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The Movie that Haunted Coen Brothers

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‘Big’ writers generally avoid writing about movies, or, at any rate, writing seriously about them. Part of the reason is that for a big writer (or a would be big writer), there is always the immortality thing to consider, which is as natural and understandable as any other quest by human beings. Immortality in some form has, of course, been one of the holy grails of human history and civilization. Writing about such things as movies might affect their chances. You just have read a little about a writer like Samuel Beckett and read some of his works to see what I mean. Movies, ‘the art form of the (twentieth) century’, even the best movies, are still not fully accepted as belonging to the the haloed territory of High Art. An unfortunate consequence of this is that it is hard to find what great writers have written about movies in general and about specific movies. Some might say that there haven’t been all that many really great writers in recent times, but that is a risky territory for me to go into.

Obviously the above consideration doesn’t apply to every great writer. George Orwell is one example: I am not sure whether he wrote about movies, but he did write about other unsafe things. But then the evidence seems to suggest that he wasn’t exactly planning on becoming a great writer, at least not in the way Beckett was. He had other things on his mind. This unexpectedly makes me add here that avoiding politics by ambitious writers is more often than not because of the immortality factor.

Mark Twain is another example (in the category of Orwell, not Beckett). Is it just a coincidence that both had politics in their writing? I mean explicitly: Everyone has politics at least implicitly, whether they like it or not.

Coming back on track, it was, therefore, a surprise when, after discovering (and recognizing as a masterpiece) ‘The Night of the Hunter’ (not having heard of it before that) some years ago, one of the very few reviews or any writing that I found about this (till recently) neglected exceptional work of art was by Margaret Atwood. It is called ‘Why I love Night Of The Hunter’. The movie made such an impression on her mind that she doesn’t now remember who she saw it with. Some of the images have haunted her ever since, she says, especially the famous ‘underwater Shelly Winters’ scene ‘in her aspect of wrecked mermaid’, which has made ‘several disguised appearances’ in her own writing.

Since then I have come across many others, writing that this particular scene haunted them and it’s easy to see why. In my opinion, though, this scene is just one of the minor things that make this movie great.

Among those haunted by images and scenes from this movie are the Coen Brothers, known for their ‘quirky’ ‘indie’ movies. To digress a little, I think it is quite wrong to see them as anything other than Hollywood. They represent the best of the mainstream Hollywood. None of their movies strays too far from the Hollywood style. But that is not necessarily a failing. As I said, they represent the best in this tradition. And they do push the boundaries.

I have been meaning to write about them and the Charles Laughton movie ever since I saw one of their movies after The Night of the Hunter (let’s make an acronym to save my labour: TNOTH), though I had seen two or three earlier. They are said to make numerous references to other movies (nods, as they are called, or tributes), which apparently they claim that they don’t do deliberately, but that doesn’t matter much.

I can’t really say that I am a fan of their movies, but I do like most of them, to varying degrees, like everyone else I guess. But here I am not going to review their movies or even TNOTH. It just gives me pleasure to point out some interesting facts which might be relevant for reviewers of their movies. I had once somewhere read about a few people having influenced them, as is usual in biographies, even very brief ones. And I have also read about specific influences on their movies. When I had checked last, I couldn’t find any mention of TNOTH, but it seems now it is mentioned in several places that this is one of the movies that influenced them and I feel vindicated.

So let me mention a few of the readily observable of such influences. I said the movie has haunted them and it is based on the way images and motifs from TNOTH repeatedly occur in their moves. Their first movie that I remember seeing was Miller’s Crossing. I have since seen it again and it is one of my least favourite of their movies. And it is the only one of their movies for which I can’t recall any example of image or motif from TNOTH. This might be partly because I haven’t thought much about Miller’s Crossing, as I have in the case of other movies by them.

Let me take each of those cases where I can recall, though I won’t cover all of them:

No County for Old Men

Apart from the fact that the movie is set in the West, it is about a serial killer who is almost supernaturally good at hunting people (down). He is a ruthless and cold blooded killer, but he has his own code of conduct, his ‘principles’. Somewhat like Harry Powell, the preacher in TNOTH, although there are differences. And both are hunting for money, which is easy to forget in all their killing. Still, in both the cases it is not very clear what is their primary consideration: money, the violence (which is often shown to be the primary and sole motive for psychopaths: by shallower story tellers) or their ‘principles’. Both are confronted by a woman (young in one case, old in another) towards the end. One meets his nemesis, while there is just a slight hint of redemption for the other, even though the young woman has to die for that. Both movies have a long segment involving the ‘hunt’.

