Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Signs You're Spending Too Much Time Online

(Click for a larger view.)

From 3-27-08. It this reminds you of yourself, it might be time to follow Neil Postman's advice and take a break from technology for a day (the delirium tremens go away after a while).

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

A Philosopher Fool and his Tooth are Soon Parted

…Brother, men
Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief
Which they themselves not feel; but, tasting it,
Their counsel turns to passion, which before
Would give preceptial medicine to rage,
Fetter strong madness in a silken thread,
Charm ache with air and agony with words:
No, no; 'tis all men's office to speak patience
To those that wring under the load of sorrow,
But no man's virtue nor sufficiency
To be so moral when he shall endure
The like himself. Therefore give me no counsel:
My griefs cry louder than advertisement.

Therein do men from children nothing differ.

I pray thee, peace. I will be flesh and blood;
For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently,
However they have writ the style of gods
And made a push at chance and sufferance.

Much Ado About Nothing, 5.1, 21-39

I've always loved that toothache line, and the preceding speech is so great it couldn't resist quoting at least a little. (And I've played or read both the characters above, actually!)

I haven't been blogging much recently, due to some dental issues and a dying computer. That's my excuse this time, anyway. The wisdom teeth are now out and a new computer is on the way, both of which are good, but insurance companies always find creative ways to charge ya for necessary procedures, so my bank account is far from happy.

Still, dental pain is just nastier than several other types, so I'm happy to move from fairly excruciating to soreness and dull aches with some happy pills (actually, I haven't needed many). But damn, you'd think I was in a nursing home for all my health whining the past month. I feel bad for those with no insurance, and I know that plenty of people have it far worse off than I. Gotta keep it in perspective.

Well, at least I provided some Shakespeare, and now continuing the dentistry theme, we'll go to film, specifically Marathon Man (1976). It's an odd, uneven film, but features a few memorable scenes, and a script by William Goldman, based on his own novel.

The late Roy Scheider is good as always, but the stars are Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier, who had very different approaches to acting. There's a famous story most actors will have heard that Hoffman went "method," and stayed up all night on a bender to get into character, and came in looking bedraggled. When Oliver saw him and asked him what happened, Hoffman explained. Olivier responded, "My dear boy, you really should try acting," or something to that effect. According to IMDB, Hoffman has since denied this story, although he says he was indeed up late many nights because he was going through a divorce from his first wife and was depressed. As to the credibility of Hoffman versus Goldman, I've heard enough tales about both (and have heard Goldman speak three or four times), I have to trust Goldman much more, even if he might get details wrong here and there. Goldman sometimes does the cranky old man shtick, but entertainingly so, since he's not interested in sucking up to anybody. He's refreshingly candid, and frequently tells tales on himself.

In any case, on to the clips! In this first one, the sound goes out at one point, alas. But for sheer evil, it's hard to beat a Nazi dentist! Man! If you have severe dental anxiety, you won't want to watch these:

What makes this is a great scene for study for me is Olivier's vocal performance. He says "Is it safe?" several times, but each time he means something slightly different. My first director/acting teacher described this as saying a line with "intention," a tool for attacking the subtext. Using "neutral scripts" is also a neat acting exercise for highlighting this approach: playing the lines, but in specific circumstances, with specific dynamics (which may shift). There are many effective methods of acting, and I've found most good actors develop a grab-bag of techniques they find work for them. Still, I've always really appreciated good voice work, and most British training spends a great deal of time on developing one's voice and reading the text carefully. (Peter O'Toole was just on Charlie Rose, and was talking about this; O'Toole goes off to his study and memorizes the whole script, feeling the words aloud for a few weeks, as the first step of his process.)

The IMDB trivia page claims the filmmakers trimmed down the dentistry scenes because they were just too much for the test audiences. On that note, here's a slightly later scene:

Like Stephen King (and Goldman adapted Misery, actually), Goldman often puts things that scare him into his scripts. Hence the Nazi dentist. Goldman's told the tale that once he had some pain and reluctantly had to go the dentist. This was after Marathon Man had come out. The dentist asked Goldman if he wrote "that movie." Goldman had to admit he did. The dentist said he didn't want to treat Goldman, because then everyone would assume Olivier's character Christian Szell was based on him!

In any case, while smoke from a drill or seeing a fairly fit man yank with all his might as he struggles to pull a tooth from your mouth are both rather unsettling, dentistry is much less fearsome than it used to be. Well, other than the bill.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Eclectic Jukebox 3/27/08

Steve Martin — "Dentist!"

From Little Shop of Horrors. Recapping my life of the past two weeks...

Eclectic Jukebox

Lovable Saint McCain

Via Howard Kurtz, actually, here's one of the best pieces I've read recently on McCain. It's from Kevin Drum on 3/24, and I'll quote it in its entirety:

McCAIN'S CRED.... Via Steve Benen, MSNBC analyst Chuck Todd tells us why John McCain can get away with routine demonstrations of abject ignorance, like his recent proclamation that Iran is supporting al-Qaeda in Iraq:

Even if he gets dinged on the experience stuff, "Oh, he says he's Mr. Experience. Doesn't he know the difference between this stuff?" He's got enough of that in the bank, at least with the media, that he can get away with it. I mean, the irony to this is had either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama misspoke like that, it'd have been on a running loop, and it would become a, a big problem for a couple of days for them.

Italics mine. Let's recap. Foreign policy cred lets him get away with wild howlers on foreign policy. Fiscal integrity cred lets him get away with outlandishly irresponsible economic plans. Anti-lobbyist cred lets him get away with pandering to lobbyists. Campaign finance reform cred lets him get away with gaming the campaign finance system. Straight talking cred lets him get away with brutally slandering Mitt Romney in the closing days of the Republican primary. Maverick uprightness cred allows him to get away with begging for endorsements from extremist religious leaders like John Hagee. "Man of conviction" cred allows him to get away with transparent flip-flopping so egregious it would make any other politician a laughingstock. Anti-torture cred allows him to get away with supporting torture as long as only the CIA does it.

Remind me again: where does all this cred come from? And what window do Democrats go to to get the same treatment the press gives McCain?

That's a great summing up. As to how we wound up in this mess, let's turn to Bob Somerby at the Daily Howler on 3/24:

WE DON’T TRY HARDER: In this morning’s New York Times, John Harwood authors a fairly standard piece about John McCain’s current advantages. But at one point, Harwood offers an unintentional, stinging indictment of liberal and Dem Party leadership:

HARWOOD (3/24/08): Democratic operatives have prepared a sustained attack against what they call myths underlying Mr. McCain's reputation for straight talk. ''It's going to take a while to tear that down,'' said Jim Jordan, a consultant who will lead a Democratic Party advertising campaign to aid its nominee. Lamenting the Clinton-Obama fight, Mr. Jordan added, “That's why it would be nice to get this over with as soon as possible.”

That highlighted statement is revealing—and sad. Speaking of McCain’s undeserved “reputation for straight talk,” Jordan makes this pitiful statement: ''It's going to take a while to tear that down.''

If only people of Jim Jordan’s ilk had thought of that ten years ago!

As everyone on earth must know by now, McCain has been relentlessly pimped—as an authentic straight-shooting straight-talker—for at least the past dozen years. This pimping hasn’t been done by the RNC; it’s been done by the mainstream press corps. No one has ever really disputed the claim that the mainstream press corps pimps McCain hard. Indeed: All the way back in May 1998, Brother Chas Pierce wrote a tongue-in-piece profile for Esquire, entitled “John McCain Walks on Water.” Once again, this was May 1998—a year before the start of McCain’s first White House run. But even then, Brother Pierce was rolling his eyes at the way the big pundit corps pandered:

PIERCE (5/98): By any standard, McCain has become a star in that increasingly elastic firmament in which politics is emulsified with modern celebrity. His national profile never has been higher. His influence—particularly among the nation's chattering classes—at times seems comically powerful. He sends Don Imus into stammering flummery, and he turns Tim Russert into a puddle on the floor. During the 1996 campaign, when McCain was Bob Dole's most effective surrogate, Michael Lewis of The New Republic wrote about McCain more rapturously than he'd once written about his second wife's derriere.

“The nation's opinion makers have come to regard him as more than simply a reliable source of informed commentary,” Pierce wrote. “Instead, they look to him as a source of moral witness.” Again, Pierce wrote this in the spring of 1998, long before the full-blown fawning which defined press coverage of McCain’s first White House run. The press corps has always fawned to McCain. And everyone always has known this.

Everyone has always known this—except, of course, for your Dem Party leadership. Only now, in the spring of 2008, do these slumbering city mice announce that “it's going to take a while” to tear down McCain’s reputation. Voters have heard that McCain is a saint for ten years. Today, Jordan gears for the fight!

But this has been the shape of Dem Party leadership over the course of the past two decades. This also reflects the type of “leadership” which has come from liberal and progressive “intellectual elites.” To all appearances, these elites just don’t really care—they don’t really care who wins our elections. They’ve mal-adapted that old Avis slogan. We’re number two—and we don’t try harder.

