Let’s call this post a late start to 2008.
Last year I wrote a few things on the subject of belatedness, on the ways we retroactively construct our self-experience, as we rub our eyes asking, ‘What time is it? What was that we just experienced?’
I was set off thinking about this theme again when I saw a film this weekend that seemed to me to be all about belatedness: the Cohen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, which has just hit cinemas here, a few months later than in the US. Tread carefully if you haven’t seen it, or read the book, there might be spoilers in here.
The plot is set in motion by a belated encounter: an encounter with the aftermath of a drug-deal gone wrong. It is a chaotic aftermath, but what we are presented with is not at all confusing: we recognize it without having to do too much work to fit all the pieces together; we recognize the all-too familiar idioms of the language of cinema. Llewelyn, our proxy, recognizes it too: ‘Where’s the last man standing?’, he asks, with weary certainty; and when he discovers the inevitable bag of cash, he acknowledges its inevitability with a murmured ‘Hm’. He, like us, the cinema-literate viewer, knows that this is the MacGuffin: everything is in its place for the wheels of plot to grind into motion.
What follows is the unfolding of a narrative, or overlaid series of narratives, conforming to the rule of the pursuit movie. A killer tracks the ‘wrong man’. The police track the killer (always belatedly, always one step, or a few, behind). A mysterious body hires a man to track killer, victim, and money. Transmissions are received and signals tracked. Trails of blood are followed, repeatedly. Llewelyn’s tracking of a wounded animal had led him to the first aftermath (an animal wounded accidentally, in hunting another animal). A killer follows a trail of blood leading to his victim: the victim in turn follows a trail of blood that leads to the killer.
Pursuit narratives, like detective narratives, are all about following trails, discovering clues, interpreting signs, figuring out how things fit together. The detective, always a late arrival, is locked in pursuit of the ever-receding primordial scene. He must follow in the footsteps of the murderer, think like the murderer, be the murderer. ‘He’s seen the same things I’ve seen, and it’s certainly made an impression on me’, says Tommy Lee Jones’s world-weary sheriff, once again arriving late on the scene. In this movie, when characters arrive late on the scene, it’s too late to catch up with events, too late to be able to do anything but follow the trail to where it leads: to another aftermath, another scene already over and done with.
When Llewelyn’s death is revealed to us, it too is in the aftermath: we arrive, with the police, late on the scene. One aftermath leading to another: and nothing in between stands still.
Chigurh has it the other way around: he is not behind events, he is ahead of them. But like the Olympian gods in thrall to the Fates, though he is ahead of events, he cannot influence the final outcome. He wants his victim to call it: ‘I didn’t put nothin’ up’ -- ‘Yes, you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life you just didn’t know it.’ The coin’s been travelling twenty two years to get here, to arrive opportunely at this moment, the fated moment. In Chigurh’s world, nothing is belated: there is no making of narrative, there is no imposition of meaningful stories onto the senseless violence of the world. There is only violence: senseless, yes, but necessary. Isn’t this what it means to be a psychopath: to be unable or unwilling to see that actions have consequences, to see how consequences beget other consequences and cohere into stories? To see that man has made the world, because man has made history.
A psychopath doesn’t know this:
‘This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you’
The realization that it ain’t all waiting on you defines the transition from infancy to personhood, the coming into being of the subject. To make that transition is to fall immediately behind things, to fall out of synch with the world by coming into the world.
We’re behind things in other ways too: what we perceive is necessarily already in the past, and our neuronal processes are always ahead of us. Our minds, it appears, lag behind our brains by half a second: our brains make decisions for us before we are consciously aware that we are making decisions. It ain’t all waiting on you, that’s for sure.
Even when we do see what’s coming, we can’t stop it. We can’t alter the course of events with the flip of a coin, because we always arrive too late, and the coin’s already up in the air, spinning.
A question is posed at the start of the film: ‘Where’s the last man?’ And the film provides an answer: the Tommy Lee Jones sheriff character is the last man: old, older even than his own father, always following on behind, hiding behind, never able to catch up with things and gain a perspective, an overview. And we’re with him, on the long slide, endlessly.