Monday, March 17, 2008

Confusion is Next, Oscar Edition

What really got to me was Denby's uncharitable reading of "No Country." (Here I'll be just assuming that you've seen this movie, mostly because I'm not feeling up to extensive plot summary--so there are plenty of spoilers and assumed knowledge) After taking the film to task for what he sees as the un-believability of the crime story narrative in general, and of Javier Bardem's monumentally homicidal bounty hunter anti-hero, Anton Chigurh, in particular--how is he never seen? how do the police not catch him? etc.--he gives us this:

"Some people have said that you cannot read the movie literally. Chigurh is Death, they say, a supernatural figure, a vengeful ghost...the ineffable spirit of Evil. But what do you do with the realistic body of the movie if you read this one element supernaturally?"

Now, I didn't come here to engage in a scene-for-scene on the effectiveness or believability of the film's crime narrative. I will say, though, that I was totally gripped by it and so was almost every single person I've talked to--and, you know, I feel like I know some pretty sophisticated film watchers. I'll also submit that the kind of "realism" typical of the crime genre, particularly its great villains, has always been a bit supernatural, has always resisted fact-based "real world" criticism, of the kind that Denby, rather cynically, offers. Finally, as Denby puts it himself, the film boasts “a formal precision and an economy that make one think of masters like Hitchcock and Bresson.” Movies that are this well crafted, this visually complete—not to mention deeply beautiful—create their own criteria for believability (I’m pretty sure it’s called ‘suspension of disbelief’). A story like this doesn’t work because the facts check out or because the plot is plausible, it works because the moral and visual world it creates is fully realized.

Denby is right in a way, though: it does break the rules of the film’s crime narrative if Chigurh is not actually meant to be a believable character, if he is meant to be merely symbolic in an arch, Bergman-esque way. And I realized, as I read those words, that this is exactly how I had been seeing that character: Chigurh is Death; death comes to us all; you can't stop what's comin': this is what the movie is about, lets all go watch "The Seventh Seal".

There is no doubt that the inevitability of death--and our own powerlessness in the face of it--is a major theme of the film, especially as expressed in Tommy Lee Jones' character, the maudlin Sherriff Ed Tom Bell "You can't stop what's comin'," says Ed Tom's paraplegic, painfully old brother "it ain't all waitin' on you--that's vanity." But there is a strange counterbalance to this sense of Biblical destiny. Carla Jean Moss, wife of the doomed hero Llewelyn, constantly pleads with her husband to give up on his ill-starred quest for wealth. And when Chigurh arrives to kill her, as he promised he would, but offers to spare her if she correctly calls a coin flip, she refuses to take part in the game. She chides Chigurh, telling him that he, not the random flip of a coin, can choose whether she lives or dies. How could this be? How can we have this kind of choice if death is our fated end? And how could Death himself possibly be held accountable for what he does?

Here, I think, is where the film's strange structure comes into play. For the most part, the movie does operate as a more-or-less traditional crime/film noir. The hero embarks on a mission into the underworld, from which he hopes to emerge unscathed, into a utopian future and, as seems preordained by plot mechanics and fate, meets a tragic end. But when the narrative arc does culminate as feared and expected, we are not even allowed to see the consummating event. What's more, Llewelyn is not even killed by Chigurh, his nemesis, but by a faceless gang of Mexican drug-runners who had been no more than side players (and dead bodies) throughout the majority of the film. It's a jarring and ignoble end to the journey; a total ("unforgivable" says Denby) anti-climax. What's more, just when the movie seems like it should be over, it proceeds to almost incoherently meander for twenty-odd more minutes: Chigurh is, with no narrative setup, badly hurt in a car accident; he has a grotesque, comedic conversation with two dumbstruck boys; Ed Tom recounts a series of dreams; the movie ends. It's open-ended and weird and put lots of viewers off.

The Coen's experimented with this kind of structural gambit in their under-appreciated "The Man Who Wasn't There," in which a fairly coherent film noir unravels into a quasi-mystic, sci-fi farce. But the strange, ambiguous interlude of random life in "No Country" is a little more pointed. I think that by undermining the integrity of the genre, the film is showing us that a single, familiar narrative scheme cannot possibly encompass the entirety of the film's world (and, by-proxy, our own world); that there are many strange, unpredictable, ridiculous, possibly boring things in the world beyond and outside of Llewelyn and Anton's bloody arc.

