The Horse Would Have Lived Except it Died

July 15th, 2008 § 0 comments

My interest in No Country For Old Men did not begin with the movie itself, but with other people’s reactions to it. With all Coen films, I find them aesthetically entrancing, morally interesting, and generally unmoving. I am impressed mostly by a kind of boyish insincerity, and I remain interested in them as filmmakers because I can’t decide if I believe they are intentionally so or not. There was an article in a recent new yorker that addressed their habits of deceiving and tricking their audience, how they play at references and cinematic customs—their movies are a little too gleeful of their own intelligence, and count too much on a viewer’s gullibility. I saw No Country in Richmond, in one of our old movie theaters that shows one “popular” film, and one less so on a small screen upstairs. As the credits rolled up at the end of No Country the entire theater moaned “no!” A young man stood up and said, “oh shut up, it was good,” as the crowd piled out. I was interested and surprised by both reactions, that our audience was annoyed enough to protest quite loudly, and that we were rebuked like children—it made the film ending odder than it was, after all, it is not the first time a killer has gone unpunished, in movies or otherwise.

Lately, I have been giving an honest attempt at reading dark writers dealing with unbelievable (though believable) dysfunction. Forgetting No Country for a moment, I read a new collection of plays by Shepard, the best of which was The Late Henry Moss. Shepard deals mostly with family dysfunction, strained relationships between fathers and sons, husbands and wives. After this I read a collection of plays by John Steppling, who is often compared to Shepard, they were friends (I believe) and contemporaries. I saw a Steppling play The Shaper produced quite badly when I was a teenager, and its content at the time was disturbingly adult—drugs, sex, crime, lies, despicable actions by pathetic characters. The actors were much too young to be playing the characters, and I too young to understand them. It was with a tepid memory that I reread his collection, The Sea of Cortez & other plays. The dysfunction in Steppling’s plays is certainly not limited to family dysfunction, I would say Steppling deals more with personal isolation than anything else, his staging and lighting, sectioning people off from each other while they share the stage, seems to reinforce the idea of being together yet alone. Characters in his plays are trying to relate to something—dogs, a job, lovers, a landscape—but always unsuccessfully. They are haunted by their past, frustrated in the present, and are unable to picture a different future. His characters are engaging in spite of themselves, always trying to do something better, something “right”, they struggle hard against whatever it is that holds them in place, but when it comes to making a different decision they never do—fear of all kinds is their brightly colored backdrop. Steppling’s writing style is dryer than Shepard’s, it is spare in a way that is almost stilted to speak aloud. With such short lines, I am impressed at how much some say.

I know the things that haunt you—when you walk you have the look of hunted game. The nervousness—the ‘you can’t hit a moving target’—kinetic swagger.

I’m a pretty fair judge of the opposite sex. And Bud? They don’t deserve to be treated on the square.

I’d get someplace—places I didn’t want to be, and I just couldn’t get out of those places.

It’s the smell of the past, the deep past—the smell of fear, of other things, things nobody wants to keep.

At some point in your life everything seems about like everything else.

(In the back of my mind I hum Stuck in Lodi again.) I moved from Steppling to Cormac McCarthy, Steppling talks about Cormac as one of the best writers writing now. I didn’t know much about him, and assumed that he was a kind of John Grisham type—not quite. Reading No Country did not make the things left unsaid in the film clearer, in fact it muddled the meaning even more than the Coen’s muddled the film. McCarthy’s story is deeper and more haunting than the bloody violence of the film. The implications of the novel include rather than exclude us, and as readers we are as guilty as his characters. His ‘good law man’ and ‘evil villain’ are liquid characters fighting ineffectively for something we are not sure is worth fighting for. As the sheriff’s inner monologues become painfully self-reflective, I wondered why I had to believe he was good. Of all the characters in the book, Chigurh with his cattle gun is the most articulate and intelligent— “He knew that fear of an enemy can often blind men to other hazards, not least the shape which they themselves make in the world”—he just doesn’t mind killing people, though why and for what I am not sure. The sheriff is a bit of a coward, and self-inflicted guilt rule most of his impulses. Akin to Steppling’s players, McCarthy’s characters seem stuck, unable to escape from themselves and the world they have created (or imagined?) that surrounds them. Interestingly, everyone is complicit, we have created the society we live in and we must take the credit. This point was perhaps the most interesting, and the least discussed by book reviews and critics.

Because I am not terribly well read in this style of novel, I researched the book. Like discussing the movie with others, the literary critics took different stand points and interpreted the book in different ways. Some loved it, some disliked it, some dismissed it, but it seems to have spawned as much disagreement as the film. I am always disappointed by reviews because they seem to stick to plot, like beginning English classes they tell the story I just read; I don’t want a recap, I want to know what it might have meant from someone who ought to have a better guess than myself. Steppling seems to think No Country deals with capitalism, a “post modern demon,” certainly plausible, and though I am not sure I would agree I find his conclusions more interesting than most. “I guess in all honesty I would have to say that I never know nor did I ever hear of anybody that money didn’t change.” The book seemed less about violence and boyish gore than you might think, and more about why these characters are who they are, acted the way they do, and the society that facilitates their decisions. Could Chigurh have been himself if there was not a need or place for him in society? I suppose, but his overall meaning would have been different, more of a lone crazy killer than a sensible man enacting a “necessary” role. It is these realities, if one believes them, that are much more disturbing than how he kills or whom.

You’re asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to live. It doesn’t allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to small purpose. Most people don’t believe that there can be such a person. You can see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of...you can say that things could have turned out differently. They they could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way.

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