Friday, June 01, 2012

Human Deveopment and Film 3

Little Boy/Girl Lost (Conflicts)

The inimitable Coen Brothers
Here I shall be referring to the film No Country for Old Men as an example of a film which presents very much the case of conflicted humanity.  The little boy or the little girl in us is certainly lost in the bleak terrain the Coen brothers present us with – indeed, we are in danger of perishing in the parching sun of the unfriendly desert.  We are also lost for any answer to the overwhelming evils of conflict, pursuit, fate, mayhem and death.
 No Country for Old Men is a gripping and spine-chilling 2007 American crime thriller film adapted for the screen and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.  It is based on the Cormac McCarthy novel[1] of the same name. It tells the story of an ordinary man to whom chance delivers a fortune that is not his - millions of dollars in a sturdy black case from a drugs deal that had gone badly wrong, leaving all its participants dead or dying. Llewelyn Moss, acted superbly by Josh Brolin takes the money and thus begins a violent cat-and-mouse drama, as the three men Moss, Ed Tom Bell (the Sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones) and Anton Chiguhr (who is spine-chillingly portrayed by the wonderful Spanish actor Javier Bardem) crisscross each other's paths in the desert landscape of 1980 West Texas. The film examines the themes of fate, chance, circumstance and all-pervading death that the Coen brothers have previously explored in Blood Simple (1984) and Fargo (1996).  In this world constructed by the Coen brothers our worst nightmares come true.  The world of the nightmare (the imaginary) has become impossible to distinguish from the real workaday world.[2]
The author of the novel, Cormac McCarthy, an Irish-American novelist and playwright, in a rare interview with The New York Times[3] expressed the following views which are very insightful into his unique style and take on literature.  Moreover, I argue that this interview gives us a deeper understanding of the film which is based solidly on his fine novel.  He reveals therein that he is not a fan of authors who do not "deal with issues of life and death," citing Henry James and Marcel Proust as examples. "I don't understand them," he said. "To me, that's not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange."

Cormac McCarthy
That interview in The New York Times with Richard B Woodward dates back to April 1992, long before he had written the novel No Country for Old Men but it reveals an author accustomed to exploring wild places both in the physical landscape and deep in the soul of his characters. Those wild places or spaces of soul or psyche are as frightening as their physical counterparts. Woodward goes on to quote Robert Coles who called McCarthy a "novelist of religious feeling," comparing him with the Greek dramatists and medieval moralists. And in a prescient observation he noted the novelist's "stubborn refusal to bend his writing to the literary and intellectual demands of our era," calling him a writer "whose fate is to be relatively unknown and often misinterpreted."[4]