The RNC (and the rest of the conservative world) would never have tolerated the sanctification of some Big Major Democrat of McCain’s type. But liberals and Dems have stared into space as McCain has been endlessly vested with sainthood. By any normal interpretive standard, our liberal/Dem elites just don’t seem to care. Judged in any normal way, they don’t care who wins our elections.

We’ll be exploring these themes all week. We’ve been number two—and we haven’t tried harder! Why is that? we’ll ask all week. Why is Jordan gearing up for a fight about McCain’s public profile long after the fight has been lost?

Somerby's the best source I've found for documenting the fraud of the original "Straight Talk Express" over which so many journalists still gush. Basically, back in 2000, when McCain was trumpeting that everything would be "on the record," he'd occasionally ask for something to be taken off the record, or the press, liking McCain, would cover for him even when his remarks was newsworthy. I'm hoping Somerby will recap some of his greatest hits (if not, I'll dig up my favorite). Regardless, this is the biggest challenge we face in this election season, and it'll be the same whether it's Clinton or Obama as the nominee. The press loves McCain, and they will cover for him to ridiculous lengths. The SNL sketches depicting the press fawning over Obama were comedic exaggeration, but that fawning's highly relative. Obama fandom among the press is nothing compared to their worship of McCain. Howard Kurtz, who gushes over McCain quite a bit, has repeatedly insisted that the press was shamed by the SNL sketches and 'toughened up' on Obama as a result (over shallow versus substantial issues, of course, as noted by John Amato, Glenn Greenwald and Digby). We need to create the same shame over McCain. Kurtz belatedly recognized the seriousness of McCain's "gaffes," although he could have found out the same if he merely read major liberal blogs or had simply bothered to take seriously the Americablog post he initially dismissed in disgraceful fashion (ignoring Obama's response, among many other things). Kurtz is the norm in this respect.

Sadly, when it comes to our major pundits, and far too many journalists, there's plenty they should feel ashamed of, but let's start with this. As I've written before, the press always tries to play kingmaker, they don't mind lying to do so, and their judgment is consistently disastrous. Let's consider that they picked Bush not once, but twice, and despite the devastation Bush has left on a staggering number of fronts, some of them are still reflexively disparaging even moderate liberalism, denouncing the most tepid of oversight, and bucking for a third Bush term in McCain. We can't really afford our three trillion dollar war or nine trillion dollar national debt either, but we definitely can't afford any more of the radical, reckless Bush/Cheney regime. Let's accurately report matters, challenge McCain on everything, and press the media on why they aren't doing the same.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Truth By Any Other Name

(Graphic by Tengrain. Head to the Blog Against Theocracy website for more posts. And thanks again to Blue Gal.)

I've written far more about religion and for the previous Blog Against Theocracy blogswarms than I would have anticipated when I started blogging. I want to take a different tact this time, and won't recap all of those previous pieces, but there are some line-in-the-sand issues that bear repeating.

As First Freedom First puts it, the First Amendment provides for "the freedom to worship, or not." The Constitution is religion-neutral. The separation of church and state protects religious folk and atheists alike. Freedom of religion does not allow one to violate civil law; religious people have the same rights everyone else has in America, they just don't have privileged rights and greater legal power due to their professed faith. For example, science curricula should be decided by science teachers, who should not have to please one religion's adherents, who in turn are free to teach their religion's creation story in their places of worship. The United States can be called a Christian nation by demographic, but by demographic only. Not only was it not founded with a state religion, it was deliberately founded not to have a state religion, hence the establishment clause of the First Amendment, and the later popularity of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Opposing theocracy is not anti-religious. Theocracy is in fact, anti-American, and opposing it is patriotic.

That said, I wanted to move toward an issue that I was reminded of by the ongoing holy wars between Clinton and Obama supporters. I'm being slightly facetious, and the subject's redundant for many Blog Against Theocracy participants, but I wanted to explore issues of respect and tolerance for both belief and non-belief. One tool for this is noting the differences between one's own personal experience, the climate in a given community, and what occurs on the national stage.

I'm writing this because I know devout friends, family and liberal bloggers who have expressed frustration with feeling their faith was denigrated, to their minds, in places where they worked or communities where they lived. Not the type to proselytize, for them faith is a quiet and personal matter. They've complained of an attitude that holds that religious faith denotes a lack of intelligence.

Here I feel I must distinguish between people of faith in general, and religious authoritarians, who are generally politically conservative. Most importantly, there's a huge difference between people of faith in general and scriptural literalists, who are far more likely to be dogmatic, to be theocrats, and to push an authoritarian agenda of social control. This doesn't describe all religious conservatives, but it does describe the key players in the "Religious Right" of movement conservatism.

Assuming one isn't a scriptural literalist, there's no necessary contradiction between being a person of faith and one of reason, since they're very different paradigms. Consequently, I'm sympathetic to my devout friends and family in their complaints, and do not doubt the truth of their personal experience.

However, I also know that dynamic is hardly the norm on a national scale, where theocrats and political conservatives have unfortunately dominated discussions of "faith" as if they were its true and only representatives. Every year, Fox News and other conservative outlets launch faux alerts about a "War on Christmas" or even a "the cultural obliteration of Easter." Wails about how Christians are persecuted in America and Christmas is disappearing must strike American Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists as rather funny. And then there's atheists. The occasionally eloquent crackpot Christopher Hitchens is hardly the model of diplomacy in either his imperialist politics or his atheism, but he certainly isn't representative of atheists in that respect. The vast majority of non-believers simply want to be left alone, thank you very much, and allow others to live the lives they want within the bounds of Constitution. In contrast, theocrats insist that they should be able to dictate how others should live and effectively seek to overthrow the Constitution. When it comes to Christian Dominionists and other theocrats, they are the persecutors, not the persecuted.

On the national scale, national politicians pander to the religious all the time, and feel comfortable denigrating atheists. Mitt Romney's anti-JFK speech is the perfect recent example, where he said:

Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.

The above-linked post delves into this in more depth, but I hold no sane, honest intelligent person could sincerely utter such statements, given how even a casual knowledge of history, philosophy, anthropology or current events shows otherwise (not to mention common sense). There's nothing wrong with taking pride in one's religion, of course, or even in stating "I believe my faith makes me a better person." But freedom and morality are not dependent in any way on religion, which has in fact often opposed both. Some accounts of Romney's speech thankfully picked up on his pandering and bigotry, but other outlets, such as the AP, presented his speech as an affirmation of his supposed beliefs in the separation of church and state and religious tolerance. The MSM is often shallow, but long-time news viewers will be familiar with many a pander to the religious, many a slam against atheists, and many instances where it's simply a given for all the talking heads involved that religious people are more "moral" or that non-religious people are not. Ridiculous straw man representations of atheists are sadly acceptable even among people who should know better, perhaps out of the tired false equivalency that everyone's equally to blame, or the silly narcissism that holds that secularism is a religion and all forms of belief are the same.

So, I am sympathetic to the devout who feel insulted or are lumped in with the theocrats, especially the devout who oppose theocrats. But I'm frankly more sympathetic to the atheists on the whole, and hold that tolerance of atheism and protection of and respect for non-believers is the most important gauge of America's observance of Freedom of Religion. Politically speaking, theocrats should always be challenged, but since they will always squawk (falsely) that religion is being attacked, it's prudent to critique them without bashing religion as a whole. Most theocracy opponents handle this distinction pretty gracefully, in my experience, and an anti-theocracy minister or two out there explaining the difference certainly helps — especially with our shallow media.

I've written about this in other posts, and I didn't originate the idea, but literature classes may be one of the best methods for combating scriptural literalism and religious intolerance. Studying literature can teach a tolerance for ambiguity and an understanding that words may be symbolic, a story may be an allegory, and an image may be a metaphor. While we're sadly always likely to have authoritarians around, a good lit class or two might decrease their ranks. As Karen Armstrong points out in this interview, widespread scriptural literalism is a relatively new development in religion, dating back to the 18th or 19th Centuries. Prior to that, it was much more common for religious folk to view their scriptures and stories as allegories and metaphors, expressing a spiritual truth rather than a literal one.

This brings me to back to my religious friends and family, who approach scripture in terms of spiritual or metaphorical truths versus hard facts. I used to joke that King Lear was my Bible, because it contains many truths about the human condition, about good and evil, false and true loyalty, political power, suffering and redemption, and virtue in the face of harsh realities, among many other things. Similarly, when someone who isn't a scriptural literalist says he or she believes in God, even if I disagree with some of their religious precepts, typically I find that declaration encompasses a set of beliefs with which I can agree: one should be kind to others, one should be honest, and so on. I'm interested in finding out what he or she really means by declaring a belief in God, since Jerry Falwell's view is certainly very different from that of Barry Lynn or some liberal bloggers of faith. "God" can be their the word for "truth" and an entire philosophy.

Obviously, the Constitution prohibits any religious test for office, and some people would prefer to keep such matters private in any case. However, for those who do want to have such discussions, it's certainly possible to do so respectfully, finding points of contention as well as common ground. In my experience, one of the best methods involves stating one's beliefs and how those beliefs affect one's actions. Socrates famously quipped that "The unexamined life is not worth living," and no one can accuse our nation of too much reflection.

