Friday, November 01, 2013

The Counselor: a Screenplay by Cormac McCarthy

This is a review of Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay for the movie The Counselor, not the movie itself, which hasn’t opened in the UK yet and which I haven’t yet seen. With luck, the film may be better than the screenplay, although I’m not confident.

McCarthy has form when it comes to screenplay. Unfortunately, most of it is relegation form. There is The Gardener’s Son, of course, a PBS TV production from 1977 which is regarded by many as a quiet masterpiece, although to my mind it is desperately slow. Admittedly, I watched it in a freezing cold room in Texas which may have coloured my view somewhat. McCarthy has tried to produce film scripts before, too, with very little success. Both Cities of the Plain and No Country for Old Men began life as screenplays, and very poor ones at that. In the latter, Sheriff Bell and Llewelyn Moss, who never meet in the final novel (or the Coens’ subsequent Oscar-winning screenplay) triumph over a prototype Chigurh in a ridiculous shoot-'em-up ending. And then there’s "Whales and Men", an outpouring of didactic gloop about the cruelty of man and the inherency of evil and the doomed state of the planet. It is truly awful and, for that reason, has never been published.

The Counselor is not truly awful. It’s just poor. Earlier in the year, a pirated draft of it circulated and it caused heated debate in McCarthy circles. Was it genuine? Was it good? A great many knowledgeable Cormackians pronounced it must be fake because it was so bad. It was a fake, they felt, but a pretty good one, with many trademark McCarthy stock phrases and tropes evidencing someone who knew a great deal of the man’s oeuvre. Well, it subsequently emerged, it really was someone who knew a lot about his oeuvre, because it was genuine McCarthy. And now we find that the final published screenplay is little different from the earlier pirated version. So the debate continues: is it any good?

I have to say this offering would suggest the definite waning of a talent. There is little here that is interesting. There is even less that is original. Increasingly over his career McCarthy has shown himself incapable of moving on from his central preoccupations: the tendency of man to evil, the turning of fate, the slow, hideous inevitability of events once a course of actions has been set in train. Judge Holden intoned on these ideas memorably in Blood Meridian. And after a more secular sojourn in All the Pretty Horses, the subject was revisited ad nauseam in The Crossing, with the succession of identikit mystics all saying exactly the same thing in exactly the same voice. The road is the road. The destination is what it shall be. We are all but actors in a drama outside our understanding. Cities of the Plain continued in the same vein and then, in No Country, we had the interminable debate on fate and chance and the terrible, terrible coin toss of existence. In The Road we saw where that inevitable fate would lead us: perdition, the loss of it all, the apocalypse. McCarthy simply cannot move on. He is stuck in the same metaphysical impasse he first confronted nearly fifty years ago: “He wondered why a road should come to such a place.” The Counselor rehashes the same old ground and ends up on the same old road. It is McCarthy-lite, covering the same territory he has throughout his career, but without the gravitas.

None of this might matter if it was well written but, in terms of writing craft, it is difficult to argue for that. The plot is entirely predictable. It is well worn stuff. From the moment one of the central characters describes a particularly gruesome method of execution, for example, it is only a matter of time before he endures the same fate. Now, fair enough, this is only an extension of the Chekhov notion that if a pistol appears in Act 1 it must be fired in Act 3, but the hamfistedness of its delivery here is unacceptable. McCarthy got away with this predictability in No Country, because the relentless, malignant pursuit of Moss by Chigurh has a fascination of its own, but you can’t pull off the same trick twice and essentially that is what McCarthy has tried to do here.

In terms of dialogue, too, the screenplay suffers badly. There has always been a disjunction in McCarthy’s fiction between the highly natural, dialect-driven dialogue of ordinary characters and the high-flown oratorical style of the succession of prophets who walk among them. In the novels this just about works, with the exception of The Crossing, where it is simply over the top, and the epilogue of Cities of the Plain where McCarthy falls over completely into self-parody. Without the grandeur of the narrative which surrounds the dialogue in the novels, in this screenplay the high register language of the dialogue merely sounds bogus. We have, for example, a jeweler who, for no discernible reason turns metaphysical while describing the facets of a diamond and says:

What was meant to be a union remains forever untrue and we see a troubling truth in that the forms of our undertakings are complete at their beginnings. For good or for ill.
It is entirely understandable why many McCarthy critics initially read this as a fake. The sad truth is that this reads like bad Cormac McCarthy, a parody that’s relatively acute but somehow not quite on the mark. However, the jeweler continues by talking about the treatment of Jewish people through the ages:
The heart of any culture is to be found in the nature of the hero. Who is that man who is revered. In the classical world it is the warrior. But in the western world it is the man of God. From Moses to Christ. The prophet. The penitent. Such a figure is unknown to the Greeks. Unheard of. Unimaginable. Because you can only have a man of god, not a man of gods. And this God is the God of the jewish people. There is no other God....
And on it goes, laboured and didactic and deadly, deadly dull. Again,it sounds like a hoax. The idea of “the hero”, in the Joseph Campbell interpretation of myth cycles relating to the heroic legends of different cultures, has been so much debated in McCarthy circles it has almost become a cliche, and here is McCarthy himself, at the fag-end of his career, apparently latching on to it. The monologue then goes on to matters theological. McCarthy’s play, The Stonemason, features similarly didactic pronouncements on the nature of religion, but interestingly some of the earlier drafts of that work (some of those, too, in screenplay form) are afflicted far worse by this blight. At least, then, McCarthy edited the worst excesses out. He did the same in The Road, the drafts of which are peppered with similarly leaden pronouncements on religion which fail to make the final cut. In The Counselor, this lack of restraint is damaging to the text.

