No Country for Old Men: Bleak is the new black

Nihilism is apparently way hipper than I gave it credit for. Scores of filmgoers have vaulted the new Coen brothers film to the place of a 5 star classic without being able to justify why beyond a kind of bulwark like: “if you don’t get it, then you just don’t get it.” Certainly there’s room for non-traditional storytelling in Hollywood, but the shell game of faux-meaning this film plays is not simply post-modern, it’s sub-post-modern. I haven’t had the pleasure of making my way through Cormac McCarthy’s novel, which apparently exudes a similar bleak and sparse story landscape, but for the film (which needs to stand on its own anyway) the execution just doesn’t play. No Country For Old Men (at least in this reviewer’s estimation) is not the ark to save the cinema that many want us to place our faith, hope and love in. Actually, it’s more like an over-burdened paper boat, all but barely sinking.

Simply eschewing an accessible three act structure or leaving out major dramatic beats does not a masterpiece make. Even baiting and switching expectations could be a worthwhile technique if we receive something thoughtful in return, but the Coens are intent to give us a large spoonful of destruction and then turn out the lights. Were it not for the themes bumping around in this mess of dark humanity, or the deftness and strength of the acting, the whole thing would fall apart as a collection of ideas, with some exciting action sequences thrown in. True, the filmmakers plunge deep into the violent American psychosis which spills into every sub-culture it touches, but in their effort to shatter cliche they merely avoid giving the audience something to identify with. They’ve instead made a paean to modern alienation: “don’t identify, just celebrate the despair.”

On the positive side, the film is at points wholly chilling and nerve-wracking. Javier Bardem plays about as creepy and villainous a character ever to grace the silver screen. He stalks every scene with a Terminator-like terror that gives the film its true fuel. In fact, I think much of the misplaced worship of this film will come from the sheer mastery of Bardem’s performance.

And the Coens should also be given credit for a shocking assessment that the evil men do is ever present, ever real and ever-progressing to its own imminent demise, likely to take all of us with it. Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff may not serve the film’s dramatic action much (in fact, his presence is somewhat of a red herring), but his cool observations and luckless clue prowling work as a kind of dark Greek-chorus. He stands atop everything, noting with weary measurement just how unholy and bankrupt the whole show is. It’s a bold film that can come away with such a strong hand, shoving away politics and popular psychologies to simply suggest Man, as a creature of this world, will always tend to go bad, and worse.

But the film never rises to its own occasion and ultimately becomes too smart for its own good. It wants to borrow the yellow-brick road of action-movies to usher us into the story, but then it can’t sustain any promise once there. Instead of either rewarding our subconscious pleas for justice, or hooking us on a spike of our own blood-lust, the film delights in confusing us and ripping away any sense of satisfaction, even an ironic one. The characters simply choose to stop being relevant to us or themselves; the directors simply choose to stop thinking about the story. It’s a cheat, but a faux-brainy one, trumpeted by smug reviewers who think veering the film in this direction says more than it actually does. You can almost picture the raging coffee house debates taking place over the utter brilliance of the film to remain uninvolved in its own point.

But ultimately there is no hope, no dread, no unclouded reflection of our dire state, just a cynical wham-bang arthouse smack to the face. I liken it to a film that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Coming from a cynic like me, that’s saying a lot.

Photos

Okay, being the utter perfectionist, part of me cringes at letting this go “officially”, but there is a small photo gallery of some wedding shots. Bear in mind this is in no way complete in terms of images, or presentation. I’m just trying to satisfy certain parties involved before we head out of town for the holidays (wink). So for what it’s worth, look over at the column for the page marked “photo galleries” to see a sample of what’s to come, quality and presentation style notwithstanding..

The Year that Was: 2007 In Review

If a blog approaches any worthwhile use, it should at least serve as a good (and cheap) version of the year-end Christmas letter many are fond of sending (or foisting) upon friends and family. Sure, one can argue you lose the tactile joy of actual paper and signed names and all that. Blogs can be so… bloggy: impersonal, detached, easy. But then, how many people are crafting Christmas letters in word-processing and/or graphics apps? So much for tradition.

So we continue veering into more innovative territory here, and instead of doing a line-by-line recap of the year, we’ve decided to give our beloved readers (all four of you) a top ten list of random highlights from the year – “His and Hers” style. Now that’s bloggy.

David’s Top Ten Observations for 2007:

1. A business is a lot like a marriage, er – without the sex of course: the demands, the sacrifices, the need to satisfy, provide for and nurture the thing. It only works if you work it.

2. A marriage is like, um… nothing else I’ve ever done in my entire god-given existence.

3. Proverbs 18:22: “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD, but he who finds one that shares his love of autumn, snow storms, Macs, good movies, good books, “Lost”, and sleeping in? He gets it really good.”

4. I am happy to relegate the following to the world of the “rarely partaken”: frozen pizzas, frozen beef casserole, frozen mac and cheese… basically anything that could categorized as the “bachelor section” in the grocery store.

5. Blogs are soooo 2004.  Welcome to the past.

6. There are few things so totally unnecessary for life and yet so totally sweet as hot tubs, head massagers, and iPhones.  (still working on the iPhone)

7.  I never for the life of me thought I’d ever have so many (ongoing) conversations with another person about the right and true position of the thermostat.

