Wednesday, February 27, 2008

There Will Be Arrogance

London Times critic James Christopher goes off on No Country for Old Men beating out There Will Be Blood for Best Picture.

"Did the American Academy get it right? I don’t think so, and it needs to be discussed. I’m gutted that a picture as immaculately assembled as There Will Be Blood has failed against a cartoon American parable, and a psycho wig played by Javier Bardem."

Christopher describes There Will Be Blood as a Biblical-minded story about the conflict of religion and greed in American society. He calls No Country a parable about the indifference of violence in the American West. He concludes:

"But I simply don’t know what the last half hour of this Oscar-winner means. It’s a bloke’s film in the crudest sense of the word. The desert landscapes are framed like paintings, and the plot hardly breaks sweat. But for the life of me I could not picklock a meaning from the last chaotic, whimsical, in truth, desperately-looking-for-an-ending, reel. It creaks with significance, but I left the cinema not entirely convinced that the glittering plaudits it has won are entirely deserved."

At least that explanation has the value of honesty. It's not often that critics have the courage in public to admit that they do not know what a film means. But perhaps next time Christopher should try thinking about a film even after he has left the cinema. He has apparently done less than enough to inform himself, given the amount of discussion the ending has generated. I've found the very public, very plentiful debates over the ending to be the most exciting element of the movie. The film's site itself has had a section dedicated to expressing different views on the ending. I'm sorry the film didn't tie things up in a bow for you, Mr. Christopher, but some of us find the process of trying to grasp a difficult answer more profitable than tidy explanations and overly determined bowling pin finales.

It should be said that There Will Be Blood was in my Top 10 Films of the Year, so clearly I admire it. But it was closer to 10 than to one, which reflects a certain coolness to the film on my part.

Part of my coolness comes from the feeling that, as once was said of the English author Henry James and his labyrinthine sentences, Anderson doesn't bite off more than he can chew so much as chew more than he has bitten off. The story feels less than the film, and it seems flat at times, straining for the importance to which it believes its ambition entitles it. I'm also uncertain that the film correctly diagnoses the issues with American capitalism. TWBB suggests that American capitalist values naturally attract personalities that are antithetical to traditional American moral/religious values (and have subsequently murdered those values). I prefer the subtler view of Michael Clayton, another film that Christopher dismisses, that American capitalist values prey on the weakness and isolation of American personalities belonging to people who probably know better in their hearts. It's not just that your boss is a jerk. It's that his underlings (and probably the boss himself) are wedded to the flimsy but flexible moral backbone needed to survive.

My other issue is more visceral. There Will Be Blood's advocates are the most vociferous group of film fans in recent years, and I find their pronouncements of their beloved film's singular all-important historical tremendousness grating. It reminds me of the people who watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy and acted like they had just ridden home in a golden chariot from Heaven. Not only are those who don't agree idiots. Their favored films are cartoon parables with meaningless endings. It's all rather annoying.


Pinko Punko said...

It's not the band I hate it's their fans.

I actually think the book "No Country..." must have been a wank, but it doesn't bother me in film form. I think the film toyed with audience perception masterfully, like the viewers were on a string. The film dares you to add it up to something but the sums never check out. It is an existentialist masterpiece.

Aspects of TWBB are so subtle they don't actually exist in the film, they exist beyond the film and suggested but it. This subtlety was so extreme as to leave the film slightly airless. Still a close to masterpiece relatively, I think.

K. Bowen said...

I think adding up the No Country ending is impossible, because there is no way to bridge the gap between the literal and figurative interpretations of the Chigurh character. There is good evidence for both sides, and each side leads to a different interpretation. But I see that as a strength and not a weakness.

That's a pretty good description of TWBB. But I also think that some of the material is just inherently weaker than other portions. The whole missing brother subplot just doesn't interest me. I understand what it does and what it's there to do. But that doesn't mean that I'm particularly fond of it. And it definitely doesn't mean that there's a lot of life in it.

Pinko Punko said...

I liked the brother thing because to me it was No Country-esque. On first viewing you don't know if it was real or not, but was so understated it added to the creepiness. To me the massive understatement there was like barely providing evidence of a certain someone being killed in No COuntry. I actually have to say I think Wells missed it in his first viewing, because my sketchy reading of something at HE controlled how close I was paying attention, because I expected a certain character to be ambiguously possibly alive.

K. Bowen said...

Well, that's vague. I think I know what you're getting at. I've never bought the he-didn't-die theory in NCfOM. I suppose there is evidence pointing to that possibility. But The ending wouldn't make much sense, in any of the major interpretations, if he lived. It would seem like a self-defeating plot surprise.

Pinko Punko said...

Oh I agree, he definitely died, just my a priori assumption (fueled by HE) was that he didn't, which led to a lapse in concentration.

I think the best vagary of No Country was Chigurh being in the hotel room while Bell is outside. Are non-contemporaneous scenes being intercut, or is it some sort of alternate reality, or was he there and then not there? That is the sort of situation I think the Sunday brothers situation was in TWBB.

K. Bowen said...

Well, I think you know my opinion - he isn't a flesh-and-blood person, but rather the personification of death/fate. His presence in the room is a reflection of Sheriff Bell's fear that he is about to die.

But I'm open to other possibilities. But the slipped-out explanation, while feasible, bores the heck out of me.