Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Coen Brothers' Coin-Flip: amor fati or fait accompli ?

Last year's Academy Award for Best Picture went to the Coen Brothers' haunting film No Country for Old Men, based on the novel of the same name by (University of Tennessee alum) Cormac McCarthy. In one of the most important scenes-- which actually occurs twice--the film's murderous, mysterious, and thoroughly amoral antagonist, Anton Chigurh (Javier Barden), comes face-to-face with someone who we are led to believe will almost certainly not survive the encounter. But instead of killing his victim(s) straight away, Chigurh flips a coin and asks them to call it. Chigurh does not explain what the coin flip is meant to signify or determine, nor does he explain why his putative victims are "lucky" enough to be afforded this "chance." We (the audience) implicitly understand, however, that the result of the coin flip will be a life-or-death determination and that, as such, it is meant to signify... um... well...

What IS the coin flip meant to signify?

[Spoiler Alert: I will reveal semi-significant plot details in the following!]

In the first iteration of this coin-flip, which happens fairly early in the film and is really a character-establishing scene, Chigurh tests the fortitude of a boorish, maladroit, back-country gas station attendant with his coin. This scene is really one of the Coen brothers' finest-- Chigurh is as intense and determined as the gas station attendant is bumbling and hapless, producing the sort of uncomfortable contrast of emotional intensities in which one can't decide whether to laugh or cry at the spectacle of it. (The skill with which the Coens are able to produce these moments of uncomfortable, forced, nervous laughter in their audience is one of their greatest virtues as filmmakers.) Because we, the audience, don't yet understand Chigurh, we are allowed to believe that the first coin-flip is in good faith, that the wretched attendant has a real chance at a lucky call that will save his life. And, of course, this intuition is partly confirmed when the attendant does correctly call the flip and is spared.

If the film stopped there, or if the coin-flip weren't repeated later, I think that we would be led to belive that the character of Chigurh is attempting to impart the lesson of Nietzschean amor fati ("love of fate") to his target. After the attendant guesses correctly, Chigurh gives him the "lucky" coin, and then promptly chastises the attendant when he attempts to thoughtlessly stuff the coin in his pocket. The attendant, confused, asks where he "should" put the coin and Chigurh answers, cryptically:
"Anywhere not in your pocket. Or it'll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. Which it is."

So, on this first rendering of the coin-flip, we are permitted to indulge whatever pretense of a-morality we can muster. Here, Chigurh is merely the messenger and the executor of Fate, and the result of the coin-flip no more confirms the evil of his soul than it does the innocence of the attendant. The virtue lauded in this scene, such that it is, is only to be found in embracing (and loving) the non-knowledge with which we call "heads" or "tails" in a game of chance-- even and especially when we are ignorant of the stakes of the game.

However-- alas!-- there is another coin-flip at the end of the film, long after the audience has been permitted the luxury of making what seem like "justified" moral judgments about the characters. When Chigurh finally meets up with Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald)-- the wife of Chigurh's prey throughout the film and, in terms of the narrative, a total "innocent"-- we know by this time that Chigurh will no doubt kill her. But the Coens/McCarthy reproduce the coin-flip exchange again here... only this time, we know in advance that neither we nor Carla Jean can possibly "love" the "fate" that will soon be confirmed. Like the gas station attendant before her, Carla Jean wants to know the stakes of the game, which Chigurh refuses her, but unlike the gas station attendant, she refuses to play. Not only does she refuse to call the coin, but she refuses the very pretense of the flip, saying to Chigurh: "The coin don't have no say. It's just you."

To which Chigurh replies:"I got here the same way the coin did."

And so, it seems, we have moved from a story of amor fati to a story of fait accompli. The coin, which in the earlier scene seemed to represent a kind of subject-less agency, is now no more than a ruse, a distraction, an ornament. It determines nothing and it signifies nothing. Just like real people.

In the end, No Country for Old Men is a tale about the evils we do not, and can not, understand. In fact, we cannot even understand them enough to know whether or not they are, really, "evils." The west Texas country is an unforgiving, uncaring, and an unaffected place-- least of all forgiving of, caring for or affected by the suffering of we random individuals. The film and novel No Country for Old Men asks us to consider what might be if we encountered a human being just like the west Texas country. What would become of our ultimately makeshift and incomplete notions of morality then? Can we love that fate? Or, as the penultimate scene of the film suggests, is our response-ability to that-which-will-be, ultimately, beside the point?

If, in the end, we all "got here the same way the coin did," does that mean that there is no difference between ourselves and the coin? I wonder...


John said...

I have not seen this film but your commentary raises interesting questions about chance and fate, or put another way contingency and necessity. This conception of the world as subject in some degree to the probability of outcomes is present in the "Manichean heresy", in which the opposed principles of good and evil are in a conflict that offers no resolution in advance. Is the lesson of the film that all is contingency? I cannot solve the problem posed by the film either.

Booga Face said...

But is this movie meant to be read allegorically, as you have read it?

Signifier -- signified. That's the structure of an allegory, but the movie decenters that structure, but it is a decentering that goes nowhere.

The "signified" of the coin flip is the coin flipper himself -- i.e., the "signifier" in all "his" god-like power, a power that he gains only by exercising it mercilessly, i.e., by signifying, which is to say, by killing.

And this basic logic, which is the core of the plot, is why this movie (which is "about" a border town in the early 1980s) has not a single Latino/a speak. Because once you have the "other" (small o) speak, then you can't personify good and evil -- i.e., the Other (big O), the transcendental signified. The logic of this movie depends upon that silencing.

