Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 9, 2008

Guest post on No Country for Old Men

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 2:54 pm

(This appears as comments on the previous posting, but I want to make sure that it does not escape anybody’s attention because of its extraordinary value. Malooga, the author, is a regular at http://www.moonofalabama.org/.)

 Coming late to the party.

Well, I’ve read the two reviews by our host and the 100+ comments, and I found a number of them interesting and even enlightening, and yet I come away from this thread of film criticism on a Marxist blog even more disappointed than from the movie itself.

Yes, the cinematography and the production values were top-notch, but one expects that from any Hollywood film, and has for a long time. It is hard to imagine that one would see a film for the sound production unless one worked in that industry; just as it is equally hard to imagine that one would bypass a film that had something important to say, but where the production values were not top-notch.

More to the point — and especially on a Marxist blog — is the question of what this film, and film in general, has to say about the human condition, and particularly the human condition at this critical juncture in time on this planet; what does the film have to say about the individual facing the contradictions and violence of modern society, coping with the ever-increasing material and social inequality and constraints on a stable and meaningful life posed by neo-liberal, late-stage capitalism, and the concomitant ecological collapse; what does the film have to say about the individual’s struggle against the very real violent and dehumanizing authoritarian and mass social forces in a time of rapid change; what does the film have to say about the search for community in a time of homogenization; what does the film have to say about the individual confronting the age-old forces of time, fate, change and death, and making a meaningful personal peace with them? Apparently very little.

To my mind, those are the important questions of our day, and to the extent that modern cinema engages and struggles with those questions is the extent to which it remains relevant. To the extent that a film addresses those issues and reveals some truth, some sense of humanity standing up to the dehumanizing and implacable forces confronting the modern condition, that film remains important and relevant. To the extent that it fails in this challenge, it is no more than escapism – an adult version of cartoons (OK, if it is acknowledged as that.) – or nihilism, and the belief in the impossibility of finding individual meaning and dignity: a condition which the elite who run this world would love to see the great masses reduced to. Where is the nobility in this? Or are we just reviewing cartoons for our entertainment in elevated language here?

At this point, let me say that I watch very little film because I find so much of it disappointing, or merely reinforcing of the most jejune values of contemporary society, albeit dressed up in pretty wrappers. I have been greatly influenced in this regard by the reviews on the wsws website, and particularly the deep and far-ranging discussion between John Steppling and John Walsh on the art and politics of film at swans.com several years ago.

Film, as a product for mass consumption, is less than 100 years old. Television is half that age. As John Berger points out, industrially produced images, themselves, are only about 500 years old, and we have gone from seeing the rare painted or sculpted image in a church to being bombarded with mass-produced images at the average rate of one every two seconds or so. Our habituation has been total. I spent whole years of my childhood watching cartoons, sit-coms, movies, game shows, and really everything that played across the phosphorescent screen. Did all of those hours teach me anything about life; how society works; how materials and products are grown, mined and manufactured, and the social conditions and structures involved in maintaining such processes; or how society is run, mass belief and thinking channeled, and dissent controlled? I think not; rather it filled my head with all manner of silly notions and illusions about the benignity of American Exceptionalism, and the glorious, religious wonder of endless technological growth.

Reduced to the mythic level there is the story: The story tells us about other’s experiences in life so that we may incorporate those experiences and lessons learned with our own. The moral narrative story was transferred to image. The average person I know cannot go more than one or two days without the overwhelming need to see (with their eyes) a story – either a movie, a rented video, or something on television. We have moved beyond mere habituation to complete capitulation. We probably view 500-1000 such complete stories a year. For the average 40 year old, that amounts to a total of perhaps 30-50,000 stories, replete with artificially constructed sets, and moving images, since birth. (For others, numbers may go as high as perhaps a quarter of a million or more such stories over the course of a lifetime.) Even if we consciously disbelieve the values and social conditions put forth by the vast majority of the images and stories we view, over time these values and visions become a part of us – and the science of public relations is exquisitely aware of this. (For instance fighting in space is more exciting and important than healing this planet.) Does the average person know more about the forces controlling society, and the struggle against subjugation than, say, the person of 1848 (who incidentally, in this country, was highly literate and read many books)? And if not, than why not? Does the average person have more highly developed moral, ethical, or even aesthetic values than the person of 200 years ago? Has film served a useful social purpose — the “instruct” part of Dr. Johnson’s immortal “instruct and delight” rationale for art, and if, by and large, it has failed at this, then why pontificate against the desire for a coherent ending – if this is only entertainment, why not give the masses what they want? Or at least refrain from arguing that one ending is in some way better than another, except to voice one’s own preference.

More to the point, is the question of why the average person needs such constant flow of visual stimulation in our society. When people go away on vacation and get away from such a bombardment of imagery, they usually report a greater sense of well-being and happiness. Are the forces of modern society, and the work we are often forced to do in order to survive, so oppressive that we cannot function without anti-depressants and a constant deluge of either escapist fairy-tales, or the perpetual reinforcing of conformist societal values (albeit, often dressed in pseudo-rebellious garb)? Sure, the human mind has the ability, and often the desire, to be in two places at once: to use our imagination. On a personal level we use much of our imagination in fantasizing about an improvement of our condition (for instance, sleeping with someone who we can’t, or owning a house or car we can’t afford). Perhaps cinema, in this sense, frees us from the need to exercise our own imaginations. It helps us escape the bind of the temporal condition, and be somewhere else, face new challenges and see new images: Sun and sea, when we are enmired in snow and ice, for instance. For a time we feel that we own the house and car, and have the mate of our dreams. Is it any wonder why the vast majority of Americans then believe they are much better of than they are, and thus can be manipulated against their interests on issues like welfare, and the inheritance tax.