8. Dayton, Ohio has tons of job possibilities – tons. Unless you want to do anything other than drive a truck or be a nurse.

9. I miss having a dog… a lot

10. Witnessing the next election year vs. a 10 month long rash in the…nethers?  Which do you think?

11. Perseverance is key to…  meh.

Elizabeth’s Top Ten Moments from 2007:

1. We got married. The tornado direly predicted by Elizabeth’s family for the night before did not transpire. But the clouds were pretty dramatic. We heard a wonderful exhortation during the ceremony about what it means for two storytellers to be joined in the sight of God…and of course can recall nothing of it. (Covert audio recording, anyone?). We saw dozens of wonderful folks from our many different worlds and had an average of 9.2 seconds to talk with each of them. Oi.

2. Elizabeth traded bitter Chicago winters for fickle Dayton slush. (We are in unison on this matter: when it gets cold, it must stay cold, and justify itself by snowing. A lot. Look for next year’s Christmas post from upper New York State. Or maybe Fairbanks.)

3. David co-led (leads) a house church (under the auspices of a larger church body), and Elizabeth found a wonderful, ready-made community when she moved to Dayton.

4. We discovered and dispatched our first mouse.

5. Elizabeth spent time in Utah, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida reeling out nine drafts of a script commissioned by Art Within. (She was a little distracted on draft 9 in Florida. David was along that time.)

6. We are learning that nothing builds trust in God like combining two freelance incomes.

7. We discovered that writing a screenplay together is even more dangerous territory than balancing a budget together.

8. We’ve spent more of our short married life traveling (Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Indiana again, Pennyslvania, and Virginia!) than at home. We think we might actually put the suitcases away and unpack our toiletries for the first time in three months after New Year’s.

9. Elizabeth has failed to convince David that coffee is one of God’s best gifts to the human race. Oh, well. That’s more Starbucks Cafe Estima for her. (Finely ground, french press, extra hot, just a faint whisper of cream.)

10. Our musical tastes don’t mix 100% of the time, but can always agree on Over the Rhine. (For Elizabeth’s clan…Linford’s dad is a Mennonite pastor…)

Striking Thoughts

The writers are striking!

As many of you know, film and television writers are one month into a rabid strike, trying to negotiate with the studios. Though I’m of the firm belief it’s one’s individual responsibility to make oneself valuable in order to be paid well, the writers have some valid points of concern: namely regarding payment for DVD sales and internet downloads. Still, all the squabbling and offers and counter-offers appear to be just so much smoke and mirrors.

I saw the strike coming from nearly a year out when the rumors began circulating last winter. But I assumed the whole thing would pass me by. Neither Dave nor I are WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) members as of yet. And I hardly see a picket line marching out from L.A. to stand between me and my Mac.

In spite of this, the strike has managed to worm its way into our business. I may not be Guild yet, but my manager can’t take any of my finished scripts to the studios. Art Within, the group I just finished a commissioned script for, is stuck sitting with the ninth draft on their laptops, unable to send it anywhere. Plus, Art Within can’t commission anything new, even though there’s some interest in an idea Dave and I have been hashing out together.

Oh, and then…there are rumors that this season of Lost may be canceled if the strike doesn’t resolve soon.

Horrors.

So, the strike must end. There are plenty of suggestions circulating on blogs and You Tube, but the best I’ve heard comes straight from The Ninja…

Rewinding Forward

Mills Lake As chronicles of daily life (observations, reflections, what have you) blog posts, like news, kind of have a forward-looking, “freshness factor” to them. Which is why it’s been troubling to have set up this whole deal with the intention of giving great voice to the events of the past month. The other side of me keeps muttering “old news, move along, move along.” But how can we not respond? I will of course give my wife the chance to offer her insights into the crazy wonder that was our wedding and first month of marriage, but permit me to take a few moments to at least reflect on the honeymoon…

Colorado was—what’s that word? Oh yeah, perfect. I suppose it had as much to do with our amenities as it did our environment, but if you could crystalize that sublime description of “romantic cabin in the mountains”, I’d dare say it would look particularly like the experience Liz and I had in Estes Park. True, being the off-season, we missed out on some breathtaking foliage and large groups of awe-inspiring wildlife, but the week and all it held in store was still more than enough to balance out any lack thereof.

The area, and particularly the cabin itself, played surprisingly into this romantic vision I have of the Western states—kind of a 1940s-1950s, rugged old meat-and-potatoes ambience, made up of the style and texture of an old boyscout handbook from that era; a lost horizon you’d see in an old LIFE magazine article or travel brochure. Eisenhower Americana, if you will. And it’s still spackled onto a lot of things around there. Several little cabins and inns have that feel, as if they sprung up when the newly opened highways first dumped tourists onto their doorsteps, and then never changed. Even our little cabin, originally built in the 40s gave off a warm nostalgic aura.  Sure, it had a hot tub and a modern kitchen, but it also had the old-world touches – like a cache of boardgames from the 40s and 50s.  Vintage tiddly winks anyone?

We’ll try to have a gallery of images from this trip posted – with a few from our post-honeymoon two-week trip to Florida. Yeah, life can be rough….