Thursday, November 29, 2007

No Country for Old Men

There will be spoilers.

Plot Synopsis

Adapted from an early novel by Cormac McCarthy ("Blood Meridian") which I haven't read, Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men is about a Texas man, Llewelyn Moss/Josh Brolin, who stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad while hunting in the desert, and steals a briefcase containing two million dollars in cash. After returning to the crime scene to give a jug of water to a dying man/Eduardo Antonio Garcia, he finds himself pursued by Anton Chigurh/Javier Berdem, a sociopath whose weapon of choice is an abattoir air gun. Pursuing Anton are the local sheriff, Ed Tom Bell/Tommy Lee Jones and a professional bounty hunter, Carson Wells/Woody Harrelson. In exchange for the money, Anton offers not to kill Llewelyn's wife, Carla Jean/Kelly Macdonald, but Llewelyn refuses and Anton kills them both. Unable to catch Anton, Ed decides to retire from police work.

"We believe in nothing"

This is one of the most pessimistic films I can recall seeing; although the desert setting makes it seem like a western, it's actually closer to film noir (in an early scene in Llewelyn and Carla Jean's trailer, a 1940's noir is even playing on the television). Then again, I'd be hard-pressed to find a film noir with so much evil and so little good. Leaving the theater, we overheard a woman say to her companion "Too much killing for me," which is both perfectly understandable and adorable. The film's message is that some people are just plain evil, bad things happen to good people and everything's a matter of chance. At one point, Ed mentions to Carla Jean an item he read in the newspaper about a couple in California that murdered old people in order to cash their social security checks. "They tortured them first. Maybe the TV was broken." Ed reflects the failure of law enforcement to prevent murders like that from happening in the first place.

This is a limited conceit as it precludes interrogating where evil comes from, instead treating it as a pure, metaphysical state--one might argue its position is exactly opposite that of Jean Renoir's La Règle du jeu (1939), in which Octave/Renoir says at one point "Everyone has their reasons." The motif of the coin is first introduced in a sequence in which Anton walks into a gas station and decides to spare the attendant/Gene Jones' life based on the result of a coin toss. It recurs again in a climatic scene where Ed stands outside a motel room which Anton has broken into, using his air gun to break the lock. To enter would mean certain death for Ed (see next paragraph), but when he opens the door, Anton has mysteriously vanished. On the floor, Ed finds a coin like the one in the gas station. In the next scene, in which Anton just as mysterious appears in Carla Jean's home, he denies responsibility for his actions when she tells him "You don't have to do this" by responding: "I got here the same way the coin did," recalling the moment in the gas station when he tells the attendant that the coin, which was minted in 1958, had taken twenty-two years to make it to this spot. As he's leaving, he instructs the attendant to put the coin anywhere but his pocket, where it'll get mixed in with other coins and become just another quarter--"which it is."

Anton's Big Cock

From the first sequence, in which Anton strangles a deputy sheriff/Zach Hopkins with his handcuffs, the film views him with a kind of mythic awe. Without backstory or motivation, he's endowed with such supernatural ability (Ed compares him at one point to a ghost) that the film threatens to feel over-determined: Anton is so obviously stronger than Llewelyn that the ending is almost inevitable. As in Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), where the hero/Max von Sydow plays a game of chess with Death/Bengt Ekerot, the ending is a foregone conclusion. By the time Anton follows Llewelyn to a motel where the latter has cleverly stashed the loot in an air vent so the tracking device hidden in the case points Anton to the wrong room, it already feels like Llewelyn is being chased by the devil. The one time he's able to wound Anton physically, it's using his own weapon, which in this context comes to represent a kind of fetish object and phallic symbol--the source of Anton's magical powers. There's even an example of The Denzel Washington Shot in which Anton walks towards the camera in the foreground while a car explodes in the background.

In his review of the film, Jonathan Rosenbaum speculates that the film is hitting such a nerve with audiences partly because of its timing; linking it to The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which was released during the first Gulf war, he argues that Americans who feel uneasy about the war might find something reassuring about Anton's ability to kill a lot of innocent people without one shred of remorse. While I don't totally agree, he's definitely on to something in terms of our over-identification with Anton. In her essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Laura Mulvey argues that Hollywood cinema gives us identification figures stronger and more perfect than we possibly could be; one might apply a Nitzchean reading to the film, in which Anton is the ultimate übermensch who exists outside conventional morality--at one point, Carson even says that Anton operates by a moral code of his own. Complicating matters (or at least clouding them) is the fact that we're meant to identify equally with the three leads.