Raising Arizona

What I wrote above for No Country for Old Men is also true of Raising Arizona, except that, since this was a comedy, all similarities are passed through a comic filter. Just like in the other two movies, here also the killer-hunter seems to be ‘more a force of nature’ (a comment the directors made about the actor who played the role in this movie) than a real human being. As one of the comments by a character in No Country for Old Men indicates, he sort of represents all the violence in this land that is ‘hard on people’. Now I might have something more to say about these things, but here I intend to perform duties nearer to accounting than to criticism.

You could say that I am doing this on behalf of Charles Laughton, the great actor, who only made one movie because this one movie, which he rightly believed to be very deserving, wasn’t received well at all at that time. May be I am doing it just to show off, but I like the first idea better.

By the way, a week or two ago I saw the list of top ten all time favourite movies of Fassbinder (excluding his own) and what do I find? TNOTH is in that list! I had a vague feeling that Fassbinder too (in some indirect way) was influenced by this movie, but I actually thought that I was going too far and probably finding imaginary influences. On second thoughts, it’s not so surprising, because the Brechtian thread connects them, if nothing else.

Getting back to the movie under consideration, here also the killer-bounty-hunter has his own icons. In TNOTH he had the LOVE and HATE tattoos on the fingers (another favourite and frequently copied image from the movie) and his trademark knife (recall Brecht’s Mack the Knife, Brecht being associated closely at one time with Charles Laughton). In No Country for Old Men, he has his special weapon that was originally meant to kill cattle. And he has his coin that has been travelling for a long time. In Raising Arizona, he has several such icons strapped on to him and his bike, including one that says (if I remember correctly) ‘Mama didn’t love me’. Even this comic character has supernatural tracking skills.

There can be another take on the supernatural tracking-hunting skills. No real individual can plausibly have such skills. But a large organisation or institution or syndicate (I just saw Love is Colder than Death) or ‘agency’ can. A system can. Or, to put it better, The System can.

As in, for example, Burn After Reading. It would be a piece of cake, even with more than one to be tracked. And even with clueless individuals involved in the tracking. There is always an army of bishops, knights, rooks – and pawns – acting like remote controlled drones with wills of their own, which have nevertheless been trained to do the bidding of their handlers. Not to mention the latest technology of the day and the latest Mythology of Fear and the old old Ideology of Domination.

One of my favourite bits in TNOTH is when the preacher finally arrives at Rachel Cooper’s place to take away the children and the doll. The young orphan girl, Ruby (who is older than the other children living at the place, being cared for by the woman who earlier turns to the camera and says proudly, ‘I know I am good for something in this world and I know it too.’), this young girl who has become infatuated with the preacher, drops what she was doing and cries out excitedly to Rachel Cooper, ‘The Man!, The Man!’.

The Man is the other take.

O Brother Where Art Thou

The underwater scene makes an appearance here too, though there is no corpse as far as we can see. But there must be a few in the background, given the previous scene. Talking of the previous scene, there is, yet again, the motif of the tracker-hunter with almost supernatural capabilities. This time he is a man of the law, not a man of the Lord, or a man outside the law, but he is a psycho and a sadist alright. He is supposed to be from Cool Hand Luke, but that one wasn’t shown to be an uncannily good tracker. He only looked similar and supervised a chain gang.

Fargo

I had to think a little for this one. It might not be so obvious, but it’s there. The pregnant policewoman who tracks down the killers (yes, the tracking thing is present here too), one already fed to a grinder by the other, can be seen as reference to Rachel Cooper. The latter was old, the former is pregnant. Neither seems or acts very heroic, unlike many other Hollywood heroines. Both, in fact, seem vulnerable, but they manage to do what they should. They are no Lara Croft.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

The underwater corpse is present here. With the car. Inside the car. Drowned with the car after being murdered. But the murderer in this case is not a psycho serial killer, but a very plausible real person, who cons everyone and is well liked and admired. The protagonist’s wife is having an affair with him. And he is not even a habitual murderer. So the motif of a well liked and admired person, built up by the society, who is actually a murderer is also present, apart from the underwater scene.

Three extra points from me to Coen Brothers.

The Hudsucker Proxy

Margaret Atwood mentioned Harry Powell as a man ’embraced by society, then torn apart by it’. This applies to the protagonist of The Hudsucker Proxy too. There is even the more specific motif of this sacrificial character being chased by a lynch mob, just as the mob goes after Harry Powell at the end of the TNOTH. And the mob consists of the same people who had earlier built him up, directly or indirectly.

