Monday, November 26, 2007

No Country For Old Men, Beowulf, Enchanted, American Gangster, and Isaac Asimov ...

Went to go see No Country For Old Men tonight at the last showing, and on that note, here's a word that film reviewers don't often use correctly: nihilism. Most movies I've run across over the years that reviewers have described as nihilistic are merely soul-crushingly bad: movies that lacked the wit to say anything meaningful on the subject of meaning.

Not so Country. Country is a brilliantly conceived and executed piece of work. Tommy Lee Jones gives his best performance since Lonesome Dove -- and I'm a sucker for Tommy Lee; only Robert Duvall and Denzel Washington compare to him as actors in the last 2o or 30 years. Roger Deakins's cinematography makes you appreciate just how badly most movies are really shot. I'd need to go see the movie again to tell you in detail why the sound work and editing were so brilliant, but let's take it that they are. The movie is based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy that I haven't read -- but I read that the movie is very faithful to the book, and if so, the nihilism at the center of this movie is most likely McCarthy's from the word go.

Country is brilliant and will win awards, but it is the vilest film I've seen since Denzel Washington's Fallen, and before that, the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie. Fallen and Nightmare share almost identical failings: protagonists who, faced with a problem, do the right thing, struggle valiantly, solve their problems on the terms presented them -- and then fail due to plot machinations out of left field, nastiness for the sake of nasty. Anyone who's actually seen all three of these films (an interesting cross-section itself, I'd imagine) will find this a ludicrous comparison in most ways; though Nightmare and Fallen are both well-made movies, the best moments in either don't rise to the level of execution in the worst moments in Country. (Though a few points for Washington, who never embarrasses himself.)

Country is smarter than the other two by any measure, better made by any measure -- but equally empty at its heart. People are weak and there are monsters in the world, and sometimes no matter what, people die ugly, awful deaths at the hands of those monsters. That's it. That's the takeaway. No point in struggling, really ... and really, I wish everyone concerned with this particular piece hadn't bothered to.


Saw Enchanted on Saturday with my three sons. It's the best Disney movie since The Little Mermaid -- maybe better than The Little Mermaid, which I saw three times in the theater. The actress playing the lead is named Amy Adams; I've never heard of her before, but she's astonishing, playing a traditional Disney princess (animated, in the first scenes) ... who ends up in New York City and learns about complexity, first hand.

The core of the movie is contained in a single scene: Giselle, the princess, has been taken in by a handsome lawyer and his six year old daughter, and has gone about New York doing good, in a cute, charming, and essentially one-note performance -- and then has an argument with the handsome lawyer. In this one one fairly brief scene, Amy Adams takes Giselle from chirpy-happy Princess, through the realization of anger, to a sort of joy at the realization that she's capable of feeling anger, to a moment of attraction to the well-meaning if slightly nebbish dad, to shock and dismay at herself for being attracted to someone other than her Prince .... and sells it all. It's a flat-out brilliant sequence that for sheer bravura reminds me only of the bit in Mulholland Drive where Naomi Watts reads for a role -- once in character as a bad wanna-be actress, and then again all-out, reading the piece as well as Naomi Watts herself could read it. The Watts and Adams scenes are very different in tone, but they're both performances that are almost as much about the art of acting as about the stories they're advancing.

I'm a sucker for stuff like this, so take Little Princess as your marker -- if you didn't like that, you won't like Enchanted. I loved it.

[Edit: by Little Princess, I mean Little Mermaid, of course.]


In Denver I saw American Gangster. It's a good movie, not great. Washington's very good in it, but Russell Crowe gets the better role -- as he did in 3:10 to Yuma, for that matter. I do wish Washington would get that -- it's odd to say breakout role, given how consistently brilliant he's been over the years -- let's say defining role. His Best Actor Oscar came for what wasn't even close to his best work, Training Day; and he hasn't yet had that movie that people will point to, fifty years from now, as a great and defining work -- Bogie in Casablanca or The African Queen; Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in Lonesome Dove; de Niro in Raging Bull or Taxi Driver; John Wayne in Rio Bravo or The Searchers; hell, even Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, to grab something from the little SF corner of the world. I could go on with twenty more examples -- Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, Cary Grant in North by Northwest, Pacino in The Godfather; but you get the point. Washington hasn't had that movie yet. He deserves it, and I hope he gets it. Far from being too late -- Robert Duvall was nearly 60 before he got to play Gus McCrae.


Saw Beowulf by myself last weekend. Didn't bother going to a 3D showing, for obvious reasons, though you could certainly tell it had been designed for 3D. Overall, not a terribly good movie, but certainly a notable moment in the digitization of film. Angelina Jolie's naked in every shot, and she's onscreen several minutes. It's less arousing than it sounds, but is still a little startling for a PG-13 movie -- there's no way this film would have gotten less than an R with live actors. It's brutally violent, and, as noted, Angelina Jolie is naked for several minutes -- I doubt she'd have gone naked that long in a movie where it was her actual ass on the screen.