"I'm still out a shirt"

As gripping as it is as a piece of storytelling, the film falls flat on its face when it attempts any kind of social analysis. Although the story is set in 1980, the Coens make no attempt to tie the story to anything happening at the time; both Llewelyn and Carson are Vietnam vets, but this bit of backstory exists merely to set-up a later sequence in which an American border guard/Brandon Smith decides to let Llewelyn back into the United States only after he learns that he's a vetern. Even worse is the film's reliance on Mexican stereotypes: when Llewelyn first crosses the border, there's a shot of a sleeping Mexican border guard (by comparison, the American border guard is a total hard-ass); after Llewelyn passes out on the street, he's woken up by a Mariachi band; and although we're invited to feel superior to Carla Jean's mother, Agnes/Beth Grant, when she says "It's so rare to see a Mexican in a suit," (a) he's a drug dealer, and (b) his tacky suit and pencil mustache don't exactly look professional. There are two amusing sequences involving different groups of young boys who negotiate the price of a shirt with Llewelyn and Anton on separate occasions that illustrate the corrupting power of money, but even these scenes are pretty broad--both times, there's literally blood on the money.

Rhyme Effects

The repetition of a line of dialogue or certain composition serves to underline the similarities between the three leads. The most obvious example of this happens fairly early and is so obvious it effectively bares the device: the film cuts from Anton telling a hapless man/Chip Love to stand still, so he can kill him with his air gun, to Llewelyn hunting animals in the desert; while eying his target through the scope of his rifle, he tells the animal to stay still for a second. Later, Ed goes to Llewelyn's trailer just after Anton has left (he discerns this from the fact that the milk bottle is still sweating); calmly, Ed sits in the same spot where Anton sat, pours himself a glass of milk and stares into the TV screen which neither man thinks to turn on. And at the motel, both Llewelyn and Anton request a map. The implication is that all three are, at various stages of the film, the hunter and the hunted. In the last two examples, both Ed and Anton are actively trying to put themselves in the shoes of the other man.


With the exception of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), The Lady Killers (2004), which I haven't seen, and this film, all of the Coens' previous films are original screenplays; however, given the range of genre and tones, their debt to classical Hollywood (especially Preston Sturges--the title of O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a reference to Sullivan's Travels [1942]) and the unevenness of their work, one hesitates to call them auteurs. At best, they seem like clever stylists with an encyclopedic (if Amerocentric) knowledge of film history and a gift for appropriating everything in sight. While less reference happy than, say, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), No Country for Old Men contains references to Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)--a high-angle shot of Carson ascending a flight of stairs in a hotel that tells us he's about to be killed even before Anton appears behind him--and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), which was released during the Vietnam war and regards a milk-drinking sociopath with an almost equal level of Nitzchean awe. More abundant, however, are references to the Coens' own films: the Texas setting, Ed's opening narration and the long stretches of silence recall Blood Simple (1984); Anton's super-human strength reminds one of the bounty hunter/Randall Cobb in Raising Arizona (1987); and the low-angle shots racing down the highway at night, illuminated by a car's headlights, are straight out of Fargo (1996). The ability to take some one else's material and make it your own is a sign of an auteur, but here, the similarities are pretty superficial. At best, they add up to a game of reference spotting, in which one tries to find allusions to all of the Coens' previous work.


Reading back on what I've written, I realize it might come across like I didn't enjoy the film very much, and while I don't think it's quite the masterpiece it's being touted as, I did enjoy it a fair bit (or else I wouldn't even be writing about it). As a film about serial killers and a piece of social analysis, it's limited when compared to Fritz Lang's M (1931), in which the killer/Peter Lorre is given more humanity (by treating Anton simply as a monster, the filmmakers are in effect providing him with an alibi: he's not responsible because he doesn't have a choice) and the social analysis cuts a lot deeper (ultimately, Lang's film tells us nothing about what produces a serial killer either, but uses the killer as a device to reveal the hypocrisies of German society in the early 1930's). However, purely as a thriller, this is one of the Coens' most entertaining movies, along with Blood Simple (still their most interesting film), Barton Fink (1991), The Big Lebowski (1998) and The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). The performances are uniformly excellent, the elaborate cat-and-mouse game between Llewelyn and Anton is genuinely suspenseful, and the sound of Anton's air gun shooting open a lock almost gave me a heart attack. Whatever quibbles I might have, I wasn't bored.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Passing

The Passing (1991) is a video by Bill Viola that juxtaposes various kinds of footage--nocturnal desert landscapes, slow motion shots of bodies underwater, an elderly woman dying in a hospital bed (and more)--with shots of the artist himself in bed, unable to sleep because of a neighbor's barking dog, which invites the interpretation that everything else in the video is being dreamt of by Viola. At 54 minutes, it manages to do a number of things at the same time: it's a travelogue of the American southwest, a home movie about Viola's family, and a religious allegory for birth and death.

