Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
It’s utterly puzzling to me that Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road was published only in 2006. It feels older. Sometimes you open a novel and you can sort of guess the decade, at least roughly. I had read The Road twice until I realised it was not from the 1980s, but only six or seven years old. Maybe that’s because it tells such a timeless story. Of course, an apocalypse where everything is covered in grey ash and food, and shelter and friendly people are in short supply can take place anytime. Or maybe my mistake was that I didn’t know that its author was an octagenarian.
This film nerd here is a complex beast. On the one hand, I get as much childlike joy out of well-executed genre films that follow the formula to a T. I enjoy the climactic showdown between Hero and Villain. On the other hand, I cackle gleefully when a film (or a book, for that matter) frustrates my expectations. No Country for Old Men is a good case in point, where the supposed hero dies off-stage and isn’t even killed by the bad guy of the piece. Even Raiders of the Lost Ark, a genre movie if there ever was one, doesn’t end with the hero triumphing: it ends with the hero tied to a stake as the ultima deus ex machina comes and melts the faces off a bunch of undeserving unbelievers.
I just finished re-reading Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. I’d last read it in the summer of 2001, just after graduating. I have fond memories of sitting in a French café in Edinburgh during festival time, drinking good coffee, eating croissants and not looking up from my book until I’d finished half of it in one sitting. What I remembered much less was the plot, at least beyond the broad strokes. What I definitely didn’t remember was how differently it told its story from how Hollywood would (and, from what I’ve heard, did) do it. Here too, we don’t get a showdown with the villainess – instead, we get a melancholy coda and a bittersweet ending that made me realise how rarely Hollywood does “bittersweet”. I know that most Gaiman fans prefer American Gods, but I must say that even without Charles Vess’ pictures (I have the non-pic edition), this is a beautiful, wonderfully light, exquisitely crafted fairytale. In comparison, I feel that American Gods collapses under its own ambition, because its dozens of ideas never really come together in a fully satisfactory way.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the title of this entry? Well, we’ve just started watching The Wire season 1. Very different fare from Buffy, if you would believe it… But intriguing, with carefully drawn characters and lots of shades of grey. Definitely looking forward to seeing more of it – and telling you all about it, in epic detail. Shudder and despair.
There are many things in No Country for Old Men that recall the Coens’ earlier films, specifically Blood Simple and Fargo; yet it feels notably different in many ways from those films. Intolerable Cruelty (and, from what I hear, Ladykillers) also felt unlike the earlier movies the brothers had made – in some ways, they felt more like someone was trying to imitate their style and succeeded in isolated scenes but, on the whole, failed… Failed, that is, to make a good Coen movie as well as a good film in general.
No Country for Old Men is a good movie. It may even be the best Coen film to date. Chances are I’ll never love it as much as Fargo, but that’s also for nostalgic reasons. Fargo is by no means anything less than a fantastic film, but it doesn’t have the sheer compactness and focus of No Country for Old Men.
And it doesn’t have Anton Chigurh.
Chigurh, as played by Javier Bardem, is one of the scariest movie characters in a long time. I’ve never read any Cormac McCarthy novels, and for all I know he was already frightening in the book, but what Bardem and the Coens make of him is chilling.
However, the film has plenty more going for it than Bardem’s psychotic Prince Valiant and his pneumatic slaughterhouse device. It works so well because the three main characters – Chigurh, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) – complement each other so well. The story and the protagonists are balanced to perfection; you’ll rarely see a film that is as intricately structured. Bell and Chigurh are like two poles, balanced on the axle that is Moss: not a bad guy, but deeply flawed and too sure of himself, even after he’s seen the force of nature that is the killer following him. Moss commits several stupid acts in the film, as well as some brilliant on-his-feet thinking, but his greatest stupidity lies in thinking that he has a chance against his opponent. Bell, on the other hand, seems to understand (and accept, in the very end) that there is some evil that is beyond comprehension and that cannot be tricked or beaten.
If you’re like me, and an Academy Award is more likely to put you off a film, do yourself a favour. If you enjoy great acting and don’t mind bleakness that makes Sweeney Todd look like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (okay, that’s not quite fair – like Edward Scissorhands, perhaps), do go and see this film. And see it at a cinema rather than on TV. Roger Deakins’ work, which once again is quite magnificent, deserves the big screen. I just say The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and, once again, Fargo.
Phew. Remember the first and second season finales of Deadwood? Basically happy endings, complete with mercy killings and stabbed Cy Tolliver?