Let me close with a section from Chapter 1, "Myth and the Modern World," from The Power of Myth, a conversation between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell:

MOYERS: I came to understand from reading your books — The Masks of God or The Hero with a Thousand Faces, for example — that what human beings have in common is revealed in myths. Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance. We all need to tell our story and to understand our story. We all need to understand death and to cope with death, and we all need help in our passage from birth to life and then to death. We need for life to signify, to touch the eternal, to understand the mysterious, to find out who we are.

CAMPBELL: People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experience on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That's what it's all finally about, and that's what these clues help us to find within ourselves.

MOYERS: Myths are clues?

CAMPBELL: Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.

MOYERS: What we're capable of knowing and experiencing within?


MOYERS: You changed the definition of a myth from the search for meaning to the experience of meaning.

CAMPBELL: Experience of life. The mind has to do with meaning. What's the meaning of a flower? There's a Zen story about a sermon of the Buddha in which he simply lifted a flower. There was only one man who gave him a sign with his eyes that he understood what was said. Now, the Buddha himself is called "the one thus come." There's no meaning. What's the meaning of the universe? What's the meaning of a flea? It's just there. That's it. And your own meaning is that you're there. We're so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it's all about.

MOYERS: How do you get that experience?

CAMPBELL: Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people's myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts — but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. It tells you what that experience is.

None of this post is likely to be revelatory to most Blog Against Theocracy participants. And my view of religion is not one that dogmatists will accept. Yet while fighting theocracy involves defending empiricism, accurate history, the Constitution and Enlightenment principles, another method for fostering greater understanding is through a deeper appreciation of the many different choices people make in their metaphors for living.

(Revised slightly for typos and clarity.)

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Eclectic Jukebox 3/20/08

U2 — "Pride (In the Name of Love)"

In honor of one of the best speeches on race I've heard in a while, here's the matching song to MLK. (Performing it is also one of my fondest memories, but that's another tale.) Oh, and since it was St. Paddy's Day recently, it's doubly appropriate. The leprechaun with the mullet's got some soul, doesn't he?

Eclectic Jukebox

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Stop Loss

The Freeway Blogger has more of these (via Skippy).

As we discussed in "The Poetry of War," our "Deciders" do not understand sacrifice. As Garry Trudeau put it, they believe we must "stay the course. We cannot dishonor the upcoming sacrifice of those who have yet to die." Death is a tragedy, but an unnecessary death is an atrocity. Stop loss, indeed.

(This week marks the fifth anniversary of the United States' invasion of Iraq. This post is for the Iraq War Blogswarm and as part of a ongoing Series on War. Cross-posted at The Blue Herald.)

Soldiers of Humanity

From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, translated by Paul Reps:

Once a division of the Japanese army was engaged in a sham battle, and some of the officers found it necessary to make their headquarters in Gasan's temple.

Gasan told his cook: "Let the officers have only the same simple fare we eat."

This made the army men angry, as they were used to very deferential treatment. One came to Gasan and said: "Who do you think we are? We are soldiers, sacrificing our lives for our country. Why don't you treat us accordingly?"

Gasan answered sternly: "Who do you think we are? We are soldiers of humanity, aiming to save all sentient beings."

(This week marks the fifth anniversary of the United States' invasion of Iraq. This post is for the Iraq War Blogswarm and as part of a ongoing Series on War. Cross-posted at The Blue Herald.)

The Poetry of War

(This week marks the fifth anniversary of the United States' invasion of Iraq. This post is for the Iraq War Blogswarm and as part of a ongoing Series on War.)

There is no poetry to war itself. There is, however, some famous poetry about war, some of which depicts it as glorious, while other pieces capture its horror. Let us begin with:

The Charge of the Light Brigade
By Alfred, Lord Tennyson


Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.


"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.


Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.


Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.


Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.


When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

Tennyson was a fine poet, but he never saw war. His account, stirring though it may be with its evocation of loyalty heedless of the dire consequences, actually glosses over a key aspect of the real incident. The actual charge was a completely unnecessary loss of life, cavalry charging across a long stretch of open ground exposed to over 50 pieces of artillery, all due to a poorly-communicated order. It is, in fact, a cautionary tale taught in some military schools about the important of being clear in orders. (For more on the actual Charge of the Light Brigade, see the Wiki entry, NPR, the BBC and the U.K. National Archives.)

"When can their glory fade?" That line brings to mind the attitude recently shown by President Bush (emphasis added):

In a videoconference, Bush heard from U.S. military and civilian personnel [in Afghanistan] about the challenges ranging from fighting local government and police corruption to persuading farmers to abandon a lucrative poppy drug trade for other crops. […]

“I must say, I’m a little envious,” Bush said. “If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed.”

“It must be exciting for you … in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You’re really making history, and thanks,” Bush said.

Romantic? Bush's comments are all the more despicable because he could have served in Vietnam, but thanks to family connections instead spent his time in a cushy "champagne unit" in the air national guard and didn't even complete his service. It's also not the first time he's said something like this. It's one thing to receive preferential treatment, but when Bush is also sending others to die, without an exit strategy and while undermining long-term prospects for peace, Dante's Inferno seems more appropriate than even the harsher words.

Let us move to the next poem:

Dulce Et Decorum Est
By Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

As the British website War Poetry explains:

DULCE ET DECORUM EST - the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean "It is sweet and right." The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.

Wilfred Owen, one of the most famous of World War I poets, saw war firsthand, and his poems (and those of his friend Siegfried Sassoon) are decidedly unglamorous. Tragically, Owen died shortly before the war's end. But "Dulce Et Decorum Est" will never be used for any recruitment drives any more than Stanley Kubrick's scathing film Paths of Glory.

It's obviously not necessary to experience war personally to understand that it is indeed hell and something to be avoided if at all possible. But it's sadly far easier to hold the dangerous view that war is glorious and romantic when one hasn't experienced it firsthand, or doesn't speak with veterans, or doesn't study the subject, whether through good history books, novels, poems, theater, documentaries or narrative films. Unnecessary war is far more likely when our leaders have a view of war far closer to Rambo than Saving Private Ryan or All Quiet on the Western Front.

It's easier to sell an unnecessary war when pundits as loathsome, bloodthirsty and unrelentingly and unrepentantly wrong as William Kristol are given such a large microphone. It's all too simple to repeat the same mistakes when such knaves are given prominent platforms not only by right-wing outlets, but also Time magazine and The New York Times. Never mind Kristol glorying in Bush's disdain for expert advice and overwhelming public opinion, accidentally inveighing against his own side's position, celebrating unnecessary cruelty on the domestic front, and urging yet another unnecessary war, this time with Iran (for but a small recap). He should have been laughed at and shamed off the national stage long ago, but instead, he's been financially rewarded. Kristol brings a distinctive smug grin, I suppose, but the absurd truth is that, inside the Beltway, such immoral, reckless stupidity as his is considered "Serious."

Nor was Kristol alone in his hawkishness, his lack of military service and knowledge, or how seldom he was challenged by the press. Most of the key players in the Bush administration, certainly the Cheney "cabal" of neocons and other hawks, were firm believers in American imperialism, and shared the delusion that America lost in Vietnam due to a "stab in the back" by liberals and the press. Not coincidentally, they're trying to sell the same crap all over again.

Let's turn to another WWI poem:

Break of Day in the Trenches
By Isaac Rosenberg

The darkness crumbles away -
It is the same old druid Time as ever.
Only a live thing leaps my hand -
A queer sardonic rat -
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies
(And God knows what antipathies).
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German -
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes
Less chanced than you for life;
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver - what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man's veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

I had a teacher who felt that the key irony of the piece is that the soldier plucks the poppy with the idea of protecting it, but as soon as he does, it will begin to die as well. It's similar to the dreadful irony captured by Garry Trudeau when he had Bush say, "Again, we'll stay the course. We cannot dishonor the upcoming sacrifice of those who have yet to die." Admitting personal error is far more costly to these leaders and pundits than the lives of others.

A similar irony is at work with the larger "War on Terror." Jim Henley (via Jonathan Schwarz) is one of many bloggers to note how our invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped Al Qaeda accomplish what it never could on its own:

Another way of putting it is, "So, did Bin Laden win then? Did we bankrupt ourselves on an insane and criminal war in half the time it took the Soviets, in response to his ever-so-helpful prodding?"

Still, my favorite lines of Rosenberg's poem may be "Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew / Your cosmopolitan sympathies." As in Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion, class and power may more important than even nationality in a war. The grunts on the front line on either side have far more in common with each other than they do with the men who send them to die. History shows that, sadly, even veterans who should know better have occasionally made stupid and reckless generals, but nonetheless, imperialist chickenhawks remain extremely dangerous in positions of power. Consider the following passage from chapter 1, "A Bad Ending," of Thomas Ricks' Fiasco, discussing 1991 and the first Gulf War (emphasis added):

Former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, who has worked closely with both and who has been an ideological ally of Wolfowitz but a close friend of [then Marine brigadier general Anthony] Zinni, when asked to compare the two, said, "They have more similarities than differences." Both are smart and tenacious, and both have strong interests in the Muslim world, from the Mideast to Indonesia — the latter a country in which both have done some work. "The main difference," Armitage continued, "is that Tony Zinni has been to war, and he's been to war a lot. So he understands what it is to ask a man to lose a limb for his country."

