No Country for Old Men is a faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. It was impossible to foresee such a remarkable fusion of genius between the Coen’s and McCarthy. Both harness a proud idiomatic style, but down to the weird rhythms and pregnant pauses the two form one of the great literary/cinematic matches in recent memory. Perhaps long-term memory. The Coen’s precise ambiguities blend perfectly with McCarthy’s ability to fill one conversation between two strangers with the wisdom of the world. Especially in Tommy Lee Jones’s monologues, we hear a type of earnest realism — somehow simultaneously so contrived and so faithful to our imaginations.
The denizens of No Country are not interested in us. They don’t want to be our friends. Anton Chigurh is at once an animal and a god. He is on a mission seemingly more powerful than even he. And the mission is a spiritual one. There is a scene inside of a gas station that, not unexpectedly, pits old against young. The elderly clerk cannot come close to understanding Chigurh’s deranged existentialism. Like many of the other scenes in the film, this one seems to hold the mysteries of the film — presenting an incomprehensible and unstoppable force with simultaneous belief and disbelief in mysticism. “It will become just another coin… which it is.”
We are trapped into accepting Llewelyn Moss as our hero. We meet him looking through his own scope and endure a regular cycle of point-of-view shots until his death. Indeed, this is what makes his death so unbelievable. So frustrating, even. Some have complained about the offscreen death of our hero but we are never meant to see him die. We are led through a gripping, near-silent chase for 60 minutes — always aware of the sheriff lagging behind. Just as he is allowed to engage in the chase, we assume his point of view. One step behind the rest. Like the sheriff, Llewelyn is a man who understands the operations and mysteries of the land but cannot comprehend the ghosts. This is what makes them old.
One character calls it “The Dismal Tide” of youth coming in. We are meant to think of Chigurh and his final scene. He is a ghost, capable of enduring all. However, it is right to call it a “Tide.” For the tides come in and go out regardless of our small plans. Youth force out the old regardless of theirs. But it isn’t even that simple. Not only can the old not comprehend the young — they were once the young themselves.
The Coen’s have presented a complicated perspective on their interpretation of the film’s style. Thus, a flurry of nonsense has been written about No Country. However, it is impossible to deny the influences of silent Westerns, Sam Peckinpah, and Hitch. Hitch would have been proud of the Coen’s and their astonishing mastery of editing to serve suspense. There are long chase sequences. Twenty to thirty minutes of minimal dialogue. But you never look away. The cuts are so specific. They are more than motivated. They’re somehow essential. The impressive thing here is not the silence, it’s the fact that you’ll never notice if you’re not listening. When characters do talk, their dialogue seems to drop away just when we least expect and least desire but always at the perfect time. Visually, it is impossible to deny Peckinpah’s eye on the West. Horizon’s are mostly in the middle of the frame, unlike Ford and Mann. Things are arid and empty. No Country harnesses the old idea of the West that has been lost on my generation — the existence of a place populated by another side of the human spirit; castaways, ghosts, gods, and prostitutes. The landscape isn’t one that crushes or waits. It’s merely the place where the coin is flipped and fate is decided.
What ultimately lends No Country with enduring greatness is its overarching simplicity. The Coen’s are always looking back and revisiting formal structures. Consider how the plot breaks down — Good Guy finds Money. Bad Guy hunts Good Guy. The states are clear and so are the roles. These characters might be archetypes, but they inhabit a separate realm. Only something so simple can harvest the contradictions of humanity. Only in creating these timeless, ghostly creatures can we see so deep into ourselves. The film is a triumph of the highest order.
George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, good buddies in their student days, are frequently cited as the first Computer Boys of the film industry. Both have claimed that film itself is a technology.
Maybe they’re still saying it, but times have changed. We live in a time where film is becoming data. Digitalization of movies has been discussed at length, especially the presumed effect on preservation, fidelity, and economics. But what about us? How does it change the moviegoing experience? For decades, shooting 24 frames across the screen in one second was a miracle. Should we be bothered by all the Ones and Zeros?