Most genre films seek to create a hermetic world in which the only possibilities for action are the ones presented by the expectations and conventions of the genre. We learn here, though, that the characters had a choice whether to embark on those familiar narrative paths. There is something extremely unsettling about the blank, un-contemplative way that Llewelyn makes the choices that lead him toward his death. And I think one of the real sources of terror in the Chigurh character is the way in which he abdicates his own will, as if his future actions--horrifying, murderous actions--had already been carried out. Both Llewelyn and Chigurh act as if they have no agency, as if their lives are bound to pre-written narratives.

Chigurh, then, does not incarnate (or represent) Death himself. Instead, he performs evil. It's a fine distinction--evil, after all, tends to deal primarily in death--but more than simply a semantic one. Death is transcendent; it comes to us from beyond the pale, from outside everything we can possibly understand. But evil is purely human; it is something that we do. As far as I can tell, evil is what happens when humans fancy themselves as agents of fate, fancy their own beliefs transcendent and then forcibly (often violently) impose that version of transcendence on others. So it surprises me that Denby would say, as he does, that Chigurh is unrecognizable as a character, a “trashy element” of the film. Because I think that he is eminently recognizable. The unbelievable abominations he commits; his sophistic, matter-of-fact rationales for committing them; the way he denies his own agency and secretes it into a protective cocoon of inevitability: these are horrifyingly familiar. Chigurh is no mythic avatar. He is the dumb, inexplicable, blank face of human cowardice, of human evil. I did not act; it was fate, it was history, it was God.

This unfortunate facet of human nature has always been a great boon to cruelty and institutional power, both as a method of self-justification and as a tool to manipulate average people into submission. It is no accident that all of the major male characters in the film are Vietnam veterans. For one thing, they have all been indoctrinated into a way of violence, have mastered its tools and techniques. But also, and at even greater spiritual toll, they are all practiced in enacting some other author's bloody story. Ed Tom is aware of this; it is the root of his stricken resignation, his worry at the condition of his soul. And he knows that Llewelyn should be just as aware. "He's seen the same things I seen," he says, "and they sure made an impression on me."

The insanely hard thing that this film asks you to do is to recognize that death is inevitable--"you can't stop what's comin'"--and then to act as if you are free. Act as if you are free even when consumer culture, when fundamentalist religions, when your own government all tell you that you have no choice, that opting out of their narrative is not an option. It's a matter of courage; this is why Carla Jean’s final, unbelievably courageous act is the film’s one truly heroic moment. She completely understands the reality of her situation. She knows and expects she's going to die and that Chigurh is going to kill her. Yet, she refuses to allow her fate to be decided by the chance flip of a coin, even though she knows it could save her life. She refuses to absolve Chigurh of his responsibility by allowing luck to decide: "It ain't no coin, it's you."

(Incidentally, I'm fascinated by the way that the Coens use women to critique the bloodlust and craven ambition of male protagonists. Reflecting back to Frances McDormand's pregnant, resolutely decent Marge Gunderson in "Fargo"--"all for a bit of money...I just don't understand it"--Carla Jean and Ed Tom's wife, Loretta, act as antidotes to the violent narrative of manliness. Carla Jean fights to bring the mute Llewelyn back from death. Loretta gently reminds Ed Tom to stay above the fray--"don't get hurt...don't hurt no one". They are the ones who show basic care for humanity, for life as a spiritual value.)

Here, I’ll sound one last note of amazement at the way the Coens unite the film’s formal and moral schemata. Pop narrative structures (in music, in literature, in visual culture) can be amazing and fun, but they can also too-easily change the shape of our expectations, teach us to buy into the stories that power tells us. That soothing familiarity brought about by a genre's alchemy of expectation and reward can cause us to uncritically accept certain narrative arcs as inevitable, can blind us to other possibilities. We begin to foreclose the possibility of anything outside of the familiar story and this foreclosure carries over into our real lives. In the character of Carla Jean, in the soulless trajectory of Llewelyn Moss and Anton Chigurh’s story, “No Country” reminds us that real living is contingent on a certain courageous imagination. And it attempts to encode this reminder in the very experience of watching the film. It is unsettling to have our narrative expectations undermined just as it is uncomfortable and scary to imagine new kinds of living, to create our own stories. This is why art like this, why experiences of strange, foreign beauty, experiences of sublimely subverted convention are so important. Because, if you listen close, such experiences remind you that freedom is real, but that choosing it requires outrageous courage.

