AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
AMERICA AT CANNES - 2007
THE BEST OF THE BEST
by Harlan Kennedy
1. The American Dream
“The ship of state is in a state and all but the Captain know it.
This wisdom takes no intellect, it only takes a poet.”
What a strange planet – this our Earth – when the USA goes to Europe for course-correction. It must go there because the world’s top film festival, home of a hundred flags and a hundred wisdoms, is one of those priceless places where a nation learns to see itself true. Cannes! Where would we be without it? It is a learning curve on a bay. An al fresco hall of mirrors, throwing our images truthfully back at us. A place where, every day, we meet a wiser, morally better person coming out of the Palais after a good film, and realise that person is ourself.
Two movies at the 60th Cannes Film Festival pointed an impassioned, missionary finger at the state of our United States. One was a fable: powerful, oblique, reverberant. The other was a diatribe: headlong, focused, unsparing.
The Coen brothers and Michael Moore – a trio of Cannes veterans at Cannes with two Golden Palms between them – gave value to world viewers, not just western ones, with these films. They weren’t labelled “For US eyes only”; their insights were for all.
Yet their truest force and poignancy must be for the new world, for us inhabitants of God’s acre who still value our country as the place where the word ‘dream’ rightly belongs with the word ‘American.’ Or did till now – back in the days before today; when ideals were young and hopes were alive, and we cared for ourselves and those with whom we share our world and planet.
2. No Country for Old Men
The Coens’ new film is the story of a lost generation – today’s – gazed upon in melancholy bemusement by a generation – yesterday’s – that knew its place and its way. Tommy Lee Jones’s opening voiceover purls like the memory of water over a dry riverbed. He is an aging sheriff on the Tex-Mex border. Overscored by his wistful voice, an album of beautiful desert landscapes – ‘still deaths’ we might call them – usher us into the tale of a cowboy (Josh Brolin) stumbling on the corpse-ridden scene of a drug deal gone wrong; taking the stash of cash; then trying to outrun for the rest of the film the robotic, implacable, spectral-eyed gunman (Javier Bardem) for whom impudence, in a thief who steals from a thief, is as punishable as the stealing itself.
The plot would be a beautiful Coen invention if it weren’t by author Cormac McCarthy, who penned the same-name source novel. Yet on this evidence McCarthy is a Coen. He is a nihilist who sets off fireworks of hope, in the faith that we defiant earthlings can do something to make an unworkable world work. We can’t, of course, but we keep trying. That is what being human – or being a character in a Coen movie – is about.
Americans have regarded this as surreal until now – they have called the Coens’ cinema surrealist – because they were used to everything working anyway. Now, they are not so sure: the Coens have started to look like realists. Truth in a post-religious, post-consensus world is movable. When nothing works, nobody agrees about anything. The poignancy of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN lies in the wide and equal spread of its delusionalism. Which of the three main characters is the party most misled by his view of how-things-are? Which is the most holistic holy fool?
Is it Brolin, who believes that the lost pickings from an evil act can be claimed as neutral bounty, in a world where the fittest, fastest and strongest strike out for survival? Is it Sheriff Jones, musing on a universe that used to know right from wrong? Is it demonic Bardem, who forgot to download humanity – perhaps deliberately – when he composited his predator’s identity?
This is a chase movie in which no one stands still, framed by a stasis story in which no one moves. Brolin and Bardem are the Tom and Jerry of the tale’s inner circle, forever seizing new ways to find, elude, ambush or wrongfoot each other: human beings reduced to kinetic essence by extremity. Tommy Lee Jones’s sheriff, by diametric contrast, is a man rocking on the porch of a cosmic superannuation. He is at once bewildered and granitic. His wisdom, accumulated over years, that movement seldom gets a man anywhere is balanced by his fear, accumulated over days, that useless movement is taking over the world.
There are three great things about NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. First, its structure is like a series of tree rings, a radiating ontogeny of alternating error and aspiration that ripples out, diabolically, from a central growth core. Secondly, its symbolism is offhand, mischievous, Hitchcockian. Look at the ubiquity of visual open spaces – mainly windows – behind characters, such as motel receptionists and storekeepers, who should be standing in front of protecting walls. It is a vulnerability motif. None of us can protect our backs; our openness-to-attack goes all the way out into outer space.
