Tuesday, June 02, 2009

No Movie for Old Men: Why Films Fall Short

I see fewer movies these days, and read more books. I hate to admit it, I grew up in the movie business, but I’ve come to believe that film is the inferior art form. A film can’t do what a book does. It stays on the surface, as a flow of images. A book goes inside. A movie shows what the people did and said. A book does so much more – it lets us know what they were thinking and feeling, dreaming and remembering. It’s a CAT scan, open heart surgery, psychoanalysis, Death Row confession and Catholic confessional, tell-all and telepathy, all at once. The intimacy with another mind is raw and shocking sometimes. Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho was pulled from publication by the same media conglomerate that gave us the Friday The Thirteenth franchise – among the goriest horror movies ever made. Why? I think it’s tribute to the power of the written word … and the invasive intimacy of literary images. We’re alone with them, in a private communion with the author -- they go much deeper into the mind than any gaudy pictures we share with a rowdy gang over popcorn and big candy bars. As Stephen King says, there’s always a “zipper running down the back” of a movie monster. You know they’re fake. The monsters in a book are real. They’re living in your mind and trying to take over – whether it’s Patrick Bateman, or Dracula, Anton Chigurh or Flem Snopes.

“The book was better than the movie.’ You hear this particular piece of popular film criticism every time a novel gets adapted to the big screen; well almost every time. Some movies are as good as their source material and some – like The Godfather or The Bridges of Madison County – are actually better. But it’s always the dumb artless popular novels, long on plot and short on style, that upgrade themselves as movies. A film can eliminate a trite prose style, it can replace hackneyed characters with beloved actors, it can transform shoddy descriptions into dazzling cinematography. Heroic stunt doubles and inspired editors turn clumsily written action scenes into vivid set-pieces. But the closer a novel gets to actual literature, the more the movies fall short. This was brought to mind vividly this weekend as I read No Country For Old Men and then watched the Academy Award-winning film version. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a well-made film, perfectly cast, elegantly shot, reasonably faithful to the source material. You can tell the Coen brothers were trying to approximate the harsh arid prose of the novel with those wide shots of the empty desert. But a desert is just sand and sky. The wastelands in the novel are a territory you create and inhabit along with the author. You carve out a world of dust and blood with Cormac McCarthy as you read this exhilarating and despairing novel and the result is infinitely richer and more troubling than any photograph, any stream of photographs, even if they’re flowing past at twenty-four frames per second. The book has a moral engine humming just below the surface, in the mordant soliloquies of Sheriff Bell, played with pitch perfect understanding by Tommy Lee Jones in the film, which gives us a few snippets of this commentary. It runs throughout the book, though, a kind of Greek Chorus, setting the context, mourning the nihilism of the story’s events. It’s a constant presence, not an occasional scene-setting hint. We see this story through Sheriff Bell’s eyes and his clear pitiless view of the events defines the fated tragedy of the story’s seemingly random violence. Listen to him:

Young people anymore, they seem to have a hard time growin up. I don’t knowhy. Maybe it’s just that you don’t grow up any faster than what you have to. I had a cousin who was a deputized peace officer when he was eighteen. He was married and had a kid at the time. I had a friend that I grew up with was a ordained Baptist preacher at the same age. Pastor of a little country church. He left there to go to Lubbock after about three years and when he told em he was leavin they just set there in that church and blubbered. Men and women alike. He’d married em and baptized em and buried em. He was twenty-one years old, maybe twenty-two. When he preached they’d be standin out in the yard listenin. It surprised me. He was always quiet in school. I was twenty-one when I went into the army, and I was one of the oldest in our class at boot camp. Six months later I was in France, shootin people with a rifle. I didn’t even think it was that peculiar at the time. Four years later I was sheriff of this county. I never doubted but what I was supposed to be neither …

Loretta told me she heard on the radio about some percentage of the children in this country bein raised by their grandparents. I forget what it was. Pretty high, I thought. Parents wouldn’t raise em. We talked about that. What we thought was that when the next generation come along and they don’t want to raise their children neither, then who is goin to do it? Their own parents will be the only grandparents around and they wouldn’t even raise them. We didn’t have an answer about that.

This is the central voice of the novel and we scarcely hear it in the film. Watching Tommy Lee Jones made me want to hear an audio book, where he could read all these haunting words aloud.

There are other problems in this adapatation. Some have to do with time constraints, I suppose, others with differences in style and temperament among the various collaborators. No one collaborated on the novel. I remember walking out of some awful film years ago and overhearing someone say, “It took seven people to write that piece of shit! Can you believe that? Seven people! Moby Dick – one guy. Am I right?”

Whatever the reason for the mistakes and miscalculations in the film version of McCarthy’s novel, they diminish and undermine the story in a familiar Hollywood manner – the Coen Brothers seem to think they know more about narrative construction than Cormac McCarthy. Say that sentence aloud: The Coen Brothers seem to think they know more about narrative construction than Cormac McCarthy. See how sad and absurd that sounds? There are so many ways it’s not true, big ones, and small ones. McCarthy simply tells us things that the brothers choose to omit: how exactly Llewelln Moss died, for instance; and what happened to the money. Those are big issues. For those who found the movie frustrating and needlessly opaque, let me tell you that Moss confronted one of the Mexican drug runners at the motel, but the Mexican grabbed the girl and put a gun to her head. Moss said he’d drop his gun if the Mexican let the girl go. That’s how it worked, but when the girl was free the Mexican shot her and then he shot Moss, but Moss managed to grab his gun and shoot the Mexican before he died.

