ennui the door

This post was first published August 6th, 2007, shortly after two of the greatest filmmakers who every lived died on the same day. In many ways the sentiments of hopelessness are just as much with us now, haunting our world, as then. I feel this post still resonates. Therefore, I am republishing it again.

If I should cast off this tattered coat,
And go free into the mighty sky;
If I should find nothing there
But a vast blue,
Echoless, ignorant—
What then?

– Stephen Crane

The recent deaths of Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, on the same day no less, highlighted two realizations for me: 1) I am, in many ways, a “high modernist” in my aesthetic tastes and passions, and 2) the prevalent and particular questioning of the concepts of truth and hope found in high modernism seems to have disappeared as a noble pursuit. In other words, I long for the days (which were before my time) when artists and filmmakers saw the modern, industrialized, nuclear world as harsh and bleak, but believed that art could truly change that world for the better – even if only by asking the tough questions. (Of course we all imagine the past as we wish.) Today, artmaking is too often viewed cynically, that is, there is no point in tackling the grander themes, rather art is merely about what is only personal and private, and therefore essentially non-transferable, and therefore merely kitsch. That filmmaking can no longer change the world seems to be the prevailing perspective.

There was a kind of hopelessness in both Bergman and Antonioni, but there was also a sense that at least art and human creativity meant something, and therefore it was worth giving it a try anyway. It was also true that each of them, in their own ways, saw that the big questions of life – is there a god? what does it mean to be human? is there a viable salvation for humankind? etc. – were worth asking and pondering and turning inside out. I believe those are still live questions. I am inclined to think, however, that for the most part, filmmakers (except maybe some at the fringes) today do not see those questions as worth being asked.

Consider Antonioni.

Maybe no other filmmaker captured the alienation of humanity in (and to) the modern world as well as Antonioni. He cut to the heart of the difficulty of people loving each other, and finding authentic love, within the world that humanity had created for itself. According to Stephen Holden:

He was a visionary whose portrayal of the failure of Eros in a hypereroticized climate addressed the modern world and its discontents in a new, intensely poetic cinematic language. Here was depicted for the first time on screen a world in which attention deficit disorder, and the uneasy sense of impermanence that goes with it, were already epidemic.

This condition has not left us. In many ways we are still profoundly alienated from this world and from each other. The alienation may even be greater now than when Antonioni first portrayed it on screen. And although he did not give us an outright solution, the response should not be to throw up one’s hands, exclaim life is just absurd and devoid of answers, and then fall into hedonism, consumerism, narcissism, or suburban apathy.
When Anotnioni won the Golden Lion award at the 1964 Venice Film Festival for The Red Desert (1964), the crowd had mixed feelings.

 
What is great about such contrasting responses is that it signals that people cared about the outcome, that what Antonioni was creating had meaning, that he was saying things that required a response – love them or hate them. Four years earlier he was also booed at Cannes for L’Avventura. But that was then.
 
Rosenbaum, in his piece on L’eclisse for the Criterion Collection release of that film, states:
 

This was a time when intellectual activity about the zeitgeist could be debated, if not always welcomed, with Godard and Antonioni the two most commanding figureheads. L’eclisse (1962) appeared the year after Chronicle of a Summer, Last Year in Marienbad, and Paris Belongs to Us, the same year as The Exterminating Angel and Vivre sa vie, and the year before Contempt and Muriel—a period, in short, when large statements and narrative innovations often came together.

That is my understanding (of course not my experience) of the late Fifties and Sixties. The zeitgeist was critical. Mankind was in a giant philosophical flux, and big issues, existential issues were on the table and debated. Film was seen as important, and film departments were started at universities and colleges. Film festivals were important for political reasons and not merely for the glam. Bergman and Antonioni, among many others, were hotly debated, loved and despised, revered and condemned. And then it seemed like none of that really mattered so much. The mid-1970s arrived and the pursuit of these higher goals began to wane. The great leaders had been shot, Vietnam had “ended”, the counterculture became more and more of a drug culture, humans had already walked on the moon and that wasn’t so exciting anymore, the Beatles broke up, Nixon brought even more shame to government, and a self-absorbed “me” generation began to create a new zeitgeist of cynical pleasure. People didn’t go to the theater to find god anymore, they went to the theater to find a thrill. They didn’t go seeking truth, they went seeking a shark, or a spaceship, or the next escape from reality. I know I did.
 
