Friday, March 21, 2008

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and No Country For Old Men

John Ford is always a treat.

Many of his works have an air of simplicity about their narrative, yet manage to convey subtlety or complexity through performance, direction, or writing.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) doesn't have much of a plot; it is mostly a character study. John Wayne plays Nathan Brittles, a thirty year army man on the verge of retirement. He visits a loved one's grave for monologues like Henry Fonda in Young Mister Lincoln, but towards the end of the film I kept thinking about Tommy Lee Jones's turn as Sheriff Bell in No Country for Old Men.

Brittles bristles at retirement, in part because he thinks the world (at least his world) needs him. Custer has just fallen at Little Big Horn. The younger officers destined to inherit his position don't engender a great amount of confidence. To retire in the face of such chaos goes against his grain; it feels, perhaps, like accepting defeat.

Interestingly, though, Brittles has a scene with his commanding officer who tells him this isn't necessarily so. There is a suggestion--not overplayed--that Brittles may be mixed in his motives. It may be less that the world can't do without Brittles so much as Brittles can't do without being in the world. Brittles's friend says that they, too, were green once, and that for Brittles to refuse to believe or act like he is expendable is to rob his junior officers of the opportunity to grow into their roles and to become leaders of the next generation. Brittles himself says in one speech that he will miss having people come to attention at his command; he will miss being someone. In another, when Brittles complains bitterly that he "failed" in all regards in his last mission, he is reminded that the outcome is not the measure of the rightness of his actions. He is neither infallible nor omniscient, and while this truth is a bitter pill to swallow, swallow it he does, and without the sugar coating of Romantic martyrdom to make it go down easier. His commanding officer recognizes Brittles's report of his "failures" for what it is--equal parts bitterness and self-pity, and he reminds the Captain that this experience is by no means unique.

Sheriff Bell doesn't seem to have that sort of equivalent sounding board (or mirror) in No Country For Old Men. The old ones that he measures himself against exist now only in his (idealized) memory or dreams. When he does visit one of the older generation, he gets no comfort but only a fatalistic homily that he can't stop what's coming. The closest thing to a confidant is Mrs. Bell, who, while clearly in love with her husband, suggests she doesn't want him in her hair because she hasn't retired. The voice-over of No Country For Old Men takes on a (perhaps unintentionally) ironic function in this context. Bell, like the Ancient Mariner, stops the audience, like the wedding guests, ostensibly to tell them his story as some sort of cautionary tale. Really, though, the moral of the tale is not that the audience can be spared the curse but that the speaker rises to Romantic tragedy by receiving the greatest measure of the suffering that is universal to all humanity.

I'm tempted to return to my riff about generation gaps expressed in Knocked Up, but that would probably be too long a tangent.

What the comparison to Ford's film suggests to me is that there is something of pride in the form of false humility in Sheriff Bell's apocalyptic fatalism. Of crimes today, Bell says, one cannot take their measure. Yet, when you think about this claim, you may wonder how a drug deal gone wrong and a singular bad decision enmeshing a decent man in a series of hard consequences really qualifies as something new in scope under the sun.

"She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" was released in 1949, just a few years after the end of World War II, an event that did have scope and showed advances in technology that made violence seem more pervasive and horrific. Yet within that post-war context, Ford--interestingly enough--eschews a narcissistic modern gloominess. Men have ever felt in each generation that theirs is the worst (if they haven't thought it the best) and wondered how the world will survive without them to stand in the gap.

Brittles uses his experience to avert rather than win one last battle. Bell, on the other hand, is unable to reach Llewellyn in time to make good on his claim to Carla Jean that he is Llewellyn's last, best chance. He must live with the knowledge of that final unsuccessful resolution (I hesitate to call it failure) as he eases towards death. That he--and the film he occupies--seems to think that his knowledge is the biggest, hardest burden of all, that it is unique in degree if not of kind, is (I finally realized) what allows the film to come across as nihilistic and pandering at the same time.

Since screening No Country For Old Men at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival, I've been cool to the film but struggled to articulate why. Certainly the stylized violence, while not Tarantinoesque is still desensitizing and used a bit too much to seduce rather than sadden the audience. Perhaps, too, I thought that the fatalism it trumpeted masked the nihilism at its core. But some people seemed to recognize the nihilism and love the film anyway...and that was something I didn't get.

I think this Romantic sensibility, this sense of Sheriff Bell, and McCarthy, and the Coens' seeming to say, "I have the thorns of life cast upon me and I bleeeeeeeeeeed" is not just what I disliked about the film; it is what I found rang false about it. Captain Brittles does not accept that he can't stop what's coming but, finally, he does accept that he may not be the only one who can.

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