So Christmas has finally come and gone, and with it the end of first term at New Institution. My workload has briefly subsided, but the post-class period demanded a mad dash of more than 80 hours of marking in a week and in many ways I'm still recovering from it. Come January, I'll have six courses, up from five this term, which augurs for a repeat of the end of term insanity unless I can figure out a way to coordinate a more professor-friendly calendar rather than the student-friendly one I ran with this time. Is that selfish? Probably, but it's a necessary selfishness, I fear. That means, though, that I'm going to have to be something of a so-called "hard-ass" next term. I'm sure that'll thrill my future charges.
Onto another matter. Now and then, something happens culturally that makes me feel very much like an odd man out, particularly when critical and general responses are largely laudatory while mine is ambivalent or worse. Such is the case of No Country For Old Men, a movie I find myself unable to like. Certainly, there are many admirable things about it, including the performances, the cinematography and the direction. In many ways, it's a study in stillness and silence which surely makes the interruptions of violence seem far more brutal than they otherwise might be. It's also perhaps the most genuinely nihilistic film I've seen in years, even outpacing the dark-comic-cum-revenge-tragic Before The Devil Knows You're Dead.
So, what's missing, or what am I missing? There's something passionless about the whole project, something too artificial by half, that I find too distancing, and consequently dull, as the vastness of it all seems to choke off any capacities for empathetic or visceral response. There's nothing purgative about the movie, which I suspect is supposed to be the point, but it ends up short-circuiting anything emotive or ostensibly "satisfying," using that word in the largest dramaturgical sense rather than the colloquial one. As a meditation on violence and chance, it works, I guess, but only in the sense that A History of Violence did, another film whose praise I did not understand and thought inexplicably effusive. Everything is treated with a kind of clinical coolness that's supposed to be intellectual or at least objective, but the result is counter-intuitive and anti-climactic. Yes, that's probably a mimesis of the film's nihilism, but it renders the film little more than a mental exercise, and irresolute and intractable one at that. That's probably why the film ends with Tommy Lee Jones describing a dream, as if provoking us to decipher the dream when it's probably just a disconcerting koan. Violence is swift, arbitrary, discordant, beyond the limited methods of rational understanding; it just happens, both within and beyond the pale, as incidental as a mosquito bite. No wonder the withered "hero" of the piece (Jones) is so ineffectual; he's supposed to be, lest the film suggest that violence can be countenanced or confronted. It just simply is, and we're left to respond to it with the troubled indifference that the Jones character does. The film's violence is the stuff of waking nightmare, and just as preventable. And yet, like a nightmare, the film is visually vivid but oddly alienating. I reached the end of it wondering, beyond the intellectual circularity (to say nothing of defeatism) of it all, why I should care. That's the problem with the film, and nihilism generally; they both have only themselves as their own rewards. It's a peculiarly tepid reminder that nihilo ex nihilo, nothing comes from nothing.
I realize I'm nearly alone in this response. No Country for Old Men (its title torn from Yeats) feels too much like a crossword puzzle or a sudoku, admirably constructed to be sure but manifestly trivial; it resolves itself rhetorically, pointlessly, a resolution for resolution's sake; it is the sum of its parts and nothing more. It's thoughtful but not insightful, and because of its mimetic approach to its central themes, too aloof to be involving and too significant to be finally substantial. There's a scene near the end where one of the characters, I won't say who, is encouraged to call head or tails on a coin flip to determine his or her fate. The character's refusal to do so is supposed to suggest a refusal to play by the fatalistic rules of the villain's game. Ultimately, however, the character seems to reflect the Coen brothers' abnegation of the rules of their own cinematic game, and while that's laudable, even admirable in a way, it's probably also why the film is so staunchly unsatisfying. It invests our time and offers nothing afterward, perhaps like life itself, and while I suspect that's supposed to be disquieting, it's just barren and dyspeptic, offering experience but disavowing meaning. Maybe that's what's most profoundly unsatisfying about the movie: it's all unjust just-ness, just a darker version of Fargo, or a less gripping version of Blood Simple; it's all just a moody parable, a stilted and relentlessly ambivalent allegory of nothing signifying nothing. It all just is-- passionless, pointless and surprisingly painless. And if the film doesn't care, why should we? Or maybe it's just a coolness which I can neither countenance nor confront, except as an intellectual exercise, passionlessly, pointless and, yes, painlessly. It's all too easy when one simply doesn't care.