Wolfowitz would later say that the "realists" such as Zinni did not understand that their policies were prodding the Mideast toward terrorism. If you liked 9/11, he would say after that event, just keep up policies such as the containment of Iraq. Zinni, for his part, would come to view Wolfowitz as a dangerous idealist who little about Iraq and had spent no real time on the ground there. Zinni would warn that Wolfowitz's advocacy of toppling Saddam Hussein through supporting Iraqi rebels was a dangerous and naive approach whose consequences hadn't been adequately considered. Largely unnoticed by most Americans during the 1990s, these contrasting views amounted to a prototype of the debate that would later occur over the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq.

It would be nice if more people who made life and death decisions made those decisions as if their own lives or those of their loved ones were at risk, but sadly, it's often not the case. Our current scoundrels suffer delusions of grandeur, celebrate inhumanity as boldness and fantasy as grim realism, and do not understand sacrifice. The surge is still not working, but still the administration will send out its apologists and delusionists. Despite many a Lost Year in Iraq, there's still No End in Sight, and tragically, we're likely to write much the same things next year.

I've written it many times before, but I'll say it again: regardless of the rightness or mendacity of a given mission, a trooper's service can be honorable or even heroic. But their virtue does not necessarily ennoble the mission itself, nor does any heroism they show transfer to those making the decisions, no matter how many times those bold, intuitively brilliant, God-touched Deciders don a flight suit and show off their genitals.

Again, there is no poetry to war itself, but the depths of war (and WWI especially) have been explored by many superb poets. NPR also compared Tennyson and Owen's poems along with some others back in 2003. The website War Poetry features some pieces from the book Minds at War: The Poetry and Experience of the First World War. And although I've recommended it before, The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry is outstanding. (Other recommendations are always welcome.)

Let's close with one more poem. To quote a previous post: There are many concepts, analogies and events Bush evidently doesn't understand, from (as a [then] recent post explored) Vietnam to World War I to a "Pyrrhic victory." But Pyrrhus at least saw the cost of war, and it doesn't take a Cassandra to see that while Bush thinks he's King Leonidas, in truth he's much more like vain Narcissus, petulant Ares, and Wilfred Owen's bloody Abram:

The Parable of the Young Man and the Old
By Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

War! Huh! Theocracy! What are They Good For?

...Okay, the scansion on that absolutely sucks.

Nevertheless, I did want to sound the call on two important blogswarms this week.

This Wednesday will be the March 19th Iraq War Blogswarm. The site has suggestions and several badges you can use, but the key idea is that "This blogswarm will promote blog postings opposing the war in Iraq and calling for a full withdrawal of foreign occupying forces in Iraq."

Meanwhile, this upcoming Easter weekend will be the third Blog Against Theocracy blogswarm, celebrating the First Amendment and "the freedom to worship, or not." Go here for more information, suggestions, and an online submission form. (The graphic is by Tengrain).

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Six Word Memoirs

It's the hot new meme sweeping the blogosphere! Amy tagged me, so here we go. The rules are:

1. Write your own six word memoir

2. Post it on your blog and include a visual illustration if you’d like

3. Link to the person that tagged you in your post and to this original post if possible so we can track it as it travels across the blogosphere

4. Tag five more blogs with links

5. And don’t forget to leave a comment on the tagged blogs with an invitation to play!

I'm told this all stems from Hemingway, who apparently met the challenge of writing a novel in six words with: For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Umm, okay, so no pressure, then, to be brilliant like that or anything. I went through several versions of the memoir:

Seven states. Three countries. Much art.

Immaturity? I call it reverent irreverence.

I sound my yawp against corruption.

Dude, you take things too seriously.

Comedy where possible, action where necessary.

Drama's great, but more bawdiness, please.

Carl Barks to Kurosawa to Orwell.

Learning, acting, teaching, filming, writing, moving.

Alright, done with that. What's next?

Hey, riffing is my thing, baby. (Damn! Another one!) Anyway, for my "official" entry, I decided I'd go with something a little more, um, abstract:

Oooh, look, shiny! Socrates and Godzilla!

(Click for a larger view.)

To be more serious, lacking Hemingway's gift, I'd say the challenge for memoir is picking which defining moments of many to use, which aspects of one's life or personality are most salient. As Alice says in Wonderland, "I could tell you my adventures beginning from this morning, but it's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then." I actually don't feel my personality is that different from when I was a kid (shades of 49 Up), but successive waystations have invited or demanded different aspects. The truth is, I've always felt every person is many people inside, or has many sides to him or her. (For that matter, I also think the best relationships are those where you can show or explore the most sides, or where the other person accepts, encourages or draws out the best aspects of you.) But as to the basic mix, as Wordsworth put it, "the child is father of the man."

I don't know how many other people have done some version of a "Who am I?" exercise (we did that sort of thing at the school where I taught), but I found the most accurate approach for me was to define myself as the tension between different aspects. Zen appeals to me because I can be so impatient and annoyed. I admire compassion in others in part because I can be self-absorbed. I feel compelled to call bullshit, but also like to make people laugh. Of course, those last two especially can intersect.

(And ain't nothing like a gadfly breathing nuclear blue flame. You'll wipe that smirk off your face, Bill Kristol, when your bloodthirsty hack ass is on fire.)

And on that note... Many of the blogs I'd tag have already done this, so if you haven't, and you'd like to participate, have at it! As Glen Hansard would say, T'anks!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

2007 Film Roundup: Intro

Welcome to the latest installment of the annual film roundup, a pre-blog tradition that by tradition goes out after the Oscars (delayed this year a bit by being under the weather, or at least that's my excuse this time). Editions back to 2005 can be found in the blog's Oscars category, while the earlier installments exist in the e-mail ether.

2007 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

2007 was a yet another bad year for good blockbusters, but it was a fine year for film overall. And with some notable exceptions, much of that fine work was honored with at least a nomination, if not a win, at the Oscars.

I've seen a few pans, but I thought Jon Stewart was very sharp as the host (he went over extremely well at the Oscar party I attended). He only told two lame jokes by my count. Some of his best quips mixed his usual political mien with the movie biz, as with: "Democrats do have an historic race going. Hillary Clinton versus Barack Obama. Normally, when you see a black man or a woman president an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty." The writing team apparently had only eleven days to work, much shorter than normal, but the rigors of topical humor for daily TV tends to hone quickness of both wit and production. As it was, the ceremony moved along more briskly and ended sooner than many other years. Furthermore, Stewart was funny throughout the ceremony, and not just his opening set. Oscar presenter chatter is often godawful, but I was pleasantly surprised by the banter between Steve Carrell and Anne Hathaway, and between Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill. And while there were more montages than usual (added to hedge against the writers' strike), the brief "past winners" segments worked well to add some energy rather than grinding things to a torpor. (It was also a wild year for Oscar pools, with a few locks, several upsets and many crapshoots.)

Europe had a strong showing with two Brits, a Spaniard and a French woman winning the acting awards, not to mention wins for Italy and France in other artistic categories and a win for Austria for Best Foreign Language Picture. Daniel Day-Lewis and Javier Bardem won as predicted, while in the toss-up Best Supporting Actress category Tilda Swinton rewarded the audience with an entertainingly bizarre acceptance speech. I missed La Vie en Rose, alas, although I've seen Marion Cotillard be excellent in a few other films. I've heard it's a great performance in a decent film. Regardless, it's nice to see someone that excited to win. (And I'll admit it, I find the gushing French actress thing charming. Hell, she was tearing up when Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald won for Best Makeup for La Vie en Rose). George Clooney earns style points for praising Day-Lewis, picking him over himself in his published Oscar pool picks and talking about how Day-Lewis raises the bar for everybody else. Yes, he certainly does.

A record number of women were nominated in the two screenplay categories, a neat development, and Diablo Cody's win for Juno was as close to a lock as you'd get. However, seeing all the films nominated for acting awards continues to be the toughest to accomplish for the Best Actress category. As usual, finding films with great female leads is much easier in more indie fare.

I'd have given Best Picture to There Will Be Blood, but I can't be too upset about seeing the Coens win. In my book, Atonement was the weakest entry in the Best Picture category, and even it had its merits. It's a bit amusing that Juno trounced the other nominees at the box office (There Will Be Blood could have benefited from more preview screenings to get the word out before those "Best of 2007" year-end critics' lists). Meanwhile, it's interesting that two of the top contenders, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, can both be viewed as westerns, albeit unconventional for the genre. Add 3:10 to Yuma, a more standard entry, to that list.

