Archive for Joel Coen

How the West was Not

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2018 by dcairns

So, I got Netflix for THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, which of course meant we could watch THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, so we did. I used to indiscriminately like all Coen Bros movies, with a slight preference for the early, funny ones. The tendency towards emptiness did start to nag at me a little as early as MILLER’S CROSSING and BARTON FINK. The nasty sense of humour didn’t — I have a fairly dark S.O.H. myself. But then came INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LADYKILLERS which I disenjoyed so thoroughly it made me retroactively question even my favourites, and proactively question subsequent films.

I suspect the following will make David E. impatient, since he was onto the Coen’s combo of snark and misanthropy from the start.

Here’s my run-down of the episodes in this latest western compendium. Not too many specific spoilers, but plenty of comparisons with the Bros’ earlier offerings, good, bad and ugly.

1. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The ballad itself is practically a proper musical, except that, as with OH BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? the songs are all sorta diegetic. We have the welcome return to the fold of Tim Blake Nelson, and the unbelievably crisp cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel, who they got acquainted with on PARIS JE T’AIME and used again to even better effect on INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, a flm with a unique look in the Coen oeuvre. It’s fascinating to see iconic western imagery shot in an ultrasharp digital way. When people start by telling you they liked the photography it reliably indicates they hated the film, and I hated this episode. The “humorous” violence is mean and squicky: the severed thumb from THE LADYKILLERS is back. Remember how funny it is when Travis blows the guy’s hand off in TAXI DRIVER? That’s how funny the mutilation gag is here. The saving grace is Carter Burwell’s music: this whole movie is the best showcase he’s had for a while.

2. Near Algodones. Or, One Damn Thing After Another. A pretty good Leone imitation in places, this is nevertheless just as pointless and unpleasant as Part 1. James Franco as a bank-robber is given no appealing qualities, so his Really Bad Day is neither a nightmare we can empathise with nor even a justifiable punishment. These two episodes look to have been written in an afternoon. Both end, kind of, with The Last Sight You’ll See, harking way back to BLOOD SIMPLE’s grotesque yet kind of poetic plumbing close-up final shot.

3. Meal Ticket. Here’s where I start to wonder if the ordering of the stories is a problem. As soon as we meet the armless, legless “protagonist” of this one, we expect that something terrible will happen to him. Which means viewing the whole film in a queasy suspense, and not being surprised. The wintry, nocturnal look is really gorgeous and the reason for the story being told, as with the previous installments, is inscrutable. Shit happens, you say? No shit. Fiona was on the point of bailing at this point… but got drawn back in.

4. All Gold Valley. Things take a turn for the better here, maybe in part because we have a story by Jack London. It’s no TO BUILD A FIRE but it’s good. All the episodes are magnificently cast from both a dramaturgical and a physiognomic point of view, but here Tom Waits is actually given sympathetic traits, and though we suspect we may be being set up for a fall, this is not entirely true. This was the first yarn that didn’t make me feel horrible, and the nature photography ascends to new heights of loveliness,

5. The Gal Who Got Rattled. Another adaptation, this time from Stewart Edward White. whose stories have been used by the movies a fair few times, but not since 1941. A really grand evocation of a wagon train. Likeable characters. “I’m really worried about this girl,” said Fiona of Zoe Kazan’s nervous young frontierswoman. There’s a cute dog. This one’s a proper story, very strong, strikingly presented. It would play even better if it weren’t following a trio of sick joke blackout sketches: we need to believe the Coens are sincere here, for the yarn to play emotionally. It COULD be taken as another set-up/punch-line bit of cynical manipulation, and of course if we can give the Coens more credit than that and actually embrace the apparent warmth of feeling and sympathy, the film will play MUCH better. It’s a great little film: Kazan is terrific, and Bill Heck and Grainger Hines ought to be stars.