But the real question remains: Why does modern man feel such a strong need to escape these temporal bonds? Why does modern man feel such a strong need for cinema? What ever happened to the Zen ideal of being hot in the summer and cold in the winter? Why not engage in a hobby, like woodworking or gardening, to relax and engage our creativity and imaginations? Why the overwhelming desire to spend 10-20 hrs/wk., or even much more, watching other’s stories? These are choices we make, consciously or not. I once lived high up a hill in a tropical rain forest, and when I got home from work (I did have an ordinary stress-filled, conflict-ridden job), I used to just sit and watch the opposite hillside: the flora and fauna, the changing conditions of light and cloud and wind, and the sounds of life, for the same hour or two that I had previously devoted to TV, every evening. Was I any less well off for not having seen some blood-thirsty killer stalking my field of vision for two hours? These are serious questions and, in our society, they demand serious consideration. What is the meaning and relevance of art?

Back to the specifics of this film: It seems there are two ways to treat the film: either by attempting to understand the storyline literally, or by viewing the film mythically.

Most of the problems with a literal reading have already been brought up, but here are a few more from my perspective. First off, neither I, nor my partner, understood a number of scenes, for instance, the scenes where Bell was speaking to a relative in the trailer. Who was the relative? Secondly, there were the usual string of illogicalities which propel any storyline. Who goes hunting in the desert without water, and if Moss had water, why didn’t he share it immediately? Does dark, oily, unprocessed, crude cocaine paste (it wasn’t pot) really come in from the Mexican border, or is that a myth, to scare the present public into closing the border? There are perhaps a dozen, or more, questions along those lines I could easily come up with. Most persuasive in arguing against a literal treatment is the absolute lack of caricature and character development; the characters were limed as flat and two-dimensional as possible; little hints of their past or any sense of development, or maturation, was provided. The only one who had a sense of past and self-reflection, of course, was Sheriff Bell, a man of such limited beliefs and views (meant to pass as some sort of mythic Western wisdom), that if I had met him alone in a coffee shop in West Texas, I would have been hard pressed to sit still and listen to his banal explanations of society and its forces. And believe me, I have met enough Bells in my life. Also problematic in this sense were the Mexicans: evil, swarming homunculi that would make even me want to close our borders to prevent their infiltration. Clearly, West Texas was a stage set, not a real place, and modern cityscapes, as well as social and economic relationships, were noticeably absent.

The crowd that gets excited by interpreting the implicit details of a storyline sure liked the haziness of this film. I found myself unable to empathize with the individual 2-D characters, and, hence, uncaring of all the subtle details. After reading everyone’s interpretations on the comments, I’m still not sure if it matters who killed who, and who got the money. It was all fairly run of the mill action film – I’ve seen perhaps 10,000 of these – and without caring about the characters, and their ultimate moral disposition – that, of course, is the key — the details were almost irrelevant.

Noticeably missing from the all the comments and reviews was any reflection about the supposed driving force behind the plot: the money itself. In a sense, it was the ultimate Mcguffin, and treated as meaningless, really — just a way to drive the action and the violence which, in this film, was the actual point, and took on a life (and death) of its own. What are the social forces behind drug running, how much is $2M really, and would a cartel go to such lengths and dangers to recover such a sum? (Having personally known small-to-medium size drug dealers in Colombia, I think not.) What effect would $2M have upon Moss’s life (Where did he find meaning anyway? Does $2M turn you from an antelope hunter into a Cheney with buckshot?); would taking out only $100,000 have had the same effect? Clearly, the film does not want us thinking about money, and how it controls so many of our actions and decisions in our society in any real way. This is probably the film’s greatest limitation and defect, if we are in any serious manner to attempt to understand the film literally as anything more than escapist entertainment.

So, I guess we are left to wrestling with the film’s purported greatness on symbolic and structural levels. I can’t underscore how few films, especially Hollywood types, I actually see, and yet it is obvious what is in vogue these days. One of the last films I saw, a full eight years ago, was American Beauty, and, while that was a much better film, the similarities are glaring. It is in vogue to mix genres — in this case, action, film noir, southern gothic, post-modern, etc. It is implicitly assumed that such mixing of genres results in a product that is somehow superior (in a cathetic sense) to the pure genre itself. But such a line of thinking denies the fact that such genres originally developed to emphasize certain qualities: In the case of action, heroism and good-vs-evil; in film noir, the hidden, implacable forces of evil itself; in southern gothic, the sense of cultural and economic strangulation; in post-modern, the absurdity of life itself. It is apparent from the comments presented here that this genre-melding has left viewers with a greater individual range of interpretations of the film’s meaning and quality, depending on their feeling of which genre prevailed, and yet, consequently, a diminished sense of the overall emotional impact of the film. In any event, it seems obvious to me that such a trick has been done before – there is no need for the viewer to be perplexed about it – and that it is neither original, nor even very difficult.