This has implications for porn, of all things -- wouldn't surprise me at all to find actresses selling off their virtual images to do things they wouldn't do themselves in a million years. I'm a little surprised Pam Anderson hasn't thought of it yet....

Beowulf is closer. It's not photoreal except in some scenes -- one shot out of ten, maybe -- but it's closer. Eyes are hard and they don't quite nail them here, but they're not glass, either, cloth and hair are good if not great, movement ranges from "should have put some damn jitter on that spline" to "could have been a person, really."

I've still got the scene and sound files for The Long Run pilot I was working on some years back. We lost our render farm at the time -- I was borrowing time on a render farm for a web startup -- and every time a new CPU iteration arises, by God, I'm tempted to unarchive those files and see exactly what it'd take to render those scenes today. We framed them at the time for 640x384 -- 80% of D1, which is 720x480; today you could probably render at 720P, and still look good on 1080P displays.


I've recently re-read Asimov. I've been working my way through my core literary history, in the last couple years -- I've written enough about who all those people and works are that there's no point in rehashing it. I'm close enough to the end that I re-read Asimov, who didn't impact me as much as some other writers -- the Robot novels, the Foundation novels .... a gap of 25 years, followed by the later Foundation and Robot novels, in which Asimov took a stab at tying together his two main series. (They always were related, though how the long-lived humans-with-robots turned into the short-lived humans-without-robots in the Foundation novels was never clear, or for that matter terribly plausible.)

Asimov's two great inventions were Psychohistory -- the idea that the future of humanity could be predicted, via sufficiently advanced mathematics; and the Three Laws of Robotics. I won't bother quoting the Laws -- it's unlikely anyone reading this blog doesn't know what they are, and if you don't, Google is a great tool.

The Grand Unification of Asimov's later years doesn't work. That's it, end of story. I suspect Asimov knew it, too. The more time and energy Asimov spent trying to shore up the discontinuities between the (by internal chronology) early and later work, the clearer it became that Psychohistory itself was thoroughly implausible, that there was no good mechanism for squeezing robots out of human society over really long spans of time, that the Great Forgetting that made humanity forget the actual existence of Earth, is home world, was really hard to sell ... and at the end, Asimov didn't sell it. (I'm reminded of a sneering reference to Asimov in one of H. Beam Piper's novels -- Lord Kalvan something-or-other -- in which one man turns the tide of history, and an observer thinks that this puts paid to so-and-so (not Asimov's actual name, but an obvious stand-in) -- to so-and-so's theory of historical inevitability.)

The later books have their pleasures, to be sure. Watching R. Daneel Olivaw interact with Hari Seldon may be fan service, but it's first-rate fan service. And odd as this may sound, watching Asimov struggle with the implications of his future history has very distinct enjoyment to it -- I don't think he succeeds in unifying it, but as Asimov notes in the forward to one or the other of the books, if they're not completely consistent, well, he admits he didn't plan for consistency to begin with. You have to admire Asimov's bluntness about his own work.

The guy really couldn't write text and for that matter didn't plot particularly well. He may be the worst popular writer I've ever read at the level of sentences and paragraphs and What Happens Next. But once you get past all that, and I do consistently get past it when reading Asimov, watching the mind at work is a real pleasure, and worth the time it takes.

The faceoff between the Mule and the Speaker of the Second Foundation, in the novel Second Foundation, still has a raw power to it today that the vast majority of all writers, anywhere and anywhen, can't begin to aspire to.


There's been a lot of sharecropping in the SF universe. I've done my share; I wrote 3 Star Wars shorts for relatively little money, and I'd happily have written them for free. (Well, I did -- there's no writing I've ever performed that paid as well as my programming work, hour for hour. At that level it's all been a matter of how much I could afford to lose for the privilege of telling stories.)

[Edit: such as, for example, my first marriage....]

Beyond that, beyond people writing for love, you get honest sharecropping -- people doing a fair job for the money with a given set of circumstances and characters, out of sheer professionalism, regardless of their love for the material. This describes plenty of Star Wars, Star Trek, Buffy, Xena, etc.

And then there are the whores, and there's nothing wrong with that, either -- if they're churning out the cheapest fastest text they can manage for the buck, well, it's an honest transaction; publishers who cared would hire someone else. Readers who can tell the difference will read someone else, and readers who can't tell, bless them, they've found True Love for cheap.

The Second Foundation Trilogy is something really unusual: three writers at the top of their crafts, sharecropping in someone else's universe. It's a sign of the reverence the field had for Asimov, and for the impact the original Foundation Trilogy had on the field. (It was, as Asimov notes reliably when he talks about the series, voted the greatest series ever at one convention or other -- not bad for a guy who wrote the first story at 21.)

