Category Archives: aesthetics

Time within the frame

The following passage comes from Andrei Tarkovsky’s book “Sculpting in Time”, from Chapter 5: The film Image, in the section titled: Time, rhythm and editing.

The dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame. The actual passage of time is also made clear in the characters’ behavior, the visual treatment and the sound—but these are all accompanying features, the absence of which, theoretically, would in no way affect the existence of the film. One cannot conceive of a cinematic work with no sense of time passing through the shot, but one can easily imagine a film with no actors, music, decor or even editing. (p. 113)

Tarkovsky goes on to describe Pascal Aubier’s fascinating 1974 short film Le Dormeur, in which there is only the camera moving through a landscape until it “discovers” a man who appears to be sleeping in a field but is actually dead.

Here is a link to the film: Le Dormeur* Note: Since the audio is entirely of natural sounds, it is better to turn up the volume to get the full effect.

I love these kinds of films. The camera work, especially for that time, is wonderful. We are so used these days with cameras moving all over the place. But in 1975 this had to have been done on tracks and dollies with a crane. (The Steadicam was invented in 1975 and was not widely available for some time after that.) The moment in the shot where the camera ascends up the dead tree is amazing.

* film found here.

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The Three-Act Story Structure

Once again I am diving into the struggle to write screenplays. In the past I got all snobby and looked down on the typical Hollywood story structure. I saw it as too conventional and I wanted to be artsy. Well, that got me a long ways.

In the mean time I have learned a thing or two, and have come to understand the conventions that drive Hollywood storytelling are, in fact, ancient paradigms that fit with human nature. In other words, the basic three-act structure (and it variations) was built into the human design by God. Sure, many have exploited it, have misused it, have done bad things with it – including making just plain schlock – but that does not nullify the fundamental character of the structure and how it engages with our minds.

With that I am trying to teach myself the structure, and how to use it to my advantage. Here are some examples:

3-Act story Structure

syd-field

how-and-why-vogler-journey

I know that none of us work in a vacuum. We do not create ex nihilo. We work with what is given, and it is in our manipulations of forms that we discover new nuances. Structure is one of the great givens. I have decoded to use the three-act paradigm as strictly as I can and see what happens.

A couple vids on the topic:

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A Brief History of John Baldessari

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Elliptical Editing in Vagabond

Back in 2008 I wrote a little post on Agnes Varda’s Sans toit ni loi (1985), or Vagabond. Recently David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson put together a video short on Elliptical Editing, and they used Varda’s film as the example. Bordwell and Thomspon have been important in my own thinking about film.

Elliptical editing is one relatively common characteristic of what we might call “art films” that distinguish them from more traditional or “classical” films. I find it’s often a matter of taste; some love this kind of storytelling and some are annoyed by it. I love it. But one can also find elliptical editing in any genre; it just depends on the needs of the filmmaker.

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Night Mayor by Guy Maddin

More about the film and it’s filmmaker here.

Maddin was influenced by the beautiful 1953 Paul Tomkowicz film, Street-railway Switchman.

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Chinatown and the Rule of Thirds

Many films are beautifully shot. Few, though, are as consistently well composed as Chinatown (1974)*. Shot in Panavision (anamorphic) format with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio the somewhat extreme rectangular image would seem to offer significant challenges to effective image composition. As I was pondering this challenge I was struck by how much I loved the images in Chinatown, which I just watched again the other day. That’s when I went back to basics and considered that even with widescreen images there are still fundamentals of composition at play. In this case I figured I would grab a few images from the film and apply the Rule of Thirds to each image.

The Rule of Thirds is simply as follows:

Divide the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, then put the focus of the image either one third across (from either side) or one third up or down the screen. Those lines, and the points at which they intersect, are the strongest invisible forces in an image.

In Chinatown the images are constructed around those lines and intersecting points. By doing this the aspect ratio becomes a relatively mute point as the human brain automatically takes in the whole image, mentally divides the image into thirds, and finds pleasure as key visual elements are constructed around those thirds. Of course, deviation from the power of the thirds creates visual tension, which is an additional tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox.

