Monday, February 18, 2008

No Country For Bold Change
Or, why the 2008 Oscars and Election are the same thing

I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. You can say it's my job to fight it, but I don't know what it is anymore. More than that, I don't want to know.

A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, "O.K., I'll be part of this world."
- Ed Tom Bell

How fitting is it that this year's Academy Awards will be a near identical exercise to this year's Presidential Election? Barring any political equivalent of a writers' strike (in the form of another phony attack on US soil that will sink the country into the dark re-runs of martial law and the suspension of civil rights), November's election will most likely bestow a lofty honor upon a once impressive recipient for a recent effort that is wholly undeserving of the praise heaped upon it...just like next weekend's Oscar ceremony.

Before I continue this post, let me first state for the record that I am, and have for the past seventeen years or so, the biggest Coen Brothers fan I know. I have seen all of their films (yes, even The Ladykillers - which would have made Herbert Lom roll over in his watery grave) and I own all but one of their films (yes, not The Ladykillers - which would make Peter Sellers roll over in Herbert Lom's watery grave) and know their work well enough to know that Fargo, though a fine movie, isn't even in their top 50%. Yes, I adore the Coens and think their talent far exceeds that of most of their contemporaries. That said, No Country For Old Men should not win them their first Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director, even though it will. It's just not that great. Seriously. The Coens will be awarded the highest of highest entertainment accolades for (as Martin Scorsese did last year) their previous merits and past glories, rather than on the strength of their most recent achievement.

The truth of the matter is, as with American politics, the field of potential honorees is so bleak and uninspiring that it seems that the Academy (and American people) have to choose from a collection of, at best, mediocre "lesser evils." Sure, No Country is engaging, energetic, and entertaining. So is Obama. But that doesn't mean it's actually great. Far from it, the film's story is so full of holes that I spent the last half-hour of the movie wondering why Tommy Lee Jones' character wasn't killed in the El Paso motel room. Just because a movie has a big budget, a stylized production, clever editing, and snappy one-liners doesn't mean it's brilliant. Same goes for Barack Obama's campaign.

In the past few months, I have heard critics and friends alike laud this film to no end, throwing around superlatives like "masterpiece," "tour-de-force," and "cinematic perfection" with less discrimination than Peter Travers at a free Tarantino screening. Simply put, I don't get it.

No, no, no, I get the movie. I follow the plot and understand the characters as well as I possibly could and have seen it more than once so as not to accidentally miss anything. What I don't get is the praise. I'm watching the same movie as everyone else and everyone seems to love it, but I don't. I see through it. If Anton Chigurh is a man of such principled determination, why is he still after the bag of money after killing his employer Stephen Root? When was he called in to assist in the drug-deal-gone-wrong in the first place and why do the Mexicans have a transponder of their own? Why do the Coen Brothers feel the need to resort to old tropes like the dopey deputy and the ornery mother-in-law? Aren't they better than that? The answer is, I believe, yes. But not with this film. The same goes for Obama.

The constant refrain I hear from people when I raise chronology issues and inconsistent motivation questions regarding No Country is that the "plot isn't important" and that when I state that I thought the Sheriff Bell character was mostly superfluous I'm "missing the point." But I'm not missing anything. I get it. The futility of goodness, and even meaning, in a violent and disturbing world. Violence begets violence, revenge begets revenge and so forth. If one engages in human interaction, one is sure to be discouraged and disappointed. And ain't that the truth when it comes to our political process? Yes, I understand the movie. I also have problems with it. Do I think linear plot is as important as philosophical meanderings? Yes, I do. Do I think it's the worst movie ever made, no of course not. Nor do I believe that Obama is the worst person ever. But I certainly have problems with him.

I believe that, at the core, he is probably not a very bad man. In the past he worked as a community organizer in inner-city Chicago, vocally opposed an illegal, imperial war and stated that "nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people." But in recent months he has voted to fully fund the on-going occupation in Iraq, has threatened to bomb Pakistan, believes troop levels in Afghanistan should be increased, has followed Bush's bellicose lead by calling Iran "one of the greatest threats to the United States, Israel and world peace," and urged the UN not to condemn Israel for their barbaric siege on the innocent civilian population of Gaza. Are lofty ideals like "change" and "hope" more important than actual policy and substance? I don't think so. But is he better than Hillary? Sure. Does that make him good? No.

(No Country For Old Men, I admit, is a better film than There Will Be Blood which, just like the Clinton campaign, is an impressively massive and pretentiously self-possessed production that rests upon meticulous, fastidious, and painstaking direction which is ultimately overshadowed by the flamboyant performance by its fervid, uncontrollable, and sanctimonious leading man. And we all know that Bill isn't content with drinking only his own milkshake either.)

Obama's campaign relies on the merits of its past laurels, just as Sunday night's Oscars will go to Joel and Ethan for their previous work, not this last film (then again, why do we care what the Academy thinks? Raging Bull didn't win Best Picture and The Third Man wasn't even nominated). It's basically the same as saying, "hey, you were good once and we hope you're good again." In lieu of better choices (and all but shutting out what I think was the cinematic Dennis Kucinich of 2007, The Kite Runner, unable to get any real attention due to its subject matter, even though everyone who actually saw it loved it), the Academy will award No Country with its most prestigious honor on Sunday, just as this country will elect Barack Obama to its highest office in November...with or without my blessing.

And all that means is that we should all hope that better work lies in their (and our) future.

But for the time being, I simply can not forgive the current missteps from an otherwise impressive, if not exemplary, career. I would not have voted for the Coens this year were I in the Academy, just like I did not vote for Obama in the primary.

It just doesn't feel right. And I just can't put my soul at hazard.


W.A.i.A will be on vacation until next week. Hopefully Cheney won't bomb Iran while I'm away.



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