Monthly Archives: April 2008

  • No Country for Old Men – Joel and Ethan Coen USA 2007

    Adrin Neatrour writes:Here comes the bogyman
    No Country for Old Men – Joel and Ethan Coen   USA 2007   Tommy Lee Jones Javier Bardem  Woody Harrelson   Kelly Macdonald
    Viewed at Tyneside Cinema 14 April 08  ticket £6-50

    Here comes the bogyman

    The opening shots of No Country for Old Men (NCOM): dawn over Southern Texas the harsh lands captured in the light of the spinning sun.  The sequence seems to augur a presence in the film of  primal cosmological and topographical forces that shape the men’s lives.  But this sequence is no more than a coat hanger, a series of pretty pictures, a frame on which to hang a concatenation of the mindless violent events that make up the scenario.

    The Coen’s trademark is to depict down home good ol’ boys in situations of extremis. The message is that in the rural heartlands of the USA the twisted threads of violence that make up the warp and woof of the American cultural matrix are have taken endemic root.  Looking in from on the outside, the rural areas of the USA might appear to be an unchanging scape of clapboard houses and trailers governed by grizzled folksy can do and know how.  This is façade, and behind the façade of the shingle and the rockwall is a society in disintegration.  The moral to NCOM might be that mythically at least the hoodlum used to take on the Police Department and lose (even if it was at the cost to the Department of abrogating the moral code of society); today the hoodlum takes on the Police Department and wins. 

    However on rereading the above I feel immediately as if I am reading into NCOM a meaning that is not justified by what I saw: though some of these elements are present in NCOM, their presence is cursory and gestural.  The sunrise, the folksy wise voice over delivered by ‘sheriff’ Tommy Lee Jones, the trailer parks and motels, the conversations about drugs and immigrants all function as plausible filler to NCOM ‘s variant on the formulaic chase/stalk movie, a genre that has become knotted into its own conventions from French Connection onwards.   

    NCOM’s psychopathic stalker killer Anton is a mutant beast with ‘haircut’: a cross between one of the family members in the Texas Chain Saw or Evil Dead or the Terminator android, and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry.  Anton is a machine:  programmed to kill, unstoppable, targeted like a homing missile, and with a Jackal like intelligence.  The only human feature possessed by the Anton machine is a morbid curiosity.  NCOM then is a simple exercise in unleashing the machine in pursuit of its quarry, and scripting in the usual sequences of violence, chase and collateral damage, covering the resultant potage with a garnish of folksy observations.

    This is a mechanical movie that once the initial premise is established carries few surprises. The dynamic of the plot is a drugs deal gone badly wrong. Subsequently a small time shit kicker makes off with the loot and the machine is dispatched to retrieve the dosh.    The trouble with having a machine as the prime focus of a film is that everything else is reduced to mechanicality.  There is no intelligence, there are no ideas no thoughts just a mechanised reckoning bracketed by a few one line cracks.

    The way the film is shot and edited reflects the simplicity and crudity of the scenario.  I don’t think there is an interesting shot in the film, either in camera or in the editing.  (There is one stupid cut to a group of Mexican street musicians when Woody Harrelson regains consciousness in Mexico)  In the main the Coens’ camera seems to have been placed to move from action to action, and the editing follows the shooting script with a series of action cuts.  Few scenes are allowed to develop in their own time – one exception is the garrotting at the front of the movie which is done in more or less one take – mostly time is violated by the editing and by the plot line itself in which it is not possible to make any sense of time other than by reference to the demands of the plot.   Mostly the film moves through camera and Avid/final cut pro ministration with an increasingly predictable rhythm, mechanical modular filming making that works against the tensions and oppositions that the Coen’s try to set in play.

    A number of people have commented on the mumbly delivery of lines in NCOM.  After viewing the film I think this mode of delivery is a conceit, a desperate means to claim for the film a down real authenticity.  The fact NCOM needs to stake out such a claim places it in the same category those adverts that appropriate authentic looking signs, linguistic visual or audio, to try and sell their products.

     It was interesting to see two films in the same week that had at their core, concern with violence.  Whereas Funny Games (Michael Haneka)  is structured as a machine (like the apparatus in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony) and uses cinematic frame and time based theatrical devices to explore and make manifest the presence of violence in American society; the Coen’s are unable to do little more than make yet another film that exploits violence and substitutes a psychotic robot for a machine to carry the plot line to its conclusion.

