Saturday, March 29, 2008

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: reviewed by an old woman

Maybe there’s a certain amount of justice in an old woman reviewing a movie about old men in Texas, “No Country for Old Men.” I haven’t read the book -- this is just about the movie. I didn’t watch it twice -- usually I do that but I’d had enough of the “bag o’blood” theory of what humans are about. Not that it’s new or shocking (“Who would have thought the old man could have so much blood in him?”) but it’s kind of repetitious. I’m not that much a connoisseor of cinematography, which is one thing that much preoccupies the Coen brothers: the technology of blood spurts and all that.

Interesting that the stock bolt pistol was the main murder weapon -- I didn’t know they made a portable version of the stockyard machine. Might be pretty useful for animal control officers who must kill badly wounded cattle and horses “on the scene” with people in cars all around so that a gun isn’t practical. One reviewer on remarked that maybe Javier couldn’t locate a chain saw -- but that doesn’t seem surprising in West Texas where there are few trees to saw. Anyway, I got the impression that the Javier character didn’t much like mess. Notice how he turned his head away from the strangled deputy and pulled the shower curtain before spattering the occupant all over? He likes simple, neat, and done.

This movie is structured like a symphony: a theme and line of development is set up and then the actual scenes play with and against that, so we develop expectations, are surprised, then built up towards a climax, which is resolved and then begins a new sequence. One needs to enjoy it as the Coens must have: two levels at once, maybe three. The plot line, then the games with other movies and genre in general or with what MIGHT happen, and finally the skill with which it is done as an art form. It’s a very head-trippy sort of experience, in spite of the potentially emotional subject matter. it’s like dispassionately looking at a Caravaggio painting of some mythical or historical horrific incident like cutting off someone’s head. Nothing you couldn’t find on YouTube, which is why the skill is important. How else are these scenes different from someone’s home video filmed in Iraq?

The story is schematic: Tommy Lee Jones is the salty old seen-everything sheriff on a horse. Bardem is the inscrutable alien embodiment of evil -- someone astutely mentioned the figure of Death in “The Seventh Seal.” He’s mystical in that his weapons are there, then not there, he tosses a coin instead of playing chess or offering a card. He has a chance to kill the sheriff and does not take it because this is an old old story that won’t end. And Brolin is the Everyman who couldn’t resist temptation but fights fate all the way. I got interested in Woody Harrelson, who can play very mean American assassins but who is no match for this weird hitman, partly because he show-boats and talks. The publicity was careful to drop the information that Harrelson’s father was an actual hitman who killed a judge in about this same time period.

The eighties were a strange decade. The country had just passed through both the Vietnam War and the reaction to it: the flower children and the love communes, the VW vans on the road and the drug-suggestive songs of the Seventies. “Give peace a chance” and all that. Now the hard drugs, waves of immigration, and serious international gangs (AKA corporations) were beginning, demonstrating just how naive and self-destructive the “Aquarians” were. Trying to get a grip on it, authorities only managed to burn out blocks of low-cost housing in Philadelphia and an entire compound in Texas. They couldn’t really figure out who the enemy was.

This sort of atmosphere -- which is FAR more intense now that we have another runaway war and a clearly incompetent federal administration, plus a threatened Depression -- is red meat for cool upper-class intellectuals who like to think they know all about “back of the moon” contexts like border slums and Texas deserts. They are not confused by realities and know the relevant myths. It was intriguing that in the accompanying mini-documentaries, everyone talked about what a joy it was to work on a set where everything was calm, professional, well-done, carefully planned and organized. (Like modern crime?) NO surprises, NO emotional outbursts, NO demands for the impossible. Just a repertory company drawn into a near-marriage between two brothers with the same world view. The subject matter may be Dionysian but the approach is absolutely Apollonian.

It would be interesting to see what the Coens could do with a contemporary war movie: my impression is that military at the top levels is now really far more “Apollonian” in terms of theory and technology: more high altitude bombers, more drones, more satellite info, more night vision goggles and heavy armor, and -- rather than living in tents, many are living in captured palaces with tennis courts and swimming pools. No mud. War is far more a matter of business contracts with corporations, right up the line to security forces (hitmen). Their investment has to be in making the war last as long as possible. In this war, which was supposed to secure our oil supply, organized international pirates are the only ones actually getting much oil. Of course, the ordinary soldier -- who this time was not drafted but rather haplessly joined the National Guard to get school money -- is still a bag o’blood. With luck, on the third tour.

No Country for Old Men,” the Texas/McCarthy/Coen version, provides a Shakespearean philosophical explanation after all the victims have been cleared away. Barry Corbin, always a symbol of law and order however misguided and here reduced to a near-ghost, provides the wise old prophet point of view to keep us all from agonizing over how bad “our” times are as compared to any others. And then, in a strange kidnapping of image from “Out of Africa,” Tommy Lee Jones dreams that his father has “gone on ahead to build a big campfire” where he’ll wait for his son. I had a weird mental picture of Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep as Isak Dinesen converging someplace at night on the prairie while Farrah stands watch. Who should play the father? Brando? Probably someone more ethnic. Anthony Quinn?

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