Saturday, February 27, 2010

No Country For Old Men: A Valuation of Humanity Within Desolation And Despair

“Whatcha got ain`t nothin new. This country`s hard on people, you can`t stop what`s coming, it ain`t all waiting on you. That`s vanity.” –Barry Corbin as Ellis, No Country for Old Men,(2007)

Adapted from a 2005 novel of the same title, No Country for Old Men is an award-winning masterpiece of the Coen

Brothers about drugs, money and violence. This movie, set in 1980 on West Texas, tells the story of Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a welder and Vietnam War veteran, who came across a drug deal gone wrong. He found several dead Mexicans and dogs, a stack of cocaine and $2,000,000 while he was out in the desert hunting pronghorns. He took the money which automatically set off a wild goose chase between him, the local town sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), other Mexican drug dealers and hired killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Moss sent his young wife, Carla Jean, away and tried to evade the people hunting him and instantly put his life and his wife’s life in danger. Another hitman, Carson Wells, offered Moss his help in exchange for some portions of the stolen money and yet both got killed by Chigurh in the end. Chigurh walked away free and Bell retired from his career.

The film, like any other Coen Brothers film, contained a lot of messages and themes that one had to uncover first in order to be able to understand it. All through-out the film, you can see repeated scenes of gore and mayhem all across the town as each one became both the hunter and the hunted. People were unstoppably murdered like animals (including Moss) all for the sake of the $2,000,000 that was taken. The film was full of vivid images of flesh, bones and blood gushing out of every man’s body like an endless crimson river and lives were extinguished one by one until there was nobody left. It also used very minimal musical score which surprisingly added to the tension that the movie was slowly building as the plot progressed. Only gunshots and rapping sounds of heavy metals can be heard as well as footsteps that made the film creepier than ever. It was disturbingly brilliant and will surely make a big impression on any viewer that tries to watch it.

The character development of the film was well-thought out that the viewers are not made to question the reasons behind the actions and attitudes of the main roles in the film. There was no clear delineation between the protagonist and antagonist, good and evil as well as morality and immorality. It was only violence, death and chaos.

The movie revolves around the theme of nihilism. Nihilism is a philosophy that was popularized in the late 19th century and was associated with a loose revolutionary movement in Russia (1860-1917). It emphasizes on the idea that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. A true nihilist believes in nothing, have no loyalties and no mission at all aside from the desire to destroy. This philosophy was mostly associated with Friedrich Nietzsche who argued that its corrosive effects would eventually destroy all moral, religious, and metaphysical convictions and precipitate the greatest crisis in human history”*.

Nihilism, which was also one of the common themes in most of the films made by the Coen brothers, was very evident in the numerous bloody scenes in the movie. The most prominent thing that can be associated with it is Anton Chigurh, the creepiest character ever created on screen since Hannibal Lectern. Chigurh, who was literally death personified in the movie, is a relentless psychopath armed with a compressed air gun and kills people just for pissing him off or as he terms it “inconveniencing him”. His ridiculous hair cut and witty blunt lines made the film all the more gripping and electrifying as viewers sit breathlessly wondering about the fate of the person who had the misfortune to meet him.

Chigurh symbolized destruction, destruction that may soon take over us given the rate that our society is going right now. With the proliferation of material things like drugs and money, people are starting to lose all sense of morality and are stopping at nothing just to get what they want. It was a critique of the current status quo and a reminder of how alarmingly chaotic our priorities have become due to innovation and scientific discovery. As Sheriff Bell said in the prologue of the movie, he missed the days when policemen and sheriffs didn’t have to wear a gun and crimes were at the minimum. The changing world has brought us a lot of convenience and yet it also brought a lot of ways to hurt and inflict pain to other people.

The movie showed nihilism at its apex, men killing men; it was basically open season for everyone, morals and values set aside and disregarded. It was alarming in a way because if we look at the setting of the story, it happened on a desolate island where people rarely see each other, let alone talk every day. If something as horrible as this can happen in a vast area where people are free not to interact with each other on a daily basis, how much more possible is it in a dense developed city where all people are cramped into small spaces while dealing with the battle for modern survival? It talks about how complex socialization can be and how complicated it is that we are all entangled in these overlapping webs of interaction that results often to conflict and competition.

Another important theme in the story was the concept of free will and destiny. The simple flipping of a coin decides the fate of the life of Chigurh’s victims. His remarkable line “Call it...” can send chills to your bones and makes you realize how important decisions are and how they define one’s life. The contrast between the stories of the gas station owner and Carla Jean emphasized the message more that whatever happens, it is still a choice. The gas station owner’s life was spared because he chose “head over tails”. Carla Jean on the other hand chose not to choose but by sampling opting to not make a decision, she still made a choice and technically, decided for her life. It sends us the message that in this life, we have to pick whichever we want and “call it”; own it. Despite the uncontrollable circumstances that we encounter in our life, it still boils down to the choices that we made.