I, of course, am over-simplifying and romanticizing a bit. People have always sought the thrill and the escape. Truth has always been debated. And some films still stir the soul-searching imagination and foster debate. Plus the 1970s were also an age that started many great things: personal computers, the environmental movement, the slow-food movement, to name just a few. But we are living in an age where the struggle after god and truth are essentially passé. The assumption is that there is no Truth (with a capital “T”), there are no true ethics, there is no God, there are only situations and opinions, and so, for the most part, nobody really cares anymore. The death of Bergman and Antonioni remind us of of a time when cinema was a medium for these pursuits to play themselves out, and people went to the theater to see them played out, and later, over coffee and cigarettes, or walking across campus after the student union showing of a Godard, or later still in bed with one’s lover, debated the meaning of those films and of ourselves.
 
No need to despair, though. The big questions of our existence are still with us, and if we are brave enough we can still talk about them. And film is still of of the great mediums with which to explore who we are.

As for Antonioni, much has been said by those more intelligent than I about his genius. But what is important to separate is the ennui of his characters and his own personal hope – I say this only from watching his films, not studying the man himself.
 
In fact, I think it is important to consider that Anotnioni was no true pessimist. He saw people as being trapped in the world that they have created. But he does not say there is nothing they can do, or that there is no other world. Consider this little scene from L’eclisse:
 
Vittoria (Monica Vitti) has left her lover. The relationship has been empty and she feels the ennui of living in the modern age. Although her feelings may not be entirely clear to herself. She walks back to her apartment.
 
 
Here she watches her ex-lover walk away as she stands at the entrance of her apartment building. She is visually framed by elements of that building which seems to dominate the scene. There is a kind of hopeless emptiness in her eyes and posture. She does not yet know that it was not that she was trapped in an empty relationship from which she is now free, rather she is still trapped in herself in the modern world. Antonioni uses modern architecture to symbolize the prison of modern society.
 
Then Vittoria goes through the glass doors. The camera tracks left to follow her movements.
 
 
In the foreground the corner pillar of the building comes into the frame.
 
Vittoria walks through the foyer as the camera continues to track left. But then the camera stops so that we see only a sliver of the stairwell.
 
 
Vittoria walks up the stairwell and disappears around the corner.
 
 
It is as though she has been swallowed by the building.
 
Then we see her at her apartment door. Again she is visually framed by the building’s architecture.
 
 
As she enters her apartment the camera is placed outside her windows in such a way as to emphasize that she is inside the building. And again, the architecture dominates, framing her “within” its space.
 
 
It should be noted as well that her apartment is chic and modern. She is a beautiful, rich woman living in a beautiful, richly furnished apartment which surrounds her with the bounty of wealth. She has it good, one could say.
 
She then walks through her apartment and goes to the window. Outside the wind is blowing the trees.
 
 
The only thing we hear is the wind in the trees. Here we have the modern world set against the timeless natural world. One world is visceral the other is sterile. One world is dead the other is alive.

The final shot of this sequence is critical, and one of the most important shots of the film. Antonioni is setting up a contrast, one that Vittoria sees but does not see. The truth is she is not lost, she is choosing her life.
 
Every pessimist is an optimist, and so was Anotnioni. When Vittoria looks out that window at the trees, she is trapped by her own choosing, but she can still choose. The walls of her chic apartment are a barrier to the life beyond those walls, but the apartment has a door. The question is whether she has the eyes to see that she has a choice.
 
And what is truly important anyway is that we can see, and we can choose. Ennui is a challenge to us, but it is also a door through which we discover ourselves and to understand that we must choose. Antonioni helps us see, and his films are but one doorway to that choice.

The Revolution of the Vernacular: When the Catholic Mass Became an Instrument of Liberation Theology

Priests celebrate Mass for protesters in the middle of a rural street in Honduras in 2017 in an effort to block the passage of equipment for a construction project that would be harmful to the environment. (source)

Latin is a beautiful and ancient language. Many consider it a sacred language as it is one of the three languages used for the inscription Pilate had affixed to the Cross declaring Jesus king of the Jews (the other two being Hebrew and Greek). Latin was also the language used for centuries for the Roman Rite Mass. Of course, few people, including Catholics, know Latin well (even the U.S. bishops who participated in Vatican II famously struggled with the Latin documents). 1969 was perhaps the most pivotal year for many decades for the Church, for the Mass was changed and the vernacular, which was now allowed, soon became the dominant language, in some cases entirely replacing Latin. The flood gates were opened for the vernacular.