Also, by this point, the use of pages turning in a book of wild west yarns, with coloured illustrative plates, is really paying off. It’s something I don’t believe we’ve seen before in a film: the illustrations pluck a moment from the narrative, often from near the end, and then we wait for it to turn up and make sense in context. It can add a little extra touch of inevitability to a tragedy, an added twist of irony to a joke.

Also also, it’s nice to finally meet a girl. I know westerns have traditionally been male-dominated, but watching this one’s like going to prison (if you’re a man). Only with less sex.

6. Mortal Remains. OK, Tyne Daly is here so you’ll get no complaints from me. Well, maybe a few. This is DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS only on a stagecoach instead of a train. I mean that literally. I liked the misty cut-out buildings that nod both to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and the whole history of the western movie set. A bunch of facades with nothing behind them seems an apt metaphor for something or other, but what? Oh yeah.

The garrulous English character is hard to process as anything other than a riff on THE HATEFUL EIGHT, and it does feel like the Coens have been treading familiar ground: Tarantino already gave us a western full of talk, with epic iconography but an oddly intimate, enclosed locale, and a lot of unpleasant characters doing horrible things we cant possibly care about. The mysterious, even mystic quality the Coens aim to evoke here certainly adds a new flavour, but as this one fades out I realize why anthology films usually have a framing structure. It’s hard for one episode to deliver an ending satisfying enough for all six.

Maybe the Coens need to stick to adaptations. Their two strongest films, the ones that feel most like they have a reason to exist, are NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and TRUE GRIT. The brothers are experts at pastiche, and their delight in language, both verbal and cinematic, is a kind of redeeming feature (they do care about SOMETHING), but what they get from an original author with world experience and an interest in people seems to be something they struggle to achieve by themselves.

Dissenting views are welcome.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS stars Delmar O’Donnell, Harry “Oz” Osborn, Ruby Sparks, Oskar Schindler, Dudley Dursley, R.M. Renfield, Mary Beth Lacey, Colonel Oates and Alastor ‘MadEye’ Moody.

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The Wonderful Thing About Chigurh

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2008 by dcairns

Chig

So — am attempting to find something to say about every film I watch, so that puts a little pressure on to react to the Coens’ latest offering, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

There are three broad kinds of reaction folks can have to the Coens’ oevre:

1) Liking the films. I was basically in this camp until INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LADYKILLERS, which seemed to mark a colossal decline, and which incidentally were the first films the Coens had made using other people’s source material, a process which has continued with NCFOM, a fairly faithful adaptation, by most accounts, of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. (An earlier adaptation of James “Deliverance” Dickey’s To The White Sea failed to find backing, leading to the present cycle of films.) Previously, I had tended to find that I liked each film a little less than the one before, the decline starting after RAISING ARIZONA. So I am now in category 2 —

2) Liking some and not others. Since some Coen Bros films have been big box office hits and some have been flops, maybe most of the film-viewing western world is in this category. But it always puzzled me, since the sensibility on display is so consistent. If you liked FARGO, why wouldn’t you like THE BIG LEBOWSKI? (Up until this current release, Coens films with short titles have consistently done better than ones with longer). There is a recognisable Coens attitude (they like to appear smarter than their characters) as well as a set of self-conscious motifs (which the brothers like to point out, helpfully: weird hair, blustering titans, vomiting, fat men screaming) and a self-conscious visual style (toned-down slightly in FARGO and NO COUNTRY). But it’s now clear to me that not only are a couple of the Coens films markedly inferior, compromised works, but that I am becoming slightly less enamoured of the whole Coens vibe, leading my position ALMOST to border on category 3 —

3) Those who don’t like the films. While Coens detractors may admit that the films are well-made, even stylish, and the brothers certainly have some flair for dialogue, the argument against tends to centre on a certain lack of feeling. The Coens like to write about dumb people doing dumb things, often with a high mayhem factor in the outcome. At the same time, the writing-directing-producing-editing team are keen to show off how smart they are, with showy film technique, extravagant dialogue and cultural references — several Coens films are overt pastiches, almost amounting to plagiarism, of the styles and stories of James M. Cain (BLOOD SIMPLE), Dashiell Hammett (MILLER’S CROSSING) and Raymond Chandler (THE BIG LEBOWSKI), while OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? fuses various scenes and satiric approaches from Preston Sturges’ SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS onto the narrative of Homer’s Odyssey.

