There Will Be Masculinity
by Alex Carnevale
No Country for Old Men
dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
It is an old canard that every society is obsessed with the possibility that it is ending, and is subsequently taken over by nostalgia. The next generation belies this assumption merely by existing.
In the case of masculinity, it has been perpetually on the verge of eradication even before there was a women’s movement concerned with ending its reign of terror.
The utility of the strength and aggression of men has long been only used profitably in war, which is probably why we insist on making so much of it. And those who can’t go to war, write pseudo-westerns set in the 1980s.
From the Time interview with Cormac McCarthy and Ethan Coen and Joel Coen:
C.M. I don’t know, you’re somewhat constrained in writing a novel, I think. Like, I’m not a fan of some of the Latin American writers, magical realism. You know, it’s hard enough to get people to believe what you’re telling them without making it impossible. It has to be vaguely plausible.
E.C. So it’s not an impulse that you even have.
C.M. No, not really. Because I think that’s misdirected. In films you can do outrageous stuff, because hey, you can’t argue with it; there it is. But I don’t know. There’s lots of stuff that you would like to do, you know. As your future gets shorter, you have to …
C.M. Yeah. Somewhat. A friend of mine, who’s slightly older than me, told me, “I don’t even buy green bananas anymore.” [He laughs.] I’m not quite there yet, but I understood what he was saying.
“It has to be vaguely plausible”! That’s a laugh, Cormac.
One of the most overrated literary writers in history, McCarthy’s tale of a maddened assassin with no conscience hunting a man with big bucks is about the furthest thing from actual realism out there. The rest of his westerns, likewise. Borges himself is far more concerned with reality that McCarthy ever is. McCarthy, if we can say it honestly, is concerned with nostalgia.
And to an extent, so too have the Coen brothers been.
“It immediately seemed like the kind of thing we could make a movie out of, largely by virtue of what kind of story it is, which for Cormac is a little anomalous compared to his other things,” Ethan Coen, 50, told The Associated Press during an interview with his brother. “I don’t know what to call it – pulpier, more of a chase-action thing.”
“On one level,” continued Joel Coen, 52, “it’s a very straightforward crime story, and on another level, it’s not that at all. Without sort of giving away the ending, he does certain things in terms of the structure of the story, the way the story moves, and what happens sort of three-quarters of the way through, which are quite unexpected and unusual and probably unique in terms of what one would expect from this kind of story. There’s nothing predictable about this.”
After the magical realist genius of the stoner epic The Big Lebowski, they turned to harder stuff, and were oodles less successful with it. Joel has always excelled behind the camera, and 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There was no exception. A fine script, excellent direction, and…nothing.
Upon the arrival of their latest, No Country for Old Men, some critics have squared the circle here by suggesting that the film is cold, and lacks heart. “Heart” = sentimentality in this construction, and it is true that NCFOM is devoid of that.
Brolin & wife Diane Lane
Like The Big Lebowski, the film begins with voiceover and the images of the American wilderness the film’s characters will seek to reclaim from the world’s villains – as if this were what men are needed for! Lebowski makes a joke of that, and having already taken that development at face value, it is even harder to take Tommy Lee Jones’ terrible voiceover seriously.
In fact, we can barely even pay attention to what he is saying after a stark title card, just as we lose him in his final monologue near the end. They are the ramblings of an old man we don’t care about, the man that the film wants us to care about despite its title.
Gore, Jones, Michael Barker, Jones’ wife, Tipper
I find it strange that the most talented male writers and directors have largely concerned themselves with old stories about male heroes using wits or smarts to show off for the women whose portrayals they so conveniently omit.
If I were a woman, I would find these films even more difficult to watch. They exclude female agency, and at the expense of what? At least they allow women to be happy–see the funny character of Tommy Lee Jones’ wife–but they aren’t concerned with them. At all.
There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest foray into late masculinity, seems even more bizarre. Could he find no stories worth telling in the contemporary climate, to the point where had to go back to Upton Sinclair and the oil industry?
The film will be masterful, as No Country for Old Men masters its subject. But mastery of form is something short of the ideal function of art.
“Everybody Cheer Up Song” — Dosh (mp3)
“Pictures of Success” — Rilo Kiley (mp3)
“Safety Bricks” — Kevin Drew (mp3)
More McCarthy and the Coens:
C.M. There are a lot of good American movies, you know. I’m not that big a fan of exotic foreign films. I think Five Easy Pieces is just a really good movie.
J.C. It’s fantastic.
C.M. Days of Heaven is an awfully good movie.
J.C. Yeah. Well, he is great, Terry Malick. Really interesting.
C.M. It’s so strange; I never knew what happened to him. I saw Richard Gere in New Orleans one time, and I said, “What ever happened to Terry Malick?” And he said, “Everybody asks me that.” He said, “I have no idea.”
Bardem at the premiere
Josh Brolin, as the open shell for our everyman empathy, is smolderingly hot and terrifically enjoyable here, even though he is given about as much character as Donny in Lebowski. Casting has always been a strong point for the Coens.
It is Bardem, potentially the most charismatic actor of his generation now that Benicio Del Toro has descended into making out with the locals on every movie set, who of course steals the show with his dapper haircut and even more badass soundless killing cattle gun.
As usually happens, the most charismatic character becomes the real hero of the film. Bardem gets the screen time to shine–he’s funny, ethical, and beautiful, so he wins.
Kelly MacDonald, don’t go in there girl!
I won’t give away the ending, but the last scene featuring Bardem is particularly damning when it comes to the Coens’ and McCarthy’s inability to find something for the female character of this drama to do.
Tarantino had a bright idea in his Kill Bill series–if man is dying and has no agency (see Bill), then maybe woman is the better agent.
But then, I can see why these filmmakers (and there are many more of them, most of whom have talent, who succumb to this) are writing mannered eulogies for the death of being a man.
Younger filmmakers obsessed with film history will continue to parrot the empty shells of a masculinity they see perpetually vanishing. The pseudo-warrior brand of heroism that these movies brandish as a badge of honor shows no sign of abating.
This is the way the battle of the sexes spirals onward: revisited, both hurtfully and harmlessly, as nostalgia.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
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