For many Catholics around the world, this was the first time they had heard the Mass in their own tongue. Think about that—the first time hearing the prayers, the chants, the creed, and especially the readings in one’s own language. Not only does that mean they could understand what they were hearing, they now could, in a sense, own it. There was no longer a distance, a gulf between the laity and the Mass.The Mass became their own, not a foreign thing.

Citizens raising the Nicaraguan flag upside down as a way to protest at the Managua cathedral. Photo: Carlos Herrera (source)

There has been a consistent lament about the loss of Latin from some corners of the Church since 1969 but, for the most part, use of the vernacular was fully embraced and celebrated by most Catholics and remains their preference. This is true for both laity and priesthood. The distance shrinking between the two was a welcome change. Something surprising also happened. When Catholics began hearing the Gospels read in their own language—and remember many around the world cannot read or don’t have the means to afford a Bible, thus the Mass is where they heard the Gospels—they heard the radical nature, the explosive content of Holy Scripture no longer hidden behind a veil. They could also begin to judge the homilies as they compared the preaching to the words of the Gospels, and in some cases they began to see a disparity between the two. For some, that disparity shone a light on the dichotomy between rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed, and between the earthly kingdom and the Kingdom of God.

Roman Catholic pilgrims travel in a boat as they accompany the statue of Our Lady of Conception during an annual river procession and pilgrimage along the Caraparu River in Santa Izabel do Para, in the Amazon jungle December 8, 2012. The statue is transported by boat along this small Amazon tributary to a small chapel in the village of Cacoal, where a mass is held. Picture taken December 8, 2012. REUTERS/Paulo Santos (source)

We have all heard of people who once denigrated Christianity only to later change their views because they read the Bible for themselves rather than receiving it through the filter of organized religion. Consider this passage from The Gospel in Solentiname in which some poor folks (campesinos), who have been reading and discussing the Gospels, point out a fascinating fact:

[Ernesto Cardenal] said: “I’ve just had a visit from a young fellow from the north, from Estelí, from a poor town. He is a campesino like yourselves, and he was saying that there, to get together for their Masses first they have to ask permission from the police, and the police captain said that those gatherings were dangerous. The captain is right, for they gather to talk about the Gospels.” […]

TOÑO: “That didn’t use to happen here because the Masses were in Latin. The priest read these things but he read them in Latin, and he didn’t explain them to the people. So the Gospels didn’t bother the rich or the military.”1

Now that the Mass was celebrated in the vernacular the reality of the Gospel frightened the earthly rulers and the rich who oppressed the poor. All saw the possibility of revolution. Some were afraid and others found joy.

Christ made it clear that one of the fundamental enemies of the Gospel are the rich. The Church has spent nearly two thousand years trying to downplay and obfuscate that clear truth. But there’s only so much evasion one can get away with once the Gospels are read or heard as they are. Fortunately, there have been many in the Church who didn’t play along with the dominant ideologies. Some became well known—Saint Francis comes to mind, and so does Óscar Romero—but most are not, such as the many priests, religious, and even more laity killed in Latin America at the hands of US-backed governments because they defended the suffering poor against the oppressive rich. All were marked by a direct confrontation with the Gospel.

Vatican II and the Mass of Pope Saint Paul VI which flowed from the council took the bold step to get the Gospels more directly into the hands of the faithful.

In Latin America the vernacular Mass began to appear even earlier than 1969, such as the Misa típica panameña de San Miguelito (Panamanian Folk Mass of San Miguelito, 1966).2 Of course, when we refer to the Mass we refer not merely to the readings, homilies, and spoken prayers but also to the chants, songs, and creeds. Spanish language Masses began to be written and even recorded and spread via LPs. For example, the Misa Campesina Nicaragüense (“Nicaraguan Peasants’ Mass”) with words and music by Carlos Mejía Godoy, and incorporating liberation theology and Nicaraguan folk music. It was inspired by the faith community in Solentiname and was first celebrated in 1975. Here is the entrance hymn from the Misa Campesina Nicaragüense:

Notice the addition of liberation-themed images in the video above. The use of the vernacular encouraged the development of folk Masses and thus reached the hearts of the people more readily—those people included priests as well. The writing and recording of these Masses, in forms that could be easily sung by the faithful, and with the fundamental Gospel theme of liberation, contributed to the spread of liberation as a social and political force in Latin America and, not only that, linked that liberation to the saving work of Christ and the faithful life Christians are called to live. Liberation, as a political force, was seen as a call to the faithful, thus countering the over-spiritualization of the faith, of interpretations of Scripture, and even of worship itself.

