Sunday, February 26, 2012

Disappointment at the Oscars or: Why I Still Don't Like No Country For Old Men

With the Oscars airing today, there's a good chance the movie I'm rooting for (The Tree of Life) will loose to something else, like The Artist or The Help. Which gets me thinking about recent Oscar wins that have rubbed me the wrong way. One notable instance is Crash's 2005 win over worthier fare, like Brokeback Mountain and Capote. Another is Shakespeare in Love's defeat of Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. But the one that still smarts the most is No Country for Old Men's victory at the expense of There Will Be Blood in 2008.


Because from day one, No Country for Old Men has struck me as overly cynical and even contemptuous of its audience. There Will Be Blood is cynical, too, but it also has moments in which its cynical veneer threatens to crack.

Take, for instance, the scene between Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) and Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), where Daniel is on his knees before Eli's congregation, confessing, "I've abandoned my child! I've abandoned my boy!" Director Paul Thomas Anderson milks some humor from the scene, but it's also heartbreakingly sincere. For a moment, as Daniel's voice catches on the word "boy," we see him as just a man, not a businessman, and even a little bit as a father, hard as that is to imagine.

This is just one example, though. There's also that moment prior to this, where he sends his son away, refusing to look at the train as it pulls out of the station. And then there are the tears he sheds later on after killing the man he'd believed to be his brother. As envisioned by Anderson and portrayed by Day-Lewis, Daniel Plainview is a force to be reckoned with, but also a fragile human being.

Now, consider No Country for Old Men.

Let me first say that I can't fault the Coens for anything on a formal level. I love the movie's slightly over-saturated cinematography, and its careful attention to minute sounds, like the whisper of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) removing his socks after a shootout, or the way we can hear the unmanned telephone ringing downstairs when Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) calls the front desk at the Hotel Eagle. And of course, there's Bardem's excellent performance. You won't hear any complaints from me there.

As great as these aspects are, though, I've never been able to look at the two principal characters as enormously complex. They've always struck me more as archetypes. Archetypes can be powerful, don't get me wrong, but they rarely have complex motivations. They're more like symbols that exist to carry out a function, or in this case, figures designed to carry the plot from one point to another.

Why, then, does Llewelyn steal the drug money? Because he needs the cash, but also because that's what happens in the book. The better question might be, why doesn't he ever give up on the money? After a certain point, any sane man would have to admit, this just ain't worth it. So what are his motivations for dragging that blessed suitcase with him long after he knows what he stands to lose? Beats me, but it rings false.

And why does Chigurh go after him? Well, it's his job, partly, but it would also seem that he just loves killing. He's symbolic of evil, of course, not to mention fate, destiny, and what-have-you. But he's also just doing what he does in the book, too.

The character I have the hardest time with, though, is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who seems like he does more complaining than anything else. In Cormac McCarthy's book, Bell is more active. He seems genuinely intent on finding both Llewelyn and Chigurh before matters get worse. In the movie, though, he seems to have a great love of sitting. He still does police work, but the tone feels dramatically different. It's like he's just going through the motions. That's part of what gives the movie an extra-cynical edge. Sure, evil things happen and there's not much we can do about it--but if we never try, then what should we expect? Bell, as brought to life by the Coens and Jones, doesn't seem all that interested in doing anything but sipping coffee and reading the newspaper.

Even more bothersome than Bell, though, is the way the Coens chose to resolve Llewelyn's story. In both the book and the movie, his death occurs "offscreen," but in the movie it occurs without warning. Our only foreshadowing is a seemingly arbitrary conversation between Llewelyn and a woman hanging out by the pool of the motel he's staying at. During their brief encounter, she asks him what he's looking for. He says, "Just lookin' for what's comin'." The woman responds, "Yeah, no one ever sees that." And in the next scene, he's dead.

Compare this with the book, where McCarthy spends seventeen pages on a conversation between Llewelyn and a hitchhiker he's picked up. Their conversation adds depth to Llewelyn's character and brings his arc to a satisfying close. We feel how firmly committed he is to his fate. The scene the Coens give us leaves us hanging, expecting more. Thematically, this might work, but it also makes his death that much more random, and hence, more meaningless. His arc doesn't feel complete, and so all that time we've spent with him feels like it was for nothing.

That leads me to feel that the Coens don't quite respect us. Killing him offscreen is fine. Denying us a final shootout between him and Chigurh is fine. But I can't stand the feeling that our time with him was a waste, and that he's learned nothing about himself during his journey. It makes him feel that much flatter, that much more like a pawn. The Coens would rather have us feel the cynicism of McCarthy's story than some sense of purpose or resolution--that would imply that life means something.

But what about the ending? Doesn't that point toward hope?

