" Madam Miaow Says: March 2008

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Tibet or not tibet: Shangri-La la land



Just got back to find this powerful post at the Socialist Unity website on the subject of Tibet. It's an admirable contribution to the debate in a worrying climate of knee-jerk attacks on China from the West.

China has many faults, of which we're all aware, and is not the socialist paradise many once hoped for. But neither is Tibet the last repository of spiritual transcendence on Earth as presented in the media. So what's motivating the current focus on China as the Big Bad? As opposed to any of America's client states? (Saudi Arabia and Israel heave into view, to name but two.) The green-eyed monster takes on the Sleeping Dragon now that it's waking up. The Chinese are the US's biggest creditors, so I guess US fury is understandable. And it's a useful diversion from their own criminal actions in the world. Similarly with the British establishment's demonisation of the Chinese that goes way beyond legitimate and thoughtful criticism, and could just possibly be motivated by old territorial ambitions.

I may not have a deep knowledge of Tibet but I catch on eventually.

Some have asked, "Madam Miaow, does lil ol' Britain really have evil designs on the Kingdom at the Roof of the World?"

To them I say, remember British Empire, grasshopper? Encroachments from India into the Himalayas and Afghanistan? The East India Trade Company? Opium Wars? Do fish fuck in water? You betcha! The Brits have been sniffing around Tibet since it began secretly mapping it in 1865 (see Wikipedia). In the 1904 invasion, British troops under Colonel Francis Younghusband occupied Lhasa and machine-gunned a load of locals, finally imposing a trade agreement and sticking it to their Tsarist Russian rivals. How's that for spiritual? There's been a lot of destabilising going on behind the scenes, especially in the cold-war lead-up to the events of 1950. The CIA funded a Tibetan guerilla war against China, backing the Dalai Lama, until at least 1969 (or 1972, depending on source). Officially, that's when it ended, but who knows what they're up to now?

A few years ago I was asked to attend a parliamentary meeting set up by some of the political elite in support of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. My first utterance was, "Baby, have you got the wrong vampire!" [Ref: Jewish vampire played by Alfie Bass when confronted with a crucifix in Polanski's Dance of the Vampires.] I had to explain why I was not enamoured of Dolly Llama and his Shangri-La nostalgia for feudalism.

Unfortunately, after a promising start when whole sections of Tibetan society welcomed them as liberators, China behaved with the same degree of sensitivity as the British in Ireland. China raised literacy levels massively, lifted life expectancy from 35 to 67 [according to the Chinese authorities in 2003. Unescap says 59 in 1990 - see note below], redistributed the land once held by the tiny ruling elite, and ended feudal ownership of serfs. But torturing nuns, no matter how much you disagree with them, is unlikely to win you friends. I do wonder, though, if this behind-the-scenes, ahem, "interest" from old imperialist forces is helping keep China in a constant state of alarm?

While I'm on the subject, is everyone aware of Dolly's background? That his mother, Dekyi Tsering, was one of the biggest owners of serfs prior to the 1950s? His own website describes him as being born into "a farming family". Yes, farming like the Duke of Cornwall is a "farmer". Yet all 18 families working at Shexing village were serfs owned by Dolly's Mum, and worked on her manor. How convenient that in 1935 the new Dalai Lama was located in the ruling class! I wouldn't buy a used prayer-wheel from His Slipperiness.

Dolly comes from a long line of loan sharks, issuing usurous loans right up until 1950 for 20 to 30 percent interest pa. And who is aware that the DL along with the rest of the monastic and aristoctratic ruling class had the power of life and death over the population and that his predecessors used it? Punishments meted out by the courts and prisons (privately owned by estate owners and monasteries) included amputation, eyes gouged out and flaying. Had Dolly come out and condemned these feudal practices, relinquished his privileges, and worked towards a fair society instead of one where the five percent made up of officials, nobles and upper clergy owned absolutely everything, and the 95 percent of the population who were serfs and hereditary slaves didn't even own their own bodies, I might have been sympathetic. As it is, I'm not impressed with this Trojan Horse for imperialism.

Some place First Contact as the "invasion" of 1950. Yet, in the 7th century it was Tibet which invaded China. Even now Tibetan nationalists are making ugly noises about "historic Tibet", referring to territories lying outside its borders. According to Wikipedia, it was the Qing emperors who established the Dalai Lama as spritual and political head of Tibet. There have been alliances and even a royal marriage in the 7th C, so I reckon China has a better claim than the UK has over some of its regions.

BTW, I've had Cornish nationalists crawling all over my YouTube vids of Cornwall, so perhaps I should take to lobbying for their independence. And the Welsh. And the Scots. And the Irish. (Whoops! Done that already.)

That "invasion": in 1950 there was a power struggle going on between the Tibetans themselves; one of the aims was to expel the imperialist forces supporting the pro-separatist Regent Dagzha. The Brits had effectively tried to annexe Tibet using their proxies in 1949. One infamous letter of 1949 signed by Dagzha and the 14th Dalai Lama asks the US, Britain, Nepal and India for combat training, a US loan and World War II weaponry. And the Living Buddha Geda, who was lobbying for the Chinese government, was poisoned by Robert Webster Ford, an American telegraph station director at Qamdo, in August 1950. Is it any wonder that the government sent in the troops?