Lastly, the film tells us at how inevitable changes are and how fast and unstoppable life can be that even if we stop, it wouldn’t hang around the corner and wait for us to grow up. Instead, it will continue to go on and we have the choice whether to go with the waves and stay afloat or give in and drown ourselves in the ocean of challenges that life has to offer.



  • Internet Movie Data Base.
  • Keough, Peter. Quiet Men. November 6, 2007. (accessed February 25, 2010).
  • Pratt, Alan. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Nihilism . May 23, 2005. (accessed February 25, 2010).
  • Tobias, Adam. 'No Country for Old Men' is brilliant filmmaking . November 23, 2007. (accessed February 26, 2010).

Garnering four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Joel and Ethan Coen), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem); two Golden Globe Awards for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture (Javier Bardem) and Best Screenplay – Motion Picture; and three British Academy of Film Awards for Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actor, No Country for Old Men is a 2007 American crime thriller film which was adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. Directed by the Coen brothers, the film begins when Llewelyn Moss stumbles upon a fortune left from a busted drug deal. When he took the money, this stared a series of violent events similar to a cat and mouse chase, with three men hunting and being hunted by each other. No Country for Old Men talks about the ideas of the capriciousness of fate and the pessimistic view on human nature.

“You can’t stop what’s comin’. It ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.” is one of the more memorable lines from the film and this line encapsulates the idea of the capriciousness of fate. Spoken by one of the characters, it gives the notion that sometimes, the lives of the people can be changed in the blink of an eye and those changes may not necessarily be predictable and fair. This may then lead to the never ending debate on whether destiny or free will guides the course of the lives of the people. The film can be considered to advocate both, that a combination of both fate and the free will of an individual will eventually determine what will happen to him/her. True enough, this was shown from the very start of the film. It was fate which led Moss to discovering the money from the drug deal but it was his own choice to get the money. He could have called the police, reported what he saw and returned the money but instead of doing that, he chose to take the money for himself and this eventually changed not only his life but even the lives of those around him.

The flipping of the coin can also be considered as a symbolism for the idea of destiny vs. free will. As Chigurh was fond of, the decision on whether to kill or let someone live was dependent on how a person will “call” a coin. Although what will appear on the coin (whether it will be heads or tails) is beyond our control, it is up to us to decide on how we will “call it”.

The second theme of the film, on the other hand, has something to do with the line “The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure.” The line fosters the idea that there is a pessimistic view on the human nature, what is emphasized is the evil or the more imperfect side of the humans. This encourages the idea that humans are creatures who are capable of doing evil things and given the freedom to do what they want, they may not choose what is morally right. In the film, we are presented with a character who is willing to kill anyone who gets in his way and another one who is willing to sacrifice a peaceful and comfortable life in order to achieve material gain. These two characters may represent the evil in our society, the first kind of evil is such an extreme one that we may even be surprised on how harsh his acts can be and the second kind of evil is the one that is only developing, an evil which is not really inherent and that there is still a chance for it to be curtailed.

In a way, this is somehow related to the idea of nihilism (which can also be considered as another theme of the film). Nihilism is the belief that nothing is worthwhile, that life is pointless and human values are worthless. It also refers to the total rejection of the social mores, rejecting the established social conventions and beliefs, especially of morality and religion. True enough, Chigurh is someone who does not care about whatever rules and laws may exist in the country. He is content with following his own rules, although those rules are clear to him alone and to no one else. He is also someone who does not put importance on the lives of other people, not thinking twice about killing anyone who might come his way (although in some rare occasions, he decided to let the coin choose whether he will kill someone or not). Also, we are presented with a country wherein crimes are committed left and right, with the citizens of the country breaking the rules that were agreed upon in their society.

Another example of a pessimistic view on the human nature is the scene wherein Chigurh bought the shirt of the kid. Initially, the kid was willing to give the shirt to Chigurh for free, seeing that he was badly hurt but he eventually accepted the money that was offered to him. In a way this can be interpreted as a sign of how easily corrupted humans can be. At the same time, it implies how humans do not necessarily always understand each other. Chigurh was oblivious of the fact that the child wanted to help him out and he insulted the kid’s act of charity by offering him some money.