The Big Lebowski

The motif from TNOTH in this film is the one that makes me laugh the most. People reviewing this movie always mention the mysterious cowboy (‘The Stranger’) at the end who has a brief chat with Lebowski. Who is he? This is what I think: He is the grown up John Harper from TNOTH. Of course, there is some artistic license here regarding the age etc., but he can’t be anyone else. And here is my evidence: After his chat with Lebowski, he turns to the camera (he has been the narrator earlier: the Brechtian thread is very much visible even in Coen Brothers’ movies) and gives a little speech in which he also says ‘the Dude abides’. And Rachel Cooper at the end of TNOTH said about children, ‘They abide. They abide and they endure.’, also to the camera. The tone used is the same in both the cases. The Stranger (according to Coen Brothers and as interpreted by me) seems to be carrying on the tradition of the old (‘gun toting’, which is not relevant here) cowboy woman played by Lillian Gish. He seems to have learnt well from her and was really saved after all. He even seems to like adopting orphans, in a manner of speaking. It’s almost as if the Coen Brothers are finally trying to exorcise the TNOTH ghost, which has been haunting them for such a long time.

Margaret Atwood, in her article, also wondered what would John become when he grew up:

Perhaps he will grow up to become a robber. Or perhaps, as his name suggests, a singer of bloodspattered sagas and the author of apocalyptic revelations?

If I am to believe Coen Brothers and you are to believe me, then he seems to have turned out quite alright.

So this story seems to have a happy ending. But it could have ended differently. What if John Harper had been taken away by Harry Powell and been made his apprentice or if Rachel Cooper had not found him at all? Well, then, he could have become what we get in Raising Arizona.

 

 

The choice of Coen Brothers has a significance also because, as I mentioned earlier, they are quintessential Hollywood directors, no avant garde or nouvelle vague etc.

[I might add more later.]

The Crescent Moon

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Director: Jang Kil-soo
Year of Release: 2002
Language: Korean

So, a long time after I wrote that I am going to review some movies just a bit more systematically, I have finally started doing that.

I didn’t go into an infinite loop: I just took longer.

Most people will find my list of Great Movies (when compared to my list of Very Good Movies) unconventional, if not strange. And this movie is likely to be perhaps the one (out of my selection of Great Movies) to which rarely any other movie critic will do the same honor. But then I don’t really see myself as a critic. I claim to be a good movie viewer, which is more important in my opinion than being a good critic. Anyway, it seemed quite appropriate to me to start my movie reviewing career with this movie. I was so bent on starting with this one that I stopped myself from reviewing any other movie here before I reviewed this one. So you can be quite sure that I am not taking it lightly and it is not a passing fancy. In fact, it’s already more than two years since I discovered (I hope not in the colonial sense) this movie.

Why did I put this relatively unknown movie in my list of Great Movies? Simply speaking, because it fulfills my criteria of being a Great Movie. But I wouldn’t try to objectively list those criteria. You can get a sense of them if you keep reading my reviews.

But you won’t be so surprised if you are familiar with Korean movies, which are known to be among the most creative by those who know about them, so much so that both Hollywood and Bollywood are getting some of their inspiration from there.

Like several other Great Movies in my list, this one too starts out quite unassumingly. And if you are (according to my standards) not a good movie viewer, you are unlikely to notice much in this movie that can make you call it Great. You might just say that it is a good enough movie. Perhaps I too would have done so when I was just beginning to learn the difficult but quite a tempting art of movie viewing.

The Crescent Moon is, first of all, a classic example of the works of fiction which are centered around what I call the Sibling Motif, or more particularly, the Young Sibling Motif, or even more particularly, the Mixed Young Sibling Motif. This motif requires two protagonists who should be young (children or adolescents) and they should be brother and sister. It involves telling the tale of their experiences, adventures if you like, over a period of time that can range from the shortest possible to whole lifetimes, but is usually a few years.

It is not an uncommon motif and is found in some of the greatest works of fiction, literary or audio-visual. I am not very sure, but it seems to have become more popular from the nineteenth century. Off the top of my head, I can think of many works built around this central motif. From the nineteenth century itself I can cite George Eliot’s classic tragedy, The Mill on the Floss, about the life and death of a girl who is more devoted to her brother than he is to her and who (like many others in Eliot’s novels and like herself) is also an unusual female character in the Victorian era literature in that she is quite an independent individual with a better brain and better education than her brother, but who nevertheless doesn’t do anything that could be considered indecent even by the Victorian standards, though she is hardly ever treated fairly by anyone.

Another, much more well known, classic which is centered around this motif is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. Since it is so well known, I won’t say anything about it. There is also the movie masterpiece (and the novel on which it is based) called Pather Panchali. From around the same time, there is a different kind of movie masterpiece, which is much less well known. That one is Charles Laughton’s only directorial work, The Night of the Hunter, which has still not received as much recognition as it should have. Incidentally, both of these movies are in my list of Great Movies. Coming to more recent times, there is, of course, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Needless to say that there are numerous others such as Jean Cocteau’s (much darker) Les Enfant Terribles, which unfortunately I haven’t read as I simply haven’t been able to lay my hands on it. And all the three novels by J. D. Salinger (but more so Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey) are also centered around this motif, except that in his case there are other siblings too who either appear in the novel or are talked about. (About defining what a novel means in Salinger’s writings, you could almost call his collected works a single fragmented novel).

