The Blue Raccoon

Sunday, March 23, 2008

You Can't See What's Coming
Grim films for the times

There Will Be Blood,
image (left) by Francois Duhamel, via ; No Country For Old Men, via I Watch "Javier Bardem dressed as Johnny Cash meets He-Man."

For those members of the billion-eyed audience who a)haven't yet seen either of the two acclaimed films pictured above, I wouldn't read any further, however, b) if you live in the vicinity of Richmond, Va., and want to see both, they are on one astonishing double bill at the Byrd Theatre here, and I'd advise you to go.

I'm late to these dual cinematic experiences. Me and the partner-in-art-for-life greet with little enthusiasm the prospect of an excursion to a suburban octoplex for a film fix. The Westhampton Theatre, a 1930s Colonial Revival former one-screen cinema which we like quite a bit, is about a 45-minute walk, or less, if you can get lucky with a bus. What I'm saying is, we don't go to the movies, we wait for them to come to us, though not always delivered via a fiber-optic line.

Attending the Byrd is better than cable. For two bucks you get an organ concert, a light show, Dolby digital sound and a huge screen. So we don't see everything but what we do see is more special as a result of a Byrd screening.

These two films will remain with me a long while.

There Will Be Blood in another era could've been the subject for John Huston or Howard Hawks but in 2007, Paul Thomas Anderson dedicated his film of greed and arrogance, deception and delusion to the late great Robert Altman.

A theme of the film is how the pursuit of oil has wrecked the world. Anderson makes it splendid to view, and the in all parts, the film excels, which is why they gave it Academy Awards. The undulating soundtrack, by Jonny Greenwood, is perfect in complement, and Robert Elswit's cinematography is astounding.

The twining of religion and capitalism is encapsulated here. The last line, "I'm finished," is delivered when the oil tycoon is sitting next to the bloody body of a (false) preacher he's beaten to death. The sanguine tide oozing out of the busted body and across the wood floor of the bowling alley isn't quite "The Blood of the Lamb" but is as close as one gets in this tale. "I am finished" -- the material has thrashed the spiritual, which really was a degenerated form of vainglory, and the minister couldn't save even himself. This is Daniel Plainview's world, and we just live in it. The spirit--if it exists--is debauched in the yammerings of organized religion. Religion is a prop for justifying almost any heinous act undertaken by the corporation/nation state, and a prod for those who know how to use people's superstitions against them.

The blood also resembles the seeping oil that has built a fortune for Plainview, but in amassing the millions, he's lost everything else that moors him to civilization. The only thing remaining of him is untempered and unchecked ambition. He is the Corporation so lifted up in the era of which Upton Sinclair wrote (and whose novel, Oil! upon which the film is, with great leeway, based).

The last sentence summarizes the magnate's murderous rage, the possibility that his own life is now over because of what he's done. There's also perhaps a trace of irony, that last utterance of Christ on the Cross as recorded in the Gospel of John, "It is finished!"

The statement hit me at a different level, too. I'm seeing the recent headlines of 4,000 U.S. soldiers dead in Iraq and the fifth year of that splendid little war passing by with an unreal speech given by its prime motivator and also an audio tape of the ostensible creator and reason for the circulating circulating on the media. (Or at least, we're told it's his voice...)

Organized religion is used to gin up anger toward the foreign nations that hold most of the oil, and also a mechanism to coddle and control the cultures that both produce petroleum and gobble down the stuff. The sad state of affairs is as tangled in hypocrisy as a bag of snakes. I'm reminded of Jean Genet's The Balcony, in which the denizens of a brothel live out their fantasies by posing as society's pillars. A revolution erupts, a prostitute becomes its leader, and the real judges and bishops are killed. Thus, the fakers are pushed out for the roiling crowds to see, to show that everything is still under control.

The rapacious avariciousness of small men in high places has always used the perversion of faith to get what they want --that isn't new. Materialism has triumphed in our culture to the detriment of what I'd refer to as the spiritual, (absent the perversion of the religious). That isn't stop-the-presses, either. But that oil has damaged the natural world and distorted the affairs of humanity is a more poignant truth now than ever. Plainview has gained all, but has lost all. He is finished. And he's taking us with him.

The Coen Brothers present an absurd world, a broken place where the good, swift and the clever are all swept away by the juggernaut of implacable death. Irrational capacities are the Coen's bailiwick. They are in their particular and peculiar noir mode here where they've poured elements of their Blood Simple and Fargo into the Cormac McCarthy novel , with a gentle helping of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and a smidgin of A Touch of Evil, and served a piping hot dish of angst.

The means of protecting those who dwell in the world and seek to get along and not harm anybody is eclipsed by the element that seeks to crush the well-meaning with despair and death. I was reminded, though, of Sam Raimi's adaptation of A Simple Plan, wherein basic schmoes get in above their heads and terrible events result.

The implacable killer and the befuddlement of the protectors of civilized mediation is a critique of our time. True, every generation thinks the past was better, and the present wretched, but ...what is to be done? With 2 million people in jail, and the War On Drugs and War On Terror without any end in sight, and low level bureaucratic contractors hunting up personal information of presidential candidates (Surprise! We're getting spied upon by our government!), law enforcement is just another kind of warfare against the populace that, unable to protect them, has instead turned them all into the condemned. No one is exempt or safe. There is instead anxiety, and all that is done by the characters in the world of No Country, is based out of or springs from fear.

The most innocent of all the story's characters, the film's single true moral character, Carla Jean Moss is sacrificed to the twisted principles of the killer who roams the movie like a Terminator robot. He's half man and half machine, with his pneumatic weapon. [For a more extensive and well-written analysis, see the source of the image, The House Next Door blog].

Carla dies because she calls the monster on his rationale for death dealing. She won't play his existensial coin toss game because she doesn't believe in his values. She is killed on the same day she's buried her mother; having lost her husband to this creature, and Carla would rather not live in a world where this hideousness roams unchecked. Carla shows him himself.

Except--to say that Anton Chigurh is a monster lets us off the hook. He is flesh and bone and irrational and demented. If history--and the morning papers-- tell us anything about the crimes and errors of humanity, Chigurh is a freak, and one of us, though we wouldn't want to stand next to him in an elevator. He is Thanatos, too; coming for us all, whenever that slide projector in the pineal gland throws up the title card that says END.

Happy Easter.

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