I first encountered Viola's work in my foundation year at NSCAD, and at the time, I found him boring and pretentious. The former complaint, of course, turned out to be pure nonsense once I developed better reflexes, and my initial reaction against Ancient of Days (1979-81) and Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat) (1979) mirrored my response to a trio of commercial narrative features I first encountered at about the same time: Alain Resnais' L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961), David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977) and Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979)--all three highly meditative works where the exploration of a particular space (an hotel in eastern Europe in Resnais', various industrial wastelands in the United States and Russia in Lynch's and Tarkovsky's), and the eerie moods conjured up by the sounds and images, count for more than incident or character. And while I admire all three a great deal now, I still have some lingering doubts. As many times as I've seen it, I still can't make heads or tails of Resnais' film, but I can't stop thinking about it either; like its hero/Giorgio Albertazzi, who can never win the game with the matches, I find myself drawn back to the film again and again only to be frustrated once more. And while Lynch's and Tarkovsky's would both be in my top 100, I have to admit they're pretty sexist. The former strikes me as too implicated in the protagonist/Jack Nance's disgusted attraction to the opposite sex to comment on it in any meaningful way. That his idealized fantasy woman/Laurel Near is a wholesome, Doris Day-like figure who's completely asexual (unlike his bitchy girlfriend/Charlotte Stewart and his promiscuous neighbor/Judith Anna Roberts) suggests a conservative reading of the film--and Blue Velvet (1986)--as reflecting a desire to return to life as it was before the sexual revolution; one may counter that Lynch's version of small town innocence in the latter is highly ironic, but he doesn't make the alternatives seem very appealing.

Viola may not be a raging misogynist like Tarkovsky, whose view of motherhood as a woman's highest and only calling was informed by his religious beliefs (this attitude is even more apparent in his anti-feminist Nostalghia [1983]; it's only evident in Stalker when the Stalker's wife/Alisa Frejndlikh delivers a pathetic monologue to the camera towards the end of the film), but like Tarkovsky, Viola seems to view his art as a kind of spiritual calling.

Paramount to the notion of the image as sacred object is the icon, a form found in both oriental and occidental tradition... An icon can be any image that has acquired power through its use as an object of worship. In fact, the status of icon was the goal and even the measure of success of the majority of visual artworks created in the great traditions of ancient Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The presence of art critics was not required as devotees instantly knew, at first glance, whether or not the work in question qualified. The artists created their works for God, not for the art world... [Icons] are necessarily functional objects, their function fufilling a most basic primary and private need within the individual. (1)

This quote is taken from a collection of Viola's writings about his work, but it could just as easily be a quote by Tarkovsky. Central to many of Tarkovsky's films is a belief in the transformative power of faith or ritual; in the final episode of Andrei Rublev (1966), which takes as its subject the titular icon painter/Anatoli Solonitsyn, a young man/Nikolai Burlyavev claims his father passed on the secret of bell casting before he died and commands a large crew with unshakable confidence; later, when the bell has been cast, the boy confesses that he knows nothing and his father took the secret to his grave. On the British National Gallery's website for their exhibition of Viola's The Passions (2000-02) (2) I found this statement:

Viola describes a kind of awakening when he saw a woman in the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo looking at a statue of Kannon, the embodiment of compassion--an image that Viola had been conditioned to consider merely a work of art. He watched her slowly bow and begin praying to it--putting it to use. Viola intends his art not for decoration or diversion or education but for transformation.

As a non-believer, I find this pretty dubious. And while I've yet to hear of anyone slowly bowing and beginning to pray in front of one of Viola's installations, I'm reminded of the split reaction to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), which Christian viewers--or at least a good many of them--found to be deeply moving, while secular types like me--or at least a good many of us--found it to be not only religious kitsch but bad religious kitsch. Still, regardless of the negative reviews, devotees instantly knew, at first glance, that the work in question qualified. I remember the day Gibson's film opened, I was on the bus going home when a group of women got on and started discussing the film loudly; one said it made her feel as though she was there, which ties into a point Viola makes in the article quoted above:

Icons are timeless images, and even though in the West they often depict temporal events (the Annunciation, the Flight out of Egypt, ect.), the mythic or religious existence of those events (i.e., their present tense) is far more important. Icons maintain their currency by being continually updated to the present, by sustaining a constant relevance to Now. (3)

