Saturday, January 17, 2009

No Country for Men Who Think Violence Is neither Cool nor Funny

I wanted to write a pithy little review of No Country for Old Men in which I mad following argument:
I am Tommy Lee Jones, unable to understand the world in which I suddenly find myself living. The Coens are Anton, ruthlessly doing as they please as if guided by some higher morality that renders the rest of us expendable, sub-humans.
But I waited to long and now I don’t care anymore. I am growing tired of writing about movies that are about nothing and say nothing. A friend of mine thinks this movie is deep. Deep what? Can the Coens be deep without being cool? Can they be cool without being violent? Is violence cool? Is cool deep? These questions keep coming up as I continue to watch movies that are not worth my time. What gets me every time is that so many people who strike me as politically and socially savvy, manage to look at culture from a decidedly lower vantage point. The left wants to change the world but they think they can do that by keeping their entertainment dumb.
The problem is that they don’t think their entertainment is dumb. This is the paradox. In the larger picture the Hollywood responsible for all the movies beloved by so many left-leaning folks is a significant part of the machinery of domination. Anyone who does not think Hollywood is part of the cultural hegemony is not looking at it very closely. It is pretty basic Gramsci. Chomsky has explained it a million times through his numerous critiques of the media. Do the liberals not think he’s talking about their favorite Tarentino movie when he says that in a so-called democracy, as opposed to a totalitarian state, thought control takes the place of force? This is pretty easily demonstrable if one puts down the Spivak, Sedgwick and Dyer for five minutes, and picks up some Adorno, Benjamin and Marcuse.
But the question is also interesting psychologically as well. Don’t liberals abhor violence? Why then are so many of them interested almost exclusively in Scorsese, Coppola, Spike Lee, Cronenberg, the Coens, David Lynch, David Fincher, Quentin Tarentino? Are there no interesting filmmakers that make movies about things other than murder and violence? Is it murder and violence that makes a movie important? Is there no other serious subject matter? Is it because they would argue that all these movies are not so much celebrations of violence, but rather critiques of violence? My guess would be that they think ironic celebrations of violence function as artistic statements against violence. But they are fooling themselves. A History of Violence is a celebration of a violent person, a portrait of a badass. Just like Clint Eastwood, he’s the man who does not want to fight – above all else he does not want to fight! – but if you make him fight, so help you. How many times to we need to eat up that cliché? In No Country for Old Men, Fight Club, Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver, The Godfather Trilogy and on and on, violence is cool and/or funny. Violence makes a character interesting. This betrays a rather limited imagination, yet it has been the fuel that has powered popular American cinema since the 1960’s. It only took Godard and Truffaut a few years to work this junk out of their systems with movies like Breathless, Alphaville, and Shoot the Piano Player. The Coens, Scorsese, Cronenberg et. al. never got over it.
I am thinking of this in relation to the Coens especially. Maybe I got old too fast, but I say for Black Comedy go back to Dr. Strangelove. Burn After Reading is ironic enough. I suppose one could describe it as dark, though that seems to me to be giving it rather too much credit. But comedy it is not. Is it hilarious when the boastful Harry shoots hapless Chad in the head, then freaks out bout it, because he’s never shot anyone before? Did you laugh and laugh when Osbourne Cox was hacking away at gym manager Ted in his shorts, slippers and bathrobe? Oh and it was extra clever because the scene was a reference to the scene in Fargo where Grimsrud burst out the front door wielding an axe after Carl, only this time you actually get to see the hatchet split open the prone victim’s head. Then the two CIA agents recount all the violence so matter-of-factly. People are dead everywhere and they couldn’t care less. Hilarious! What a goddamn hoot! Or is it biting social commentary that isn’t meant to be funny at all, but make me think?
I don’t know what these movies are about anymore. All they seem to do is remake their own movies. Burn After Reading is Fargo set in Washington DC. No Country for Old Men is more or less Blood Simple part two. It seems to me that they have just been spinning their wheels post Barton Fink. Not that that film was particularly earth shattering. There was hope in it though. It was clear that the Coens were very clever with respect to certain narrative conventions and that they where somewhat inventive in terms of visual style. One sees in Barton Fink and the films that preceded it the potential to make interesting films. Instead they got bogged down in their own cleverness. The way that they wittily re-write genre and break down generic conventions has become it own genre. Almost Every new movie is a Coen Film Noir that says nothing about anything. I would call it eye candy, but it is rather much more bitter than sweet. This makes their success all the more puzzling to me. In the absence of something to think about, there should at least be something to enjoy.

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