Monday, March 24, 2008

MOVIES- No Country for Old Men

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Yeates poem, Sailing to Byzantium, is both the progenitor and the essence of the title for the Oscar winning film from the Coen brothers. The opening monologue is almost a west Texas restatement of the opening stanza. It ends with the words “I’ll be a part of this world”. But the second scene lets you know the heart of the movie. A deputy is strangled by a prisoner with a pair of handcuffs. The camera lingers on the scuff marks on the floor from the deputy’s patent leather shoes. A snow angel in show polish on the linoleum, showing the pattern of the dying mans struggle as his soul leaves this world.

It’s that kind of depth and artistry, visual metaphor and complex theme, that marks all the Coen brothers’ movies. That has almost become a trademark of Joel and Ethan Coen. Rarely has there been such a filmography as varied as theirs. They’ve made slapstick comedy (RAISING ARIZONA), musical comedy (O’ BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU), farce (THE LADYKILLERS), crime drama (BLOOD SIMPLE), drama (FARGO), Harold Hawks 1940s comedy (HUDSUCKER PROXY), sexual politics (INTOLERABLE CRUELTY). They even made THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, whatever the hell genre that was. But while it’s easy to put each of these into a particular genre, it’s impossible to ignore that each of them turns that genre on its head. Every Coen film is both different and different from all other films that are similar.

And this movie, what is there to say. Rarely has an Oscar winner been such an unusual film. So much of what comes out of Hollywood is just fluff that provides mindless entertainment and bolsters the status quo (in spite of what the conservatives think). This film is entertaining and suspenseful, but is also disturbing in that it doesn’t conform to much of what you expect from a movie, or the conventions of fiction. The main characters never meet, the pacing is steady and the scenes invoke Hitchcock rather than what we’ve become accustomed to for the last 30 years. The violence (and there’s a lot) is realistic but not overly gory. The ending is ambiguous. The themes are death, aging, greed, man’s place in his world. It’s a complex tapestry with many threads woven together yet it can be enjoyed as just a riveting story of a drug deal gone bad. It is a masterful tour de force from a pair of artists who are mature and self-confident in their craft. It is surprising and disturbing and absolutely unthinkable to miss for anyone who thinks cinema is something more than soap opera or a venue for the art of pyrotechnics.

Be careful.

-Always am.

Don’t get hurt.

-Never do.

Don’t hurt no one.

-[pause] If you say so.

That this movie won the Oscar for best picture and best director is a tribute to having a cinema award that is voted for by actual movie professionals. It was certainly not the most popular movie of the year. But it was, arguably, the most cinematic. The story is told almost entirely in images. The subtext is in the dialogue. In fact, you could watch the movie as a silent film and understand the plot without problem. Such is the Coens’ genius. Art is that which is complexly satisfying.

The actors who play the three main characters dissolve and inhabit their respective roles. Tommy Lee Jones is at home here in a type of role he has almost come to epitomize. The aging west Texas sheriff who has seen the worst of humanity. Only by refusing to stare into the abyss does he skirt the edge of cynicism and keep doing his job. But deep down, he knows. In a classic western he would be the good guy, and here he is the closest thing to a hero that there is. But he doesn’t get his man, and eventually all he can take into retirement is the knowledge that things really aren’t any worse than they ever have been. Tommy Lee has played this role in everything from THE FUGITIVE to THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA and it fits him like a well worn work glove.

Josh Brolin, as Llewelyn Moss, is the down on his luck country boy who stumbles on a windfall of drug money and tries to hold on to it. The fact the character is a Vietnam veteran is only tangential. None of the post war angst of so many earlier period pieces is evident here. His history is only an explanation of why he is able to hold his own with the hard men he has chosen to oppose. But there is none of the altruistic motivation that would make him heroic in the classic sense. This western is post-modernistic in a way that is a quantum leap away from the post-modernism of UNFORGIVEN. It’s almost western-noir. Greed is the only motivation for the character who actually drives the story. Greed and the kind of dogged self reliance that Americans see as noble even in the absence of noble motives. Brolin makes you believe that he is both that Joe Six-Pack that lives down the road, and the kind of independent man who could survive when called upon to do so.