fugitives from a chain gang

This tendency to set themselves up as superior to their characters is quite objectionable to some, but while I detect its presence and admit that’s what’s going on, it never bothered me too much. Whether the Coens have contempt for their characters, or love them, *I* like H.I. and the Dude and Marge, which is enough for me. I also see the Coens as working primarily in a comic register, even in an apparently serious flick like BLOOD SIMPLE or MILLER’S CROSSING, so the use of slightly dopey characters is a genre convention and comedy device that I can’t particularly object to. It’s apt that the Coens finally referenced Preston Sturges, who has a similarly aloof relationship to his characters, although I think it’s clearer that he sympathises with them (and also, he doesn’t inflict gory violence upon any of them, except in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and the imaginary sequences of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS — come to think of it, he’s gorier than any contemporaneous comedy director).

Capitalism and Labour destroy each other

Seeing the C-Bros as comedy filmmakers may reduce the obnoxiousness somewhat, but it perhaps becomes a problem in their latest, which isn’t overtly hilarious at any point. Despite its dramatic surface, as David Ehrenstein has argued, the film more or less continuously puts the spectator at an advantage over the characters: we generally know they’re going to die long before they do. Using dramatic irony or poignancy is a standard thriller device, but it’s unusual to see protagonists as continually predictable as this. The film generates surprise more by throwing in random plot developments (a car-crash from out of the blue) and violations of genre and narrative conventions (major characters eliminated off-screen, villains unpunished) than by interesting character psychology.

So, if the film is not consistently funny, what is the point of this God’s-eye view of the characters? The ironic distance seems more a matter of habit or compulsion than a necessary approach to the story. The Coens have never cared for theme, or making a point, or teaching a lesson, or even putting over a world view: their films are too filtered through books and other movies to comment directly on any form of reality. They are interested purely in story, in tall tales which feature surprising twists, tone shifts and genre-bending — the films are fairy tales, devoted to the plot and nothing but the plot.

(Javier Bardem’s unpronounceable psychopath in NO COUNTRY is a near-supernatural monster, implacable and seemingly impervious to pain. Tommy Lee Jones’ dream of his approaching death at the end seems intended to turn the story to some kind of semi-baked allegory, with J.B. as Death Incarnate in a page-boy haircut. The Coens’ fairytale world has made earlier use of such folkloric figures: an angel and demon in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in RAISING ARIZONA, and just about everybody in OH BROTHER…?)

snow country

It’s not surprising that NO COUNTRY, like FARGO, comes to centre on a suitcase full of money — the ultimate empty MacGuffin, a motivating object that require no explanation at all, and can disappear from the story once it has inspired enough carnage. The film, like previous Coen Brothers projects, is essentially about nothing.*

SO — if I’m starting to like the Coens less, it’s not because I object to their tone, it’s simply because, with each stylish, empty film, they seem to repeat themselves a little more, and it doesn’t feel like they can become more interesting unless they take a giant step and actually engage with something in the real world that they care about, if such a thing exists.

*

Footnote: Kelly MacDonald is really good in this film. Hardly anybody has mentioned her in reviews, but I think her journey as an actress has been considerable: barely acceptable in TRAINSPOTTING, frequently mis-stressed her lines. Gradually rising to full adequacy, she has now surpassed that status with a rather strong, touching performance. She deserves more recognition for it, since it’s been achieved (after her first lucky break) through sheer hard work. (Plus I’ve met her and she’s really nice.)

*See also: most of John Hodges’ scripts for Danny Boyle. SHALLOW GRAVE, TRAINSPOTTING and A LIFE LESS ORDINARY all revolve around cases of cash!