The second point I would like to comment upon is the currently fashionable technique, again used in American Beauty, of post-modern irony — Chigurh’s hairdo, and bizarre mannerisms, the interview-like quality of Bell’s disquisitions, the tacky hotel settings. All of this has the quality of distancing the director from the film and the statement being made. It is as if the director is saying to us, “This is just a construct, an artifice I am creating; don’t take it too seriously; it’s just a movie, it’s a joke and you’re in on it – so, don’t really listen to what I am trying to say, because I’m not really trying to say it.” Again, this has been done before — it is all the rage in what passes for “serious” film –or so it seems to me. So, we become like children watching war films: we are shocked by the licentious violence, but at the same time, we know it is not real. To which I reply, “Great! But, so what?”

Along a similar vein, what was the point of Chigurh’s odd weapon – would the film have been as engrossing if he used a common shotgun, and does this gimmick have any other meaning? One is hard pressed to make the argument that there is any substantial commentary concerning our violence to animal life in this film; only, perhaps, that human lives are being treated here with the casualness with which we treat animal life in our society. But, again, why? Is there anything we can do about it, or must we shudder in our apartments until Chigurh blows in our own lock? Why should we stand for human life to be treated this way, much less pay to see it, when we can read a blog like “Iraq Today” and see such violence in reality, and struggle with it personally, and the pain it causes both its victims and us, and struggle with either how to stop it, or grudgingly accept its real implacability. Perhaps I betray a fundamentalist streak, but I find it troubling that people pay to see such violence for enjoyment, but cannot bring themselves to follow the very real violence which is the principle product of our “way of life;” that is simply, boring. Yet, this is treated reverentially; this is “serious” cinema.

Finally, is it really so amazing and brilliant that the Coen brothers provided us with such an unclear climax and dénouement, with an open-ended resolution and incomplete catharsis? Has that not been done a zillion times before? It is just a style; either you like it or you don’t. Maybe it says that life is open-ended; maybe it doesn’t. Who cares? About ten years ago, I watched a few episodes of the TV show “Law and Order” (With that Fred guy who was running for President. I think that was the title, and a fitting one for mass media, too.); it seems even TV had figured out the trick a long time ago. When simple tricks such as these continue to create such a stir among “serious” cinema viewers, I would argue that the cinema, as many of our other art forms, is stuck and at a crisis. It seems that the great technological and emotional innovations have all been worked out, and, rather than confront the world as it is head-on, meaning and relevance have become rare indeed.

All of the above innovations of the Coen brothers – the mixing of genres, the ironic distancing, the inexplicable character quirks, the dramatic and narrative incompleteness — I would argue, only muddy the mythic quality of the film, while, arguably enhancing its stylistic value. Mythic value, for better or worse, is the reduction of the messy real world into an idealized war of human value against its opposite, a kind of Manichaen moralism. Stylistic unorthodoxy invites stylistic criticism, not high theatrical treatment. In any event, such stylistic “experimentation,” as mild and unoriginal as it is, is hardly revolutionary, or even progressive, in any sense of the word. How then can we seriously treat such limited innovation by Hollywood as representing even the tiniest change in social relations — even that between viewer and auteur, viewer and critic, viewer and industry, or viewer and viewer – much less between viewer and society?

It seems, after digesting all of the comments, that the message of the film was, “Shit happens. And often, inexplicably.” Deep. I really learned something. In Shakespearean tragedy — Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, for instance – this is a given. Even the illiterate groundlings of the sixteenth century Globe Theater got that. The interesting part is how a character deals with the shit, with injustice, with fate, especially when the “jig is up.” Well, here they just shoot each other up, or soliloquize in some meandering pre-Alzheimers sort of way until the celluloid runs out and the credits roll. I, for one, was glad when they did.

A final way of interpreting the film is to see the major players as representing different aspects of property law, that is to say, our relationship to material things. After all, all the action in the film was driven around the money — representing private property — and the individual quest for it. Bell, who McCarthy and the directors seem to have no small amount of sympathy for, represents governmental law in its best Western reactionary, racist, unquestioning tradition, “The law is the law, but unfortunately, it don’t work no more.” Moss, also portrayed sympathetically as a sort-of libertarian sleeper, represents property law in the neo-conservative, “possession is nine tenths of the law,” “I own it and I’m going to do what I want with it” sense. The Mexicans represent entrenched power: “We had it, you stole it, and we’re going to get you.” Apparently, they did come away with the money in the end. Radical, man. More complicated, in the novel, Chigurh, and the Harrelson character, represent the co-ordinator class in its good and bad aspects: paid by the elite to unquestioningly protect its property interests, either nicely or not so nicely. One is free to draw one’s own conclusions as to why the Coen’s were not comfortable portraying Chigurh as the bared fangs of violent servitude to the propertied class – the hired killer, the mercenary; I’m sure there was no personal element to that decision. In any event, the novel was changed, and Chigurh was depicted as simply lust for wealth, at all costs. While he suffered greatly, he persevered, and was even portrayed as having some personal integrity and arcane deeper personal moral code. All the minor characters were innocent spectators, and yet even some of these paid with their lives in the ruthless quest for lucre.

