¶ … American frontier in a comparative analysis using two books (Luis Alberto Urrea, In Search of Snow, 1994; Sam Shepard, True West, 1981) and a film, No Country for Old Men, Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, 2007. These books will be presented in a comparative analysis with the film. The analyses used in this paper will focus on values, setting, conflicts and the way of life presented in each.
How factual are entertainment portrayals of the American frontier?
How much of what has been written about the American frontier is myth, and how much is factual? According to history professor Richard W. Slatta scholars have "debunked three of the West's central myths," including rugged individualism, frontier violence, and American exceptionalism (Slatta, 2010). Writers and film-makers have gone about creating a western frontier "the way they want it rather than the way it was" (Slatta, 84).
No Country for Old Men / In Search of Snow
Whether or not much of what is written and filmed in terms of fictionalized tales about the American frontier is realistic and honest in terms of reflecting accuracy, the books and the film critiqued in this paper are of excellent quality, and stand on their own as worthy entertainment. After watching No Country for Old Men (presented hereafter as Old) and contrasting it with In Search of Snow (presented as Snow) these two gems have settings in the American frontier but they are as far apart in theme as Mars is from the Moon.
Indeed, the opening salient theme of snow -- Mike's fantasy -- which is a reasonable quest for a person given the bleak Texaco station setting -- including the "brittle desert heat" and the "blue stink of exhaust." That contrasts dramatically with the horrific violence and bloodshed in Old. Among the immediately striking differences between these two works is the fine detail, petty sometimes, silly other times, deadly other times, that helps embellish the characters in Snow. An enormous amount of the book is dialogue; tight, short bursts of simple and sometimes ludicrous thoughts. Old, on the other hand, uses grim, deathly serious and dark images to put a spell on viewers that doesn't let up until the film is over. The excellent direction from the Cohen brothers creates a murky and sinister effect; if viewers like a movie that keeps them biting their nails and on the edge of their seats, this is the right film for them.
The beginning chapters of Snow embrace humor, absurdity, isolation, simplicity, and innocence. And yes, there is some violence, as Mike and Rames in Snow brawl with each other -- pretty mild compared with the opening of Old. The sound of Tommy Lee Jones' voice reflecting on the boy he sent to the electric chair clearly sets the tone for this movie, which is a series of frightening, bloody, very tense and very evil situations.
The so-called American frontier in this movie is transformed into a gruesome, outrageous series of dreadfulness driven by the search for (and the desire to hide) lots of cash. It seems around every corner horrors are waiting to happen.
After the protagonist makes the discovery of a drug deal gone bad -- which results in a chillingly scary hunt for the two million dollars that changes lives. Moviegoers are treated to an astonishingly brutal character, the antagonist Chigurh. His murder of a deputy in a hideous scene of power and spilled blood is night and day from the almost comical opening of Snow. Nothing of this sort is to be found in Snow or in True West.
Juxtaposed with those ghastly scenes of hatefulness in Old, but still in the setting of the American frontier, Mike, while not dreaming of snow or carrying on trite banter with his father, is cleaning the women's bathroom at the Texaco station. He kisses the mirror where a woman had left a lip print ("he ached inside") and sniffs a discarded pair of torn nylon stockings -- then hides them under his bed like a naughty little boy discovering the scent of a woman. The aroma of the stockings set "…his bones aglow with indescribable longing" (17).
Readers know how totally isolated and out of touch with society Mike is by way he behaves in the women's rest room and the skulls (coyote, crow and steer) that adorn Mike's room. Mike's initial resistance to his sexy cousin's advances shows that he is on the one hand enamored with the allure and fantasy of women (lipstick, stockings), but...
Later he is guilt-ridden
On the subject of skulls, Old is dripping in pessimism, nihilism, death and an obsession based on a search for an enormous amount of cash. Dead bodies strewn around the desert are the apparent remains of a drug deal that went horribly wrong. The only real thought of money in Snow is Mike's father's idea that a new highway will bring more traffic and hence he and Mike will get rich on all those autos that need gasoline and other services.
True West in Contrast with Snow and Old
It could be said with accuracy that while portions of True West and Snow show their respective writers' ability to create whimsical, off-color scenes, trying to find whimsy or pure silliness in Old is an exercise in futility. Old is diabolical, bloody and mean spirited while True West is -- in contrast -- almost comic relief. There is hatred in Snow, as well, although the antipathy that Mexicans feel for Caucasians (and vice versa) -- and that dislike and distrust the Apaches feel for both Mexicans and Caucasians -- is like a cub scout birthday party compared with the venomous fear and loathing in Old.
Natural world themes of course play a pivotal effect on any story; and the desert plays a strong thematic role in all three stories. The film direction in Old brings the viewer into a landscape that is barren, stark, and unforgiving, but beautiful as well, which is the best actual depiction of the American frontier in all three (it is hard to compete with cinema). A well-written novel can create pictures of the beauty and desolation of the desert in the minds and imaginations of the reader, and Snow does that very competently.
Meantime, in True West the brothers revere the desert and in the play the desert has an almost mythical attraction for the brothers. The Snow story doesn't feature the desert as any great attraction; it is simply a raw and isolated setting. In Old, the desert is where old men and young men can get killed when things go wrong. In True West, Austin, a screenwriter, leaves suburban life for the desert (to house sit for his confused mother) because apparently the vast (sometimes uncharted) terrain of the desert symbolizes open possibilities for a screenwriter. For Lee the desert is just another place to get drunk and steal things. The visions represented by the two brothers seem to set them apart but in the end they're both birds of a feather.
Values also play a role in any story and the values in these three stories are wildly divergent but very interesting in their contrasts. Cheap, temporary values abound in Old; money and what it can bring -- including bloodshed and paranoia -- dominate the story line.
Of course law enforcement officers find value capturing criminals and solving crimes, but that doesn't have a strong sense of morality in this twisted film. It amounts to more of a quest to stop the killing than any true representation of human values. There were far fewer values of any substance in Old than in either True West or Snow. Of the three, the most impressive in terms of substance and humanity was Snow.
Austin in True West seems to value hard work and has worthwhile goals (like eschewing everything his family stands for and selling a screenplay), but he is wishy-washy. His brother's values are shallow at best. Acquiring goods that belong to others (and being a con man) can hardly been seen as a positive lifestyle. So while Austin had good intentions, he allows his no-good brother to con the producer into a game of golf, and ends up as useless and lost in the desert as his drunken brother Lee.
What were Mike's values in Snow? Mike did value the memory of his mother (which haunted him) and he valued (in a strange way) his father -- although as a confused yet interesting character it was only much later that he comes to terms with his true feelings for his father. Mike valued his friendship with Bobo and Bobo's family. Mike was duly impressed with Bobo's part in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp.
In conclusion, while Slatta's point about the American frontier is certainly close to being accurate, if not right on the money, writers and directors…
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