Friday, April 6, 2012

‘No Country For Old Men’ – 1: What Exactly Are We Talking About?

Cormack McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men which was made into a movie by the Coen Brothers is a meditation on changing values. In a desolate land at the Texas-Mexican border, the resident of a local trailer park comes across the carnage from a drug deal gone bad. Lying next to the bodies is a case containing $2 million. He takes it and, in doing so, sets the rival gangs of murderous criminals on his trail.

The book’s viewpoint is that of the area’s old-time sheriff who is unprepared for the violence that ensues. He feels inadequate, not only in terms of firepower – the criminals have a range of ingenious weaponry – but emotionally and psychologically as well. That is the moral of the story: the deteriorating morality and civility in a society which leave men with older values isolated, diminished and out of place. Hence the title.

The book is nostalgic; there was a time when things were not thus, McCarthy is telling us. But like Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, he cannot understand what has gone wrong. So he turns to easy explanations that fuel the politics of racism: outsiders. The Mexicans are singled out as a perverse Prometheus who bring fires of a different sort to the good local folks in No Country.

Yet, McCarthy has perceived a social ill, only imperfectly and inadequately; the title of his book is broader in meaning and scope than he realizes. Let us expand it, logically and spatially.

Alaska is a cold and desolate place. For that reason it could be said that it is no country for old men. But if you are young, you could perhaps seek your fortunes there. Alaska being unsuitable for old men does not mean that it is unsuitable for young men because its unsuitability arises from natural-physical factors which young men with strength could overcome.

The unsuitability in No Country is of different kind. It comes not from nature but culture. McCarthy is not criticizing the high poverty rate among the elderly, nor their loneliness or the inadequacy of Medicaid. His writing is in the realm of moral. He criticizes the deteriorating values. It is men who turn the country into an unlivable place for the old men.

Such dynamism is internal to society. It arises from within and is thus, an attributeof the culture, meaning that it affects all members of the society: old, young or child alike. Old is what the youth become with the passage of time. If a county is no country for old men because of its cultural traits, it follows that it is no country for young men either because the young will have no future there.

Extending the reasoning, we see that such a country is no country for the children either.

A country which is no country for the old, young and children is no country at all.

It was perhaps this uncomfortable conclusion, however dimly perceived, that made McCarthy introduce the Mexicans into the story. He then curtailed the universality of his tale by a one-two punch of confining it to an isolated space and telling it from the view point of an aging man.

You know about space: The Alien in the spaceship; The Thing in a remote polar outpost. The unuttered prayer is that the “thing” will not get out and reach the wider society.

As for Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, perhaps the lawman had become cynical, drawing conclusion far beyond what was warranted by the evidence. So, a few Mexicans and local boys were bad seeds. How did it follow that the entire country had gone to the dogs? After all, had the drug deal succeeded things would have remained unperturbed, right?

These are valid points. To investigate them, let us leave the violent hillbillies of the Mexican border to their lot and travel to high brow worlds of film, music and literature in New York and Los Angeles.

Phillip Roth. Norman Mailer. Arthur Miller. Jack Kerouac. J. D. Salinger. Woody Allen. Steven Spielberg. Seiji Ozawa. Lorin Maazel. Michael Sondheim.

There are some of the most famous names in contemporary American film, music and literature.

The list is partial, as all such lists are. I could add Baryshnikov as an artist, Stephen King as a writer, Irving Berlin as a composer and Martin Scorsese as a film maker. I could make the list twice as long – or even three times. But that would not be necessary because that would only strengthen the point I am about to make, which arises from a commonality among these men. The commonality is that all these men produced works in their early ages that they could not match as they got older. That is, none lived to his early expectation.

I am not concerned with the absolute artistic merits of these individuals. Nor do I want to review their life works. What I want to show, rather, is a simple now-vs-then comparison: what they were when they began and what they became as they got old.

I do not include the likes of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Elvis Presley or Ernst Hemingway because their stories have a relevance of entirely different kind to our subject.

I want to exclusively focus on the old men!

Let us begin with the film makers.

As per Wikipedia,Woody Allen began his career by making films for the “intellectual upper class of New York”. That would be the residents of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

How intellectual those people are is not my concern. But Woody Allen did not make movies “for them” to challenge or stimulate them. Rather, he made movies which portrayed neurotic characters as lovable. The "intellectual upper class" saw itself and gave two thumbs up. That is the secret of Allen’s name recognition.

Returning to the now-vs-then comparison, here is Nigel Andrews, the film critic of the Financial Times, reviewing Allen’s latest movie on March 17, 2011:
The phrase “young Woody Allen” carries, alas, a reminder of its opposite. Older Woody Allen, still re-seeking the elixir of genius. The response to You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is, let’s hope not...