Nowhere in the film was a progressive voice ever heard, that is, one arguing in any fashion, for a more just and equitable distribution of property, much less any deeper consideration of the meaning of property, in general, for society — even if that character were to get its head blown off amidst gales of Mexican laughter. To me, the nihilistic quality of the film lies in its deeply cynical denial of altruism as a quality, indeed the quality sine qua non of humanity. Again, we are not even speaking of the relative value of altruism as a human endeavor, we are talking about the mere existence of it.

Louis’ personal page contains a beautiful quote from Max Horkheimer:

a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.

I assume that all of us who read this blog, absent the rotten core of the Rotten Tomato crowd, are activists in one manner or another. All of us have made personal sacrifices in one way or another, whether in money, recognition, time, or some other manner, because we felt deeply, to the core of our beings, that what we were doing was for the benefit of more than ourselves. Some of us have made very deep sacrifices and suffered greatly for it. Many of us have been ridiculed and shunned for our thinking. Much of the so-called “sympathetic world” has merely termed us “underachievers.” To my mind, a film which doesn’t even acknowledge our existence, and those like us – even if it is only to show us getting our heads blown off (and we all know that would not necessarily be an inaccurate portrayal of our type in West Texas at any point in history) — a film which doesn’t even acknowledge any love for that which is greater than us whatsoever, is a deeply cynical, distasteful, and reactionary film – rotten to its very core. Perhaps it is a “serious” post-modern, Fukuyama type of world where all activism will be extinct. But they will have to kill me, and my bretheren off before that happens – and then who will the Coen’s get to watch their reactionary screeds?

30 Comments »

  1. Hallo Louis – you write: “I could have accepted an unhappy ending provided that the ending had what Aristotle called a cathartic effect.”

    This statement sounds odd to me. Marxism art theory is fundamentally associated with Bertolt Brecht`s anti- Aristotelian position.

    Brecht theory “operative aesthetics” was part of the historical, revolutionary avant-gardism in Soviet-Union before Stalinism abolished it during the 1930ies. Fighting the cathartic effect in art, Brecht introduced the so-called V-effects (“Verfremdung”) in revolutionary art. (Wikipedia: V-effect; defamiliarization effect, estrangement effect, distantiation, distancing effect or alienation effect.)

    The human condition under capitalism must ble viewed as strange and distanced to break ideological misinterpretations of it. Demanding happy ending in art seems to me to be romantic and anti-realistic.

    Rolf

    Comment by Rolf — February 9, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

  2. Rolf, I think that Brecht’s ideas are more interesting than their realization on the stage. That being said, movies are even more stringent in their need for resolution which is not quite the same thing as a happy ending as I tried to point out. Has there ever been a movie that exemplifies Brechtian esthetics? I guess that Fassbinder is the best example. I really love Fassbinder, especially Berlin Alexanderplatz, but that movie has one of the most gut-wrenching resolutions I have ever seen.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 9, 2008 @ 3:36 pm

  3. […] Read the rest of this great post here […]

    Pingback by Next Generation Console Reviews » Blog Archive » Guest post on No Country for Old Men — February 9, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

  4. Louis: I’m an amateur in film history,but examples of Brecht theories and use of V-effect known as montage-technique, was developed the Russian Dziga Vertov, Lev Kulesov and Serge Eisenstein.

    As a young student in Bergen/Norway/1970, Gilbert Rocha`s “Antonio Das Mortas” (1969) made a strong impression on me.The montage of myth, allusions to history, ritualistic violence, desolated archaic landscape contrasted with the sudden appearance of american Mobil-stations and so on.

    But am sorry too say I don’t remember the (Happy?) end of the film.

    Rolf

    Comment by Rolf — February 9, 2008 @ 6:22 pm

  5. It’s difficult, at best, to consider Malooga’s film analysis as meaningful. He is so proud of how few films he sees – he states it, then restates it in case, I suppose, he thinks we’ve forgotten how infrequently he goes to the movies – and his analysis shows his limited exposure to the product. He writes nicely, but had he begun by telling us he’s only watched 2 movies in the last 8 years, who would have bothered to read much more? And, doesn’t that explain his acknowledged lack of understanding of “No Country For Old Men”?

    Comment by Richard Greener — February 9, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

  6. I don’t know, Richard. I am working on a piece about Jesse James movies and the real Jesse James. As part of that survey, I tried to watch “I Shot Jesse James” but couldn’t make it through the first 45 minutes even though it was directed by the great Sam Fuller. Fuller basically takes the Bob Ford character and cooks up an inane melodrama that has nothing to do with the real Bob Ford. After that, it got even worse. I watched “American Outlaws” to its conclusion, only because it was an attempt to say something about the real Jesse James, who it turned into an American Robin Hood. The style of the movie was MTV, however, and utterly puerile. Even though the real Jesse James was a white supremacist whose fight after the Civil War was to resist Black political participation in Missouri, there was not a single Black in the movie. I was so appalled by this shitty movie that I spent 10 minutes trying to track down an email address for one of the principals in order to send them a hate mail. It was enough to make me swear off movies for 8 years.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 9, 2008 @ 7:56 pm

  7. This review implicitly dismisses all films which don’t evince or pay tribute to a Marxian moral imperative as “rotten” to their “very core.” Such moralism is non-dialectical and, frankly, philistine to its core. The task of a Marxist critic is not (unless one is a Focus on the Family Stalinist) to assess how closely a text (novel, film, play) maps onto her own worldview. Such attempts are willfuly constrained – by definition – to banality and smug stupidity.