Bernard Gordillo writes of the power of the new Mass settings in Latin America and how they helped change the culture and enriched the faith [emphasis added]:

The Catholic Church underwent profound renewal during the 1960s. The bishops of the Second Vatican Council elected to engage the modern world in response to its social and political challenges. Catholics saw the church acknowledge them and adapt to their realities. The once steadfast celebration of the liturgy, a bedrock of sacred rituals, now addressed local or regional identity. Latin and plainsong gave way to vernacular languages, musics, and performance practices. Taking inspiration from this wave of change, Catholic musicians, writers, and artists created diverse musical settings and textual translations of the liturgy, in addition to innovative visual art. These developments took on particular resonances in Latin America, where the bishops of CELAM sought to confront systemic poverty and injustice by affirming the experience of the poor, as well as the social and political processes that would give rise to a theology of liberation. Singing was an abiding collective expression wherever concientización took place, not as a secondary feature, but as part and parcel of a ritual whole, forming a circular relationship between concientización, prayer, and song. This uniquely Latin American postconciliar ritual (concientización-prayer- song) was the fundamental building block of the liberation method for the Familia de Dios movement. The vernacular masses that emerged from San Miguelito, San Pablo Apóstol, and Solentiname musically embodied the community in reflection of its collective identity. They accompanied the transition of liberation practices from internal community building to outward social and political engagement, as enacted by postconciliar priests, religious, and lay people. If the origins of liberation theology lie in the experiences and critical awakening of the poor, they also lie in their expressions— spoken and sung. The Familia de Dios masses were thus musical emblems of this process within their respective popular church communities. They were liberation masses that sang of faith, hope, and struggle in a post conciliar world.3

Consider, that after centuries of Christendom and the Church, in collusion with governments and ruling powers, seeking worldly power, after centuries of the Church protecting itself from the challenges and judgements of the Gospel and the often frightening workings of the Holy Spirit, a council, a new Mass, and a group of Latin American bishops took the risk and sought to allow worship that might address local and regional identity, getting the Gospel into the vernacular, and promoting the radical message of liberation. No wonder Liberation Theology took root in Latin America.

The Gospel is like a hidden treasure because nobody used to understand it, right? They used to read it to us in Latin, and they preached on it in a way that wasn’t even close to the true Gospel. And now we’re discovering it, as you might say: we’re finding a treasure.4


1Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, trans. Donald D. Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 122-123.

2Note: I have no personal history or real connection with Latin American histories or cultures. I am merely at the beginning of my own journey of discovery arising from my interest in Liberation Theology. My own background includes being a descendent of mixed European origins and having benefited from an American society whose economic opportunities, of which I have enjoyed somewhat, are connected to the plundering of Latin America.

3Bernard J. Gordillo, “Vatican II, Liberation Theology, and Vernacular Masses for the Family of God in Central America,” EliScholar, 2021, https://elischolar.library.yale.edu/yjmr/vol7/iss1/3/, 81.

4Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, trans. Donald D. Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 237.

Time within the frame

The following passage comes from Andrei Tarkovsky’s book “Sculpting in Time”, from Chapter 5: The film Image, in the section titled: Time, rhythm and editing.

The dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame. The actual passage of time is also made clear in the characters’ behavior, the visual treatment and the sound—but these are all accompanying features, the absence of which, theoretically, would in no way affect the existence of the film. One cannot conceive of a cinematic work with no sense of time passing through the shot, but one can easily imagine a film with no actors, music, decor or even editing. (p. 113)

Tarkovsky goes on to describe Pascal Aubier’s fascinating 1974 short film Le Dormeur, in which there is only the camera moving through a landscape until it “discovers” a man who appears to be sleeping in a field but is actually dead.

Here is a link to the film: Le Dormeur* Note: Since the audio is entirely of natural sounds, it is better to turn up the volume to get the full effect.

