January 3, 2008

Call It, Friend-O

(Kelly Macdonald as Carla Jean Moss)

No Country for Old Men

It was a brutal movie to watch in the first few hours of 2008.

The first thought that arose in my mind as we exited the Cinerama Bowl:

If space and time are one thing, then why can't the world be governed both by G-d and Chance at the same time?

Here are a few more notes from where that thought came from:

The movie is about a G-d centered world:

(Tommy Lee Jones as Ed Tom Bell)
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: Well they always is to the party concerned.
Loretta Bell: I'll be polite.
Ed Tom Bell: Okay. Two of 'em. Both had my father. 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 so well but it was about money and 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 snowin', hard ridin'. Hard country. 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. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin' on ahead and that 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. Out there up ahead. And then I woke up.

And the movie is about a world governed by chance:

(Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh)

Anton Chigurh: What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss.
Gas Station Proprietor: Sir?
Anton Chigurh: The most. You ever lost. On a coin toss.
Gas Station Proprietor: I don't know. I couldn't say.
[Chigurh flips a quarter from the change on the counter and covers it with his hand]
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.
Gas Station Proprietor: How's that?
Anton Chigurh: You stand to win everything. Call it.
Gas Station Proprietor: Alright. Heads then.
[Chigurh removes his hand, revealing the coin is indeed heads]
Anton Chigurh: Well done.
[the gas station proprietor nervously takes the quarter with the small pile of change he's apparently won while Chigurh starts out]
Anton Chigurh: Don't put it in your pocket, sir. Don't put it in your pocket. It's your lucky quarter.
Gas Station Proprietor: Where do you want me to put it?
Anton Chigurh: Anywhere not in your pocket. Where it'll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. Which it is.
Bardem's Chigurh flips a coin to determine whether he will kill or not. He forces his victim to choose his fate. Later, as he inflicts this procedure on another victim, Llewelyn's wife Carla, she responds as any human being would:
Carla Jean Moss: You don't have to do this.
Anton Chigurh: [smiles] Everybody says that.
Chigurh smiled because he had already chosen for himself differently. He opted out of the human race. In that moment that he had turned away from G-d, he became nature and thus both the subject and operative (perpetrator) in regards to the chance that governs nature. He must have been mocking the Gas Station Owner when he said: "1958. It's been traveling twenty-two years to get here."

How does destiny exist in a world of chance?

In the next line (not in the script I found online, but it was in the movie. I'm curious to see if it is in the book), he says: "I got here the same way that coin did." Did he identify himself with that coin or not? Why would a person who opted out of the human race choose to inflict chance on the G-d fearing? What would it matter to a random world?

Novelist Walter Kirn in the NY Times called Chigurh a "...self taught psychopath" and this regular contributer to the NY Times Sunday Book Review even seems to admire this monster: "Chigurh has achieved an evil state of grace that the ambivalent masses will never know.". He's the figure that roils all the Coen Brother's films, the remorseless terminator, that relentless, impersonal force of nature like Katrina or cancer or someone who runs a red light into your passenger door. But is Anton Chigurh like the others? No, Chigurh is a special kind of monster, one who torments those who choose the G-d centered world, those who choose life and the special status of humanity. The randomness of chance that he inflicts on his victims is personal. There is an anger in him that can only come from a disillusioned believer.

NCOM-Josh-Brolin.gif (Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss)
And throughout the movie, there is something heavy about how each world, G-d centered and Chance, contaminates each other. You can see it here:
(Tommy Lee Jones' Ed Tom Bell)

Ed Tom Bell:I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job - not to be glorious. But I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet some-thing I don't understand.

You can say it's my job to fight it but I don't know what it is anymore.

...More than that, I don't want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard.

He would have to say, okay, I'll be part of this world.
And here:
(Josh Brolin's Llewelyn tells his wife that he is going out and into some trouble he had steered clear of earlier:)
Carla Jean Moss: Llewelyn?
Llewelyn Moss: Yeah?
Carla Jean Moss: What are you doing, baby?
Llewelyn Moss: I'm going out.
Carla Jean Moss: Going where?
Llewelyn Moss: There's something I forgot to do, but I'll be back.
Carla Jean Moss: And what are you going to do?
Llewelyn Moss: I'm fixin' to do something dumber than hell, but I'm going anyways.