    The complexity of film as a the modern medium has been explored in myriad ways by some of the most brilliant Marxist thinkers of the 20th century, from Walter Benjamin in the early 30s to Jonathan Beller in the 21st century (on the latter see Steven Shaviro’s excellent discussion: http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=561 ).

    Writing a review as an act of JUDGMENT, while proudly avowing one’s ignorance and distaste for the medium and genre under discussion, evinces a grade-school mentality that barely rises to the antinomies of bourgeois reason.

    Most mainstream cinema is shitty. But some of the shittiest films of all can be of the highest interest to someone sufficiently resourceful enough to attempt the work of actually having a thought. See for example this discussion of Basic Instinct 2.

    http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/007635.html

    Comment by Andrew — February 9, 2008 @ 10:58 pm

  8. Louis……. I don’t always agree with your film reviews either, but I respect the foundation upon which they rest, a fine example of which you present in your post just above regarding Jesse James, the second most legendary lefthander after Sandy Koufax. To review movies as you do, one must love the movie as a form. I get that from you even when I don’t see what you see. I get nothing of that sort from Malooga. Sorry.

    Comment by Richard Greener — February 10, 2008 @ 12:01 am

  9. One of the chief exercises of No Country is the creation of a powerful screen monster, one with all morality stripped away – this reflects the new pitiless phase capitalism is entering. We know what imperialism is capable of abroad but now even its own relatively pampered western civilians are coming under the boot as the benign mask of the system is ripped off. And even loveable heroes of convention may not survive this onslaught.

    This, the Coen Bros are saying, is the cold bleak reality of the world we now inhabit. There is no room for sentimentality, ideals and fellow feeling – these belong to the old men like Tommy Lee Jones. To Shigur, it’s all numbers, a warped logic, a person’s life decided on the toss of a coin.

    Chigur, in his relentless cold cruelty and horror, is a force of nature. Air is his element, his chosen method of dispatch, but the means are all human productions. A cattle-killer. Perfect! I see a precursor in the relentless killing machines of The Terminator – but this monster is all human distorted by capitalist imperatives. And he does love his money.

    The fillmmaking is supremely effective. Note the way the Coen Bros order how much of the horror of the killings you see. They set this up beautifully as if they were winding up an electric band in our heads, releasing it in the final chilling moments so that we do the work. And it’s all the more vivid for that.

    The first random killing of the car driver is seen in gory detail. As we get closer to the fate of the protagonist, we need to see less and less as it’s starting to take place in out imagination and we fill in the gaps better than any closed-ended film images could do.

    The protagonist’s killing by the drug criminals is offscreen with the added touch of the woman dead in the pool. By the time we get to the climactic death of innocence in Chigur’s pointless, vindictive murder of Llewelyn’s wife, all we need to see is the tiny vain gesture as he steps out of the house after the event – and he checks his boots. I found this such an upsetting powerful moment. This is not an open end. They build relentlessly to this moment. Once she refuses to call the coin toss, she’s sealed her fate – Chigur sees himself merely as an instrument of that fate with no choice himself. Checking the boots tells you everything about what has just happened.

    Even worse, we now know that this was a bloody kiling from what’s been set up before, and it’s not even a bloodless strangling. This is a fastidious killer who doesn’t like to make a mess with blood and certainly doesn’t want it on his shoes – her life is simply something he stepped in. Despite our hopes, he has had no pity for the woman who has lost her mother, who’s husband is now dead so revenge isn’t the motivation, and who alone in the world. Chigur is a juggernaut that rolls on with no sense of fairness, truth, justice and the rest of the malarky we’ve believed is our right since the the dawn of capitalism.

    The film is pessimistic but not entirely. Chigur is, after all, wounded in another random accident so he’s not all powerful. And humanity continues in the boy who shows concern and offers his shirt out of kindness. I think the Coens are trying to take a snapshot of where we are now and presenting it to us in a way that doesn’t numb us like a lot of the cynical fare being served up, but shocks us in to seeing where we are and maybe doing something about it. And in that it is to me a deeply humane film.

    Comment by Madam Miaow — February 10, 2008 @ 9:48 am

  10. #9: “I think the Coens are trying to take a snapshot of where we are now and presenting it to us in a way that doesn’t numb us like a lot of the cynical fare being served up, but shocks us in to seeing where we are and maybe doing something about it.”

    I didn’t react to the film in this way at all. I saw it as a kind of “Fargo” type film but without the cool ending. To me, the Coen brothers are entertainers. I thought that “Blood Simple”, “Fargo” and the first 2/3’s of “No Country for Old Men” were Jim Thompson type material with a kind of hipster NYU Film School sensibility. If “No Country for Old Men” had a suitable ending, I would have had no complaints. But then that would have involved messing with Cormac McCarthy’s novel. One of these days I might get around to reading one of them, but based on what the Coens did with it, I am in no rush.

