Jim Emerson over on the scanners blog has chosen not to approve one of my comments. [Actually, my comment was relegated to the junk folder, as Jim explains in a comment on this post. It has since been approved and responded to. Apologies for jumping to conclusions. – Rick] He approved an earlier one in which I suggested that he’d hedged his opinion of No Country For Old Men (9 out of 10 stars on IMDB) byimplying that anyone who didn’t like it didn’t understand movies at all. A critical war rages over there between those who think that the Coen brothers‘ newest film “strokes an ideological impulse,” or those who gave that idea a pass. Really, though, the war is between Jonathan Rosenbaum, who wrote that quoted phrase above, and everyone else. Emerson thinks that movies, or rather movie-watching, transcends ideology; Rosenbaum demurs.
Maybe Emerson didn’t like my commenting when I haven’t actually seen the movie in question. Maybe he gave my blog a look-see and didn’t like it. Maybe there was some technical glitch and he never actually saw the comment. Regardless, I write so that someone will read. Therefore, here it is:
When films depart from everyday reality so radically –serial killers with supernatural powers, small towns that embrace their sexually-fucked up weirdos – it’s reasonable to ask why, and further, why are audiences so willing to suspend their disbelief. Using film technique and genre as covers is no excuse for not asking these questions, either for the filmmakers or for the film’s admirers.
I hasten to add there’s more to this grim, ambitious movie than a psychopathic assassin of the highest order whose carnage is gorgeously shot, though I seriously doubt it would be garnering so much enthusiasm without such perks.
That sounds like a provisional assessment and not a blanket dismissal; however, its basis is radical – in the sense of questioning root assumptions – and Rosenbaum’s consistent use of this approach is one reason why he’s valuable as a critic. Refusing to address his observations directly, and instead insisting he’s not really a cinephile, is evasive, at least.
I haven’t seen the new Coen brothers movie, and probably won’t for several months. I live in Czech Republic and we may or may not get it. However, over the years I have tended to agree, more or less, with what Rosenbaum has said about their movies. The class condescension in Fargo, in particular, made me so angry that I wanted to find the Coens and pelt them with icy snowballs.
I also remember having a discussion with a quite intelligent punk kid in Chicago after we’d watchedSilence of the Lambs. He’d completely bought into the notion of “serial killer as modern shaman” premise that made the film work. The punk kid pontificated on the ideas that Lecter had espoused. I just kept saying, “Yes, but he’s a serial killer,” to everything he said, partially as a way of taking the piss but also because, listening to him talk, I came to understand Rosenbaum’s objections to the film.
Rosenbaum’s review – which, if I remember correctly, hilariously bore a bullet, meaning “Worthless” – may not be the last word on Demme’s Oscar-winner; but if you refused to engage his arguments, you were just running for cover.
It’s worth quoting from that Silence of the Lambs review because, I’ve just re-discovered, Rosenbaum makes his case better than I have:
One of the governing pretenses of mainstream movie reviewing is the assumption that value judgments have little to do with subject matter. Yet as soon as one looks beneath the etiquette of reviewing, it becomes apparent that certain value judgments about certain subjects are already so manifestly present in our culture that any reviewer who pretends these biases don’t exist is likely to wind up reproducing them.
Which explains why Rosenbaum can credibly claim in his reviewof No Country for Old Men (An even bigger and more unruly comments war is going on there.) that the reason why we can so readily accept the carnage in this film has something to do with how Americans have so readily accepted the carnage in Iraq.
9 out of 10 stars, eh?
[…] always liked Jim Emerson’s definition: An art film teaches you how to watch it. Whereas we already know how to watch a genre […]