I love these kinds of films. The camera work, especially for that time, is wonderful. We are so used these days with cameras moving all over the place. But in 1975 this had to have been done on tracks and dollies with a crane. (The Steadicam was invented in 1975 and was not widely available for some time after that.) The moment in the shot where the camera ascends up the dead tree is amazing.

* film found here.

The Three-Act Story Structure

Once again I am diving into the struggle to write screenplays. In the past I got all snobby and looked down on the typical Hollywood story structure. I saw it as too conventional and I wanted to be artsy. Well, that got me a long ways.

In the mean time I have learned a thing or two, and have come to understand the conventions that drive Hollywood storytelling are, in fact, ancient paradigms that fit with human nature. In other words, the basic three-act structure (and it variations) was built into the human design by God. Sure, many have exploited it, have misused it, have done bad things with it – including making just plain schlock – but that does not nullify the fundamental character of the structure and how it engages with our minds.

With that I am trying to teach myself the structure, and how to use it to my advantage. Here are some examples:

3-Act story Structure

syd-field

how-and-why-vogler-journey

I know that none of us work in a vacuum. We do not create ex nihilo. We work with what is given, and it is in our manipulations of forms that we discover new nuances. Structure is one of the great givens. I have decoded to use the three-act paradigm as strictly as I can and see what happens.

A couple vids on the topic:

Elliptical Editing in Vagabond

Back in 2008 I wrote a little post on Agnes Varda’s Sans toit ni loi (1985), or Vagabond. Recently David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson put together a video short on Elliptical Editing, and they used Varda’s film as the example. Bordwell and Thomspon have been important in my own thinking about film.

Elliptical editing is one relatively common characteristic of what we might call “art films” that distinguish them from more traditional or “classical” films. I find it’s often a matter of taste; some love this kind of storytelling and some are annoyed by it. I love it. But one can also find elliptical editing in any genre; it just depends on the needs of the filmmaker.

Chinatown and the Rule of Thirds

Many films are beautifully shot. Few, though, are as consistently well composed as Chinatown (1974)*. Shot in Panavision (anamorphic) format with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio the somewhat extreme rectangular image would seem to offer significant challenges to effective image composition. As I was pondering this challenge I was struck by how much I loved the images in Chinatown, which I just watched again the other day. That’s when I went back to basics and considered that even with widescreen images there are still fundamentals of composition at play. In this case I figured I would grab a few images from the film and apply the Rule of Thirds to each image.

The Rule of Thirds is simply as follows:

Divide the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, then put the focus of the image either one third across (from either side) or one third up or down the screen. Those lines, and the points at which they intersect, are the strongest invisible forces in an image.

In Chinatown the images are constructed around those lines and intersecting points. By doing this the aspect ratio becomes a relatively mute point as the human brain automatically takes in the whole image, mentally divides the image into thirds, and finds pleasure as key visual elements are constructed around those thirds. Of course, deviation from the power of the thirds creates visual tension, which is an additional tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox.

Chinatown was shot by John A. Alonzo. Here are the images from film (I, of course, added the white lines):

This is a simple process of analysis. More involving would be to examine how the rule applies to changing composition withing shots as they are re-framed or the actors move about. One thing I noticed was that all the extreme close-ups put the object of focus directly in the center of the middle square. Placing visual elements along the “third lines” was reserved for medium shots and long shots. Finally, the rule of thirds does not guarantee that an image will be good, or work well for a particular scene. However, fundamentals are fundamentals. Without them one will not only have difficulty maintaining a consistent quality, but one cannot truly “break the rules.” The irony is that fundamentals are what allow filmmakers to innovate and stay fresh.

* This is my opinion, of course, but there is a quality in the film’s imagery that is truly wonderful and yet difficult to pin down.

no country for classical narrative

Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theater is not possible. In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds

~Antonin Artaud, Theatre and its Double (1938)

To interpret a text is not to give it a (more or less justified, more or less free) meaning, but on the contrary to appreciate what plural constitutes it.

~Roland Barthes, S/Z, (1970, trans. 1974)

You have seen No Country for Old Men and you liked it. You have read the reviews and their obligatory references to Javier Bardem’s hairdo. You may have even noticed how much this film draws from all the other Coen brothers’ films, both stylistically and thematically. But what is most interesting to my limited sensibilities is the film’s ability to give us something that seems entirely new while yet existing within the conventions of classical Hollywood narrative.