And Havier Barden as Chigurh (not inconsequentially pronounced as the carbohydrate more often than the correct “shoe-garr), the cold-blooded killing machine with a code of ethics that eschews morality, won the Oscar for his portrayal. From haircut to boots, from inside to outside, he gives us a vision of true evil that is as different but just as riveting as Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector. Almost every clip of the movie inclues his confrontation with the gas station owner. That’s both good and bad. It is the heart of the character. Random violence and the terrible capriciousness of it. But having seen this scene so many times robs it of some of its impact. Nevertheless, watching it play to its conclusion is still something of cinema that will haunt your dreams for years to come.

The supporting cast is also stellar. Darret Gilihunt plays Sheriff Tom Bell’s deputy, Wendell, and somehow stands his own with this extraordinary cast as a bit player the same way he did in THE ASSINATION OF JESSIE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. He reminds me of Peter Krause in his look and manner and perhaps that prejudices me to like him since I’ve been a fan of Krause since his days on SPORTSNIGHT but he still seems to pick roles that are subordinate yet memorable. Here the deputy he portrays is, as almost everything in the movie, not the typical role. He may be a half-step behind Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell but he is no Barney Fife. He sees what has happened enough to clarify what the audience has already realized, thus making sure that we are carried along.

Likewise Kelly McDonald as Clara Jean Moss, Llewlyn’s wife, is completely convincing in her role. It was surprising to hear her talk in her native lilting Irish brogue on the supplemental materials on the Blu-Ray disk. As a resident of the south for most of my life, I was completely taken in. Such a convincing performance is often overlooked by the Academy as it is by the audience. Sometimes an actor is simply too good and fools everyone. I was fooled. There is no greater imaginable praise for a performance.

In short, Rarely has a film been so profound and poignant. Rarely has a piece of theater rivaled Hamlet and Hitchcock in dealing with the vagaries and themes of life and death, choice and chance, violence and calm. No Country For Old Men is the pinnacle of the Coens’ genius for film and a pinnacle of the art of cinema. When NO COUNTRY is finished you have the sense that you have been carried away to another place, another time, to see the lives of other people. That is what film is all about. The stuff of dreams.

PERSONAL- Where have you been?

I have continued to battle my medical problems but I'm doing better now and want to thank everyone who has inquired as to my whereabouts.

My only question?

Where are the comments?

Oh, yeah. There hasn't been anything to comment on. So following this I hope to complete several posts that I have worked on in the interim but been unable to finish due to my state of health.

Again, thanks for the emails.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

SCIENCE- Vitamins and Diet (Part I)

In my business I hear a lot of generally held but blatantly wrong myths about science, health and diet. On of the most common is the idea that the modern diet is terrible. It is true that there are some failings in the diet of the common American- an overuse of preservatives, the addition of high fructose corn syrup into almost every processed foodstuff, the use of steroids and antibiotics on meat animals- but the American consumer has the most plentiful and varied diet in the history of the planet. And yet most Americans use dietary supplements frequently and many would say that their health is in danger without a daily multivitamin. Even though most don’t even know what vitamins are.

Through most of human history the problem wasn’t eating a balanced diet that would promote good health, it was simply getting enough food to continue to live. Food was food, and you either got enough or you didn’t. Most diets were monotonous and unless you were rich consisted of whatever was at hand. If you didn’t starve you were lucky and if you still died of a disease related to dietary insufficiency it was though of as being like any other disease- largely a mystery or the will of the gods.

But some people were not beyond noticing that certain diseases occurred in certain circumstances. One disease, Scurvy, gained notice when it started showing up among sailors during the late 1400’s. Scurvy, a disease characterized by teeth falling out, weakness, joint pain, bruising, and bleeding of the gums, was not unknown by the late 15th century. It had been commented on during the Crusades as a disease endemic to populations under siege. But until that time it had never been a particular problem for sailors.