    The Coen’s may suggest that NCOM is a parody, an inverted filmic comment on films like the Dirty Harry series. My response is that these films with their big pricks with big guns, with their mordant one liners “Make my Day”, their action ethos in camera and editing, already occupy that space which we call parody.
    You cannot parody that which is already a parody, for at that point the candle gives no light.   
    adrin neatrour

  • Funny Games US – Michael Haneka – 2007 – USA/Fr/UK/ Ger/It Naomi Watts; Tim Roth; Michael Pitt; Brady Corbit; Devon Gearhart.

    adrin neatrour writes:Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle the theatre is not possible:…it is through our skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds. (Antoine Artaud) “It was just for fun!” Testimony of Private First Class Lynddie England at her trial for her part in the murder torture and abuse committed by US military personnel at Abu Ghraib.
    Funny Games US – Michael Haneka – 2007 – USA/Fr/UK/ Ger/It  Naomi Watts; Tim Roth; Michael Pitt; Brady Corbit; Devon Gearhart.

    Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle the theatre is not possible:…it is through our skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds.  (Antoine Artaud)        “It was just for fun!” Testimony of Private First Class Lynddie England at her trial for her part in the murder torture and abuse committed by US military personnel at Abu Ghraib. 

    In his films Haneka is taking up and inventing an expressive filmic form of  the metaphysics of theatre articulated by Artaud, ideas about theatre that Artaud  developed through his concept of the Theatre of Cruelty.  By cruelty Artaud was pointing to the need for a violent physical determination to shatter the false reality, which he says, lies like a shroud over the arrogant perceptions of Western civilisation. Haneka’s work, like Karl Dreyer’s, is a form of filmic theatre.  In both Haneka and Dreyer the frame is used like a stage and the core of the film is conceived as a series of long takes. With Funny Games US (FGUS), as in Hidden and Dreyer’s Ordet, the cumulative expressive effect of the filming is achieved through the use of long takes, with the camera either still or manipulated with artfully choreographed movement ( or a mixture of the two as in the scene in the master sitting room after the murder of George jun.).  The effect created is of a metaphysics of space with a moral purpose.  FGUS is a fusion of  Artaud’s concept of Theatre of Cruelty with a specifically filmic expression of space.   (Interestingly there is a strong connection between Dreyer and Artaud in that Artaud played a lead role in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc -1929)

    Know them by their space.
    In this defining of his films through compositional theatricality Haneka resembles Dreyer in allowing space through frame to speak for itself; to interpose itself as a metaphysical element in the film that has temporal value allowing passage of time to invest the image.  In Dreyer’s films space is represented as austere and economically pared, reflecting both Danish culture and his own transcendent concerns.  In Haneka’s FGUS the spacial metaphysics of American culture is represented as a plane of immanence replete with matter: matter to be used and consumed at will.  In FGUS we have no other information about the victims other than the spaces in which we see them, and what we absorb or glean from this information.  We see their car: big comfortable and filled with Classical Music.  We see the exterior of their house: gated isolated and with many outbuildings; we see their dog: big.  We see the interior of their house: big rooms filled with matter and their possessions, none of which – aside from those in the kitchen – is any way productive but rather intended for consumption or used in the pursuit of consumption.

    So familiar are we to this organised orgy of material matter filling the world that we hardly notice it.  We give it not a second thought.   Haneka has: it defines us as surely as our genes.  In FGUS this suffusion not only fills the visual field to overflowing but it also invests the fields that we cannot see.  The youth asks for eggs.   We cannot see eggs. The eggs are in a carton; the carton is in the fridge, the fridge is in the kitchen.  Ann goes to get the eggs, which are in the carton.  The carton is full of eggs: 12 of them (all to be broken but no omelette).  The egg carton is in the fridge, a huge cavernous multishelved space ( even so small by American standards) which is stuffed full of food: meat milk cheeses spreads mayonnaise.  The fridge is in the kitchen which in its turn is crammed with gadgets utensils and appliances.  And all this suffusion of matter seems to us in the West an entirely normal situation.  Are we not Lords of the Universe.  It is in the kitchen that the first of Haneka’s long master takes occurs:  the visit of Peter to the house to ask for ‘eggs’.  Haneka’s kitchen take is a long choreography of movement and incident, boxes and fridges opening and closing, pirouettes spins turns approaches of bodies in space and time; etiquette and dialogue.  In defining the resources of the two parties, in creating a sense of immanent unspoken unperceived threat, this take is the moment in the film that defines with total clarity what is taking place in the space and what will happen. 

    For all their claims to ownership of the space, the family are defined more by occupation of the space without real claim on it.  They are sort of interlopers.  They possess great wealth of material matter with apparent aplomb and certitude but without any awareness of what it is that they have.  It is an incorporeal claim on the space. Ultimately without substance and made the more vulnerable by the physical isolation and aloneness built into the defensive culture of which they are part. ( The neighbours have to visit one another by boat)  Their dilemma is that they see none of this.  They walk blindly in life seeing nothing.  In the old John Ford films the settlers at least understood their situation and used the gun to kill perceived threats.  The victims, Ann and George lack the psychic insights to understand what is happening.  They are deficient in these resources. 