I'd have given the editing and cinematography awards to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (maybe even directing), although I can't fault Robert Elswit winning for his superb work on There Will Be Blood, and his speech classily thanked the production design team, the rest of the crew and Paul Thomas Anderson. I am disappointed that The Bourne Ultimatum won in editing and both sound categories for three reasons. One, while that style of editing has its place, and can be very effective if used selectively, I don't want to see it encouraged as a default style. Two, "sound mixing" versus "sound editing" is not well understood, even if they are increasing blurring together in actual practice. But basically, "sound editing" is the cool sound effects while the mixing is the overall use of sound — unless the Academy's decided to define them differently. It often makes sense to give "sound editing" to an action, horror, or sci-fi film, but less so for "sound mixing." Three, it's a cliché to give editing and both sound awards to an action film of some sort. Again, for sound editing, that's appropriate, but more subtle and lyrical work tends to get shunted, in this case No Country for Old Men, Diving Bell… and a few others.

Still, the biggest travesty to my mind was that the Romanian film Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days wasn't nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, and didn't even make the pre-nomination short list. The Counterfeiters, the winning film, is quite good, but just not in the same league. (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was also better, but France nominated Persepolis instead, and Diving Bell… has an American director and some British funding, which may have complicated matters.)

The studios and the wider public have discovered Amy Adams (see Junebug if you haven't), which is good news, especially since she has a few new films coming out (Ann Hornaday has a good review of Mrs. Pettigrew Lives for a Day). While Adams gave a peppy performance at the Oscars, she was sadly hampered by the lack of dancing vermin that "Happy Working Song" really requires. Okay, I understand the Academy's reluctant to sport singing and dancing cockroaches, but in a year when Ratatouille wins Best Animated Feature, surely some cavorting rats could be managed? While the lyrics are fairly witty, no one's going to catch them at the Oscars, and without the dancing vermin, rather than being a send-up of cloying, Alan Mencken-Disney treacle, the song comes off as simply… cloying, Alan Mencken-Disney treacle.

And what was up with three songs from Enchanted, anyway? Where was the nomination for "Superwhat?" Not enough lyrics? Was the same true for Honeydripper? Surely there were some other, better options?

Speaking of which, the highlight of the Oscars for me was the win for Best Original Song for Once, a lovely validation for one of the best films of the year. Glen Hansard was clearly nervous, endearingly so, as he performed "Falling Slowly" on his battered guitar with Markéta Irglová. His enthusiastic acceptance speech ("T'anks!") was moving, especially since Once was indeed shot in about three weeks for under one hundred grand and they planned just to sell some DVDs at their concerts. Meanwhile, one of the all-time Oscar highlights for me was allowing Markéta Irglová back out to say a few words. Indie artists everywhere are grateful.

This leads me to renew my habitual suggestions for the Oscars. Acceptance speeches are only given 45 seconds, although they're more lenient with the big winners. In cases where they are multiple winners, there should either be a designated speaker as at the Emmys, or they should give at least 20 seconds to each person. The speeches aren't what make the show drag, and I always feel awful when someone gets shut out, because especially for the techies, below-the-line crew, documentarians and animators, it's one of the few times their work is really celebrated, certainly that publicly. Also, the Oscars should officially promote the entries for all three shorts categories, perhaps hosting them on their site or linking them, and promoting online voting to pique viewer interest. Finally, for foreign language films, a wild card option for major award winners should added to prevent films such as Four Months… from being shut out. (Ann Hornaday has a great piece on efforts to reform the process here.)

As I've written elsewhere, it's fair to deride the Oscar ceremony itself, and certainly the coverage of it, as fluff. But the work itself is not, certainly not this year. While Best Documentary Feature is almost always a substantial category, this year there was stiff competition between the film about the Bush administration's astounding incompetence in Iraq, the health care crisis in America, and our country's shameful policy of torture. Meanwhile, those who realize film can be both art and entertainment had some great viewing choices in 2007.

Pickings were lean as usual during the summer, though. Normally there's at least one decent blockbuster, but this year — with the possible exception of The Simpsons Movie, but that's sorta its own category — there really wasn't. Overall, it was the summer of lackluster third installments: Spider-Man 3, Shrek 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World End, and Ocean's Thirteen. I didn't see Shrek, but the other entries seemed to suffer badly from what screenwriter Jack Epps calls the "More Ninjas!" syndrome. Basically, the filmmakers try to cram in a bunch of crap, or add a bunch of spectacle, rather than calming down, simplifying and really considering what the heart and spine of the story are. One can have spectacle and story, of course, but there's a reason why we remember the climaxes of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark while, if you're lucky, the big CG-finales of 1999's End of Days and The Haunting have mercifully slipped from memory.

On that note about good storytelling, and how being truly cinematic is not that same thing at all as providing "spectacle," this past year witnessed the passing of two great masters of cinema, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. I have an appreciation of Bergman here. The medium is all the richer for their contributions.

With all that said, on to the films themselves, broken into rough tiers but in no particular order beyond that. I'm using my usual standard regarding plot discussions: a) if you'd know it watching the trailer, it's not a spoiler, b) I try to avoid spoilers, and c) I try to give a spoiler warning where appropriate. Apologies if I forget any warnings. I'm also including my usual set of links to interviews and such. I trust most people can find trailers, cast lists and purchasing info on their own!

2007 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Eight

There Will be Blood: I've always liked writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's work, but it tends to feature brilliant, wonderful scenes within uneven wholes. Still, he's not shy about experimenting, and he's a consistently interesting filmmaker. There Will be Blood is easily his most complete, mature, and powerful work to date. It opens with a harsh landscape and dissonant swelling tone in 1898 as we watch prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) trying to carve his fortune out of the ground. As the film progresses, we watch Daniel claw his way ever higher, with a sharp mind and drive that even Milton's Devil would admire. After gaining some success as an oil man, he's approached by a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who wants money in return for tipping Daniel to good oil property. After threatening Paul about the consequences of any double-cross, Daniel decides to pay and check out the tip, taking his young son H.W. with him, using the pretense of hunting for quail. He confirms that there's oil there, and pitches buying all the land to the townsfolk. His most formidable adversary is Paul's twin brother Eli (Dano), a local preacher with a revival, faith-healing, demon-exorcising style. Both Daniel and Eli take each other's measure, and both view the other as a snake oil salesman. The battle between them provides at least five truly great scenes, featuring plenty of fascinating subtext and some interesting power shifts, either between scenes or within them. It's juicy, first-rate stuff.

While There Will be Blood works very well as an allegory about feuding forces of entrepreneurial capitalism and religious fervor in America, it works even better as dramatic, human battle between Daniel and Eli, and still better as a character study of Daniel Plainview. Daniel Day-Lewis is always great, but this may be his best performance yet, and it's one for the ages. Some people feel he's too mannered and over the top, but I feel he's so remarkably grounded and intense he pulls it all off. When he goes on about that milkshake, I want to offer him some fava beans and a nice Chianti, but Day-Lewis' performance has the weight and manic, violent energy to make it captivating. I find him absolutely riveting throughout the film, and at times a bit terrifying, especially when he threatens a businessman and a couple of supposed allies. While Dano isn't quite in Day-Lewis' league — who is — he's still very good as Eli, whose normally calm mien works well off of Daniel's scheming energy. And Eli, too, can 'bring the crazy' and does, in several key moments.

Anderson tends to pad his films a bit too much, and here I felt the scenes with Henry Brands (Kevin J. O'Connor), who claims to be Daniel's half-brother, dragged a bit. O'Connor has an odd, drowsy energy, but it works pretty well for the film. There Will be Blood is a film almost bereft of women, but Daniel's relationship with Henry raises crucial issues of trust and intimacy that grow more acute as the film progresses. By the time Daniel's living in a big mansion, cut off the land where he wrought himself, he also becomes more unhinged. Some critics have invoked Citizen Kane, and that comparison works best for these end scenes, but for much of the film the more apt comparison may be Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

I also have some reservations about the music. I appreciate that Anderson understands the power of sound, but there are times (as in Punch-Drunk Love's percussion-scored scene) where I feel he cranks it up to 11 and overdoes it, because the sound becomes obtrusive. It'll be interesting to watch the film again in 10 and 20 years to see how it all plays. Still, there's no doubt that the score, comprised of pieces by Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood and some great classical works, creates a strong mood and is at times extremely effective. Similarly, the film uses the landscape superbly, one of the great strengths of the western genre (as I mentioned before, this film can be viewed as an unconventional one). The prolonged climatic scene is unforgettable, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, including its (arguably) triple entendre last line. Overall, There Will be Blood is a great film and superb exploration of the American mythos. I'm looking forward to watching this one again, and what Anderson produces next.