One of the first instances of this new threat was noticed when Vasco DeGama’s made the first successful trip from Portugal to India in 1497. DeGama’s ship traveled around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, following the route pioneered by Bartholomeu Dias in 1488, and nine months later made port in Calicut, India with a significant portion of the crew sick with the disease.

Numerous accounts of a similar nature began to appear. Why was this disease suddenly striking shipbound men? It had never been a problem before and men had been sailing on ships for thousands of years. Now we know it was because the kind of sailing they were doing had changed. Until the 15th century, most ships had never sailed far away from the shore, which allowed them to supplement their usual rations of dried beans, salt pork and hardtack (an dry unleavened bread) with local vegetables from their frequent stops in port. With the advent of the European voyages of discovery, ships were suddenly embarking on much longer journeys, often far from sight of land. As a result, shipboard diets were more sevirely restricted to what could be carried on board.

The first clue to what was causing this pandemic of scurvy among seafaring men was found in 1535 when Jacques Cartier was exploring the St Laurence River. Finding themselves in what is now the Provence of Quebec in the winter of ‘35-36, Cartier’s crew was forced to eat shipboard rations for a prolonged period. The result was that twenty-five men died and over a hundred were rendered incapacitated by an outbreak of scurvy. The local Indians came to the rescue, having the men drink a potion of water and pine needles. Many of the sailors improved under this treatment. Unfortunately this was not enough of a remedy (and probably not very appetizing unless you were already suffering from the disease) so scurvy would remain the bane of seafarers and a not insignificant problem for land bound populations with poor diets for the next two hundred years.

Finally in 1734 another clue to what was causing this ailment was found by botanist J. G. H. Kramer during the War of Polish Succession. He noticed that officers were often immune to scurvy. He also connected the disease to diet, seeing that while officers’ meals included green vegetables, the enlisted soldiers did not. When he suggested that the lower ranks be given a diet more like the officers, he was ignored and undoubtedly laughed at. After all, fresh vegetables were expensive and expenses were not to be wasted on the common sailor. (A military idea that continues until our own time, as recent requests for body armor from our own soldiers might indicate.)

A Scottish medical officer was to find the next piece of the puzzle in 1747. Dr. James Lind took a dozen British navymen suffering from scurvy and divided them into pairs, giving each pair a different dietary supplement. The pair that was fed citrus fruits recovered. But Dr. Lind had no more success than Mr. Kramer when he tried to convince officers to add citrus fruits to the diets of the enlisted.

However, scurvy would soon become impossible to ignore for the British Navy. By the time of the American Revolutionary War, England was losing thousands of casualties to scurvy every year. For a maritime power this was a disaster. Some British captains had caught on to the fact that the monotonous diet of the sailors was the problem. Captain Cook had lost only one man to scurvy during his explorations by supplementing the shipboard diet with malt, sauerkraut, and fresh vegetables whenever possible. (The beer and sauerkraut didn’t do much to help, but he didn’t know that.) But the navy as a whole was still unwilling to give in. Conditions were deplorable overall. During the eighteenth century the British navy lost over 80 men to disease and desertion for every man killed in battle. Samuel Johnson was driven to remark that no man would serve in the British navy if he had the brains to get thrown into jail. He said that the jails had better food and company, more room, and less chance of drowning.

Finally these conditions resulted in a general mutiny in 1797. Through a combination of brutal retribution and minor concessions the navy averted a complete disruption. One of the demands given in to was a demand by the sailors for a ration of lemon juice for each man on ship. Well, it was given into after a fashion. In the time honored military tradition of being loathe to spend money on the enlisted, the navy compromised by supplying each sailor with a ration of limes (lemons being more expensive). And members of the British navy soon became known as limeys, a name they carry to this day.

But why people were getting scurvy was still a mystery. One that would continue into the nineteenth century. The problem was ameliorated for the men aboard British navy ships but scurvy remained a problem for economically disadvantaged people on land. Especially children who were not breast fed.