Given the abudance of slow motion shots in Gibson's film and the lack of any kind of narrative progression, one wonders whether he was consciously influenced by Viola's The Passions. (Gibson's production company is named Icon Productions.) The emphasis on Christ/Jim Caviezel's physical suffering in Gibson's film reminds me of the Hindu ceremony that concludes Viola's I Do Not Know What it Is I Am Like (1986), in which the participants pierce their bodies with long needles and walk across hot coals. Because we're not given a word of context about the ceremony, Viola seems out of his depth--a kind of spiritual tourist whose fascination with Hindu beliefs begins and ends with his amazement at its Otherness; that my father, who's a practicing Hindu, thinks the people who do that sort of thing are nuts indicates how far removed the ceremony is from mainstream Hinduism which doesn't seem to interest Viola in the slightest.

The religious themes in The Passing are more palatable because of Viola's personal investment in the material (the piece is dedicated to the memory of his deceased mother) and because it's possible to appreciate it on a more modest level: while the piece hasn't transformed me, it has given me a great deal of pleasure. Viola's spiritual side is most evident in the opposition of birth and death in the piece; at one point he seemlessly transitions from a flowing white sheet in one of the video's underwater sequences (in this context, suggesting the womb) to a similar white sheet being placed over a dead body. Elsewhere we see a mother holding her child only moments after giving birth, and a panning shot around a living room combined with a wipe to another shot panning around the inside of a hospital room where an elderly man sits by his dying wife, suggesting a continuity between the two spaces. In Viola's work, death is always paired with a sense of renewal; one of his best videos, The Reflecting Pool (1977-79), begins with the artist emerging from the wilderness in the background and approaching a reflecting pool which occupies the foreground. Standing between the two, he jumps into the air but, rather than cannonballing into the water, his image freezes while in the fetal position (the water continues to ripple as a series of dissolves compresses a period of a day into just a few minutes). Slowly Viola's image begins to disintegrate, and at the end of the video, he emerges from the water, naked, suggesting a kind of rebirth. Here, Viola's mother is paired with his young son, first seen running on the beach (the next to last shot shows him attending his grandmother's funeral).

At times the highfalutin symbolism can be a bit much, but what I enjoy most about The Passing is resolutely material: the desert landscapes, comtemplative pacing, the ambient soundtrack (mostly Viola's heavy breathing), and some particularly dreamlike underwater shots. One recurring image is a desk and chair in what at first appears to be an abstract, theatrical space with one intense studio light illuminating it from above. Our second glimpse of it, however, is rather distorted, indictating that it's actually underwater, though I couldn't quite believe it until a bit later when the table is suddenly turned over and some of the objects on it float away. The one thing this multifaceted video can't be said to do is tell a story, which I mean as an observation and not a criticism. Watching Arrested Development (2003-06) on my new HD TV, one of the things that's striking how much faster the editing seems on a larger screen; no shot is held longer than absolutely necessary for it to establish a point. In the episode "Not Without My Daughter," when Michael Bluth/Justin Bateman is interrogated by the police, the camera zooms out to reveal that Detective Fellows/Jonathan Penner is sitting beside his young daughter, who's occupying herself with a coloring book; seemingly the moment the camera stops zooming out, there's a cut to Detective Streudler/Kevin McDonald, who turns around to reveal that he's holding an infant. Additionally, the long zoom lens flattens the space of the image and reduces the depth of field, resulting in a greater emphasis on the information that each shot presents--which makes sense given the time restriction placed on a half-hour television program, and is largely what makes the show so funny. In The Passing, and particularly the desert sequences, Viola is giving us the time to really contemplate a space; if shows like Arrested Development assume a reactive viewer (the desired reaction to the sequence described above being surprise and laughter), Viola's work calls for a much more active form of spectatorship.

Whatever my doubts about the spiritual themes in Viola's work, he's a major figure in the field of video art and The Passing is a exciting, multifaceted work that I don't feel I've fully exhausted even after three viewings. It's a video that takes elements which themselves are extremely familiar--the landscape of the desert, home movies, birth and death--and, through the dreamlike images in black-and-white and the austere soundtrack, makes these things seem strange and unfamiliar. As an artistic stratedgy, this implies not only a more active approach to viewing media but, by making us look at things we take for granted as if seeing them for the first time--as Viola's son is--it implies taking a more active approach to looking at the world.

1. Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 (Boston: MIT Press, 1994), page 199.
2. The image on the right is of Viola's The Quintet of the Admonished (2000).
3. Ibid, p. 199