In-Between Man: An Appreciation of Jon Hamm

In-Between Man: An Appreciation of Jon Hamm

nullThree years ago, a
supercut video
premiered online that compiled
all of the times, up to that point, that actor Jon Hamm had said “what?” as Don
Draper on the AMC show Mad Men. It
did what supercut videos are often meant to do: recognize, decontextualize and
repeat a specific motif in film and television for comedic effect. Yet what is
most striking when you watch it now is all of the slight contextual/emotional
variation that Hamm could get out of one word. It could be construed as a
demonstration of Hamm’s wide ranging and detailed capability as an actor,
something that usually isn’t required of someone with matinee idol looks.

Likewise, New York Magazine’s
Vulture blog also ran a photo slideshow titled “24 Photos of Jon Hamm Making Silly Faces in Nice Clothes,” functioning the same way as the supercut video, this time
applicable to Hamm’s public persona. It demonstrates that a) Hamm is,
ostensibly, a goofball and b) a dynamic physical expressivity is one of his
tools as a performer, just as the “Don Draper Says What” video demonstrates his
expressivity with language.

Yet, what is most fascinating about
Hamm, beyond the above,
is that his stature as an actor and celebrity points to the way leading male
actors are often dichotomized. Either they are stoic, austere, and masculine,
or they are dynamic, demonstrative, and possibly funny. Of course such a
dichotomization isn’t clear-cut, but it reveals something about gender roles in
our culture. Call it the “Dad/Uncle” split. Men onscreen may be
pseudo-patriarchs, emblematic of some sort of “traditional” order. Conversely,
they may be lively, with a possibility of being affable and amusing, like
everyone’s favorite uncle. It could be argued that an actor’s longevity depends
on whether an actor can switch between these modes, or blend them.

While our notions of masculinity
should have room for both types of character, there are still good examples of
this dichotomy in action among current leading male actors. Consider Ryan Gosling. While he is
an undeniable talent, he has made a transition from being a mercurial performer
to a fairly fixed one. During his child-acting days, he was a song-and-dance
lad on The Mickey Mouse Club. Then,
starting in his late teens he became dynamic and often idiosyncratic in films
like The Believer, The Notebook, Half Nelson and Lars and the
Real Girl
. Now, in the wake of Drive,
he gives more restrained (and limited) performances in things like The Place Beyond the Pines, Gangster Squad and Only God Forgives. While there’s still a chance for him to give
performances with more range, it seems as though he has settled into a more controlled phase.

In the opposite direction, consider
William Shatner. At the start of his career, he was a more serious, sometimes
histrionic actor, appearing in Richard Brooks’ adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov, The Intruder, and on TV shows like The Twilight Zone or Dr. Kildare. Then he became Captain Kirk
on Star Trek, which grew from a cult
series to a full-fledged franchise within ten years after its cancellation, due
to syndication. Consequently, Shatner became a household name. Not only that,
his very demeanor became a known, parodied quantity. At some point Shatner
became aware of this and used it to parlay his career. Now he’s William Shatner,
an actor who’s in on the joke and more human for it. He has gone from a
vainglorious leader to a vainglorious, barely-aging elder who can take a pie in
the face.

Hamm seems to be right on top of the
“Dad/Uncle” split. Born in St. Louis in 1971, he played a string of bit or
supporting roles in movies and TV shows before Mad Men creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner handpicked him to be
the show’s lead character in 2007.

Weiner must have recognized a
paradoxical quality to Hamm that makes him a near-perfect fit for the role of
Don Draper, a creative director for 60’s advertising agency Sterling Cooper
whom, despite appearing like what was once (and some still see as) an ideal of
American masculinity, was born as Dick Whitman, an illegitimate farm boy who
appropriated the identity of his superior officer Donald Draper while serving
in the Korean War in order to go AWOL. Through a high-degree of personality
compartmentalization, Whitman became
“Don Draper” but the character’s deception has slowly and drastically unraveled
throughout the series; in recent episodes, he has recognized the need to be
more transparent to the people in his life.

Hamm has come to embody the role so
well that Weiner has openly said that Draper is a work of collaboration between
the actor and showrunner. But as a result of becoming synonymous with the role,
Hamm’s work can be
disorienting when he doesn’t play Draper. Also, there’s a lack of roles
in TV or film that are a) as rich in character as Draper, b) could utilize
Hamm’s multifaceted and dual acting style, c) more than “he’s a brilliant
maverick with quirky issues” (which is what so many lead males roles are now on
TV) and d) prolonged enough to allow for such extensive characterization as a
TV character allows At this point, his success playing one of modern
television’s most iconic antiheroes could be as much a curse as a blessing.

When looking at performances that
Hamm gave in Mad Men episodes at the
beginning, in the middle, and near the end of the show’s run, it becomes clear
that Hamm’s layered portrayal of Draper has quite possibly made him a better
actor. In the series’ inaugural episode, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, Draper is a
smart, slick ad man who’s revealed to be deceitful to his wife and family;
while it’s a calling card performance, it’s still rather straightforward and
un-dynamic. Granted, it was probably designed to be a template performance
within a pilot episode, emphasis being put on Draper’s archetypal façade and
attitude. But it doesn’t give much indication of what Hamm could or would do
later on in the series.

Especially in Season Four’s “The
Suitcase”, which may be the series’ best episode, a poignant portrayal of
initial grief. By that point, it had been revealed that Dick Whitman befriended
Anna Draper, the real Don’s wife, sometime between the Korean War and his
advertising career, and  that he
considered her to be the only person who really accepted him. But in 1964 she
succumbs to cancer and, during “The Suitcase,” Don does his daily work at the
agency as he suspects that Anna has passed, dreading making the call in order
to find out. Furthermore, work involves coming up with a pitch for Samsonite,
which involves harshly coaching his protégé Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) as she goes
through her own existential crisis on her birthday.

Mostly a two-header showcase for
Hamm and Moss, “The Suitcase” runs the gamut of moods, and Hamm (along with
Moss) nails every emotional beat: Draper is stern, reluctant, berating, drunk,
amused, amusing, stupidly heroic, wistful, grievous and, in the end, amicable
towards Peggy. It’s a remarkable single-episode performance that is likely to
be Hamm’s shining moment as Draper if nothing in the upcoming final episodes
matches it.

Speaking of final episodes, [GENERAL SPOILERS FOLLOW] Draper has been
gradually redeeming himself in the most recent and penultimate season of Mad Men, which has required him to
recognize that real personal change comes at the cost of accepting loss and
defeat. His marriage to his second wife Megan (Jessica Pare) has fallen apart
and, having returned to work after a forced hiatus caused by unprofessional
behavior, he has deigned to do copywriting work while being scrutinized by his
colleagues. At the same time, he has become more willing to reveal his true
self to those in his personal life, which implies that he’s trying to dissolve
his double nature. Instead of remaining a poisonous amalgam of different
personae, Draper is attempting to be a whole person. Remarkably, even after
seeing the character behave horribly for the umpteenth time in Mad Men’s sixth season, Draper’s
prolonged, humble pie redemption is believable. This, too, is a result of
Hamm’s well-honed versatility in the role, which is layered enough to allow for
more positive character development.

