Beauty, the Counselor, and Fuck You

This is from a response I had to a facebook commenter, who in response to the new Ridley Scott, Cormac McCarthy film said that they didn’t want to feel bad watching movies anymore, and wanted instead to have beauty and majesty in their films(as if there wasn’t that in The Counselor). He said he wanted movies with more heart.

Does a drone strike on a bunch of kids in Pakistan have a heart?  Does crashing the world economy for a higher profit number in that quarter make you feel better about life?  It’s a pile of bullshit that we’ve gotten so soft as a society that we can wage war on the entire world, but all of our art has to make us feel great about our lives.  We seem to want militarized movies that are glossed over affirmations of the goodness of our intentions and the value of the decisions we make to sacrifice the lives of others.

Right now the Counselor has about a 34% aggregate score from Critics(22% from “top critics) on Rottentomatoes.  By comparison that safe-made-up white-hope-fucking-lie of a movie Captain Phillips has 94% approval amongst critics.  It’s a shame The Counselor is getting lambasted by critics, because it’s the kind of movie I would like to see more from Hollywood:  Smart star studded insane fests that actually move the ball intellectually.  I kinda dig Brad Pitt’s pretty face avataring meditations on life and death, and the choices we make in between.  You know no matter what kind of movie you make, if you have certain stars in it, certain directors on it, it will have a platform–I would like to see more glorious audacious messes of movies–but instead everytime a movie like this is made, critics join hands all together to shout it down, audiences abandon them, and the message loudly sent is “sit back down in your chair Ridley, give us ten more gladiator movies, and shut the fuck up.  Which I get the need for those type of movies too.  But take something like the Avengers, which is a safe, take no chances, corporate logo movie wrapped around tried and true methods of never challenging anything…I mean if you’re going to be that kind of movie–why not have action set pieces that are actual works of art and whose planning and architecture challenge what we thought was possible?  Ah yeah, because Team Buffy knows about as much about direction action as a brick of driftwood.  I dunno.  And those are the type of movies that get rewarded by critics.

The last ten best pictures from the Oscars have been: Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, Million Dollar Baby , Crash The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, the King’s Speech, The Artist, and fucking Argo(actual title). There is not a single one of these films, which were all critically adored,that have even half of the intelligence of the Counselor or take even a fraction of the chances.  Even though No Country for Old Men was based on Cormac McCarthy–this IS Cormac McCarthy. No Country for Old Men was the safe commodified way that we prefer to deal with genius.  To an extent so was The Road.  Both of those were imitations of work that was built for a different medium.

They were at best approximations of why McCarthy is one of the last truly great American authors of the William Faulkner vintage.  And why something like Blood Meridian is one of the Great American Novels ever written.  The Counselor captures the ugliness, the complexity, and the beauty of McCarthy’s mind more than No Country ever got close to doing.  And against the rest of those films–which I know, isn’t saying much, looks like the best film ever made.

Which isn’t to say it is the best film ever made, or even in the discussion.  But the for real best films ever made aren’t even in the discussion anymore. But that’s not what I’m talking about really.  What I’m talking about is what we want vs. what we need.  And how what we want, and what is given to us–is why you have a country where about 20-25 percent of the country are irredeemably brainwashed idiots of a scale that in a more aware society, would result in the complete re-classification of just what madness actually is.  You know after the big government shutdown standoff show, there were about 12 percent of this country who thought that “Obamacare” had been repealed?  The numbers of people who not only don’t want to think, but increasingly lack the tools TO think are on the up and up.  And it’s not kids.  It’s the establishment adults who rode in on a revolution and once got there, pulled the ladder up after themselves.  The art we have now, like the government we have now, is not about advancement and challenge–it is about holding on to what you have, and the fetishism of entrenched power.  And that filters down.  There is a seperation of words and ideas that exists now–I don’t know when it started.  Was it when Clinton said that he didn’t know what the definition of is, is?  But it followed through to the Bush Administration and the imprisonment of meaning as words became the meaningless sounds we used to distract from actions.  The backlash to a film like the Counselor is emblematic of the way that we have internalized this war on thinking.  We no longer have intellectuals.  We have pundits.

