The death of Cranes

Today’s blog entry is about Japanese poetry.


The Man Who Wasn’t There isn’t usually one of the films by the Coen brothers that people mention first. You’ve got Fargo people and you’ve got The Big Lebowski people, and sometimes you get an elitist or purist who swears by Blood Simple. Then you’ve got the ‘bad’ Coen films that most people agree to be substandard: Intolerable Cruelty, The Hudsucker Proxy (which I’ve never seen), Ladykillers. For some reason, TMWWT falls under most people’s Coen radar.

There he is! (Or is he…?)

Which I don’t get. I saw the film yesterday evening, perhaps for the fifth or sixth time, and it gets to me every time. In terms of sheer craft, it’s up there with the Coens’ best: the black and white cinematography is gorgeous to look at, as rich and evocative as the best film noir. The music – half Beethoven, half Carter Burwell (the Coens’ regular composer) – is simple and subtle, yet spot on. The script deftly intertwines film noir elements with the absurdity that many of the brothers’ films have, so that the references to ’40s and ’50s sci-fi do not feel out of place (unless you’re a stickler for Generic Purity(tm) – in which case the Coens are probably not to your taste anyway).

More than every other film by the Coens, I find that TMWWT mixes the comic and the tragic beautifully. The sort of postmodern game that they tend to play in their movies is tricky: the films foreground their parodic elements, they revel in their artifice. This film isn’t different: consider, for instance, the scene after the wedding, where Ed puts the drunk, sleepy Doris to bed, and the voice-over starts the story of how they met and got together. This is interrupted by the phonecall that leads to Ed killing Big Dave (James Gandolfini, with more than a touch of Tony Soprano), but afterwards Ed comes back home, sits down on the bed again and continues the Ed & Doris story as if nothing had happened.

No man there, definitely…

Perhaps more than the other films by the Coen brothers, TMWWT doesn’t shy away from pathos, even if there’s always the element of humour. One of the scenes with the Cranes’ arrogant, egomaniac lawyer Freddy Riefenschneider has Ed basically confessing to the killing in front of Riefenschneider but, more importantly, in front of his wife – and she realises what has happened and that Ed knew about her affair. Frances McDormand’s acting, without a single line, is masterful in conveying her heartbreak.

The film’s handling of tones and styles culminates in its final scene – a scene that only the Coens could have pulled off. If you haven’t seen the film, don’t watch the following video. If you have seen the film, watch the scene and then go and watch the film again. You’ll find gems that you may not remember.

Did that soldier just shoot the fourth wall?

Yesterday evening I finished Metal Gear Solid 2. The ending was decidedly underwhelming, for all its action and its cascade of relevations, one topping the other. It was also facile and preachy, and it hadn’t earned the right to be preachy. I wasn’t as annoyed at it as many people seem to have been, though, based on reviews and posts on the internet.

Penny Arcade’s take on the MGS2 ending

What seemed to annoy them most, however, was the metafictional self-awareness that crept into the last 2-3 hours of the game. Your superiors, who keep contacting you via radio throughout, start to make increasingly explicit references to everything that’s gong on being a game, even telling you at one point to switch off the console. While this isn’t postmodern fiction on a par with Pynchon or Auster, it’s still a refreshingly clever take on most videogame narratives, where you, the player, are as much of a puppet as your in-game avatar, following orders that the game’s narrative imposes on you, with little or no choice. The self-referentiality is also represented quite wittily, with everything that’s overtly game-like – the ‘continue’ and ‘save game’ screens, for instance – playing into it.

Why is it, though, that people – gamers as much as readers or movie and TV audiences – hate self-awareness so much? Read IMDB comments (admittedly, hardly the most critically-minded crowd) and you’ll see that self-aware fictions tend to get extremely strong reactions. Audiences, by and large, don’t want to be told that what they’re watching or playing is a film, a game. They prefer to submit to the illusion that ‘this is real’. In fact, they resent narratives that don’t allow them the comfort of that illusion. Because if something that we want to believe to be real is actually a fiction, it raises questions that may be a tad uncomfortable. Or perhaps I’m just a snobbish post-structuralist… But I think that at its best, you can see the puppeteer’s strings and appreciate his illusion-making, yet still feel for the puppets as if they were real.

And now, so’s you don’t get bored: a movie!

On a different note: What do you do if you get a book as a present, and you want to honour the present – but you hate the book? After Miéville, I moved on to Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, and I keep wondering whether I really want to be reading this. It’s one of those “you have to laugh to keep yourself from crying” type of memoirs, where the things that are (supposedly) tragic are drawn in an exaggerated, cartoony fashion. According to the blurb on the back, it’s “hilarious… Adrian Mole scripted by Hieronymus Bosch”. The problem is, I don’t buy any of it. I’m not saying that Burroughs concocted the whole thing from scratch, but its over-the-top, camp tone and narrative feel fake to me. Augusten, a ceaseless self-dramatiser, is one of the most annoying narrators I’ve read in a long time. Is he a poor sod? Yes. Do I want to listen to him being a poor sod? No. And for all of its outrageousness, its lurid sexuality and forthright storytelling, there’s something disappointingly conventional and even prudish to the novel. Which may be true to the young protagonist, but that doesn’t make him or the book any more interesting.

So why am I still reading it?