Hamm’s attempts to become a leading
man for the movies mirror Draper’s transformation somewhat. During Mad Men’s run he has appeared in a
variety of films and TV shows, usually to demonstrate his comedic chops in
things like 30 Rock, Saturday Night Live, Children’s Hospital, A Young Doctor’s Notebook and Bridesmaids. And as the star of last
month’s release, Million Dollar Arm,
he just barely makes an egocentric
sports agent who recruits two Indian kids to be major league pitchers into a
tolerable, decent guy through sheer charm. (On paper, the role is less an
anti-hero than an “anti-protagonist” that could’ve been an insufferable
representation of entitled, insensitive white dudes in the hands of another
actor. As is, the movie is a passable yet questionable sports tale that,
despite good intentions, privileges the wrong point of view.)

Yet one would hope that Hamm would
take a cue from the arc of his most famous creation and try to find roles that
befit and synthesize his dualistic, complex qualities as an actor. As the
concept of masculinity can be better relativized as a widespread examination of
gender politics can correct long-standing issues—call me a Pollyanna but I
believe that this is happening more than ever– we need leading men in our
movies and TV shows who can mirror and influence this relativization. Don
Draper’s characterization can be interpreted as a deconstruction of traditional
manhood that, while it still exists, demonstrates how it can cause
interpersonal chaos, just as sociological and psychological studies have
demonstrated that emulating traditional gender roles (i.e. men should be tough,
emotionless, unnecessarily callous, entitled, powerful and uninvolved in
childcare) most often leads to interpersonal problems as well as mental and
physical health issues.

Perhaps Hamm may not be fortunate enough to have other roles as
successful as Don Draper. But if he has any control over the outcome of his
career after Mad Men, he will
hopefully find work that suits his talents but also continues to blur the
“Dad/Uncle” dichotomization of leading men, which might help to continue to
redefine cultural notions of masculinity. We need leading men who can
positively destabilize mandated gender roles. So who better than Hamm, the
actor who has helped to complicate and reveal old-school manhood as Don Draper,
to do just that?

But in case he can’t, maybe Hamm
could do what Leslie Nielsen did later in his career: become a full-fledged
silly actor. It may not fulfill any ideals presented above, but he would be
good at that.

Holding
degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive
Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic
basis at
http://invisibleworkfilmwritings.tumblr.com. His Twitter handle is @Lincoln_Flynn.

Stop the “Streamaggeddon” Articles: Netflix and the Idea of Total Media Access

Stop the “Streamaggeddon” Articles: Netflix and the Idea of Total Media Access

nullEvery
so often, a bunch of titles are taken off of Netflix’s streaming
video-on-demand “Watch Instantly” service. This happens because the company has
time-sensitive licensing contracts with other media companies that allow access
to various movies and TV shows, just as any TV or cable network would (or any
other video-on-demand service for that matter.

However,
a meme of sorts has developed in response to this business practice: someone
figures out that a mass-expiration of Netflix titles is on the horizon and posts
such information online
. And, if that person isn’t a journalist to begin
with, a journalist will turn the information into a widely disseminated
“tempest in a teapot” news item.

The
first time this
happened
, it was because Netflix posted
expiration dates on their public website and, when a licensing deal with Starz Plan expired, removed popular
titles like Toy Story 3
. Since
then, Netflix has made attempts to suppress
such info in order to prevent bad press
, even going so far as to
rechristening their “queue” feature as the “My List” feature, which intends to
make their streaming service more personalized and accessible. Nevertheless, sequels to “Streamaggeddon”
have
happened
as online sleuths have found other ways to ascertain title
expiration information.

On
the one hand, this type of news piece is a service to a Netflix subscriber who might
want to know whether something will become unavailable on their Watch Instantly
service. Fair enough. Yet its reoccurrence suggests that people are outraged or
expected to be upset over the idea that Netflix doesn’t fully provide open,
long-lasting, and convenient access to moving image media. And even if such
outrage may have diminishing returns as the news item makes the rounds again,
the implication remains the same.

But
why? At the risk of basing a stance on a general assumption and seeming Andy
Rooney-ish, we should realize that Netflix follows a contradictory model by
this point. While they publicize themselves as emblematic of a more open, more
user-driven, more idealistic age of electronic media, they still conduct
business according to the proprietary “walled garden” model, just as
cable or telecommunication companies have done for decades.

This
isn’t entirely Netflix’s fault. The company innovates and operates within an
industry that has obstinately and slowly adjusted to the company’s increasing
popularity in the marketplace. Even if Netflix and its kind do end up changing
the rules of the media industry, Netflix still has to play by preexisting rules
in order to prosper.

Nevertheless,
the widespread notion that cloud-based streaming services should allow us
constant, all-encompassing access to content is illusory, something that is
encouraged by technological wish fulfillment, and promoted by profit-motivated,
planned-obsolescence-pushing corporations like Netflix. This isn’t to say that “On
Demand” media doesn’t have its advantages. But it isn’t full proof in practice and
should not be overemphasized or used as a basis to make physical media or its
purveyors seem outmoded.

Many
moving image works belong concretely in the world, not abstractly in the cloud.
Consider the archival standpoint: as there is still no real form of digital
archival media, preserving the moving image on film is still the best option. And,
besides repertory screenings, many things are not available on video streaming
services and only accessible via official/bootleg VHS, Laserdisc or DVD copies.
Likewise, if you own a copy of a film or TV show on a physical piece of media,
you can freely access it as long as it is playable. No corporate entity will
have the power to take it away, as opposed to their ability to block access to
any proprietary, cloud-based media that you
seem
to own.

The
“Streamageddon” news meme is reflective of a myopic mentality and should cease.
Yes, Netflix is convenient and a technological marvel, but we should know by
now that it is and will continue to be more imperfect than we would prefer. Also,
puffing-up its role and function as a content provider—which is very much the
cause of the “Streamageddon” meme—could come at the expense of limiting our
moving image media culture and its possible perpetuity even if it seems like
Netflix is doing the opposite.  And
perhaps Netflix would be more willing to post title-expiration information if we
expressed a reasonable disillusionment with their services and there was no
risk of incurring bad press as a result. (Fat chance, I know. But still.)

So
in addition to being a possible subscriber to Netflix or any other streaming
service, hold on to your DVDs/laserdiscs/VHS tapes, patronize boutique video
rental or retail stores, go to screenings, and remember that Netflix, along
with “the Cloud,” is not the be all, end all of our media access capabilities
as consumers and viewers.

Holding
degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive
Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic
basis at
http://invisibleworkfilmwritings.tumblr.com. His Twitter handle is @Lincoln_Flynn.