After focusing on the themes of the film, it is also important to discuss its technical aspects, and to explain how each of these technical aspects has been effective in furthering the message that the film wants to convey. The first thing that can be noticed about the film is its characters. Although we are presented with a psychopath, the characters are shown in such a way that we would not think of questioning why they were acting in a certain way. The viewers are made to accept the characters simply as the way they are and to focus on what the characters are representing. Chigurh, in the movie, can be said to represent evil, chaos and even death. He represents how evil may sometimes prevail over good in the society and how this may lead to death, not just literally, but also the death and the destruction of the values and the norms of the society. In an extreme, it can also result to nihilism.

Another noticeable element of the film is the lack of the musical score and sound. Minimal sounds were used in the movie and most of the time, large sections of the film were devoid of music, something which the directors had carefully planned. By providing “silence” to the viewers, the viewers are given the chance to focus on the story itself. At the same time, it gives the audience the chance to have more room for interpretation. The audience is given the time to reflect on their own and to think about what will happen next and what their possible implications might be. Furthermore, by leaving something out, the unspoken gives the idea that there is a deeper meaning to what is really happening.

After all has been said, it is important to consider why the film is given the title “No Country for Old Men”. If we consider the sheriff to be the “main” character of the story, or simply to take his perspective, then it really makes sense. From the very start of the film, the sheriff has already compared the events in the past and in the present. For him, the past was much simpler when people did things simply because it was the right thing to do. The sheriffs at that time did not even have to carry guns but in the present times, crimes are committed everywhere. In a way it is implied that the country is not really a safe place to live in for the people, let alone for the old men. The world is such a rough place to be in and survival is something that is hard to achieve, especially for the old.

The ending of the film though, is something that has been subject to many interpretations. At the end of the film, the sheriff is shown to be recounting his dreams to his wife. The first dream has something to do with lost money while the second dream was about the sheriff’s dad who was at the end of a tunnel, waiting for him while holding a torch in his hand. The first dream can be symbolic to the retirement of the sheriff. The lost money can signify the hope that he had lost. “I always thought that when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t.” was a line that the sheriff himself said. In his line of work, it is important that one believes that there is still a good side in the people. Unfortunately, the sheriff felt that he was unmatched by those around him and eventually gave up. The lost money can then signify the hope that he had lost, his hope that there is still a good side in the human nature. His retirement can then symbolize not just the retirement from his work, but also his withdrawal from certain positive ideas.

No Country for Old Men can be considered to be effective in trying to convey its message to the viewers. Unlike other films with similar themes, the movie is not preachy. Instead of presenting the viewers with the ideas of what they should do, the film showed the viewers what can possibly happen when one is tricked by Lady Luck and if one makes the wrong moral choices. By presenting a quite exaggerated version of a man who thinks that killing other people is a routine and that the lives of others are dependent on the flip of a coin, the viewers are shown the possibility that men may become merciless creatures someday, creatures with nihilistic characteristics.

The film is an important way of showing that although fate can sometimes control our lives, we still have the freedom to choose how we will let fate dictate our actions. At the same time, it emphasizes the idea that whatever horrors we might be experiencing are really because of our own doing. The challenge is then not to let the negative side of human nature take over, and to avoid nihilism before it actually gets worse.



Friday, February 19, 2010

To Live: Choices Within The Historical Context

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery.” -Mao Tse-Tung

Since the institutionalization of Mao Tse-Tung’s Chinese Communist Party in 1949, China has experienced lots of revolutionary changes in their social, economic, cultural and political environment.

The movie “To Live” basically is a film about a family’s experience during this hard and challenging time. Released in 1994 and was directed by Zhang Yimou and his sixth collaboration with Gong Li, “To Live” gives its viewers a journey towards this very revolutionary stage for the whole Chinese people. This movie transcends four decades of China’s history which includes the Chinese Civil War, Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

A winner of the Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, “To Live” gives another perspective about this particular stage of China’s history. Instead of looking from above, the movie emphasizes the life experiences of the ordinary people as they try to cope up with these changes brought by the Chinese government. According to its director Zhang Yimou: "I believe that for a long time now Chinese films have been too abstract, conceptual, gimmicky. They don't relate at all to the lives of ordinary Chinese people. I'm certain that most audiences will like this film. We haven't gone overboard on the tragic elements, but rather have focused on the minute, amusing details in the life of a nobody. There are tears and laughter, one following the other in a gentle rhythm like the breath of a bellows." That is why this film captured the different pains, joys, laughter and horrors of life from the perspective of ordinary people.

There are many interpretations on the meaning of the movie’s title. The most common is that, since the movie was staged during a difficult time, the movie shows us how the Chinese people cope up and be resilient on the different challenges that they face in order to live life. But there are other deeper messages that the film’s title “To Live” tries to give its viewers. Since the penetration of communism in China’s government, the phrase “to live” has changes its meaning. Living now depends on what the government say or do not say. Almost all of the people’s actions are constrained by the laws and regulations posed by the government. Due to the institutionalization of communism in China, the private sphere has become a part of the public sphere. Privacy seems to have long been disappeared in China’s society. Whether this new definition of “living” in Chinese society had become positive or negative is still debatable but watching this movie shall give its viewers a new perspective on the life of ordinary Chinese people in the light of communism.