(Here's Paul Thomas Anderson on The Treatment, and Anderson and Paul Dano's sessions on Fresh Air. If you can catch the session Anderson and Day-Lewis did on Charlie Rose, definitely do so.)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le papillon): Probably the most lyrical film of 2007, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a true story, based on the book of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby ("Jean-Dou"), a successful French magazine editor who suffers a sudden stroke and comes down with the rare "locked-in syndrome." His mind is perfectly lucid, but all he can physically manage initially is to blink a single eyelid. His other eye even has to be sewn shut to protect it from infection, an event covered from a troubling first-person perspective (as are many of the scenes in the film). Apparently, no one thought the book could be adapted for cinema, but they reckoned without veteran British screenwriter Ronald Harwood, American director Julian Schnabel, and a fine French cast. The situation naturally makes for a powerful meditation on mortality and purpose, but the film also bounces from current reality to memory to imagination. The Diving Bell is the body of Jean-Dou, but his mind is the butterfly, flitting around at will, and sometimes seemingly of its own accord. One of my pet peeves is that when many people (including film students) talk about something being "cinematic," they mean spectacle. I'd argue being "cinematic" actually means using the unique power of the medium, which certainly can entail spectacle, but also can mean the visual and aural poetry that The Diving Bell... exemplifies, helped in this case immensely by Janusz Kaminiski's cinematography and Juliette Welfling's editing. Jean-Dou plunges into despair at several points, but is blessed to have a number of simply angelic women to aid him in his recovery, help him keep his sanity, occasionally confront him for self-pity and generally, bring him comfort through their kind, human connection. While all the actresses are great, my personal favorite was Marie-Josée Croze as Henriette (pictured above), whose patient, warm smile somehow makes Jean-Dou's hellishly frustrating situation more bearable. It is she who laboriously teaches Jean-Dou how to communicate through blinking, and then teaches others the method.
Meanwhile, after seeing Max von Sydow slum it in his periodic schlock of Rush Hour 3 in 2007, it's a real treat to see him here as Jean-Dou's father. He's only in two scenes, but in the second scene especially he's simply wrenching (he really is one of the all-time greats). I also should note that the film certainly has its moments of humor, as well. This is more an exploration and celebration of life than some disease-of-the-week tearjerker. I appreciate that artist Julian Schnabel takes such an unfettered approach to this potentially challenging material, and it'll be interesting to see what he produces next. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a truly beautiful film, and it's hard not to be moved by it. It's better to see this on a big screen if at all possible, but if you're up for the subject matter, it is well worth the time to seek out this one.

(Here's Julian Schnabel on The Treatment. His Charlie Rose segment was also fantastic, if you can find it.)

Michael Clayton: As was the case with many of the best films of 2007, Michael Clayton didn't burst over with flashy camera moves, and neither did it have a particularly tricky or original plot. It just did what it did damn well. George Clooney gives what's probably his best dramatic performance to date as Michael Clayton, a worldly, cynical lawyer who's a "fixer" for a high-priced law firm. He faces his biggest challenge in Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), his firm's lead counsel, who's defending a big corporation from a potentially crippling, image-destroying, pesticide negligence lawsuit. Arthur's bipolar, off his meds, and experiences a crisis of conscience, leading him to go Howard Beale and spout divine madness and truth during a deposition, which jeopardizes the case. Michael likes Arthur, but he's also got a job to do, and when Arthur goes missing, the pressure from the corporation's top gun, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) ratchets up on Michael. On top of that, both Michael and his brother have gambling debts, and Michael is struggling to reconnect with his young son. The machinations get more and more twisted, Michael's own crisis of conscience grows more acute, and the stakes increase as Michael's life may even be in danger. This is screenwriter Tony Gilroy's first feature as a director, and I always gotta pull for the writers, not that it's hard here. Many critics compared Michael Clayton to some of the great 70s flicks for its fairly straightforward but elegant visual style and meaty performances. In a year without Javier Bardem, Wilkinson probably would have won an Oscar. I don't think he's ever given a bad performance, but he's electric here, and sets a great tone with a frenetic narration to open the film. There aren't many actors who can pull off intoning, "I am Shiva, the God of Death." Karen is quite the head-case herself as played by Tilda Swinton. We're made privy to her private insecurities and then her game face in public. This is very much a film about propriety and keeping up appearances, though what's going on underneath can be very dark indeed. Sydney Pollack can play lawyer roles in his sleep, but he's good as Michael's boss, sometimes paternally kind, sometimes paternally stern. Still, I think what Michael Clayton delivers best is one hell of a climatic scene. The dialogue's sharp and sometimes startling, the energy crackles, but the end is just immensely captivating and satisfying. The film overall is good, but it's the strong finish that really sets it above the pack. It'd be nice if Hollywood could make more films like this again.

(Here's Tony Gilroy on The Treatment, and George Clooney on Fresh Air.)

Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile): This Romanian film from writer-director Cristian Mungiu justifiably won the Golden Palm at Cannes and a number of other awards. It's 1987 Romania in Bucharest, and dictator Nicolai Ceausescu has (beginning in 1966) outlawed not only abortion, but birth control, nominally to increase the population, but with little regard for the practical consequences. University student Otilla (Anamaria Marinca) sets out to help her roommate Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu) get an abortion. It's not only illegal, it's highly dangerous, since women can be maimed or die due to the unsafe, back alley version of the procedure. Otilla must also juggle her boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean), who can't understand why she can't attend his mother's birthday party that night. As carefully as Otilla tries to plan the whole thing, obstacle after obstacle arises. The title hold great significance to the plot, because the stage of Gabriela's pregnancy affects the procedure the abortionist Domnu Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) will perform, as well the penalty he can face if caught (murder versus abortion) and thus, the price he will charge. Four Months… is shot mainly in wide shots and long, uninterrupted takes. There's no score, with the only real music coming over the ending credits. These cinema verité choices work to powerful effect, particularly in an extended scene with Bebe that's the centerpiece of the film. The acting is so subtle and naturalistic, and the camera style so unobtrusive, the film often feels like a documentary. This realism adds tremendously to the tension, because we feel these are real people facing actual, dire situations, with Otilla and Gabriela terribly desperate and vulnerable. Otilla's relationships with Gabriela and Adi become severely strained, but that may be the least of her problems if they're discovered or something goes wrong. Horror films typically use heavy montage and startling sound effects, yet Four Months… manages to be more tense than many a horror flick with the reverse aesthetic. It's more gripping than many a conventional thriller, especially because you'll become extremely invested in the bright, resourceful but beleaguered Otilla, and the outcome of each new conflict really matters. Never preachy but building in quiet power, this is a truly great film. As with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Once and some other 2007 entries, Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days also demonstrates the versatility of the medium and the unique power of cinema.

(I'll add that while Romania of the 80s as depicted certainly has some differences from the Moscow of the 90s when I briefly studied there, many of the rhythms, aesthetics and cultural touches felt very familiar. Meanwhile if you listen to Cristian Mungiu on Fresh Air, one of the striking features is that he actually had more chilling real life stories he could have used.)

Once: There's a scene in Once that nicely encapsulates the audience experience. The band is in a studio, recording over the weekend, and a jaded engineer works the knobs in the booth, chatting absentmindedly on the phone. As the band really gets going, though, the engineer sits up and starts paying attention. This is something different. Even if this isn't your sort of music, you're liable to be won over by the film, and quicker than the engineer. I've read one lukewarm review, but pretty much everyone else who saw Once loved it and has actively recommended it, with good reason. As Glenn Hansard said at the Oscars, it was made for about $100,000 in three weeks. It's a "small" film, all very unpretentious and charming in its simplicity and sincerity. The characters are simply called "Guy" and "Girl." The leads aren't actors, but Glen Hansard has an innate charisma, Markéta Irglová has a sweetness, and both are very natural. As with Four Months…, Once feels like a documentary or Neorealistic flick at times. Parts of it are based on Hansard's own life, since he did indeed busk as a street musician in Dublin. It's hard not to like a guy who's singing his heart out to an empty street at night, has a sense of humor about his own misfortunes, and who, as an early scene shows, is really too generous for his own good. Hansard's music reminded me the most of his fellow Irishman Damien Rice (apparently, they've toured together). While I'd say Rice is a better songwriter and stronger singer, both of them go all out when they're performing. Once is not actually a "musical" as some people have called it; it's a film about musicians, but you don't need to be a musician to appreciate it. Who hasn't had a dream and needed a little push from his or her friends?

(SLIGHT SPOILER) Some critics felt the ending veered on the sentimental side, but I'd have to say Hollywood would have made it far sappier and less open-ended, and I'm willing to forgive a little sweetness at that point. The truth is, the normal studio development process doesn't produce films like this. You can't fake this sort of authenticity. Writer-Director John Carney, a band mate of Hansard's in the Frames, has a lovely feel for the material. It's no surprise he's a musician, since some of the scenes and transitions flow very smoothly, with real sound slipping out at times for some quiet music at just the right point. It's not a conventionally "pretty" film, but that adds to the realism. The entire movie has the casual, intimate feel of an extended Sunday afternoon jam session. It's the sort of film that earns all its good will, and it's hard to hear the music afterward without thinking warmly of the matching scene in the movie. Go in expecting a small, unflashy film, but do check it out.

(Here's Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in Concert for NPR. UPDATE: If you're a fan of the movie at all, definitely listen to this Fresh Air interview from 5/1/08 with Hansard and Irglová.)

