Week 60 : No Country for Old Men
"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 unageing intellect."
-W.B. Yeats, "Sailing to Byzantium"
"This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang, but a whimper."
-T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Lands"
A long time ago I knew a woman with a horrible substance abuse problem. Over a period of decades she popped pills, snorted cocaine, injected heroin and methamphetamine, prostituted herself and lived her life in squalor with her two young sons, having given a third son up for adoption in her early twenties. Thanks to modern psychology the woman cleaned up, got her act together, and proceeded to earn a Masters Degree in Psychology to help those struggling with substance abuse. She lived alone with her dog, "Baby," a large brown pit bull that she found at a local pound. In spite of all of her victories in life- in spite of the fact that she conquered her demons, she still had difficulty sleeping at night and had bouts of extreme depression. She went to the doctor one day; the doctor prescribed her a variety of different barbiturates, sedatives, and pain medications. On one fateful July evening, she accidentally overdosed on the prescription medication and died in her bed.
Baby was always a great dog. She was friendly and loveable, yet she had her nature. A hot house, on a warm summer's day with a dead body in it must be tempting to a dog. When the woman was finally found she was missing both of her eyes, pieces of her tongue, chunks of flesh from her abdomen. Body parts and pieces of human remains were found throughout the house while Baby happily continued to survive off of her newfound food. The dog, after all, was subject to their own nature. It is in this nature that true horror dwells, survives and lives on. I think of the woman often, sometimes in my dreams. She survived a life of drug addiction and prostitution to only be killed by prescription medication and have her corpse eaten to death by her best friend. I think of what Ellis (Barry Corbin) says in the great final scene of No Country for Old Men:
"You can't stop what's coming. It ain't all waiting on you- that's vanity."
I am not frightened by the supernatural; stories of ghosts, hauntings, and demons do not necessarily scare me. What terrifies me more than anything else in this world is the nature of some living things. I do not believe that humans are born evil, like some philosophers do. I believe that we begin this world with a blank slate and work with the hands we are dealt. I believe that some people can become so completely broken they become evil-- in such a way that their fundamental nature changes. Call it nature, call it mental illness or psychosis, call it what you want. The truth is-- some people that walk this planet are completely devoid of human emotion. That is what scares me: meeting one of those people. Baby the dog had no idea what she was doing when she brutally ravaged that woman. It was just her nature. Her nature was to eat, while the nature of others is to kill.
Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is such a man-- a man without emotions. We only vaguely know his motives. He has been hired by a drug cartel to hunt down two million dollars that was taken from a bloody shootout. Chigurh is to retrieve the money by any means possible and not stop until he is finished. He is tall and built, with perhaps the world's worst haircut. He speaks quietly, exactly. After strangling a police officer he drives off in a police cruiser, pulling over the first civilian he comes in contact with. He gets out of the car with what appears to be a large oxygen tank with a hose attached. He asks the gentleman to get out of the car. The man performs his civic duty, even though Chigurh is not in uniform. He stands beside the car. Chigurh looks at him: "Give me a second," he says. Chigurh pulls out the hose and places it against the forehead of the law abiding citizen, squeezes a trigger and we hear a small "thud" as brain matter sprays out the back of the man's head before he collapses on the ground. Chigurh rolls the body down a hill, gets in the car with his tank, and proceeds to drive away. There is no remorse. No sweat. No orgasmic delight. He just drives away, as his nature dictates. You can't stop what's coming.
Chigurh is probably the most frightening villain in film history. He is methodical, quiet, smart, and resourceful. The oxygen tank that he carries is not actually an oxygen tank at all-- it is a captive bolt pistol: the same weapon they use in slaughterhouses on cattle. Wikipedia informs us:
"The principle behind captive bolt stunning is a forceful strike on the forehead using a bolt to induce unconsciousness. The bolt may or may not destroy part of the brain. The bolt itself is a heavy rod made of non-rusting alloys, such as stainless steel. It is held in position inside the barrel of the stunner by means of rubber washers. The bolt is usually not visible in a stunner in good condition. The bolt is actuated by a trigger pull and is propelled forward by compressed air or by the discharge of a blank round ignited by a firing pin. After striking a shallow but forceful blow on the forehead of the animal, spring tension causes the bolt to recoil back into the barrel."