“Mwahahahaha”: The (Vincent) Price of Condescending Viewership

“Mwahahahaha”: The (Vincent) Price of Condescending Viewership

nullVincent
Price was a singular cult movie star, synonymous with a grandiloquent yet
bygone form of cinematic Gothicism that offered moviegoers inexpensive thrills.
Whether for good or ill, Price, a versatile actor, is shackled to the horror
genre, so much so that as of the writing of this article, Price is October’s “Star
of the Month” for the Turner Classic Movies cable channel and the Shout Factory
imprint label Scream Factory is releasing a DVD set of horror movies starring
Price called The Vincent Price Collection,
right before Halloween.

Yet
for many, Price is also synonymous with hammy, unbelievable, and histrionic screen
acting– never mind that his style was rooted in acting conventions from a
previous era. Whether good-natured or not, there are those who the idea of “Vincent
Price” as a goldmine of campiness and comedic opportunity. For instance:
comedians Dana Gould and James Adomian as well as actor Bill Hader have been
known to impersonate Price, and his persona has often been reduced to that of a
debonair, sinister,  yet silly
dandy. Heck, even I impersonate Price
every now and then to get laughs.

****** 

null

Let
me introduce something which may relate tangentially to Price’s reputation: the
concept of Condescending Viewership .In certain scenarios, people watch a
movie, TV show or play with incredulity, ultimately acting as if they’re above
it. Such an attitude depends on the equation of willful suspension of disbelief
with mindless gullibility. For instance: Tommy Wiseau and his film The Room are  recipients of C.V. and Mystery Science Theater 3000, the TV show in which abject movies
are riffed upon by a man and his robot pals,
is built on and epitomizes the practice of C.V.

Of
course, there is something indeterminable about C.V. It is a matter of subjectivity,
after all. Plus, it’s probably better to allow it when it arises than to attempt
to control the minds of fellow viewers, much like a diabolical Price character.
And the question of what works deserve condescension is arguable. One person’s
trash can be another’s sustenance. Nevertheless, many conscientious viewers
have probably encountered C.V.–or engaged in it themselves.

To
go a step further, it is safe to assume that many aficionados of classic, older
movies have occasionally encountered C.V.  It is human nature to look at something from
the past and pretend the present is more evolved and sophisticated in a
unilateral way after all. To give an example: I remember being a teenager and
watching North By Northwest with my
family and one of my older sister’s friends. During the final shot of the film–a
sexually implicit visual gag of a train entering a tunnel right after Cary
Grant gets in bed with Eva Marie Saint on that same train–my sister’s friend
exclaimed, “What? They didn’t think about sex back then!”

null

******

When
it comes to any standard Vincent Price performance– particularly those he gave
in many horror movies– it might as well be a big, opportune target for C.V. Admittedly,
I find it hard to watch 1959’s The
Tingler
, William Castle’s gimmick-loaded and nonsensical horror flick, and
not want to comment upon or lampoon aspects of Price’s performance (especially
the scene in which his character has an LSD induced freak-out).

Yet,
to haughtily spoof any Price performance in a horror movie would be shortsighted;
it would suggest that Price was not savvy enough to understand what he was
doing. Consider these biographical details: Price was a graduate of Yale, an
authoritative collector of art, a French cooking enthusiast, and a man of
letters. It isn’t beyond reason to assume that he was aware of his performance
as an actor, even when it seemed preposterous.

In
fact, Price told biographer Lucy Chase Williams that he had his tongue “in both
cheeks” and “was furious when I read a book called the hundred worst pictures
ever made, to see that several of mine weren’t in it!” And in a book about his
work and life, Price was quoted as saying, “I don’t mind making these funny
horror films at all… The minute that I take myself seriously, I’ve got to laugh
because it’s so ridiculous. It’s what gets me through an awful lot of films,
this sense of the ridiculous.” In the same book, he also stated, “I’m an old
ham… I love acting, even in nonsense films. For me, acting is an expression of
joy.”

In
an affectionate tribute made for Turner Classic Movies, John Waters stated as
much: “When Vincent Price was a ham, he was in on the joke. He celebrated the
ridiculousness of horror and he could completely hold his own.” And as Mark
Clark wrote in Smirk, Sneer and Scream:
Great Acting in Horror Cinema
, “While Price’s performances failed as
touching works of naturalistic brilliance, they usually succeeded as thrilling
romps of stylish theatricality… almost any Price performance is worth watching.…”

******* 

Herein
lie some dangers of C.V.: when self-contained and self-perpetuated, it can be
unfair, particularly to the personal sensibilities of creative talent. When
applied to older movies, it can create a monolithic and reductive historical
understanding.

C.V.
can limit the potential for a fuller enjoyment and appreciation of a film– or
a TV show or play for that matter–in that it may ignore the sheer commitment
of the actors or filmmakers that might be on display. Sure, some films may be
bad or contemptible, but there can be an inspirational pleasure in watching
anything in which people just went for it.

And
I can’t think of a Vincent Price performance in which he didn’t seem committed
to the work. An old-school professional, Price was always invested as a
performer, even in silly things like the two Dr. Goldfoot movies or his
recurring role as Egghead on the 1960s Batman
TV series. Just consider his voiceover “rap” in the Michael Jackson hit
“Thriller”—it is the most convincing part of a well-crafted yet impersonal and
calculated song.

Price’s
screen persona may be an acquired taste. Because he benefited from the steady
work that typecasting brought, he may not have always needed to stretch as an
actor or improve his reputation. He seemed to enjoy working and probably
cackled all the way to the bank. Nevertheless, he gave a number of notable
performances—particularly in Laura, The Baron of Arizona, House of Wax, most of the Roger-Corman-directed
Poe films, Witchfinder General and Edward Scissorhands—and he is a treasure
of a screen presence.

So,
when it comes to indulging in the widespread practice of Condescending
Viewership, one should be careful to pick their proverbial poison. And Price
will just about always have the last laugh, from beyond the grave: “Mwahahahaha.”

Holding
degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive
Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic
basis at
http://invisibleworkfilmwritings.tumblr.com. His Twitter handle is @Lincoln_Flynn.

STAR TREK Into Remission: Gene Roddenberry’s Most Famous Creation, Cancer and Me

STAR TREK Into Remission: Gene Roddenberry’s Most Famous Creation, Cancer and Me

null  

To
begin as Spock might begin: often, when a full-blown crisis happens in a
person’s life, media may be used to cope with stress and adversity. And no matter
how relevant or irrelevant that media is to the circumstances of the crisis, it
may be a source of comfort, distraction and catharsis. This is a personal
account of such coping.

From
February 2006 to March 2007, I was diagnosed with and treated for Hodgkin’s Disease,
also known as Lymphoma, a form of cancer. I was in my early twenties,
unemployed, back to living at my parents’ house as recourse, and I had too
much dreadful time on my hands.

At
first I was given a combination of relatively standard chemotherapy and
radiation treatments, but my cancer relapsed a month after those ended. As a
last ditch effort, I had an autologous stem cell or bone marrow transplant,
which involved higher, more potent doses of chemotherapy, a harvesting of my
white blood stem cells through an extracorporeal process called Apheresis,
“rebooting” my immune system by replanting the harvested stem cells into my
body, and a month of hospitalized medical isolation due to being severely
immuno-compromised. It was the closest thing to being put through an actual
wringer, and my immune system is still recovering from the ordeal.