    In terms of what the film has to say about the violence of the capitalist system, I am reminded of what I wrote about “Michael Clayton” in which a corporate executive hires a hit-man to help squelch a whistle-blower. I thought that corporations have no need for such intervention since the courts rule in their favor. That’s the way the system works. Capitalist violence for me is not about hit-men. It is about getting screwed by insurance companies that won’t honor your claims, or losing your home when you can’t pay your mortgage. These are “perpetrator-less” crimes that don’t really lend themselves to cinematic treatment other than documentaries like “Sicko”. “Grapes of Wrath” was a notable exception.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 10, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

  11. If “No Country for Old Men” had a suitable ending, I would have had no complaints.

    Sorry, Louis, not sure what you mean by this. What’s a “suitable ending”? The climax was the result of what had gone before.

    Capitalist violence for me is not about hit-men.

    Maybe literally. But on the film’s terms, that’s how the Coens have decided to represent the dynamic of the new domestic phase of capitalist brutality in this work of fiction and imagination.

    Comment by Madam Miaow — February 10, 2008 @ 7:10 pm

  12. #11: A suitable ending would have put Moss at the center of the action and drawn maximum dramatic value out of his success or failure. When you spend 2/3’s of a movie focused on an essentially likable character, you are cheating the audience by getting rid of him off-screen. On what the Coen’s think of capitalist brutality. I don’t think the term capitalist brutality would have ever entered their psyche. They are masters of postmodernist irony, not Marxian class struggle narratives. When they depicted a Clifford Odets character on-screen, it was only to make him look like a geek. I suppose there was less damage done here than in the Paul Thomas Anderson travesty on Upton Sinclair, but I expect more when it comes to Marxist film-making. Ousmane Sembene is a reasonable touchstone in that regard.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 10, 2008 @ 7:39 pm

  13. A suitable ending would have put Moss at the center of the action and drawn maximum dramatic value out of his success or failure.

    But this is what was so unexpected and what worked so brilliantly. These are experienced filmmakers who know a trick or two, so why did they make this choice?

    Conventionally, the worst thing that can happen to Llewlyn Moss is that he fails in his quest to keep the money and is killed. But the Coens ratchet up the horror beyond this. If that’s the worst, then what’s the very worst – what some in film have called “the negation of the negation” to borrow a term that will have some reaching for their gnus?

    Yes, they could have had a mundane shoot-out with Chigur spectacularly killing Moss. But this isn’t solely what the film is about. This is a world that turns our notions of who is heroic, who deserves to die or survive, and all the rest that our cultured enlightenment brains tell us is right, on its head. Under the new order, heroes die pathetically while the juggernaut monster kills innocence. Chigur reaches Moss beyond the grave by killing his wife and doesn’t even care. The hero has failed, not only to keep the money, but to save his Beloved. The story didn’t stop with his death – that’s horror.

    And now Chigur is abroad in the world to continue his murderous spree.

    Darfur, Katrina/New Orleans, Iraq – these are all places where the rule book has been ripped up. And it’s coming to a location near us.

    If by “a Clifford Odets character”, you mean Barton Fink, again I loved this movie. The intellectual who is so clever he can’t see what’s under his nose.

    Comment by Madam Miaow — February 10, 2008 @ 8:12 pm

  14. A couple interesting posts here. Can’t say I was too impressed with Malooga’s analysis though I would agree with Malooga that it operates on a ‘mythic’ dimension and in this way it is a contribution to this discussion. Rolf’s idea of the film as operating in terms of a Brectian aesthetics is interesting. I do think it was intended as undermining genre form and approaching it in terms of tragedy and catharsis as Louis does is mistaken. So it is an experimental film. Does this experiment succeed? Is this discussion evidence of its success or failure in a Brectian sense? I am ambivalent on this. I thought Madam Miaow’s post was brilliant, very thought provoking. Chigurh invites comparison to another character of McCarthy’s, the ‘Judge’ from Blood Meridian. McCarthy is certainly no believer in utopias or utopian moralisms. This is certainly a conservative aspect to McCarthy’s writing but he does not deploy it in a conservative way. He deploys it as a weapon against visions of Exceptionalism in US history, the Manifest Destiny of the West, etc. The Judge is the ugly face of this exceptionalism and if he is still ‘dancing’ as the end of that book has it, that is no more than the history of US imperialism and the violence and alienation of the Border with which McCarthy is so obsessed is his legacy to us. Indeed the violence of US imperial capitalism (and the way this violence gets reflected back through the Border)is the major subtext of the novel. Louis references the often sublimated form of modern capitalist violence and indeed this is everywhere. But even this sublimated violence depends on an overt violence, the wars of indian dispossession (the uncle’s reference), WW2 (Bell) and Vietnam (Moss). Chigurh is indeed a sort of modern face to this as Miaow suggests. Miaow also suggests the child in the end as a figure of hope, humanity. I think she is right. In fact McCarthy regularly uses the figure of the child as just such a symbol throughout his work. A significant trope indeed. The child is a frail but still very real hope for humanity and its continuance. Given the darkness of McCarthy’s visions the character of this hope is indeed almost mystical, irrational, (and certainly not the proletariat marching from victory to victory) – but given what the twentieth century did to visions of humanity I still find it a significant affirmation.

