Sunday, January 20, 2008

No Country for Old Men

Doubtless the Coen Brothers' film No Country for Old Men has been receiving the rave reviews it richly deserves - I don't know for sure because I haven't read them, film critics trouble me. Anyway, even if they hated it - perfectly possible - No Country is a magnificent piece of work for all sorts of reasons. I shall pick out one. The Coens have always attracted epithets like 'weird' or 'strange'. The reason for this is they tend to let things be what they are without loading them with narrative or thematic sense. Shakespeare did this. One of the points people routinely make about his plays is every character, however trivial, is a complete human being, he lets them live, as it were, outside the play - a phenomenon brilliantly exploited by Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The Coens have always done this, though, because they use film, their completeness also applies to objects and, in No Country, to a couple of dogs. This is a very radical approach because it subverts questions like 'Why?' or 'What does it mean?'. Yet they have always been superb storytellers, every scene contains something, usually many things, that makes you need the next scene. In No Country their method attains a new perfection. The storytelling is breathtaking, yet, as in an old New England house, everything seems isolated in space and time, everything is allowed to be what it is. Secondary characters - in particular, a gas station owner and a motel receptionist - are so vividly realised that they are both permitted to steal their scenes from the stars. I guess everybody's talking about Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones, but let's hear it for Gene Jones and Margaret Bowman. Anyway, if you want to now about movies and a truly single- (well, double-) minded approach to style, you will have to see No Country twice now and half a dozen times on DVD.


  1. I have heard the cinematography is really good. after all, it is a film!

    what on earth could they still be talking about tommy lee jones? I want that thesaurus...

  2. Some newspaper critic moaned the other day that Coen Bros' films "never mean anything". It just happened that Film4 were showing O Brother Where Art Thou the night I read that comment so I watched it (for the second time) and it delighted me all over again. What struck me most this time was the soundtrack - lots of songs from the American South about loss, death, the inevitability of human suffering and the yearning to break free from it. In spite of Clooney's gurning, I found myself thinking it's actually quite a profound film - and I didn't think that first time round.

  3. I've just finished watching it and I'm left trying to decide if the quirkiness of the characters – and more specifically their verbal tics – add more than just local colour. The same love of obscure words and idioms runs through Ethan Coen's short stories but, in the films, these odd characters create that jarring sense that the drama is really metadrama; which, I suppose, is itself rather Shakespearean. The characters seem to find themselves lost in a bewildering plot. The often rambling voiceovers and even the John Goodman character in Lebowski being so obviously John Milius: the Coens play these games. The best moment is the appearance of Charles Durning as an angel in 'The Hudsucker Proxy' when time stands still.

    NCFOM is staggeringly good as a thriller but then seemed to try hard not to be a thriller. The end lost its shape with about 20 minutes to go. Perhaps it's deliberate. There's that line Moss's wife says about there being no toss of the coin. Life isn't about clean narratives, except for the inevitable narrative of death and dreams of death.

    Great film. I want to now go see if it's all in Cormac McCarthy's book.

  4. Strangely, the book is relatively weak, though still a good read with some good violence.

    What you say about each thing being itself, irreducible, is enacted in Cormac's prose. His fluid 'and this happened and then this' style gives equal weighting to things as if the prose is a camera that pans across an area during a period of time and dispassionately notes what is there.

    The power of Cormac's prose is in the tension between this apparent dispassion and the meaning that nonetheless inheres in certain events. For example, if i wrote: "When Elberry opened the door he was hit by the stink of the dead. He walked in and saw the bodies, then he saw the kettle had been knocked over. Righting the kettle he started to make himself a cup of tea, all the while stepping around the dead" - the kettle seems to have equivalence to the corpses but any reader must feel the corpses to have much greater significance.

    Cormac trusts the reader to make these evaluations. It's, if you like, a documentary style of writing that allows the material itself to dictate response; he doesn't instruct response.

    It bemuses me a little, that snooty middle class fools say Cormac's books are 'sentimental' when they are if anything the opposite. i think it's that he often writes of evocative matter - violence, love, grief - and these bow-tied city fools, patting their waistcoated bellies and sipping their Martinis, cannot endure anything unmediated by the TLS or New York Times...when the great War comes, they will be the first to perish.

  5. And, Richard, and. Sophie etc. I think these critical discussions bring out the best in you.

  6. Haven't seen the film yet, but would agree that NCFOM is not McCarthy's strongest - Blood Meridian and The Crossing and, possibly The Road are all better.

    But there was one passage in the book which made me shiver - in the gas station. I hope they did it justice in the film.

    "Chigurgh took a twenty-five cent piece from his pocket and flipped it spinning into the bluish glare of the fluorescent lights overhead. He caught it and slapped it onto the back of his forearm just above the bloddy wrappings. Call it, he said.

    Call it?


    For what?

    Just call it.

    Well I need to know what it is we're callin here.

    How would that change anything?

    The man looked at Chigurgh's eyes for the first time. Blue as lapis. At once glistening and totally opaque. Like wet stones. You need to call it, Chigurgh said. I cant call it for you. It wouldnt be fair. It wouldnt even be right. Just call it.

    I didnt put nothin up.

    Yes you did. You've been putting it up your whole life. You just didnt know it. You know what the date is on this coin?


    It's nineteen fifty-eight. It's been travelling twenty-two years to get here. And now it's here. And I'm here. And I've got my hand over it. And it's either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.

    I dont know what it is I stand to win.

    In the blue light the man's face was beaded thinly with sweat. He licked his upper lip.

    You stand to win everything, Chigurgh said. Everything.

    You aint makin any sense, mister.

    Call it.

    Heads then.

    Chigurgh uncovered the coin. He turned his arm slightly for the man to see. Well done, he said."

  7. Hunter S Thompson once typed out 'The Great Gatsby' so he could feel Fitzgerald's prose coming through his hands. i did the same with a translation of 'The Myth of Sispyhus' a few years back.

    A man in love with violence, prose, and cowboy food could do worse than copy out vast sections of Cormac. It would surely have a most benign effect.

  8. Elberry, I often do... I'm waiting for genius to ensue.

  9. Ed, soon you will start to call people 'friendo' in a really disturbing way, slightly sexual, slightly murderous. That's just the start. The next stage involves scuffed cowboy boots, homemade weaponry, a black van, and cannibalism.

  10. i dont get chance to see it. but i have heard that there is voilence in the movie.if i will get chance i will definitely see it.