Han Chinese make up 6.1 percent of the population. That's about the same proportion as non-whites in Britain, one difference being the Han are perceived as dominating the jobs market and business. How far down the BNP anti-immigration road arguing cultural genocide do we want to go? Is the Disneyfication of Tibet the answer? I can see Mickey Mouse and Dolly bringing a little bit of Hollywood to the Himalayas. Should we protect the cute traditions of burying babies in the corner foundations of the monasteries to bring luck? Or owning human beings? None of which you will find in the Dolly hagiographies.

China needs to deal with what rampant capitalism is doing to all its people. To present this as Chinese "communism" oppressing a rebellious religious minority is to miss the point and distort the picture. Just who are the Tibetans who are rebelling by attacking the Han Chinese and Hui Muslims, anyhow? Descendents of the serfs? The clergy class? They may have legitimate grievances in that they feel they are being treated as third class citizens and fear they'll end up the same way as native Americans and Australian aborigines. Cutting the pursestrings by granting some faked-up "independence" where they'd be dependent on UN handouts and subservient to their new western political masters is probably not the answer.

Finally, in case you hadn't noticed, it's not China which is the biggest threat to world peace. I think the US and UK are at the head of that queue. Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, Palestine, Syria, China: these are all within their sights (sorry if I missed any). Fans of Dolly should think about boycotting themselves over the chaos wreaked by the US and the UK and their friends in giving us World War, the sequel. "This time it's personal."

LINKS:
Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth by Michael Parenti. "Whatever wrongs and new oppressions introduced by the Chinese after 1959, they did abolish slavery and the Tibetan serfdom system of unpaid labor. They eliminated the many crushing taxes, started work projects, and greatly reduced unemployment and beggary. They established secular schools, thereby breaking the educational monopoly of the monasteries. And they constructed running water and electrical systems in Lhasa."
Andy Newman at Socialist Unity on Tibet
Liam Macuaid on Tibet
Michael Backman at Global Research on the Dalai Lama
CIA in Tibet, "a covert attempt to arm the Tibetans" and annexe the country.
More CIA activities in Tibet
Times report of Tibet riots
YouTube: peaceful Tibetan protesters
Eyewitness account of rioting by Shenzhen woman shopworker in Lhasa
What does China Think? Stephen Marks at Pambazuka News
Why They Hate China Russell Berman at Telos Press

UN - "Mortality and Life Expectancy: After the Democratic Reform in Tibet, mortality declined by a large margin. The decrease in the mortality rate has slowed down since 1970. The mortality rate had fallen from 28 per 1,000 in the 1950s to 6.60 per 1,000 in 2000. The model of age-specific death rates is in the stage of transferring from the traditional "U-shaped" model to the modern "J-shaped" model. The death rates for males were higher than those for females. There was a wide gap between urban and rural people in the death rates. Mortality at all ages in Tibet was much higher than the national average. The death rates in each age groups in rural areas were higher than those in urban areas. The infant mortality rate was very high in Tibet with a great difference between the sexes. But the infant mortality rate had fallen from 430 per 1,000 in 1951, 91.8 per 1,000 in 1990 to 35.3 per 1,000 by the year 2000. In 1990, life expectancy in Tibet has reached 59.64 years, 57.64 for male and 61.57 for female." More


Video — Lost Horizon: Madam Miaow removes her make-up on leaving Shangri-La

Tibet or not tibet: Shangri-La la land



Just got back to find this powerful post at the Socialist Unity website on the subject of Tibet. It's an admirable contribution to the debate in a worrying climate of knee-jerk attacks on China from the West.

China has many faults, of which we're all aware, and is not the socialist paradise many once hoped for. But neither is Tibet the last repository of spiritual transcendence on Earth as presented in the media. So what's motivating the current focus on China as the Big Bad? As opposed to any of America's client states? (Saudi Arabia and Israel heave into view, to name but two.) The green-eyed monster takes on the Sleeping Dragon now that it's waking up. The Chinese are the US's biggest creditors, so I guess US fury is understandable. And it's a useful diversion from their own criminal actions in the world. Similarly with the British establishment's demonisation of the Chinese that goes way beyond legitimate and thoughtful criticism, and could just possibly be motivated by old territorial ambitions.

I may not have a deep knowledge of Tibet but I catch on eventually.

Some have asked, "Madam Miaow, does lil ol' Britain really have evil designs on the Kingdom at the Roof of the World?"

To them I say, remember British Empire, grasshopper? Encroachments from India into the Himalayas and Afghanistan? The East India Trade Company? Opium Wars? Do fish fuck in water? You betcha! The Brits have been sniffing around Tibet since it began secretly mapping it in 1865 (see Wikipedia). In the 1904 invasion, British troops under Colonel Francis Younghusband occupied Lhasa and machine-gunned a load of locals, finally imposing a trade agreement and sticking it to their Tsarist Russian rivals. How's that for spiritual? There's been a lot of destabilising going on behind the scenes, especially in the cold-war lead-up to the events of 1950. The CIA funded a Tibetan guerilla war against China, backing the Dalai Lama, until at least 1969 (or 1972, depending on source). Officially, that's when it ended, but who knows what they're up to now?