It does, but only in the feeblest sense. More than anything, it establishes a gnostic dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. In this life, there is only cruelty. If there is hope, it's in the next life. But this is a falsehood. While life is painful, there is also beauty now and hope now. No Country for Old Men would have us believe that there is only hope later, as there's no meeting point at all between the hope in Bell's dream and the misery of "real life." They're like parallel lines that run into eternity without intersecting. Hope never impinges on the present. It's, well, a dream.

Think I've gotten it all wrong? By all means, let me know you've perspective in the comments. I am just one man, after all.

Monday, February 20, 2012

My Tarkovsky Year, Part One: Moving Images

About thirty minutes into Andrei Tarkovsky's third full-length film, Solaris (1972), we're treated to a sequence that doesn't seem all that important. We're traveling along a busy highway, passing from lane to lane, rocketing through semi-lit tunnels, all for about six to ten minutes. It's a moment that, when I first saw it only a few weeks ago, tested my patience and the strength of my imagination. What does this have to do with anything? I wondered.

As head-scratching as this sequence might be, though, it is important. If nothing else, it prods us to think about the differences between this gray, concrete world and the lush, green countryside of the previous scene. And that gets us thinking about the nature of reality and the difference between something made by man and something made by a higher intelligence, like God or the planet Solaris.

As I've worked my way through Tarkovsky's films this year--each one for the first time, and in chronological order--this is what I've learned: every moment is essential to the whole. Nothing is random or for beauty's sake alone.

But that doesn't mean Tarkovsky's films are like puzzles we have to figure out--I'm not saying that. They mean something, yes, but their magic has more to do with the way these beautiful and dreamlike images can hit you. They have a subtle, unforced emotional power that transcends the slow, sometimes tedious pace of the movies themselves.

I first had this thought during the opening moments of Ivan's Childhood (1962), where we see the young Ivan (Nikolai Burlyayev) wading through a tree-infested swamp the German army has occupied. Behind him, in the background, a flare soars into the sky, arcs, falls, then sizzles out in the muddy water.

Where are we? we wonder. What kind of hell is this, and what's a child doing here? Tarkovsky explores these questions over the movie's short runtime, then sums up his ideas with a simple yet stunning coda: After Ivan has disappeared back across enemy lines, we're taken away from this war-torn setting to a scenic beach, where a group of children are playing hide-and-seek, with Ivan among them. But why we are here?

The answer becomes clear when Ivan, who is chasing a girl along the beach, suddenly overtakes her, speeding across the wet sand as if something were now chasing him. In a POV shot, we see a tree just ahead--home base--and Ivan's arm reaching out for it, but the screen cuts to black just before he reaches it. Seeing this for the first time, I was left with a feeling of sadness and even terror. With these very simple images, Tarkovsky shows us the horror of war--that it robs children of their childhoods, forcing them to grow up too quickly before stealing their lives completely. This is the kind of incredible emotional power that Tarkovsky's images can have.

Other moments are still with me as well. Rublev's encounter with the pagans in Andrei Rublev (1966) unsettled me in the way a strange and disturbing dream might, as did certain scenes from The Mirror (1975), which felt as much like a ghost story as a collection of vivid memories. Even Solaris, which I consider my least favorite Tarkovsky film so far (I still need to see Voyage in Time, Nostalgia, and The Sacrifice) still contained images that hit me on an emotional level.

But these are only the images and impressions that have stood out to me so far. I'll be exploring other moments as the year continues. In the meantime, what moments from this great director's works have hit you the hardest? Was it a single image? A larger sequence? I'd love to here about it in the comments below.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Separation REVIEW

Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation has earned the kind of near-universal acclaim most movies can only dream about. I should add that “near-universal acclaim” is something that excites me as a moviegoer but also arouses my suspicion. Seeing other critics salivate so openly makes it easy to get ones hopes up. In the case of The Artist, which garnered plenty of year-end attention in 2011 and is poised to win Best Picture at this year’s Oscar’s ceremony, I was disappointed. But with Farhadi’s film, I left the theater in awe and a little but exhausted. Last year had many good films, but none that put me through the wringer quite like this.

A Separation is like a thriller in some ways--specifically a legal thriller--while in others it’s a family drama. But I hate the idea of pigeonholing it too much. Especially because Farhadi’s film has the potential to break through borders of all kinds, whether of genre, nationality, or even that firm but tenuous line between the art house crowd and the mainstream moviegoer. Were it not for the language barrier and America’s political and religious baggage with Iran, it might be this year’s Oscar front-runner instead of The Artist--it has that kind of potential.

Unfortunately, I’m worried that a certain “us-vs-them” mentality will prevail, even though such an attitude ignores what A Separation really has to say. Broadly speaking, Farhadi’s characters act in ways that aren't all that different from the way anyone might behave--meaning they engage in the same prideful, self-justifying behavior we all do when we’re pushed into a corner. It’s human nature. And in the case of A Separation, it’s what gives the movie its air of truth. This is us. This is how we behave.

