Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live faithfully...in the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

No Country for an Oscar...

After sitting through the Coen brother's big hit, I sat and stared for a moment at the empty screen before turning off the TV. I wanted to write a letter to the Academy saying, "You don't have to do this...", the now famous line from this Best Picture winner.

I'm looking for a shred of redemption, and found instead, nothing but greed, psychopathic and random violence, and a sense of despair and surrender on the part of the older generation of law enforcement, as they ponder the new wave of drug money and all the corollary crimes that go with it.

Acting? The script didn't ask for much of it. Music? None. Story? Forgive my bias, but it was neither hard to predict nor compelling. And so I'm left pondering the great appeal, left feeling as if some elitist cadre of experts sees something I failed to see. But if I were guessing....

I surmise that the reason for this film's appeal is precisely its lack of redemption, its random violence, its absence of justice. This is where post-modernity, in its purest forms, descends. Further, according the perceptions of many, the weight of history is pulling us inexorably downward into this pit of despair.

But for one who believes that God's law is written on the hearts of all people, and that there will forever be the possibility of redemption, reconciliation, and recovery, this film leaves me feeling hollow. Throw in the mediocre acting, predictable cinematography, and I return to my comment to the academy: "You don't have to do this..." So can you please help me understand why they did?

9 Comments:

At 7/5/08 09:10, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard,

I encourage you to read the book. I read it a couple times before watching the movie and the Coen bros definitely left out some scenes--although I'm not sure how crucial they were to the story anyhow.

In the book, the story is more about the sheriff's, Ed Tom Bell, character who is struggling with his role in modern crime. He doesn't have the stomach for the new era of sensational crimes and senseless brutality. The story shows the changing of the times through the sheriff and may reflect McCarthy's own beliefs about our culture (better times were in the past).

From what I know of McCarthy's books--I've read most--he typically leaves the reader with the feeling that you had after watching the film. After reading his Border Trilogy I was left with an overwhelming sense of sadness.

In most of his books McCarthy references God and religion. Often touching on profound issues that we all grapple with, but he never reaches any conclusion except that of despair at the end of his tales. I wonder if he is a Christian or was deeply hurt by the Church or God in his past.

If you read The Road, his latest book, you may find another perspective. If you do read it please do a follow up post with your thoughts.

As I'm writing this I'm thinking of the book of Ecclesiastes that we've been studying. Are there any parallels between No Country and Ecclesiastes?

Perhaps we as Christians get upset about movies with no redemptive value because we've grown up expecting a Savior. We believe strongly in redemption because we live out that truth daily. Not all of America shares this with us. Many people walk around asking, "Is this all worth it?" So if anything, the film might be a reflection on our culture and how lost it is. We then have an obligation to answer our neighbors: "No, this is not all there is and let me tell you..."

 
At 7/5/08 10:20, Blogger BenMc said...

I just saw it Saturday night myself, and I have to firmly disagree that there's no point to the movie's violence. Maybe you can say there's no apparent redemption, but there's still a tragic point to it. I can't talk about it without talking about the end of the movie, so BIG SPOILER ALERT ... when the one character (you know who I'm talking about) walks away at the end, he has a compound fracture and has to walk away from approaching medical help and buy a shirt off a passerby to even make a sling. He may very well survive and get by, but his own deliberate isolation from everyone else is a definite form of present-day judgment on him. I think he very well may die from that. We just don't know, but we do know he's alone and in severe pain and has put himself in a situation where he has to purchase even the smallest bit of help. Hell on earth, I'd say.

As for the other parts of the movie, I don't think the Best Actor award was deserved (though there were some flashes of brilliant acting I thought it was overall too flat too be good). But the writing and pacing of the movie, with the back and forth cat and mouse nature of the tension, was expertly put together. It was one heckuva story. The "hero" suffered from the same flaw as the "villain", greed and refusal to let others help him.