And then, on the other hand, No Country for Old Men gains power by thwarting classical narrative through subversions to plot expectations, through dreams, and through the character of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh is a driving force, like the character of Frank Miller in High Noon (1952) who is coming to bring death upon the marshall, or General Zaroff in Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game (1924) who relentlessly hunts his human prey, or the terminator in The Terminator (1984) bent only on the destruction of Sarah Connor. Chigurh is also a psychological enigma, like Norman Bates of Psycho (1960) or Michael Myers in Halloween (1978). It is this second aspect, that of the psychological enigma, that thwarts the narrative.

For classical narrative to function it requires characters who can be understood, both in terms of their psychologies and in terms of their actions. According to Bordwell (1985):

The classical Hollywood film presents psychologically defined individuals who struggle to solve a clear-cut problem or to attain specific goals. In the course of this struggle, the characters enter into conflict with others or with external circumstances. The story ends with a decisive victory or defeat, a resolution of the problem and a clear achievement or nonachievement of the goals. The principle causal agency is thus the character, a discriminated individual endowed with a consistent batch of evident traits, qualities, and behaviors. (p. 157)

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is our protagonist. He is the most specified character and the primary causal agent. He is who the audience identifies with, and for whom the audience roots. His actions, that of finding the satchel of drug money and deciding he could take it and get away with it, are what compel the story forward. His hold on the satchel is not unlike the monkey who puts his hand in the jar, grabs the shiny object, and then cannot get his fist out of the narrow opening. Chigurh is the antagonist. He exists to thwart Moss. He is the relentless, unstoppable force. But his psychological makeup is a mystery. We have trouble guessing what he might be thinking. As sheriff Ed Tom Bell says, Chigurh is more like a ghost than anything.

After we have been introduced to the landscape via the beautiful opening shots of the film, and after we have been introduced to the killer Chigurh, we are introduced to Llewelyn Moss. The landscape proscribes the stage on which the action begins. It also functions as the “undisturbed stage” (Bordwell, 1985, p. 157) from which “the disturbance, the struggle, and the elimination of the disturbance” issue forth. Chigurh has, so far, only been shown as a killer. As he strangles the deputy we see Chigurh’s face ecstatic to the point of rapture. One might conclude Chigurh’s ecstasy is psychologically defining, that may be, but he remains, in narrative terms, a simple character. Llewelyn Moss, on the other hand, is given carefully determined narrational moments that flesh out who he is, what kind of person he is, and define him as more fully human rather than as a stock protagonist.

When we first see Llewelyn Moss he is hunting antelope. This is how the film introduces us to Moss:

Moss looks through the scope of his hunting rifle. He has a seriousness about him. He is a hunter. He aims for the largest of the male antelopes. He shoots, but the animals run away. Now he has to track them.

The fact that he is using a traditional hunting rifle says a lot. In our world of available hi-tech weaponry where men are typically fascinated with military-style armaments, Moss caries a rifle from another world. This rifle has a wood stock, is bolt action, and mounts a typical hunting scope. It is also a .270 caliber, which is a classic round for antelope hunting.

Here is the description from the book by Cormac McCarthy:

The rifle strapped over his shoulder with a harnessleather sling was a heavybarreled .270 on a ’98 Mauser action with a laminated stock of maple and walnut. It carried a Unertl telescopic sight of the same power as the binoculars. The antelope were a little under a mile away.

Moss wears a plaid shirt with sleeves rolled up. He is working class in appearance. The color of his shirt, skin, and rifle blend in with the light brown of the desert landscape. He is a man in his element. There is something about him and this desert environment that are similar.

He also wears a white hat. In the tradition of the western genre there is no wardrobe choice more conspicuous than the white hat for the good guy and the black hat for the bad guy. Ghigurh does not wear a hat, but he sports and undeniably conspicuous hairdo that effectively functions as a “black hat.”

The hat (hats have played significant roles in other Coen films) situates Moss in the mythological West. Moss is presented as a kind of cowboy. Chigurh is presented as something other. This contrast will feel a little like that of the old world versus the new world in Lonely are the Brave (1962) and, like the story in that film, the cowboy loses.

It must be highlighted that our first glimpse of Moss has him with a gun. This denotes him as a killer. Moss “as killer” is a critical characteristic. The contrast between the killer Moss and the killer Chigurh will become the ground for the narrative’s causality.

