If John Ford had ever made a rock and roll road picture, it would probably have looked a lot like Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, from 1971 — which is a crude way of trying to evoke Hellman's unique blend of formal mastery and eccentric invention.

Hellman was one of the directors who re-invented American movies in the Sixties, applying a deep understanding of film history and film technique to new subjects and attitudes.  Unlike a number of the other rebels of his generation, Hellman never became a mainstream commercial director.  His highest profile film, Two-Lane Blacktop, became an instant cult classic and remains one to this day, considered one of the seminal works of Seventies cinema, but the studio distributing it refused to promote it and it did not make money.

Hellman has made a number of highly-regarded independent features since then, but there was a twenty year gap between the last of them and his new feature Road To Nowhere, which was released in 2010 on the festival circuit and has been hailed as Hellman's return to the height of his powers.  It has been theatrically released in France and is about to get a limited theatrical release in the U. S.

It's an extraordinary film — the first feature shot on the Canon 5D, essentially a still camera with breathtaking HD video capabilities, in locations all over the world, but mostly in North Carolina, and starring the stunning Shannyn
Sossamon, who here achieves the status of an authentic screen goddess.

It's a film about filmmaking, in which a real-life crime infects a movie being made about that crime.  The tale becomes a hall of mirrors, a complex intellectual puzzle that nevertheless delivers a shocking visceral jolt at the climax.  You won't, however, walk away from the film dwelling on its devious structural intricacies.  What you will remember instead, I suspect, is a film that delights and amazes from shot to shot, sequence to sequence, with the pure joy of making images, pictures that move, spaces that seduce you into emotional involvement with characters and situations with or without your conscious consent.

I think you will feel privileged to have spent a couple of hours with a cinematic master, someone who reminds us that it's still possible to make real cinema today.  This is a proposition that can only be argued on screens in darkened theaters, by an advocate who is both passionate and supremely skillful — by an artist like Monte Hellman.


[Warning — plot spoilers below . . .]

The first time I saw No Country For Old Men, in a theater when it originally came out, I found it extremely disturbing.  I couldn't quite identify a coherent theme or point of view, and part of me wished I hadn't seen it, because it was so harrowing.  It was much the same reaction I had the first time I saw Taxi Driver.

I suspected in both cases that I had seen a great film, an important film, and subsequent viewings have confirmed those suspicions.

The link between the films has to do with violence, of course, and the way it is presented, which is unusual.  It is not in either film overly aestheticized, and it's not used as an occasion for relief from suspense or moral outrage.  It is there to disturb and sicken, to create suspense rather than resolve it, to raise moral questions rather than answer them.

Many films, such as the classic Western, use violence to resolve a moral conflict, and I don't object to this, because the Western, like the fairytale, is a fable, a dream — and the violence found in both forms is read as fabulous, as it is in dreams.  I do object to most modern thrillers, in which violence is used for sensation — in which a villain is demonized only to arouse our blood lust, to make us rejoice in his demise, with no deeper moral issues involved.

On subsequent viewings it's become clear to me that No Country For Old Men makes a very deliberate and calculated break from the usual formula of a modern thriller, violating convention in a shocking way, and that this is the key to its meaning.  In the first two-thirds of the film, the story sets up a duel between a vicious psychopathic killer and a sort of anti-hero, likable but morally compromised.  Hovering in the wings is a moral presence, in the form of a thoroughly good local sheriff, who is not directly involved in the duel.

Then, without warning, at the beginning of the third act, the anti-hero is killed, and the decent man takes his place as the film's protagonist.  He never engages the psychopath — doesn't outwit or outfight him, doesn't bring him to justice.  He simply stands against him as a kind of witness.

Things get almost mystical towards the end.  It seems as if the mere presence of goodness can make the killer vanish into thin air — as if the fact of goodness diminishes him, makes him vulnerable, saps his power.  He “gets away” but seems to have lost his existential substance.

The universe of the film is very bleak, its violence incomprehensible and thus utterly terrifying.  We are not told that countervailing violence on the side of justice can defeat it, only that moral rectitude can stand in the way of such violence becoming the definition of human existence.  The film's denouement is purely spiritual, not practical.

It's not much, I guess, but it's so much more than the lies about violence told in most movies today, which do not prepare us for the world as it actually is and thus do not offer us any authentically hopeful or honorable way to live in it.


An amusing publicity shot of Ben Johnson and Mamie Van Doren, courtesy of Paula Vitaris, who hosts a great Ben Johnson fan site here.  Paula thinks the photo probably dates from 1949, when both actors were working at RKO, and observes that Mamie seems to be having a grand old time while Ben is wishing he was somewhere else.

Paula recently posted a series of screen caps and a review of Cherry 2000 on her site, to which I contributed some memories of my brief encounter with Johnson on the film.  You can find it here, under the date of 8 May.


John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic, never consummated his marriage, which was annulled after a few years.  He said his wife was “not as other women”, physically, and one biographer has speculated that Ruskin was put off by the sight of his wife’s pubic hair.  Knowing the female nude only through art, he might never have seen such a thing, and might have thought it was an anomaly.  His wife later remarried and had several children, so she must have been “as other women” in most respects.

The convention in most Western art, before the 20th Century, has been to present the female genitalia as a hairless mound of flesh without an orifice.  (The ancient Greeks, who found the depiction of female genitalia shocking, usually presented them draped, rather than denatured.)

One major convention in modern fashion photography is to present half-clad women who are almost revealing, threatening to reveal, but not quite revealing their genitalia, or nipples.

The photograph at the head of this post is from the notorious ad campaign for American Apparel, which made a splash by violating this convention.  It shows pubic hair, and other American Apparel ads have shown nipples.

I myself find this explicitness refreshing.  There’s tease involved — the ads don’t show everything — but they don’t fetishize the naughty bits.  Indeed, they celebrate them.  They also show women as whole beings, rather than as custodians of desirable but forbidden body parts.

Most fashion photography uses sex to sell clothes.  To me, the American Apparel ads use clothes to sell sex, which is often the real point of clothes, and seems a far healthier approach.

Rescuing the female body from commercialization and commodification is one of the great tasks that lie before our civilization.  The American Apparel ads can’t be said to contribute much to this task, but perhaps it can be said that they’re a modest step in the right direction.


It's never a good idea to rejoice over the death of another human
being, even the wickedest of human beings.  Wicked people want to infect
us with their inhumanity and blood lust, and if we succumb we give them
a kind of triumph.  I cried when I heard that Bin Laden was dead — it
took me right back to 9/11, when I watched the Twin Towers come down
from my terrace in New York — but his death doesn't bring closure or
reparation, just a kind of crude emotional release.

The world is a better place without Bin Laden, and he summoned his own
death.  He had it coming — but we've all got it coming.  Now is a time
to rejoice over the courage of the special forces who risked their
lives to put an end to Bin Laden's murderous career — but it's also a
time to pray for Bin Laden's immortal soul, and to meditate on the
mystery of evil, which his death has not put an end to.  It's a time to
resolve to be something different than he was.

Weep for the Bin Ladens of this world, in a way he could not weep for
those he killed.