Chinatown was shot by John A. Alonzo. Here are the images from film (I, of course, added the white lines):

This is a simple process of analysis. More involving would be to examine how the rule applies to changing composition withing shots as they are re-framed or the actors move about. One thing I noticed was that all the extreme close-ups put the object of focus directly in the center of the middle square. Placing visual elements along the “third lines” was reserved for medium shots and long shots. Finally, the rule of thirds does not guarantee that an image will be good, or work well for a particular scene. However, fundamentals are fundamentals. Without them one will not only have difficulty maintaining a consistent quality, but one cannot truly “break the rules.” The irony is that fundamentals are what allow filmmakers to innovate and stay fresh.

* This is my opinion, of course, but there is a quality in the film’s imagery that is truly wonderful and yet difficult to pin down.

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In a Glass Darkly: Images of windows in Dreyer’s Vampyr

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Very Brief Thoughts on Religion and the Art of Appropriation: Or How the Post-Christendom Church Mirrors the Impulse of Postmodern Art

Are we not postmodern?


be, by Barbara Kruger

My brain often works best by comparison. In this post I want to briefly compare the postmodern impulse in art making and the post-Christendom worship of the emergent/emerging1 church. I fully admit my ideas are not fully baked, and yet the process of putting them forth might teach me a thing or two.

Somewhere in the transition from the 1960s to the late 1970s Art reached its end. The end was prefigured by such notables as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, among others. The end of art wasn’t really about the end of art, but about the end of a series of historical/cultural problems and intuitions tackled largely in succession since the Renaissance. What happened over time was a decline in interest in those issues as they either were solved (“solved” is a rather subjective term with regards to art) or they were found no longer relevant. The world changed and so did the world of art.

But art never stops. Art will emerge as long as humans exist.


Hymn, by Damien Hirst, 2000

What happened (one thing that happened) was a new impulse, that of appropriation. This impulse was already coursing through the veins of art; Picasso appropriated, Johns and Warhol appropriated, and many others. But with postmodern art artistic action began to twist free from the weight of art history and the art’s weighty lineage. Art and art history began to work more and more independently from each other. Of course that independence wasn’t complete, but art makers felt that art had become fundamentally divorced from meta-narratives. Now the appropriation of anything and everything was possible – even appropriation of that weighty lineage. In this sense art finally became art.


Portable War Memorial, by Ed Kienholz, 1968

What is meant by appropriation?

To appropriate something involves taking possession of it. In the visual arts, the term appropriation often refers to the use of borrowed elements in the creation of new work. The borrowed elements may include images, forms or styles from art history or from popular culture, or materials and techniques from non-art contexts. Since the 1980s the term has also referred more specifically to quoting the work of another artist to create a new work. The new work does not actually alter the original per se; the new work uses the original to create a new work. In most cases the original remains accessible as the original, without change.2

Key here is that last part. The “original remains accessible as the original, without change.” This is a kind of quoting without quoting; a kind of objective theft for subjective purposes. One could say it’s a synthesis, something new from something old that becomes new merely through the act of appropriation. In this way an old work of art may become a new work of art fully within a new context – and seen as a new work of art because of new ownership as it were. But this should be expected, for “there is nothing outside the text” as Jacques Derrida once said.3


After Walker Evans 2, by Sherrie Levine (1981).

Keeping this in mind I want to shift gears a bit.

Christianity has gone through (and is going through) similar changes. Christianity is one of the great meta-narratives in world history. However, many Christians (some of whom prefer the term Christ followers) have begun to twist free of their traditional moorings. They see their faith and Christianity as two different entities. Faith is no longer strictly about being a member of a particular group with its set of proscribed codes, mores, or rituals. The focus has shifted more toward Jesus and away from the historical church. Jesus has become the deconstruction force, deconstructing Christianity.


