genesis, the primordial landscape of "No Country for Old Men." We may think we're looking at a sunset at first, but the next few shots show a progression: The sky lightens, the sun rises above the horizon to illuminate a vast Western expanse. No signs of humanity are evident. And then, a distant windmill -- a mythic "Once Upon a Time in the West" kind of windmill. So, mankind figures into the geography after all. A barbed-wire fence cuts through a field. The camera, previously stationary, stirs to life, and pans (ostensibly down the length of the fence) to find a police car pulled over on the shoulder of a highway. There's law out here, too.
View image Boundaries.
View image The law. (Do these images look sterile or "technical" to you?)
Light, land, man, boundaries, law. Each image builds subtly on the one(s) before it, adding incrementally to our picture of the territory we're entering. The establishment of this location -- a passing-through stretch of time and space, between where you've been and where you're going, wherever that may be -- seeps into your awareness. Not a moment is wasted, but the compositions have room to breathe, along with the modulations of Tommy Lee Jones' voice, the noises in the air, and Carter Burwell's music-as-sound-design. The movie intensifies and heightens your senses. Light is tangible, whether it's sunlight or fluorescent. Blades of grass sing in the wind. Ceiling fans whir (not so literally or Symbolically as in "Apocalypse Now"). Milk bottles sweat in the heat. Ventilation ducts, air conditioners and deadbolt housings rumble, hiss and roar.
"To me, style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body—both go together, they can’t be separated." -- Jean-Luc Godard"No Country for Old Men" has been called a "perfect" film by those who love it and those who were left cold by it. Joel and Ethan Coen have been praised and condemned for their expert "craftsmanship" and their "technical" skills -- as if those skills had nothing to do with filmmaking style, or artistry; as if they existed apart from the movie itself. Oh, but the film is an example of "impeccable technique" -- you know, for "formalists." And the cinematography is "beautiful." Heck, it's even "gorgeous." ...
View image You see it or you don't.
Toronto's is an international film festival, and naturally the films are shot in locations all over the world. But one thing so many of the best films in this year's fest have in common (a thing all great films have in common) is not the places in which they're shot, or set, but the places they create, and pull you into. These aren't travelogues. The films are the places, whether the geographical locations exist independently of the pictures or not.
There's Texas and there's Mexico and there's "No Country for Old Men."
Tommy Lee Jones' character, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell begins Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men" with an elegiac monologue about missing the "old times." His words are spoken over a montage of western landscapes in blazing oranges and reds (the incomparable Roger Deakins is the DP). By the end of this reverie, we're no longer in the past but in the harsh daylight of the present, and the color has drained from the images. The way Ed Tom sees it, he's outmatched in the modern world where violence is random, unmotivated, and unpredictable.
Within moments we see a shocking example of what he's talking about, as Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) strangles a man on the linoleum floor of an office, his dead yellow eyes fixed on the ceiling. That's a terrifying touch: Chigurth doesn't even look at his victim, even while he's garroting the guy. And then, one of those Coen touches: a shot of the floor, covered with a mess of black heel marks from the killer and his prey.
"No Country for Old Men" is one of those movies I think provides a critical litmus test. You can quibble about it all you like, but if you don't get the artistry at work then, I submit, you don't get what movies are. Critics can disapprove of the unsettling shifts in tone in the Coens' work, or their presumed attitude toward the characters, or their use of violence and humor -- but those complaints are petty and irrelevant in the context of the movies themselves: the way, for example, an ominous black shadow creeps across a field toward the observer ("No Country" has a credit for "Weather Wrangler"); or a phone call from a hotel room that you can hear ringing in the earpiece and at the front desk, where you're pretty sure something bad has happened but you don't need to see it; or the offhand reveal of one major character's fate from the POV of another just entering the scene; or... I could go on and on. To ignore such things in order to focus on something else says more about the critic's values than it does about the movies. It's like complaining that Bresson's actors don't emote enough, or that Ozu keeps his camera too low.
A moment here to celebrate the genius of one of the greatest talents in motion pictures, supervising sound editor Skip Lievsay, who has worked with the Coens (and Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese and others) since way back before the mosquito buzzing and peeling wallpaper of "Barton Fink." Since the bug zapper in "Blood Simple," in fact. Also, composer Carter Burwell ("Psycho III"!) has been associated with the Coens for just as long. He's credited with the music in "No Country," too, but it's to his merit that I don't even recall any music in the picture -- except for one memorably Coen-esque appearance by a mariachi band.
When I read Cormac McCarthy's novel, it struck me as a Coen screenplay just waiting to become a Coen film. Indeed, by that time it already was. And it could serve as a model of prose-to-film adaptation, choosing exactly the right moments and movements for the picture, and leaving alone others that are better suited to literature. (This is especially true of some very savvy omissions in the latter part of the movie.)
"No Country for Old Men" makes me want to echo Jean-Luc Godard's famous celebration of Nicholas Ray: "Le cinéma est les Coens!"