The film focuses on the lives of Fugui and his wife Jiazhen. They started as a wealthy family, but due to Fugui’s compulsive gambling, they lost everything and Jiazhen, who is pregnant with their second child, left his husband with their daughter Fengxia. But eventually Jiazhen came back to Fugui and leaves the past behind with their daughter and their one-year old son Youqing. But Fugui was drafted for the Kuomintang and left his family for the Civil War. When the war was over, Fugui came back and started a new life again with a new kind of government. And from then on, the family experienced a mix of joyful and harsh experiences in order to survive living in such difficult times. Several tragedies have struck the family which includes the tragic death of their son Youqing and eventually the mishap of their daughter Fengxia while giving birth. In all of these tragedies that the family had encountered, they can all be rooted to the imposition of communism to China;s society. As for Youqing’s death, if not for they were not forced to produce steel during the Great Leap Forward, he must have been still alive. And for Fengxia’s demise, there were no doctors available to be able to look Fengxia’s giving birth because all doctors have been sent to do hard labor for being "reactionary academic authorities" as a consequence of the ongoing Cultural Revolution in China. Is communism really is to blame for the different mishaps that the characters experienced? Does this movie made in order to persuade people to join the anti-communist movement?

Because of the critical portrayal of the various policies and campaigns made by the communist government in this movie, Zhang Yimou was banned from China and doing films for two years. The movie shows its viewers the different failures of Chinese communism, too much worship on Mao and the negative effects that were brought by the Cultural Revolution. Now the question that arises is, does the film “To Live” was an anti-communist movie? Some would say yes, because of the explicit and implicit connection of the tragedies experienced by the characters of the film. Others argue that the film is not really propaganda against communism. The most impressive thing that I think the movie possesses is its honesty, most of which can be attributed by the brilliant acting of the movie’s characters. People can feel the different emotions that come out from its characters. In order to be truthful in conveying what does ordinary Chinese people felt during those times- the movie showed not only the disadvantages but also some advantages that communism gives Chinese people. I think that the director only wants the viewers to show the truth not to hate communism. If the director really hated communism why would reconcile with the Chinese government and continue living in China. Whether or not the movie was made to rally against communism, I can say that the movie is very effective in showing its viewers the real images and emotions with what happened during this challenging time in Chinese history.

Relative to the other films that we watched in this class, this movie is more explicit in relaying to the political message of the film. I can describe it as an “in your face” movie because the film clearly shows its viewers what it wants to relay due to the honesty and rawness of the way the story was delivered in the film. But does explicitness makes the conveyance of political socialization ineffective? I argue that the explicitness of a movie’s message in some way contributes to its effectiveness but there are some factors that can still be an agent in order for the film to be more effective tool for political socialization. Its explicitness will be a very effective tool for political socialization specifically for those viewers who watch films only for entertainment and do not analyze much about a movie because they will easily get the point of the film. However, it is sometimes better for a film to be less explicit for the viewers to have a deeper connection on the film and maybe have a better effect on the political socialization of the moviegoers. But as stated earlier, there are other factors that can attribute to the effectiveness of a film as an agent of political socialization such as the different mise en scene elements and other contextual elements that may affect a moviegoer’s perception towards a film.

To conclude, the movie “To Live” gave us a perspective that is very close to ours which is the perspective of an ordinary man. And from this perspective, we had seen the different joys and pains that an ordinary Chinese citizen experienced during a time where resiliency is very hard due to the revolutionary changes that happen in China. This film is a very brilliant reflection of what really existed during those times. But the movie does not really tell us to hate communism, it shows us the value of “living”- whether you are up or down, we must continue living life just like the characters of this film had portrayed to us



Little Bun: [playing with chickens] When will they grow up?
Xu Jiazhen: Very soon.
Little Bun: And then?
Xu Fugui: And then... the chickens will turn into geese... and the geese will turn into sheep... and the sheep will turn into oxen.
Little Bun: And after the oxen?
Xu Fugui: After oxen...
Xu Jiazhen: After oxen, Little Bun will grow up.
Little Bun: I want to ride on an ox's back.
Xu Jiazhen: You will ride on an ox's back.
Xu Fugui: Little Bun won't ride on an ox... he'll ride trains and planes... and life will get better and better.