Jesus has a power lunch with the money changers?
(Why I put this picture in here I don’t know.)

If faith is a passionate, existential belief in the lordship of Jesus, then Christianity as an external religious set of practices can be other, is other. This otherness allows the multiplicity of historical and cultural expressions of Christianity to be appropriated as the “believer” sees fit. One is no longer bound by a tradition, rather by faith. Christian practices and disciplines from any branch of the church and any time period can be appropriated by the Christ follower on an as needed basis. Logically, then, practices from non-Christian sources might be appropriated as well. If being a Christ follower is no longer about religion (or being religious), then religion, as a set of optional practices and disciplines, becomes a non-threat.

More and more Christians today are seeking old, and very old, religious practices – going back to the historical church and gleaning. I assume the idea is that through the course of the modern era we may have lost some good things. I assume this is more true for Protestants than Catholics or Orthodox. The question on the table is whether these practices are meaningful and might they negatively influence one’s faith – a real fear for many Protestant apologists. I don’t have an answer for that at this time. I am both curious and wary, and certainly interested.


Christ followers walk a labyrinth

Why does this interest me? I came to a deep re-evaluation of my faith as an undergraduate (more than 20 years ago). I was an art history major, a film studies major, and part of a college ministry team in a large Baptist church. I began to have too many conflicts between my faith (which I held to be true) and the Christian culture in which I was immersed. My Christianity was deconstructing, but only because my faith was stronger. I began to see that the outward forms were of little consequence compared to my pursuit of truth and my beliefs. Interestingly art played a big part in this. Art is what helped me realize the freedom that resides at the center of the story of Jesus. I saw artmaking, which is such a natural human thing to do, chafing under the weight of Art’s meta-narrative. Breaking free did not destroy artmaking, in fact artmaking flourished. Breaking free merely lowered the dominance of the meta-narrative a few notches. I think, similarly, I knew intuitively my faith could handle some freedom.

And so I left that Christian culture behind for a while. I took a breather. But I did not leave Christ behind. In fact my faith became stronger, my theology more grounded, and my hope deeper. Now I am at the fringes of that culture again and wondering.

Modern Christ followers, many of whom are part of what is sometimes called the emerging church, are appropriating many religious practices – trying them out as it where – in much the same way that artmakers are appropriating many things from both “within” and “without” the art world. And just like with artmaking, if one’s faith is authentic then one has great freedom in one’s practices.


Image by Luke Flowers from this article

Phyllis Tickle has recently articulated the idea that the emerging church is really part of a wholesale worldwide emerging, religious and otherwise. She has also likened the shifting and changes in Christianity to be like a great rummage sale, where people sift through what is there, what has come before, what others have done, to find what they need and what they didn’t know they needed. According to Tickle these rummage sales tend to occur within Christianity about every 500 years or so. The current rummaging includes searching for spiritual practices that have been lost, long unused, or never before used in the current context(s). These practices include anything from how we “do” church, to how we pray and fellowship, to classic disiplines like solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, sacrifice, study, worship, celebration, service, confession, and submission. Most of these practices were never truly promoted or explored in my Christian upbringing, and they are large foreign concepts to a consumeristic culture.

I am not yet sold on the idea of spiritual disciplines. I am still inclined to think of a truly spiritual person as being one in whom the Spirit of God is at work – which I see as a one way street: God invading a person’s life. And I am inclined to think that one cannot move or change one’s spirituality through any action unless God initiates and completes the work. Yet, just as with all issues of God’s sovereignty and human action (and choice) there is what we know of God and what we actually experience every day. With that in view I can see spiritual disciplines as offering tremendous encouragement and I find myself increasingly curious about exploring disciplines. I also see them as being very much a matter of personal choice. Regardless, the re-emergence of disciplines and practices is evidence of a church extending beyond the modernist model of Christianity, which I see as generally positive.