Besides
causing diseases and infections in me like shingles and pneumonia, which would
normally cause anxiety but were then seen as ancillary concerns, the treatments
exhausted me and caused a type of cognitive impairment that is often called  “chemo brain.” Things like reading, writing or
maintaining a conversation became difficult. Yet despite my diminished faculties,
I watched movies and TV shows, as I am wont to do. In the latter category, I
watched Mad Men, The Wire, Lost and Breaking Bad. Most notably, I became
more familiar with the original Star Trek
series, which ran on NBC from 1966-69.

*******

Growing
up, I had seen the numerous Trek
series and movies, but by no means was I a bona fide fan, who might attend a
Trekkie convention, or who could tell you the fuel used in the Enterprise’s
warp engine. My appreciation was casual. Yet I watched the original Star Trek series as well as the movies
starring the original series cast, and I came to intuit the shows’ significance
as my treatments progressed. The very ideas of the show grew in me, and I
became a Trekkie as I was cheating death, Captain-Kirk style.

nullOne
reason for this reappraisal was a sense of wish fulfillment. In the world of Star Trek, medical science is so
advanced that it is only really tested by strange, intergalactic diseases and
disorders. Curing the cancer that I had would be a cinch for Dr. “Bones” McCoy,
and if he had seen me during my treatments, he would’ve ranted against the
barbarity of pre-23rd century medicine, just as he did in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. I would
have found such commiseration from him comforting.

This
ideal healthcare could be seen as an extension of the progressive and utopian
ethos of the show’s world, best embodied in its fictional government, The
Federation, a republic of planetary governments based on the ideas of liberty,
basic rights, and equality.

Yet,
aspects of Star Trek’s future or the
Federation could be criticized by those who have a more conservative political
worldview: for instance, the Starfleet-based concept of the Prime Directive (to
not deliberately interfere with or influence alien cultures) could be seen as
“bleeding heart” liberalism. But as someone who has liberal leanings, that’s a
world in which I wouldn’t mind living. And the notion of an improved future gave
me hope as I fought cancer, even as I identified the elements of the show that
could now be seen as naïve (i.e. the episode “Let That Be Your Last
Battlefield”, an all-too-simplistic allegory on conflicted race relations),
dated (the show’s overall mise-en-scene), campy (i.e. Kirk fighting Gorn in
“Arena”) or politically incorrect (why do the female crew members have to wear
mini-skirts? and why is a Caucasian man assumed to be more qualified as captain
than the biracial and multi-talented Spock?)

However,
Star Trek isn’t just fantasy. Because
it is by its nature an episodic, scenario-driven TV show, problems and dilemmas
occur, and it presents a utopia riddled with caveats. Sure, things are good in
the future of Star Trek, but in it
there are still things like warring Klingons or Romulans, strange
extraterrestrial entities or plagues that destroy other beings, dangerous and
demented megalomaniacs, an evil parallel universe, accidental time travel, specifically
anachronistic planetary cultures, and even Spock’s seven year itch.

Yet an upside is that intelligent life in the world of Trek has never been more able to deal with and acquire social understanding and self-knowledge from these challenges. Consequently,
the show is as much about personal and interpersonal exploration and discovery
as it is about new universes and beings: an optimistic interpretation of the
often repeated Nietzsche aphorism that if you gaze long enough into an abyss,
the abyss will gaze back into you. And, existentially, what is cancer besides a
look into an ever-increasing void or extension of nothingness that
paradoxically provides an opportunity for growth, clarity and resolve?

nullAlso,
the resolutions of many Star Trek
episodes involve some sort of relativistic thinking. Captain Kirk and crew are
often presented with difficult, problematic and threatening situations, but
what often saves them and others is a seemingly counter-intuitive shift in
perspective. For instance: in “The Corbomite Maneuver,” the USS Enterprise is
forced into combat with a bizarre alien ship that is commandeered by Balok. During
its height, Spock compares the dire situation to a game of chess, but Kirk changes the analogy to a game of poker, which inspires him to bluff Balok by making him believe that the Enterprise is encased in Corbomite, a fictitious substance that will defensively rebuff any attack. This buys Kirk and his crew more time, which leads to a surprising resolution to the standoff. (And it is
notable that foes like Khan, Gary Mitchell, and Garth of Izar tend to be undone
by their maniacal absolutism, and their unwillingness to compromise or shift
perspective.)

Ingenuity,
bravery, adaptable thinking, and, sometimes, traumatic loss or sacrifice are
key to survival and prosperity—as in the show’s most renowned episode, “The
City on the Edge of Forever,” in which Kirk and Spock have to go through a time
doorway on a planet in order to stop a temporarily insane McCoy, who
impulsively jumped through the doorway, from somehow retroactively changing history
to their total disadvantage. The two travel to New York City in the 1930s,
where they meet social worker Edith Keeler (Joan Collins). Kirk falls for
Edith, but Spock drops a bombshell: McCoy will prevent Edith from dying in a
traffic accident, which needs to happen in order to prevent Edith from starting
a pacifist movement that will cause the U.S. to delay its involvement in World
War II. This allows the Nazis time to develop an atomic bomb and take over the
world, which causes the non-existence of the Federation.  At the climax, Kirk and Spock reunite with a
sane McCoy, but Kirk has to deny his love for Edith by stopping McCoy from
saving her life. It is the most heartbreaking moment in the series.

nullAnd
in the episode “The Immunity Syndrome,” the Enterprise encounters and becomes
trapped by a giant, energy-sucking amoeba. After some setbacks, which include
Spock’s disappearance on a suicide mission by means of the shuttlecraft Galileo, Kirk and McCoy brainstorm to find
a solution after framing the situation in medical terms: send an “antibiotic” antimatter
time-bomb into the amoeba in order to stop it. Kirk and crew do so, and they
kill the parasitic organism. They also save Spock in the process. Truly, Space
becomes a metaphor here for a disease that the Enterprise triumphs over and
learns from.

*******

Like
any life-threatening disease, cancer can transform outlooks. It’s a state of
being where the ground constantly shifts and one has to find new, unexpected
ways to be bolstered. It’s a dark frontier, and if there’s a Star Trek episode title that evokes the
feeling of having and dealing with it, it’s “For the World is Hollow and I Have
Touched the Sky.”

But
when you have cancer or anything like it, optimism, an honest acceptance of
struggle and a flexible point-of-view can be as crucial to improving and
beating the odds as any medical treatment. At their best, Captain Kirk and his
crew—as well as subsequent Trek
captains and crews—embody these attributes. And at the show’s best, Star Trek promotes these virtues as
things to emulate, emblems of a shining future. For this reason alone, it’s not
difficult to see why it has melded with the minds of so many fans.

It
is also for these reasons that—through the haze of a cure that was almost as
bad as the disease, during my own Kobyashi Maru, in which I had to find a way
to rig the situation in my favor—the show resonated with me. And it, along with
the Trek movies that star the
original series cast, still resonates, sometimes to the point of bringing
embarrassing tears to my eyes.