Well, there ya have it: an animal using a tool to kill animals against other animals. It is practical, measured, and brilliant. There are no shell casings or gunshot residue. Nothing is traceable. The murder is quick and (honestly) probably painless. It is this measured, practical thinking that makes Chigurh so utterly terrifying. He knows how to kill without getting caught and will do it to you in a moment’s notice. When his victims die there are no last words, no cries for life, no begging or bargaining. There is only a thud and then a lifeless corpse falls to the ground. If this man doesn't scare you then I don't know what could.
No Country for Old Men is one of the finest films I have ever seen. It was directed by the most important directorial team in history-- The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, based on a novel by perhaps the most important American writer living today, Cormac McCarthy. The Coen's have had such a varied career that it is almost surprising that they directed this masterpiece. After all, their previous Magnum Opus, 1997's Fargo, is very different type of movie. In their careers they have made us laugh hysterically (The Big Lebowski, Fargo), gawk in incredulity (Burn After Reading) and even sing bluegrass (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). They made the finest Western of the last decade with their remake of True Grit. Here are two men that have made a lot of movies (22 to be exact), and have never, or perhaps will ever, make one greater than this tale of drug money gone missing in West Texas. It is a perfect movie. I don't use that phrase lightly. In 2008, when it won Best Picture at the Academy Awards against the likes of There Will Be Blood, Atonement, and Juno I was not surprised.
I would claim that 2006-2010 was the greatest time for postmodern American film in the last 25 years. Between Daniel Plainview—Daniel Day-Lewis’ masterwork of an oil man in There Will Be Blood, Bardem as Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, and the following year’s posthumous award to Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight, the Academy cemented three legendary villainous performances that will all go down in cinematic history. It was a brief era in Hollywood, right in the middle of the Iraq war, when the Academy was voting for violent pictures again. Scorsese’s bloodbath The Departed won best picture in 2007, followed by No Country for Old Men in 2008. It is ironic that the darkest American films come out when the public is at its most disillusioned. A Clockwork Orange, Easy Rider, The Godfather, The Excorcist and The French Connection all came out during a similar era in the midst of Vietnam, all equally celebrated. We become drawn to violence, perhaps subconsciously, during these times of war. Why? I have no idea. Perhaps it is our nature.
All I do know is that No Country for Old Men is a great film- a film that defies the implicit boundaries of genre. The chase scenes are tense. Josh Brolin gives an understated performance as Llewelyn Moss—the man that finds the money and is chased by Chigurh, in one of the most thankless performances in the movies. Tommy Lee Jones is sort of brilliant as Sherriff Ed Bell, the downtrodden and matter of fact old timer Sheriff who looks at violence and sees something he does not understand. It is his best performance in a long career. Roger Deakins cinematography is also a character in itself, portraying the Texas land as if it were the Old West.
But the film is about Chigurh- always about Chigurh. Those dead eyes, the small limp in which he walks, the bolts that fire and retract from human bone, the quiet way in which he taunts a gas station attendant while making his life amount to nothing short of a coin flip. There is beauty in chaos, I suppose- but there is also despair; Despair which becomes fear. I look at men like Chigurh and think of Baby the puppy, growing up and not knowing her nature. I think of men with holes though their foreheads, all while the dog continues to bite, gnaw, and chew into marrow, and think of men like Amon Goeth, Raph Fiennes character in Schindler’s List, as he randomly shoots Jewish prisoners as target practice. It is the ongoing theme of many films that are considered supreme works of art- from the Night of the Hunter, to Apocalpyse Now and No Country for Old Men. The nature of man—the world, is cold, dark and cruel. Happiness lies in avoiding this knowledge, but Chigurh forces us to confront it, with his dead eyes and quiet smile. When Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald) tells him that “there is no coin, only him, and his choices,” Chigurh fails to understand because it is not his nature. Or maybe he does understand, and simply doesn’t care. These are the movies that scare me-stories of real people, performing horrible actions. I am fearful, yet I enjoy it at the same time. I don’t know what that says about me—other than that it is my nature. After all, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Review and Analysis by Shaun Henisey
Dedicated to Patricia Smith, my late biological mother, and her dog Baby
Cast and Credits:
Ed Bell: Tommy Lee Jones
Llewellyn Moss: Josh Brolin
Anton Chigurh: Javier Bardem
Carson Welles: Woody Harrelson
Miramax Films and Paramount Vantage present a film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.
