The Coen Brothers’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, from the excellent Cormac McCarthy novel about a psycho serial killer loose in today’s rural Texas, proved as good as its reputation out of Cannes. I took time away from filmgoing to attend the Toronto press conference, but with trepidation. Joel and Ethan Coen are probably the most frustrating interviewees of all major filmmakers, with their mumblings, hesitations, fragmented answers, and general disinclination to respond. Are they shy? Are they being coy? Whatever the reason, the Coens speaking about their movies usually makes for the thinnest of copy. And it didn’t start promisingly in Toronto. A reporter quoted David Cronenberg on how directors need to take responsibility for the way violence is used in their films. He then asked the Coens to comment.
“Hmmm,” they muttered, looking nervously at each other. “That David Cronenberg is a real conversation stopper.” Joel finally answered. “No Country for Old Men is a very violent film from a very violent novel. It’s not like we have opinions in general about violence in movies.”
Didn’t think they would. “Sorry for an intellectual question,” I began. “The McCarthy novel, with its over-the-top bloodbaths, reads much like Dashiell Hammett; it’s similar to his blood-simple novel, Red Harvest. I wonder whether you thought of Hammett while directing, or while talking to McCarthy.”
“We met McCarthy on the set,” said Joel. “He hadn’t read Hammett, but he told us that he liked our movie Miller’s Crossing, which was our ripoff of Hammett, both RedHarvest and The Glass Key. We’ve read Hammett and like him, and maybe he’s important for our thinking in general, but not for this movie.”
Not a bad answer from the Coens!
It was a very fine year at Toronto for Boston independent filmmakers past and present. The Arlington-based John Gianvito, a film-production professor at Emerson College, found himself as the cover story for the smart, respected Canadian magazine Cinema Scope. PROFIT MOTIVE AND THE WHISPERING WIND was introduced at the festival by a learned programmer as “a major work that people will discuss for years to come.” Gianvito’s 58-minute, no-dialogue experimental documentary — pensive and beautiful — is a recovered history of American activism through three centuries. He locates, and photographs, the oft-hidden gravestone markings across the USA of those who jolted our country leftward: feminists, abolitionists, labor agitators. “I was making this film looking for hope and inspiration,” he told the Toronto audience. “Lots of the people buried in these graves we don’t know. But because of them, we have the eight-hour work day, child-labor laws, integration.”
Former Bostonian Nina Davenport, who now resides in New York, showed her droll, entertaining, black-comedy documentary OPERATION: FILMMAKER. Liev Schreiber saw Baghdad news footage of Muthana Mohmed, an Iraqi college student mourning the bombing of his film school. Schreiber did a nice turn and brought the agonized kid to the Czech Republic: he’d work behind the scene on a feature the American actor was directing. Davenport filmed as this sanctified Shia turned out to be a slacker and a con man with a love for the bourgeois life — and George Bush, too. Not since Luis Buñuel have we had such a wonderful joke on do-gooder liberalism. Davenport herself quickly became one of Muthana’s marks.