I
survive for a number of reasons, including good luck, health insurance, medical
financial assistance, skilled medical professionals who constitute the staff of
the Stanford Cancer Center in Palo Alto, the care and support of loved ones,
and even a supplemental and experimental treatment like one that a modern day
McCoy would devise. Yet—because Star Trek
provided me with extra incentive to boldly go on further down the road to
remission—it is a sentimental favorite. I like to imagine that Spock in his
older, wiser and more humanistic form would find this fascinating.

Holding
degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive
Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic
basis at
http://invisibleworkfilmwritings.tumblr.com. His Twitter handle is @Lincoln_Flynn.

Not As “Himself”: Three Early Alan Arkin Screen Performances

Not As “Himself”: Three Early Alan Arkin Screen Performances

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The
notion of an actor “playing him/herself” is slippery. When expressed, it
implies that we really know the performer when we probably don’t; we just know
their often-employed stage or screen persona. But also, it suggests that there
is something easy, automatic and unskilled about an actor’s “being him/herself”
when, in fact, being one’s self in an artificial and contrived situation or
scenario really isn’t a cakewalk.

Maybe
when we say that an actor “just plays him/herself,” what we mean to say is that
an actor has grown (perhaps too) comfortable in their craft. And under this
description fall many renowned older actors: Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Jack
Nicholson, Christopher Walken, and, not least of these, Alan Arkin. Yet what’s
interesting in Arkin’s case is that, unlike those other stars, he seems largely
exempt from being criticized or lampooned for “playing himself,” probably
because many do not mind him doing so (including myself). When he won an Oscar
for his supporting turn in 2006’s Little
Miss Sunshine
—in which he was part of an ensemble cast and not on screen
that much—it was as though he was receiving one of the highest rewards in his
profession for doing what only he can do best: play “Alan Arkin,” and as a
flawed yet lovable grandpa to boot.
And when he was Oscar-nominated for his supporting part in Argo, it was as though he was being recognized for playing “Alan
Arkin” as a gruff, scheming, yet noble movie producer (thereby giving the
archetype of the Hollywood insider– something that many AMPAS members must be—a
somewhat positive spin).

Yet
what’s also interesting is that, like some of the other actors mentioned, Arkin
broke through by giving screen performances that, to various degrees, required
him to be characters that he clearly wasn’t. As evidenced in The Russians are Coming, The Russians are
Coming;
Wait Until Dark; and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, he was once
a chameleon-like new screen talent and not just “himself.”

*******

Before
his first major screen role in The
Russians are Coming, The Russians Are Coming!
(1966, dir. Norman Jewison),
Arkin had been an early member of the improvisational theater troupe Second
City and acted in Broadway shows like Enter
Laughing
and Luv. But while he
has experience with, for lack of a better term, traditional acting, he
considers himself to be an “improvisatory actor” and
his performance in TRACTRAC is indicative
of that tendency. As Rozanov—a Russian lieutenant who has to lead a “covert”
emergency landing party into a coastal New England town after his captain runs
their submarine vessel aground (which then leads to a panicked community, which
in turn leads to hijinks)—Arkin’s controlled, well-timed and humorous spontaneity
stands out and conveys the character’s professionalism as well as his beleaguered
state (something that would become a hallmark of his general screen persona).
And because much of the Rozanov role is spoken in non-subtitled Russian, the
performance often relies on effective yet subtle facial expressions, gesticulation
and vocal inflections. These acting choices render Rozanov a believable person
as well as a source of comedy.

While
warmly received upon its release by critics and audiences for humanizing and
relativizing the Cold War conflict during a period of Red Scare fatigue, TRACTRAC has become a product of its era
since the dismantling of the U.S.S.R. As a consequence, its flaws are more
apparent. Intended as both a satire and a farce, many of the other performances
come across as only farcical and are reminiscent of the brazen It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, thereby
making the overall work of the cast somewhat uneven. And while well meaning,
the resolution to a climatic and literal stand off between Russian soldiers and
American townfolk is like something out of D.W. Griffith’s early work. Yet, by
first portraying Rozanov as a relatable and aggrieved man caught in a tough
situation, Arkin’s work in the film preserves some of its universal and
non-jingoistic message. Also, it demonstrates a quality of his acting style that
is evident elsewhere in his early work and that has been attributed to others
who have had similar improvisational training: even as he gets your attention,
he still functions as a team player within an ensemble. Remarkably but
deservedly, he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for this
debut performance.

*******

His
next major role after TRACTRAC was
something more sinister. As the psychotic criminal Harry Roat, the big bad in
the screen adaptation of the Frederick Knott play Wait Until Dark (1967, dir. Terence Young), Arkin is almost
unrecognizable: wearing dark teashade sunglasses, a short bowl-cut and a
leather coat, and speaking “hip” in a creepy staccato, he is an original
nightmare hipster.    

WUD was shot as Arkin was becoming a
known quantity, and retroactively knowing that it’s him only gives the
performance an uncanny quality. Yet
Roat is so awry and menacing that it’s easy to overlook that he is a huge source
of exposition. For instance: while entrapping
two con men (Richard Crenna, Jack Weston) into helping him to retrieve a
heroin-filled doll from an apartment in which an innocent and blind housewife
Susy (Audrey Hepburn) lives, Roat explains the story’s set-up in the film’s
first sustained scene. When casting such a part, a wise course of action is to
hire a talented actor who is able to make a contrived, unreal situation feel
believable to an audience, and the complicated set-up in WUD is one that could have seemed more incredible when translated
from the stage to screen. But Arkin makes it work, and with panache.

Some
critics at the time of WUD’s release
considered Arkin’s performance as Roat to be too much: Roger Ebert wrote that
it’s “not particularly convincing”
and Bosley Crowther went as far to compare it to a Jerry Lewis caricature.
This point of view is fair if WUD is
understood as something approximating realism. But if WUD is understood as something akin to an Alfred Hitchcock thriller,
then the performance—which also uses the actor’s skill of spontaneity not to
get laughs but to unnerve—succeeds: Roat is a big movie villain who would feel
at home in a Tarantino film due to his theatrical, idiosyncratic nature.
Also, the jump-scare in WUD’s climax—which
actually involves both a jump and a scare—must be mentioned; it is one of the
all-time best in film, and the crooked and swift physicality of Arkin’s animalistic
leap during the moment is much of what makes it effective.

http://i.cdn.turner.com/v5cache/TCM/cvp/container/mediaroom_embed.swf?context=embed&videoId=351596

*******

Based
on the eponymous Carson McCullers novel, The
Heart is a Lonely Hunter
(1968, dir. Robert Ellis Miller) stars Arkin as
John Singer, a deaf mute who relocates to Jefferson, Georgia to be closer to his developmentally
disabled and committed friend Spiros (Chuck McCann). As a result, he helps and
befriends a small group of people, including music loving teenager Mick (Sandra
Loche), a resident of the house where he rents a room.

