Johnny, Get Yer Gun: No Country For Old Men

Twenty-three years after their collaborative film debut, Blood Simple, and seven years from the last break of comedy productions with The Man Who Wasn’t There, writing-directing brother team, Joel and Ethan Coen, return to the noir genre with an unflinching adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, No Country for Old Men. The story unfolds on the parched terrain of isolated, southwestern towns so typical to these stories of greed and consequence. These are the borders of hell. The place where righteous humanity is scarce.

“The Old-Timers never even used to carry guns…” begins the melancholic narration of Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) as he recounts how town sheriffs in small towns once conducted business. Bell is a helpless character in the wake of what he considers to be an emerging, uncontrollable taint of Man that has ruled obsolete the methodologies of the Old Timers. A taint that has ruined the moral certainties that guide the law: the clear difference between right and wrong. Good and bad. Though, even Bell, who is nearing retirement, is reminded that the taint is no novelty of the human condition. “This world is hard on people,” his old friend, another ex-Sheriff gruffly tells him.

While hunting antelopes in the mountains, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across the failures of Mexican heroine deal and explores the dismal remains of something like a circled wagon train. The ground is covered with bullet casings and shotgun shells. Bodies lay in pools of blood drawing flies. Dust covered trucks are covered in bullet holes and shattered glass, some of the drivers laying slumped over the wheel. And amidst the carnage, remains an unclaimed satchel full of money that Moss quietly collects.

Moss is not the typical noir protagonist. Nothing in his character suggests much previous innocence, nor even real moral judiciousness towards the choices that set events in motion. He does not hesitate over his claim, has such a matter-of-fact approach to his gamble. But, one’s own greed will always pose a threat to his survival.

And Moss’s chances for survival are particularly slim against the likes of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardeem), the black-hearted personal reaper who wants his money back. He’s a guy who would fit the line Donald Pleasance once used to refer to young Michael Meyers in the first Halloween: “He had the blackest eyes. The Devil’s eyes.” As Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), the federal drug agent tracking Chigurh, explains to Moss who is hospitalized after his first face-to-face confrontation the predator, this is not a man to be reasoned with. “He won’t care if you return the money. He’ll kill you just for inconveniencing him.”

The story of the greedy man turned drug dealer’s prey has been told countless times before and yet, Joel and Ethan Coen have produced a film of such immediate applause (already achieving a top 40 spot in the IMDb top 250 movies list as of this writing). Of course, part of the draw has to do with the reputation the Coen brothers have made for themselves. A long resume of solid films with a great cast. This particular film draws on the the common love affair for retro atmospheres that directors like Quentin Tarantino have made a trademark, and the only real reference calling audiences back to this century is the comical mention of an ATM. But this nostalgia appears to offer a more primitive playing field for the characters. The fancy digital packages that worked for the young characters in chase during movies like Disturbia, for example, are of no use in this dusty arena. Hell, they’re not even an option.

But perhaps the most effective device in this film are characters cut from a more convincing reality. Llewellyn Moss is an intelligent man who suspects early on that someone, whether dealer or the law, will come for his claim and he is quite adept in protecting himself. Perhaps his only idealism is that he is convinced he can killed Chigurh, though this may just be something he tells himself rather than sincerely believes. Chigurh, on the other hand, is of an unfathomable mold; the man without conscience. And worse, he seems indestructible in ways that suggest nothing will end as we expect, much to the chagrin of audiences expecting easily manageable explanations and showdowns as the final marker in this narrative spectrum. Some have called it anticlimactic. But that is not to say that we are really left with any overwhelming complexities and uncertainties, save interpreting Bell’s final monologue. But, the audience will have to do some of their own work to understand how this tale ends and it almost requires abandonment of typical frames of moral logic.

