So, here it is at last…my favourite Coen Bros. movie.
I’ll always have a soft spot for Miller’s Crossing and Raising Arizona, mind you…but this is so obviously what it’s all been building to, all along, that I don’t see any way for it not to be my favourite Coen Bros. movie. This is where it all folds together, where the longtime fan finally gets — so unexpectedly, in these days of boiler-room art marketing! — a payoff, not merely a punchline. A way of looking, of seeing, of talking, of listening…the wry and the sinister, the cute and the chilling and the conversational…
…The space and the time. The whole thing’s as lean and as spare as anyone could want, and yet there are oceans in it: time for the eye to drink in everything it needs to. Time to drink in the colours of the evening sky, and really what is any American movie ever doing, if it isn’t providing excess vista for the viewer’s retina to be enriched by? Of course the Coens are old hands at this, and everyone knows it; but here, too, there is a sense of culmination implicit in every frame and beat, that descends all the way from good old Blood Simple‘s formal intrigue, down to plain and hard-hitting personal meaning in the end. The tricks aren’t tricks anymore, and they’re not to be simply admired now: every odd observational joke the Brothers ever made is revisited here in the light of some kind of horror — the one aesthetic, as I believe I may have mentioned recently, that is always relevant. Whose very soul is relevance: because “irrelevant” horror is a contradiction in terms.
And that’s what’s so remarkable about this movie, pretty much in a nutshell: it hews to relevance as such a through-line, as such a code, that it (to my mind, anyway) invites rare comparisons. You may feel free to disagree, naturally; but before I get back to why I love the thing so much as a movie experience, I just want to get into how it lights up the fluorescent spiderweb of influence in my own mind as a viewer. This is maybe going to sound a bit whacked-out, because it’s not just Buddhism but Batman too…and just as (I’m so fond of saying) Repo Man was the greatest movie about skateboarding culture ever made, though it included not one railslide or ollie, so I think this movie’s about as Buddhist as it gets though it contains not one shred of ethicity. And it’s not just for the noir-intersection that we all sometimes sense but never say, that I call it thus: the grim fidelity to the actual that deliberately lets aesthetic prescriptions slip from its hand…well, but if the through-line in question isn’t centred on good and bad, how about beautiful and ugly instead?
Or, if not beautiful and ugly…how about intelligent and unintelligent?
Skilled and unskilled?
Appropriate and inappropriate?
Close to the Way and far from It, perhaps. Oh heck, maybe that is what I mean to say. You see there is at least a bit of Buddhism in every movie, every book…because it isn’t a religion, you know. It’s an action…
So look, a little weirdly now, at Franny And Zooey: a sutra retold in chic 1950s New York magazine style, a roman a clef for the paperback generation just feeling their eclectic oats at that time. Oh, there go the first fireworks outside my window, but I prefer these fireworks: it’s still incredible to me, that all the various Big Serious short-story writers of twentieth-century America who felt themselves so indebted to Salinger’s influence refused to actually pick up on anything he put out there for their benefit…but do you all think it possible, even conceivable, that crazy old Cormac was the one who got the transmission at that particular Flower Sermon? Tough truth: well, if noir is anything it’s elliptical. And it owes you nothing you don’t already possess. It doesn’t even offer the thing called understanding: but instead it merely demonstrates an object. So, there’s no “story” there, as such…
…Just as my countryman Denys Arcand knew, when he performed his culmination of oeuvre: there Rene sits in hospital, grappling with the reality of cancer, of death, and that reality truncates every other Hollywood story that bubbles up around him. All the tropes and all the conveniences fall to the ground half-used, and pointless: focus is bestowed on a grateful audience, and then it’s taken away, perhaps to see if the gratitude can persist…
…Or even, possibly, evolve. A hundred pitches in a minute, the Hawking radiation of plot-production, it’s just like The Player, and it’s got just the same point: stories are great, but ultimately they’re contrivances, and ultimately they evaporate and blow up. They’re very pretty when they overlap, they make lovely abstract Spirographic particle-tracks…but their purposes are hard to specify, in any complete way. Stories have limits; stories have restrictions. Sometimes it’s necessary to remind ourselves of that. Say, do these balloons come in funny shapes?
‘Less round is funny.
No, I’m not done yet, though my point was arguably done before I even put it in the oven…but let’s take that existential humour for a moment, and look at Batman with it. Shall we? Fucking Batman, that’s who it always comes back to on the comics-geek Internet, but there’s a reason for that: I remember Geoff Klock said he didn’t go to Frank Miller because he thought Frank was a politics expert, but that he went to Frank because Frank is a Batman Expert…and I’ve gotta tell you, that expression’s been rolling around in my head for a good long time, now. A “Batman Expert”?
What in the hell, I ask you, could that possibly be?
Whatever it is, it seems plain that Grant Morrison’s pretty much determined these days to prove himself one. But a link comes in, here, courtesy of Batman #700…entitled “Time And The Batman”, for those of you who don’t know, and so there’s a man who understands the spirit of insouciance that the superhero’s heart needs to keep itself beating…!
…And in it, the Batman of the future mocks a supervillain, saying basically “using all these old Master Plans from old Batman comics, don’t you have any sense of originality?”
And the villain replies:
“I don’t invent; I innovate.”
And right there, I’ll tell you folks…
…That’s the killer line, for sure.
Because it’s absolutely nothing, if it’s not philosophically relevant. It’s boundary-crossing stuff: hey, why in the hell would you bother reading these awesome Morrisonian Batman comics anyway, what can they possibly hold for you? Well, the answer is as simple as pie: they hold exactly what they have…!