A few years ago I was asked to attend a parliamentary meeting set up by some of the political elite in support of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. My first utterance was, "Baby, have you got the wrong vampire!" [Ref: Jewish vampire played by Alfie Bass when confronted with a crucifix in Polanski's Dance of the Vampires.] I had to explain why I was not enamoured of Dolly Llama and his Shangri-La nostalgia for feudalism.

Unfortunately, after a promising start when whole sections of Tibetan society welcomed them as liberators, China behaved with the same degree of sensitivity as the British in Ireland. China raised literacy levels massively, lifted life expectancy from 35 to 67 [according to the Chinese authorities in 2003. Unescap says 59 in 1990 - see note below], redistributed the land once held by the tiny ruling elite, and ended feudal ownership of serfs. But torturing nuns, no matter how much you disagree with them, is unlikely to win you friends. I do wonder, though, if this behind-the-scenes, ahem, "interest" from old imperialist forces is helping keep China in a constant state of alarm?

While I'm on the subject, is everyone aware of Dolly's background? That his mother, Dekyi Tsering, was one of the biggest owners of serfs prior to the 1950s? His own website describes him as being born into "a farming family". Yes, farming like the Duke of Cornwall is a "farmer". Yet all 18 families working at Shexing village were serfs owned by Dolly's Mum, and worked on her manor. How convenient that in 1935 the new Dalai Lama was located in the ruling class! I wouldn't buy a used prayer-wheel from His Slipperiness.

Dolly comes from a long line of loan sharks, issuing usurous loans right up until 1950 for 20 to 30 percent interest pa. And who is aware that the DL along with the rest of the monastic and aristoctratic ruling class had the power of life and death over the population and that his predecessors used it? Punishments meted out by the courts and prisons (privately owned by estate owners and monasteries) included amputation, eyes gouged out and flaying. Had Dolly come out and condemned these feudal practices, relinquished his privileges, and worked towards a fair society instead of one where the five percent made up of officials, nobles and upper clergy owned absolutely everything, and the 95 percent of the population who were serfs and hereditary slaves didn't even own their own bodies, I might have been sympathetic. As it is, I'm not impressed with this Trojan Horse for imperialism.

Some place First Contact as the "invasion" of 1950. Yet, in the 7th century it was Tibet which invaded China. Even now Tibetan nationalists are making ugly noises about "historic Tibet", referring to territories lying outside its borders. According to Wikipedia, it was the Qing emperors who established the Dalai Lama as spritual and political head of Tibet. There have been alliances and even a royal marriage in the 7th C, so I reckon China has a better claim than the UK has over some of its regions.

BTW, I've had Cornish nationalists crawling all over my YouTube vids of Cornwall, so perhaps I should take to lobbying for their independence. And the Welsh. And the Scots. And the Irish. (Whoops! Done that already.)

That "invasion": in 1950 there was a power struggle going on between the Tibetans themselves; one of the aims was to expel the imperialist forces supporting the pro-separatist Regent Dagzha. The Brits had effectively tried to annexe Tibet using their proxies in 1949. One infamous letter of 1949 signed by Dagzha and the 14th Dalai Lama asks the US, Britain, Nepal and India for combat training, a US loan and World War II weaponry. And the Living Buddha Geda, who was lobbying for the Chinese government, was poisoned by Robert Webster Ford, an American telegraph station director at Qamdo, in August 1950. Is it any wonder that the government sent in the troops?

Han Chinese make up 6.1 percent of the population. That's about the same proportion as non-whites in Britain, one difference being the Han are perceived as dominating the jobs market and business. How far down the BNP anti-immigration road arguing cultural genocide do we want to go? Is the Disneyfication of Tibet the answer? I can see Mickey Mouse and Dolly bringing a little bit of Hollywood to the Himalayas. Should we protect the cute traditions of burying babies in the corner foundations of the monasteries to bring luck? Or owning human beings? None of which you will find in the Dolly hagiographies.

China needs to deal with what rampant capitalism is doing to all its people. To present this as Chinese "communism" oppressing a rebellious religious minority is to miss the point and distort the picture. Just who are the Tibetans who are rebelling by attacking the Han Chinese and Hui Muslims, anyhow? Descendents of the serfs? The clergy class? They may have legitimate grievances in that they feel they are being treated as third class citizens and fear they'll end up the same way as native Americans and Australian aborigines. Cutting the pursestrings by granting some faked-up "independence" where they'd be dependent on UN handouts and subservient to their new western political masters is probably not the answer.

Finally, in case you hadn't noticed, it's not China which is the biggest threat to world peace. I think the US and UK are at the head of that queue. Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, Palestine, Syria, China: these are all within their sights (sorry if I missed any). Fans of Dolly should think about boycotting themselves over the chaos wreaked by the US and the UK and their friends in giving us World War, the sequel. "This time it's personal."