This mass idiocy, and the embrace of mediocre luke warm academy-bait is part and parcel a condemnation of the critical apparatuses that exist within the upper levels of our culture. The role of the critic is to reward advancement and punish stagnation.  Not to chase web hits by how extreme you can make your opinion when it is safe to do so.  There is no risk for a critic in this groupthink atmosphere to lambast a movie like the Counselor.  Just like there wasn’t risk when critics piled on Blade Runner in the 80s.  But in neither instance was it the correct thing to do.  And if that sounds like I’m saying you aren’t entitled to your opinion, I think there is a difference between having an opinion, and as a critic expressing a view which is destructive toward the advancement of art and the taking of chances.  There is a difference between an honest critical opinion, and the notion that you can impose the rubric of a set of rules that the film doesn’t even adhere to, and then fail it based upon that false library.  I’ve seen Counselor called boring, a thriller with few thrills, so on and so forth.  Which is a lazy opinion.  Oh shit, the Counselor isn’t Zero Dark Thirty?  Does it ask to be?  Is there anything within the film that says “we want this film to be primarily about you being thrilled”?.  Because I would argue there is not.  In fact, the film goes out of its way to make this extremely clear.  In another film Michael Fassbender can go all Liam Neeson and save the day–but that is never an option that is on the table.  It is never beyond the shadow of a doubt that these guys will be caught, and they will experience horror.  The film is about you seeing an elaborate choreographed escape.  It’s about now.  It’s about how in America we are so beyond fucked, that the reality we live in now, is about accepting the fucked-edness of our situation.  There were choices made 50 years ago, and this is where we are now.  There are repercussions and consequences to decisions.  Realities construct themselves around the decisions that are made, and you don’t get to skip around those realities just because you decided you can not accept that reality.  The Counselor is fucking about us, you idiots.  Who do you think the Counselor is for?  Fucking Michael Fassbender?  It’s for you, you idiots.  It’s for us.  It is about accepting and understanding the horror we have created and the fall which we are parading through.

—–

The steaming pile of “meh” that is Pacific Rim has a higher average critic score than this movie.  The bulk of film critics operating today are establishment bloggers who perpetuate a system of safe dumb movies that get worse every year.  Who would rather participate in a culture of fanboyism than act like for real adults that have sincere thoughts upon the questions art actually raises.

Critics would rather drool over Cuaron and James Cameron’s gizmos than they would actually really have something to say.  America doesn’t want to think anymore.  We think criticism is when you write an episode recap to the Breaking Bad series finale.  We(both critics and audiences) don’t want to be made to feel anything but better about ourselves, because we are in denial about the core evils that our luxury and privilege perpetuate upon the world around us.

I mean oh shit, a movie made you feel bad.  Or it just spent its time talking about shit, rather than blowing it up.  Because I mean, it’s not like we should be pumping our breaks culturally right now and talking anymore.  Team Explosion Fuck yeah.  We’re spying on everyone, don’t talk about it though, full speed ahead.  But yeah.  Go try and stick to happy fun time movies, as if that’s EVEN what is beautiful.  Fake manufactured happiness is not beauty.  That’s like saying plastic surgery is beauty just because that new nose looks perfect and you don’t have to think about the way flesh and bone have been broken and mutilated to get there.  Beauty is sublime.  In its truest state it is a kind of fear.  It’s said when you are in the presence of real beauty you get weak in the knees.  That is a kind of terror.  Beauty is not a US Vogue cover of an airbrushed celebrity trying to sell you beauty products.  That is the affectation of beauty.  The nostalgia for beauty.  It is not beauty itself.  They couldn’t put real beauty on a magazine cover at the checkout stand where you buy your groceries.  If you saw real beauty there, you would drop your groceries and run screaming into the night never to be heard from again.

