First a quote:
Here's a highly speculative thesis, and one I'm not especially prepared to defend, though I've long suspected it has some truth. Starting in the late 1960s audiences became more self-conscious that they were going to the cinemah. They became more conscious viewers, more appreciative of distinctly cinematic flourishes. Even highly commercial films began to project their "style" -- flashy cutting, nice decor, self-conscious acting -- in a way that got viewers' attention, because viewers now were a little bit more demanding than the average viewer of "Red River" or "All That Heaven Allows." Superficially, this new situation might seem to encourage creative and "artistic" film directing. But the great masterpieces of classical Hollywood always worked on two levels: "Red River" was an "oater," a standard Western that fulfilled naive entertainment functions, as well as a film about the interrelationship of landscape to character. On the genre level Hawks or Sirk had to do certain things, whereas on a sub-rosa level (and in Hawks's case, perhaps without even being consciously aware of it) they could do something quite different. And since no one in the studios was really able to see or understand the "sub-rosa level" (if there were such people, then perhaps Harry Cohn could have written "The American Cinema" a decade before Sarris), there were no Harveys who know they understand "cinema" because they cut their teeth viewing a Truffaut movie telling Sirk to cut down on the weirdly-positioned flowers at the sides of the frame, and he had almost total freedom.
But as audiences became more demanding, their demands were not so much for the profundity of Sirk but for the self-conscious and simpler stylizations, of, say, "Far From Heaven," to choose a film that I quite liked. This, paradoxically, encouraged directorial stylists whose flourishes were more obvious, and in which the two levels are collapsed into one, one that because it needs to be able to appeal to mass tastes is almost by definition less profound. Hence we got more "style" but less real art. This is a shift that may have helped Tarantino, but it sure hurt Monte Hellman.
This is one of Fred Camper's posts to the A_film_by discussion group which links up with some of my own observations/speculations inspired by watching The River's Edge (Allan Dwan, 1957) and Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941).
Both of these movies are what I'd describe as Men's Adventure Movies. "Men's Adventure Movie" is also the phrase I used to describe parts of No Country for Old Men.
To what extent this is a real genre - using my definition of genre as dynamic conversations between audiences and artists - rather than a category that makes sense just to me is open for debate, although I'm not sure that I feel too strongly one way or the other and, more importantly, I'm not sure that it matters much. However, I think I should point out the main reason why I'd link these three movies under that heading: they present a male hero, accomplished at manly pursuits (hunting, tracking, wilderness survival), up against a dangerous antagonist, and trapped - by choice or chance - outside of the protective circle of civilization.
(Incidentally, this links into why I don't think the movie version of No Country for Old Men is really much of a Western. That is: it seems to take part in the Western Movie conversation on a fairly superficial level, while jumping right into the center of Men's Adventure Movie concerns).
Using Fred's language Man Hunt and The River's Edge are examples of movies that are working on "two levels", although I tend to think of them as "movies with a wealth of subterranean interest". That is: simply parsing what's on screen in these movies for story stuff - plot, character, literary themes - is going to leave out a lot of what is interesting about these movies - i.e., the way that their directors use design, staging, and composition to create a thematically and aesthetically coherent vision. To put it another way: it isn't exactly that "what they mean" is less important than "how they mean", but that the what's importance is subordinate to, because organized by, the how's.
Watching and thinking about these movies (and then coming across Fred's quote) has helped to me get a clearer understanding of the problems I had with No Country for Old Men.
In these terms:
The Josh Brolin sections of No Country for Old Men mimic this kind of Lang/Dwan "two-level"/"subterranean" movie, but his abrupt exit collapses everything into one level, at which point all of the built up underground meaning is thrown away in favor of an on-the-surface meaning derived from contemporary literary fiction. The problem isn't so much that it's too literary, though, but rather that's it's too literal: that it is on the surface and so comes across like a gambit on the part of the Coen Brothers.
(Comparing/contrasting with Psycho would be an interesting exercise: Hitchcock doesn't back away from playing games with the audience and these games are certainly sites of deeper formal/thematic/aesthetic meaning. What the Coen Brothers are doing is the sledgehammer approach and seems, to me at least, to come out of a certain strain of literary fiction (see Mao II, where the lack of narrative closure is meant to stand in, symbolically, for - broadly speaking - the unknowability of the world).
Anyway, I recommend checking out both Man Hunt and The River's Edge if you get a chance.
I'm always at least a little bit skeptical of critics who use a set of "essentialist" criteria to evaluate art. In popular/folk/semi-popular music, this is often tied into the idea of "authenticity". In movies, we get the people beating the media-specificity drum.
Maybe I should have said I'm only a little bit skeptical, though. I've gone back and forth about this since I started getting seriously into movies when I was in high school, but over the last year I've seen so much praise being heaped on films made by people who are barely filmmakers that I'm becoming less and less skeptical.
The Coen Brothers are certainly not "barely" filmmakers, but I'd like to use them to help tease out some ideas not so much about the decline of filmmaking qua filmmaking but the short shrift it continues to get in lots of discussions about movies as art.
Since re-seeing The Pink Panther last month, I've watched a number of Blake Edwards's other movies that I hadn't seen (Operation Petticoat, Breakfast at Tiffany's) or hadn't seen in a while (The Party, A Fine Mess, The Great Race, Blind Date). Although I loved The Party when I was in high school (I owned a tape that I watched over and over again), I never really thought of it as a particularly well-directed film: I was mainly into Sellers's performance. (I can only guess at how much this had to do with watching a pan-and-scan copy). As with The Pink Panther, seeing these movies in the light of Play Time - see my comments here for an explanation - was a revelation.
One thing I started to think about while watching these movies: if you turned these stories into novels, you would lose what is great about them as movies. And it strikes me that that really isn't the case with the movies made by the Coen Brothers. There are a lot of nice things in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? that a hypothetical "novel version" would have to leave out - the music, for example, or George Clooney's line delivery - but a lot of the "meat" would remain: the way the movie links folk culture, pop culture, and politics and the way it draws on archetypes from "classical" literature, tall tales, and folk songs could make its way unscathed into the O Brother book.
Now, while I can imagine a great short story on the same subject as The Party, I think that the things that are great about that movie (which mostly have to do with a Tati-like milking of the set for thematically apt gags) would simply not make the transition. In other words, the novel of Oh Brother would resemble the movie of Oh Brother more than the short story of The Party would resemble that movie.
I'm not sure that this means that The Party is a greater movie than Oh Brother, but I do think the likelihood that such a claim would provoke derision or (more realistically) that such a claim (or the reasons underlying such a claim) would be dismissed out of hand by a large portion of contempo film buffs/critics/etc. is worth thinking about. (I could be exaggerating this "likely derision", but it is based on my own experiences talking with other film buffs.)
For more insight on the title of this post, see here and here.