1. I am purposely conflating these two terms, though many would seek to separate them, because under the umbrella of this particular topic one finds the comparison still holds true.

2. “Appropriation (art).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 3 Sep 2008, 15:40 UTC. 17 Sep 2008

3. I believe that quote is found in Of Grammatology.

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no country for classical narrative

Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theater is not possible. In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds

~Antonin Artaud, Theatre and its Double (1938)

To interpret a text is not to give it a (more or less justified, more or less free) meaning, but on the contrary to appreciate what plural constitutes it.

~Roland Barthes, S/Z, (1970, trans. 1974)

You have seen No Country for Old Men and you liked it. You have read the reviews and their obligatory references to Javier Bardem’s hairdo. You may have even noticed how much this film draws from all the other Coen brothers’ films, both stylistically and thematically. But what is most interesting to my limited sensibilities is the film’s ability to give us something that seems entirely new while yet existing within the conventions of classical Hollywood narrative.

And then, on the other hand, No Country for Old Men gains power by thwarting classical narrative through subversions to plot expectations, through dreams, and through the character of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh is a driving force, like the character of Frank Miller in High Noon (1952) who is coming to bring death upon the marshall, or General Zaroff in Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game (1924) who relentlessly hunts his human prey, or the terminator in The Terminator (1984) bent only on the destruction of Sarah Connor. Chigurh is also a psychological enigma, like Norman Bates of Psycho (1960) or Michael Myers in Halloween (1978). It is this second aspect, that of the psychological enigma, that thwarts the narrative.

For classical narrative to function it requires characters who can be understood, both in terms of their psychologies and in terms of their actions. According to Bordwell (1985):

The classical Hollywood film presents psychologically defined individuals who struggle to solve a clear-cut problem or to attain specific goals. In the course of this struggle, the characters enter into conflict with others or with external circumstances. The story ends with a decisive victory or defeat, a resolution of the problem and a clear achievement or nonachievement of the goals. The principle causal agency is thus the character, a discriminated individual endowed with a consistent batch of evident traits, qualities, and behaviors. (p. 157)

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is our protagonist. He is the most specified character and the primary causal agent. He is who the audience identifies with, and for whom the audience roots. His actions, that of finding the satchel of drug money and deciding he could take it and get away with it, are what compel the story forward. His hold on the satchel is not unlike the monkey who puts his hand in the jar, grabs the shiny object, and then cannot get his fist out of the narrow opening. Chigurh is the antagonist. He exists to thwart Moss. He is the relentless, unstoppable force. But his psychological makeup is a mystery. We have trouble guessing what he might be thinking. As sheriff Ed Tom Bell says, Chigurh is more like a ghost than anything.

After we have been introduced to the landscape via the beautiful opening shots of the film, and after we have been introduced to the killer Chigurh, we are introduced to Llewelyn Moss. The landscape proscribes the stage on which the action begins. It also functions as the “undisturbed stage” (Bordwell, 1985, p. 157) from which “the disturbance, the struggle, and the elimination of the disturbance” issue forth. Chigurh has, so far, only been shown as a killer. As he strangles the deputy we see Chigurh’s face ecstatic to the point of rapture. One might conclude Chigurh’s ecstasy is psychologically defining, that may be, but he remains, in narrative terms, a simple character. Llewelyn Moss, on the other hand, is given carefully determined narrational moments that flesh out who he is, what kind of person he is, and define him as more fully human rather than as a stock protagonist.

When we first see Llewelyn Moss he is hunting antelope. This is how the film introduces us to Moss:

Moss looks through the scope of his hunting rifle. He has a seriousness about him. He is a hunter. He aims for the largest of the male antelopes. He shoots, but the animals run away. Now he has to track them.

The fact that he is using a traditional hunting rifle says a lot. In our world of available hi-tech weaponry where men are typically fascinated with military-style armaments, Moss caries a rifle from another world. This rifle has a wood stock, is bolt action, and mounts a typical hunting scope. It is also a .270 caliber, which is a classic round for antelope hunting.