The lines above are the last few lines uttered in the film. In this parting scene, the viewers are given a huge room for interpretation as to what the film wants to convey. It is in this realization, that it is asserted in this review that the effectiveness of a film as a tool for political socialization does not solely rely on its explicitness to show its political content to the viewers. Occasionally, it is sufficiently needed that political messages are concealed behind scenes of symbolisms in order to capture and eventually provoke the audience towards realizing the deep messages embedded within a film.

The film To Live, by Zhang Yimou presents a narrative of the lives of Xu Fugui and Xu Jiazhen, the changes that took place within their society and the consequent transformations that took place within their family and personal sphere. Huozhe or To Live takes it viewers on a four-decade trip in China that starts from 1940s and traverses through the 1980s. The film tells the story of the family of Xu Fugui and the various personal changes that happened in their family in the context of societal transformations that were coincidently happening in China. The film explicitly shows the various transformations that happened in China for four decades. It shows the lives of the Chinese people during the pre-civil war era, during the civil war, during the Great Leap Forward, and finally, during the Cultural Revolution. Consequently, the film overtly shows the changes that happened within the personal lives of Xu Fugui and Xu Jiazhen and how these changes were affected by the operating context in China. As in Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qui Ju director Zhang Yimou meticulously presents a clear-headed view of Chinese life where the destinies of individuals are determined by forces beyond their control. To Live honors the resiliency of Fugui and his wife in the face of political change, bureaucratic incompetence, and personal tragedy.

The movie To Live was made in 1994 where China was slowly opening up its economy and its relations to the world. Its director, Zhang Yimou, was considered one of the filmmakers who belong to the so-called Fifth generation of Chinese filmmakers. It is in this period that filmmakers reject the traditional methods of storytelling and opted for a more free and unorthodox approach of filmmaking. Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Chen Kaige, Zhang Junzhao and others were considered the first group of filmmakers to graduate since the Cultural Revolution. Subsequently, it was during the Fifth generation period that Chinese cinema began reaping the rewards of international attention [the 1992 Golden Lion for Zhang Yimou’s the Story of Qiu Ju]. Extremely diverse in style and subject, the Fifth Generation directors' films ranged from black comedy (Huang Jianxin's The Black Cannon Incident, 1985) to the esoteric (Chen Kaige's Life on a String, 1991), but they share a common rejection of the socialist-realist tradition worked by earlier Chinese filmmakers in the Communist era. Some of their bolder works with political overtones were banned by Chinese authorities.

After looking at what the film is and how it is contextualized, three themes that are apparent in the film will then be recognized. Subsequently, this critique will revolve around the themes of changes, public vs private, and the explicitness vs covertness of political messages within a film. The first theme that is evident in the film is the theme of changes and how to cope with it. In the film, changes were introduced both on the individual and the societal level. On the individual level, the change that was introduced which was also influenced by the individual’s own doing - in this case, Xu Fugui, - was the change from being a landlord to an ordinary person. Seeing the changes on the economic status of lead character and his family, it is argued that these changes are brought about and are influenced by the personal doings of Xu Fugui- of the individual himself. On a societal level, the film shows the changes that were happening on the Chinese society and the various political systems and ideologies that were imposed on the Chinese people. Consequently, these societal changes have corresponding effects to the lives of everyone in the film. With the societal changes happening, it is asserted that in this context, individuals no longer have control over the changes that were happening to them, for it was already the external factors that operate, influence and affect the lives of the individuals.

In line with the idea of the individual and the society is the discourse between the public and private domain of the individual. The film ingeniously presented the dichotomy between the public and private domain using the context of the changes that happened in China. Pre-civil war, the structure of the Chinese society is individualistic in nature. There is a divide between an individual’s personal and family matters vis-à-vis his community and external environment. This is seen in the confrontation scene between Xu Fugui and Xu Jiazhen where the surrounding people, though listening to the two characters arguing, did not care to intervene and mingle with the issues and affairs of the couple. The shift to Communism blurs the divide between the personal and the public. It is seen in the film that during the communist rule, the Chinese people have little regard to their personal lives for it is the community and the state that they prioritize on. This high regard to the state as opposed to the personal or the family is evidently seen in how the people centralize themselves just to make steel for the state. In this scene, everyone is working for the state in such a way that even the children no longer enjoy their regular number of sleep. In this context, the divide between the public and the private is blurred; moreover, the Chinese society becomes collectivistic and gives prime on the commune and the government.

