Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Fifty Bucks Never Killed Anybody
Over on Ken Levine’s excellent blog he recently posted a review of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN written by BACK TO THE FUTURE co-screenwriter Bob Gale, who took the opportunity to not just voice his disapproval of the film, but to tear it apart from top to bottom, letting it be very clearly known how much he despised the Oscar winner. Unless, of course, it was meant as satire, which I really don’t think it was. He states that the film, written and directed by the Coen Brothers, from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, makes “no sense” and goes through the whole film beat by beat criticizing it, mostly from a writing standpoint, in such detail that it becomes open to question that the very idea of it offends him and nothing anyone argues would convince him otherwise. I suspect that he maybe have been expecting more of a traditional thriller, maybe similar to something directed by John Dahl in the mid-90s (films I like, by the way) and had an allergic reaction to a story which offered a little more ambiguity to it. And by the time he began one thought with the phrase, “Meanwhile, Tommy Lee is pontificating about nothing with some crippled fucker in the middle of nowhere,” I pretty much found myself throwing up my arms wondering why I’d spent so much time reading this.
I like BACK TO THE FUTURE. A lot. The swiss watch-like precision remains so entertaining that I’m not the least bit surprised it’s held up as a model of the form. But as great as it is, as I get older I can’t help but look at it as a shallow piece of work. And it’s not because it’s a comedy, because there are plenty of comedies which are very defiantly not shallow. And it’s not simply that I could think of a few story flaws in BACK TO THE FUTURE that go far beyond saying, “A DeLorean can’t really travel through time!” (but hey, if he’s going to nitpick, why does it need to go at 88 mph. anyway?) It has to do with the film’s own comic tone which sometimes feels divorced from the reality of recognizable human behavior building up to it’s case of an ending which is happy at least partly because the hero now has a new truck. Reading the review I flashed on a memory from the audio commentary for the film where Robert Zemeckis talks about this ending of the film, musing about how it plays as so representative of the 80s now with its acquisitions of objects by Marty McFly seen as such a victory and how no critics at the time pointed it out. Gale points out, “Hey, he’s got a truck now,” but Zemeckis argues, “Yeah, but they’re material things,” and while they almost immediately move on to other topics it occurred to me that maybe Zemeckis had matured into a different realization of what the film he had directed may have been saying. Gale, as far as I could tell, hadn’t and that made me wonder about what sort of person he was and why he may have had the response he did to NO COUNTRY. Does he fundamentally object to a genre piece which aspires to say something more? Was he upset that it wasn’t what he thought it was going to be? Does he object to films that take a different approach from what he believes screenplay structure should be? Sometimes when a film character does X instead of Y, it’s not a case of that person being badly written but an example of how the individual might be reacting to something in a way unique to that person. And I get the feeling that Bob Gale believes that all characters should behave in ways which are in accordance to his own screenwriting beliefs. I suppose he’s entitled to feel that way, but it seems like such an uninteresting way to approach writing screenplays and the characters within them.
When we reached that scene with the “crippled fucker” played by Barry Corbin in my first viewing of NO COUNTRY, I found myself sinking in my seat as I began to realize what this movie was really about. It wasn’t about the money and it wasn’t about the excitement of the brilliantly executed suspense sequences as Javier Bardem is chasing Josh Brolin and it wasn’t about plot of the Mexicans and what have you. It was really about something much deeper, something I was relating to in my own life and no, I’m not going to get into what that is. It’s too personal and it’s my own business. But those thoughts didn’t suddenly come from nowhere—they had to do with the effect the movie was having on me.
This realization is something which will lead me back to NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN numerous times and I look forward to that. Any shallowness I get out of BACK TO THE FUTURE will cause it to diminish over time in my head. Sometimes it can be difficult to put into words what are those extra elements of flavor, of substance, of life that can go into certain films. And it’s not limited to genre, considering the amount of comedies, action and horror films which have thrilled me over the years and have enough substance to allow me to continually evaluate what those movies are. Maybe a film can offer an idea of what its director (and, by extension, writer) is like as a person and from that you may think “I’d like to sit down and have a conversation with this person about life” or “I’d like to sit down, have a beer and watch the game with this director” or, in the case of Michael Bay, “I never want to be anywhere near this person for the duration of my life.”
More than BACK TO THE FUTURE, the Zemeckis-Gale production which really holds up these days is their 1980 comedy USED CARS. Crass, vulgar, politically incorrect, excellently performed by its cast and consistently hysterical, it’s the film of theirs which should be taught in classes and is a true example of how brilliantly a comedy could be constructed. And, of course, it gave immortality to the phrase, “Fifty bucks never killed anybody.” On the off chance that you’ve never seen it, I can’t recommend it more highly. Within that humor is a feeling of creative minds saying something unique about its characters and the world they live in. Part of what can be so addicting about films is discovering these creative views given to us, whether by the Coen Brothers or the team of Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale. I still like a number of the films that Bob Gale has his name on, but I’m not sure of the opinion I now have of that creative mind which contributed to making them.