Some sort of explanation, some sort of excuse, would seem to me (whether or not you) to be demanded for my two-week tardiness in getting around to the new Coen brothers film, No Country for Old Men. To come up with one (or more), real life will have to intrude. Here's how it transpired. Here's how life goes.
Before the film had yet turned up on the schedule of press screenings, but long after it had been written in for November 16 on the schedule of openings, I had my eye on a public screening of an altogether different film at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, namely Yves Allégret's Une Si Jolie Petite Plage. ("Such a lovely little beach" is the literal translation of this phrase, though Riptide is given as the not so ironic title in English.) This is a film I believe I have mentioned a time or two in print, most likely when I was questioning the selection of some reissue by those indefatigable revivalists at Rialto Pictures. Some of the titles I might have mentioned in that context are films I have already seen somewhere, films I feel deserve a wider exposure, such as Melville's Second Breath, and others are films I have never seen anywhere, films I myself would like to be exposed to, such as the Allégret, an esoteric French noir starring Gérard Philipe, with black-and-white photography by the masterly Henri Alekan (Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, etc.), from 1949.
Well in advance of its single playdate as the second half of a double bill on Sunday night, October 28, with the release of No Country for Old Men still several weeks away, I took the precaution of E-mailing the Miramax rep at the local ad agency that oversees these press screenings, and made the special request that the Coen brothers' film, please, please, please, be scheduled for any time other than Monday morning, October 29. I received a prompt reply that the press screening was scheduled for Monday morning, October 29. So much for my clout. Now, I am far past the age where I could consider getting out of a film at midnight in Los Angeles and getting back for a first-thing-in-the-morning screening in San Diego.
I was, however, assured in that reply that there would be a second screening of the Coens' film, TBD, prior to its opening. So, on the one hand I had a film I had been wanting to see for literally decades, one unavailable on DVD, one shown one time only ("ultra-rare," as the Cinematheque publicity put it), and on the other hand I had the new film I was most looking forward to for the remainder of the year, a film by one (or two) of my favorite active American filmmakers (slipping a spot behind Clint Eastwood in the latest standings), one that would be opening publicly in a matter of weeks, and one, to repeat the E-mailed assurance, that would be screened again before then. It was for just such situations that we have coined the expression "no-brainer." I went to L.A., got a hotel room within walking distance of the Cinematheque, watched the final game of the World Series, went to the film, went to bed.
Days passed. A week. And when the promised second screening of the Coen film finally appeared on the schedule, it was down for the evening of Wednesday, November 14, which would do me no good whatsoever for getting a review into the paper on Thursday the 15th, the day before the local premiere. If only to re-test my clout, I roused myself to E-mail a new request that another screening, a third, be added the preceding week, still sufficient time for my deadline on Monday the 12th. (Have I not long been a vocal partisan of the Coens? Have I not lavished them with attention over the years? Have I not been steadily on their wavelength? Did I not grow up in a contiguous suburb of Minneapolis? Did we not all three, perhaps even at the same moment, patronize the St. Louis Park Theatre and dine next door at the Lincoln Del?) The result of my request: no other screening, no clout.
Ordinarily, not caring to test my clout needlessly, I would have resigned myself to getting my review into the paper a week after the opening, an ordinary occurrence indeed. Except that, extraordinarily, the week after the opening would be Thanksgiving week, a shorter workweek with a deadline a day earlier. That could prove to be a problem in itself if the film were to prove to be worthy, as expected, of serious consideration. (Not for me the work schedule of the orthodox Broadway critic, dashing straight home from the theater to the keyboard and pounding out a review in time for the early edition, hitting the streets with it before the opening-night parties have broken up.) But the problem was bigger. Even if I could deliver a review under the tighter deadline, I would be unavailable to proof it on the page the following day, apply any finishing touches, approve the accompanying photo, and send it off with my blessings (and misgivings) to you the reader, because the day after deadline I was under orders, on pain of fine and imprisonment, to report to the federal courthouse for jury duty.
Is this enough real life for you? (I'm not going to burden you now with the peripheral details of being in escrow and preparing to move for the first time in twenty years. I reserve the right to use that excuse in the weeks ahead.) When I initially received my "summons," or as I prefer to think of it, my sentence, it was for the entire month of November, no exemption, explicitly stated, for job responsibilities or financial hardship. (They can do this in the Land of the Free?) My bitching and moaning in written response got the sentence reduced to one week of my choosing, and at the time, lo those many weeks ago, I thought I was being pretty clever in choosing the three-day week of Thanksgiving, figuring that my review of No Country for Old Men would already be in the bag. Figuring wrong. In the circumstances, even after I had faithfully attended the November 14 screening (a radio promotional screening, not an exclusive press screening), it was difficult to motivate myself to push a pen. Came Thanksgiving week. And when I phoned for "specific reporting instructions" (as spelled out in boldface in my summons) the night before the first day of my servitude, the feds had high-handedly decided my presence would not be required after all. Justice could do without me. The twenty-four-hour reprieve, furthermore, would later extend to a full pardon, but by then the damage had been done. Another week was lost.
And now I see (more extensive damage than hitherto seen) that I have used up my allotted space and time this week on mere preamble. I can only try to tide you over till the next issue by disclosing the following. My immediate impression of Une Si Jolie Petite Plage was that it's one of the great, great films of a great, great era, a film fully saturated in postwar fatalism, with a powerful and haunting atmosphere, geographically, meteorologically, as well as psychologically, and with a powerful and haunting theme reminiscent of (or rather, prefigurative of) that of Mystic River, the childhood scar that can never be erased. The double "greats," let's be clear, are necessitated to distinguish the word from the colloquial "great," meaning "good enough," "satisfactory," "not bad." (How are you today? Great. How was your latte? Great. How's the new Will Ferrell comedy? Great. ) The new Coen brothers film, in contrast, is one of the very good films of a routinely meager year, notwithstanding the uppermost blurb in the ad campaign, courtesy of Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, proclaiming it "an indisputably great movie." Were it indisputably great, it would be the first movie of that description in all of history. I will dispute it next week. On the last weekend in October, I made the right choice.