This logic is more apparent when you compare No Country for Old Men to John Sayles' Lone Star.

In other words, Cormick McCarty is a closet racist to the core. The Cohen Brothers deserve high praises for taking a mediocre novel (which I have read, *yawn*) and turning it into something interesting, but the fact that this movie (which is not as good as many of the Cohen' bros others) got so much acclaim speaks volumes about how racism continues to function in American ideology.

Chet said...

I think the commentary on this post is hilarious!!! No offense to the intentions of the commenters. I'd love to say something about the post myself (in traffic on Brooke and Greene--what was I thinking leaving NYC now, on Friday at rush hour!!!).

That line of Chigurh's at the end is terribly poetic. And I appreciate you pointing out that it is a repetition of a moment at the begining of the film. Moreover I think you are quote right that there is some great significance to this. It is interesting the way that we are told at least two times that Chigurj follows a kind of law. The question is, what is that law? Iit seems to be that he kills whoever crosses his path and causes him some grief. But the killing is not really the significant part. This is ironic because it plays such a large role in the limited diegetic mode of the film (namely, as spectacle). In one telling elision from the novel, we learn that the opening scene, where Chigurh was caught by a policeman, was actually planned by Chigurh. That he wanted to know if, once in the hands of the authorities, he could escape.
Back to the significance of the killing: it is about making killing into a purely instrumental act. About reducing human personhood to pure objecthood.
As for the coin. Hmmm. Well traffic is moving. More later.

DOCTOR J said...

booga face: what is the alternative to reading the film allegorically? reading it "literally"? or not "reading" (interpreting) it at all?

I would say that of course the film is meant to be read allegorically. The scnes I am discussing here are centered on a coin-flip-- a well-worn archetype of "deciding something meaningful"-- and they are positioned at points in the narrative where there should be "significant" developments.

Even if the significance of the coin-flip is "decentering"-- even if it multivalent, or ambiguous, or undecidable-- that is hardly the same as saying that it does not signify (as you yourself confirm when you identify the "signified" of the coin-flip as "the coin-flipper himself").

Booga Face said...

In response to Chet, do you really think that the killing is not the significant part? Come on. There would be no movie without it. And there would be no Chiguhr without it. And as an audience, we know the result of the coin flip in advance -- we know there will be violence, because that is what we came to see. The first coin flip wouldn't mean anything if we hadn't already seen him kill. And the second coin flip wouldn't mean anything if we hadn't seen him not kill.(What if the coin flip always ended up heads... as it does in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead? That's more interesting.) So, the killing is the point of the movie -- the Cohen brothers as movie directors are (metaphorically speaking) impish Chiguhrs, getting to decide who lives and dies based on the artificial logic of the plot.

And we came to see this movie why? To gain some insight into ethical dilemmas or the limits of the human? I don't think so. Which leads me to doctor j's question about reading. Philosophers always read literature allegorically, because they read literature for the sake of pedagogically illustrating philosophal points they've already derived by non-literary means. The story is the "image" of the concept (as Deleuze points out in his book on film.) Often, this gets problematic, because the philosopher knows the meaning he needs to have BEFORE he reads the story -- knows the signified already, and just needs to find a signifier that will fit. In allegorical reading, X always "really" means Y, and not just simply X. This is the kind of hermeneutics we learned as children reading Aesop fables about grasshoppers and wolves. (If it sounds like I'm suggesting that philosophers don't really know how to read... sorry...)

But is there an alternative? Yes, there is the metonymic strategy of reading, in which the reader traces contexts, associations, connotations, threads of meaning, excluded terms, etc. Hitchcock is the master of metonymy, giving us a "cool" object whose coolness or "significance" is learned through its relatability to an endless signifying chain of other cool objects. For instance, in most of his movies, he has some important object, what Hitchock calls the MacGuffin, the object that moves around from character to character and by moving around, it moves the plot forward, even though its meaning is never revealed. Of course, Hitchcock jokes, it's meaning is never revealed because it has none.

This is not to say that the MacGuffin has no significance, just no allegorical meaning. Rather it's significance comes from a reference to some context outside the movie -- a context that we desire to see, hoping it will explain the mystery, but which we never fully get. What is the context of No Country that gives it meaning?

And that's why I asked why this movie about a Texas border town has not a single Latino/a who speaks. This is not a movie about west Texas, as you say. It's a movie about the border between Texas and Mexico. We see Mexicans killing at the beginning (or rather, we see the effects of that violence, not the act itself), and we see some die in the middle, and we don't see them at all at the end (why not?). We even cross the border twice. If I remember correctly, the money is temporaily hid below the "bridge" -- i.e., exactly on the border. So instead of speaking Mexicans, we are given the psychopath Chigurh, who is indeterminately foreign, not at all a representative of "west Texas"(and his strange foreignness is perhaps more explicit in the novel). So, to read the film metonyically (that is to say, critically), we have to ask why, if the movie opens with the scene of a Mexican/U.S. gang war over drug money, the personification of violence is a coin flipping psycho.

To repeat my earlier conclusion, No Country for Old Men is a crap movie. The best scene in the movie is the scene the Cohen bros added. Otherwise, until the very end, the movie follows the book closely. The scene I'm referring to is near the end in the restaurant when the Sheriff is talking with his deputy about the case, and for a few seconds, he is suddenly no longer talking to his deputy but directly to us, the audience... and here the Sheriff seems to be laughing at us for watching this shit.