Sunday, 6 July 2014

From Fargo to Byzantium

Both No Country for Old Men and the recent adaptation of Fargo feature a character who is, we might say, an implacable agent of Death. They travel in one undeviating direction and leave bodies in their wake. Yet both men, Malvo in Fargo and Chigurh in No Country, are strange attractors. We enjoy their time on screen. We don't find them repulsive or creepy. We don't simply want them eliminated as soon as possible.  Malvo has something of the charm and mandarin politeness sometimes ascribed to the devil. Chigurh seems irresistible both in his trajectory and in terms of his seduction of the viewer. We are drawn to him despite ourselves, or at least forgoe any kind of ethical judgement.

Why is this? The quick and not inaccurate first reply might be that we invest in characters who drive the narrative. When the hapless Lester comes into contact with Malvo, this is the chance conjugation that activates the story proper, and thence does the story follow Malvo like a detective following a lead.Malvo and Chigurh are force fields which disrupt the repetitions of the everyday so that something happens. And as a viewer we want events, so we go with the narrative prime movers. Something similar is true of Othello, whereby we're shoehorned into a kind of complicity with Iago at the price of our ethical judgement.We're made into daemonic accomplices and voyeurs of choreographed misfortune. 

The second response is both Malvo and Chigurh are not quite of the same world as the other characters. Or rather, and it amounts to the same thing, they aren't quite of the same genre. When, in No Country, The bewilded storekeeper is asked to toss a coin - unwittingly deciding whether he will live or die -  Chigurh becomes the shadow of Fate itself, or a cipher for the  arbitrary ambush of death that awaits us all. It’s as if - like in Greek mythology, where the Gods assume human form - something metaphysical shines through the fabric of the everyday world and breaks or interrupts that world from the outside. And because we are deprived of any biographical or psychological detail, they - Chigurh and Malvo- stand before us as abstract and pure as a command. In short, we can afford to like them because they verge on the allegorical. Like all allegorical figures, they point towards another level of existence from which we are separated by habit, by everyday life. 

Both in narrative and Symbolic terms, then, they have the same effect: They derail or disrupt the Everyday.  On the symbolic level, they seem bigger than, or of a different substance from, the world in which they are placed. They manifest a meaning, a value, a principle that the Everyday world cannot accomodate. On the narrative level, they make something happen and that something suspends the rules of normalcy.  Lester is an insurance salesman, an employment which, as much as "Accountant," is in almost every fictional world a by-word for the humdrum and the put-up-on Mr Average, a soul reconditioned and made quietly sad by the rhythms of the 9 to 5. Malvo is the force that breaks open the humdrum and releases a a different Lester.

Everyday life is typically buttoned to the normalcy of two (related) things which are always sacrosanct: a) the couple and b) the family. A is of course the nucleus of B. Anything which injures these two things is marked as Evil, and can unleash the most fearful retributive violence. Indeed, some films are almost entirely given over to such retribution, with legions of casualities on the way, and the family injury serving as little more than a pretext for this cathartic violence.Such retributive violence is often meted out against a killer designated as Evil or Creepy. And it might be worh pausing to consider why neither Malvo nor Chigurh are so represented. With the creepy killer there is typically an emphasis on their repulsive physicality  - a deformity, a lubricious mouth, a bulging eyes. Both Malvo and Chigurh are handsome. 'Creepy' killers are invariably castrated, defective beings. Their violence is a failed attempt to redress some more basic impotence or exclusion. With  Malvo and Chigurh their murderousness is almost an indication of the force that marries them to their purspose, like the flattened fence left by a tornado. What attracts us is their self-possesion, their ability to follow only their own rule. They do not deviate, they always return to their path. They are supremely free, in the sense of unbound to any social or ethical code, but free with the force of necessity. 
Malvo and Chigurh. are 'lone' without been 'loners'. And whereas the 'loner' serial killer is a reject, an item of trash discarded by the community, returning in mutant form, the Lone Agent (as we might call them), by contrast, was never part of the community in the first place. They are visitors, figures from another land, emissaries from Elsewhere. Where the creepy killer is pathetically parasitic on the society they attack, the Lone agent needs no one else. Their solitude is elective, an original state of nature. Whereas the 'creepy' killer is identified with sickness, the Lone Agent has a kind of vitality, an irrepressible resolve. 
The curious thing about Fargo is that we do not long for the return of the everyday. It's suspension is part of what attracts us to Malvo. The Everyday, the world of work and domesticity, is in Fargo never really that desirable a space. It is often reduced to parody by the benign, mild-mannered idiom of the characters themselves, the "Minneasota nice", an idiom which is also a restrictively sanguine and cosy world-view, unable to absorb or utter any trauma or radical Event. At the end of the series we see the detective Molly and her postman husband curled on the settee watching Deal or No Deal, where the element of chance in the latter is a like kitsch mirror of the more radical and terrifying Chance that has driven the narrative, the role of the dice on the table of the earth that infects our existence from the off. But finally, it stands before us as an image of the homeostasis of domestic life. And we long for a Malvo to set things in motion once again, we are sat waiting for the storm clouds and the rumble in the sky to fill the vacume.

The violence of our two Lone Agents is marked less as either Good nor Evil and more a principle of nature, a gale from the outside. We might also think of the ominous close of the Coen Brothers' re-telling of Job, A Serious Man, where, after fruitlessly seeking answers from a succession of sophistical and ineffectual Rabbis, there appears on the horizon, in the form of a tornado, what seems like the annihilating vacuume of god's implacable, and inexplainable force. The publicity poster for No Country for Old Men would seem to position Chigurh as something like that ominous dark weather. 

"That is no country for old men" begins Yeats's Sailing to Byzantium. With That he removes himself, and us, from the mortal country (This would place us among our fellow citizens), he points at it from another shore. His fidelity is to another place, a Byzantium. The image of such a place casts light and shadow over the actually existing world and reveals its imperfections. To remove ourself from this world - so it becomes a That rather than a This - doubtless always presupposes an such an Elsewhere, from which we travel again to our own country and find it lacking. And perhaps the reason why we find Malvo and Chigurh so attractive is that their destructiveness, which warps and destroys the socio-symbolic community, open up a space which is also an exit route to such an elsewhere.