LINKS:
Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth by Michael Parenti. "Whatever wrongs and new oppressions introduced by the Chinese after 1959, they did abolish slavery and the Tibetan serfdom system of unpaid labor. They eliminated the many crushing taxes, started work projects, and greatly reduced unemployment and beggary. They established secular schools, thereby breaking the educational monopoly of the monasteries. And they constructed running water and electrical systems in Lhasa."
Andy Newman at Socialist Unity on Tibet
Liam Macuaid on Tibet
Michael Backman at Global Research on the Dalai Lama
CIA in Tibet, "a covert attempt to arm the Tibetans" and annexe the country.
More CIA activities in Tibet
Times report of Tibet riots
YouTube: peaceful Tibetan protesters
Eyewitness account of rioting by Shenzhen woman shopworker in Lhasa
What does China Think? Stephen Marks at Pambazuka News
Why They Hate China Russell Berman at Telos Press

UN - "Mortality and Life Expectancy: After the Democratic Reform in Tibet, mortality declined by a large margin. The decrease in the mortality rate has slowed down since 1970. The mortality rate had fallen from 28 per 1,000 in the 1950s to 6.60 per 1,000 in 2000. The model of age-specific death rates is in the stage of transferring from the traditional "U-shaped" model to the modern "J-shaped" model. The death rates for males were higher than those for females. There was a wide gap between urban and rural people in the death rates. Mortality at all ages in Tibet was much higher than the national average. The death rates in each age groups in rural areas were higher than those in urban areas. The infant mortality rate was very high in Tibet with a great difference between the sexes. But the infant mortality rate had fallen from 430 per 1,000 in 1951, 91.8 per 1,000 in 1990 to 35.3 per 1,000 by the year 2000. In 1990, life expectancy in Tibet has reached 59.64 years, 57.64 for male and 61.57 for female." More


Video — Lost Horizon: Madam Miaow removes her make-up on leaving Shangri-La

Sunday, 16 March 2008

How to read a film: No Country For Old Men


NOTE: CONTAINS SPOILERS

This is a bit late but, due to some surprisingly hostile reactions to the Coen Brothers’ latest feature film, No Country For Old Men, I’ve decided to expand my comments at Louis P’s.

Bloggers have been vitriolic about the movie, accusing it of a range of crimes from harbouring right-wing politics to cinematic ineptitude. I’ve now seen it twice and I have to take issue with both these charges.

The story about the deadly pursuit of drug money across the Mexican US border is framed by the narration of Sheriff Lamarr, Tommy Lee Jones’s ageing police officer, one of the “old men” of a bygone age who realises there is no place left for him in the ugly new soulless world shaping up around him.

It’s based on Cormac McCarthy’s book which I’ve only skimmed but which everyone seems to agree has been faithfully rendered by Joel and Ethan Coen. Synopses of the novel describe it as being about hazard, chance and fate. While this theme is present in the film, there’s another that deepens the abstract notion and roots it in the changing political and social circumstances of Bush’s America. This raises the story above the level of a mere play-off between the "trailer trash" hero Llewlyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and hitman Anton Chigurh: an existential hero who believes he can change his crummy destiny and a villain who not only believes in fate but is convinced of his own role as its agent.

We’re all affected by our environment – artists can’t escape this as they need to crank their antennae to maximum sensitivity. It’s always fascinating to see artists who set out to do one thing, and say quite another. Balzac is a famous case in point – outwardly, right-wing and reactionary, his writing takes a truthful look at humanity that draws the reader to some fairly progressive conclusions about the grim state of their societies despite the novelist's intentions. Screen adaptations often add something of the artistic vision of the filmmaker – otherwise, why bother? It’s admirable the way director Mary Herron flushed out the criticism of American capitalism implicit in Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho: the author not able to reject totally the rewards of the consumerism he so enjoys.

The Coens may well have done something similar for McCarthy’s novel if, as some have asserted, he never intended such a reading. Although, Annie Proulx would demur as she describes McCarthy’s oeuvre as being the “ongoing study of a burning American rage and how common that rage has become.”

One of the achievements of No Country For Old Men is the creation of a powerful screen monster, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), one with all morality stripped away: some insist this isn’t intended as a political statement but it is hard to see this figure as not reflecting the new pitiless phase capitalism is entering. We know what imperialism is capable of abroad, but now even its own relatively pampered western civilians are coming under the boot as the benign mask of the system is ripped off. And even loveable heroes of the conventional story may not survive this onslaught.

This, the Coen Bros are saying, is the cold bleak reality of the world we now inhabit. There is no room for sentimentality, ideals and fellow feeling - these belong to the old men like Tommy Lee Jones who are a dying breed. To Anton Chigurh, a “living prophet of destruction”, it’s all numbers, a warped logic, a person’s life decided on the toss of a coin.

Chigurh, in his relentless cold cruelty and horror, is a force of nature. His rival hitman, Woody Harrelson’s Carson Wells, compares him to “bubonic plague”. Air is his element, his chosen method of dispatch, but the means are all human productions. A cattle-killer. Perfect! In one scene, where he’s stealing from a pharmacy, he’s shot unblinking against the explosive flames of his method of distraction. There’s a precursor in the relentless killing machines of The Terminator - but this monster is entirely human, distorted by capitalist imperatives. And he does love his money.

