So many words of so little consequence

 Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in "The Counselor"

Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in "The Counselor"

Lawyers need to have a way with words – even if they are not litigators. But lawyers don’t always have to be verbose. In fact, well-chosen words often serve them far better than verbiage. As the legal mind in director Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor,” Michael Fassbender exercises great diction thanks to screenwriter Cormac McCarthy. But his colleagues are the ones who can’t seem to stop talking and telling horrific cautionary tales of their dealings with Mexican drug lords.

The thing with the many cautionary tales laid out by these dabblers in high crime is that the tales do not deter anyone involved in their particular deal. Perhaps it’s because they have no plans to disrupt the deal. But they know well enough that someone else could have such plans. Their stories are proof that the consequences of molesting a multimillion-dollar drug shipment are grisly. Yet Fassbender and his partners, a comically reckless Javier Bardem and a comically restless Brad Pitt, are willing to take the chance that things could go off the rails just to have a little more money in the grand scheme of things – even though none of them appear to be missing life’s basic luxuries. They are of the breed for which enough is never enough.

It’s a fine and familiar premise. It’s just that there’s so much discussion about it – all obviously set up to allow the audience to recognize the horrors that transpire when the deal inevitably goes wrong. But the audience is never really connected to the characters, so instead of a grand impact, the conclusions seem hollow. Lamentable and disgusting, but hollow. The words were wasted on the audience just as the warnings were wasted on the characters.

[SPOILER ALERT] When Fassbender listens to the kingpin give what is supposed to be some kind of philosophical justification for his barbarity during a phone call, Fassbender stays on the line in the misguided hope that there’s a chance he’ll get his life back. But he might as well have hung up on the old windbag as soon as the meandering platitudes began to flow. We know from all the speeches that preceded it that no mercy will be shown. Fassbender, who heard all those speeches, knows too, but clearly hope springs eternal.

This aspect of “The Counselor” is a good contrast to the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece “No Country for Old Men,” based on another Cormac McCarthy story. The tensions in “No Country for Old Men” arise from seeing the assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in his Oscar-winning role) go about his cold, calculating business against a “hero” who truly reaches the audience (played winningly by Josh Brolin). Sure, Chigurh gives an explanation of his logic, but it’s brief and unwavering. We gain much more from the characterizations and the inherent suspense in the chase. So by the time the assassin pays a visit to the lovely, unfortunate widow (the solid Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald) at the end of the film, we are deeply moved by his inhumanity, his sheer unfairness to her, especially knowing that in his twisted mind he is the definition of fair. And the consequences don’t feel hollow at all. They feel meaningful.

Che: The extremes of compassion

 Gael Gabriel Garcia in "The Motorcycle Diaries"

Gael Gabriel Garcia in "The Motorcycle Diaries"

I was very touched by “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004). I thought it was lovely, and I was already fascinated by Che Guevara, as many people are. He has been greatly romanticized and even celebrated for his revolutionary spirit. The film shows the origins of the impetus for what would become his life’s crusade. And it’s remarkable (but should it be surprising?) that this man who started out as a great humanitarian – a doctor, a healer, touched by the plight of the oppressed, moved to severe action – should become what he fought to protect against. He became the tormentor, the torturer, the oppressor of those who opposed him. Although from what I understand, he and Fidel Castro had a falling out of sorts (I’m half-remembering from a PBS documentary that basically he lost favor in Castro’s eyes mainly due to Castro’s jealousy of his popularity, but I could be wrong about that.). So Castro sent him off to the place where he would meet his end.

"We can't resign ourselves to the status quo."

But as I recognize and, in fact, relish my fascination bordering on infatuation with this legendary figure, I can’t help but wonder why he and Castro are viewed so differently. Why was Che so revered and Castro so reviled? There may be a logical reason that I’ve missed, but I suspect it has much to do with appearances. Che was a very attractive man with passion and vision. His compassion and tolerance of people with views different from his own seems to have faded the deeper he and Castro got into their cause. I guess that’s just a hazard of the revolutionary model. The difficulty is ensuring the freedom of all people, even in a democracy, because in no system can there ever really be equality. Everyone can have the same opportunities, and even that is hard to come by because the playing field is rarely level for all. But there will always be the haves and the have-nots – or the haves and the have-less.