Here is the description from the book by Cormac McCarthy:

The rifle strapped over his shoulder with a harnessleather sling was a heavybarreled .270 on a ’98 Mauser action with a laminated stock of maple and walnut. It carried a Unertl telescopic sight of the same power as the binoculars. The antelope were a little under a mile away.

Moss wears a plaid shirt with sleeves rolled up. He is working class in appearance. The color of his shirt, skin, and rifle blend in with the light brown of the desert landscape. He is a man in his element. There is something about him and this desert environment that are similar.

He also wears a white hat. In the tradition of the western genre there is no wardrobe choice more conspicuous than the white hat for the good guy and the black hat for the bad guy. Ghigurh does not wear a hat, but he sports and undeniably conspicuous hairdo that effectively functions as a “black hat.”

The hat (hats have played significant roles in other Coen films) situates Moss in the mythological West. Moss is presented as a kind of cowboy. Chigurh is presented as something other. This contrast will feel a little like that of the old world versus the new world in Lonely are the Brave (1962) and, like the story in that film, the cowboy loses.

It must be highlighted that our first glimpse of Moss has him with a gun. This denotes him as a killer. Moss “as killer” is a critical characteristic. The contrast between the killer Moss and the killer Chigurh will become the ground for the narrative’s causality.

This scene also denotes Moss as hunter, which is different than killer. The story will turn this characteristic on it head and makes Moss the hunted. We might assume, then, that Moss will become something like Rambo in First Blood (1982).

After Moss fires his shot the antelope run away. He stands up and watches them run off. He then does something interesting. He bends over, picks up the empty shell from his expended round and puts the shell in his shirt pocket.

My father is a hunter. I grew up hunting with him, although I personally haven’t hunted in years. My father is the kind of hunter who likes tradition and economy. He likes true hunting rifles rather than the popular militaristic styles. He saves his shell casings so he can reload his own rounds. He will carefully measure the gunpowder into each shell casing and then seat a particular bullet into the shell. Notes are taken for future adjustments. Quality and exactness are critical. Different kinds of bullet and powder combos are tested. Choices are made based on what game will be in the sights. It is a kind of primal craft, something from the past. My father has often said he was born a hundred years too late.

Moss represents that past. He is the archetype of the self-sufficient, frontier man who can live off the land, live by his wits, and take care of himself no matter what comes. He is the man’s man of the Zane Grey novel or John Ford film. He is the dream of the West. He is an incarnation of John McClane (Die Hard). His character remains consistent throughout the film to that archetype.

The simple detail of Moss picking up the shell and putting it in his pocket tells us a lot about him. He is a kind of craftsman. He is thoughtful and meticulous. He lives out a kind of economy of not wasting even the littlest thing. This economy will make him a formidable foe for Chigurh. Unfortunately for him, his wife, and others, Chigurh is more than just a bad guy – he is a force of nature, like the coming of darkness or the second law of thermodynamics.

But what makes up this darkness? Death eventually comes to all. Chigurh does not increase death, for death is total for every generation. But Chigurh is relentless. He is, in Lyotard’s words, a monad – a self-contained entity only aware of his own concerns. Lyotard (1991) says of the monad: “When the point is to extend the capacities of the monad it seems reasonable to abandon, or even actively to destroy, those parts of the human race which appear superfluous, useless for that goal. For example the populations of the Third World” (p. 76-77). In this sense Chigurh might be seen as symbolic of larger cultural forces, such as the ruthless drive of capitalism or empire. Or he might be just a tornado.

It is not merely that Chigurh is a bringer of death. Or even that he is like the character of Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), which he also is. Chigurh represents the deep human fear of chance as destiny. With Chigurh every choice becomes and existential choice, and the chooser never has all the information. Characters have choices, but those choices, like all choices, are ultimately about who one is and who one will be. However, those characters don’t always realize the profound nature of their choices. All to often human beings live their lives as though in a dream. Consider this famous scene:

Anton Chigurh
Call it.