The filmmaking is supremely effective. Note the way the Coen Bros reverse the order of how much of the horror of the killings you see – reducing it event by event to produce maximum psychological mayhem instead of building to a visual climax. They set this up beautifully as if they were winding up an elastic band in our heads, releasing it in the final chilling moments so that we do the work. And it’s all the more vivid for that.

In a reversal of the usual form, they start with the after-effects of a drug-deal slaughter – humans and animals decaying in the hot southern US sun. Then we are shown the process in the most detailed drawn out killing. It’s of a minor character, the police officer, someone we don’t know and for whom we care little or nothing. Slowly and painfully, his life ebbs away as Chigurh strangles him while communing hypnotically with the deep dark forces driving him.

The random killing of the car driver is seen in gory detail using a captive bolt stunner, a cattle device using compressed air. As we get closer to the fate of the protagonist, we need to see less and less, as it’s starting to take place in our imagination and we fill in the gaps better than any closed-ended film images could do.

Following more crimo wipe-outs by Chigurh, there’s another break with the expected norm. The protagonist’s killing is by the drug criminals, not by nemesis Chigurh, and takes place offscreen with the added touch of the dead woman bystander in the pool.

This has led to some of the shrillest outcries in the blogosphere. Storytelling convention dictates that the worst thing that can happen to Llewlyn Moss is that he fails in his quest to keep the money and is killed. But the Coens ratchet up the horror beyond this. If that’s the worst, then what’s the very worst - what some in film have called “the negation of the negation”, to borrow a term that will have others reaching for their guns?

Yes, they could have had a mundane shoot-out with Chigurh spectacularly killing Moss. But this isn’t solely what the film is about. This is a world that turns on its head our notion of who is heroic, who deserves to die or survive, and all the rest that our cultured enlightenment brains tell us is right. Under the new order, heroes die pathetically while the juggernaut monster destroys innocence. Chigurh reaches Moss beyond the grave by killing his wife and doesn’t even care. The hero has failed, not only to keep the money, but to save his Beloved. The story doesn’t stop with his death but pursues him beyond the grave — that’s horror.

And now Chigurh is abroad in the world to continue his murderous spree.

Darfur, Katrina/New Orleans, Iraq - these are all places where the rule book has been ripped up. And it’s coming to a location near us.

By the time we get to the climactic death of innocence in Chigurh’s pointless, vindictive murder of Llewlyn’s wife, Carla Jean, all we need to see is the tiny vain gesture as he steps out of the house after the event — and he checks his expensive boots. I found this such a profoundly upsetting moment. This is not an open end as some have claimed. The Coens build relentlessly to this moment. Once she refuses to call the coin toss, she’s sealed her fate - Chigurh sees himself merely as an instrument of that fate with no choice himself. Checking the boots tells you everything about what has just happened.

Even worse, we now know that this was a bloody killing from what’s been set up before, and it’s not even a bloodless strangling. This is a fastidious killer who doesn’t like to make a mess with blood and certainly doesn’t want it on his boots (ostrich, according to the book). Her life is simply something he stepped in. Despite our hopes, he shows no mercy towards the woman who has lost her mother, whose husband is now dead (so revenge isn’t the motivation), and who now stands alone in the world. Chigurh is a juggernaut that rolls on with no sense of fairness, truth, justice and the rest of the malarky we’ve believed is our right since the the dawn of capitalism. He derives no pleasure, no satisfaction – he embodies the monstrousness of the bureaucrat. He is only doing his job. Like the cancer that killed Carla Jean's mother, Chigurh has one single pitiless function — to kill without sentiment.

We’ve seen a similar character in the Coen brothers’ movies before — the unstoppable evil force of destruction embodied by John Goodman’s Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink.

This scene has also led to tantrums in cyberspace, with some insisting that she wasn’t killed, and claims that Chigurh may well have shown mercy. To them I say: wake up, sunshine. What film have you been watching?

Let’s suppose that, as some critics would have preferred, the Coens had shown her murder. Think of any gory horror permutation of images we’ve already seen in the cinema. Close up of her face? His pleasure? Blood? Brutality? We’ve already seen depictions of violence in this very film. What would have been gained? More numbing images? Yeah yeah, we’ve seen it all before. This way it takes place in the head, not on the screen. That’s masterful. They’re trying to show us a new world dawning and requires a whole new vocabulary.

In answer to the charge of nihilism, I would say that to so thoroughly miss the point of what the Coens have achieved is nothing short of flat-out pitiful. Yes, Carla Jean Moss loses her life, but she wins the argument. Even when faced with her own extinction, she has choice. Chigurh takes her life, but not her soul.

The film is pessimistic, but not entirely so. Chigurh is, after all, wounded in another random accident, so he’s not all-powerful. Carla Jean remains defiant at the end. Even though she will be killed, she refuses to play his game and therefore she dies a heroine, refusing to beg for the mercy she knows will not be forthcoming.

