Friday, 28 December 2007

Literary Blogs and the James Wood Neurosis 1

If one takes a broad perspective, the idea that a critic of James Wood’s stature would require defending by a nobody like me is rather absurd. He has been described as ‘the best literary critic of his generation,’ ‘our best living reviewer,’ and ‘a treasure.’ He has received he highest praise from the likes of Cynthia Ozick, Harold Bloom and Susan Sontag. He has recently taken a new post at The New Yorker, and has for some years worked as a professor of ‘the practice of literary criticism’ at Harvard, this despite not having a doctorate. Yes, in the world of print journalism, James Wood has a phenomenal reputation. This makes it all the more baffling that here in the alternate universe of the internet, he is subject to such frequent and venomous attack.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

American Myth: The Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men [pt. 2]

[Click for Part One]
On the release of Miller’s Crossing in 1990, the year that also saw the release of The Godfather Part Three and Goodfellas, the brothers commented that of all the gangster films released that year, theirs was the most ‘mythic.’ This word is fundamental to understanding the Coens’ approach to filmmaking. The conventional stories of genre fiction, conventions that emerged more or less organically from generations of pulp fiction writers and Hollywood filmmakers, are seen by the Coens as myths to be endlessly reformulated. In the same way that ancient Greek playwrights redigested their traditional stories over and over, to excite different emotions or to tackle different themes; the thriller or the screwball comedy is one basic story with fixed conventions that can be endlessly reinvented. Goodfellas is a film about gangsters; Miller’s Crossing is a film in the key of Gangsters, but its subject has no more to do with gangsters than with any other human beings. It seems to me that it is a film about ethics: it is a dramatisation of the axiom that the only true moral dilemma is a choice between two evils. But the archetypes of the gangster film give the story direct access to the psyche, taking part in the cultural dream that is the gangster narrative. Similarly, although O Brother, Where Art Thou? credits Homer’s Odyssey as its inspiration, the references to sirens and Cyclopes are really incidental. It is the manipulation of classic American stories, both apocryphal and true, that turns 1920s’ Mississippi into a mythic landscape to rival the semi-real Mediterranean of Odysseus’ wanderings.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

American Myth: The Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men [pt. 1]

Following the trail of blood left by his wounded quarry, Llewellyn Moss, an amateur antelope hunter, comes upon the aftermath of a failed drug deal: bullet-riddled trucks, dead and dying bodies and—that faithful MacGuffin—a case full of money. It will not be long before the trail being followed is left by Moss himself. This image of a trail of blood recurs again and again throughout No Country For Old Men, the latest film by Joel and Ethan Coen, adapted from a novel by Cormac McCarthy. Overuse by so many clichĂ©d Hollywood movies has devalued the idea of ‘the hunter becoming the hunted,’ but it reclaims its poignant irony in this film, if only because the hunter in question so stubbornly refuses to accept his new role. Moss (Josh Brolin) is constantly devising new ploys to gain the upper hand over his adversary, the chilling killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). In the average American movie, his self-confident tenacity would stand as testament to his heroism, even if it proved his undoing (think Cool Hand Luke); but the Coens deny him his moment of glory, robbing him of his iconic last stand. It is an unusual decision in a thriller, particularly such a tangibly American one; but for the Coens, any other course would be unthinkable.

On the Responsibilities of the Critic

Kudos to Tom Paulin, whose dazzlingly subtle inquisition of Keats’ “Ode to Autumn,” published in today's Guardian, finally proves beyond doubt that the work in question is not (as has been believed and taught by bovine generations of “Literalist” scholars, their brains addled by the stench of their own tweed) a poem about the humble pleasures of that season, but an elaborate proto-Marxist illustration of the master-slave dialectic in the context of agricultural labour, ending in a passionate call for the immediate assassination of George III. Paulin reveals his familiarity with and admiration of the luminaries of the Zemblan Discontortionist school of literary criticism, forcefully revealing John “Che” Keats’ hitherto undisclosed status as the originator of the radical trade union movement.