Regardless of whether you have a simple crush on Jude Law or an incurable obsession with film, it’s almost guaranteed that you have seen at least a clip of something online and done so illegally. According to the NPD Group, for every legally downloaded movie in the US there are twelve pictures obtained illegally. The MPAA claims that this trend costs the industry over 20 billion dollars annually. A Nielson study states that 73% of adults avoid movie theaters because they believe the cost to be too high. But can we really blame Hollywood? The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings have accounted for a dominating share of 21st Century Hollywood income, not to mention the numerous superhero releases. Some blockbusters manage to maintain decent critical opinion, but the majority are met with disdain — even by the millions of people willing to shell out $8 to see them. Even those of us who need to constantly satiate our film addiction know that The Digital Age has changed the game. Cinephilia has always been a wild race, but now it’s a stationary sprint. Elaborate home theaters and tiny computers have replaced the Silver Screen. It used to be a global scavenger hunt for the newest restoration of Napoleon, now the adventure hardly takes us further than the laundry room. Instead of chasing down that elusive screening of Fig Leaves with our friends, we wait for a torrent or, in the worst case, Criterion to publish a $30 special edition Blu-Ray. The data and our own habits have taught us that convenience trumps quality. The Digital Age has brought history’s theater to our laps. Read more…
Allen breaks a miserable dry spell with Match Point. Since Deconstructing Harry, of 1997, he very much earned the popular criticism of material regurgitation. He stepped outside of his comfort zone and outside of the United States, creating a crafty homage to Hitchcock and Chabrol.
First of all, it was nice to see Allen working in London. Among working directors, he is the most capable of capturing the truth in a town. It would eventually come to full fruition in the recent Midnight in Paris, but his love for orgiastic civilization translates to film just as well in London as it does in Manhattan.
It was in stepping outside of his modus operandi that he pulls out of the rut, but so many of the trademarks are there. The usual preoccupation with fatalism and truth are pinned onto an amiable troupe of Upper Crust Brits. That is, except our protagonist. While Allen is not the only writer capable of successfully building a main character of such loathsome quality, he is the most fancy about it. Chris is played remarkably by Jonathan Rhys Meyers – a casting decision that quite possibly vaulted the picture from mediocrity to definition. His glib manipulation is, at first, difficult to understand. But by the end of Match Point, we are the audience to his every thought. The deposition with the detectives is a fascinating example of filming the thoughts, not the words. We see into his self-loathing and it looks great.
So much cannot be said for Johansson, whose struggling actress character was probably looked at with some irony by Allen. She is the archetypal Allen Sexy Nymphette. In a performance that begins with such intrigue and fantasy, it rapidly devolves into a schizomaniacal tour of her body and methods of anger. I don’t blame this on Allen. I’ve yet to be impressed by her, and I am beginning to think that Hollywood feels the same way.
Finally, it is worth noting how Match Point is so much of a charming tip-of-the-hat in Hitchcock’s direction. A witty use of Checkhov’s Gun. A wedding ring MacGuffin. Allen succeeds admirably in imitating the shapes and structures of an inimitable force. Match Point ends up being like a sissy twisted up version of Frenzy with much more wit and character. Certainly not Allen’s most monumental effort. And not one that demands much rewatching. But it broke perhaps the worst cycle of work by a respectable director. Too bad he didn’t sustain the tradition of avoiding expectation.
Originally published 2 June 2010. Hitchcock may be the only filmmaker who receives the same level of unabashed praise from me today as he did years ago.
I have seen and heard Carmen so many times that I could probably dictate most of the first couple acts from memory. Before I even had a clue what the opera was about, I first came in contact with some of the music from it by way of none other than Weird Al Yankovic. This song was put on a CD for me called the Z-Man-ZurZur-Fun-Mix in the fifth grade, long before I had any idea what beer was, tasted like, or how terrible Weird Al could be. That just shows how ridiculously popular Bizet’s music has become. I would be willing to bet that some children could recognize the Toreador song just as fast as Frere Jaques. With all the dancing around I probably did to “The Beer Song,” I had no idea how much I was going to fall in love with opera and how big a part Carmen was going to play in that.
When my family first got a DVR for the TV, one of the first things I recorded was a hyper-updated pseudo-futuristic version of Carmen with Barenboim conducting. It’s Euro-trashy, but the singing is unstoppable and the chorus is better than 90% of the CD’s you can find (and a good chorus is vital, here). Since then, I have watched that movie at least 30 times, Carmen being one of the 5 most abused scores in my library.