    Comment by dave p — February 10, 2008 @ 8:31 pm

  15. Comrade Miaow, surely you must understand that you are perhaps the only person in the world who interprets the movie as some kind of political statement, right? As far as ratcheting up the horror is concerned, movies are essentially visual mediums. By getting rid of Moss off-screen, you accomplish the same thing as taking a scissor to the final reel of the movie, something that was done with more skill in Buster Keaton’s “The Projectionist”. Who knows, maybe the movie could have consisted of five minutes of Tommy Lee Jones ruminating on the state of the world. It could have used a soundtrack by John Cage. You know, the one called “4’33”.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 10, 2008 @ 8:33 pm

  16. #14: “Indeed the violence of US imperial capitalism (and the way this violence gets reflected back through the Border)is the major subtext of the novel.”

    “Blood Meridian”, according to the editor of the Journal of Cormac McCarthy Studies, “dismantles the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization”. It amazes me that such a novel can invite such comments without a terrible outcry on http://www.cormacmccarthy.com/works/bloodmeridian.htm. What if somebody wrote a novel that prompted a scholar to write that it “dismantles the politically correct myth of Nazi genocide against the Jews”. As Ward Churchill once observed, the USA can get away with framing history in this fashion because it was victorious in its genocidal wars as opposed to the Nazis. In the USA, you can have baseball team mascots that are the equivalent of the Berlin Kikes or something like that. And novels that apparently put the murderous invaders of Indian land and the Indian on the same plane. Disgusting.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 10, 2008 @ 9:02 pm

  17. Comrade Miaow, surely you must understand that you are perhaps the only person in the world who interprets the movie as some kind of political statement, right?

    Au contraire, Louis, I must understand no such thing. And if I did happen to be “the only person in the world” with eyes, that would be very sad, indeed. But I don’t believe that to be the case.

    I haven’t said this is a political statement. There is a political dimension to this film which isn’t too difficult to spot. Any thinking person will be aware of massive social and political changes taking place especially post-911 with the revelation of the monstrous power wielded by Bush. It’s my guess that this will be something artists will want to grapple with and the Coens have decided to explore this little corner of a vast phenomenon.

    By getting rid of Moss off-screen, you accomplish the same thing as taking a scissor to the final reel of the movie …

    Sounds like a rule to which scissors should be taken.

    Thank you, Dave P. I haven’t read any McCarthy but Blood Meridian sounds like one to try.

    Comment by Madam Miaow — February 10, 2008 @ 9:19 pm

  18. #17: “There is a political dimension to this film which isn’t too difficult to spot. Any thinking person will be aware of massive social and political changes taking place especially post-911 with the revelation of the monstrous power wielded by Bush. It’s my guess that this will be something artists will want to grapple with and the Coens have decided to explore this little corner of a vast phenomenon.”

    Actually, if anything the film suggests the politics of xenophobia with the Mexican drug dealers coming across as Tom Tancredo’s worst nightmare. And Tommy Lee Jones sits there clucking his tongue about how “It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Anytime you quit hearing ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, the end is pretty much in sight.” It amazes me to see leftists take this kind of stupid reactionary crap seriously.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 10, 2008 @ 9:35 pm

  19. Louis hun. It’s only a movie.

    Comment by Madam Miaow — February 10, 2008 @ 9:43 pm

  20. I think Louis is wrong about McCarthy. McCarthy is certainly a disturbing right wing author. But he is also incredibly challenging.

    His earlier novels (Child of God, Suttree, and others) were a little too derivitive of Faulkener, but “Blood meridian” is probably one of the most extraodinary books ever written or ever likely to be written, a sort of Moby Dick about genocide instead of whaling.

    His boldness is in writing the book from the point of view of the genocidal mercenaries, and puts among them the character “the judge” who philosophically justifies the mass murder – it makes it a very uncomfortable read, and a good counterpoint to Bernhard Schlink’s “Der Vorleser” in addressing the banality of barbarism. (add to which mcCarthy’s very distinctive prose style, which doesn’t always come off, but when it does is extraordinary)

    I always felt that the absurd overprasing of “All the Pretty Horses” and the border triology was becaue the critics just felt they couldn’t hail “Blood meridian” for the masterpiece it is, becasue of the disturbingly convincing insight McCarthy exhibits to the racist mindset, – it was just too hot to handle. BUt as he was on safe ground with his next books, they over-compensated.

    Compare Blood Meridian with Barry Unnsworth’s novel about the slave trade, which is utterly boring and lacking insight, as Unsworth simply never gets under the skin of the slavers.

    Comment by andy newman — February 11, 2008 @ 10:10 am

  21. Louis: Cormac McCarthy as a conservative writer? Let go: the same was said about the French Novelist Honorè de Balzac. Fridrich Engels called Balzac writings an example of “triumph of realism” in literature – that is – a critical view of French society in spite of the author’s reactionary political opinions. Are you aware of the so-called “Realism-debate” in the 1930s? Gyorgy Lukács /stalinism vs. Bertolt Brecht/Marxism. Your aestetic orientation reminds me most of Lukács – the hun? If so – are Corman McCarthy and the Coens doomed.

    Rolf

    Comment by rolf — February 11, 2008 @ 5:57 pm

  22. I think it should be clear by now that I am not a literary critic. I am a political critic. I picked up “Blood Meridian” at lunch today with the intention of analyzing the politics. If you want me to judge its literary merits, you are wasting your time.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 11, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

  23. But to discuss a literary work only for its political import is like judging a Monet exclusively from the point of view of climatology.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 11, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

  24. #23: “But to discuss a literary work only for its political import is like judging a Monet exclusively from the point of view of climatology.”