I have already ordered the Cormac Mccarthy book from Amazon this week.

Post Script:

An old friend called to touch base over the holidays. We're both artists and we talked shop, a little gossip. And then we rubbed a worry stone over our situation as artists. Would we get recognition? We're doing well enough, but life is still hand-to-mouth... when will it ever get better? Who were we to badmouth or otherwise speak dismissively of other (established) artists when we ourselves are howling in the wind? What will all this effort making art mean after we pass away?

I didn't tell him but I was thinking about "No country for Old Men" at that moment. It was an old theme of mine, of how all artists have to believe in our projects, especially if these life's works are vision-based, inspired in the deepest sense. If our vision is real, authentic (a contested word I know), we have to believe in them whether others around us do or don't... right down to the bitter end.

I don't know how there could be art in a world of chance. If meaning has no ground, neither does art. Perhaps one way to understand the legacy of Marcel Duchamp is to see him as a species of Anton Chigurh. The coin flips in the air: "Call it, friend-0." Artists like that have opted out of the G-d centered world and accepted the one ruled by chance.

Or have they?

Once long ago in fourth year architecture school, I was left to craft my own design project, so I decided to create a city plan using a set of random rule sets: toss of the dice, shards of paper tossed onto a topographic map, Ouija boards with modified icons, things like that. After some effort, I realized that random generation systems themselves had to be designed. Try as I might, design could not be designed out of the system. If I had to proceed, I would have to continue as a kind of concealed farce at worst and at best as a kind of theater.

Artifice. That's the word I was looking for. Every argument, every story inevitably leaves something out. Knowledge and control of this tendency is a special kind of artifice. Odysseus was called by Homer the great artificer. There is a kind of cunning in the theater of art apparently ruled by chance. Misdirection. A magic trick is finally anything but a trivial thing.

It's not that I believe that Duchamp was a monster, not at all and to the contrary. And furthermore, in saying this, it's not that I believe that there are no monsters in the art world, artists or otherwise... of these there are many. But there is a species of Chigurh in the art world who live by the rule of chance and yet also live in an anti-relation-yet-still-in-relation to a G-d centered world, a world where human life is precious and freedom is sanctioned by removing it from the meddlesome hands of man and delivering it for safekeeping into the hands of G-d.

All of this stuff was floating through my mind -too fast to convey at the time- as we rolled our worry stone over in the conversation, my friend and I over the telephone. We artists all, live at a precarious place. Everyone lives with this anxiety in the art world from collectors to galleries to artists of all stripes and stations. Artists that make it to the top ten of success arrive there not only for the undeniable skill and talent but also with no small measure of luck and chemistry too, this we all know. This is very unnerving, needless to say. The freedom that made art as we know it possible in the first place is both exhilarating and fraught with anxiety. You can't have one without the other. As Lao Tzu sez:
These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery-
The gateway of the manifold secrets.

If you want G-d to save your ass, that also means that you want out of the covenant system that has bound us since the beginning of time. It means that you want to remain a child, that you renounce freedom but you would prefer to remain exhilarated... but how could this be possible? Living free means that we hazard the world of chance, it means that these two worlds intersect in life.

Trying to wrap our heads around space/time is tough but we now know that it is true. It is not much of a stretch to hold the idea that faith and skepticism can be two sides of the same thing, that G-d and chance could be inseparable, that as I tried to flush out in Personal, Difficult Things is that there might be a purpose in our drive away from the G-dhead, that in our bungee jump away from G-d and toward death, that there might be something to learn in the world, that this might be the very purpose of art in a G-d centered world: to learn something of life along the way.

To be an artist, one would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, okay, I'll be part of this world.

Quotes from IMDB

Posted by Dennis at January 3, 2008 12:47 PM

Leave a comment