Thursday, November 29, 2007

Jim Emerson on No Country for Old Men

One of my favorite writers about film is Jim Emerson, who edits Roger Ebert's site and also runs his own blog called scanners. Since the Toronto International Film Festival in September, he's been raving about the Coen Brothers' latest movie, No Country for Old Men (based, of course, on Cormac McCarthy's novel). I've always loved the Coens (even if their last couple of movies didn't thrill me), so his excited advance word on this movie had me practically salivating in anticipation. Well, we were able to see it last weekend, and it's fantastic.

With the Coens, there always seems to be a body of reviewers who accuse them of being "smug" or "condescending", or who criticize them as "technical wizards" but "emotionally cold" or something like that. I've never had much use for these criticisms, and Emerson isn't having any of it. He is frustrated with the tendency for some critics to talk about the movies without reference to supporting elements in the film. Over the course of multiple posts (one, two, three, four, five) he has spent some time reviewing the reviews of No Country for Old Men, trying to tease out what certain reviewers are really talking about when they make claims about what the movie "means". His most recent post on the film is the best yet, and comes after a second viewing of his own. He brilliantly discusses the various images in the movie and how the Coen Brothers achieve what they achieve. He is concerned with how the film works as visual storytelling, with an emphasis on getting past the tendency we still have to consider "style" as existing independent of "content". This comes from early in the post:
"No Country for Old Men" has been called a "perfect" film by those who love it and those who were left cold by it. Joel and Ethan Coen have been praised and condemned for their expert "craftsmanship" and their "technical" skills -- as if those skills had nothing to do with filmmaking style, or artistry; as if they existed apart from the movie itself. Oh, but the film is an example of "impeccable technique" -- you know, for "formalists." And the cinematography is "beautiful." Heck, it's even "gorgeous." ...

But what do those terms mean if they are plucked out of the movie like pickles from a cheeseburger? How is something "beautiful" apart from what it does in the film? (See uncomprehending original-release reviews of "Barry Lyndon" and "Days of Heaven," for example, in which the "beautiful" was treated as something discrete from the movie itself.) When somebody claims that a movie overemphasizes the "visual" -- whether they're talking about Stanley Kubrick or Terence Malick or the Coens -- it's a sure sign that they're not talking about cinema, but approaching film as an elementary school audio-visual aid. When critics (and viewers) refer to the filmmakers' application of "craft," "technique," and "style" (can these things be applied, casually or relentlessly, with a spatula?) without consideration of how these expressions function in the movie, we're all in trouble. A composition, a cut, a dissolve, a movement -- they're all manifestations of craft (or skill), technique (the systematic use of skill), style (artistic expression).

It's really a great post, with an excellent comment thread. I highly recommend reading it if this kind of thing interests you in the least. (One other thing. There are some elements in the movie that are not fully resolved, to the apparent frustration of many. Emerson quotes Joel Coen, circa Barton Fink, on this: "The question is: Where would it get you if something that's a little bit ambiguous in the movie is made clear? It doesn't get you anywhere.")


Ellis said...

Okay, I'm going to rush out and see it when it comes out in the U.K.

The movie that turned me off the Coen bros was 'The Man Who Wasn't There', which I found deeply disappointing and at times wildly implausible. A real let-down after something as dazzling as 'Barton Fink'. After that their movies had the usual stylistic gleam but the soul wasn't there.

Stephen Crowe said...

You should give The Man Who Wasn't There another go, Ellis. I wasn't sure about it at first either, but now it's one of my favourites. It's quite beautiful the way they blend comedy and tragedy in their depiction of this pathetic character.

I've written a review of No Country that touches on some of the ideas you've brought up, if you'd like to give it a look.

Richard said...

I liked The Man Who Wasn't There, too, though I'd need to see it again to say anything useful about it.

I hated Intolerable Cruelty, though I now understand that it was more of a work-for-hire thing, not that excuses its awfulness. I didn't bother with the Ladykillers remake...