So yeah, it's got an ending like MacBeth or Hamlet. But tragedy is a valid form of art, because the redemption here is not always complete at all. Tommy Lee Jones' frustration with it all is a signpost to me that things shoudln't be this way. His only alternative is to quit, but I see that as a silent protest against the bleak vendettas and greed that bring down everyone else in the story.

 
At 7/5/08 11:11, Blogger jsbrown said...

I have to admit that when I finished watching No Country, there was no doubt in my mind why it won Oscars for best picture, direction, and acting. While I don’t believe that every film must have some kind of “redeeming quality” in order to be a good film (many classic film noir movies come to mind), I do think there is truth to be found in their stories. To me, No Country was about ethics—specifically the consequences that come about when we choose greed or selfish ambition instead of truth-telling and seeking the help of others, even if it means losing something of value. In true western form, even the villain gets the importance of keeping one’s word.

There is also a reality to the film’s title in realizing that we do live in a different time. We live in an era that is beset with a culture of fear, and society’s answer to that fear is to arm ourselves with violence, which the film makes clear that violence begets more violence. As Craig Detweiler pointed out (http://www.relevantmagazine.com/pc_article.php?id=7612), this is a cautionary tale, one that we need to pay attention to.

 
At 7/5/08 11:32, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...

good points all... thanks for your contributions. I do agree, upon reflection, that there are great lessons to be learned in stories that have no so called, 'redemptive' message. The message of judgment in this film, and the reality that violence begats violence are important truths.

Still, I liked Juno better. Maybe because it was more obvious? Who knows. I left Juno, (and "Crash" for that matter, a few years) seeing the obvious link between this story and things with which so many can identify. But "No Country...", while having the universal themes of greed and violence available for consideration, portrays its themes in ways that are too easily dismissed, kind of like "Silence of the Lambs", we leave thinking that it's too bad there psychopaths in the world, but thank God I'm not one, and even more, thank God I don't live next door to one. And if that's all someone walks away with, then I'd still say to the academy: "you don't have to do this..."

 
At 7/5/08 11:32, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 7/5/08 13:38, Anonymous thomas said...

I really appreciate the discussion thus far and just thought I'd jump in and maybe provoke some further comments...

I haven't seen the movie, but I have read some of Cormac McCarthy's books. So, from what I've read and heard about the movie from friends (or at least the ones that were able to stomach the violence and sit through it - I have a difficult time getting through McCarthy's books, so I really can't attempt the movie), and from McCarthy's own work I think are a couple points to add to this already thriving discussion (and these are delivered with a pinch of salt and an apology for any innaccurate and unfair generalizations I will undoubtedly make since I haven't seen the film):

-I don't think seeing this movie as a critque of modern culture as compared to better times in the past is valid. For example, McCarthy's breathrough work "Blood Meridian" would seem to suggest that perhaps the past was an even scarier place to be, making his view of human beings as violent and fearful more universal in scope. I'm not sure there have ever been "better times" for McCarthy, rather he seems to be trying to get at some fundamental picture of humanity...and it isn't pretty.

-I'm not sure if we can fairly identify McCarthy's work as "tragic". Part of the point seems to be that most of his work doesn't have the same ending as a MacBeth or a Hamlet - ie. Lady MacBeth kills herself after surrendering to the guilt of just what she and her husband had done, MacBeth the usurper is killed and order is restored, while Hamlet dies he does avenge his father's death and once again some justice and order is restored when Fortinbras insures Hamlet is honored. These are tragic stories to be sure, but what makes them tragic is that there is some model of order, some model of the way things "ought to be" that makes what happens "tragic." From what I've read in McCarthy's work it seems questionable as to whether he ever establishes any sense of of how things ought to be which serves to illustrate the horror and tragedy of what happens in his stories. We as readers/viewers struggle with the violence of his stories, but from what I've read, his characters rarely do. There is no descent or fall from some ideal, some hope. Rather than a tragic illustration of humanity gone wrong McCarthy's work seems better classified as a nihilistic critique of the goodness of creation and humanity. Rather than illustrate a failure to reach our potential for good, much of McCarthy's focus seems to reject the existence of such potential at all.

