by Rob White
From Film Quarterly Spring 2008, Vol. 61, No. 3
In this issue of Film Quarterly, four unusually lengthy works now available on DVD, which have a combined running time of forty hours, are reviewed. They range from poetic documentary to crime epic, but each is a work of the utmost distinction. To begin with, James S. Williams considers Jean-Luc Godard’s long-gestating video essay, Histoire(s) du cinéma (264 minutes, completed in 1998 and released last year in France as a boxed set with English subtitles). Also spotlighted are Ken Jacobs’s Star Spangled to Death (402 minutes) and two dramas made for television: the fourth season (c. 800 minutes) of David Simon’s engrossing Baltimore thriller, The Wire, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (940 minutes).
Ostensibly similar in format and urban setting to The Wire, in terms of style Fassbinder’s fourteen-part film about the toils of ex-con Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) is in a category all of its own. It is true that after some hours Berlin Alexanderplatz starts to become suspenseful as it belatedly builds to a melodramatic finale, but apart from that it offers hardly any of the creature comforts of storytelling or character development. The intellectual rewards of the film are immense, but the viewer must tackle Berlin Alexanderplatz without any soothing: the whole world of this fiction resembles a torture chamber, a dungeon not a populous city, and it is often very hard to watch what goes on there. Fassbinder notably shows the murder of Ida (Barbara Valentin) so many times that it becomes less a flashback than a kind of sensory-overload experiment, a visual shock treatment that no longer has any purpose except its own repetition. In his “Second Time Around” column, D. A. Miller analyzes this exacting aesthetic with “its maddening flicker of impediments,” homing in on one shattering minute in the eleventh episode during which Mieze (Barbara Sukowa) is overwhelmed by terror—or something worse than terror, an anguish so extreme it is hard to find it a name. Berlin Alexanderplatz’s originality and significance are indexed by the distress and confusion it provokes. At first, as Miller suggests, “the only honest response … is to gape and stammer.”
There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, begins with a cacophony (scored by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead) like a great swarming of insects. Other sounds follow: the impact of a pickaxe, boots ascending a rope ladder, wind and thunder, dynamite exploding, and then, after the unassisted Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) falls down his crudely constructed mineshaft, a constricted and almost voiceless cry of agony that Plainview suppresses sufficiently to whisper a barely audible “there she is” on seeing treasure glinting from the split rock. The mesmerizing opening sequence’s twenty minutes have elapsed before the first fully formed words are spoken: “Ladies and gentleman.” It is Plainview nine years later, making a formal pitch for business to a group of bickering townspeople. Although he tells another gathering that “I am better at digging holes in the ground than making speeches,” it is quickly apparent that like the pulleys and levers he uses, language is an effective tool for profit and coercion.
All Plainview’s prospecting talk is exploitation. I was reminded of the character of George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) in the TV Western, Deadwood. “My proper traffic is with the earth,” he insists in the “True Colors” episode of season 3, “only goddam conversation I care to have: her telling me where to dig into her.” Hearst’s figure of speech is a sham, for no communication is actually involved, only a manifestation of force and malice. Any idea of community is additionally excluded or, as when Plainview declares that “children are the future that we strive for,” an expedient lie. He may aver, as Hearst does too, that he only yearns for solitary labor, for exile, but it is a subjugating hatred that truly drives him. “I have a competition in me,” he admits in a rare moment of frankness, “I want no one else to succeed.”
Joel and Ethan Coen’s screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men further elaborates on the theme of male ruthlessness. It is personified here by the hit man, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who is on the trail of Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and a large briefcase full of heroin money. Pedantic like Plainview, Chigurh is stiff and gormless but a fanatic of self-discipline. Though he cannot suffocate his emotions completely, he is always able to hold his temper in order to make himself clear. Hate must impel him too, but it is never confessed.
The discipline is military. It emerges only in passing, but the salient background is, as Joan Mellen points out, that Moss, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), and surely Chigurh too, are veterans of the Vietnam War. Likeable as Moss may seem, he is a version of his pursuer: “Both men have been fashioned out of the crucible of imperial war,” Mellen writes, “and both have absorbed the lessons necessary for survival.” (Moss’s training is good enough that he is even able to fell Chigurh briefly.) Mellen relates No Country for Old Men to Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, which concerns atrocities perpetrated by serving soldiers, and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, newly re-released on DVD, finding in them a “monstrous distortion of the human” produced by a long history of conquest and oppression.
“The strong call ‘consolidating’ bending the weak to their will,” Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) tells Hearst. “I broke you and I beat you,” Plainview says to the meddlesome boy preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). His brutality implies a world view, which is stated by the ghoulish judge in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak.” The impersonal, matter-of-fact assertiveness of that remark is typical. It is to their advantage that these men claim that some natural law prevails behind their actions. In a scene from The Wire that J. M. Tyree singles out, the icy young drug boss Marlo (Jamie Hector) steals from a store in order to provoke the security guard and deliver a softly spoken taunt: “You want it to be one way … but it’s the other way” (he has the guard killed later). The rattled owner of a gas station tries to shrug off Chigurh’s increasingly menacing conversation and odd turns of phrase, only to get the reply: “I don’t have some ‘way to put it.’ That’s the way it is.” This is what Plainview calls “old-fashioned plain speaking.” The words come easily to Chigurh and Marlo and the others, serial killers who try to talk like philosophers. What may be most disturbing about their viciousness is its credible pretense of lucid rationality.