To see beauty is to see all of the ways in which we are hopelessly adrift from it.  Beauty is a kind of contrast.  Beauty comes from our lack of it.  Beauty is about the fleeting moment that is already past you as soon as you perceive it, and how we will all die.  The notion that you could ever have beauty without misery is completely delusional.  Beauty comes from misery.  It comes from darkness.  It comes from the nature of life to be relentless in its pursuit to fucking kill you.  If you feel better about yourself or the world after you’ve seen beauty–you haven’t seen beauty.

Do you know what hell is?  Do you know why hell is?  The central core horror of hell is that one has been removed from the divine and will never again behold the perfection that they have already seen.  There is no angel that understands the nature of God and the divine, and what beauty is than Lucifer.  Hell is the mind pealing prison of the after affects of that conception.  Lucifer beheld beauty so closely that he became it for a split second, and then thought to replace it with his singular ego–and the fall and hell, are the ramifications of that loss.  That is the primordial archetype within our culture on which the conception of beauty rests.  The truth of all of our words and ideas at their purest state would terrify you.

So yeah…fuck everybody.

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13 comments
  1. Charles Ferguson said:

    Thank you for this. (sorry I don’t know your name) how do you walk the divide (or do you?) between “art should mean something” to “art should mean what it means to me”? Most opinion pieces like this one read like the second to me but yours seems more the first. I’m interested how you handle that?
    Cheers

  2. I think it’s because when I speak about art, I believe in a close textual reading, so when I say something about a piece of art, it isn’t based upon my feelings, it’s based upon the rules established within the work itself, and it’s through that lens. This of course has a lot of my opinions about society and everything–but most of my comic criticism, for instance, I make an effort to have everything I say directly backed up or related to what is on the page. I don’t really care about what my feelings are about a particular work, and what it means just to me. I mean such that I do, it’s not something I’m going to spend thousands of words writing about it. It’s evident by the amount of time I’m spending critically anyways, how I feel about things. It doesn’t need explanation.

    I also try not to frame things in a “you should buy this” kind of way, because I think that’s basically poison.

    I dunno, my degree is in English, so I cut my teeth reading a lot of real criticism on art, and I loved that stuff. I pretty much try and apply those principles to any thing I have to say about art, just because it’s the stuff I like to read. I like to read things and learn information. I don’t like to read them and then just decide whether I like or don’t like the reviewer as a person.

    ~Sarah

  3. T.O. said:

    I really enjoyed your piece, agree with much of your premise and stance, and it encouraged me to follow my impulse to see this movie for myself. I was already mostly there, since Scott’s movies always look good if they don’t actually work, Fassbinder is a fascinating quantity I’m still trying to assess, and McCarthy is…Cormac McCarthy. I chose to accept Diaz and Pitt as par for the film financing course, and hope they didn’t ruin the movie.

    Well, hope springs eternal. They did pretty much ruin the movie, but they were allowed to, and were only a couple of a number of questionable choices. Diaz’ was given the last word, with a head-shakingly bad final monologue, essentially saying ‘predators like me are the only ones who will survive the coming apocalypse.’ It was like a prophecy for the world of “The Road”, and neatly encapsulated the philosophy underlying McCarthy’s entire oeuvre. But delivered with all the gravitas of, well, Cameron Diaz, who simply can not hold the space. She was absolutely ridiculous.