This scene also denotes Moss as hunter, which is different than killer. The story will turn this characteristic on it head and makes Moss the hunted. We might assume, then, that Moss will become something like Rambo in First Blood (1982).

After Moss fires his shot the antelope run away. He stands up and watches them run off. He then does something interesting. He bends over, picks up the empty shell from his expended round and puts the shell in his shirt pocket.

My father is a hunter. I grew up hunting with him, although I personally haven’t hunted in years. My father is the kind of hunter who likes tradition and economy. He likes true hunting rifles rather than the popular militaristic styles. He saves his shell casings so he can reload his own rounds. He will carefully measure the gunpowder into each shell casing and then seat a particular bullet into the shell. Notes are taken for future adjustments. Quality and exactness are critical. Different kinds of bullet and powder combos are tested. Choices are made based on what game will be in the sights. It is a kind of primal craft, something from the past. My father has often said he was born a hundred years too late.

Moss represents that past. He is the archetype of the self-sufficient, frontier man who can live off the land, live by his wits, and take care of himself no matter what comes. He is the man’s man of the Zane Grey novel or John Ford film. He is the dream of the West. He is an incarnation of John McClane (Die Hard). His character remains consistent throughout the film to that archetype.

The simple detail of Moss picking up the shell and putting it in his pocket tells us a lot about him. He is a kind of craftsman. He is thoughtful and meticulous. He lives out a kind of economy of not wasting even the littlest thing. This economy will make him a formidable foe for Chigurh. Unfortunately for him, his wife, and others, Chigurh is more than just a bad guy – he is a force of nature, like the coming of darkness or the second law of thermodynamics.

But what makes up this darkness? Death eventually comes to all. Chigurh does not increase death, for death is total for every generation. But Chigurh is relentless. He is, in Lyotard’s words, a monad – a self-contained entity only aware of his own concerns. Lyotard (1991) says of the monad: “When the point is to extend the capacities of the monad it seems reasonable to abandon, or even actively to destroy, those parts of the human race which appear superfluous, useless for that goal. For example the populations of the Third World” (p. 76-77). In this sense Chigurh might be seen as symbolic of larger cultural forces, such as the ruthless drive of capitalism or empire. Or he might be just a tornado.

It is not merely that Chigurh is a bringer of death. Or even that he is like the character of Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), which he also is. Chigurh represents the deep human fear of chance as destiny. With Chigurh every choice becomes and existential choice, and the chooser never has all the information. Characters have choices, but those choices, like all choices, are ultimately about who one is and who one will be. However, those characters don’t always realize the profound nature of their choices. All to often human beings live their lives as though in a dream. Consider this famous scene:

Anton Chigurh
Call it.

Gas Station Proprietor
Call it?

Anton Chigurh
Yes.

Gas Station Proprietor
For what?

Anton Chigurh
Just call it.

Gas Station Proprietor
Well, we need to know what we’re calling it for here.

Anton Chigurh
You need to call it. I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair.

Gas Station Proprietor
I didn’t put nothin’ up.

Anton Chigurh
Yes, you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life you just didn’t know it. You know what date is on this coin?

Gas Station Proprietor
No.

Anton Chigurh
1958. It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.

Gas Station Proprietor
Look, I need to know what I stand to win.

Anton Chigurh
Everything.

“You’ve been putting it up your whole life you just didn’t know it.” That just might be the most important line of the film. A man’s life is a story, true, but it is a mix of choice and chance. Like the journey of the coin, and of what the coin represents: a choice between heads or tales. But what kind of choice is that? One chooses, but chance decides. The gas station proprietor chooses heads and it is heads. He gets to keep on living for now. Does he know the nature of his choice? Do we know the nature of our choices? Of course, like Lazarus being raised from the dead, the gas station proprietor has not been save from death, it will still come, it is inevitable.

So where does this leave us? No Country for Old Men gives us a story of characters, of the choices they make, of the consequences of those choices, all set within a consistently circumscribed world. And yet, at the end, where are we?

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is our narrator. Llewelyn Moss is our protagonist. Anton Chigurh is our antagonist. The stage was undisturbed, a disturbance occurred, and struggle ensued. But the classical narrative runs dry; it does not seem to be able to sustain itself. Why? There are at least three reasons.