While different from its source material in some ways, THIALH is a straightforward adaptation that is bolstered by a
well-modulated and sensitive dramatic tone. For the most part, the work of the
ensemble cast is solid, but—to sound like a broken record—Arkin’s truly
understated performance is the standout, and it stands out despite the risk of
becoming elusive. Relying on a realistic pantomime as well as sign language and
body language, the performance’s subtlety exemplifies and extends the story’s
theme of how the hardships, tragedies, kindnesses and kismets of life tend to
happen in discrete ways. Singer is a selfless, decent and almost imperceptible
altruist who changes lives for the better, but his natural inconspicuousness
makes others oblivious to his problems and loneliness, which ultimately causes him
misfortune. In other words, Arkin’s heartfelt work in THIALH personifies its title: it earned him another Academy Award
nomination for Best Actor.

Ostensibly,
Arkin’s performance is notable for creating and sustaining Singer’s early life.
Yet upon a close examination, it’s clear that the performance isn’t great
because he is physically convincing as mute or because he expresses things in a
contained yet clear manner; it’s great because you can tell that he’s genuinely
listening to and observing others. Actors will often say that one of, if not the most essential thing to master when
you’re learning the craft, is listening to your scene partner or partners. That
may seem simple enough, but if you’ve tried acting, you’ve probably realized
that really listening to others as
you say your lines and hit your marks is a true skill. And if you master it,
then you can react to others authentically, which is what goes into most great
acting, and which is evident in all three of Arkin’s performances in TRACTRAC, WUD and THIALH.

*******

In
his 2011 memoir An Improvised Life,
Arkin wrote that “from the beginning I always thought of myself as a character
actor—someone who transfers himself into other people. I had no interest in
being myself onstage. In fact, because I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t have a
clue. I only knew myself as other people.” Yet,
as he describes in the book, when his film career ebbed after that initial
breakthrough,
he had a spiritual shift that was a result of studying Eastern philosophy and practicing
meditation. His consciousness and self-knowledge changed,
which required him to alter his approach to acting.
By his own account, it became more public and vulnerable
and, as a result of applying the Zen Buddhist concept of Shoshin or “beginner’s
mind” to his work,
less self-controlled and even more spontaneous. In other words, Arkin’s acting
style changed due to a period of self-actualization and, incidentally, his
screen persona became more identifiable and unique to his actual self, and
different from his performances in TRACTRAC,
WUD and THIALH.

This
suggests an interesting notion: maybe, as a result of maturing and becoming more
comfortable with their own selves, some great actors no longer feel a need to “hide
behind a mask” within their work. If such is the case, then whenever a DeNiro,
Pacino, Nicholson or Walken give a mediocre performance while seeming to be
“DeNiro”, “Pacino”, “Nicholson” or “Walken”, they’re probably just coasting and
failing to meet their earlier, better standard (i.e. Raging Bull, Dog Day Afternoon, Five Easy Pieces, The Deer Hunter)

In
Arkin’s case, however, he has remained an interesting and compelling screen
presence even if the movie he’s in might be nothing to write home about. As he
writes, this consistent quality is deliberate: “for me, every activity I engage
in has to contain the possibility of internal growth; otherwise it ends up as
either ‘making a living’ or ‘passing the time’—two ways of going through life
that feel to me like a living death. I want to know with every passing moment
that I am alive, that I am conscious, that with every breath I take there will
be some possibility of growth, of surprise, and of complete spontaneity.”

So
long live Alan Arkin, as well as “Alan Arkin.”


Holding
degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive
Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic
basis at
http://invisibleworkfilmwritings.tumblr.com. His Twitter handle is @Lincoln_Flynn.

BADLANDS: Terrence Malick’s “early, funny film”

BADLANDS: Terrence Malick’s “early, funny film”

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You know, when we showed [Badlands] at the New York Film
Festival—for the very first time—you could just hear a pin drop. No one
laughed. Now when Badlands is
screened, people laugh because . . . I guess our society has changed. But then, I
expected people to laugh at Badlands,
but when they didn’t it was very unnerving. Things were different then.”—Sissy
Spacek in the featurette documentary Making
Badlands

Often,
Terrence Malick’s cinema is pigeonholed as one of artful, beguiling, and obtuse
solemnity, and his most recent film To
The Wonder
will probably do little to change that. But Malick’s 1973 debut Badlands is, thus far, the only film in his oeuvre in which humor is a significant component. Strange, since it’s
a lover-on-the-lam movie about a charming, sociopathic serial killer (Kit, as
played by Martin Sheen) and an affectless, somewhat delusional teenage girl
(Holly, as played by Sissy Spacek) that isn’t exactly an ultraviolent outré
black comedy like Man Bites Dog (1992)
or American Psycho (2000). But low-key,
dry, and absurd humor is a noticeable and well-woven element of Badlands which helps it play well with
contemporary audiences. If it isn’t a black comedy, then it is a singular and
timeless art-house crime drama infused with greyish-brownish comedy.

Malick’s
films usually have a contrapuntal nature, embodied by images,
intrinsically serious, that enhances the films’ themes: the sheer wonder of
the world contrasted with terror, fear and destruction, or a human drama dwarfed by the seeming indifference of nature. These characteristics are
evident in Badlands, but with humor
in the mix, much of which comes from Kit’s unusual behavior and Holly’s voiceover
narration. To those familiar with Malick’s other films but not with Badlands, the idea of a Malick film
being funny might seem odd. But considering that humor
generally depends on contrast or contradiction, to me it’s surprising
that Malick has yet to make another partly or completely comedic film. (Considering that Malick is reportedly a big fan of Zoolander, it seems that he still likes to laugh, even if the
majority of his directorial work doesn’t indicate that.)

*******

In Badlands, Kit says odd, tangential things like “I’ll give you a
dollar if you eat this collie” to a coworker when he finds a dead dog. He also
has a capricious collecting habit; for instance, after he deflowers Holly in
the outdoors, he carries a souvenir rock to commemorate the event, but, after
observing its heaviness, he throws it away and gets a smaller stone. And
throughout the movie Kit alternates between James Dean coolness and erratic
compulsion, making him charismatic and unnerving in equal amounts. “It
takes all types,” Kit often says, and his type is the sometime-murderous,
strangely comical Manic Pixie Dream Boy who does things like preening his hair
in the car’s rearview mirror while being pursued by law enforcers. He’s a
sociopath who can make you laugh.

In the
film, Holly’s toneless, diary-esque voiceover narration augments the
story and provides insight into the minds of Kit and Holly, but there are also a
number of moments in the narration that are humorous. At one point, while Kit is trying to
catch fish in a river as Holly looks on, she narrates the scene like so: “We
had our bad moments, like any couple. Kit accused me of only being along for
the ride, while at times I wished he’d fall in the river and drown so I could
watch.” At another point, as Kit and Holly’s stolen getaway car drives across a
barren landscape, Holly narrates, ““Kit told me to enjoy the scenery and I
did.” There is a deft quality to these remarks, and they’re only made funnier
by Spacek’s naïve and deadpan delivery. The comments also lend pathos and likeability
to Holly, a character who could have easily become an irredeemable, underdeveloped
cypher in the hands of a less imaginative writer and director.