The last theme that can be extracted from the film is the discourse on the effectiveness of the film based on its explicitness to present its political messages to the public. The film, through its use of the various historical events that happened in Chinese society and juxtaposing those to the conditions of the Chinese people, explicitly presented the various conditions that happened to the Chinese people during the different transformations that took place. In this context, the film explicitly showed to the viewers the effects of the various transformations; most specifically, it presented the two sides of Pre-Communist and Communist China. Accordingly, the film also implicitly presented political messages by concealing the messages behind symbolic lines and messages. An example of which is the symbolism made to the seven buns that were eaten by the doctor that was supposed to guide the childbirth of the daughter of Xu Fugui, Fengxia. The doctor ate seven buns but by drinking water at the same time, each bun expanded to the size of seven buns. The doctor hence became semiconscious and cannot help the dying Fengxia. Therefore, Fengxia’s death is a result of the overeating of the doctor, because the doctor had actually eaten 49 buns. Consequently, 1949 was the year that the Chinese Communist Party cemented its hold in China. It is in this juxtaposition that the film implicitly conveys that Communism causes the death of the Chinese people during that era.

To Live is an inspiring and moving movie that will definitely capture the appeal and attention of its viewers. I personally liked the story for it tackled personal issues on the context of the external factors that affect the lives of the characters both on the personal and social levels. The film used the personal domain of life in order to discuss salient political issues within China. The film presents the various sides of communism, its advantages and disadvantages and its apparent effect to the Chinese people. It is in this regard that I view the film as a powerful tool for political socialization for it tries to tell its viewers that communism, while entailing some strong points, also entails strong weak points and some of which are the low human and social development and continuation of poverty. The film helped me to conclude that communism is not a totally effective form of political system for the evils that is also felt in democracies are also felt in this system, case in point, poverty.


Friday, February 12, 2010

Poison: Construction Of A Moral Scaffolding

In her distinguished Sight & Sound essay, B. Ruby Rich (1992) described the early times of the New Queer Cinema movement as a “watershed” year for independent gay and lesbian filmmaking that dealt openly and even aggressively with queer culture, politics, and identity. It also paved the way to a transformative period of queer film spectatorship. This movement was characterized as a part of the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was known to embody an accelerated cultural and political evolution of queer identity brought on by that time’s challenges to advocate for a peaceful and productive gay future. The films during this time were considered to be radical in form. They were also very much aggressive in their espousal of sexual identities in their attempt to not just challenge the heteronormative status quo that stigmatized and marginalized some forms of sexuality, but also to the positive promotion of gay and lesbian images juxtaposed by AIDS crisis and the conservative political wave both in the United States and in the UK.

It is in this context that a seemingly inconspicuous art house film directed by Todd Haynes, Poison (1991), surprisingly found itself in the center of a political controversy starting from the time it was being filmed up until its wide release. Despite the fact that Posion was only screened in the art house circuit and was never played in mainstream cinemas, it still stirred the US Senate, dominantly Republican then, into an uproar. It started when Jessie Helms threw a public fit upon knowing that the film was partly funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)—an independent agency of the federal government that offers support and finances for projects exhibiting artistic superiority and excellence. In the middle of the clamor was Poison’s perceived theme and content. The conservatives claimed that aside from its confrontational, disturbing, enigmatic, visceral and harsh tone, Poison contained “explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex”, and even called for the resignation of Frohnmayer, NEA’s chairman during that time. Surprisingly, NEA stood against the Right and asserted that there was no way that violence was glorified in the film, and that Poison was neither prurient nor obscene. But in the end, the imperative issues in this controversy that is detrimental for the ultimate salvation of the film was Posion’s real content—on what it was really trying to communicate to its viewers, and if there was indeed a necessity to use the techniques Haynes incorporated in the film in the effectiveness of conveying his messages.

During the process of resolving these issues, it is inevitable that we get to unveil the motivation behind Haynes’ three multi-themed vignettes told in distinctly different cinematic styles, at the same time using the technique of cross-cutting one story to another. “Hero” is a mockumentary about Richie Beacon, in an attempt to understand what really happened the night he shot his father. It later turned out that it is a story of abuse, maltreatment, domestic violence and infidelity. “Horror” is a black and white, 50’s style monster movie about Dr. Thomas Graves in his quest for medical history. Yet, upon ingesting the liquefied sex drive, he became a contagious leprous beast. He lost himself in the process, making this story a slightly concealed AIDS metaphor linked with alienation and the darker side of human sexuality. Lastly, “Homo” deals with homosexuality—was even explicitly pointed out in the beginning, and is about john Broom and his quest to retrieve a certain bad memory involving Bolton. This vignette was told in a contrast of alternate dark, prison setting and a bright “counterfeit world of men among men” situation. And as the two places overlap, we encounter violence, rape, and death.

Living with AIDS, alienation, juvenile delinquency, homoerocticism, domestic violence, domination, the darker side of human sexuality, abuse and repression shown in a surrealist manner—that is to free one’s imagination and own understanding by producing a creative process free of conscious control, is a mash-up between Haynes’s trademark and commended manner of film-making and Jean Genet’s literary and controversial masterpieces.