Gone Baby Gone: Few films stuck with me last year the way Gone Baby Gone did. Based on a Dennis Lehane novel, as was Mystic River, Ben Affleck's first feature as a director isn't visually that flashy, but it's quite assured. What really stands out is the strong ensemble and the great feel for the Boston subcultures into which private detective Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck, Ben's younger brother) plunges. When Amanda, the young daughter of Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) is kidnapped, it's all over the local news. Helene's brother Lionel (Titus Welliver) and his wife Bea (Amy Madigan) want to hire Patrick because they know him from when he was a kid, and he knows the neighborhood. Patrick's girlfriend and partner, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), is reluctant to take the case because she fears that if they fail to find Amanda, or if something really bad has happened to her, it might devastate Angie. But it's because she's got this soft side that after meeting the family, she's hooked. Unfortunately, Helene's been holding out details, and it becomes increasingly clear she's no contender for mother of the year, and her friends are no better. As Patrick digs for answers, some of the old crowd resent him and try to pick fights. While Patrick's bright, as a tough, Boston-Dorchester kid he's also a scrapper. He sometimes takes some risky moves, and the stakes grow when the investigation leads to a local drug dealer, gangs and even a pedophile. Meanwhile, the cops are required to share information with Patrick, but neither Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) nor Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) like him all the much, and are more than happy to take a stern, paternal line with him. As Doyle, who lost a daughter in a horrible kidnapping-murder years ago points out, the odds of recovering Amanda are slim and keep getting worse with time.

The plot takes some genuinely interesting and unexpected turns. Just when you think you've got a character or the real story figured out, a new piece of information is added, and the whole thing shifts a little or completely pivots. All the performances are excellent, with Casey Affleck an offbeat but compelling lead and Monaghan endearing as usual. Oscar-nominated Amy Ryan is memorable as the gritty, increasing loathsome Helene. Welliver as Lionel and Madigan as Bea are strong as well, and when you've got Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman filling out supporting roles, your cup runneth over (I think it's some of the most interesting work both men have done). Still, what really makes Gone Baby Gone linger for me is the tough moral situations. Will they recover Amanda? If they do, is Helene a fit mother? Patrick in particular is faced with two very tough moral choices. I won't give them away, but the decision he makes on the first one strongly affects his decision on the second one. And personally, I think he makes the wrong call on the second one. Gone Baby Gone is not an easy or uplifting film, but as with the other films in this tier, this is filmmaking for adults, and it's very good. Ben Affleck is by all accounts a very nice guy, but I think he's got a fairly narrow range as an actor. If he can continue to make films like this, I'd love to see him continue to write and direct, because while he's no rookie to the film biz, this is an extremely promising directorial debut.

(Here's Casey Affleck on Fresh Air.)

Zodiac: Zodiac unfortunately got a bit lost in the shuffle of 2007 films when it came to awards. It's not for all tastes, but some viewers will find it extremely compelling. Based on real events and loaded with a staggering amount of detail, the film centers on the hunt for the Zodiac, a serial killer in the San Francisco area during the 60s and 70s who became a local media sensation. The Zodiac killer himself is compulsive and odd, sending messages and ciphers to the San Francisco Chronicle and other papers, threatening to kill someone else if his messages are not printed. But if he's compulsive, so too are the men hunting him down —as is director David Fincher. Zodiac as a result is one of the best documents of obsession on film. The central trio are particularly superb: Jake Gyllenhaal as young Chronicle editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith, Robert Downey Jr. as ace Chronicle reporter Paul Avery, and Mark Ruffalo as police detective David Toschi. Toschi is an especially fascinating case, since this is at least the third time he's been depicted in some fashion on film. He was the basis for the fictional Bullitt, played by Steve McQueen, and Dirty Harry's Scorpio killer is based on the Zodiac killer. One of the wilder scenes in Zodiac involves a special screening for the police and Chronicle staff of Dirty Harry, which Toschi feels compelled to walk out of, noting that it's a lot easier to take out the bad guy with no due process (and it's pretty damn refreshing to hear a cop talk about civil liberties!).

Zodiac doesn't feature many violent scenes, but the murders it does show are genuinely disturbing. They're all the more striking because Zodiac's victims seem so innocent and oblivious to their danger. Meanwhile, one of the major impediments to pursuing the Zodiac for the cops is the different jurisdictions involved and varying levels of technology; San Francisco has a "facsimile machine," but the other police stations don't. Evidence doesn't get shared or is delayed, there may be a copycat killer, and the Zodiac may be claiming credit for additional murders he didn't commit, throwing off the trail. Fincher doesn't use many trick shots in this one, and the CG is mainly limited to background mattes, blood spatter and a few other sequences. This film is really about the people, and putting us back in the period. Although the film is mainly talking heads, all the actors are so committed to the reality of the enterprise, and their characters are so committed to discovering the truth, the film is surprisingly gripping throughout its 158 minute running time. The first half focuses more on Toschi and his partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards, who's excellent) and on Avery, a cocky, funny, quirky reporter who develops an increasingly nasty drinking habit. One of the best details from real life occurs after Avery unwisely suggests that the Zodiac might be a homosexual in one of his columns. The next threatening Zodiac mailing is addressed to… Avery. The Chronicle staff responds by passing out and wearing "I Am Not Paul Avery" buttons. Meanwhile, the cops have to sift through every crazy crackpot who thinks he or she has a lead or even claims to be the Zodiac. They eventually zero in on a few strong suspects, and memorably interview one, but they still can't make a case.

The second half of the film focuses on cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who picks up the trail, working on a book about the Zodiac. 'Imagine if Garry Trudeau went after the Son of Sam,' was apparently the gist of screenwriter James Vanderbilt's pitch. Graysmith really makes for an offbeat hero, scrupulously honest, a bit socially awkward, and utterly obsessive, keeping stacks and stacks of case material everywhere (in real life, he even kept boxes of papers on one of his stove burners!). After reading the script, the real Graysmith apparently said something like, 'Oh, now I see why my wife divorced me.' Zodiac features one of Downey's most enjoyable performances, one of Ruffalo's best, but Gyllenhaal is given the heaviest load, and he bears it superbly. He attacks his reams of dialogue with gusto and we can see his mind working. He's completely in the moment, and so caught up in the chase as an audience we're dragged along in his wake. Graysmith's often oblivious to his own danger, stalking the Zodiac in his bright orange Volkswagen Rabbit. That finally hits home in one of the most creepy sequences of the film, when he goes alone, at night, in the rain, to meet a contact (played unnervingly by Robert Fleischer) at the man's house.

Zodiac has an impressive cast even in small roles. The cops and their experts include Dermot Mulroney, Elias Koteas and Philip Baker Hall. Clea DuVall is memorable in her one scene. John Carroll Lynch is pretty creepy as one of the key suspects. Brian Cox, who excels at playing pompous asses, is great as blowhard celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli. Finally, Chloë Sevigny as Melanie does a fine job with what Fincher and everyone else involved call a thankless role. (Well, they and we appreciate it. Thanks, Chloë.) If you're into obsessive detective-puzzle stories, this one's for you!

(Extra notes: Donovan performs the song "Hurdy-Gurdy Man," used memorably in the film, and Ione Syke, who appears unbilled in a key scene, is Donovan's daughter. Robert Fleischer, extremely creepy in the film, is a standup comic noted for doing cartoon voices, including Roger Rabbit. Jake Gyllenhaal actually went to elementary school with Fleischer's daughter. The cop interviews on the 2-disk version of the Zodiac DVD are a bit disappointing, but the two commentary tracks are quite interesting. (SPOILER) I should note that there are other Zodiac suspects, but Graysmith and Toschi agree on who they think they think it was, and the film reflects their view.

Here's a Washington Post article on the real Robert Graysmith, and Graysmith's online discussion with readers. Here's Mark Ruffalo on Fresh Air, although his focus is more on Reservation Road.)

No Country for Old Men: No major film of 2007 spurred more discussion than No Country for Old Men. Putting aside the contentious last 20-30 minutes for the moment, there's no doubt the preceding film is gripping, memorable and often masterful. Out in the Texas countryside, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon a shady deal gone wrong, with only one person left half-alive. No one's around to stop Moss from taking the case full of money, though. When he comes back to give the one injured survivor some water, he unfortunately runs into the reinforcements, and the chase is on. A Vietnam vet, Moss figures he can handle himself, but he reckons without Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), an implacable, sociopath of a hitman with a twisted sense of honor. Moss wisely sends his wife Carla Jean away (Kelly Macdonald), while Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is left to try to stop the chaos and sort through an growing number of bodies.

The Coens adopt a laconic western rhythm, but generally tell their story visually and with elegance. They use the landscape wonderfully, and there's many a scene with a touch of whistling wind in the background, even when there really shouldn't be, but it works (and there's a sound dissolve from a briefcase sliding to a car on the road that's one of the prettiest sound edits I can recall in some time). While No Country for Old Men is undeniably violent, a surprising amount of the actual violence occurs off-screen. The Coens leave it to the imagination — as they do with several major plot points later in the film, actually.