Cinematography by Roger Deakins. Edited by Roderick Jaynes.
Running Time: 122 minutes. Rated R for extreme graphic violence and language.
Week 59 : Adaptation.
Do I have an original thought in my head? I need to write a review, but I can't. I don't feel like I have anything to say about any movies right now that I haven't said already. I feel stuck. I really want to write a review about Adaptation. Yeah. Adaptation. That is a good one. I don't think Ashley has seen that one. Maybe she would watch it with me. I don't know... it's a pretty weird movie. I should really go for something more populist, like Casablanca. Casablanca is boring. Robert McKee has stated on numerous times that it has the finest screenplay ever written. I don't know about that. It's a great movie, don't get me wrong, it's just that I have seen it a million times and the story has been rehashed so many times it doesn't seem too original these days. Nothing seems original these days. Adaptation is original. I always forget how much I love that movie. Nicolas Cage's performance is amazing as both screenwriters Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald. I mean, Donald doesn't exist or anything, but it works in the confines of the story. Chris Cooper is also fantastic in it. What's his character's name? Oh yeah, John LaRoche-- the Orchid poacher. I have never really been into orchid's myself. I only buy flowers when I am in trouble or want to make a girl happy. Orchids are interesting though, definitely more interesting than roses. Maybe not daisies, but certainly roses. I like the orange orchids. They are the ones that I see all of the time in the floral section of grocery stores. Adaptation is about the ghost orchid though. You know--dendrophylax lindenii. Yeah right. Like I knew the genus off the top of my head. I just Googled that from my desk. Anyone can Google anyone these days. Why am I even writing this review anyway? What is the point of this website when anyone can just Google any movie and find dozens of reviews by people more talented than myself? I suppose it's a creative outlet. I suppose it's to share movies that I love with friends. But still, Google, man. Wow. Technology amazes me, it really does. I read somewhere that we have the entire spectrum of human knowledge and understanding now in our mobile phones. That was from a meme. I get so tired of meme's but that one was funny. It postulated that we have the entire spectrum of knowledge at our fingertips and all we do with it is look at pictures of cats. I laughed out lot. I am such a sucker, such a tool. I should really start writing. I want to write about a movie that is important-- really important. Like Shoah, or Schindler's List, or Birth of a Nation. I mean, I really should be writing about one of those movies, but they are just too... much. At least right now they are way too much. I would rather write about Adaptation I think.. even though it is sort of a failure as a movie. I mean, Kaufman wanted to write a movie about flowers. That's what it was supposed to be about-- flowers. Just flowers, and how they live and die. It was supposed to be full of that sprawling New Yorker stuff that would really hit home with the New York sophisto crowd. When the producers gave him the book "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean, Kaufman must have tried his best to make it work. The result was pretty amusing, although I think it is a little pretentious to write yourself into your screenplay. His brother, Donald too. I can just picture the two of them sitting in a room deciding to write themselves into their movie. I mean, it's kind of intellectual piracy- isn't it? Taking someone else's work and essentially photobombing yourself into it has to be against certain intellectual property laws, right? I mean, Kaufman got away with it because he was Oscar nominated at the time-- but still, how bizarre. It's probably the best written movie of the last thirty years, though. It has a lot going for it, the circular style, the meta, self-referential in jokes, the performances. I mean, Meryl Streep is in it. She is sort of beautiful for her age. I think in this movie she is sort of terrific. Way better than in The Iron Lady.