-As far as redemption and meaning is concerned I would agree that a story does not need to include redemption in order to provide meaning and value. As Christians we may not find it a particularly convincing or complete picture of the world (although we have our moments, such as when we read reports about the LRA in Uganda for example, in the face of such tragedy and injustice if our hope of redemption and restoration and hope remains unshaken I would argue we aren't really engaging with reality) but it can provoke us into better explaining and defining just what the true picture is (as the commenters above have done quite well). The problem I identify with a writer like McCarthy who often seems eager to eliminate hope/redemption from his work is that removed from a Christian interpretative framework that seeks Christ in all things and is actively looking for redemption, (as it seems all of us who have commented are), I don't know if the absence of redemption is immediately apparent to today's reader/viewer. It's not just that there is failure to achieve redemption in McCarthy's works, it's that even the potential for redemption often seems is non-existent.

I guess what I'm trying to get at is whether or not someone outside of a Christian framework would read "judgment" into the movie. Without a capital "J" Judge, without an order of justice and goodnesss provided by the text itself, I think it's questionable. A much more plausible reaction would be the sense of overwhelming chaos and moral confusion that seems to mirror so much of our postmodern (or post-postmodern depending on who you're reading) reality. The way that McCarthy's work (and this movie) has resonated with us in its violence and depictions of brute evil, is frightening. Does our society praise the film for the judgment that occurs, or because the the horros that occur seem to corroborate with the picture of the world we (or at least the members of the academy) see as true?

 
At 7/5/08 14:29, Blogger BenMc said...

This is really fascinating to me because I come to the movie as a Coen bros. fan, not a Cormac McCarthy reader (although I did just pick up The Road from the library). One of my favorite characters in any Coen bros. film is the group of German nihilists they poke fun of in The Big Lebowski, so I come to this movie knowing they don't (or didn't) take nihilism that seriously, and that makes me more apt to read meaning into it. Not sure whether I'm right or not, but I think that at least explains my bias.

I do think there is the semblance of order underlying the movie -- again, taking it as a Coen bros. movie and not as a McCarthy novel. The villain (and doesn't it mean something that I don't even have to use his name to ID him?) never works in the open -- society itself is his counterbalance. I see that as providing order, now whether it's "constructed" order or a reflection of true order, I don't think the movie addresses that.

I think at the very least you're not left with a "he got away scott free" feeling at the end of the movie, so I would term that some sort of judgment. Again, the source is left undefined, but I think that particular ending is very "true" and points the way to something else, for me. I'm not sure I'm responsible for how someone else would see it. Sometimes grace goes without a name, and that's so for judgment too.

Bottom line for me is I took away from it how important other people are, and how keeping things in the light is crucial, even if it seems to harm me/leave me out $2 million or whatever. I personally found it worth it, and found the violence appropriately horrifying and reinforcing of the two main points above.

 
At 12/5/08 18:26, Blogger jeskmom said...

I also felt incredible emptiness at the end of There Will Be Blood. The jarring music, Plainview's monotone, Eli's stereotypical preaching...it all makes one begin to feel what Plainview admits to his 'brother' that he feels--a burning hatred. We're led down his road of hatred very carefully, aren't we? It made me flinch more than once, and turn my face away. As it was meant to. You might be interested in the review of Jean Bethe Elshtain in the May/June issue of Books and Culture.

 
At 13/5/08 17:15, Blogger Eric said...

Richard

I would echo the praise for No Country. I think the acting is hard to match, I appreciate the lack of music, and the plot was significant by pointing out the need for us to be constantly confronting the senseless violence that we see around us (in one way or another, if our eyes are open). The script cries in much the way we read the Psalmist describing his disillusionment with the violence around him. No Country for Men doesn't resolve, but it doesn't leave the evil exalted and rewarded in the same way that Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. I feel, that in a country like America, we need to hear its voice. We need to struggle with the feelings that confronting evil bring, not just the warm feeling we get from being part of the now ( dare I say trendy) socially aware.

Eric

 

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