The jeweler then goes on to conflate another two great McCarthian tropes, the stones of the ancients and the act of witness:

The stones themselves have their own view of things. Perhaps they are not so silent as you think. They were piped out of the earth in a time before any witness was, but here they are. Now who shall be their witness? We. We two. Here.... This is a cautionary stone.
Honestly, that is meaningless. It’s bad McCarthy. It’s nonsense, a weak parody of countless similar pronouncements elsewhere in McCarthy’s oeuvre. Other characters display similarly improbable speech patterns. Westray tells the Counselor at one point:
I think about my life. What have I ever done for the hapless, the hopless, the horsefucked? And I’m pretty skeptical about the goodness of the good. I think that if you ransacked the archives of the redeemed you would uncover tales of moral squalor quite beyond the merely appalling. I’ve pretty much seen it all, Counselor. And it’s all shit.
You may argue that this is a cogent critique of modernity and perhaps it is, to a particular, conservative way of thinking. But we’ve read this so often before in McCarthy there is nothing new to take from it. We seem to be listening to a perpetual jeremiad about the godlessness of modernity and the dangerous uncoupling of modern man from his spiritual roots. This is good material, for sure, but eventually a writer has to move onto something else. McCarthy never does. Westray continues for him:
But time is not going to stop, Counselor. It’s forever. And everything that exists will one day vanish. Forever. And it will take with it every explanation of it that was ever contrived. From Newton and Einstein to Homer and Shakespeare and Michelangelo. Every timeless creation. Your art and your poetry and your science are not even composed of smoke.
Once again, the hubris of humanity is laid bare: “Beware gentle knight. There is no greater monster than reason.” We may aspire to the genius of science and the arts, philosophy, knowledge, but all of human ingenuity is but a fleeting instant in eternity, to be forever obliterated. “Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

And then, of course, we come to the jefe. You always know you’re in for some cod-philosophising when a jefe turns up in McCarthy, some Mexican mysticism which reveals the horrors of the world. And so it turns out. The Counselor, who turns to him for help, asks if there is someone he can see. No, there isn’t, the jefe says:

I am afraid that there is no longer such a person. That is a thing of the past. I am afraid that there is no one to see.
The portentousness of this is almost laughable. It’s almost bathetic. It gets worse. Describing the violence in which they have become submerged, the jefe says:
Where the bodies are buried in the desert is a certain world, Counselor. Where they are simply left in the street is another. That is a country heretofore unknown to me. But it must have always been here, must it not?
Heretofore? Must it not? Only characters in a Cormac McCarthy novel speak like this. Again, one can see why people thought it was a fake. The jefe continues:
People are waiting. For what? At some point you must acknowledge that this new world is at last the world itself. There is not some other world.
This is straight from The Crossing and Cities of the Plain. Can one be derivative of oneself? McCarthy certainly seems to be. And, as you would expect, the jefe isn’t finished: McCarthy’s prophets seldom keep quiet for long:
It is not for me to say what you should have done. Or not done. I only know that the world in which you seek to undo your mistakes is not the world in which they were made. You are at a cross in the road and here you think to choose. But here there is no choosing. There is only accepting. The choosing was done a long time ago.
Honestly. I’ve been living and breathing this stuff for the past five years. I’ve memorised chunks of text, and all of them say the same as this, only better. It is a tired rehash of exactly the same material that has obsessed McCarthy since Blood Meridian. Sadly, it appears that the author has run out of ideas and he has run out of ways of expressing them. For a long time I have harboured great hopes for McCarthy’s next novel, The Passenger. It’s set in New Orleans, we’re told, it’s long and sprawling. I’d hoped it might be a return to the style and preoccupations of Suttree, away from the ponderous religiosity of the western novels. On reading The Counselor, I am less confident about this but I maintain my hope that, unlike this screenplay, The Passenger will offer us something new.

1 comment:

Jim H. said...

Brilliant take! Haven't seen 'The Counselor' yet, though it opened here last week.

I find nothing to except in what you've written—latter CM feels like a parody of himself. It's very difficult to produce such beautiful, magnificent, terrifying prose as in Meridian over and over again. It's hard work. It takes time, much time, and effort. When you're trying to churn it out (script-style), it can indeed easily dissolve into self-parody. Over-writing takes less time than beautiful writing—in my experience.

I did have some hope upon reading The Road. It was sparer. Less florid. Vocab & grammar. AND an element of hope at the very end managed to suffuse the permeating pessimism of the preceding pages. I had hoped it represented a new and vital and interesting direction in his work. And maybe his new New Orleans book might continue in that direction. Thanks.