The Zephyr Chronicles: Revolutionaries on the Blacktop

Although skateboarding had been around since the 1960s, it has fluctuated in both popularity and marketability up until the mid-1990s when it finally became a seemingly stabilized industry. Even former Bones Brigade rider turned one-man commercial empire, Tony Hawk, admitted in his autobiography the fear of being able to survive on meager royalty checks in the early 90s, taking side jobs in video editing to make ends meet.

But, what began in the 1960s as a mini-surfboard shaped deck on wheels to be used by young, adept surfers in the afternoon when the waves were low quickly faded from view as a kiddie pastime. Manufactured boards started disappearing and by the primitive planks of carved plywood and clay wheels from disassembled roller skates became the substitute for the remaining loyalists who never gave up skating.  It was a combination of nature (surfing technique and the drought made pool surfing popular), responsive architecture (the embankments of California’s schoolyard playgrounds), engineering (development of Urethane wheels and kick tails), publicity (the Dogtown articles), and marketing that turned the primitive youth exploit into a million and billion dollar industry (eventually).

Former pro skater and skate company co-founder, Stacey Peralta’s fine documentary,  Dogtown and z-boys, followed by the narrow-minded Hollywood dramatization of the tale, Lords of Dogtown, the story of Dogtown’s Z-Boys is no longer a legend reserved to skateboarding’s inner circle. The story of the teenage tyrants out of 1970s Venice Beach whose low-to-the-ground style of skating inspired by pro surfer Larry Birdlman forced the sport from its 1960s paradigm of nosewheelies and headstands is a now highly publicized one that at least youngsters outside of skateboarding may be able to recite because they saw that documentary about it, or that movie with Heath Ledger.

Unfortunately, the Zephyr story tends to dominate the retrospectives on skateboarding’s history. About as close as it’s come are the several documentaries on the born again former glory boys Christian Hosoi, who served time on drug charges, and Vision skater, Mark “Gator” Ragowski, who is currently serving a life sentence for murder. Those offered some background on skateboarding’s’ evolution in the 1980s as vertical gave way to street skating. Any other really extensive history of skateboarding could be found through books, and particularly Michael Brooke’s The Concrete Wave and Jocko Weyland’s very excellent The Answer is Never.

Mass commercialism and mass media really homogenized skateboarding. The tricks all got names. They all became standards. The prominent players aren’t really distinguishable in technique, except the ones that can pull off something amazingly difficult like Tony Hawk’s 900. There is no small group that really influences skateboarding anymore the way that the Zephyr did. Even later notable skaters like Rodney Mullen who’s skating is grounded in years of now defunct-freestyle. That emphasis on “style” that’s so frequently repeated in Dogtown and Z-boys documentary might mean something to skaters from that era. But probably not to young skaters of today. The flowery documentary Freewheelin‘ made in the late 1970s follows Stacey Peralta and his friends (including Tom Logan, founder of Logan Earth & Ski) as they travel to various locations for afternoon skate sessions. The group hailed from very different athletic backgrounds. One was a professional skier, another, a longboard surfer. This had an impact on the way they maneuvered their boards. Even Peralta, who was a surfer first, had a self-tailored technique that was most evident in his slalom. Freewheelin’ really gave meaning to that loose abstract, “style.”But unfortunately, it is a uniqueness that likewise appears lost in the age of mass-everything and generic representation.

Where there lacks more extensive histories of a sport that began four decades back, a review of the Dogtown and Z-boys, which offers insight on both the pre-commercial and post-commercial developments (whereas Lords of Dogtown is saturated with focus on the latter) reveals that the core of the legend is that major shifts in the sport can be synthesized to a simple event: neighborhood surfers emulated their favorite pro surfers on a pavement playground. On a concrete wave. That is the beginning of the Dogtown story. The histories tennd to understate the fact that skateboarding became what it became because of the unadulterated spirit of its the people who did it for fun, and stuck with, making sure that skateboarding, even in it’s darkest days, never completely disappeared. They existed all along. Dana Brown, son of Endless Summer director Bruce Brown, may have been one of the few to really capture that perpetual essence, but in the surfing world, with his documentary, Step Into Liquid. It focused on various sects of die-hard surfers and their own definitions of the perfect wave. They may buy factory-produced surfboards and wetsuits, but when it comes to running out in the cold ripples of Wisconsin’s waters (yes… Wisconsin), the brand of board or the logo on the wetsuit doesn’t matter one damn because the enjoyment, that purest thrill, stems from the emotional, the mental, the physical, and the spiritual connection to the activity. Skaters are the same. It’s those moments when the fact that pro surfer Kelly Slater won a world championship title or that skateboarder Geoff Rowley has a signature shoe doesn’t mean jack shit.

Come Out Where Its Creepy: 30 Days of Night

30 days of night promo

American horror movies usually have no problem generating an audience. Even the most ridiculous, corny teenage date flick can garner high weekend box office returns, especially when there’s nothing really great playing otherwise, anyways. 30 days of night the recently lauded indie vampire thriller adapted from the graphic novel of the same title, is one of the rare bright spots of a market bloated with bland remakes, sequels, and just plain bad horror movies. The film is driven on fairly simple elements of drama, though appropriately  tweaked to maximize viewer tension. And it succeeds in forcing viewers from their comfort zones in all manners. In a small arena of limited resources, the villain is no longer staggering far behind his prey the way he did in older movies.

But, 30 days of night is that it isn’t a film operating on gotcha gimmicks and poorly written characters which might more often deflect the sympathies of its viewers–though it is not entirely devoid of these tactics, peppering (sparingly) the movie with elements like the token creepy child. And, probably influenced by the tactics of torture-themed horror films, delivers an abundance of painstakingly gruesome visual punches. The film is set in Borrow, the northernmost town of the United States, as the residents gloomily prepare for the 30 consecutive days the year when daylight completely disappears. The setting is relentlessly gritty: shades of gray, and later, the permanence of darkness and bitter cold, a metaphor for the imbalance of good and evil that has befallen the town.

Immediately, the characters are forced into dubious odds against their impending doom: vampires who excitedly infest the small town of easy, unsuspecting prey. The townspeople’s weaknesses are further compounded by the extreme elements and the dramatically superior strengths of the vampires who may or may not be susceptible to the traditional notions of bloodsucker defense like garlic and holy water. And, as the vampires are unleashed upon the town, their relentless destruction is presented in ways that mirror the more stark historic portrayals of genocide. The periodic echos of violent screams of the utter helplessness of their victims, the corpses strewn in pools of blood along the street, and the simple realization that the characters have few places to hide, mobilize, and sufficiently equip themselves against their predators.

30 days of night also presents the rare moral dilemmas and the psychological impacts of intense fear and prolonged isolation in ways that parallel John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing (scientists stationed in Antarctica are threatened by an alien parasite that replicates the physical identity of its host). And though these are natural outcomes where the victims (especially, collectively) exist in a frame of extremely limited capability, it rarely seems to become a significant impetus of similar movies in the genre because the gotchas and gore tends to trump all. Major of characters of the film–other than the posse of vampires–are the town sheriff (Josh Hartnett), his former girlfriend (or wife?) (Melissa George), and his deputy. Though their history remains undeveloped, subtle references hints upon the development of a love angle between Hartnett and George’s characters, forcing everything into a neat, happy resolution. Even under conditions such as these. Right? Maybe… The vignettes of secondary characters such as the sheriff’s teenage brother or the doddering old survivor add to the story’s moral challenges of personal sacrifice and self-defense.

It’s exceedingly optimistic or perhaps simply naive to hope that the successes of 30 days of night will have some (lasting, improving) effect on the styles of American horror filmmakers, especially when the coming attractions advertised four or five more painfully standard (and utterly forgettable) tales in sanitary-tinted scenes of effortlessly pretty girls being oh-so tormented by that grizzly-voiced predator lurking in the shadows.