Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Two Films

It was a strange pairing, I have to say. We had DVDs of two movies, and watched them one after the other on Saturday evening: "No Country For Old Men," and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."

"No Country" came first. I had been puzzling over the title for a while, knowing the quotation so well but not being able to recall where it had come from. A friend reminded us yesterday, reading the W.B.Yeats poem at our meditation, Sailing to Byzantium. "That is no country for old men," it starts. The key lines, so far as the film is concerned, are these: "An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/Soul clap its hands and sing..." And these: " Consume my heart away; sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal/It knows not what it is..." I found the movie powerful, but bleak. A terrific performance by Tommy Lee Jones as a tired old sheriff who has seen more than his share of greed and violence, anger and despair. Far from the old Western sheriff, the Gary Cooper who sees evil and is willing to risk even his own life to remedy it, this character essentially surrenders to his impotence. As one of our sitting group members pointed out, he provides the moral core of the movie, recognizes good and bad, and ends up clinging sadly to what's left--his dreams. But along the way he makes countless promises he fails to keep, to protect the innocent and punish the evil-doers and the moral of the movie seems to be that evil triumphs--even if its victory is a pyrrhic one. As I saw it, it was a despairing picture of the human condition: suffering without hope of either release or redemption.

What a contrast, between "No Country" and "The Diving Bell," whose hero is literally trapped in a condition that seems to invite nothing but despair, but which brings about instead an extradorinary liberation. Here the hero, Jean-Dominique Bauby, until now at the center of the good life as editor of Elle magazine, is felled suddenly at the age of 43 by a devastating stroke, losing everything but the movement of a single eye--with which he manages to write a deeply moving account of his condition. The story leads from the moment of his awakening from a coma right up to his death, shortly after the publication of the book.

I have written previously about this beautiful, short work, the at first despairing words from within the "diving bell" and the discovery of the "butterfly"--the freedom of the human mind and the compensatory joys of the imagination. Julian Schnabel's film is an extraordinary visual interpretation of Bauby's poetic words. A painter--with two previous powerful feature films to his credit--Schnabel manages to convey both the darkness and the beauty of Bauby's experience in images, shifts of focus and camera movements that seem at times to take us inside the narrator's head and allow us to experience his frustrations, his anger, his sense of impotence, and his moments of triumph. He films all this like a painter, with passages of pure abstraction and kinetic color, along with grand gestural sweeps that remind us of his work on canvas.

Two powerful films, then. I found both of them compelling, richly visual viewing. Through my Buddhist window, though, "The Diving Bell" wins, hands down, as a life-affirming vision of the power of the human mind.


robin andrea said...

I just checked Netflix and The Diving Bell is not available yet, I saved it in my queue for when it is. I won't see No Country because I find everyday reality despairing enough.

We didn't watch the "debate" last night. I don't know why they even call it that anymore.

They call him James Ure said...

Have you seen "Atonement" yet? I thought it was absolutely brilliant.

The same could be said for, "There Will Be Blood." Daniel Day-Lewis puts in a stellar performance. He's an excellent method actor.