One of the most unique things about Bizet’s writing is his capacity for separation. He ever succumbs to melodrama and only gives the music that is necessary. By doing so, he invites the audience to relate to the characters directly, not necessarily through their music. This gives the piece a voyeuristic tone that many operas don’t carry, even when making the audience feel like a bunch of peeping-tom’s is often the point. Through the proscenium window, the observers come to understand Don Jose through the infatuation that Escamillo also experiences. His passion accelerates alongside his scenes with Carmen, moving with the arch of Rear Window, a steady but forceful incline from attraction to obsession to jealousy to murder. Carmen, however, remains enigmatic – most of her arias dealing out a varying degree of indifference to love or fate. Her motives in acting are never clear outside of the fact that she has clear attachment issues. This is evidence of her fear of commitment. Her mad acceptance of her fate is both puzzling and the only appropriate reaction for her character. Carmen must have had some crappy parents or no parents at all, judging from her insensitivity to Jose’s mother issues. (*aside: The Callas recording has some terrible terrible choruses but her performance proves that she should have spent way more time sifting through mezzo repertoire. Skip to 5:20 in that track for an inspiring few minutes. She is meditating on her impending death by way of Jose, revealed to her through tarot cards. If you watch this performed, Carmen should have eyes full of passion and pain at every “la mort.”)
On top of the voyeurism, Carmen plays with the thirst for fantasy – particularly sexual fantasy. Sexual desire is the tool with which Carmen controls Jose and all of her other victims. Both roles are constructed on common fantastical scenes. Jose is the submissive, sacrificial ball of Play-Doh until he gives in to ruthless jealousy. Carmen is the prototype mysterious, voluptuous (hopefully), and alluring woman – violent in her seduction. One of the most potent uses of subconscious suggestion in all non-Wagnerian opera is the finale. The fate of the characters is secured with a triumphal chorus (like a good opera comique should) in the background, but with painful, writhing string chords underneath. The triumphal chorus is none other than the Toreador song, the song of the reasonably harmless man who ran Jose’s reason into the ground.
Rauschenberg was a charming American artist. He had a refreshing fervor for pop culture, but rejected the angst and seriousness of abstract expressionism. He won fame in the fifties by creating “Combines,” his signature. They commented on society by using the very things that created the society – Presidential pictures, shoes, tennis balls, or other familiar objects. His ideas sat on a ledge that didn’t quite tip into “pop art,” to which he is considered a leading precursor. He always said that he wanted to “act between art and life.” So he did.
In the similar manner of Duchamp (who we will look at one of these days ahead), Rauschenberg made serious questions of what art really means. This video is great and reveals the wit, humility, and simple intelligence of the artist. His work pulled out of the basket today is “Bed” from the early 1950′s.
“Bed” thrives on energy and sexuality. Even violent sexuality. Rauschenberg clearly invites the observer into his personal space with this piece. It is said that the sheets, pillow, and quilt were all his own and used. He scatters paint, toothpaste, glue, and other personal artifacts across the place where man normally meets bed. The angles which we are encouraged to observe the piece have a voyeuristic feel. We look at it in many dimensions – at, into, onto, around. The artist asks us to seek answers to questions only the paint can satisfy.
Rauschenberg’s art is simultaneously personal and repulsing. Pictures like “Retroactive I” seem abstract and grotesque from a distance. Closer, though, they begin to formulate a dialogue. It is a Joycean stream of consciousness – a conversation where one segment flows softly (or not) into another. “Retroactive I” has more scenes than all of Rear Window and remains equally American in flavor.
Franz Waxman composed the music to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The score is bustling, jazzy, and full of metropolitan Bernsteinyness (who was busy writing for On The Waterfront at the time, a movie Grace Kelly turned down for the role of Lisa Fremont). Waxman allows for a cute little transition, since he wrote a famously difficult fantasy on themes from Carmen, still his most famous work.
