"Death? Why this fuss about death. Use your imagination. Try to visualize a world without death! Death is the essential condition of life, not an evil."
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman
"If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster." - Isaac Asimov
“One of the great pleasures of No Country for Old Men has been the huge amount of introspective analysis it has inspired in critics and bloggers and blog commenters and the movie-going community in general. It's been going on to a degree since the movie played Cannes, it really picked up when the movie was finally released, it has continued these months before the Oscars and it continues even today. I don't know how else you could describe a great movie.”
– Craig Kennedy, from a comment posted under the article “No Country Under the Skin” found at Jim Emerson’s Scanners
The few words Craig left under the latest consideration of the workings of No Country for Old Men at Jim’s site really hit home with me. It did so because it made me realize just how valuable the amount of intelligent discourse on this movie, which some, as is their right, dismiss simply as a well-crafted genre thriller, has been to my appreciation and understanding of it. There have been miles and miles of great back-and-forths at Jim’s sites, and here as well, as to the relative merits, weaknesses, meanings and intentions of No Country for Old Men, and as with any great film the discussion is unlikely to stop now that it has received the official coronation of awards season.
It so happens that the centerpiece of the article under which Craig’s comment appeared was a letter written to RogerEbert.com by a man named Nicholas Rizzo who was in the midst of considering his own mortality “on several fronts” when he wrote it. Rizzo’s point of view reframed the discussion of the film yet again, away from thoughts of the historical consistency of dark forces crushing men’s souls, or of Chigurh as Evil Incarnate, toward one in which the movie speaks about the inevitability of aging and death. Rizzo wrote:
“I don't think this movie was so much about an ultimate evil so much as our ultimate ending. Rather, about our ultimate aging, decline in usefulness whether true or not or simply relative to the youth of any generation. The ultimate finality of time. Its categorical nature is represented by Anton's "code of ethics" that can't be broken. People always saying, ‘You don't have to do this,’ is their bargaining with the finality of their own death... not with Anton.”
I read Jim’s article again today, and Craig’s comment for the first time, on the same day that my best friend’s mother sent along an e-mail linked to a video that she insisted would change the perspectives of those on her e-mail list who would just take the time to watch it. Oh, great, more time-consuming Internet platitudes, thought I, having been rendered just a little bit cynical about all the feel-good pieties and other such stuff I’m routinely subjected to by well-meaning family members of my own. One other hurdle for me: it was an excerpt from the Oprah Winfrey Show. I usually like to get all my literary advice, as well as thoughts on matters emotional, psychological, sociological and financial from friends, family and/or professionals—for years it’s been good, solid policy for me to leave Oprah the hell out of as much as I possibly can.
But I weathered the embarrassment of watching a 10-minute segment of Oprah at work today, and I must say I’m glad I did. The segment is a reprise of Professor Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture,” a talk he gave to students and faculty at Carnegie Mellon University which became a viral hit on the Internet, which was taped and has been viewed over a million times since its original posting. Pausch is a virtual reality pioneer who originally gave the lecture as a way of dealing with the fact that he was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer and had, at the time of the Oprah taping, but months to live. Pausch’s decision to deal with his situation in a head-on manner is intended to inspire others in similar dire circumstances, to be sure, but it’s also a legacy to communicate his philosophy of life to his three young sons, who are likely too young to understand exactly what their father is going through, let alone his perspective on it.
And it is a particularly illuminating video to consider in light of the most recent discussion about No Country for Old Men. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell makes certain decisions about how he will live out his life with the knowledge that he has faced death and will continue to face it, even as he recedes from a life that forces him to confront it on a daily basis. The discussions on Jim’s site and elsewhere surrounding these points of view on the film tend to make it an even richer experience. I’ve been shaking and stirring Pausch’s remarkable fortitude and strength around in my head all day, mixing it up with the brutal realizations afforded by the Coen Brothers’ film, and I must say the resulting cocktail has been inspirational indeed. A clear-eyed perspective on death may be a difficult thing to come to grips with, and no two of us, I dare say, is likely to come away thinking about the subject in the same way. But no matter how we approach it, death does indeed come to us all. And it seems to me that experiencing No Country for Old Men and Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” are two not-mutually-exclusive ways that we can face it up to it ourselves and decide what we can do until it comes knocking.
Randy Pausch presents a reprise of his “Last Lecture” on The Oprah Winfrey Show