The cat and mouse game between Moss and Chigurh makes for enthralling stuff. The best aspect of it is that neither of these guys is dumb. They're both physically fit, good with guns, but more importantly, extremely inventive. Chigurh is one scary guy, but he's not infallible, just... implacable. What makes Chigurh so scary is that he is a true sociopath. He's riveting because, as we know after we see him in a few scenes, he might kill absolutely anyone at simply any time. It makes even the simplest conversation scene with him incredibly tense. While Chigurh fancies himself a man of honor, I disagree. Sure, he keeps his promises, but as one character points out to him, he basically abdicates responsibility for several crucial decisions. He's not honorable as much as he is obsessive-compulsive.

Let's move on to the end, where the film veers sharply. (SPOILERS) I frankly want to see the film again, and plan to buy a copy. I might even read the book and some of Cormac McCarthy's other work. While I enjoyed the film overall, it was interesting that the folks I saw it with and I all had more questions a few hours and days afterward than we did leaving the theater. I loved most of the film, but found the end unsatisfying. I could partly appreciate it cerebrally, but not viscerally. Moss, the character set up to be the hero, dies off-screen, and it's not entirely clear who his killers even are. There's the much discussed aspect of whether Chigurh is hiding in the motel room or not (some critics view him more as a ghost or a force of nature, but while that interpretation can work metaphorically, if taken literally it violates factors like his bullet wound). There are strong questions about fate and chance in the last few scenes. And then there's Sheriff Ed's rambling, despairing dream monologue as a closer. While I don't feel I have a definitive interpretation as of yet, I think I get the basic elements. Moss thinks he's a badass and can handle anything that comes his way, but Chigurh is an even bigger badass. Chance can provide fortune, quite literally in the form of money, but it can also kill or maim you. The universe may not be callous, but it's at least indifferent. And there are some really, really, nasty, evil people out there — or if you prefer, really dangerous people. Nietzsche's line is that one should "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and know if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." In No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Ed is certainly troubled by his gaze into the abyss, and the film raises the question as to whether he or anyone should try to fight that battle at all. Give the film points for being unconventional and thought-provoking at the very least, if also not conventionally satisfying.

I'm still not entirely sold, though, on it being a great ending or even a good ending versus a copout or a lack of ingenuity, and it'll be interesting to see again. Consider the justifiably famous scene in the gas station, where the gas station owner (Gene Jones) makes what would normally be an innocuous observation about Chigurh's license plate, but Chigurh takes it as a threat, and besides, the man annoys him (I used to have Conan O'Brien's great spoof of it posted, but NBC yanked the YouTube video, the bastards). The scene's gripping because the owner is sharp enough to sense that he's in danger, and tries to extricate himself. But Chigurh is now set on him, and nothing will deter him until he gets his way. The owner is trying to figure out the rules of this bizarre and threatening social game, but the truth is, even if he knew the rules, it wouldn't save him. His life, for all its small joys and daily drudgery, comes down to a single coin flip due to the whim of a sociopath. It's a terrifying scene dramatically on the first viewing, because we don't know how it'll turn out, and it's hard not to put ourselves in the owner's shoes, desperately trying to think of the magic words that might grant safety. But the scene's even more disturbing on a philosophical level, whether we view Chigurh as an agent of fate or a dangerous threat as random as his coin toss. Coleridge's characterization of Iago's actions as “motiveless malignancy” springs to mind, although Iago at least has jealousy to drive him, while Chigurh is largely indifferent, other than annoyance and fixation.

Continuing with Shakespeare, the gas station scene and the cosmology of No Country... make me think of King Lear, which features one of the harshest, most challenging endings there is. Some famous readers have found it so troubling they couldn't bear to see it staged, or read it too often, and Nahum Tate actually rewrote it with a happy ending in 1687 (just as he reworked other Shakespeare plays). In Lear, Shakespeare toys with our sense of convention and expectation (as he often did). If the play ended in Act 4, or at least before the final scene, or if one key plot development was changed, it would have a happy ending. But Shakespeare's not content with that (notably, this is his own invention, too). Most of the villains are dead by the end of the play, but the last remaining, dying one, Edmund, has ordered the death of Lear and his saintly daughter Cordelia in prison. Repenting his faults, Edmund seeks to save them, giving his sword as proof to be shown to the guards. But they're too late, and Lear enters, howling, carrying Cordelia's dead body, to die of grief himself shortly thereafter. It's an utterly unnecessary, avoidable, pointless death, it's the most virtuous character in the play, and her death is no longer even desired by the villain at that point. That's why it's so devastating (all the more so thanks to some amazing verse and if given a great performance). Lear as a play contains much wisdom, and it certainly holds that choices between vice and virtue do matter. However, in its final scenes it depicts a universe where not only it rains on the just and unjust alike, but there is no divine intervention and virtue is no proof against great tragedy. Fighting the bad guys is hard enough, and can be lethal, but even if one wins or avoids that fight, there's no guarantee of happiness for those who are good, let alone survival. It's a very troubling thought. I'd also hold that it's an accurate view of life (and that Edgar/Albany's last words suggest a response to this dilemma).

I think No Country for Old Men presents a cosmology similar to Lear's, although with more machismo and a western aesthetic thrown in. However, I also know Shakespeare, while not perfect, knew what he was doing with Lear, and I'm not yet familiar enough with McCarthy's oeuvre to vouch for him in this regard — and that's why I want to see the film again, read the book, and all that. Lear is philosophically challenging, but Shakespeare serves up that challenge directly. It's a powerful ending, but not a conventionally cathartic one. Meanwhile, in No Country..., we don't even get to see our hero die. We never witness that moment, disturbing though it may be, of him losing, perhaps realizing his arrogance or fallibility, or perhaps locking gazes with Chigurh and knowing that now his wife, too, will likely die. That'd be a pretty damn unsettling scene, wouldn't it? Road to Perdition, but with the kid gunned down as well, perhaps? I can take Moss dying, but I do want to see it. (I'm assuming that the Coens replicate McCarthy in his storytelling choice for this event, and not merely the plot point itself.) Now, while that scene would be disturbing, let's say that it'd be too conventional for No Country.... Let's say that McCarthy, and the Coens (who supposedly wrote a very loyal adaptation) want to take Lear's philosophical blow, accomplished through story, and add an additional blow delivered through the storytelling itself. Not only do they choose not to grant us a happy ending, or even the conventional catharsis of a tragic but perhaps noble death, they choose to deny us traditional narrative coherence and resolution. It's an open ending, but not even the "what next?" of Blade Runner (director's cut) or The Birds, or the clearly-defined ambiguity The Descent or several other films. Nor does it end posing a tough choice for the viewer in the style of A Very British Coup or the comic book series The Watchmen. It also doesn't really use the absurdism of Waiting for Godot and similar works, or the clear but anticlimatic resolution of Tarkovsky's Stalker, nor does it set up the Verfremdungseffekt of many Brecht works (or Bergman's Persona), although its ultimate effect was similarly distancing for me. And for me, No Country… feels less honest for all that. It really leaves many a viewer hanging and vaguely dissatisfied. (Update: Also consider the unconventionally handled key deaths in Psycho and The Passenger, both of which are effective, I'd say, but that's a lengthy other discussion.)

That's the most charitable interpretation I can currently come up with for the ending of No Country.... Now, it could just be the Coens having fun with us, as they did with the hat in Miller's Crossing and the box in Barton Fink, but especially given the pre-existing source material, I think here they want to tell a good yarn as usual, but also really want to leave us deeply unsettled versus merely confused. But the film initially promises one sort of movie and deliver something very different. While I deeply appreciate toying with convention, expectation, and plot, such a major, sudden shift in the storytelling approach itself is much more unwieldy. Honestly, I don't think No Country for Old Men is as wise, masterful or powerful as King Lear, but then, that's a rather tough and unfair comparison. It's just that in the back of my mind, I can't help but wonder if McCarthy and the Coens, like the Wachowskis in The Matrix films, started full of energy and invention, but hit the limits of their ingenuity, storytelling, and (I mean this as no slam) their capacity to fully grasp and then dramatize/visualize some very weighty philosophical concepts. (I adore Miller's Crossing, but I feel the Coens do mishandle two key moments between Tom and Bernie. That's a separate discussion, but the point here is that I'd say there's precedent for slight fumbles even by the entertaining Coens. The Big Lebowski similarly ends rather than concludes, but of course it's radically different in feel.) In any case, I hesitate to grant full points for intentionality, or at least artistry, given the many other works I've cited. Is No Country for Old Men utterly brilliant? Or is it a story with awfully good sections and audacious ambition that doesn't completely succeed? I'm happy to endorse the latter assessment right now, and promise to look at the film again this year, and years down the road, to consider whether it merits the first assessment. Sorry; don't mind me. Regardless of the film's more debatable merits and flaws, I love the Coens, No Country for Old Men is one of the best films of the year, and unless you can't take the violence, you should definitely see it if you haven't already.

(Here's Joel and Ethan Coen on The Treatment. Their session with Bardem and Brolin on Charlie Rose is also great, if you can find it.)