January 19, 2008

Fate and America: history according to the Coen Brothers in No Country for Old Men

Fate or fortune has been at the centre of our understanding of human history for so long that sometimes it is easy to forget. Minds as subtle and interesting as Thucydides, Polybius, Machiavelli and Tolstoy have sought to understand how fortune governs human history. How it elevates the humble and humbles the proud. The Bible in some of its most interesting book is a mere account of the control of fate by Jehovah- for St Augustine fate was a servant in the evangelical mission of Christianity- for Hegel it was the process which drew out synthesis from thesis and antithesis- for Marx it was the turning of the screw of class conflict. Fate or fortune might be explained but humans could never master it- they could never govern it- they might never as a character at the end of this movie complains meet God.

No Country for Old Men is about fate and its workings through history. Symbolised by a remorseless and brutal killer, whose dress cinematically hints at that other remorseless slaughterer Ingmar Bergman's Death in the Seventh Seal, its impact is truly devastating. It rips families apart and confounds the confident in their search for safety in a world where you get what is coming to you. His victims live in the slipstream of history- they live in the tides of events which sweep them off course and belie their confident plans and predictions. He is seemingly invulnerable- even when wounded he can treat himself with ease- he is not a homicidal maniac according to the voice of wisdom, the local sheriff, he is fate itself. And his victims respond with fear to him- the fear that they would award to fate. From the first frames of the movie, where a man in a bar tosses a coin for his life or for his death- the killer moves according to seemingly arbitrary choices made by his victims. Should you get in his way there is no need for him to kill you, but he has to kill you because of your failure to submit to inevitability. Your death in No Country for Old Men is absolutely inevitable- it is fated and almost all the characters accept that template.

Almost all- because one of the characters doesn't. And the key exchange of the film revolves around this character's decision. When she is confronted by the mysterious killer, instead of taking his gamble, instead of agreeing with him that her death would be accidental, she confronts him with the fact that this is his act. No matter whether she lives or dies, she wants to make him feel his moral responsibility. Throughout the film the murderer is reduced- to a madman, to an epitome of modern society where robbers walk in the street naked apart from dog collars to get attention, to a force of history ('things are always the same' says a friend of the sheriff at one point) but at one moment he is confronted with his own moral agency- with the fact that it is his decision not that of fate as to whether she lives or dies. Interestingly that is the only death or possible death that we don't see (we don't know if she lives or dies) because its the conversation before that matters. Whereas with the other deaths, they have become part of the story- the story of fate- in this case moral responsibility is the story and hence the exchange is more important than the event.

The film flips its attention- the Coen brothers are keen to leave motivations out of the film for the most part. Their characters are taciturn and live in a world where an eyebrow moving conveys the fall of the Berlin Wall- perfectly acted though by the end of the film these are not marionettes but human beings. The film starts with a sequence of characters who gradually grow into a story- but the organisation of the film is such that whereas at the beginning one feels the effects of fate, by the end one feels the effects of choice. Choice is of course unpredictable in its effects- and everywhere through the film choice becomes unpredictable. Taking money doesn't often lead to slaughter, taking on your murderer doesn't mean that he will seek out, pointlessly, to kill your wife. Staying in a hotel doesn't always lead to a massacre. As the film begins the murderer is an anonymous expression of the power of chance, by the end he has a moral character, he does things because he wills them not because he has to do them. What the Coen brothers create is a world that depends on lots of people taking different choices- whose set of choices add up to the events we see on the screen. No fate intervenes just the movement together of hundreds of little choices which chart a way to destruction. This story has an explanation.

But its explanation is not based on class nor is it based on some Hegelian progress of ideas but on the action of individuals. A great story develops out of small choices- moments of decision. It recalls C.S. Lewis's perceptive comment that your descendants could include a Hitler or an Aristotle without you intending either by your choice to have children. Randomness is a consequence of the vastness of the world and the way that your choices interfere and interact with other choices. It is not part of any plan- there is no one in control, no God manipulating things, no secret power behind the scenes- there is just human choice and all its unpredictable consequences. There is no way in No Country for Old Men to say that any particular moment leads to the outburst of violence- and we do not know what ultimately the violence stemmed from nor do we know why a large suitcase of money is sitting in a field somewhere in Texas. We don't know why the killer is involved- though we can assume that some debt of honour is involved- all we know is the series of choices which take people into the road in front of the juggernaut and the series of decisions taken by the murderer to murder. Decisions for which he is accountable ultimately.