The three novels are Foundation's Fear, by Greg Benford; Foundation and Chaos, by Greg Bear; and Foundation's Triumph, by David Brin. I'll write about the second and third another day.

I very nearly dislike Foundation's Fear, and I speak here as someone who has Greg Benford as the best SF novelist of the last generation: Great Sky River and Childhood's End are the two finest novels the field has ever produced, IMO. (And, sure, YMMV, not that I care.) But what attracted Benford to this material I can't imagine. He's a better writer than Asimov (all three of them are) -- but if you're going to sharecrop in the universe of another writer, some basic respect for the other writer's tone, characters, continuity, and so on, simply seems ... respectful. Benford doesn't show much.

I can't give Benford too hard a time on tone: his voice is so strong that any attempt to sound like Asimov would probably be foolish. So he doesn't begin to try. He wrote a Benford novel, set in the early days of Hari Seldon's time on Trantor. (In between Asimov's novels Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation.) And fine: Benford can't or won't mimic Asimov's voice (the other two do, to pretty good effect) ... but the novel is so glaringly out of touch with Asimov's core concerns that it's hard to pretend you're reading a "Foundation" novel. Nearly half the novel follows the adventures of a pair of AIs modeled upon Joan of Arc and Voltaire; the remainder, actually concerning Hari Seldon, casually violates the things we're told about Seldon and the people around him in Asimov's novels. A simple example because it's already 3 in the morning as I write this, and I'm getting up in 3 hours to drive to Irvine: in Foundation's Fear, Yugo Amaryl, Hari's friend and close associate and dedicated mathematician, is worked up about the political state in his home Sector; he's a Dahlite, the Empire oppresses the Dahlites, and Yugo's mad about it. Fair enough, in its way; when you met Yugo in Prelude, he's angry about his own personal state, about how he's been treated. But in Fear, Benford turns him into a Dahlite activist -- which directly contradicts Asimov's description of the character in Forward the Foundation, in which we see more of Amaryl:

Amaryl had seen him enter and was now approaching. Seldon watched him fondly. Amaryl was as much a Dahlite as Seldon's foster son, Raych, was, and yet Amaryl, despite his muscular physique and short stature, did not seem Dahlite at all. He lacked the mustache, he lacked the accent, he lacked, it would seem, Dahlite consciousness of any kind. He had even been impervious to the lure of Jo-Jo Joranum, who had appealed so thoroughly to the people of Dahl. It was as though Amaryl recognized no sectoral patriotism, no planetary patriotism, not even Imperial patriotism. He belonged -- completely and entirely -- to psychohistory.

I could come up with more, but it's late; let it stand that there are more. Perhaps more annoying than the places Benford ignores Asimov are the places he extends him -- there are no wormholes in Asimov's universe; Benford adds them. There are no AIs other than robots in Asimov's Foundation-era stories: Benford adds them. In short, he writes a Benford novel, and not one of the better Benford novels, using some of Asimov's characters. It's an interesting read because Benford's can hardly write without making points of interest, but it's a failure of a novel: Benford's essay at the end, on how the second trilogy came to be, is by a bit the most interesting thing in it.

The Bear and Brin novels are much better as extensions of Asimov ... I'm not going to write about them tonight, but I will somewhere in the days to come. Bear, in particular, nailed the tone -- if I hadn't known I wasn't reading Asimov, I might have thought I'd stumbled upon a really good Asimov novel with, by some cosmic accident, really graceful text ....


I really can't tell you how thoroughly I despised No Country For Old Men. Maybe I'll go see it again, just so that I can despise it with notes.


Thomas said...

Wow, I don't think I've ever read such a long blog post where I agree with so many of the things said.

Re: Enchancted. One thing you forgot to mention: If you, like I, had fallen in love with Susan Sarandon during your first viewing of Rocky Horror Picture Show, this movie does not disappoint.

J.D. Ray said...

I'm a little confused, but maybe it's because it's morning and the coffee hasn't kicked in yet...

Second paragraph, second sentence:
[No Country For Old Men] is a brilliantly conceived and executed piece of work.

Last paragraph:
I really can't tell you how thoroughly I despised No Country For Old Men. Maybe I'll go see it again, just so that I can despise it with notes.

Anyone have any ideas what our host is about here?

Max Kaehn said...

I enjoyed Donald Kingsbury’s Psychohistorical Crisis, which is set in Asimov’s galaxy after the success of Seldon’s thousand-year plan-- with serial numbers carefully filed off, but it’s clearly a followup to the Foundation books.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Should have mentioned Sarandon -- she was perfect.