Her initial attempts to reach his humanity and reason with him are rebuffed with warped logic predicated on Moss’s failure to return the money, getting himself killed instead.
“You don’t have to hurt me”.
“No. But I gave my word to your husband. He had the opportunity to save you but he used it to save himself.”
“You don’t have to do this.”
“People always say the same thing.”

He offers he the chance to win her life on the toss of the coins.
“This is the best I can do. Call it!”
"No, I ain’t gonna call it. The coins don’t have no say. It’s just you.”

Carla Jean keeps her dignity, is defiant to the end, and wins the moral victory by not playing his game. You may be in front of a fascist death squad but raising your fist declares victory of your spirit.

Hope for humanity continues in the boy who shows concern and offers his shirt out of kindness. Even if you personally fail against the predations of capitalism, as many are feeling, there’s still hope of the spirit and a new generation. Some things never die. It’s a wonderful positive message of hope and optimism to see us through one of the darkest passages of human history that’s getting darker by the minute.

If you’re still not convinced that this is at least partially a critique of capitalism, look at the way fate is settled – not with sticks or cards, but with coins. Could that be capitalism with its vice-like grip on our lives telling us through various ways that we ultimately have no power? As the human being and not the force, Chigurh suffers from hubris and even he is subordinate to chance - hence the crash at the end.

The Coens have taken a snapshot of where we are now and presented it to us in a way that doesn’t numb us like a lot of the cynical fare being served up, but shocks us into seeing where we are so that maybe we can do something about it. And in that respect it is to me a deeply humane film.

For more on film from Madam Miaow, see her essay on Sergei Eisenstein

How to read a film: No Country For Old Men


NOTE: CONTAINS SPOILERS

This is a bit late but, due to some surprisingly hostile reactions to the Coen Brothers’ latest feature film, No Country For Old Men, I’ve decided to expand my comments at Louis P’s.

Bloggers have been vitriolic about the movie, accusing it of a range of crimes from harbouring right-wing politics to cinematic ineptitude. I’ve now seen it twice and I have to take issue with both these charges.

The story about the deadly pursuit of drug money across the Mexican US border is framed by the narration of Sheriff Lamarr, Tommy Lee Jones’s ageing police officer, one of the “old men” of a bygone age who realises there is no place left for him in the ugly new soulless world shaping up around him.

It’s based on Cormac McCarthy’s book which I’ve only skimmed but which everyone seems to agree has been faithfully rendered by Joel and Ethan Coen. Synopses of the novel describe it as being about hazard, chance and fate. While this theme is present in the film, there’s another that deepens the abstract notion and roots it in the changing political and social circumstances of Bush’s America. This raises the story above the level of a mere play-off between the "trailer trash" hero Llewlyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and hitman Anton Chigurh: an existential hero who believes he can change his crummy destiny and a villain who not only believes in fate but is convinced of his own role as its agent.

We’re all affected by our environment – artists can’t escape this as they need to crank their antennae to maximum sensitivity. It’s always fascinating to see artists who set out to do one thing, and say quite another. Balzac is a famous case in point – outwardly, right-wing and reactionary, his writing takes a truthful look at humanity that draws the reader to some fairly progressive conclusions about the grim state of their societies despite the novelist's intentions. Screen adaptations often add something of the artistic vision of the filmmaker – otherwise, why bother? It’s admirable the way director Mary Herron flushed out the criticism of American capitalism implicit in Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho: the author not able to reject totally the rewards of the consumerism he so enjoys.

The Coens may well have done something similar for McCarthy’s novel if, as some have asserted, he never intended such a reading. Although, Annie Proulx would demur as she describes McCarthy’s oeuvre as being the “ongoing study of a burning American rage and how common that rage has become.”

One of the achievements of No Country For Old Men is the creation of a powerful screen monster, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), one with all morality stripped away: some insist this isn’t intended as a political statement but it is hard to see this figure as not reflecting the new pitiless phase capitalism is entering. We know what imperialism is capable of abroad, but now even its own relatively pampered western civilians are coming under the boot as the benign mask of the system is ripped off. And even loveable heroes of the conventional story may not survive this onslaught.

This, the Coen Bros are saying, is the cold bleak reality of the world we now inhabit. There is no room for sentimentality, ideals and fellow feeling - these belong to the old men like Tommy Lee Jones who are a dying breed. To Anton Chigurh, a “living prophet of destruction”, it’s all numbers, a warped logic, a person’s life decided on the toss of a coin.

Chigurh, in his relentless cold cruelty and horror, is a force of nature. His rival hitman, Woody Harrelson’s Carson Wells, compares him to “bubonic plague”. Air is his element, his chosen method of dispatch, but the means are all human productions. A cattle-killer. Perfect! In one scene, where he’s stealing from a pharmacy, he’s shot unblinking against the explosive flames of his method of distraction. There’s a precursor in the relentless killing machines of The Terminator - but this monster is entirely human, distorted by capitalist imperatives. And he does love his money.