    The interlopers Peter and Paul (sic) are revealed through the film as possessing the space, not owners, even temporarily because they do not desire to own anything materially. Rather they desire to have use of it. Their resources consist not just of surprise and ambush by which they attain control over the family.  Their resources comprise the fact that they are machines.  Machine designed to move into materially suffused space and take control; machines calibrated to occupy consume and use without responsibility or ownership.  Peter and Paul – machines designed and finally honed by the parent culture to kill.  The raison d’etre of their existence: machines that  kill.  Machines manufactured by a culture that is based on killing to acquire what it wants to possess.  Murder the native Americans for land; murder Iraqis for oil.  In FGUS murder outs and turns on itself. 

    Murder and execution as moral theatre is an established imperial tradition.  From the execution troughs of the Achaemenian Persian kings and the crucifixion of Jesus, through to the execution of Damien and the death tortures of  SAVAC the Shahs secret police, cruelty as public spectacle with a didactic coded moral message is the debased means by which imperium seeks to exercise and demonstrate the reach of its force  directly onto the body.  As the officer comments to the explorer when demonstrating the apparatus in Kafka’s the Penal Settlement: “Guilt is never to be doubted.”  In the degenerate system of justice in the Settlement, not only was guilt never to be doubted but the guilty offender was never aware that he had been charged tried and sentenced to death.  It was the task of the apparatus to inform him, an elaborate machine that would execute him by penetrating his body with needles and piercing him through the body with the name of his crime.  During the course of his execution on the machine, the victim slowly comes to understand, corporeally the nature of the crime for which he is dieing.  The theatre of cruelty. 

    Peter and Paul resemble in some respects Kafka’s apparatus.  Both are products of a specific culture and both in the particular form they take undermine sabotage and subvert that original culture.  Peter and Paul like Hitler are machines; assemblages and constructs of a particular culture at a particular time.  Powerless in a culture of diffuse but class segmented lines of power they internalise power’s attitudes gestures and semantic glosses as an internalised cognitive circuitry.  Empowered by mastery of culturally empowering interactive skills they proceed to use these to for their own ends.  The polite submissive tones of Middle Class America, the conventions of incorporiality, of class considerations are married to a bastard child whose language is detachment and hedonism, whose state of mind is boredom and whose life is driven by the ambition of the dream of  turning of fantasy into reality. For fantasy to become reality what is needed is power.  Peter and Paul not being military personnel at Abu Ghraib, take power into their own hands.   They are the children of their age. They are the children of Ann and George.  They are a murderous machine that kills for thrills.   They are incubi, the demonic offspring of the culture that turns on its progenitor and bores back into the flesh of their dreams turning life into nightmare. Peter and Paul are to American culture what Hitler was to German culture.  Perhaps that’s why Haneke made this film twice.  Once in Germany.  Once in the USA.  When Empires abuse power they produce the monsters that consume them.

    In FGUS Haneka also subverts the Hollywood/ neo European action image film conventions.   By complete inversion of the conventional narrative dynamic opposing good and evil he uncovers their terrible moral vacuity.  They are based on simple power relationships not on any intrinsic values. In FGUS Haneka is looking to all those Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry films, vigilante vehicles that correspond to an apologia for the American way of Life, and demonstrating their shallowness and shabbiness.  Peter and Paul deconstruct the relationship between hero and villain showing it to be simply a matter of manipulation and linguistic styles allowed to the different players.  This is most powerfully demonstrated with a scene replayed twice: first when Ann succeeds to getting hold of the shot gun and killing Peter. Paul’s response to this is to pick up the remote, wind back the scene and have it replayed so that he stops Ann’s action before she grabs the gun.  As in vigilante movies, so in FGUS it is important that we know what is going to happen.  In Dirty Harry films we are onside because we know that Dirty Harry will win out and decency be saved even if decency itself is therein totally compromised. In FGUS we know that the family are doomed. They have been committed to a death machine from which there is no escape within the conventions of this movie. The shift in perspective tilts the viewer ambiguously towards the locus of power.  Peter and Paul are accorded all the privileges of the successful protagonist.  In this case not  an archly defining voice over; but direct to camera comments by Paul validating his role and actions in the movie: a movie which he points out is for our entertainment: thus enlisting us as colluding agents. Peter and Paul have all the controlling one liners that define what is happening and what is to happen. There is no Clint saying to the hood: “Make my day!”. Rather we have Paul  telling Ann that killing her and her husband straight away would be to forget the entertainment value. And to the husband’s plea as to why they are doing this Paul responds: “Why not!” All the weapons of psychic power and control rest with the murderous forces and the cumulative effect of this distribution of power is to lay bare the fact that Hollywood conventions of Good and Evil are no more than simple arrangements of forces of power in play – not moral fables.
    adrin neatrour  –