It's the coffee, J.D. The movie was flawlessly executed and morally bankrupt, that's all. It was buried in a really long post. :-)

Max, I've never heard of that work. Any good?

Max Kaehn said...

It’s fun— it addresses the problem of what happens when the word about psychohistory gets out and people start competing for it.

J.D. Ray said...

Right. Sorry. I wish I could claim it wouldn't happen again... ;^)

Your review brings another of Jones' works to mind: Monster's Ball. After seeing that, I thought, "Wow. That was really well done. Now I need to go wash out my brain."

Rob said...

Personally, I think Denzel had a magnificent role in Crimson Tide. For me, that's his defining role--a magnificent murk of a movie.

In some ways I think Crimson Tide is the moral opposite of No Country for Old Men. I think you're right in that NCfOM is an inherently nihilistic movie, in that it proclaims bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, there's no logic to it, no reason, and no point in fighting it.

In many ways Crimson Tide is just as nihilistic, except for the fact that both leads (Hackman and Washington) fanatically believe that this does not absolve them of the responsibility to act morally, regardless of the possible horrific consequences of their actions.

I don't mind nihilism in cinema. I just object to letting the nihilism win without a fight, as happened in NCfOM.

That said, Anton Chigurh is one scary mofo.

Anonymous said...

Psychohistorical Crisis is a Donald Kingsbury book (if you've never read his other works, it's hard to describe; he writes very, very detailed prose exploring many implications of a central big idea, and it sometimes feels like not much is happening outside the 'idea-space') that to my mind, in many ways, was an ideal Foundation followup. He doesn't have Asimov's voice, but his style is more congruent with Asimov's in that if the central idea interests you, its implications will be explored; there is decided evidence that a mind is at work.

The other thing I liked about his book was that it takes psychohistory and explores how it would interact with quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle and other limits on what's knowable. It treats it seriously and essentially eliminates the pieces of the later Foundation novels that tied it into a big future history (which is just fine with me, since they often felt contrived and forced).

In short, I really liked it. (I think Kingsbury's notable other work was Courtship Rite, if that rings any bells.)

Anonymous said...

Re: No Country For Old Men
I felt like it was the narrative of someone who's trying to understand how we've come to this. The narrator is an older man who no longer feels up to dealing with the changes in our society in the last fifty years or so, and mourns what he thinks we had. It's asking us if we really want to continue down this road as as a society.

Otherwise I tend to agree, it was beautifully done. I haven't seen his other works, but I did want to wash my brain out afterwards.

Anonymous said...

Since this is an old post, I don't know if anyone will ever read it, but here goes:

DKM, I completely agree with you on Country. I absolutely, resolutely hate storytellers who violently abuse their position in society by telling such destructive stories.

In that vein, I recommend you don't watch Cloverfield, a movie that commits the same sins. Despite making choices ranging from mediocre to brilliant, SPOILER ALERT most of the principals die at the end. It's soul-crushing. In fact, Jim McDonald ranted on how that movie should have gone. It's quite amusing.

Now, don't get me wrong when I say this next bit. I love most all of your work. I scoured used bookstores to find my copy of Armageddon Blues. I'm overjoyed that you've posted Last Dancer and Long Run. I'm looking forward to AI War.

But in your short, Given the Game, you pulled the exact same damn trick. Humanity dies on the whim of something that came out of nowhere. Game gave me nightmares for a week -- as I assume it was meant to -- but it also felt like a horrible betrayal of storytelling. After all, most post-apocalypse stories (like Blues) still have some continuance of life. Hunter-gatherers. New tribes. Magic returns. Something like that. In Game, not only is humanity extinct -- but even the dolphins won't escape; the same damn thing is going to come back and wipe them out too.

Because the alien enjoys it? Because it's descended from thousands of carnivorous species? Just for the hell of it? Because the interloper was built to do so, and is incapable of acting otherwise? Who knows? Who cares? In fact, the only way I regained inner peace was to declare the interloper of Given the Game to be my new yardstick of pure evil. Even Milton's Satan was a kinder, gentler soul than this.

But the point is that there is absolutely no chance, even given optimum actions, that the protagonist can get out of his situation. Even "winning" produces 'nastiness for the sake of nasty' -- he's sucked aboard the ship that destroyed his world. The early paragraph referring to the suffering of the dolphins might give a tiny piece of ecological solace -- except that their fate will be the same as ours. The entire piece grinds out the message that existence is utterly worthless.

And you criticize Country?

J.D. Ray said...

There seems to be a lot of this sort of storytelling on the big screen these days. We just saw There Will Be Blood, which, if you don't know, has Daniel Day Lewis up for a well-deserved Oscar. He did an amazing job playing a single-minded, nothing gets in my way oil man. But the fates of some of the people who get in his way left me feeling cold, and with no sympathy for him at all.

It's art, I guess.