Todd Haynes, now established as a nonconformist director, is capable of dealing with more than his New Queer Cinema tag might cover. As seen from his works Safe (1995), Velvet Goldmine (1998) Far From Heaven (2002), and I’m Not There (2007), there is more to him than only being considered as one of the proponents of the New Queer Cinema by successfully addressing the ineffable. Haynes is also proficient in making us consciously aware of our beliefs through his films, and then challenges its viewers to rethink them and consider others, as was in Poison. One has to think profoundly, albeit carefully, to arrive at the notion that the poison Haynes was portraying in this film is society itself—that we think that there is only one kind of misery, that of Dr. Graves, when in fact we live in a world that is packed with despair. And in that denial, as was exemplified in Richie’s story, we reject other beliefs and cram ourselves inside a tight box. All it should take was to stand up for your self, and break away from the society, just like the way Richie’s mother believed that her son DID fly away after killing his father, the way Dr. Graves faced the outrageous crowd and jumped off to kill himself, and how John Broom fought to retrieve his unpleasant memories with Bolton and make him experience things that Bolton deserved. At the same time, Haynes’s surrealist tendencies are embodied in the film. There is an opportunity through which he gives his viewers enough time to distance themselves from his works to make room for their imagination and understanding. This makes his movies, and ultimately Poison, an unassuming and unimposing, yet a powerful tool for political socialization. Through Poison, we can see Haynes unconventional method of film-making as initially disconcerting and enigmatic. But ultimately his techniques are as unusual as the moral and social issues he tried to cover.

Jean Genet, on the other hand, whose works had inspired this film, is a celebrated French writer mostly associated with Cocteau, Sartre, Picasso and the existentialist movement. Considered as a deliberate outsider, he was in and out of prison due to series of arrest for theft, use of false papers, vagabondage and lewd acts. Genet is also very much explicit and provocative in his portrayal of homosexuality and delinquency that his works Our Lady of Flowers (1943), The Miracle of the Rose (1946) and The Thief’s Journal (1949), with which Poison was based, are considered autobiographical. He can be considered as a “been there, done that” kind of author, and that infuses distinctiveness on his works. In fact, one can associate Genet with the character of John Bloom in “Homo”—a habitual thief and criminal. Both of their lives can be summarized by a line said by John in the movie: “Prison life is not new to me. I’d live in them all my life. In submitting to prison life, embracing it, I could reject the world that had rejected me.” And that’s how Genet viewed himself, a rejection of the society, experiencing an exile from it, yet such action was done on purpose, deliberately. It is in this process of distanciation that he got to see the societal order that bounds most of the people, and makes sense to it. As in Poison, most of the characters are bound by the order, like the townspeople that rejected Richie and Dr. Graves, without realizing the reason as to why they do so.

Poison, thus, with its out of the usual run of themes and techniques, is a result of the interplay between Haynes’s nonconforming cinematography and Genet’s profound social and moral exposure. It is in this combination that the film unraveled the manner by which power and transgression in a society can shake its deeply rooted foundations. Power relations in a family can be carried, though sometimes reversed, out in the community, and such will forever be under the approval of everyone. Transgression, therefore, is defined in relation to what the society perceives as wrong, and, in their judgment, SHOULD BE severely punished. Poison also dealt with the peculiar side of human sexuality and its consequences. As the film had shown, it may lead to societal rejection, and can even be detrimental and fatal to others. Disloyalty also dictated the course of the “Hero”, that I get a sense of the fact that if not for his mother’s doings, Richie wouldn’t be able to commit patricide. Consequently, the real murderer might also be violence, domination. Perception also played a huge role in “Horror”, as it is in real life. “Why do they matter?” Nancy had asked. Indeed, it is the perception of the people that rejected and ultimately drove Dr. Graves to his threshold. Power, transgression, disloyalty, violence, perception—all of these can drive someone into a counterfeit life that will haunt us for the rest of our lives. Just like in “Homo”, John sees two correctional institutions as different from one another: one as a place where he can live a happy life with his mate, another as place full of charade and twisted beliefs that corrupted him into doing something grave. With that, Posion can be considered as an accurate reflection of the inaccuracy of life in general—sometimes out of sequence, out of line, stifling, disturbing, and more often than not not making any sense to us. But all it takes is a step back for us to realize its deeper meaning.



G. Benatar, “Film Flap: NEA Takes ‘Poison’”, Entertainment Weekly, Issue 61, April 1991.

M. Bullock, “Treasures of the earth and screen: Todd Haynes’s film Velvet Goldmine (A Critical Essay”, Discourse, September 2002.