    And like you say, we need art to speak to the incomparable mess we’ve gotten ourselves and the world into; we need art to speak to the mass carnage going on in Mexico that is in many respects a by-product of American Empire. Etc. But if I’m to assess the movie, my main problem is that PEOPLE DON’T TALK LIKE THAT. Every character has at least one philosophical soliloquy, that I easily imagine on a page and that I know no one, least of all club owners and drug dealers and cops, would vocalize without fits and stops. Not like Shakespearean dialogue. It’s the same problem I have with McCarthy’s books. But what is an acceptable quality in literature, for which you suspend belief, does not necessarily work on screen, which requires different kinds of suspensions. Maybe this is why to your mind he’s never before been properly translated to the screen. Because maybe he can’t, or shouldn’t be. Although I think “No Country…” is a great film and did an admirable job of getting the spirit, mostly of palpable, depressing, relentless doom.

    When Pitt and Diaz gave such philosophical soliloquies, it was squirm inducing. It was like having the bottom drop out of a flight, until it would cut to Bardem or Fassbinder, when you’d be buoyed aloft again. Up and down. That kind of unevenness really undercut the impact and power of the movie and its message, which I found generally powerful and compelling, disturbing and genuinely moving. Pitt mumble-mouthing his way through a spiel about math was especially absurd – but hand it to him, you could see him fighting the urge to lick his lips like he so habitually does, and mostly succeeding.

    In the end, this sadly is just typical Ridley Scott (and Blade Runner is probably my favorite movie). I walked out thinking that he is like a high Mannerist painter. Not one of the greats, but an admirable technician in the generation right after the greats. I also happened to just see that Alec Baldwin doc about trying to finance a movie in Cannes, and I see the symptomology of everything wrong that gets depicted in that movie. Too many hands on everything, too much money, too many egos, and celebrity branding overshadowing art at every turn.

    Anyway, thanks for making me think, and sharing your thoughts. I’m not saying this to argue, but in the spirit of dialogue, which is maybe too rare.

    • T.O. said:

      Oh, I forgot to mention maybe my biggest complaint! The High Misogyny of this thing. Two female characters, the Virgin and an almost literal Babylonian Whore. You have Penelope Cruz as a 2-D caricature of the inexperienced “nice girl” with zero depth, which considering her now visible age and inescapable bodaciousness was in no way believable; and then Diaz, who turns out to be the puppetmaster of evil in the film, and whose central scene is a classic “monster vagina” thing that Bardem’s character says is the scariest thing he’s every experienced. Come on!

      • A few things. I do agree that there is misogyny in the film. And I think it is there with intention. Which maybe that makes it worse for you or me. I don’t know. The film does work on a gender war basis, told from the male perspective, and given the rise of Mens Rights Activism(which is really just a new name for sexist bullshit), seemed appropriate in a film that was showing how it thought our society was going down the shit hole.

        Second thing, you can’t complain about misogyny on one front than then say that Penelope Cruz did a bad job at her role because of how old she looks.

        Initially it was a little weird Diaz in that role. But she nailed that last scene. I also think Diaz did a good job of conveying someone whose origins are somewhat vague and mysterious. There’s even some bits in the film where her ethnicity is wrongly assumed by other characters, and I thought that was interesting, and I don’t know many actresses more able to pull that particular element off. She is from everywhere and nowhere, and will return there. She is very much like McCarthy’s Judge from Blood Meridian. And really it was pretty impressive to give that role to someone like her. And i think it goes with the overall craziness of the film as a whole.

        Brad Pitt was terrific in his part for a lot of the same reasons. Within the weird world the film established, he was a tent pole for that.

    • Meh. These are things which I don’t care about. I don’t think they have merit as criticisms–are they true? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on your life. I mean what does “People don’t talk like that” mean? What is verisimilitude in a medium that is at its foundation a complete and utter lie. People don’t talk like that. Rooms aren’t lit like that. Skin doesn’t look like that. At night the hood of a car doesn’t look quite like that. It doesn’t make sense that this happened or that happened.

      I mean I appreciate the sentiment, and you are entitled to what your life is, and the opinions contained there-in, and I’m grateful that you brought this up. However, it is just not something I care about. On a personal level, do I like how the characters sound? Do I like how the actors deliver their lines? I do. You don’t. It’s not about whether they are real or not. It is a critique whose only merit is in your own subjective reality. And thus, I mean–what should I say about it? I can’t say you’re wrong. But it’s just not something that concerned me while watching the film.