Third and best, there is the Coens’ dialogue. Characters keep having conversations that are like finger-trapping toys. Catechisms of illogic; like the deadly word game Bardem plays with the store owner. Sticks and stones can break a man’s bones, but stichomythia can be the coup de grace. To this new barbarism – the sadistic tease – Sheriff Jones offers, again, his wistful counterweight. When he speaks in ironies, they are homiletic and human-sized. A deputy says a crime scene “is a mess, ain’t it?” Jones replies: “If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here.” He speaks, too, in the time-honoured periphrases of his native south: “Any new bodies accumulated out there this morning?” While this man lives there is hope for virtue, literacy, vision, decency and America.
2. No Country for Sick Men
The same goes for Michael Moore. The pudgy polemicist came to Cannes with his latest Philippic about America’s lords of misrule. George W Bush must feel a measure of comfort when so much antagonism is concentrated in one man. It is like having a defined target. Heckled by Moore in public one day, Bush responded, “Get a job” – followed by one of those lookaround Bush grins which say to onlookers, “Aren’t I funny, holding my own with my enemies?”
No, Mr President, you’re not funny. Not really. Michael Moore is the funny guy, and the right-headed one, and the eloquent one. Which makes, to any scorekeeper who can count, Moore 3, Bush 0.
SICKO is a screed of comical rage about the US health industry. When Americans get sick they don’t just do it for Christmas. If they’re poor and uninsured, they might as well climb into an early winding-sheet. If they’re rich and insured, the companies paid to bankroll their care will use all the wriggle room they have to avoid doing so.
We hear this from both sides: from the insured who get stiffed on their claims and from the insurers themselves – or rather from the insurers’ former bean-counters, now spilling the beans. These employees got bonuses, promotions or employee-of-the-month plaques for refusing claims. One woman tearfully fesses up, to a tribunal, that she denied a needy claimant a major operation and saved her company a million dollars. Another ex-minion confesses he was a company ‘hit man,’ scouring completed policies for loophole omissions or hints of pre-existing medical conditions.
We hear of the uninsured man who could afford to re-attach only the cheaper of two severed fingers. (Ring finger $6000, middle finger $12,000). We hear that Canadians, who have a subsidised health system, live three years longer than Americans. We hear that the poorest people in Britain – also with a national health service – live longer than the richest in the USA. In France there is even a house-call service, a volunteer cavalry of doctors ready to climb into cars and toot-toot to a patient’s home, available at the touch of a telephone number-pad.
The only place in the United States with free universal health care is, wait for it, Guantanamo Bay. If you call that the United States. Some might call it a corner of Cuba where al-Qaeda gets no-expense-spared doctoring, benefiting from the surreal phenomenon of a Washington-sponsored torture compound nearer to Casa Castro than to the White House.
Moore gives points to Hillary Clinton for pursuing the Grail of an integrated, subsidised health system during her husband’s presidency. But Moore takes those points away for her subsequent retreat from high ground, allegedly welcoming campaign donations from health insurance companies keen to buy her silence and inaction. (They may be in for a surprise).
It’s a spectacular and appalling picture. America’s poor and huddled masses are now to be found in casualty departments: if they are lucky enough to be admitted to them. Even if they are, they may quickly be decanted onto the streets if their paperwork doesn’t cut it. Spectral, confused figures in smocks are seen wandering city blocks, spilled from hospital-hired cabs and all but wearing ‘Least Wanted’ posters round their necks.
Yes, there used to be an America. There used to be a dream. And there used to be the money to pay for both, before a nation decided that ploughshares must be turned into swords and the cult of care and compassion into a culture of fear and righteous aggression. War on terror! That’s much more important – more grand, more visionary and more intimidating – than war on illness and poverty.
Moore is sometimes accused of being unpatriotic. He is Ambassador Badmouth, going to Cannes and other calling places to spread the scandal about his native land. But there is nothing anti-American about SICKO. It speaks up for what America once stood for, and what the world still stands for when called to its feet to salute that country’s founding ideals. A land where everyone is given help to help himself. A land which encourages people to overcome, which doesn’t stand by as they go under.
But an America governed by Bush is no country for old men. It is no country for sick men. It is fast becoming no country for sane men. Long live 2008. There is nothing that an election and a miracle cannot cure.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved