There's a real, honest-to-goodness discussion occuring at Dave Kehr's blog about No Country For Old Men lately, and it's worth checking out. I know, I know: "Cinephile, people have been talking about this film for weeks!," you say, but the debates going on in Kehr's comments section are interesting precisely because they are debates. The Coens' new movie has been a constant refrain from my students: "Have you seen it?," they keep asking me, and I have to sadly shake my head and admit that, no, I haven't yet (damn grading and stuff!). My students come to the movie with the passion and belief of ten-and-twenty-something cinephiles, which is great, but the vibe I get from those comments in Kehr's blog is something quesier and slightly more sinister, less advocacy than enforcement of belief. It's cinema-as-religion, with your taste marking you as either a believer or an apostate (the excellent Roger Ebert pulled this stunt with Crash a couple of years ago, not only surprised but genuinely outraged that someone might accurately call that film a piece of overwrought, sanctimonious claptrap).
The Coens' movies often invite this sense of hipster/square division (most annoyingly in Barton Fink and The Ladykillers, films which dare you not to laugh, even though the humor of each is roughly on the level of the Scary Movies, which are at least honest about their nihilistic tackiness). Kehr was witty enough to slip his own critique of No Country into a post which also discussed Twin Peaks, perhaps intuiting the link between the Coens and David Lynch as figures of deadpan style who inspire cultish devotion.
I have no dog in this hunt: as I said, I haven't had the opportunity to see the film yet, and its dramatic structure (which generally works better for the Coens than outright comedy) and the opinions of critics I like make me think it might indeed be brilliant. But I am struck by Kehr's response in the comments: "There’s been a lot of anger expressed here over one very small dissent from majority opinion". Exactly, and it's that anger that fascinates. There's a long and honorable history of cinematic proselytizing, from Bazin and Truffaut to Kael v. Sarris to Ebert and Siskel's promotion of films like My Dinner With Andre and Hoop Dreams. And that proselytizing often starts from a position of difference, a demarcation with what's come before: "realism v. plastics," or "auteurism v. metteurs-en-scene," or "indie v. mainstream." So why do I feel drawn to those earlier forms of advocacy, and so put off by this one? Maybe because those earlier pieces felt like invitations to discussion, rather than the shutting down of it, or perhaps because those critics and theorists were advocating for that minority opinion or obscure film, rather than using their advocacy to reinforce conventional wisdom. They felt like attempts to open critical spaces for new, personal sensibilites, instead of groupthink.
What's the line between taste and belief, between advocacy and enforcement, and why the strange desire for closing off the discussion, shutting down the polls, that emanates from some of Kehr's critics? Perhaps Brecht (via Walter Benjamin's remembrances of him) predicted some of this when he spoke of his own nightmare:
‘I often imagine being interrogated by a tribunal. “Now, tell us Mr. Brecht, are you really in earnest?” I would have to admit that no, I’m not completely in earnest. I think too much about artistic problems, you know, about what is good for the theatre, to be completely in earnest. But having said “no” to that important question, I would add something still more important: namely, that my attitude is permissible.”