Thursday, July 5, 2012

Old Men


THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.


- William Butler Yeats (Sailing to Byzantium)

There is a scene in Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby where the Eastwood character a grumbling, aging boxing trainer reads out-loud in Gaelic. Scrap (Morgan Freeman) begins to talk over him, asks what he's reading, and Jackie tells him, "It's Yeats." The first stanza (above) of this particular Yeats poem describes a place that accepts only the young, the youthful. Old Men can't live there anymore. In the mid 2000s, this became a running theme for Eastwood as an actor/director. In 2008's Gran Torino, Eastwood plays an aging, intolerant retired auto worker named Walt Kowalski, who sees nothing but wrong in the world. The younger have taken over making old men more diminished than ever before. Respect for the older generation swiftly jumping out the window. 

Cormac McCarthy used the first line of this Yeat's poem as the title for his violent novel about violence, No Country for Old Men. Joel and Ethan Coen, in 2007, released a film based on this novel. It stars Tommy Lee Jones as weary, nearly broken-down West Texas Sheriff Ed Tom Bell embroiled in a drug deal gone way wrong in which eventually all he can do is sit back and let the younger generation take over...violently. Having recently watched this film back-to-back with Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, it was hard not to take notice of the striking similarities. Not in tone, or plot, but theme. That an old man eventually loses his way in the changing world. The most basic of themes done brilliantly by and for and about men who are aging. 

Violence is present in both of these films. In fact, it is the single driving force. In Gran Torino, Walt looks out from his front porch and sees the "Gooks" that live next door. He hates them. Then he sees that the young Hmong teenager, Thao, is being roughed-up by his gang-banger cousins. He hates this even more. The rage within himself becomes such as to eventually lead him into the unwanted role of guider and guardian of this boy. Teaching him about life, communication among men, hard work, violence. The fact that so many urban teenage boys get caught up in a life of crime and violence once neglected by Walt soon becomes his greatest, final ambition. He begins to try and stop it in his own way. Similarly, in No Country for Old Men, Ed Tom (Jones) sees this as well. The Coen Brothers (channeling McCarthy) open the film with a monologue, delivered by the Sheriff, in which he recounts a story about a teenager he sent to the electric chair. He had killed a teenage girl, which had been initially described as a crime of passion, "but he tolt me there weren't nothin' passionate about it. Said he'd been fixin' to kill someone for as long as he could remember. Said if I let him out of there, he'd kill somebody again. Said he was goin' to hell. Reckon he'd be there in about 15 minutes." When Chigurh (Javier Bardem) begins his murderous rampage, Ed Tom is already so far gone from the violence, he realizes it's out of his hands. This is not easy for him. Unlike Walt, Ed Tom has no hope of saving at least just one. 

Where does this violence come from? How does a young man commit such crimes? For an old man like Walt or Ed Tom, there was the war. Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran has seen it. We can assume that Ed Tom had his hand in WWII or even Korea as well. An old man, as we all know, has seen violence first hand...has lived it. The experience of war becomes such a large player in both of these films that we can begin to see why these particular old men have such trouble with the young and the violent. It also clearly illustrates the differences in these two films. Throughout No Country for Old Men, the Vietnam war comes into play. Set in 1980, the violent younger men of this film claim Vietnam as their loss of innocence. Chigurh, the psychotic maniac killer; Wells (Woody Harrelson), the hardened, sarcastic bounty hunter; and Moss (Josh Brolin), the man running from both of these men, all experienced "'Nam." That is a war that even the most hardened old man could not imagine. Not those in Walt's and Ed Tom's generation. The major difference between the two old men is that Walt can use his experience in war to teach lessons, to save a family that he once hated. Ed Tom, in the more bleak of the two films, is granted no such opportunity. He has just to accept it all as God's Will...that there is violence out there that he can't stop. And he knows it. The younger, violent men in Gran Torino can claim no war. That is a sad truth about life. 

The world becomes a sad place when a young man cannot sit and listen to an old man. The boy Ed Tom sent to the electric chair before the action of No Country for Old Men even begins could not be helped. Thao, the young man in Gran Torino, could be. Yeats, in Sailing to Byzantium, tells us of a place that no longer respects, but "neglects" old men, these "Monuments of unageing intellect." Clint Eastwood and his screenwriter understand this in Gran Torino, and, in similar, yet vastly different, ways the Coen Brothers through Cormac McCarthy understand this as well. Watching these two great films in one day, it is difficult to overlook the ways that violence takes over our lives whether we like it or not. It can help to listen to an old man some time. They truly know the way. We just have to be like Thao, and listen. 

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