Now, if you’ve seen the movie recently enough to remember the details, you’re saying, “Girl? What girl? You mean the skank at the motel who offered Moss a beer? The one he was going to sleep with before the bad guys showed up?” That would be a shrewd question, but it would just make my point more clearly. The girl in the movie has one line. In the book, Moss picks up a fifteen-year old runaway, heading for California, and gives her a thousand dollars of his stolen money.. She says:

What’s that for?

To go to California on.

What do I gotta do for it?

You don’t have to do nothin. Even a blind sow finds a acorn ever once in a while.

He’s not trying to sleep with her. He makes that clear in their last conversation, less than an hour before they’re both killed. Listen:

I wonder where I’d be right now if I hadnt of met you this morning.

I don’t know.

I was always lucky. About stuff like that. About meetin people.

Well, I wouldn’t speak too soon.

Why? You fixin’ to bury me out in the desert?

No. But there’s a lot of b ad luck out there. You hang around long enough and you’ll come in for your share of it.

I think I done have. I believe I’m due for a change. I might even be overdue.

Yeah? Well you aint.

Why do you say that?

He looked at her. Let me tell you something, little sister. If there is one thing on this planet that you don’t look like, it’s a bunch of good luck walking around.

That’s a hateful thing to say.

No it aint. I just want you to be careful. We get to El Paso I’m goin to drop you at the bus station. You got money. You don’t need to be out here hitchhiking.

All right.

All right.

…You want to split this last beer?

All right.

Run in there and get a cup. I’ll be back in a minute.

All right. You aint changed you mind have you?

About what?

You know about what.

I don’t change my mind. I like to get it right the first time.

He rose and started up the walkway. She stood at the door. I’ll tell you something I heard in a movie one time, she said.

He stopped and turned. Whats that?

There’s a lot of good salesmen around and you might buy something yet.

Well, darling, you’re just a little late. Cause I done bought. And I think I’ll stick with what I got.

He went on up the walkway and climbed the stairs and went in.

When Moss’s wife Carla Jean finds about her husband’s death she assumes that he was having an affair with the girl and dies believing that falsehood, which opens up a stark level of tragedy the film cannot touch because the girl was never even a character and the Coen Brothers chose not to show Moss’s death. As for the money: Chigurh finds it in the motel room air vent, and takes it to the mob boss -- the one he kills in the movie. In the book he turns the money over and assumes he and the boss will remain in business together. In the film all you see is the vent on the floor when the Sheriff inspects the motel room, aftre Chigurh has gone. I guess you’re supposed to figure everything else out for yourself.

More siginifcantly, the Coen brothers cut the heart of a crucial scene late in the story, where Bell visits his wheel-chair bound uncle (You never get to know their exact family connection in the movie). The Coens leave in the chit chat about week-old coffee and feral cats. What they chose to exclude is Bell’s confession of a war-time act of cowardice that has haunted him for the rest of his life. It clarifies all his actions, everything he’s done in the course of the story -- all his attempts to redeem that shame. And what he did in the war wasn’t even all that bad. The house they were using as a bivouac was hit by an enemy mortar shell. Everyone else was dead or dying when the Germans started to advance on the position. Bell grabbed a machine gun and held them off until night-fall. He knew they wouid be able to surround him in the dark and kill him. So he took off. It’s something his father would never have done, and both he and his uncle know it. Here’s what he says:

If I was supposed to die over there doin what I’d give my word to do then that’s what I should have done. You can tell it any way you want but that’s the way it is. I should have done it and I didn’t. And some part of me has never quit wishin that I could go back. And I cant. I didn’t know you could steal your own life. And I didn’t know that it would bring you no more benefit than about anything else you might steal. I think I done the best with it I knew how but it still wasnt mine. It never has been.

The old man sat for a long time. He was bent slightly forward, looking at the floor. After a while he nodded. I think I know where this is goin, he said.


What do you think he would have done?

I know what he would have done.

Yeah. I guess I do, too.

He’d of set there till hell froze over and then stayed a while on the ice.

Do you think that makes him a better man than you?

Yessir. I do.

Apart from anything else, it’s hard to understand why a professional screenwriter would cut a line as good that one: “He’d have set there till hell froze over and then stayed a while on the ice.” You’d think Mr. Coen would have done it just for the pleasure of typing that sentence (that’s why I did it twice). But no. The heart of the character was left on the cutting room floor (if they even shot the scene), and I have no idea why.

But it’s a shame. The people in the film are ciphers. In the book they live and breathe … and talk. Even Chigurh talks. He has a whole insane philosophy of murder that he explains at length to anyone who’ll listen, and most people do. He’s a sociopathic existentialist, Sartre with a sawed-off shot gun. In the book he’s fascinating. In the movie he’s Javier Bardem. Which is quite a lot, I know that. But it’s not enough.

The movie was grim and a little confusing, full of gaps and stark landscapes. If I think of it at all, I’ll remember Javier Bardem saying “Friend-o” and Tommy Lee Jones’ defeated squint. The book re-arranged my consciousness and invaded my dreams, put a tired noble voice in my head and broke my heart. The movie gave me two hours of unsettling entertainment.

The book gave me a parched tragic inexplicable world that I’ll never forget.

I’ll stick with that.

1 comment:

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