Confusion is Next

In a recent New Yorker, David Denby wrote a fairly backhandedly complementary piece on the Coen bros. Although the occasion for the essay was the brothers' Best Picture nomination (and eventual victory) for "No Country for Old Men," Denby proceeded to fairly seriously attack their entire body of work—and the films he does claim to like, he damns with faint praise. Basically, it fell into the tried-and-true "master-craftsmen, but cruel and cold" school of Coens criticism, a school with which I almost entirely disagree. Just so you know, this post started out as a letter to the editor and a conversation with my Dad. Two posts and 3,000 words later...(also, don't know why internet persists in single spacing the last half. Internet is magic.)

Denby spends quite a bit of time critiquing the Coens often burlesque treatment of supporting characters, which he finds cruel. What’s more, they hold up all of their characters as objects of ridicule, not as fully-formed people with whom we are meant to sympathize. He argues that the Coens’ films are neither sufficiently reverential of film history, nor sufficiently humanistic. Rather, they are cold parodies of earnest genres with a strong dose of elitist misanthropy at their core. At the center of this argument is a two-pronged observation: 1) the Coens’ characters are backward and stupid. 2) They are ridiculed and punished for their stupidity. Denby on the brothers’ first film, “Blood Simple”:
“What interests the Coens is how foolishly people behave, and how little they understand of what they’re doing. The lovers keep misreading signs and misperceiving what’s going on. The Coens may be the first major filmmakers since Preston Sturges to exploit the dramatic possibilities of stupidity. In Sturges’s movies, however, you don’t feel that the rubes and yokels are being put down. […] In [the Coens] world, stupidity leads to well-deserved disaster.”

This statement is the central misinterpretation in the piece. I’ve always understood “Blood Simple” in particular, and the greater portion of the Coens’ earlier work in general, to be, not a treatise on human stupidity, but a demonstration of the failure of information. It’s true that the characters constantly misinterpret, but only because they don’t’ have access to the viewer’s omniscient perspective; they can’t possibly know that their information is wrong until it’s too late. The subtle misunderstandings and cases of mistaken identity build over the course of the film and culminate in a climax in which literally none of the characters’ assumptions are correct. It is not that “stupidity leads to disaster” but that the breakdown of truth-correspondence is, itself, the disaster. Certainly, there’s no shortage of human malice and cruelty, but the main characters are victims of this malice and of the radically untrustworthy world in which they find themselves.

Deception and tragic misunderstanding have been narrative engines since forever, but the very structure of “The Big Lebowski,” subsists almost entirely on misinformation. The film, at first, seems to be a story of a kidnapping and subsequently blown ransom, with various groups and individuals serving as the chief suspects. It’s handled as farce, sure, but at least there seems to be a reliable plot. But, as the film proceeds, every single one of our assumptions turns out to be false; none of the usual suspects turn out to be culpable. In fact, there’s no kidnapping at all and no ransom money; in fact, the real heart of the movie truly is a stoner, The Dude, attempting to replace his urine-soaked carpet.

It’s true that, as Denby says, the film’s incredible likeability derives from its goofy sweetness, but it is not simply “ a tribute to harmlessness, friendship, and team bowling.” There is a radical skepticism at work here that is far from harmless. Though he is reportedly an author of the Port Huron Statement, The Dude has one of the most hilariously limited vocabularies in history. What’s more, he and his bowling buddies—the John Milius-inspired, maniac ‘Nam vet, Walter, and the loveable but vacuous Donnie—subsist mostly on repeated clich├ęs and sayings, most of which are recycled media sound-bytes (particularly H.W.’s pre-Gulf War national address). And the entire film takes place within this absurd, perfectly L.A. milieu of performance art, radical nihilism, pornography and freeways, a world in which both plot and language have been revealed to be empty of content. It would be hard to find a more complete (and funny) treatise on millennial culture and the decay of meaning-based discourse.

I see “The Big Lebowski” as the culmination of the Coens fascination with the unreliability of formerly stable structures: narrative, political idealogy, language itself. To me, the characters are not so much fools, as prisoners of a world in which the traditional modes of communication are inadequate. This is definitely cynical, and the worlds they create are full of people at their worst, but its not misanthropic. In fact, the Dude’s gentle nature and the sweet, funny way in which the Coens handle his story—and, I think, the comedic tone of all their films as well as their obvious enjoyment of film culture—points to a real tender-heartedness, a real sympathy for the ridiculous fix we’re in.