I don’t exactly know what it signifies, but I notice here that the first three books that I mentioned were all written by women and the main protagonist is the girl in all of them, whereas the two movies were made by men and they had the boy as the main protagonist.

Coming back to the movie under review, this one doesn’t really make either the boy or the girl the main protagonist. In that sense it seems to me to be a more paradigmatic example of the works centered around the motif.

The girl in this movie is significantly younger than the boy and we are in fact shown the boy seeing her recently born sister. He is not happy as he is given the task to care for her when the grandmother is busy working inside and outside the house. The mother left the girl with the grandmother and we don’t know anything about the father. So the siblings are not only motherless and fatherless, but their only refuge is the old poor grandmother who has only a few years of work left in her.

The boy is even more unhappy with her sister when she turns a out to be a little hunchback. The fact of the sweet little extremely lovable girl being a hunchback, if I might mention with technical and/or academic brutality, allows the movie to look at the world from a different perspective and to develop the character of the brother, who gradually becomes much more affectionate to her, overcoming his embarrassment at being the brother of a hunchback and being the target of taunts for the same reason from his friends, who the movie doesn’t really make out to be monsters.

The movie also has many other minor and not so minor motifs. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that it is full of what could be called (with some justification) clichés. But then (to use a clichéd expression) some of the greatest stories ever told are full of clichés. Wise usage of these clichés and ‘worn out’ motifs often gives a work of fiction that epic quality which is the dream of most authors and auteurs. This movie is a case in point.

It deals with themes ranging from migration (to city), poverty, the struggle for survival, moral ambiguity, exploitation, child labor and unthinking oppression by the state in the name of development to the relationship between a boy and a teacher, but unlike in Mera Naam Joker (which is not one of my favorite films), here the teacher is a mother figure for the motherless child. It even has a section (which is one of the least clichéd and the most interesting) about the repressed sexual desires of a middle aged woman (to whom the boy delivers newspapers) and the awakening desires of her adolescent maid servant. But (despite the mother figure teacher) this is not really a movie for prudes and moral puritans (the teacher is introduced to the boy’s family through the intervention of the family’s dog who steals the teacher’s ‘chest scarf’). It gives both of them (the woman and her maid) due dignity, even as it presents the tragi-comic nature of the situation. If you want some single label for this movie, then I would have to give you Humanist.

Apart from the brother and the sister, the other important character is the grandmother, who we come to know better and are sometimes surprised by as the movie proceeds. To use another cliché, she represents all the honest hard working members of the class to which she belongs. I might confess here that, unlike some ideologues, I don’t believe that all the members of any class (including hers) are honest and hard working. But I don’t think that changes anything with regard to most other things.

On the whole, like Pather Panchali, this movie has a lyrical (sometimes poetic) quality that, if you get it, would remain with you for a long long time, even if you don’t see it again, which I think you are likely to do if you can. And it is so strong that the fact that The Crescent Moon doesn’t have any very ‘innovative’ technical flourishes is not a good enough reason for me to keep it out of my Great Movies list.

Another important reason why this movie works so well is the perfect cast, which is very important for this kind of movie (as it is for movies by Fellini and the Neo-Realists), even though it may be less important for other kinds of movies, such as those by Godard. Which brings me to mention that this movie somehow makes me recall The Nights of Cabiria.

I might add one caution for those who are very sentimental and also, at the same time, very particular about hygiene. Keep a handkerchief ready. It won’t take anything away from the movie’s greatness.

P.S.: I have found out that the famous French magazine Cahier du Cinema (to which Truffaut used to contribute regularly) conducted a poll of major critics and prepared a list of 100 great films. In this list, The Night of the Hunter is ranked second, along with La Règle du jeu by Jean Renoir. By the way, Truffaut’s was among the few favorable reviews that this movie got at that time. Let’s hope the great actor will break the wall of regimentation that stipulates that if someone was as great an actor as Laughton, he couldn’t be an equally great director (unless he is already recognized as an exceptional auteur, like Orson Welles: after the deification, everything is allowed). Most people now (barring, perhaps, the movie historians and the like) don’t even know that at one time he was as famous as Marlon Brando, Lawrence Olivier and Alfred Hitchcock. And how many people know that he not only worked closely with Bertolt Brecht on the English version of Brecht’s Life of Galileo (and played the title role in it), Brecht also wrote a poem about the actor’s garden. For the longer term, however, let’s also hope that he is not deified.