I am heralding 2007 as the year American cinema re-embraced Texas-sized ambiguity and best you do the same. Everyone’s got a good thing to say about old NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and hell, I do too. But what’s it got to say about us? The canny Coens have yet again turned to their profitable roots of widescreen empty vistas contrasted with cramped interiors full of wood paneling and old craggy faces with bright blue eyes. Guns and deceit and ruthlessness! Outlaws and quirky humor and a vanishing point-plot! And number two, the close proximity of THERE WILL BE BLOOD, which not all of us have seen but all of us would like to. Burning oil is in the wind, we can smell the change a-comin’ and our cinema, as always, is the first to fall over and play dead, like a coal miner’s canary (if I may mix fossil fuel metaphors).
In addition to the vista-building and vista-tearing down of OLD MEN, Texas is represented in both of the GRINDHOUSE movies: PLANET TERROR and DEATH-PROOF. What we’ve got here is the big empty (and deep focus opportunities) of Texas and its Mexican border as a ground zero of post-modern indie marketing/mass appeal. We’re always interested to see what’s happening on the genre border between the western and urban film noir, between black comedy and pure horror, between character drivin’ mythic archetpye-reworkin’ and sudden lashings of the ultra-violent. Even if the marketers couldn’t figure out how to create a GRINDHOUSE zeitgeist (and maybe it just wasn’t possible), the very existence of the films has created a po-mo ripple in time unseen since the bullets of the very first MATRIX, almost a decade ago.
Where Rodriguez and Tarantino failed (Can you see them as the grown-up editions of the two babies seen at the fade-out of GIANT?), the crafty Coens have succeeded… they’ve crossed-over yet again on the FARGO bridge of indie-flagstoniness: and even now, on the verge of a new year, NYC’s Union Square Cinema regularly sells out many a NO COUNTRY showing. What does this mean for 2008? Well, of course it will mean more of the same… more of the same. It means once again the “art” of the indie has found a format with which to wed itself to the box office, AKA, backwards into the deep attic, the old film noir moral ambiguity to the rescue. Well, maybe not the rescue… but at least the R.I.P.
What it means is though the masses are still not ready for an American Godard (the pre-68 Godard being Tarantino and the post-68 being LIONS FOR LAMBS/REDACTED), we may be ready for an American Claude Chabrol, since he is the French Hitchcock. In fact and do se do, we can trace the Coens in a nice little circle from BLOOD SIMPLE all the way back to BLOOD SIMPLE 2: LESS SIMPLER. And we like to have something to trace, rather than having to watch someone else paint from scratch. Tarantino splatters us some post-pop art so we can interpret any which way, but the Coens give us what we really want for Christmas: Sudoku.
The Coens love circles… who doesn’t? In NO COUNTRY, locks come flying off in all directions leaving beautiful round holes in which to have light issue, peeping tom doors of perception through which one is able to read at least one thing: a circle! The hula hoops in HUDSUCKER, the hair cream tins in BROTHER; the hubcaps in MAN WHO WASN’T THERE… What do they mean? Exactly! Take ZODIAC, the amazing police procedural that disappears into the same plot void which drowned the old LEBOWSKI, Again, all you’re left with in the end is the shuddering realization that “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is the scariest song ever written. And then in the other corner, you’ve got Tommy Lee Jones playing more or less the same character in both NO COUNTRY and IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, that is to say, the leather face of America as it looks off from the Medusa-eye view of the circular zodiac watch screen and crumbles to dust. There’s no easy answers, not no more.
That’s the modern art response–that slap of humble realization, it’s finally back. I, for one, am ecstatic… in theory and from a safe, ironic distance. We leave the theaters shaken now, not elated. We go to get our mortality handed to us on a platter and since we’ve been starving for something not over-chewed by someone else, we don’t even notice if it’s too bland. It doesn’t matter, what matters is the nutrients.
This is the inevitable come-down of too many years of MGM-a-go-go escapism, of block buster buzz, aka “the empty carbs.” The cinema of 2007 was a cinema in transition, the slow rising from the couch and now the uncertainty as to what next. The movies are now no longer a place to escape, but to “wake up” and smell the burning oil. We realize with some shame we’ve been wading far too long in the kiddie pool and it’s time at last to take a lap above the deep end… even if it means no more free towels. The 2007 cinema year ends with the same feeling of epiphany and mute horror that comes from waking up from a drunken black-out.
And so I say, Cheers and happy new year to the Coens and Fincher and Tarantino and Rodriguez! It hurts now, but it will feel better later, when we’re all growed up and once again the cinema will be there to reflect, refract and otherwise lead by imitation. And cheers to Josh Brolin! His super cool moustache and blazing eyes are the doorway back into 70s of tomorrow. And long may this new ambiguity reign, Texas-style! Click here to read a less cleaned-up and more Texas-specific version of this 2007 cinema toast..and Happy New Year!