Another comical aspect of Badlands is its ironic plot. For
instance, after Kit murders Holly’s father (Warren Oates) and immolates his
body along with Holly’s home, do Kit and Holly hideout in a cabin or hotel room,
or a crony’s place, like wanted criminals have done in so many crime movies?
No—they go off and live a “domesticated,” Swiss
Family Robinson
existence in the woods. And later, when Kit flees from the
authorities alone in his car, does he run for long? Nope—he stops, builds a
preemptive monument to his surrender by piling rocks on the side of the road and
gives himself over to the cops, peacefully. Then Kit manages to charm his
captors and holds court amongst law enforcers and armed soldiers in an airport
hangar before being taken to jail. And if the story’s resolution isn’t quite a
social commentary, it is an ironic acknowledgement of a truth: frequently,
sociopathic individuals or characters become celebrated standouts in our culture.
(Don Draper, anyone?)

*******

Distinguishable filmmakers tend
to have stylistic quirks earlier in their career that go missing from
their later works. Along with Badlands,
the screenplays that Malick wrote or co-wrote for Pocket Money (1972), Deadhead
Miles
(1973), and The Gravy Train
(1974, aka The Dion Brothers) show
that he was once a filmmaker who integrated a type of comedy into his work similar to the humor of writers Flannery
O’Connor or Walker Percy. Also,
the early to mid 70s was a period in American cinema in which many
up-and-coming filmmakers were making idiosyncratic, off-the-wall movies influenced by the European Art Cinema of the 60s as well as countercultural
tastes and sensibilities. The artistic inclinations of Malick’s younger self
seem to have been amenable to that trend. Consequently, Badlands is symptomatic of the New Hollywood zeitgeist.

Malick must follow his muse, which
probably involves making more films that are grand, serious and abstract, but I
can’t help but wonder what it would be like if he made something akin to Badlands that generated laughs from
viewers while being enigmatic and impressionistic, and maybe with someone like
Bill Murray. To echo Oscar Wilde, life is too important to be taken so seriously,
and I hope that a talented filmmaker like Malick who is interested in the
bigger questions will once again recognize that sentiment in one of his movies.
Or, he could at least make a cameo in Zoolander
2
like he made a cameo in Badlands.

Holding
degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive
Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic
basis at
http://invisibleworkfilmwritings.tumblr.com. His Twitter handle is @Lincoln_Flynn.

The Three Burials of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; Three Takes on Its Overrated Status

The Three Burials of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; Three Takes on Its Overrated Status

null[Editor’s note: The following is a collection of essays on the critical overestimation of No Country for Old Men, by Lincoln Flynn, Stacia Kissick Jones, and Alan Pyke.]

No Country for Old Men? Overrated!!!

When the Coen brothers’ eponymous film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men was released in 2007, it received near-universal critical acclaim; after the subpar efforts Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, it indicated an artistic comeback for its directors.

In general, the honed and virtuosic filmmaking skills of the Coens, combined with their postmodern storytelling sensibilities, give their detractors reason to call them talented but glib. Yet with No Country, the Coens-as-adaptors had ostensibly harnessed their usual instincts in the service of McCarthy’s source material, while using their talents as directors to make it a dynamic and multifaceted movie that had proved their salt as genuine auteurs.

Though many consider No Country to be an untouchable classic in the Coens’ oeuvre, it remains tonally flawed. Consequently—and at the risk of putting “my soul at hazard” by receiving invective from die-hard fans of the Coens and No Country—I consider it to be overrated and feel that A Serious Man and the Coens’ True Grit adaptation are more artistically successful later career films.

Effectively, No Country’s plot can be divided into two parts. The first part tells of the flight and pursuit of Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) by Texas Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) and psychotic hit-man Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) after Moss takes money from the scene of a drug-deal-related massacre. The second part resolves the three-tiered chase and further develops Bell’s melancholic nature.

Well within the Coens’ wheelhouse, the first part is basically a thriller that incorporates aspects of film noir and the western and is filmed or stylized in an artful and “resplendently austere” manner. The violence is gruesome, the editing is efficient, and the action and humor are darkly entertaining. The second part, on the other hand, is more restrained and less gruesome and humorous, in order to amplify the tragic and bleak resolution of the story.

This dichotomization of No Country is my main issue with the film: if Sheriff Bell’s resigned fear of entropy is where the basic theme of No Country lies, and if that fear is exemplified by the mayhem that is instigated by Llewellyn and Anton in the first half of the movie, then why did the Coens decide to represent that violence as slick and thrilling Grand Guignol? This is an inconsistency that makes the two parts of No Country incongruous and its resolution less devastating and resonant than it should be.

As I understand the character of Sheriff Bell, he doesn’t see anything fun or exciting in any of the chaos that he observes as a person and lawman. To him it is soul crushing and proof of the absence of God or any greater, noble meaning. Therefore, the film’s violence shouldn’t be kinetic or vivid. Likewise, if Bell’s saturnine worldview is thematically important in the end, then why is his apathy used as a source of much of the film’s gallows humor? This aspect feels appropriate to the Coens’ style but inappropriate to the story’s point.

When talking to a friend about the most recent James Bond film, she joked that “another name for Skyfall could’ve been No Country for Old Women.” Both No Country for Old Men and Skyfall feature Javier Bardem playing relentless villains who wear odd coiffures; also, both films were shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Moreover, both films have older authoritarian characters, played by Tommy Lee Jones and Judi Dench,, who respectively underscore the similar theses of each movie. Yet, as Skyfall is a franchise movie that had the added bonus of being dramatic and exquisitely made, for me No Country for Old Men is a well crafted yet thematically compromised art house version of a Terminator movie.–Lincoln Flynn

Holding
degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive
Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic
basis at
http://invisibleworkfilmwritings.tumblr.com. His Twitter handle is @Lincoln_Flynn.

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Why Blood Simple Towers Over No Country for Old Men

Characters in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen tend toward the archetypical, but rather than existing in their expected cinematic habitat, they’re placed in ridiculous and macabre situations they simply are not prepared for. Though it is usually a delightful conceit, in No Country for Old Men (2005), it starts to become a belabored what-if scenario rather than a meaningful set of juxtapositions. No Country is a meditation on mortality and the eternal fight between humanity and inexplicable evil, set in rural Texas in the early 1980s, the same locale and era as the Coens’ early neo-noir Blood Simple. Both feature postmodern aesthetics, pitch-perfect and witty dialogue, the celebration of regional variances in language and culture, and characters suffering from a surfeit of poor decisions. They are both without question exceptional films. Comparisons between them are unavoidable, though in terms of style and substance, Blood Simple is the more successful of the two.

In Blood Simple, a series of misunderstandings and double-crosses combine with darkly comic undertones in a situation that could be resolved, or at least improved, if the two main characters had just talked to each other. The characters are at times very silly, an endearing trait in a film that examines the tragedy of poor choices. The Coens have since ceased caring whether the audience sympathizes with characters or not, though that tack is quite effective in No Country for Old Men. While Blood Simple is about lack of communication, No Country shows us that, sometimes, communication makes no difference at all. A flattened affect throughout the film heightens the realization that emotional connections simply do not matter in the face of true evil.