The world of choice is ultimately more terrifying than a world controlled by even a mystical power. The killings in this film have no meaning as far as we can see- they don't need to happen. None of this film needs to happen. All of it is consequential upon some voluntary act. The Sheriff's depression which leads him to give up his job is precisely because of this. The United States is No Country for Old Men because an old man understands how arbitrary the process is. He understands that there are no guarantees even when shooting cattle- its always possible for the gun to slip, no one is invulnerable, no principle is sacred, no group all powerful. What if is not a purposeless question but is the heart of human history because there always could be another what if. And stories of course which suggest these conclusions to us are lies because they are just good stories (like the story with the bull) they are stories which indicate to us the fragility of telling stories. The stuff of history is too vast to know and appreciate in all its arbitrary glory- all we know is that we are alone, as if on a darkling plain, and we have choices to make- choices whose import we have no idea about.

Film as an art form is most appropriate to do this- to rip away the veil from human freedom and leave us exposed 'naked before the throne of God' (to quote Francis White), naked before our conscience. The Coen brothers in the film show the evolution of a historical understanding- showing how vast impersonal forces can be imagined by the historian as event piles on event. Showing how our search for explanation becomes a search to avoid the arbitrary nature of human freedom, how we attempt to govern anarchy through the imposition of rational ideas like fate. The point is that at the beginning of the film any viewer believes that there is some reason, some rationality behind the moments of savage slaughter. We believe that something could have stopped it, something could have prevented it, that if only we could think it out we could avoid it. The film doesn't imply that there are forces beyond our control- but shows us that there are no such things as certain ways out because ultimately we cannot be certain of the interior of other people's heads. And it is in other people's heads that we find either our salvation or our sorrow. Film, an art which marries together on screen story and characters (in a sense every actor is an author of his own character) is the perfect way to express this truth about the world and the Coen brothers have presented it wonderfully in this film.

The United States may be No Country for Old Men- but its also No Country for those who have watched this film- the view from the heights of experience and understanding is terrifying because it is so arbitrary. Yeats talked of a terrible beauty being born- its our privilege to watch it on screen.

January 17, 2008

Kevin Keegan Newcastle United Manager

Here he is in all his glory.

Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson's War does what it says on the tin. It is a film about the maverick Texan Congressman Charlie Wilson (for maverick read drunk on Whisky for twenty four hours a day, and fornicating for all the 24 he wasn't asleep during). The film portrays Charlie, a Texan charmer with a southern drawl, as an instinctually good man: sure he may employ women only in his office because you can teach them to type, but you can't teach them to have tits but only a fundamentalist Christian would object. Sure he may use his power as a member of the Defence Sub Committee for Appropriations with unchecked arbitrariness- but then again he uses it for good. Good ol Charlie has a bleeding heart, underneath the whisky, and can see through the thighs of a stripper to the agonies of Afghanistan. He can see it and once he sees it, he uses every ounce of his corrupt charisma to get Washington to see it.

For Charlie was not merely a maverick, a drunkard, a womaniser and a charmer: he was also the Congressman who took the United States to war in Afghanistan. Convinced by a sexy Texan socialite (played here with Cruella de Vil looks by Julia Roberts) who is happy to fuck him and wear scanty bikinis for him and by a renegade CIA man with undoubted anti-communist credentials, Charlie goes to war in Washington. He faces obstacles- some of the human obstacles (Rudi Giuliani and John Murtha) will be familiar to any students of today's American politics. (Incidentally Giuliani was trying to prosecute Wilson for taking drugs whereas Murtha was a colleague that our Charlie saved from an ethics investigation and so helped our Charlie on the sub committee). Charlie expanded the US covert ops budget in Afghanistan from 5 million to 500 million and set up an alliance spanning Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Just think about that alliance for a moment- as one of the Isreali characters in the movie says- Pakistan has never recognised us, Egypt invaded us ten years ago and every single assassin coming to kill me has been trained in Saudi Arabia!

The point is though that noone is invincible to Charlie's charm- not even General Zia the dictator of Pakistan. Charlie twists and turns through meeting after meeting- calling in Julia's bikini and the smile of a good ol boy doesn't work. And we see in working there on the screen. We see the guns arriving in Afghanistan. We see the missiles coming in. And we see the mujahadeen hitting helicopters with missiles- shocking the Russian soldiers who are sailing oblivious of the work of the US Congressman until their helicopter explodes in a new form of Texan fireworks. Afghanistan becomes a constituency of Texas- we even see Charlie take out a friend from Congress and both of them rouse a crowd the way that they would in Austin. The point is that through intrigue and through battling in Committees you can do as much as any agent in the field.

The history here is simplified beyond belief. There really can't be any question about its accuracy or not- because the reality was just more complicated. Of course the US weaponry ended up in the hands of the Taliban eventually. And the explosions in Afghanistan were a prelude to those in New York and London. Charlie Wilson though it has to be said bears little responsibility for that- he was responsible for funnelling money and not for the overall strategy. Furthermore Wilson wanted the US to reconstruct Afghanistan. To rebuild it and to build schools and hospitals there- for some reason, unexplored in the film, his reconstruction requests fell on stony ground. The old southern charm didn't work so well and it all failed. The film's story is one of triumph- though its tinged with sadness, towards the end of the film many characters make references to what followed- to the failure of the reconstruction effort and the rise of the Taliban. If the film has lessons for today- its in precisely that and for Afghanistan. Afghanistan once again has fallen and once again the world is turning away in frustration- Charlie's lessons still aren't being learnt. We heed his life and live in luxury- we don't heed his efforts to help the Afghan people.

Of course the film is simplistic in its political analysis- but at 97 minutes it could hardly not be. The performances are all good- even Julia Roberts does well here, exploring her evil side. She should take on more of these kinds of roles. Tom Hanks is brilliant- really demonstrating that ability to take on southern charm and give it an extra shot of Scotch. Hoffman is as always excellent and the script by Aaron Sorkin who wrote the westwing is quotable and amusing. This is not a great film- its not up there with such great political films as Citizen Kane or Nixon- but its a very good film and you'll definitely enjoy it. At times it is cloyyingly patriotic but that's the American style and boy does this film have style!

I'd reccomend Charlie Wilson's war- though with this last proviso- no matter how bloody and heroic those battles in committee in Washington were, just think about the battles in Afghanistan. And lets remember this time, we shouldn't desert these people to another round of tyranny- we need to make Afghanistan work and I'm sure Charlie with his hookers and his liquor will be cheering on from the sidelines should we do so.

Crossposted at Bits of News

January 16, 2008

Impossible Politics

Danny Finklestein suggests Al Gore as a possible VP pick for Barack Obama. Its not an implausible pick for Obama to wish that he could make- but there is a reason that noone has done three terms as Vice President- the job frustrates and infuriates its occupant more often than not. Furthermore having run for President once and turned down a good chance of the Democratic nomination this time, why would Al Gore want to run for Vice President again? If he really wanted a career in Washington he would have run for President- it strikes me that the chances he will run for Vice President alongside Obama are minuscule. Equally implausible is that John McCain (who don't forget needs to shore up his Republican base and whose health will be an election issue) would risk picking a liberal Democrat (on some issues) Joe Leiberman as his running mate.

There are people who look credible VPs at the moment- Jim Webb, Evan Bayh might be good Democratic names- but the paucity of good coverage in the UK press is reflected by the fact that when British journalists do talk about the possible VP picks of Presidential candidates they tend to suggest people like Leiberman and Gore who realistically are unlikely to be the second name on either ticket in November.

January 15, 2008

Undecided Voters

I didn't read this when it came out- but this is one of the most depressing articles about why people vote that I have ever read. Chris Hayes campaigned for John Kerry in 2004 and found that very few of the undecided voters knew anything about the issues- or even understood what an issue was. His record of his discussions with them is here and is equally depressing for the right and the left.

The Political Theory of Reservoir Dogs

Quentin Tarentino is a director that I wonder about and find difficult to work out: as this review will demonstrate his work alternately frustrates, antagonises and confuses me. To some extent I see him as the most conventional film maker around- he perfectly mirrors the kinds of angst that fill society today and in that sense his films are very interesting- even if because of that they are imperfect and almost unconsciously make points that their director doesn't intend. Reservoir Dogs is a film without much of a plot- there isn't much tension- a heist has gone wrong and about half way through the film we know who has made the heist go wrong. Its characters are deliberately emptied of anything apart from vagueness- in the service of the heist they lose their real names and become Mr White, Mr Orange, Mr Blonde, Mr Brown, Mr Blue and Mr Pink and they lose their identities. We never see the actual heist- we see blood drenched episodes after it, we see the escape from it, we observe the planning for it but the heist takes place off stage. Tarentino wants to frustrate us- he wants us to be 'fucked' with as he said in an interview- he wants us as strangely disorientated as his own character confesses he is by the song Like a Virgin (a point I have stolen from a review by Robin Gleason). He wants us emptied by the gaze of cool and turned in on ourselves reflecting on the hell of being abandoned in a warehouse with five thugs and five guns.