The filmmaking is supremely effective. Note the way the Coen Bros reverse the order of how much of the horror of the killings you see – reducing it event by event to produce maximum psychological mayhem instead of building to a visual climax. They set this up beautifully as if they were winding up an elastic band in our heads, releasing it in the final chilling moments so that we do the work. And it’s all the more vivid for that.

In a reversal of the usual form, they start with the after-effects of a drug-deal slaughter – humans and animals decaying in the hot southern US sun. Then we are shown the process in the most detailed drawn out killing. It’s of a minor character, the police officer, someone we don’t know and for whom we care little or nothing. Slowly and painfully, his life ebbs away as Chigurh strangles him while communing hypnotically with the deep dark forces driving him.

The random killing of the car driver is seen in gory detail using a captive bolt stunner, a cattle device using compressed air. As we get closer to the fate of the protagonist, we need to see less and less, as it’s starting to take place in our imagination and we fill in the gaps better than any closed-ended film images could do.

Following more crimo wipe-outs by Chigurh, there’s another break with the expected norm. The protagonist’s killing is by the drug criminals, not by nemesis Chigurh, and takes place offscreen with the added touch of the dead woman bystander in the pool.

This has led to some of the shrillest outcries in the blogosphere. Storytelling convention dictates that the worst thing that can happen to Llewlyn Moss is that he fails in his quest to keep the money and is killed. But the Coens ratchet up the horror beyond this. If that’s the worst, then what’s the very worst - what some in film have called “the negation of the negation”, to borrow a term that will have others reaching for their guns?

Yes, they could have had a mundane shoot-out with Chigurh spectacularly killing Moss. But this isn’t solely what the film is about. This is a world that turns on its head our notion of who is heroic, who deserves to die or survive, and all the rest that our cultured enlightenment brains tell us is right. Under the new order, heroes die pathetically while the juggernaut monster destroys innocence. Chigurh reaches Moss beyond the grave by killing his wife and doesn’t even care. The hero has failed, not only to keep the money, but to save his Beloved. The story doesn’t stop with his death but pursues him beyond the grave — that’s horror.

And now Chigurh is abroad in the world to continue his murderous spree.

Darfur, Katrina/New Orleans, Iraq - these are all places where the rule book has been ripped up. And it’s coming to a location near us.

By the time we get to the climactic death of innocence in Chigurh’s pointless, vindictive murder of Llewlyn’s wife, Carla Jean, all we need to see is the tiny vain gesture as he steps out of the house after the event — and he checks his expensive boots. I found this such a profoundly upsetting moment. This is not an open end as some have claimed. The Coens build relentlessly to this moment. Once she refuses to call the coin toss, she’s sealed her fate - Chigurh sees himself merely as an instrument of that fate with no choice himself. Checking the boots tells you everything about what has just happened.

Even worse, we now know that this was a bloody killing from what’s been set up before, and it’s not even a bloodless strangling. This is a fastidious killer who doesn’t like to make a mess with blood and certainly doesn’t want it on his boots (ostrich, according to the book). Her life is simply something he stepped in. Despite our hopes, he shows no mercy towards the woman who has lost her mother, whose husband is now dead (so revenge isn’t the motivation), and who now stands alone in the world. Chigurh is a juggernaut that rolls on with no sense of fairness, truth, justice and the rest of the malarky we’ve believed is our right since the the dawn of capitalism. He derives no pleasure, no satisfaction – he embodies the monstrousness of the bureaucrat. He is only doing his job. Like the cancer that killed Carla Jean's mother, Chigurh has one single pitiless function — to kill without sentiment.

We’ve seen a similar character in the Coen brothers’ movies before — the unstoppable evil force of destruction embodied by John Goodman’s Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink.

This scene has also led to tantrums in cyberspace, with some insisting that she wasn’t killed, and claims that Chigurh may well have shown mercy. To them I say: wake up, sunshine. What film have you been watching?

Let’s suppose that, as some critics would have preferred, the Coens had shown her murder. Think of any gory horror permutation of images we’ve already seen in the cinema. Close up of her face? His pleasure? Blood? Brutality? We’ve already seen depictions of violence in this very film. What would have been gained? More numbing images? Yeah yeah, we’ve seen it all before. This way it takes place in the head, not on the screen. That’s masterful. They’re trying to show us a new world dawning and requires a whole new vocabulary.

In answer to the charge of nihilism, I would say that to so thoroughly miss the point of what the Coens have achieved is nothing short of flat-out pitiful. Yes, Carla Jean Moss loses her life, but she wins the argument. Even when faced with her own extinction, she has choice. Chigurh takes her life, but not her soul.

The film is pessimistic, but not entirely so. Chigurh is, after all, wounded in another random accident, so he’s not all-powerful. Carla Jean remains defiant at the end. Even though she will be killed, she refuses to play his game and therefore she dies a heroine, refusing to beg for the mercy she knows will not be forthcoming.

Her initial attempts to reach his humanity and reason with him are rebuffed with warped logic predicated on Moss’s failure to return the money, getting himself killed instead.
“You don’t have to hurt me”.
“No. But I gave my word to your husband. He had the opportunity to save you but he used it to save himself.”
“You don’t have to do this.”
“People always say the same thing.”