And thus: a mystery is reaffirmed. Sure, it looks like it’s just more “meta” stuff, but it isn’t: it isn’t as insular or as incestuous as that. It’s a real problem, instead: what are books about? What are movies about? Batman’s questions about them are no different from your own, and the answers he gets are the same too. Story is a burden. But story is also a beauty. Morrison’s Batman stories are always ending, always decaying into their own toxic waste-products, and there is something threatening in that, but not unmagnetic. We are forever poised at the lip of the falls, we are always just noticing that the handrail on the catwalk is beginning to give way….the story itself is always a neon pubescence, the moment of the story is always in the yet-to-come…and then suddenly in the next panel it’s already caught in the rear-view mirror, with no intervening time having passed. It’s the Marvel Method writ strange: the impact is felt in the moment yet to come, the impact is felt in the moment just past…the punch-line, eh? Everything in Morrison’s Batman (especially in Morrison and Quitely’s Batman!) is a moment just past or a moment yet to come, but Batman is always centre-stage in the present, the moments dithering around him like speed-lines in a tunnel. Still think this is off-topic?
You think Batman’s in there all alone, in the tunnel?
At the centre of “No Country” is a story that doesn’t happen, that we never see unfold. That’s because the story doesn’t make as powerful a point as does its absence. AND THE PUNCHLINE WAS ME! DOODLE-DO! DOODLE-DO! All superhero stories are a struggle with the nature of maya, of samsara…and if you’re the villain you lose that battle, but if you’re the hero you have no choice but to go beyond winning and losing, to a sort of weirdly absurd long-underwear version of standing-wave peace. Batman, whatever it is we call Batman, whatever we mean when we say “Batman”, always wins. Because that’s just what’s in the script, see?
It’s all mapped out already.
But no map’s ever any good without a compass, and that’s the lesson here. So regard the oeuvre of the Coen Bros., all the funny little absurdities that deflate carefully-built characters: koans, yeah. It’s an accidental pun, a space for the “reader” of these words that’s left blank, so he can fill it in himself. A spiderweb in the dark, under “black” light: I mean look at these words, they’re gaps too, they’re UV silk too. The pattern isn’t already there to be seen, it’s the act of seeing that creates the pattern in the first place. The Grant Morrison Party Line, you could call it, or you could just call it a bit of postmodernism I guess. We all think postmodernism’s dead because it ran into the very limit that it, itself, specified: the limits of story, the limits of narrative. But Gautama’s smile is never very far away: postmodernism can be reconstructed, too, the same as anything else. Postmodernism is a lot older than we think, it just has gone by a lot of different Christian names. You listening, Mindless? You’ve gotta admit, Damian…the detective thing, it’s fun, isn’t it? Once you start seeing these things, you see them everywhere. Sean says he can see the Lone Man everywhere, but I can’t see always him, I freely admit it — for whatever reason, I usually need help to see him — however what I can usually see without special prosthetic aid is the queer phenomenon of Character-As-Diaphragm, where POP! the interior life suddenly finds itself inscribed on the external landscape, and then POP AGAIN! the scalar forces flip to turn the external inwards, abruptly redefined as a bunch of historical scarring like the moving finger writes, on the inside…and you never know when it’s going to happen, so wisdom quickly becomes the ability to manage it whenever it happens. Except that no wisdom is ever perfect, and no state of skillfulness lasts forever, or anyway remains unchanged for long…unless one is Batman, of course, whose relationship with Time is incorruptible.
Oh, he hews to the Way, does Batman! He practises his artless art, for sure!
It’s his only real story…!
But enough about that; we were talking about the Coen Brothers, and “No Country”. And how it’s my favourite. All those characteristically absurd deflations, they’ve always been a fingerprint: the way of seeing and hearing has always been too sharp not to cut. Here, though, it’s cutting different things. Ordinarily, you laugh; whenever you see Raising Arizona, you laugh. The way you know you’re watching one of their movies is all in how you laugh: you hear yourself doing it, and you know it’s them just by the sound.
But here, in “No Country”, that’s all turned around. Folded: because it really is Raising Arizona, you know? But seen through the other end of the telescope: and the humour punctures the ones who deliver the lines, instead of the ones who butt up against them. It’s the same humour, exactly the same in every way, except it isn’t funny: it’s terrifying. And so, predictably, I laughed. Those throwaway lines, those diamond-splitting strokes! It’s so Morrisonian you could almost scream.
Shit, but it’s threatening. Magnetically threatening. Headlights on a hill, noise followed by silence. Real chaos is somebody having to change your feeding tube for you. Little throwaway lines, sharp as steel splinters. Deep blue skies. We’ve seen this before — and that’s the point, that’s where the magnetism comes from in the first place — but never like this, and that’s the point too.
I could write ten thousand words on this movie, and never mention Batman once. But because this post is essentially a haiku…I did.
Anyone wants to go postmodern on it, be my guest.
What I’m saying is: all those patented Coen Bros. bits, those funny bits of theirs that they’re so good at…they froze my blood, in this movie. That shit, in other words, got real. It got real in a hurry. I think there may even have been a Doppler effect, it got so real so fast.
I think I may even still be surrounded by the echo of it, actually.
Me and the Joker going down the tunnel with the speed lines. Still not sure what the relationship of Noir to Enlightenment is, can’t quite seem to figure that one out, old chum. But, yeah: well, of course.
Truth is tough.
And also, incidentally: beautiful, too.
Highly recommend this movie.