Saturday, August 10, 2013

"No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood," and the Myth of America

Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Coen BrothersNo Country for Old Men were top U.S. films in 2007. They competed mainly with each other for most of ‘07s top critics and audience awards. They also both did well at the box office, although they weren’t quite blockbusters. Both films are inspired by or based on works of literature, Upton Sinclair’s Oil! and Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name, respectively. Both films were made by established directors who I would argue might be just entering their peak filmmaking years. Both films have amazing cinematography and top-notch performances by excellent casts. Both films are very, very violent. And, like any other era’s great films, they both have something to say about the times in which they were made and released.

One important similarity both films share is that they both take place in deserts. For generations, America has been regarded as the Land of Opportunity, with streets paved with gold, a chicken in every pot, rivers of milk and honey, brass rings, champagne wishes and caviar dreams. Show me the money! Who wants to be a millionaire? Welcome to Hollywood!

The desert, on the other hand, is a great metaphor for the concept of scarcity, a key component of modern economic thought. In the machinery of capitalism, resources are privately owned and distributed based on market conditions. Deserts can support life, but it’s not a garden where anyone can stroll by and pick the fruits of bountiful trees for free. The wealth is there, but it’s concentrated, and must be fought for. It helps to be very lucky or ambitious to the point of psychosis to get it and keep it. By placing their stories in the American desert, both films address a question that is asked all the time in wealth seminars, financial management books, and TV reality and game shows - how far are you willing to go to get rich?

For Daniel Plainview, the protagonist of TWBB, the answer is as far as his personal ambition and gifts for business will take him. Plainview is a model capitalist, pulling himself up by his bootstraps and accumulating his wealth through sweat and toil, the way it’s supposed to be done in America, according to some standards. I think Ayn Rand would have approved of Plainview and his behavior in the movie, particularly the last scene. At the same time, Plainview also reminds me a lot of Charles Foster Kane. Both characters have titanic egos and a nasty streak of emotional hypocrisy, demanding absolute fealty from, while also reserving their most venomous rage for, the people closest to them. And despite their roles in society, both characters share less-than-flattering views of their fellow man. Kane views them as stepping stones to his own glory, Plainview as tools to build the fortress he’ll use to keep them out.

I still haven’t decided if Plainview has to leave behind a lot of what makes humans human in order to accomplish his goals, or if he was ever capable of human compassion to begin with. His makeup is similar to the 1990’s dot-com entrepreneur or venture capital big shot for whom nothing matters but the bottom line, who works 16 hours a day to “make it” and is celebrated as a model for the American Dream no matter who or what gets stepped on along the way.

In There Will be Blood, wealth is the end result of systemic effort, while violence and death are mostly random accidents. In No Country for Old Men, the situation is reversed. The story concerns Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam veteran at the low end of the economic scale who is out hunting in the desert and happens to come across, and take as his own, a large sum of money left abandoned as the result of a botched drug deal. As a result, he enters the purview of a hit man named Eton Chigurh, a killing machine who approaches his task with the thoroughness, dispassion, and inevitability of a death-row guard pulling the electric chair lever to “on.”

Chigurh's signature tools are a silencer-equipped shotgun and a cattle gun, a device created as an efficient, industrial way of slaughtering cows at the meat packing plant, and (in this case) the human sheep who walk around town every day. I’m still trying to process just what Eton is. I think it would be trite to say that Chigurh is a "ghost of death," but I kept thinking that this entity is mostly the logical result of a society that worships guns and their ability to enforce social norms and “justice.” And what is the crime for which an otherwise law-abiding, working-class veteran deserves to be relentlessly pursued? Could it be the sin of unearned wealth? In the American philosophy, money is the root of all evil, and there’s no such thing as getting something for nothing. In NCFOM, money and violence follow each other hand in hand in a path of destruction.

There’s a certain inevitability to this violence as well. I was struck by how, throughout the film, the town sheriff is in no great hurry to get to the bottom of the deaths that begin piling up in his district. To him, and many of the town’s citizens, waves of violent death by firearms (or cattle gun) are something to be endured like a draught or a tornado – do what you can to prepare, but there’s no reason to get too worried about something you’re never going to control.

The tenor of both of these films is familiar to past classics like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or the riveting Wages of Fear in their depiction of men, all desperate in their own way, enduring hostile environments to reach for their piece of the American Dream®. Both films emphasize the view that wealth must be fought for and paid for in blood. It’s almost a practical application of the theory of conservation of matter – possession of a large quantity of those green and white tickets that represent legal tender for all debts public and private requires an equal measure of something else. A certain amount of desperation and sacrifice is required, and in the end if you’re not smart enough or lucky enough to get on the gravy train, that’s just the nature of the game.

Today, most U.S. citizens don’t need to be lectured about the dark side of capitalism. Between the economic realities of the Dot-Com Crash, The Eternal War on Terror, The Real Estate Crash, skyrocketing gas and food prices, and the most recent recession, the average American has front-row seats to witness the limits of prosperity. In that sense, NCFOM and TWBB are very much of their era in their depiction of desparate men trying to get their piece of the pie. Moreso than recent documentaries like or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, these two films capture the spirit of this particular chapter in American history, using fiction to personalize the idea of a nation walking around in the desert.

1 comment:

  1. You mentioned that both films had beautiful cinematography. I think it's so interesting that the directors of the two films almost always use the same cinematographers (Deakins for the Coens and Elswit for Anderson). I wonder if being an "auteur" has anything to do with keeping your crew close.

    I know that has little to do with your interesting post, but it was something you made me think of.