She is just a woman that is living her life with a gaping hole in it. I know I have felt that way before. I know I have latched onto people that were not necessarily even good for me for that very reason. I get the way she feels. It is like we are all in our own private traps, sometimes. Sometimes it just takes the right person to pull you out of the rut you are in. I know I have found that person. I wonder if Kaufman has. I am hungry. I should really grab something.. a soda or a chick-o-stick or something. No. I can't do that. I should drink water and have some celery and peanut butter or something. That would be much more nutritious. I am already fat enough as it is, I don't need to continue to aid the cause. I suppose a soda wouldn't hurt. I will get a small instead of a large. Yeah. That's what I should do. Portion control. Portion control is key. But if I get up I know I won't be able to write the review. The damn review. I mean, it's not like I don't have anything to say. It's just difficult to put certain things into words. It's harder than it looks- writing. You have to bare yourself in ways that are extremely intimate and personal. Kaufman does that in Adaptation, that's for sure. He shows himself as a balding, ugly, fat, narcissistic and socially awkward. He may be a genius but on the outside he is just another loser like you and I, jacking off to the hottie author on a dust jacket cover. Ok. I can't say I have ever done that. At least not with a book jacket cover. I wonder how authors feel when they get their book jacket cover photos taken. Do they realize that is how the world will see them-- that it is how the world will reconcile the face with the work? I imagine it's a lot of pressure. It was probably more pressure twenty years ago than it was today, though. Now you could just Google image search the author's name and see a ton of pictures. Here is the author in the park. Here is the author getting groceries at a local market. Here is the author exchanging currency with a transvestite prostitute. The Internet has made voyeurs of us all. But at least we can spend our time with things that interest us. I know the movies interest me more than anything else in the arts. The Internet is how I found Adaptation. I remember renting it on video in 2002 when it came out. I remember hating it, and then giving it more chances over the years. Some movies you have to see more than once to appreciate. This is one of those movies. It is brilliant and unique and all of that horseshit. I sound like a walking cliché or a meaningless hype machine. I used to have more fire in me. It's still there, buried somewhere. What is it Orlean says in the movie? "I suppose I have one unembarrassed passion. I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately." I don't think i have that problem. If anything I have the opposite of that problem. Donald says "we are what we love." That is probably horseshit, but it sounds good in the film. The film, the film, always talking about the film. I want a cookie. I am pretty sure the shop sells them. Grandma’s Finest Chocolate Chip Cookies, they are called. At least that’s what I think they are called. I should focus on the review. I should focus on my work. I think this movie is really about something. It is a great film, one I want to share. I just don’t want to give anything away. I don’t want to spoil it for those that haven’t seen it. It is one of those few movies that is overwhelmingly fresh and original. It is the kind of movie that you don’t see coming, and when it does it completely knocks you on your ass. One minute it is bitingly hilarious, the next- unbelievably sad. Shit. Did I just use two adverbs in a row? Yeah. I did. Crap. King said in On Writing that only hacks do that. I am not even sure if it is grammatically correct. I should ask the Grammar girl. What’s her name—oh yeah, Mignon Fogarty. God, that is a horrible name. Who would name their kid Mignon? I feel bad for her. Where was I? Oh yeah, adverbs. I have to stop writing in adverbs. Oh well, who cares- it’s me, after all. At least I am saying what I want to say. At least I am telling people about this great movie. I hope they watch it, I really do. I need to focus on this site more. I need to focus on all of those great movies I still have left to share. I need to make this site bigger, better. I need to improve my vocabulary and my prose. I need to evolve. Kaufman evolved to Synecdoche, NY – one of the greatest of all films. Where is my evolution? What is my next step? I know I should find out, but the truth is, I don’t really care. Like the film says- adaptation is a profound process; it means you figure out how to thrive in the world. Perhaps I already have.
