Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hey, Peter Travers, Include Me Out

By Lars Trodson

Peter Travers, the movie critic from Rolling Stone, lets you know, right at the start of his review of the movie “No Country For Old Men”, that if you don’t like the movie you’re an idiot. But don’t let me misinterpret his words. Here’s his first paragraph:

“Misguided souls will tell you that “No Country for Old Men” is out for blood, focused on vengeance and unconcerned with the larger world outside a standard-issue suspense plot. Those people, of course, are deaf, dumb and blind to anything that isn't spelled out between commercials on dying TV networks. Joel and Ethan Coen's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel is an indisputably great movie, at this point the year's very best. Set in 1980 in West Texas, where the chase is on for stolen drug money, the film — a new career peak for the Coen brothers, who share writing and directing credits — is a literate meditation (scary words for the Transformers crowd) on America's bloodlust for the easy fix. It's also as entertaining as hell, which tends to rile up elitists. What do the criminal acts of losers in a flyover state have to do with the life of the mind?”

What do they they have to do with a life of the mind? I couldn’t tell you, because the movie certainly doesn’t tell me. So I’m in trouble. I did not like this movie. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t think it was all that great. I guess I won’t be invited over to Peter Travers’ house for an evening of drinking beers and watching “Cheaters.”

Travers has written a perfectly circuitous argument; it ends at the same point it begins. If you didn’t like the movie, you didn’t get it. And if you didn’t get it, you’re an elitist snob. I love the fact that Travers obviously does not want you to consider him an elitist, but yet he says if you don’t love the Coens’ new movie you must be part of the great unwashed crowd that went to see “Transformers.” Which seems to me the statement of an elitist. Hmmm. How do I get out of this argument?

Peter Travers is obviously also on a higher intellectual plane than the rest of us, because “No Country” only managed to be a medium-sized hit (it made about $60 million at the domestic box office.) This poor dumb country of ours is just too stupid to appreciate this genius. This is no country in which to be a real artist.

I found “No Country For Old Men” tedious, attenuated. It had flourishes of brilliance -- Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn being chased down the river by the dog, the coin toss in the lonely old gas station -- but for me the movie traveled down long and dusty roads in oceans of terminal silence, with characters that did not motivate me toward any kind of feeling.

I had gone in with high expectations - always a mistake - because there is not a performer in the movie I don’t like. I had just come to know Josh Brolin from his terrific performance in “American Gangster”, so I was looking forward to more work from him. Tommy Lee Jones? A thrilling actor. Javier Bardem is also turning into a favorite. Woody Harrelson can almost do no wrong. And I have long since wondered when American filmmakers would get back to the American west - the terrain that fueled so many of my favorite movies (“Junior Bonner”, “The Getaway”) of the 1970s.

The Coen brothers have made some of the great movies in the past 25 years. I loved “O Brother, Where Art Thou” and “The Big Lebowski.” I wasn’t a huge fan of “Fargo”, but there is not a frame of “Miller’s Crossing” that is wrong. “Barton Fink” is fascinating to me, and I allow myself to be transported by the surreal whimsy of “The Hudsucker Proxy.” I love that movie.

But these attributes did not gel for me in “No Country For Old Men.” I do not know the Cormac McCarthy novel, so I don’t know if the movie sacrificed philosophy over plot, or plot over philosophy, because I didn’t get enough of either in the picture. Is “No Country For Old Men” trying to tell me that world is a ruthless place for people who get older? (Wow. This is deep, deep stuff that never occurred to me before. And how fascinating it must have been for Travers to find this out by watching the movie!) Does it mean to say that as mores and customs change, the world gets more confusing for the oldest generation? Is the Anton Ghigurh character -- played by Bardem -- a symbol of a kind of newer, modern, heartless violence? Is that opposed to the understandable, antique, more heartfelt violence of the past?

I was interested in Travers’ argument that the Coens could make a movie both intellectual and thrilling - it’s a thinking man’s noir, I guess. But check out the July 25, 2005 review of the novel in The New Yorker. The critic, James Wood, argues that while the book is entertaining, it doesn’t have very much interesting to say.

“McCarthy has never been much interested in consciousness and once declared that as far as he was concerned Henry James wasn’t literature. Alas, his new book, with its gleaming equipment of death, its mindless men and absent (but appropriately sentimentalized) women, its rigid, impacted prose, and its meaningless story, is perhaps the logical result of a literary hostility to Mind.”

Okay. Travers, in his quivering, arrogant review, is arguing that the movie version of McCarthy’s novel is precisely about “the life of the mind.” Wood went on to say in his review of the novel that the book was in fact “high-flown nonsense.” So who is right here? Travers, whose position is that the movie is a meditation on the meaning of life itself? Or Wood, who thinks of the novel as having an attribute he calls “metaphysical cheapness.”

And perhaps that’s why I was confused by the picture. It didn’t speak to me as a strict genre piece -- and I hope I am not a snob about movies -- nor did it have anything interesting to say. Or what it had to say didn’t enlist my attention.

And what about Bardem’s Academy Award-nominated performance? Is it “stupendous”, to use Travers’ description? I don’t know. He didn’t, and won’t, give me nightmares. Joe Pesci’s killer in “GoodFellas” gave me nightmares. So did Dean Stockwell as the Sandman in “Blue Velvet.” So does Norman Bates, and Robert Mitchum in “Night of the Hunter.” But not this guy. I mean, haven’t I seen this kind of glassy-eyed, calm-demeanored killer in the movies before?

Does Brolin really -- I mean, really -- rip into his role “like a man possessed” as Peter Travers’ says? Is the performance really that exciting? I thought the performance was fine. Brolin had a quiet masculinity. His character seemed to be reasonably smart, reasonably decent, but it was not a performance that seared itself into my memory.

To me, the stylization of both the Coen’s vision (in this particular film) and Travers’ opinion of it dovetail perfectly at the end of Travers’ review in Rolling Stone. You know a debator is in trouble when they, in the end, have to fall back on the “I have seen the enemy, and it is us” argument. That’s exactly where Travers ends up:

“Not since Robert Altman merged with the short stories of Raymond Carver in “Short Cuts” have filmmakers and author fused with such devastating impact as the Coens and McCarthy. Good and evil are tackled with a rigorous fix on the complexity involved. Recent movies about Iraq have pushed hard to show the growing dehumanization infecting our world. “No Country” doesn't have to preach or wave a flag — it carries in its bones the virus of what we've become. The Coens squeeze us without mercy in a vise of tension and suspense, but only to force us to look into an abyss of our own making.”

Oooh. I made this terrible world. We all did, you see, and the Coens’ are forcing us to watch the horror we have caused! Please. Leave me out of it. Think, for a second, of what this same argument sounds like when you transpose the plural to the singular: “‘No Country’ doesn’t have to preach or wave a flag - it carries in its bones the virus of what I’ve become. The Coens squeezed me without mercy in a vice of tension and suspense, and forced me to look into an abyss of my own making.”

Do you think anybody would write that about themselves? No, probably because they wouldn’t believe it and wouldn’t insult themselves that way. So please don’t insult me, thank you, or any of my friends. But because Travers has run out of things to say, he cloaks his ending in the royal “we.”

"No Country For Old Men” is highly stylized and maybe even beautiful, in parts, but it doesn’t have much more on its mind than entertainment. See you all at “Transformers 2.”