The dialogue resembles first-draft efforts in a creative-writing class – “One way or another I want to move on with our lives” – while the voice-over narration is preppy, arch, overemphatic. When I saw the words “Tin Ear Production Company” in the end credits, I wasn’t sure if it was a joke or a piece of authorial honesty.
Steven Spielberg’s Wikipedia page describes him as one of the “most popular and influential filmmakers in the history of cinema.” Note the word “cinema” which has an artistic connotation, and the connecting of “popular” to “influential” with an “and”. But it is a matter of record – the record being Spielberg’s movies – that from the get-go, the man had no intellectual pretenses. He wanted to be Hollywood’s Mr. Blockbuster and make mega bucks. His early films had vivacity because that was the angle for getting rich. After money was made and the mission was accomplished, what would be the point of trying? Nigel Andrews again, reviewing Spielberg’s latest movie, War Horse, on January 13, 2012. The title of the review was Give me adult themes, not animal schmaltz:
War Horse is grand cinema; it is multi-chambered popcorn populism (“Bang, bang! Pop, pop!” in surround-sound) and although it isn’t any good it will be the talk of the town for a few weeks while cleaning up on Kleenex supplies. Spielberg once made Duel and Jaws. He still had an artist’s sharpness and appetite for danger in Schindler’s List. In War Horse the talent is banalised beyond recognition …

Nothing feels fresh, nothing real. Most of the characters are pantomimic contrivances… We are marched through cloying kidult rhetoric for 150 minutes, ending with the inevitable pull on our hankie pocket, as wheedling as a beggar pulling on our change pocket. The only difference: the beggar is more deserving.
Writers did scarcely better.

Norman Mailer wrote The Naked and the Dead when he was 25. From Wikipedia:
In 1948, while continuing his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, Mailer published The Naked and the Dead, based on his military service in World War II. A New York Times best seller for 62 weeks, it was hailed by many as one of the best American wartime novels and named one of the “one hundred best novels in English language” by the Modern Library.
Mailer remained a prolific writer to the end of his life but could not reproduce the early success. It was not for lack of ambition or trying. Michiko Kakutani, reviewing his life work in the New York Times wrote:
Norman Mailer was nothing if not ambitious. He once declared he wanted to write “a novel which Dostoyevsky and Marx; Joyce and Freud; Stendhal, Tolstoy, Proust and Spengler; Faulkner, and even old moldering Hemingway might come to read. He wanted to “alter the nerves and marrow” of the nation with his work, to “change the consciousness” of his times. He wanted to write the Big Book, the Great American Novel. He wanted to hit the longest long ball of them all ...
Though his first book, “The Naked and the Dead,” was an estimable war novel that won him enormous celebrity at the age of 25, and he would go on to write many more novels over the decades, it was nonfiction, not fiction, that would prove his most lasting contribution.
Arthur Miller peaked around 40. Look at his page in Wikipedia and see how all the works for which he is known are clustered under “early career”; The Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge, All My Sons and Crucible were written between 1946 to 1953.

The even fat years were followed by a life-time of drought, which is why he kept returning to the early successes. In 1983, he took the Salesman to post-Mao China. It was an absurd act, like taking a passion play about Hussein’g martyrdom to a Beverly Hills high school. It said a lot about the barrenness of post Salesman years. Read between the lines in his Wikipedia page and you will see all is there.

Salman Rushdie? Remember his Satanic Verses which at least was controversial?

Nowadays no one will bother whacking him. He has become a society man, mingling with tycoons and reading his novels on the iPad – proof he has kept up with the times – to 20-something models. Here he is.

More writers, still? Jack Kerouac did not make it to old age; he died at 47. He wrote On the Road by which he is remembered when he was 30.

J.D. Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye when he was 40 and then went into a permanent self-imposed exile until his death at 91.

Philip Roth? According to Wikipedia, “in 1969 he became a major celebrity with the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint.”

In the 80s, Roth wrote the very funny Sabbath’s Theater. A quarter of a century later all he would muster was The Plot Against America in which he besmirched one true American hero, Charles Lindbergh.

Look at this passage from Wikipedia:
In May 2011, Roth was awarded the Man Booker International Prize ... One of the judges … a publisher of the feminist Virago house, withdrew in protest, referring to Roth’s work as ‘Emperor’s clothes.’ She said “he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe... I don’t rate him as a writer at all ...”
In response, one of the two other Booker judges, Rick Gekoski, remarked: “In 1959 he writes Goodbye, Columbus and it’s a masterpiece, magnificent. Fifty-one years later he’s 78 years old and he writes Nemesis and it is so wonderful, such a terrific novel ... Tell me one other writer who 50 years apart writes masterpieces ... If you look at the trajectory of the average novel writer, there is a learning period, then a period of high achievement, then the talent runs out and in middle age they start slowly to decline.”
“Then the talent runs out,” says the egregious fool who sits in judgment, as if talent existed in coin-like units in a talent piggy bank.