Review and Analysis by Shaun Henisey
Cast and Credits:
Charlie Kaufman: Nicolas Cage
Susan Orlean: Meryl Streep
John LaRoche: Chris Cooper
Donald Kaufman: Nicolas Cage
Columbia Pictures presents a Spike Jonze film.
Based on the novel "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean
Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman. Cinematography by Lance Accord
Running Time: 114 Minutes. Rated R: For language, sexuality, brief nudity and adult content.
Week 58 : Saving Private Ryan
We watch as wave’s crash loudly against hardened steel. Gazing into the abyss, men sit and prepare for the inevitable as they are packed tightly into rectangular boats, bobbing and weaving with the ocean current like sardines that have been discarded in a treacherous river of blood. Their eyes are blank and dead and cold as they prepare for nothing short of death itself. The air is filled with the smell of sweat, blood, smoke, seawater, vomit, shit and piss. The nameless masses of men look on as the boat comes to an earth shattering stop against the edge of the beach. Doors open and the air turns pink as dozens—no, hundreds of men fall like ragdolls as bullets rip through their flesh, limbs and brain tissue with tactile accuracy. There is no mourning here. No final goodbyes, no last words. Bodies go from alive to limp in mere seconds while those fortunate enough to be alive climb over them as if they were nothing more than rotting animal carcasses on a hot summer day. Those that go quickly are lucky. Countless others will die slowly. With arms and legs missing, they will lay motionless in blood drenched sand while others pass them as if they are not there. Some will be trampled. Others will burn to death. The worst will take hours to die, bleeding out slowly while watching their friends eviscerated by loud instruments of war. There are no waving flags. Those that live are lucky. Those that die are not. This is the reality of war.
The last film I ever saw in a movie theater with my grandfather was Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. I have never had a more gut-wrenching and visceral viewing experience than on that June Saturday afternoon in 1998. My grandfather hated going to the movie theater, but as a World War II veteran, he felt obligated to see this picture on opening weekend. I sat next to him at the multiplex as Spielberg’s epic began. We sat idly as we watched those boats approaching Omaha beach and I noticed my grandfather—the bravest, strongest and most admirable man I have ever met, begin to slowly shake. By the end of the 27-minute battle sequence (the greatest ever filmed), he sat in tears, rocking back and forth. He watched the remaining picture quietly and began to weep at the ending as well. We drove home and sat silently. He never mentioned the film to me. We never talked about it at all. He simply sat, silently as we drove the 20 minutes from the theater to our home in southeast Kansas. My grandmother later told my mother that he sat quietly for hours after the viewing.
I distinctly remember wanting to ask my grandfather questions about the film. Going into the theater, I knew that I wanted to use the film as an icebreaker to open him up about his wartime experiences. I planned on asking him if the movie was realistic—if what I saw on the screen was the way it really happened. After the movie was over, I didn’t need to ask those questions. I could tell by the way he was acting: the cold look in his eyes- the pensive way in which he sat, motionless and without words. Spielberg got it right.
Since that day, watching the picture with my grandfather, I have only watched Saving Private Ryan three times. When it is over, I always find myself doing the same thing my grandfather did those many years ago. I want to sit quietly and reflect on things. The movies are currently the most important art form that we have due to their ability to make us relate and empathize with a particular point of view. In his film, Spielberg does not intend to emotionally manipulate us. Saving Private Ryan is neither pro or anti war. It simply shows war for what it is—a horrible, horrible reality. There are images in the first half hour of the picture that will never leave me. I think that is probably the point.
War is a subject that drips of moral relativism. Using war, we can justify virtually anything. Murder, starvation, and the annihilation of large groups of people for the “common interests” of those “fighting the good fight.” What transcends Spielberg’s film from simply a technical masterpiece with great battle sequences to perhaps one of the most important pictures of all time is the lens in which we view the action. We slowly meet Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) on the battlefield at Omaha Beach and then follow him as he obtains his next assignment. His mission: to lead a group of eight soldiers on a search and rescue operation to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon)—a soldier who has lost all four of his brothers in combat. Miller understands that while the mission is not without virtue—it is really nothing more than a PR mission for the army to save face. He leads his men throughout France at the height of World War II in an operation that he intelligently sums up as “looking for a needle in a stack of needles.”
