Monday, February 16, 2009

Coen Brothers do it again, dammit

I just watched No Country for Old Men, and was absolutely knocked out... for the first 118 minutes. The last four, as with other Coen Brothers movies, just made me wonder, "Um, what was the point, here?" But then, maybe that was the point.

It's de rigeur to cheer on the Coens as they "buck the Hollywood traditions" (like good storytelling). But my initial reaction was that the movie left the audience hanging in the last scene. I have not read the novel yet, but perhaps there was additional thematic insight to be gleaned there. Perhaps I am old school, or just plain old, but I was really hoping for a theme that was not so cleverly disguised that it cannot even be recognized by NYT book critics.

Don't get me wrong- I do not want a movie to hit me over the head with allegory or jingoism. But I would like to be able to suss out a theme from a story, any story, no matter in what medium it is told.

I watched Rashomon last night, the 1950 Kurosawa gem. The acting was over the top, the score was cartoonish, the subtitle translations were blunt, (though the direction and cinematography hold up very well), and yet, the movie's theme was clear enough to provoke discussion and thought. Rashomon left me feeling satisfied, like the story circle had been completed. Earlier Coen Brothers films also feel this way, like Raising Arizona and O Brother. It's not like they don't know how to deliver a theme; they just sometimes choose not to.

Am I just a slave to the Hollywood formula? Aristotle doesn't think so:
I loved, loved, loved the cinematography, dialog, and acting in No Country. What I didn't like was that (a) I didn't know whose story it was; which is to say, that it suffered from a point-of-view problem, and (b) the story's theme was obscured. Why is (b) important? Well, without a theme, then I'm just watching plot elements- character studies, pithy dialog, pretty shots, random acts of violence. Hell, I can do that by turning on the evening news (in HD, no less). I want a story, dammit, and a good one.

I decided to reach back to the source, poet William Butler Yeats, for some help.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Yeats' theme is clear, yet subtle, and not bludgeoning:
People, particularly elders, are not as revered by the young as the things they make; so, then, how do we best leave our legacy?
As an artist, I fully appreciate Yeats' sentiment. As for the Coen Brothers' movie, they succeeded in getting me to talk about it. So maybe that is their point.


Tracy Talbot said...

I distinctly remember the moment the lights went up, the movie over, and I looked at my partner who reflected my quizzical wtf look. It's over? Looking around, everyone in the theater had that same unsatisfied expression. I hope you're right, and the brothers Coen intended something after the fact. I watched Raising Arizona this weekend oddly enough, and still felt that now familiar incompleteness.

Anonymous said...

I also felt at the end of the movie for the first so frustrated. I could not believe the movie was over. Then as I was walking to the car and still steaming I began to laugh and thought what genius. This is an American movie. A greek tragedy. A western that is film noir. This movie is what it is. It is a fictional reality in which all that is done cannot be undone and people leave this world whether you want then to or not. I wasn't upset the movie didn't have a hollywood ending. I was upset because I was so into it that I wanted more. It's refreshing to see a film like this.

I have watched a lot of movies and maybe that's why I get more satisfaction out of something that gets me thinking, than a movie I already know how is going to end. When your so use to a certain structure or formula then it can feel dissatisfying to watch a movie like NC4OM. But isn't it nice to watch a movie and still be talking about it. Hell you even pulled up Yeats.


bartonxiv said...

I am NOT a Coen appologist but I dig their stuff. For me the movie was great - including the ending. It was kind of like, "wow that was an awesome back to reality." It spoke to the suthen boy in me. I have met Tommy Lee Jones' character in real life (he was not a cop though). He called me Broddrick no matter how many times I told him my name.

The ending was an anti-(and thumb your nose at)hollywood ending. Some movies purposefully do not end the way you want. This one ended in mid sentence. I liked it. It is kind of like saying, "that is all I have to say about that." I kind of wanted more but realized any more would ruin it. Who else could get away with that? Rock on.
Now Burn after reading....perhaps burning something else while watching would be have been a good idea. It did not "speak" to me.
Now I think I am going to

ctxphotoman said...

At the end, my first thought was "That's it??????? That sucks!!! What a waste of time". But like Joe, I was thinking and digging before I got back to the car. My buddy Sherman had me take him straight to Barnes and Nobles so he could buy the book and find out what really happened.LOL! Realize that my conclusions come from one who watches movies for entertainment and is not known for overtaxing his brain.
No Country wouldn't leave me alone and forced me to keep going back. It's set in Texas, my dad was old school law enforcement and in a misspent youth I hung around the border more than I should have. After a couple of days I finally saw it as the changing of the guard between Texas law enforcement and the drug gangs. Not only were the good guys out gunned, they were at the point they realized their enemy had no soul. So I now see the ending as the only one possible. It hasn't been written yet because the story is not over.