Imagine Beethoven running out of talent to write music after Symphony No. 5. Or 6. Or 7. 8. 9. Imagine Mozart or Chopin getting boring, or Chekhov becoming dull, with age! Imagine Picasso’s talent failing him as he got older! Imagine Kurosawa, Kiarostami, Bergman, Godard or Antonioni becoming banal!

Yet, we must not fault the fool. He is honest; he speaks from experience, and talent running out with age is all he has seen. He is a witness for the prosecution!

How about musicians, you ask? Musicians, too?

Yes, musicians, too, to the extent that one can call them that.

Let us begin with “Lorin Mazzel was a child prodigy” from his Widipedia page:
Lorin Maazel was a child prodigy, taking his first conducting lesson at age seven with Vladimir Bakaleinikov and making his debut at age eight. At the age of eleven, he guest conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra on the radio. At twelve he toured America to conduct major orchestras. He made his violin debut at the age of fifteen.
As a grown up, Maazel held a variety of prestigious positions, from the musical directorship of the Cleveland Orchestra to the New York Philharmonic. With the standards of worldly success, he had a successful life. But the promise of an 11-year conducting the NBC symphony – and yes, there was a time when the network of the Biggest Loser had a symphony orchestra – was never materialized. Keep his name in mind and I will return to him shortly.

Another promising conductor was Seiji Ozawa. He was so sufficiently outstanding that at 25, von Karajan invited him to Berlin. He studied with the maestro and there, met Leonard Bernstein, who offered him the job of assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. In the early 70s, he was appointed the music director of Boston Symphony. Upon his retirement after a record 29 years, the music reviewer of the Financial Times wrote: “All mediocre things must come to an end.”

Even a popular Broadway songwriter like Sondheim suffers from depression in old age. In an interview in 2006, he repeated what has become a common refrain: “It’s age. It’s a diminution of energy and the worry that there are no new ideas. It’s also an increasing lack of confidence. I’m not the only one. I’ve checked with other people. People expect more of you and you’re aware of it and you shouldn’t be.”

No new ideas, he says. He has checked with others. They have the same problem, the same dysfunction. It is universal.

Except that it is NOT; the man is only looking around the country. It is the literary-artistic landscape in the U.S. that is littered with allegorical corpses – and nary a Mexican in sight!

And not that all killers in the world could leave so many dead in so vast an expanse of the land. Only a culture in which “has been” is part of its lexicon could.

Go back to Sondheim and note how he mentions the lack of ideas in the same breath with the diminution of energy, as if the two were related. But they are not. Only in the exceptional cases of severe physical illness say, when a body is ravaged by cancer, is creativity affected. Otherwise it increases with age. It must.

Creativity is the ability to offer solutions, shedding light, seeing things that others could not. Such ability is a function of experience and grows with it, a fact that is confirmed hundreds of thousands of times a day whenever a job opportunity is posted with the “experience required” condition. As experience increases with age, it follows that the ability to offer solutions – the ability to be creative – must increase with age. And it does. Just look at the make-up of the corporate boardroom and executive suites, academia, military and politics. Old men remain firmly in charge. The U.S. could be a wonderful place for old men. Just ask Sheldon Adelson.

McCarthy no doubt perceived that, which is why he told his tale along the moral lines. It is the value system that seems to go bunker with old age. As artists, musician, writers and film makers deal with the values, naturally it is them who suffer.

But why?

Let us listen to some music.

Below, I have posted two video clips from the performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture by two of the world’s most renowned orchestras. In the first clip, the legendary Herbert von Karajan (pronounced Fon Kareyan, for the benefit of the U.S. readers) is conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.

In the second clip, Lorin Maazel, the “child prodigy”, is conducting the New York Philharmonic.

Remember many years ago the newspapers printed two slightly different versions of the same usually crowded picture and asked you to find the differences?

Your mission is a similar one here. You are to listen to both pieces carefully, preferably more than once. See how many differences you can find between the two performances. Every aspect is a fair game: sound, players, conductor, even the camera work. It is not necessary for you to know the Egmont Overture. It is not necessary for you to like or understand classical music. In fact, no background in music is necessary for the assignment. Just observe the differences and we will see how you fared.

Here is the first clip: von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic

Here is the second clip: Maazel and the New York Philharmonic.

Everything you need to know why a child prodigy becomes a mediocre conductor or why a good conductor becomes a legend with age is right in front of your eyes in these two performances.


  1. A very promising beginning! I'll start following this weblog. Thanks.

    1. uair01,

      Thanks. I will try to maintain the level!