Miller’s men come from various backgrounds and are all richly detailed. Miller’s second in command, Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore) is fierce and loyal. Private Reiban (Edward Burns) is a cynic that thinks that the mission they have been tasked with is FUBAR (if you don’t know what the term means, watch the movie). Private Johnson (Barry Pepper) is a sharp shooter with an almost creepily distorted sense of faith. Mellish (Adam Goldberg) is a wise cracking cut-up that never misses an opportunity to show the enemy his proud Jewish heritage. Caparzo (Vin Diesel) is a tough guy with a soft spot for children while Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) misses home and has a certain sense of moral decency. Finally there is Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies)-- the translator who has never seen combat a day in his life.
The irony of the mission is not wasted on its participants.
“What is the sense in risking the eight of us for saving one guy?” Reiban says. Later, after a member of their team is killed and forced to slowly bleed to death, the sentiment becomes harsher. “Fuck Ryan.”
The men have a good point. All eight of them have mothers, too. Some have siblings. Some have wives and girlfriends. They are essentially asked to die so that one man should live, and many do. In this fictional mission, Spielberg allows us to fully comprehend the irony of war. Even the most admirable tasks can reek of death and loss. Is the mission ethical? Should the company blindly follow orders? Are they doing the right thing? Spielberg doesn’t attempt to give us answers. He simply shows us the story and we are allowed to make our own opinions. We identify with our comrades until we finally meet Ryan in the last hour of the picture. When he turns out to be a really good guy—well, we don’t know what to think.
I love film as an art form and directors, not movies, are my currency. When I go to a Kubrick picture I know that my brain will be constantly engaged. Scorsese reaches the most inner parts of my soul and forces me to confront emotions that are buried deep within. Hitchcock enthralls me. Spielberg makes me feel like a kid again in his earlier work, but in Saving Private Ryan (and more in Schindler’s List, his finest film) he forces me to confront unimaginable horrors with pure, raw emotion. You want to see a horror film? Watch Schindler’s List and the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan and you will see the scariest side of human existence ever witnessed. It is as if he is a chameleon that always fully disappears into his work, while also being instantly identifiable. He is certainly one of the greatest directors who have ever lived, and perhaps the one that is closest to my heart.
When I think about Saving Private Ryan I think about my grandfather. He was not at Omaha Beach, but he was in France. He was there. He saw his friends blown to bits and witnessed horrors that I hope I will never see. When he returned he was changed. I know that he was proud to be an American veteran, but he never spoke about the war. When I asked him questions he would answer with one or two words and then change the subject. I think of our men and women that fight for our country and feel a combination of pride and pity. Movies like Saving Private Ryan are important because they force us to confront the realities of war. Like Kurtz, the character in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now, we see the horror. We know we should be proud of our men and servicewomen—but we also feel a sense of pity, and even disgrace. What is the point of war? What exactly is Spielberg trying to tell us? I don’t know. All I know is that I am glad my grandfather made it. I just regret having to see those looks in his eyes. I am reminded by the great Hemingway quote that ends David Fincher’s Seven. Few quotes are more fitting when thinking of such things.
“The world is a good place, and worth fighting for. I believe in the second part.”
For George Henisey
With Love and Admiration,
Review and Analysis by Shaun Henisey
Cast and Credits:
Capt. Miller: Tom Hanks
Sgt. Horvath; Tom Sizemore
Pvt. Reiban: Edward Burns
Wade: Giovanni Ribisi
Caparso: Vin Diesel
Johnson: Barry Pepper
Melish: Adam Goldberg
Upham: Jeremy Davies
Ryan: Matt Damon
Paramount Pictures presents a Steven Spielberg film.
Written by Robert Rodat. Cinematography by Janusz Kiminski.
Edited by Michael Kahn. Music by John Williams.
Running Time: 169 Minutes. Rated R: For intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence, and for language