Gas Station Proprietor
Call it?

Anton Chigurh
Yes.

Gas Station Proprietor
For what?

Anton Chigurh
Just call it.

Gas Station Proprietor
Well, we need to know what we’re calling it for here.

Anton Chigurh
You need to call it. I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair.

Gas Station Proprietor
I didn’t put nothin’ up.

Anton Chigurh
Yes, you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life you just didn’t know it. You know what date is on this coin?

Gas Station Proprietor
No.

Anton Chigurh
1958. It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.

Gas Station Proprietor
Look, I need to know what I stand to win.

Anton Chigurh
Everything.

“You’ve been putting it up your whole life you just didn’t know it.” That just might be the most important line of the film. A man’s life is a story, true, but it is a mix of choice and chance. Like the journey of the coin, and of what the coin represents: a choice between heads or tales. But what kind of choice is that? One chooses, but chance decides. The gas station proprietor chooses heads and it is heads. He gets to keep on living for now. Does he know the nature of his choice? Do we know the nature of our choices? Of course, like Lazarus being raised from the dead, the gas station proprietor has not been save from death, it will still come, it is inevitable.

So where does this leave us? No Country for Old Men gives us a story of characters, of the choices they make, of the consequences of those choices, all set within a consistently circumscribed world. And yet, at the end, where are we?

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is our narrator. Llewelyn Moss is our protagonist. Anton Chigurh is our antagonist. The stage was undisturbed, a disturbance occurred, and struggle ensued. But the classical narrative runs dry; it does not seem to be able to sustain itself. Why? There are at least three reasons.

1) Moss, rather suddenly, ends up dead. After following his struggle so closely and with so much detail the narration leaves out his last struggle. We do not see him die. His corpse lies on the floor of his hotel room before the film is finished with its story. This death, though later in the story than the death of Marion Crane in Psycho (1960), still comes too early to be a climax. And yet it would seem the final confrontation between Chigurh and Moss was what the film was building up to. But no, the audience is left hanging, as it were, in the wind.

2) Chigurh is a cypher, a ghost. We know he is odd, probably psychotic. We know he is a ruthless killer. We know he is tough and maybe impossible to kill. But what do we really know about him? Almost nothing. What is his motivation? Money? No. Power? Maybe. Principles? We are told yes, but are we sure, and what principles exactly? And is he really a part of the world as presented to us? Or is he part of a different world? On more than one occasion the lives of those who come in contact with Chigurh depend on whether they “see” him.

Nervous Accountant
Are you going to shoot me?

Anton Chigurh
That depends. Do you see me?

One could take this to mean that if one does not talk one lives. On the other hand, to see Chigurh is to believe in ghosts. The last shot of him shows him walking away down a sidewalk. We know he is sure to get away, he always does.

What an interesting shot. It is so bland, so ordinary, just an ordinary street. He is the figure of death resuming his journeys. This last image of Chigurh then slowly dissolves to a profoundly troubled and puzzled Ed Tom Bell.

3) Ed Tom Bell’s has two dreams. It is possible that just about anything is easier to interpret and understand than a person’s dreams. Ending the film with two (not just one) dreams produces a number of potentialities of meanings upon meanings. Certainly there is a weight to the dreams, but they are naturally vague and open. The film stands at the precipice of being plural, that is, it hinges on the possibility of an infinity of meanings, which means it could have no meaning. Consider the dreams:

Loretta Bell
How’d you sleep?

Ed Tom Bell
I don’t know. Had dreams.

Loretta Bell
Well you got time for ’em now. Anythin’ interesting?

Ed Tom Bell
They always is to the party concerned.

Loretta Bell
Ed Tom, I’ll be polite.