He offers he the chance to win her life on the toss of the coins.
“This is the best I can do. Call it!”
"No, I ain’t gonna call it. The coins don’t have no say. It’s just you.”

Carla Jean keeps her dignity, is defiant to the end, and wins the moral victory by not playing his game. You may be in front of a fascist death squad but raising your fist declares victory of your spirit.

Hope for humanity continues in the boy who shows concern and offers his shirt out of kindness. Even if you personally fail against the predations of capitalism, as many are feeling, there’s still hope of the spirit and a new generation. Some things never die. It’s a wonderful positive message of hope and optimism to see us through one of the darkest passages of human history that’s getting darker by the minute.

If you’re still not convinced that this is at least partially a critique of capitalism, look at the way fate is settled – not with sticks or cards, but with coins. Could that be capitalism with its vice-like grip on our lives telling us through various ways that we ultimately have no power? As the human being and not the force, Chigurh suffers from hubris and even he is subordinate to chance - hence the crash at the end.

The Coens have taken a snapshot of where we are now and presented it to us in a way that doesn’t numb us like a lot of the cynical fare being served up, but shocks us into seeing where we are so that maybe we can do something about it. And in that respect it is to me a deeply humane film.

For more on film from Madam Miaow, see her essay on Sergei Eisenstein

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Lady of Letters: New Internationalist and SL Magazine



If you've been wondering where I've been these past few weeks, I'm pleased to tell you that I've been picked up by two publications with the view to my contributing to the gaiety of their readers.

The first is the New Internationalist which has taken me on as a columnist for their quarterly supplement, The Action ("Campaign news and events - supermarkets, Burma, penguins"). Check out my debut column in the March issue where I get punchy about China Panic in the year of the Beijing Olympics. "China - leading the world in toy manufacturing." Take that how you will ...

The second is the English language Chinese glossy, SL Magazine. I'm their Gurl Abaht Tahn, taking in the sights of the British capital from my own unique perspective as inside outsider. And anything else that takes my fancy.

As you'd expect, I will be full, frank and fearless in my observations. My integrity is sacrosanct. Jewels, holidays, expensive dinners, Johnny Depp - chuck them all at me and watch me remain true to my principles. No, please, do test me. G'wan, I dares ya!

Seduce me with a supermarket sweep at Cyberdog. Tempt me with your foul finery. Offer me Swarovski crystal and I shall point out that they make gunsights for evil imperialist forces. Gift me with diamonds and I'll tie you up, jam your eyes open and make you watch Blood Diamond. Snowdrift my mantelpiece with a blizzard of invitations to the swankiest of events or the finest products and you'll find me steadfast in my incorruptibility.

But I'm warning you, one hint of free Creme de la Mer samples and I'm a goner.

So, in advance, pay heed to everything I write on all topics other than the fabulosity of the aforementioned wondercreme. For in that I reserve the right to be as venal as any other journo with their junkets and bulging goody-bags full of corporate baksheesh.

Remember - I cannot be bought, only rented. For skin products.

Coming soon ...

No Country For Old Men, guest posts from Babeuf on The Wicker Man, sticking the shiv into The King And I and other orientalism.

Lady of Letters: New Internationalist and SL Magazine



If you've been wondering where I've been these past few weeks, I'm pleased to tell you that I've been picked up by two publications with the view to my contributing to the gaiety of their readers.

The first is the New Internationalist which has taken me on as a columnist for their quarterly supplement, The Action ("Campaign news and events - supermarkets, Burma, penguins"). Check out my debut column in the March issue where I get punchy about China Panic in the year of the Beijing Olympics. "China - leading the world in toy manufacturing." Take that how you will ...

The second is the English language Chinese glossy, SL Magazine. I'm their Gurl Abaht Tahn, taking in the sights of the British capital from my own unique perspective as inside outsider. And anything else that takes my fancy.

As you'd expect, I will be full, frank and fearless in my observations. My integrity is sacrosanct. Jewels, holidays, expensive dinners, Johnny Depp - chuck them all at me and watch me remain true to my principles. No, please, do test me. G'wan, I dares ya!

Seduce me with a supermarket sweep at Cyberdog. Tempt me with your foul finery. Offer me Swarovski crystal and I shall point out that they make gunsights for evil imperialist forces. Gift me with diamonds and I'll tie you up, jam your eyes open and make you watch Blood Diamond. Snowdrift my mantelpiece with a blizzard of invitations to the swankiest of events or the finest products and you'll find me steadfast in my incorruptibility.

But I'm warning you, one hint of free Creme de la Mer samples and I'm a goner.

So, in advance, pay heed to everything I write on all topics other than the fabulosity of the aforementioned wondercreme. For in that I reserve the right to be as venal as any other journo with their junkets and bulging goody-bags full of corporate baksheesh.

Remember - I cannot be bought, only rented. For skin products.

Coming soon ...

No Country For Old Men, guest posts from Babeuf on The Wicker Man, sticking the shiv into The King And I and other orientalism.

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