I don’t have the guts or the intention to write a bad review of Hitchcock, but is there seriously not a bad shot in this entire film? There is virtually one scene in the entire 2 hours. Only he could pull that off. Until the end, we remain claustrophobic and voyeuristic with Jeffries. The very beginning states the theme of the movie, with blinds opening up to show a courtyard full of windows, activity, and private lives. The rear window of Jeffries’ room becomes a sort of movie screen, a proscenium through which we observe a false world. Hitchcock accomplishes this by using the same consistent shot, a pan of the courtyard followed by a swinging behind Jeffries to place us claustrophobic and in the room with him. The nurse says, “We’ve become a race of Peeping-Tom’s. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.” Still just as true, if not more, today. The obsession that Jeffries (another masterful collaboration with Stewart) experiences is a revelation that with enough time, we can discover the secrets and unflattering qualities of anyone. The only one in the film with no unflattering qualities seems to be Lisa (Grace Kelly, yum). Hitchcock makes full use of female beauty. Her character might be the only perfect human in any conceivable universe.
Jeffries uses his career as a migratory photographer to justify his fear of commitment, being unrealistically rude to Lisa until she finally enters the picture of his rear window by investigating the crime that drives the plot. With that, she enters his fantasy as well and their relationship remains solid. The human fixation on private affairs is also developed in the obsession that Jeffries’ guests eventually feel towards the crime. Hitchcock again masters suspense by utilizing a propulsive scheme, a steady upward roller-coaster track with a shocking rush downwards, no bumps in the middle.
Common throughout is Waxman’s score, evoking a city life and suggesting that all of our lives are public in a way. Especially with the advent of extreme social networking, privacy has become extinct. The voyeurism of Jeffries is reflected in all of us as we use screens to constantly look into the lives of others. But – like the neighbors across the way – many of us still don’t know how to close our blinds.
Originally published 26 May 2010
On a morning in February 1965, John Coltrane entered the studio with three of his most intensely focused collaborators. A few hours and only a couple takes later, they emerged with A Love Supreme. Immediately celebrated, it was both a commercial and critical success. As spontaneous and ecstatic as its subject, the piece was carefully composed and hosts divine symmetry, but was recorded in a fabulously perplexing period of time. Halfway around the world and about a millennium earlier, an anonymous group of Indian artists constructed, painted, and sculpted a shrine of Kandariya Mahadeva. It features a group of ‘The Heavenly Bands’, hundreds of women lined up in voluptuous beauty. The religious and sexual obsession of this pattern is staggering, barely equalled in the best Gothic cathedrals. Another great masterpiece of obsession lies in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Unarguably a turning point in his career and arguably his greatest achievement, it is a theme and variationson the psychological deterioration of man.
All the arts of medieval India were informed by one constant idea, derived from some very very very very old performance practices – to awaken and reconcile traces of the powerful emotions felt during the consistent rebirth that Hindus and Buddhists believed to have experienced. Rasa is the blissful union with Brahman, the ultimate state of being. The Indians believed that the experience that brings one closest to Rasa is sexual love. This is illuminated most thoroughly in the ecstatic celebration of ‘The Heavenly Bands.’
The eroticism and sexuality of the figures, barely clothed and highly exaggerated, is one of architectural obsession. The figures (all female) form a complex theme and variations in each small section. Especially in the crooks between posts. Check out the several permutations of meditative posture and focus. The rhythm of the work is one of ecstatic love of the divine. The fixation runs so deep that the artists were willing to carve similar figures over and over and over until they ran out of room. Perfection is set aside in favor of pure adoration.
When Coltrane and his crew walked in to record A Love Supreme, they knew exactly what they wanted. The album, only 30-some minutes long, is broken up into four sections. As a whole, it is meant to be an expression of Coltrane’s recent religious reawakening in light of his addictions and a general release of spiritual ecstasy. Beginning with a primordial whack on the tam-tam and major key wigglings that invoke creation itself, the bass then enters with the “A Love Supreme” mantra. Part one under way, Trane plays an inventive but subdued (for him, at least) solo. At both 4:15 and 5:05, he plays the primary 3 note motive in all 12 keys. This is obsession. Also a musical pointing out of God’s omnipotence. Like the solo, there isn’t anywhere He can’t go. The groove loosens and instruments are set aside in favor of a vocal chant of the “Love Supreme” mantra. Part two starts with just as the first ended, with a bass wandering around in double-stops. The Coltrane solo contains several variations on the first theme, as the whole piece develops to suit that characteristic. Tyner plays a ridiculous piano solo here, uninhibited fingers and uninhibited joy. He takes control of the progression, turning a fairly comprehendible chart into a chromatic shower. Echoing that, Coltrane hops in and performs more in line with his later years drinking Ornette Coleman’s kool-aid. The album is reaching a climax.