Ed Tom Bell
Alright then. Two of ’em. Both had my father in ’em . It’s peculiar. I’m older now then he ever was by twenty years. So in a sense he’s the younger man. Anyway, first one I don’t remember to well but it was about meeting him in town somewhere, he’s gonna give me some money. I think I lost it. The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin’ through the mountains of a night. Goin’ through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin’. Never said nothin’ goin’ by. He just rode on past… and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. ‘Bout the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.

What do we have here? I believe there is meaning here. I believe that we can tease out what McCarthy and what the Coens are getting at. But we do so without finality. We find layers, complexity, multiplicities, and contradictions. In other words No Country for old Men ends but it does not resolve. Lack of a clear resolution saws off, as it were, the possibility of a classical narrative ending.

In structure No Country for Old Men proceeds largely by way of a classical narrative, but it also has elements of, and ends by way of art-cinema narration. These two narrational modes are logically at odds with each other. According to Bordwell (1985):

For the classical cinema, rooted in the popular novel, short story, and well-made drama of the late nineteenth century, “reality” is assumed to be a tacit coherence among events, a consistency and clarity of individual identity. Realistic motivation corroborates the compositional motivation achieved through cause and effect. But art-cinema narration, taking its cue from literary modernism, questions such a definition of the real: the world’s laws may not be knowable, personal psychology may be indeterminate. (p. 206)

Ed Tom Bell’s confusion at the end is also our confusion. What disturbs him is not merely the extreme violence he has witnessed. He is confounded by his inability to understand the world anymore. He has assumed, and been hoping for, a clear resolution to life. He has taken for granted a meaning to the universe and come up woefully short.

“And then I woke up.” Ed Tom Bell is how awake. He has been living in a kind of dream his whole life. He has been wagering his existence his whole life and he just didn’t know it. Now he knows it, but he has no answers. His eyes are finally open but the scene before him is indecipherable. The extreme violence he has witnessed compares to the narrative violence, that is, to the deep rupture to the classical narrative expectations he was expecting. These two violences have caused metaphysics, as it were, to re-enter his mind. His presuppositions have been stripped. He sees life for what it is not. He is lost in a world of choice and chance.

. . . and that’s one way of looking at this polysemous film.

References:
Bordwell, D. (1985). Narration in the fiction film. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Lyotard, J. F. (1991). The inhuman: Reflections on time. (trans. G. Bennington & R. Bowlby). Oxford: Blackwell.

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My Darling Clementine: John Ford telling stories

Can a work of art tell us something about the character of the artist?

At the beginning of John Ford’s My darling Clementine (1946) there is an interaction between Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) that portends things to come. At the end of that conversation Earp rides his horse away and Clanton presumably drives his wagon away. Ford adds a wonderful little sequence of images and sounds at this point that, in effect, sums up the entire film. It goes like this:

Clanton uses his whip to get his horses going. We see the motion of his arm and the curling of the whip in the air.

We then hear the loud, sharp crack of the whip as we cut to Earp riding away.

Earp continues to ride quietly away.

Then, as the shot is beginning to dissolve to the next, we see a fire burning as though it is Earp on fire.

Once the dissolve is complete we discover the fire is the campfire of the Earp’s camp.

The story has Clanton and his sons stealing the Earp brothers’ cattle and killing the youngest brother. This action brings Wyatt Earp out of retirement. In order to mete out justice and get revenge, Earp takes over the recently vacated marshal job for Tombstone.

What I love about this little cinematic moment is the way Ford subtly used the language of cinema to tell a story within the story. The juxtaposition of the whip crack with the image of Earp, and then the fire growing within Earp, tells us what the story arc will be. What I also love is how Ford, in my opinion, frequently demonstrated, with moments like this, that he was every bit the filmmaker of Welles, but that he didn’t care for so much bravado as we find in Kane. He was servant, as it were, to the art & craft of cinema rather than to his ego. He was a master storyteller more about the story than the teller.

Both Welles and Ford needed and respected their audiences, for sure, but Ford’s respect was more self-effacing, more about others than about himself. At least that is what I take from their works of art. Am I right? You tell me.

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