B. Ruby Rich, “New Queer Cinema”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 2, Issue 5, September 1992.

Poison is a film that can provide viewers a taste of a different type of movie. It is the first feature film of Director Todd Haynes, considered to be the leader of the New Queer Cinema Movement. Released in 1991, it presents three different stories: the stories of a young boy who killed his father, a doctor who turned into a contagious monster after a laboratory accident and a gay prisoner’s admiration towards another prisoner. This movie is inspired by the works of French writer Jean Genet. It received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) that enabled the director to take the movie in his preferred path without worrying about commercial studios interests. Aside from this, the movie received the Grand Jury Award in the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

However, not everyone is in favour with the supports and acknowledgements that the film got. Some people argued that it is not right for the NEA to grant funding to a film that is pornographic and have the potential of corrupting the mind of its viewers. There were even cases of movie goers walking out from the theatre because they cannot stand the ‘indecent’ scenes in the film. And these kinds of reactions might not be surprising. The movie was released at the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic. The fear of everyone to the disease causes some conservative beliefs to be reinforced and some modern ideas to be reconsidered. Aside from these, the film offered compelling stories about social injustice, gender stereotypes and most importantly, morality.

According to the teachings of Hobbes, morality is relative. Different people might be correct in their beliefs for beliefs are based on each one’s interpretation of things. What might be good for someone might be bad for you. So in order for people to co-exist, there should be a moral agreement amongst them. And this agreement is what we know today as laws. These written or sometimes, unwritten laws have the capability to restrict human action. For once agreement is reached, everyone is compelled to follow no matter how unjust or unreasonable this might be for someone.

And some of the consequences of these agreed-upon laws were presented in this film. In ‘Hero’, the story of Richard Beacon was shown. He is a young boy who killed his father after he saw him beating his mother. According to his mother, after the incident the boy went out of the window and just disappeared. In the ‘documentary’, the truth about what happened was investigated by interviewing the neighbors, teachers and schoolmates of the boy. From their testimonials, we can see how they view a young boy like him. Their views about Richard Beacon were influenced by how the society thinks a young boy should behave. They pilloried him as a queer boy for he has done something wrong and behaved immorally.

The next story ‘Horror’ on the other hand is about Dr. Thomas Graves who, ever since he’s a child, possessed the hunger for scientific knowledge. He is a hormone specialist highly interested in finding the hormones that causes sex drives. But due to a distraction (Dr. Nancy Olsen) in his laboratory, he accidentally drank the solution on human sex drive that he was working on. This caused him to have a contagious disease that caused many people to die. This story is clearly a representation of the AIDS epidemic during that time. If we are to look at it closely, the treatment that Dr.Graves experienced represents a kind of punishment to a person who goes out of the boundaries set by the moral agreement. Because he dared to explore a part of humanity that is in some way a ‘taboo’ that led to the spread of a deadly disease, he was treated like a criminal and a pest.

‘Homo’ the third story focuses on John Broom desire for John Bolton – a friend from the juvenile prison. This story is different from the other first two stories because it is set in a different community – a jail. The prisoners are people who already crossed the boundary and so the same moral standards of them may be different. It is like a smaller bounder society outside the bigger society. In this place, it is accepted for men to sleep with other men but to love another man is unacceptable and immoral. This is one of their unwritten rules. And what is the punishment for crossing the line? It is stigma.

From these stories, we can indeed see the consequences of the moral standards we abide for the people who cross the boundaries voluntarily or involuntarily. And through the different techniques and styles used in this film, it was able to communicate all these messages in an effective way. The use of mockumentary in Hero allowed the viewers to see and evaluate how people judge other people base on what they believe is decent. In the Horror film, the use of the B-movie style with all the exaggerated acting, bad make-ups and low quality set-ups, shows how people exaggerate the issue of AIDS and maltreat the victims of such disease. And lastly, in the third story Homo, darker colors and shadows was used inside the prison while brighter colors was used in the flashbacks to highlight the difference of Broom’s fantasy and reality.

And lastly, it is worthwhile to look at the writer Jean Genet and how his experiences translated in the stories showed in the film. As we know, Genet spent many of his years inside European prisons. So we can say that in those periods of his life, he was outside the bounded society. He went outside the boundary and he was punished for it. But it seems that these experiences ‘outside’ enabled him to see the flaws of the existing moral standards of our society. He was able to see how the current state of the human society marginalized or sometimes maltreat queer individuals or groups.

This film, ‘Poison’ may at first looks like another offensive scandalous gay film. But as we have seen, the film communicates various societal issues like morality. And it also encourages the viewers not to be jailed in one perspective alone but to explore other outlooks to further understand things. This is the message the ‘Poison’ communicated to me. And I hope you got the same messages too