That climax comes with Part three, one of the most blistering examples of hard bop in recorded history. And one of the most intense expressions of faith known to man. Coltrane’s design of mirror symmetry begins to unfold as he enters with a melody similar in structure and harmonic motion to the first movement – moving angularly around a static focal point. Tyner solos with a rhythmically potent left hand and leaves it to Trane with a magnificently articulated variation on the theme at around 4:15, giving room for one of the great recorded demonstrations of saxophone intellect and filthiness. 6:10 marks one of the great moments in jazz as Mr. Coltrane develops this little motif and somehow manages to formulate a mind-bending crescendo after what seems like a cool off. He rips into a variation of the theme followed by the theme itself. The movement ends just as the second began, enhancing the symmetry. The final movement (titled “Psalm”) is a return to the primal opening. The harmony shifts so little that we are left to hear Trane pray through his instrument, literally. The improvisation is based on a “psalm” that is given in the liner notes of the album. His emulation of human speech is on par with some Verdi recitatives and better than many. I recommend following along with the poetry syllable by syllable. Musically, the pattern is charmingly simple. They follow blue lines and use vibrating and earthy backup textures. The bluesiness is an homage to African-American preachers, like the composers’ grandfathers. In the end, the work is a testament to the simplicity of The End and the Beginning, both. The symmetry and use of theme and variations leaves one in a state of resignation, like many great meditations on infinity.
Vertigo was made in the later half of 1957. Originally deemed so-so, it now ranks as one of the most baller films of ever. The plot is complex and strategically revealing, much due to the masterful pacing of Hitchcock, but it boils down to an exercise in theme and variations and symmetry. It begins with 5 of the most rapturous minutes in cinema. Hitchcock introduces two of his most common devices in the film, extreme close-up and gradual close-up. Also, he states the theme of color shifting and geometry that characterizes psychological fantasy throughout the movie. Check out Bernard Herrmann’s score. Crazy intense, right? It cycles through this nice andante figure and some obsessive double time variant. In fact, this motif doesn’t return until a scene where Madeline is getting her hair dyed about 3/4 of the way through the film. And even then for only about 10 seconds. It involves a close up on the face. Much of the psychological deterioration of Scotty comes from his preoccupation with his disorder (vertigo, if you didn’t catch on) and his self-blame for the lives it ends up costing. Hitchcock simulates this sensation by simultaneously pulling back the camera and zooming in. Beyond description, watch it here.
The theme and variations that echo from art in the previous two cases are established in Vertigo with even more virtuosity. First of all, the film is based on the simple tailing of a female heroine. Hitchcock manages to develop even the driving scenes (you know, the usually lame Seinfeldy green-screen face-shots) into a crescendo of distress. The first “following” is marked by a slight curiosity. The same following scene is repeated with variations 4 times in the next hour. Each time gaining intensity. This motif peaks when the two characters, tailer and tailee, end up in the same car. That sequence involves some serious gradual close-up action, as do most of the remaining scenes with those two characters. Also, Hitchcock uses the theme and variations to toy with mysticism. First introduced in the absolutely perfectly executed Ernie’s scene, the camera develops a murkiness in certain ethereal situations involving psychological confusion or ambiguity. Profiles were his thing. That music is the basic love theme that comes back regularly and obsessively, eventually being perverted into a Wagnerian exercise in chromaticism and diminished chords. One kissing scene toward the end in a hotel room actually being a shameless rip-off of Tristan und Isolde.
I mentioned the symmetry because of this fact alone: Hitchcock takes breaks (or full cuts to black) at almost identical intervals into the film and out of it. He begins with about 35 minutes of straight cinema, and ends with the same amount. Those values get smaller and smaller until in the middle of the picture he uses 3-4 minute scenes for a while. Who thinks of that stuff?
I wish I could talk about this movie forever. Having seen it once before, I would happily claim it as one of my top ten. It is full of totally irrational kissing, Midge (who disappears halfway through the film and has the most awkward relationship ever with Scotty), obsession, angled camera work, gradually darkening lighting (the end is almost invisible), and so many other things I’m not yet able to pin down.