"There's no such thing as life without bloodshed," McCarthy says philosophically elsewhere.[5] "I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous."
Now back to the film and its plot. The scene is West Texas and the time is June 1980 and we are in desolate, wide open country and we see Ed Tom Bell lamenting the increasing violence in a region where he, like his father before him, has risen to the office of sheriff. 
Meanwhile, Llewelyn Moss is out hunting a type of deer called pronghorn.  It is while engaged in this hunting pursuit that he comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone awry: several dead men and dogs, a wounded Mexican begging for water, and two million dollars in a satchel that he takes to his trailer home. Later that night, restless in his bed, his conscience gets to him and he returns with water for the dying man, but is chased away by two men in a truck and loses his vehicle. When he gets back home he grabs the cash, sends his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) to her mother's, and makes his way to a motel in the next county where he hides the satchel in the air vent of his room. There then ensues a film drenched in violence and in blood. We meet sheer wanton violence coupled with the wonderment and confusion of the police in the person of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.  Indeed, we viewers are also overwhelmed and confused in like manner.
 Hit man, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) has been hired to recover the money. He has already strangled a sheriff's deputy to escape custody and stolen a car by using a cattle gun to kill the driver. Later, continuing his bloody death trail, Chigurh surprises a group of Mexicans set to ambush Moss and murders them all.  Against this bloody background we, with Sherriff Ed Tom Bell, are further perplexed by more wanton violence and, like him, we are at a singular loss to explain it.
An interesting fact is that the title of the film, and indeed book, namely No Country for Old Men is a quotation from a poem by W.B. Yeats[6] wherein he goes on to state that "An aged man is but a paltry thing, // A tattered coat upon a stick."  We get the over-powering feeling that Sherriff Ed Tom Bell is such a paltry thing that is totally impotent and powerless against the onward driving power of relentless evil. He can do absolutely nothing to prevent it. Evil, or Death, personified in the figure of Anton Chigurh, is seen a few times asking his victims to call before he tosses the coin that will seal their fate. In this he could be said to be a representative of the Grim Reaper and of the inevitability of our personal extinction in death. In the end Death in the person of Chigurh hobbles off to fight another day against the next unsuspecting victim who falls under the shadow of his evil eye.
To this extent, the book and film fall firmly into the tradition of folklore in that Death is always portrayed therein as getting its victim. There simply is no denial of its all-conquering power. All that's left to Bell is to retire and allow a younger man to take up the pursuit. However, the film leaves us with no optimism that the younger generation will be any more successful against the onward ruthless march of evil. Ed Tom Bell is left confronting the nature of his own ageing soul and is finally attempting to discuss and interpret his own dreams or nightmares with an ageing crippled retired fellow cop. That's all he can do now.
The conflict theory of human nature, which is illustrated so well here in this film, was first scientifically formulated in Darwin's theory of evolution in the nineteenth century.  This theory contends that conflict and aggression are locked into the natural order of things, and that by nature humankind is an aggressor and predator. It stresses that our instincts and our animality are of our very essence, and contends further that human nature and society develop through conflict, competition and elimination of the weak and the peaceful. In short, the conflict theory portrays man as evil, brutish and destructive; he is moved by the instinct to survive and sees every other member of his species as an enemy.  Freud followed in this tradition and saw the Id or the unconscious as a cesspit of repression in conflict with the Ego and the Superego.[7] 
In short, what I am arguing here is that this film forces us to deal with our unconscious fear of death and dying and the sheer unpredictability and chance-like nature of life.  It also leaves us pondering the human condition which is somewhat precarious to say the least.  This film sends us out chastened, scared, and not a little disturbed.  As such we may learn not to take life too much for granted. The Directors as auteurs have thus achieved their goal.
However, we have only presented one side of our polarity as yet.   We will turn to the other side of it in our next post to get a balanced view and from there we will move on to present a healthy tension between both.

[1] McCarthy, C. (2006) No Country for Old Men, Vintage, London and New York.

[2] Speaking of postmodernism Richard Kearney (1988, p. 3) remarks that we are “at an impasse where the very rapport between imagination and reality seems not only inverted but subverted altogether.  We cannot be sure which is which.  And this very undecidability lends weight to the deepening suspicion that we may be assisting at the wake of the imagination.”

[3] Woodward, Richard, B. (1992), “Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction,” New York Times , April 19.

[4] Woodward, Richard, B. (1992), “Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction,” New York Times , April 19.
[5] Kirn, Walter (2005) 'No Country for Old Men': Texas Noir, New York Times, July, 24.

[6] “Sailing to Byzantium” is a poem by William Butler Yeats, first published in the 1928 collection The Tower. Its first three lines run: “That is no country for old men. //The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees// - Those dying generations - at their song.”

[7] This is the model of personality with which practically everyone who knows even a little about Freud is acquainted with, at least with his terminology which has entered common parlance, namely Id, Ego and Superego. These, according to Freud, are the major components of the self.  These Ego, Id and Superego are not topographical regions or layers. Rather they are distinct agencies at war or in conflict with one another. Freud said of the Id that it is "a cauldron full of seething excitations." (quoted Mitchell and Black, p. 20).

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