    Well, look at what I wrote about Klimt. I am really not a trained art critic, but I have a pretty good handle on the cultural politics of fin de siecle Vienna. That’s what I do…

    Comment by louisproyect — February 11, 2008 @ 7:34 pm

  25. Louis Proyect said: I think it should be clear by now that I am not a literary critic. I am a political critic.

    Not sure what that means. You can’t expect very interesting results if you wrench an art-work from its cultural context and project an arbitrary political analysis upon it. Madam Miaow situated No Country within the Coen brother’s oeuvre as well as in Bush’s US, and produced what I thought was a lucid and profound analysis of the film. Yet you seemed more interested in slapping her down, without engaging with what she’d written. Why was that?

    I’d be interested in seeing Madam Miaow expand on these comments, perhaps at her own web site.

    Comment by babeuf — February 12, 2008 @ 12:27 am

  26. Actually, I was not that interested in “No Country for Old Men” as a political statement. Unlike Miaow, I thought it was pretty thin in the politics department as opposed to something like “There Will be Blood”. I actually thought the first 2/3’s of “No Country for Old Men” was pretty good in the “Fargo” type genre, with some good jokes and action. I especially like that scene when the rotund female character actor sends Chigurh on his way. Pure Coen brothers. The problem is that the ending was a crock of shit. You build up expectations and then dash them. That might lead to what guys in my high school back in the fifties called a case of blue balls.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 12, 2008 @ 12:35 am

  27. As a revue of the film in question, Malooga’s article is fairly poor…though as a statement of what art should be, it is beautifully written and well-considered. I can’t quite come to grips with why “No Country For Old Men” is praised so highly; having just watched Lars Van Trier’s “Dogville,” which was heavily criticized for the same failings that sneak by in the Coens movie (nihilism, violence, bruality, unflattering picture of America, ethical debates not framed ‘metaphorically’ but delivered as actual debates, etc.), I can honestly argue that “Dogville” was the better film…despite its flaws. From the viewpoint of political analysis, rather then aesthetic, it is a film with considerably more to say about American society than “No country For Old Men” or at least has as much to say in a more complex way. The film, for instance, seems to favour an interpretation of mankind very much in line with McCarthy’s: humans are dogs, and need to be disciplined, and seems to reject Nicole Kidman’s argument in the film that human actions are determined by their surroundings and economic conditions. But fundamentally Kidman’s exploitation at the hands of the villagers is the result of economic conditions, the need for money and free labour, and in many ways she ends up occupying a position similar to illegal immigrants (exploited to the hilt because as fugitives, like Kidman’s character in the film, they are defenseless and could be turned over to the law if they get uppidity). The film’s pessimistic tone also includes swipes at moralising intellectuals who offer only ‘rectitude and proper values’ to those exploited by poverty. Much more enjoyably from an artistic viewpoint; good camera work and very effective use of the single set.

    Comment by Cameron Willis — February 12, 2008 @ 4:52 am

  28. What Keeps Mankind Alive?

    You gentlemen who think you have a mission
    To purge us of the seven deadly sins
    Should first sort out the basic food position
    Then start your preaching, that’s where it begins
    You lot who preach restraint and watch your waist as well
    Should learn, for once, the way the world is run
    However much you twist or whatever lies that you tell
    Food is the first thing, morals follow on
    So first make sure that those who are now starving
    Get proper helpings when we all start carving
    What keeps mankind alive?
    What keeps mankind alive?
    The fact that millions are daily tortured
    Stifled, punished, silenced and oppressed
    Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance
    In keeping its humanity repressed
    And for once you must try not to shriek the facts
    Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts” – B. Brecht

    Comment by Rolf — February 12, 2008 @ 9:44 pm

  29. I was disappointed by the film, but I am enthralled by the discussion, which it has generated. This page is the most fascinating yet. A wonderful exchange of ideas. In this sense, I don’t know if the film is a success, or if we of the TV/Moviewood generation are just so desperately starved for intellectual inspiration, that we will anxiously look to anyone, who expresses a modicum of independent intellectual or artistic thought, such as the Cohen brothers for relief from our culture’s intellectual/artistic wasteland. I appreciate your website Louis, but I was surprised, that you seemed a little emotionally defensive and competitive on this page. Do we need to “win ” in the area of ideas, or can we appreciate and learn from each other ? I appreciated Madam Miaow’s interpretation of the film, even if, as you state, he is reading more into it, than the film-makers themselves have intended. (note: I think Madam Miaow ain’t no LADY. ) I appreciated interesting views on McCarthy’s writing, and references to past philosophical/artistic debates. Thank you all for the thought-provoking comments.

    Comment by Carlos Idelone — February 13, 2008 @ 7:50 pm

  30. 28: I appreciated Madam Miaow’s interpretation of the film, even if, as you state, he is reading more into it, than the film-makers themselves have intended. (note: I think Madam Miaow ain’t no LADY. )

    True, I an’t no lady, Carlos. But where did you get the notion that I’m not of the female persuasion?

    Liked your coment otherwise.

    Comment by Madam Miaow — February 24, 2008 @ 10:03 am


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