      Maybe you would have preferred that they made the dialogue less philosophical? Or had different actors? Or perhaps had the movie been a different movie entirely? I don’t know. I like all of these things as they were presented.

      My criticism is that the negation of this movie has been a lot about what this movie isn’t, and the rules the movie does not play to. This movie is bad because it doesn’t meet MY expectations. or MY rules. I don’t believe in that as a public opinion to convey. What is important to me, what is of interest to me, is how the movie plays within the rules it presents for itself. The rules are that we’re going to have big name big actor celebs spitting cormac mccarthy dialogue while wearing fancy clothes and doing fancy things. Does it do that? It does. The movie is what it set out to be, as far as I can tell. I’ve read the script as well, and very little was changed. Maybe you think some should have been. But I found the experience unique, and refreshing.

  4. Can we not have both? Can we have movies with heart and a moving intellectual standpoint and the mindless hayrides like Pacific Rim???
    I know I watch both and enjoy, if I didn’t I’d probably go mad.
    I want thought provoking but quite often, I just don’t want to think. I don’t have an awesome life, I’m a poor struggling writer with many mental health and addiction issues that have been passed down through generations. I think about the world and its state of affairs for long enough and I want to cry…
    Please don’t deny my my 2 hours of mindless fun!
    Nice blog btw, keep up the writing!

    • Well the point was that we can’t, apparently. People have all of the time in the world for Pacific Rim(which I personally didn’t find to be very much of a mindless hayride) meanwhile The Counselor was literally chased from theaters. Critics ripped it apart, audiences didn’t even bother to show up. And so it was only out for a week or two. In some places like 3 days. The effect for me was a sense of alienation because it showed me how divorced my tastes are from the majority of anyone. And I’m not saying the Counselor was this amazing amazing movie. It was very good, I thought. But more than anything, it was just a unique weird film that just doesn’t get made, that I would like to see more of, but now probably never will.

      • Dom said:

        For some reason I feel like you should see Only God Forgives, I really like that movie. I think you might too.

  5. czach said:

    I watched the Counselor and it was pretty amazing to see dialogue which had almost no referent to reality at all. Actually my gripe was probably that McCarthy tried for too much verisimilitude because he pretty much sucks at writing dialogue other than his standard beautiful philosophical heavy Southern Gothic style. Another film that was panned, that did basically the same thing, which was to have completely literary dialogue adapted to film, is Cosmopolis by David Cronenberg. If you haven’t seen that you should see that. I loved how the movie encapsulated everything McCarthy, about the uselessness of morality and the nature of chance in the world. In fact I think one of the main problems was with Ridley Scott, who wasn’t quite as capable interpreting the script for film. His cinematography is one of the current clean Hollywood style and it completely goes at odds with the content. Of course maybe this was the point because the whole film feels like a twisted parody of a Hollywood crime flick, with big name actors saying the most insane dialogue while wearing suits. Cronenberg would probably have done a better version.

    But I do think that No Country for Old Men, though not being an adaptation of McCarthy, is far from being a lesser film. The problem is that cinema has its own language different from Literature. Coen Brothers adaptation of McCarthy is not a McCarthy film but its definitely a Coen Brothers film of the highest standard. While McCarthy’s language is one derived from Faulkner and Shakespeare, Coen Brothers has a language that comes from Hitchcock and John Ford and all the cinematic giants. The Departed does too, because Scorcese is a genius of form and what he makes is not crime films but Cinema. From your Best Pictures list those are the only two that have merit, but not in literary terms, in cinematic terms. So I think its unfair to judge them with McCarthy’s standard of intelligence when they’re smart in their own form.

    And you also blasted Pacific Rim even though it was an action film with “action set pieces that are actual works of art and whose planning and architecture challenge what we thought was possible”. Its not a smart story but its definitely a smart action film. Del Toro, above all else, is a beast at making an image.