Don’t expect that sort of cheery capper to season 3. Expect, instead, to curse and swear at your television – standing in, of course, for the Powers that Be at HBO. For cancelling a TV series intended to run for four seasons, and a brilliant written, acted, directed, filmed TV series at that, after it’s run for three of those seasons. In a world where another HBO series about old-fashioned romanticism dressed up as postfeminism gets a big screen outing, it’s more than just a shame that we’re not likely ever to see Deadwood end as would befit the series. It’s a crime. And it makes me think that Al Swearengen should be let loose with his knife in the dreams of those HBO cocksuckers (as he might put it if he was in a good mood) to put the fear of Al into them.
No, it’s not that Deadwood ends on an exclusively bleak, depressing note. There are lots of small moments that are beautiful, little smiles and touches that show some hope. Sol and Trixie. Richardson and Aunt Lou. Even E.B. standing on the roof of his hotel, bless his little cotton socks. But on the whole, the good (and not so good) people of Deadwood have been beaten, for the first time. They’ve been kicked in the kidneys. There has been blood, and for once, it’s less than clear whether any scrubbing will get rid of that blood.
So, until tomorrow I’ll try to get over my pissed-off-ness with the hoopleheads at HBO. Expect some lines on No Country for Old Men soon. At least that one’s got a two-time Deadwood veteran…
P.S.: Apparently, the person who was supposed to play Al Swearengen at first was one Ed O’Neill. Photo given below. No joke.
There’s something weird going on in P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Okay, there are many weird things going on – the film is quite confounding on the whole, as it doesn’t present its story the way you’d expect it – but when you watch the beginning of the film, a long sequence without any dialogue, you feel some strange sort of double vision. At least you do if you’re a film nerd like me, that is.
On the one hand, you’re watching a solitary prospector mine for silver in a desolate landscape, breaking his leg in a bad fall, striking it rich – and then, almost by accident, finding oil. On the other hand, the music and the landscape suggest very different images, recalling one of the most famous (and most parodied) scenes of cinema:
There is some sort of weird intertextual thing going on between There Will Be Blood and Kubrick’s movies that is discussed intelligently in this forum post. Beyond that, though, there something eerily ritualistic and religious about the film’s beginning: it’s as if the black liquid gushing from the ground is the harbinger of some new, cruel religion that will require sacrifices. In his way, Daniel Plainview (a disturbing performance by Daniel Day Lewis that is more complex than its detractors admit) is more of a mad prophet than his opponent, the self-righteous yet wheedling Eli Sunday. It’s just that human beings have no place in his religion.
I recently re-watched Magnolia, which I still like a lot, so There Will Be Blood came as a surprise. Even Punch Drunk Love, which I didn’t particularly enjoy (or understand), felt more like the P.T. Anderson who made Magnolia and Boogie Nights. Those latter two films were quintessential ensemble movies. There Will Be Blood has barely enough space for one or two characters next to Plainview. It grows out of its central monolithic (if you forgive the Kubrickian pun) protagonist: perhaps the most frightening character in recent film history.
P.S.: Please keep in mind that I haven’t yet seen No Country for Old Men, so I can’t judge the scariness of that film’s Anton Chigurh. His hair’s plenty scary enough, though.
P.P.S.: After Miami Vice used to be the top search term leading people to this website, it has now become “magenta”. So, my heartfelt thanks to one of my frequent readers. Hope you’re getting just as many hits because of me!
To be honest, I’m not completely up-to-date on what will be coming to cinemas near you (and me) in 2008. Right now, I can only think of a handful of films that I know of, and even fewer that I’m actively looking forward to. Two of these I’ve already mentioned, namely The Dark Knight and No Country for Old Men.
However, the film that I may just be looking forward to most is the latest movie by Paul Anderson. Nope, not the guy who did Event Horizon or Aliens vs. Predator. The man who directed Boogie Nights (the best Scorsese film by someone other than Scorsese), Magnolia (the best Altman movie not by Altman) and Punch Drunk Love (the best- sorry, I have no idea what to compare this film to… the best Adam Sandler film, perhaps?).
People have called Magnolia especially a self-indulgent piece of something or other, but to them I say, “Bosh! Flimshaw!” If art isn’t inherently self-indulgent, I don’t know what is. Punch Drunk Love mainly left me non-plussed, but the cast and trailer of There Will Be Blood (as well as the title, which is reminiscent of the Deadwood season 3 premiere, “Tell Your God to Ready for Blood”) definitely have me intrigued and excited.