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.

But the conventions of genre may not be manipulated arbitrarily; the great genre writer distinguishes herself not merely by subverting conventions, but by internalising an understanding of what conventions may be subverted and how. When asked to describe the character of the killer Anton Chigurh in their latest film, the Coens (I forget which one; Ethan, maybe) replied simply, ‘he’s a character in a thriller.’ Though it sounds like a brush-off, this response speaks volumes. The shape of Chigurh’s personality, it implies, is dictated by the contours of the story. And what forms those contours? They are a reproduction of the landscape of the human mind. This is the crucial point where genre and myth meet, and where both distinguish themselves from mere allegory.

In his review of the Cormac McCarthy novel on which No Country was based, James Wood bemoaned the lack of psychological depth in the characters. Although I am a lifetime member of the James Wood fan club, I fear in this instance he betrays a failure to understand the logic of genre fiction: the characters in a conventional genre do not have psychology, they are psychology. For the protagonist of a thriller to lapse into stream of consciousness would be redundant, because her inner world has already dictated the nature of the physical world around her. The Coens demonstrate their understanding of this psychological power of genre with the introduction to Raising Arizona of Leonard Smalls: the night following H.I.’s abduction of a child, he dreams of a demonic biker whom he feels that he himself ‘unleashed.’ Emerging from a wall of fire, the biker jumps over our line of vision into… reality. The biker that becomes H.I.’s actual nemesis thus emerges literally from his own psyche, a manifestation of his rampaging id. Although there is no explicit parallel to this sequence in No Country, there is no doubt that Chigurh plays an equivalent role both for the hunted Moss and the pursuing sheriff.

Of course, if the Coens are right this would have to be true anyway: every thriller has a character like Chigurh with the same archetypal significance as all the other Chigurhs. So what makes a thriller by the Coen brothers stand out from any other thriller? This brings us back to No Country and its unique ending—because although the archetypes may be always the same, the way they are positioned, like the notes in a piece of music, is what separates pabulum from the transcendent beauty of true art.

The typical commercial Hollywood thriller amounts to a superhero fantasy. Take the Jason Bourne series as a perfect example: Bourne is a troubled Everyman who finds himself unaccountably gifted with the power to escape from any life-threatening situation virtually unharmed. By the end of the third film it is fairly clear that Bourne is immortal: his triumphant swimming away into darkness—after surviving, Rasputin-like, from being shot and then falling into a river—amounts to an apotheosis. There is absolutely nothing the CIA could do to kill him. This climax offers relief at first, because we have invested something in Bourne’s struggle, but it is ultimately dissatisfying, because we know deep down that we are being fed a lie. There are no superheroes, we are not superheroes, and the fantasy of invulnerability is beguiling only for as long as it lasts. The commercial film is to art what midnight bingeing is to a nice meal. It is an addiction fed to repress one’s knowledge of a painful truth, and the addiction is returned to again and again precisely because it does not work. As in the Bourne films, each time we return to satisfy our craving, we need thrills of ever-greater magnitude to disguise the fantasy’s diminishing return.

The artist, conversely, balances the protagonist’s (and therefore the viewer’s) hope of success with the weight of inevitability. If the forces of antagonism are stronger than the powers of the protagonist, our hero must sadly fall. And we might feel upset, even cheated, for a moment; but a moment’s courage on the part of both the author and the viewer, the courage to accept the inevitable, is repaid with a glow of peace that burns in the heart with slow-dying embers. It is this peace, this wholesome sadness, that one feels at the dwindling climax of No Country For Old Men. No less important, the brothers eschew the Brechtian analysis that made The Ladykillers so soulless. Although No Country shares with Raising Arizona and Fargo aspects of the former’s psychologising and the latter’s social commentary, one’s awareness of those themes is perceived only in retrospect. In No Country For Old Men, the Coens successfully reconcile their two competing impulses for entertainment and philosophy, fusing them to create a near-perfect example of genre as art.

No comments: