The Movie Club

No End in Sight
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 3 2008 2:52 PM

The Movie Club

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No Country for Old Men. Click image to expand.
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men

Dear Dana, Nathan, and Wesley,

Since it has fallen to me to speak last this round, I thought it might be apropos to start—or rather, finish—by talking about the endings to some of this year's best movies, since it seems to be a key thing that comes up in conversations about them. For instance, I received a memorable ALL-CAPS e-mail from a reader who did not "get" the ending of the new Coen Brothers film, and who, in turn, accused me of having slept through the ending msyelf or surely I would have noted in my review that the movie ended 12 minutes too soon. How exactly this temporal calculation was arrived at is something at which I do not hazard a guess. Still, this reader was hardly unique. My own father, whom I took to see No Country for Old Men (or No Place for Old Folks as he insists on calling it), remarked as the film arrived at its anti-climactic denouement: "Geez, I was really hoping he [meaning the Tommy Lee Jones sheriff character] was going to get that guy [meaning the cattle-gun-toting psycho played by Javier Bardem]." And even as far back as the film's premiere at Cannes last May, one colleague from New York wondered if the producers had considered forcing the Coens to "shoot the missing scenes" that would have allowed for the film's finale to play out on-screen in a more conventional fashion (an unlikely scenario, given that the Coens are among that elite company of filmmakers to have final cut over their work, and also given that their producer, Scott Rudin, is one of the few left in the business who seems to value art over commerce).

Now, in the interest of those readers who deem it sacrilege for a critic to reveal any "spoilers" about a movie's plot, I'll say no more about the specifics of No Country for Old Men except that certain key events in the film's third act—including the deaths of two major characters—occur off-screen, and that, for all its classical Western impulses, the film builds not to some High Noon-style shootout in the center of town, but rather to one character's discussion of a strange dream that haunted him the previous night. These are the sorts of departures from Hollywood Hitmaking 101 that tend to make studio suits nervous and leave moviegoers with their hands still in their popcorn bags and their mouths agape. And this fall, you didn't need to buy a ticket to No Country for Old Men to have that experience.

Actually, you could say that this trend toward the bleak or the simply unresolved in the movies of 2007 began with the March release of Zodiac, a movie that takes irresolution as its very subject. Then came No Country, Margot at the Wedding (which doesn't just end abruptly, but which jumps into many scenes midstride and cuts away before they've reached their logical stopping points), The Mist (a movie so unsparing in its portrait of mankind in crisis that one can scarcely believe it issued from the hand of preternaturally cheery Frank Darabont), and the granddaddy of them all, There Will Be Blood, the final 20 minutes of which are a line drawn in the sand between those who feel Paul Thomas Anderson's turn-of-the-century oil-prospecting epic goes off the rails and those who consider it one of the defining masterpieces of recent American cinema. (As one of the latter, I must direct all interested parties to Richard Schickel's superb review over at Time, with extended notes on the significance of the ending.)

What does all this mean? Well, if you follow the logic of Movie Clubber alumnus Jonathan Rosenbaum in his controversial No Country for Old Men review over at the Chicago Reader, our unresolved state of affairs in the Middle East may be partly responsible for the sheer number of psycho killers, psycho evangelists, and psycho oilmen who've been lighting up our movie screens these past 12 months. And perhaps, by extension, it applies to the endings—or lack thereof—of those stories too, as the title of one acclaimed Iraq documentary (No End in Sight) succinctly posits. Or it could be that most of the filmmakers we're talking about here have been either explicitly or implicitly influenced by the "new American cinema" of the late 1960s and early 1970s—Alan Pakula's All the President's Men is the principal influence on Zodiac—with its preference for reality over fantasy, character over plot, and its active experimentation with the language and structure of film storytelling. In those movies, as in many of the best of 2007, there was an open, searching quality: You got the sense that the characters had come from somewhere and, at the movie's end, often had somewhere left to go. This is the antithesis, of course, of what they teach in film schools and how-to-be-Paul-Haggis screenwriting seminars, but it's the kind of thinking that can lead to great art, if not necessarily great box office.

That brings us, I suppose, back to the question of youth, and while I agree with everyone that this was a banner year for movies made by directors of all ages, I must part company from Nathan (and to some extent Wesley) when it comes to pissing on the graves of the old masters in favor of the hipper, fitter up-and-comers. It's no secret that I don't have much affection for Southland Tales, but overall I feel like I saw fewer truly impressive films by younger directors in 2007 than I did by those old enough to be collecting their pensions. As I blogged midway through this year's Toronto Film Festival, the most adventurous—dare I say, radical—works of cinema on display in that annual celluloid meat market were the work of filmmakers age 65 and up. (One of them, already cited by Nathan, was George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead.) And while I didn't get around to mentioning them at the time, I would also include the latest films of two directors mentioned by Dana—Sidney Lumet and Manoel de Oliveira—in that assessment.

There are, of course, no hard and fast rules about such things, and generally speaking most filmmakers do accomplish their greatest work in the early part of their careers. But even Fincher is already 45, and it seems that by the agreement of us four here, Zodiac is the best of his six feature films to date. Dana, since Nathan and Wesley have already so eloquently defended Zodiac in their posts, I won't drone on about it, except to say that I understand your resistance to Fincher, because I myself have long been an enthusiastic yet skeptical supporter of this prodigiously talented director. To paraphrase critic David Thomson writing about another filmmaking wunderkind, Lars von Trier, the pre-Zodiac Fincher sometimes struck me as being "brilliant in a way that gives that term a bad name"—by which I mean that, while there has never been any doubt about the fact that Fincher was, as a colleague of mine likes to say, "born to shoot," his movies The Game, Fight Club,and Panic Room left me wondering if Fincher's natural aesthetic talent would ever find the ideal vessel in which to express itself. Zodiac,for me, is that movie—a portrait of obsession drawn by a filmmaker known to be something of an obsessive himself, and also the first of Fincher's films since Seven to seem more interested in people than in the possibilities of style and of storytelling trickery. Even that isn't quite putting it right, because Zodiac is—maybe above all—an exercise in style, but it is one in which the style is so exhilaratingly of a piece with the content, in which form so exactly follows function, that it becomes impossible to tell the one from the other.

Unlike, say, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in which the style is caked on like a heavy plaster. I'll have more to say about that film, aborted fetuses, and dwindling audiences in a later post. Now, please excuse me as I go erase the spray paint from Ousmane Sembene's tomb.

Scott

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