Monday, March 3, 2008

COMICS- Graphic Novel Roundup II

THE INFINITY WAR and THE INFINITY GAUNTLET- Jim Starlin writer, Ron Lim artist

Jim Starlin started his run on Warlock in Strange Tales back in 1975 and I can still remember buying those comics and thinking it was one of the best things ever done in the medium. Warlock had started out as one of the numerous creations that spun out of the Lee/Kirby FF, had been tried as a Counter-Earth Jesus by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane in a series that lasted only 8 issues, and had pretty much disappeared from the marvel universe after that. Starlin took the characters messianic backstory and built on it to create a complex tale of morality, religion, government, time travel, and surrealism. There were antagonists and protagonists, but no good guys or bad guys, and even after the story of the Magus was finished you still weren’t sure who had actually been right. Starlin reintroduced the character of Thanos from his stint on Captain Marvel in the guise of an ally for Adam Warlock and populated the world with interesting characters such as Pip the Troll (who’s image haunted me when I read Great Expectations in High School), Gamora, the Magus, and the High Inquisitor. There was even had an issue which lampooned Marvel Comics at the time as the Universal Church of Truth attempted to brainwash Warlock. The whole thing reads like something that would come out of DC’s Vertigo line years later. And after all these years have passed I stand by my adolescent assessment. It was one of the finest comics ever produced.

Unfortunately rather than reprint those volumes with better paper and color, Marvel has collected Starlin’s latter day Warlock sagas, THE INFINITY GAUNTLET and THE INFINITY WAR. The old gang is back but they aren’t really given anything to do. I have to admit, while there are several parts of the old Strange Tales Warlock story I remember vividly, after slogging through several hundred pages of these two graphic novels I’m left with only vague impressions of the story. I won’t attempt to give a plot synopsis (I never do) but if I did I think I could do it in a couple of lines. There is nothing that struck me as inventive or inspired, the plot travels ahead at a slow, steady pace with none of the twists and surprises of the old Warlock, and the conclusion is unsatisfying since nothing like a climax is ever reached. Ron Lim does the artwork in a sort of Rob Lefield Marvel house style that is only slightly reminiscent of Starlin’s art, with none of the power or composition of Starlin’s old layouts. But I don’t blame him for the glacial pace. There just isn’t enough story for the number of pages.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

POLITICS- Obamanomicon

The press certainly does seem to be making the case for an Obama upset in this week’s primaries, and lots of Democrats have made the case for that being the end of the race. (Even Bill Clinton.) And while we may never know how much of Hillary’s meltdown was actual and how much was the media reporting, she hasn’t come off well for the last couple of weeks. Meanwhile, Obama has been drawing crowds of 20,000 people. According to the media he’s gaining in every group. He’s a blank slate that all these follows are painting their own pictures on. The media is in love. The Obama juggernaut thunders on. Obamamania! The Democratic Reagan! Woooo!

Seriously, I think this misses the point. At the risk of just being another person to take a turn with the paint brush, I think Americans are just in love with the idea of something different. He’s running on a platform of hope and change and that is EXACTLY what America wants. So what if he doesn’t have any experience. Experience got us where we are. The last president we had that wasn’t a state governor was Nixon. Foreign policy experience is rarely needed to be governor. So everybody has to learn foreign policy on the fly in their first term. Obama seems to be a bright fellow and we understand that it’s not like he’s not going to be in the same situation that any other new president. Give him a shot. Bush has so lowered the bar for screwing up as president in the modern world that it’s hard to imagine Obama making things worse. And he is the most likely to respond to problems differently. One thing you can say about both Clinton and McCain is that they are going to respond in the same old ways we have. Health care be damned. Terrorism is the issue and Obama has a chance to reconnect with the rest of the world and if anything is going to be done about terrorism it’s going to have to be by most of the countries in the world working together. Obama is change. And for Americans who need hope, there’s no hope in where we’ve been headed for the last seven years. If Obama is the most different, then he’s the one to put your hopes into. None of them do what they say they are going to do after they are elected anyway.

I hope Obama wins the presidency because I’m sick of what the government has been doing and I’m willing to give somebody new a try. ‘Nuff said.