But its hard to get at more than that. Reservoir Dogs is not a gangster film- it is not a film about gangsters, nor about violence. There is violence in it but violence is not examined. Rather it is a film about the experience of being abandoned with a group of people alone and suspicious. It is about loneliness and suspicion. It doesn't really debate the idea of suspision as much as it could because these are characters deprived of their insides- they are characters bleeding their identities out- all of them in a sense are undercover. Rather its about the position of identity and identification within a world filled with isolation. It works by announcing that its main characters have no names, dispositions but no characters, and desires but not identities- they have actresses they fancy but no wives they love. The characters therefore within the movie are characterless, they are deprived of context, abandoned to each others' gaze and abandoned to each others' fear. The film is less a testament to the hell of other people, than to the hell of a state of nature. Its point is not about society- as here there is no society, noone has a role- as about society without social function, society without the state. The criminals abandoned feel the fear that Hobbes argued they would feel and go out in a blaze of gunfire.

There is something postmodernist about this vision- and I take it that Tarentino intends it that way. The dialogue is fractured and the speech doesn't reveal the direction of the plot (a conscious directorial decision on Tarentino's part). Anyone who reveals the truth is penalised by the logic of the plot and by the heist. The undercover policeman is the only good character and yet his raison d'etre is his equivocal relationship with the truth- the fact that he can inhabit and even convince himself of his own lies. Anyone who believes in absolute truth is deceived and the only real truths are found in murder and being murdered. But that postmodernist point leads to a very odd conclusion- because we are back in the world of Hobbes, where words have no meaning but those given them by a sovereign. The kind of epistemelogical anchoring that the boss, Joe, performs when he gives the gangsters their names, their colours, seems essential to the plot. Indeed to take the point further, one notices an echo of Genesis- Joe like God names the entities that he sees in front of him, like God he gives them meaning and when Mr White questions those names, like Lucifer, he brings the whole world down tumbling upon him (only in this case we are talking post Nietzsche so God too can be a victim).

That I think is one of the things that is so dissatisfying about the film- because it demolishes every structure in order to prove that all structure is artificial and that without structure there is only endless violence. In that sense, the film is profoundly conservative. Tarentino's argument is that without roles, human life is nothing but an endless struggle of murderer against murderer- roles and definition give us purpose and life. Its a counter enlightenment point- civilisation cannot be defended because its right, it must be defended because without it everything else collapses. Having said that Tarentino is aware of the fact that every role hides a disrespectful interior- the Gangland boss sits in an old world office and runs numerous businesses. The gangsters themselves laud their own professionalism. Everything that we know and love can be and is expropriated by evil- every role is corrupted but without that corruption, he implies, we cannot exist. The horror of confinement is better than the terror of equality- because equality leads as Hobbes argues to a suicidal desire for self preservation.

Reservoir Dogs attests to the unease of modernity- an unease that we have not dispelled. A central monument to being cool, its politics are deeply reactionary and its message is disquieting. If you are happy to surf on its dialogue that's fine- but sift beneath it and the vision is disquieting, the reality uncomfortable and the vision incredibly bleak. Yeats talked of a long sleep being stirred to nightmare by a rocking cradle- I wonder if Reservoir Dogs is another swing of that cradle.

January 14, 2008

The Balance of Power 2007

There is nothing particularly wrong with Policy Exchange's latest report on the balance of power between the left and the right across the OECD in 2007- however there are real questions about how much you can infer anything from it. Policy Exchange argues that the majority of the OECD is under the control of the centre right- a fair piece of analysis- though one has to add that were the United States to have gone Democratic in 2004 the majority of the OECD would be controlled by the centre left and don't forget how close the 2004 election was. In truth the US is evenly balanced between left and right. Furthermore there are real questions about whether this means anything- for instance a large number of citizens of the OECD live in Turkey where the big issue in the recent election was about secularism in Islam, an issue which few of the voters who will vote in November in the US will be concerned with. Local issues are often more important than people give them credit for: in South Korea for example relations with the North are very important. Governments like Aznar's in Spain often lose power thanks to miscalculations or like John Major's in the UK thanks in part to sleaze. Furthermore left and right mean different things in different places: many British conservatives would back the Democrats in the States and have always been hostile to Irish nationalism, many US Republicans would not have backed Erdogan in Turkey, and so on. Furthermore all this discussion doesn't reflect the other battle- that of ideas- between the left and the right. Leftwing governments as in New Zealand in the eighties can be very rightwing in practise- and no British Tory needs too much reminding of how leftwing conservative governments can be after listening to an old tape of Harold Macmillan!

Policy Exchange have provided a useful parlour game- I'm not sure its more than that!

January 13, 2008

Blogpower Roundup

A roundup chosen by the bloggers themselves of Blogpower's best posts of year is up here- I chose a post about the Robert Bresson film L'Argent, in part because I think its a good review, and in part because I think Bresson is one of the most important artists and film makers of the century and that he is deeply underappreciated.

As a bynote I should also say that the Carnival of Cinema is back- and there are some good posts especially complaints about Yahoo's list of the best movies of the last year.

Read both- in particular the Blogpower one- a fine collection of posts!