What A Separation ultimately does, then, is shrink the world without erasing our difference. It’s very much of its time and place, but it speaks to our same vulnerabilities and our need to protect our own safety, our own interests.

Farhadi achieves by largely doing away with the kind of protagonist-antagonist division we’re used to. He gives us a multifaceted view instead, making it hard to side with one character over another. Everyone bears some of the storytelling burden and shares some of the blame for the tragedy that occurs. Which isn’t to say that we don’t have anyone to root for--only that every character has, at some point, a moment in which our opinion of them is refined or revised. Farhadi wants us to empathize with his characters--not judge them--and by empathizing, to learn compassion and understanding. One need only look at our own political climate to see how bereft of empathy and compassion we are. The us-vs-them mentality isn’t limited to foreign policy--it’s how we view our next-door neighbor, or the guy who cuts us off in traffic. Our worlds are often limited to only our own perspective, but when we’re able to see all sides of a story, our understanding can grow, and our empathy along with it.

Can Fidelity Make a Good Movie?

Recently, I explored the question, “Can fidelity make a good movie?” for Relevant. You can read that feature here.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Amadeus Blog-a-thon: What Was, What Should Have Been

This week, a number of bloggers and movie critics are joining forces to blog about one of the greatest Best Picture winners of all time, Milos Forman’s Amadeus. This is my post in that series. You can find links to all the others here.

Recently, the literary journal, Image, chose film critic Steven D. Greydanus of The National Catholic Register and Decent Films as their Artist of the Month. In the profile written about him on the Image website, he remarks that "one of the most intriguing critical theories I've ever encountered is Graham Greene's philosophy that film should reveal both the world as it is and as it should be."

Reading this quote, I felt that Greene (via Greydanus) had to cut straight to the heart of what I love most about Milos Forman's Oscar-winning film, Amadeus, and especially its climactic scene.

In this scene, we come to what we've been waiting for from the very beginning--the moment in which Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) will "kill" his rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce). Of course, it's an exaggeration to say that Salieri kills him, though he does wear him down--financially, mentally, and perhaps even spiritually--over the course of several years, using his power as court composer to secretly deny Mozart success whenever possible, all because it would seem that God has chosen Mozart--and not Salieri--as an instrument of glory.

As in the rest of Amadeus, Forman approaches this moment with great restraint. He keeps his camera at a comfortable distance and trades an intrusive score for the music of Peter Shaffer's dialogue and the earnest performances of Hulce and Abraham, creating a sense great intimacy, as if we are with them in that room, in that house, in Vienna.

The scene isn't completely devoid of music, though.  Forman punctuates the bare dialogue with snippets of Mozart's own Confutatis Maledictus. In fact, what we are seeing is its very creation. Mozart lies on his bed, feverish and soaked in sweat. Salieri sits across from him, his scarecrow frame hunched over a small desk, quill in hand. He is transcribing Mozart's last masterpiece, and the experience for him is like being in the presence of God. For years, Salieri has marveled at Mozart's creations from a distance, hating him for his talent and yet loving his music. He is secretly, and against his own wishes, Mozart's biggest fan.

As Salieri frantically copies down note after note, we hear Mozart's music in a way that's both diegetic and non-diegetic at the same time. On the one hand, the music originates from the world of the story (diegetic), but the music isn't actually present in the scene--only the audience hears it (non-diegetic).

Except, that's not quite true. All throughout Amadeus, Forman uses music to underscore both the on-screen action and to dramatize either Mozart's genius or Salieri's madness (or in some cases, the thin line separating the two).

But what does all this have to do with Greene's belief that film should show us the world as it is and the world as it should be?

It's in the way that we can so completely see through Salieri to his pride, his pettiness, his bitter sense of entitlement. We know why he is attentive to Mozart during these last moments. As always, his own glory is foremost on his mind.

And yet, that doesn't explain his expression of undisguised awe as he looks into his rival's eyes and says, without a hint of exaggeration, "You are the greatest composer known to me." Salieri is still acting out of revenge--that's only too clear--but now we catch a glimpse of sincerity, of humility, and even remorse, especially as Mozart, barely able to speak, whispers to him, "I was so foolish. I thought you did not care for my work, or me. Forgive me."

These men are not adversaries now, only musicians--friends, almost--putting their talents together and laying aside their pride to produce something that celebrates and reflects the divine. It's both a glimpse of things as they were and things as they could've been--Greene's theory clothed in flesh--making the moment all the more heartrending, all the more beautiful.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close REVIEW

If we're to believe the Oscar trivia buffs, then Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the worst film to ever receive a Best Picture nomination. But if most critics hate it, I actually think it has a lot going for it. Check out my review over at the Art House Dallas blog to read some of my thoughts.