    But I do agree that we should fuck people who only see the surface and completely miss out the interiors.

    • I don’t understand what ” he pretty much sucks at writing dialogue other than his standard beautiful philosophical heavy Southern Gothic style”

      I mean…that’s what he…does. And he’s great at it. So…therefore his dialogue is great. And was excellent in the Counselor. The Counselor as a series of “sessions” is radically realized, and completely insane for a star laden hollywood film.

      I don’t agree at all that No Country for Old Men was a better film. For me, the Coen brothers have done nothing that interests me since I was a teenager. By this point their choices are predictable, and I don’t find them that engaging.

      I think Ridley works fine as the director for the Counselor, because as you point out he creates a counterpoint with the script as a whole, and McCarthy is largely exploring the dark void at the center of a glossy world.

      I have seen Cosmopolis. It is my fave Cronenburg of the last what…15 years? It’s a wonderful sister film to pair with The Counselor.

      I thought what was cool with the Counselor was McCarthy’s attempt to get at some of that old hollywood world where you had real authors of merit in the screenwriting room laying down baroque literary script adaptions.

      Also if I said that Pacific Rim was a film with “action set pieces that are actual works of art and whose planning and architecture challenge what we thought was possible” then I was high. I don’t remember saying that at all. I remember saying the opposite that, Del Toro’s action set pieces were orchestrated like a clod who had no notion of how to connect motion in any kind of meaningful way. The action film of a director with no interior sense of rhythm or dance. I mean most of them were chest deep in water in the rain. It was a joke. Trans4mers is ten thousand percent better at the exact thing. But Michael Bay isn’t popular with the nerderatti that have pushed Del Toro’s hack career to such troubled spaces.

      Del Toro’s potential was encapsulated in films like The Devil’s Backbone and Chronos. He has fallen massively astray to a point where he’s just the guy you hire when Peter Jackson is busy with hobbit movies. It’s hard to even give him much credit as a world builder anymore either, because a lot of that is just built on the backs of people like Guy Davis. Del Toro has no great vision left. He’s playing out the string, cashing them checks. True hack by any definition. He could have been better–but he made his decision. He has no place in a discussion of directors of the level of Cronenburg and Ridley Scott. It’s debatable if Del Toro has ever made a movie as good as even Ridley Scott’s worst movie. Prometheus for the flaws of it’s script, is infinitely more imagined than anything Del Toro has done. How did we go from the character driven small horrors of Chronos and Devil’s Backbone to the hacked out bare bones characters of Pacific Rim? It’s a bad comic book!

      • Czach said:

        It may be the actors though. What I meant by that was that Reiner sounds like a cross between a McCarthy character and a badly written stoner. It seemed like either McCarthy tried to write stoner lines or Javier Bardem tried to add normal human diction to McCarthy’s lines. Sometimes other characters also drop the McCarthy quibble and try to make horrible small talk. Cosmopolis threw all form of even the slightest verisimilitude out the window and had Corporate Executives, Wives, Bodyguards and Rappers who all talked in the same Delilio style and it was magnificent.

        Well I guess my aesthetics aren’t exactly driven towards that kind of raw type of aesthetics that occur in horror films or films like these. I can appreciate the well-crafted shooting of people like the Coens even if it seems emotionally bankrupt or makes us feel too great about our lives in blatant escapism. It also kind of reminds me of Todd Solondz who loves to create films about horrible horrible people with a cinematic sense that feels like he’s purposely creating a dirty version the ‘indie romance comedy style’ that just leaves me feeling repulsed, but somehow also makes me feel that what is going on screen is realer than anything that is shown elsewhere. I can understand why that sort of thing is important and maybe even necessary though, but if I want a void I prefer it to be a vividly beautiful one as well, like Spring Breakers or All About Lily Chou Chou.

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