But we must try to improve things, mustn’t we? We can’t resign ourselves to the status quo. We must help people. Perhaps that is why Che is so revered, romanticized or celebrated – because he started from a place of compassion and was so committed to it that he forced change. He was a doer, not a watcher. A true, dare I say, pure, revolutionary. And it didn’t hurt that he was so easy on the eyes. We are suckers for good-looking people in all walks of life. Still, there’s something to be said for good intentions. The PBS documentary depicted Castro’s early involvement in overthrowing the Cuban government as being prompted mostly by political ambition. I think he is perceived as a power-hungry dictator, whereas Che remained a “man of the people” who did not seem to care for the trappings of power, politics and high society. At any rate, I feel like I was able to glimpse Che’s journey, his epiphany, through “The Motorcycle Diaries.” I’m glad he kept a journal for the screenwriters to follow. Filmmaking is a glorious medium.  

The nature of man ... and woman

 Nicole Kidman in "Dogville"

Nicole Kidman in "Dogville"

“Dogville” (2003) was difficult to watch, but not because of the plot. Sure, the plot was disturbing. The “heroine” comes to this small town during the Depression seemingly trying to escape gangsters from the larger town nearby. She’s beautiful and in trouble, so the town’s young man, Thomas Edison, rallies to her cause and asks the town to shelter her – in return for her services. She babysits, plays nursemaid and companion and does traditional labor in the town store, apple orchard and some other family businesses. There’s a honeymoon period of acceptance and genuine affection, but as the law keeps coming to the town to post wanted signs and reward notices, tensions and suspicions rise, and everyone begins taking liberties with her. Tom influences her to try to do more work for everyone for free to make her presence there worth the “risk.” Anyway, it all disintegrates into deplorable, depraved behavior (Arguably, it began that way.) on the part of the townspeople – to the point that she is shackled and treated more or less like a slave, raped by the men (except for Tom who believes he loves her) and reviled by the women. She tries to escape to no avail, but eventually they decide to call the gangsters to come take her away. The gangsters arrive, but it turns out that she’s not the one in danger. She apparently is some kind of benevolent creature (which explains why she accepted the way she had been treated) who believes in forgiveness and refuses to be like her father (the “mob boss” played by James Caan) who is all about fire and brimstone. So she and her dad have their philosophical discussion in the car. She insists that the townspeople are doing the best they can, that they are only human and should be forgiven. Her dad insists they are awful and should be destroyed.

So the question: Would she stay and continue to suffer at the hands of the townspeople, or would she go with her father to take her place as the judge of mankind? At first, she insists that she’s staying, but then something changes in her outlook – as she looks out on the people in the town. A friend asked me what changed her mind, and I couldn’t really say. But later I thought it might be because they treated her like she belonged there. I’m not sure what that means or if it makes any sense. It’s just what occurred to me. But whatever triggered it, she decided that the people of that town did not deserve to go on living, and she gave the word for her father’s henchmen – her henchmen now – to kill them all. And they did – men, women and children. She saved Tom for herself though. She shot him herself.

"People take advantage of other people all the time, especially when given free reign to do so. "

So what does it all mean? Lots of critics are pissed because they feel that director Lars von Trier hates America and is trying to make some kind of comment on American society – Smalltown, USA. But I don’t agree with that because what he depicted could happen anywhere. Man is man is man. Human nature is what it is, no matter where we are. Now I’m not saying that what he depicted would always happen, which may in fact be von Trier’s contention. There are good and decent people in the world just as there are weak people in the world, and what he depicted could happen. People take advantage of other people all the time, especially when given free reign to do so. It is a fragile society we live in, which is why societal laws are important – whether it’s the 10 Commandments or the Constitution. Obviously, it is up to man to enforce these laws. A piece of paper means nothing if we do not give it meaning. But everyone’s read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in which the rules of civilization are … blah, blah, blah. The point is that human nature is what it is but that we are thinking creatures, and we do not have to behave like animals. We can be kind and cruel. I do not know what von Trier’s intent was, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s really about what the viewer takes from the film.

It was obviously thought-provoking, and it was interesting in concept because it was shot entirely on a sound stage, very much like a play, but with no walls – just chalk outlines dividing the living spaces. The first 30 minutes or so, the camera movement made me nauseous (like in “The Blair Witch Project”), but then it was fine. It was three hours, which I’m glad I didn’t know going in. And sadly, it is one of those movies that almost require a second viewing to catch what you may have missed verbally, intellectually the first time around.

I give it high marks: not the best thing in the world, but a solid achievement. Granted, it is a dark, cynical vision of ourselves, but we are many things. The more telling aspect is how we are to judge ourselves and each other. God says not at all – that judgment is His domain. Is von Trier trying to put Nicole Kidman and James Caan into the role of God? Or is he just saying that death is what we deserve? These questions require more thought, which I think is great. Inspire thought. We always need help at being better than we are, even if it seems pointless. 

SCRIPT APPROVAL

It's a great thing to get on with one's life." 
 - Lottie in "Enchanted April"