1) Moss, rather suddenly, ends up dead. After following his struggle so closely and with so much detail the narration leaves out his last struggle. We do not see him die. His corpse lies on the floor of his hotel room before the film is finished with its story. This death, though later in the story than the death of Marion Crane in Psycho (1960), still comes too early to be a climax. And yet it would seem the final confrontation between Chigurh and Moss was what the film was building up to. But no, the audience is left hanging, as it were, in the wind.

2) Chigurh is a cypher, a ghost. We know he is odd, probably psychotic. We know he is a ruthless killer. We know he is tough and maybe impossible to kill. But what do we really know about him? Almost nothing. What is his motivation? Money? No. Power? Maybe. Principles? We are told yes, but are we sure, and what principles exactly? And is he really a part of the world as presented to us? Or is he part of a different world? On more than one occasion the lives of those who come in contact with Chigurh depend on whether they “see” him.

Nervous Accountant
Are you going to shoot me?

Anton Chigurh
That depends. Do you see me?

One could take this to mean that if one does not talk one lives. On the other hand, to see Chigurh is to believe in ghosts. The last shot of him shows him walking away down a sidewalk. We know he is sure to get away, he always does.

What an interesting shot. It is so bland, so ordinary, just an ordinary street. He is the figure of death resuming his journeys. This last image of Chigurh then slowly dissolves to a profoundly troubled and puzzled Ed Tom Bell.

3) Ed Tom Bell’s has two dreams. It is possible that just about anything is easier to interpret and understand than a person’s dreams. Ending the film with two (not just one) dreams produces a number of potentialities of meanings upon meanings. Certainly there is a weight to the dreams, but they are naturally vague and open. The film stands at the precipice of being plural, that is, it hinges on the possibility of an infinity of meanings, which means it could have no meaning. Consider the dreams:

Loretta Bell
How’d you sleep?

Ed Tom Bell
I don’t know. Had dreams.

Loretta Bell
Well you got time for ’em now. Anythin’ interesting?

Ed Tom Bell
They always is to the party concerned.

Loretta Bell
Ed Tom, I’ll be polite.

Ed Tom Bell
Alright then. Two of ’em. Both had my father in ’em . It’s peculiar. I’m older now then he ever was by twenty years. So in a sense he’s the younger man. Anyway, first one I don’t remember to well but it was about meeting him in town somewhere, he’s gonna give me some money. I think I lost it. The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin’ through the mountains of a night. Goin’ through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin’. Never said nothin’ goin’ by. He just rode on past… and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. ‘Bout the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.

What do we have here? I believe there is meaning here. I believe that we can tease out what McCarthy and what the Coens are getting at. But we do so without finality. We find layers, complexity, multiplicities, and contradictions. In other words No Country for old Men ends but it does not resolve. Lack of a clear resolution saws off, as it were, the possibility of a classical narrative ending.

In structure No Country for Old Men proceeds largely by way of a classical narrative, but it also has elements of, and ends by way of art-cinema narration. These two narrational modes are logically at odds with each other. According to Bordwell (1985):

For the classical cinema, rooted in the popular novel, short story, and well-made drama of the late nineteenth century, “reality” is assumed to be a tacit coherence among events, a consistency and clarity of individual identity. Realistic motivation corroborates the compositional motivation achieved through cause and effect. But art-cinema narration, taking its cue from literary modernism, questions such a definition of the real: the world’s laws may not be knowable, personal psychology may be indeterminate. (p. 206)

Ed Tom Bell’s confusion at the end is also our confusion. What disturbs him is not merely the extreme violence he has witnessed. He is confounded by his inability to understand the world anymore. He has assumed, and been hoping for, a clear resolution to life. He has taken for granted a meaning to the universe and come up woefully short.

“And then I woke up.” Ed Tom Bell is how awake. He has been living in a kind of dream his whole life. He has been wagering his existence his whole life and he just didn’t know it. Now he knows it, but he has no answers. His eyes are finally open but the scene before him is indecipherable. The extreme violence he has witnessed compares to the narrative violence, that is, to the deep rupture to the classical narrative expectations he was expecting. These two violences have caused metaphysics, as it were, to re-enter his mind. His presuppositions have been stripped. He sees life for what it is not. He is lost in a world of choice and chance.

. . . and that’s one way of looking at this polysemous film.

References:
Bordwell, D. (1985). Narration in the fiction film. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Lyotard, J. F. (1991). The inhuman: Reflections on time. (trans. G. Bennington & R. Bowlby). Oxford: Blackwell.