Where this flatness of emotion goes wrong is in No Country‘s tendency to leave moments unfinished. The Coens at one time were more than willing to let audiences figure things out for themselves. Ambiguity in No Country, such as not showing a key death  or ending a scene abruptly, is not meant to lead the audience to fill in points of the narrative themselves, but rather to allow the filmmakers to limit the emotions available to the audience. It’s artifice designed specifically to deny catharsis, grief or resolution, all part of the Coens’ rigorous cinematic control, but at great expense to realism.

Blood Simple, like most Coen brothers films, is clearly referential. One of the best such moments is the brazen borrowing of the famous ground-level swooping shot from Evil Dead (1981), a film which Joel Coen had worked on as assistant editor. The reference simultaneously invokes humor, the horror genre and a nod to burgeoning indie film movement of the film’s time. But where references like these in Blood Simple are natural and lighthearted, in No Country they are cold, calculated moments of manipulation. No Country, for example, copies the restaurant scene from Fargo; in these scenes, police officers in both films achieve necessary moments of clarity. It’s heavy-handed and out of place in No Country, a lazy quotation of their own cultural milestone without thought for its relevance.

Early in the Coens’ filmmaking careers, contempt was not a successful trait in a character. M. Emmet Walsh’s P.I. in Blood Simple possesses an undisguised derision for everyone around him, but it is undermined by the resourcefulness and luck of those he’s trying to con. For the Coens, the purpose of contempt has changed, and is now often the single biggest factor in resolving conflict: A character who shows contempt almost always wins out.

This is especially true in the case of the psychotic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in No Country, a killer whose contemptuous attitude is proven right time and again. It is his most important and identifiable characteristic, one that allows his particular brand of evil to succeed. Meanwhile, small-town sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is just as exasperated with the folks around him, though he keeps his contempt in check, leaving him powerless against the sociopath’s self-imposed moral superiority.

The disdain for humanity in No Country, as in many of their other films, spills over into the filmmakers’ contempt for the audience. The Coens seem loathe nowadays to even acknowledge there is such a thing a worthwhile everyday person. In Blood Simple, Ray (John Getz) is an everyman archetype, on the surface as bland as John Gavin in Psycho (1960), yet we’re fascinated by his actions and sympathetic with him when things go wrong. In No Country, a series of everypersons, both men and women, are grotesques, stubborn and dull and frustrating. In an attempt to lead the audience into the mind of a killer, the Coens want us to be as unimpressed with these everyday people as Chigurh is; once you resist, Chigurh becomes caricature, just another dead-eyed psycho with a gimmick.

In the process of subverting themes in No Country for Old Men, the Coens often dispense with narrative altogether, preferring to use the film as a vehicle for delivering their own signature style. The film never quite gets around to challenging the validity of conventional cinematic narrative techniques, though it clearly means to do so. Blood Simple, in contrast, challenges common genre constructs precisely because it uses standard narrative techniques, and also allows for a humanity that encourages viewers to more closely engage with the moral and ethical dilemmas presented. Though both films are fine works in their own right, Blood Simple is a more exceptional one—even if it is more traditional.–Stacia Kissick Jones

Stacia Kissick Jones is a recovering literature major, freelance editor
and film critic. She is a regular contributor at
Spectrum Culture Online
and
ClassicFlix, and blogs at She Blogged By Night
(
http://www.shebloggedbynight.com).

nullNo Breathing Room: The Crucial Flaw of No Country for Old Men

A movie can be great and overrated, and so it is with the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men. The Coens’ trademark deftness with light and framing and showing a story rather than telling it gave us the best cinematic treatment of Cormac McCarthy to date. But much praise for the film conflates its technical brilliance with an imagined depth and detail of thought. In reality this film manages only to sketch ideas that have been more fully explored in other, similar films.

Considering the challenges of recreating the ideas from Cormac McCarthy’s notoriously thorny and meditative prose with visual language, No Country For Old Men achieves some wondrous things. The choice to eschew music almost entirely is particularly inspired as a reflection of McCarthy’s harsh, amoral world, and excellent performances help animate his ambivalent, despairing take on nostalgia for a simpler time that never quite was. A few things get lost in translation, but it’s a mistake to get too caught up in comparing book and film here.

The problem instead is that in effecting their translation, the Coens produced a film that only engages the story’s themes at arm’s length. The pulpy churn of the main plot crowds out any deeper meaning the three main characters’ pursuits of their respective fables might have.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) pursues the simple self-deception that he’s cunning enough to steal $2 million from a cartel and live to enjoy it. That sets the captivating plot into motion, but the Coens excise some significant chunks of his flight, and freeze-dry the thematic nutrition out of his arc in the process. He’s fun to root for, but exists solely to necessitate the chase.

Anton Chigurh’s (Javier Bardem) fable is that the underworld’s predatory jungle law responds to fate and luck, and can be influenced by how men tend to their sense of honor. That’s a promising concept, but it’s only hinted at, never fleshed out. No Country‘s most memorable moments involve Bardem leaning his full weight into dazzling lines that don’t add up to anything coherent. “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” is a great bit of language, but Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is right: Chigurh just sounds insane. Beyond the grace of his syntax, his pseudo-existentialist riffs carry no more weight than a Bond villain’s cackling soliloquy about the motives for his evil plot.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s (Tommy Lee Jones) fable is that men committed to rightness and legality are seeing a decay in their ability to preserve moral rectitude. Ed Tom’s weary grappling gets a fuller treatment, getting critiqued by fellow lawmen—“What you got ain’t new,” his uncle tells him—and reflected in the inter-generational tensions that crop up repeatedly at the edges of the story. Ed Tom’s statements are the closest No Country comes to actually biting down on some ideas rather than showing us the chain restaurant picture menu versions of them. But he, too, is just along for the ride of the main plot, popping in and out whenever it’s convenient.

There’s a better Tommy Lee Jones film on all these themes: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada tackles fatally bad luck, nostalgic male honor fulfillment, and modernity’s infringement on cowboy nobility without the sexy crime potboiler stuff that makes No Country so great an entertainment and so lightweight a film. The Coens have also done more with these ideas, in Blood Simple. The nominal stakes in these two movies are far lower than No Country‘s $2 million satchel of cash, but Blood Simple wrings more reflection on violence, mistrust, and self-deception out of a $10,000 wad. There’s no bouncing ball of cash to follow through Melquiades Estrada, but rather the corpse and memory of a man far unluckier than anyone on the wrong end of Chigurh’s cattle gun. The grand allure of the underworld pursuit makes No Country more fun, but it also reduces the big ideas its characters are chasing to window dressing for a nervy, unpredictable slaughter. The comparative simplicity and mundanity of the core stories in Blood Simple and Melquiades Estrada mean that those same ideas have room to breathe.–Alan Pyke

Alan
Pyke is a writer and commentator on film, television, fiction, music,
and politics, with a particular fascination for hiphop. He writes film
reviews for
TinyMixTapes and BrightestYoungThings, cultural criticism at The Daily Banter, and occasionally posts at his own site.