No Country for Old Men, a movie review

Most characters are lucky to make it out of a Coen Brothers film alive. For laughs, the brothers run their co-stars’ dead bodies through wood chippers. For yucks, a guy’s hand gets stuck to a window sill with a sharp knife.

It’s dark humor, lost on the average moviegoer, I suppose, but usually funny to those who enjoy it. I’m one of them, so I try to see whatever Joel and Ethan throw at us. We’re the kind of people who appreciate the comic potential of a 9mm slug between the eyes (look, it’s just a movie, all the actors go home without a scratch).

Alas, the “every slit throat is good for a few chuckles” vibe that gave us “Miller’s Crossing” and “Fargo” seems dead and buried in “No Country for Old Men.” The Coens seem to have lost their sense of humor in regards to the inevitability of death. There’s no cheating it, they’re telling us, and the harder you try, the more you hurry it along.

Death stalks the scraggly hills of southwest Texas in the human form of Anton Chigurh, a man with one purpose: to return $2 million in drug money to its rightful owners. Killing anybody who gets in his way is just his quirky way of upholding his exacting professional standards.

Somehow a botched drug deal has turned into a border-country bloodbath. One intrepid (though badly shot-up) Mexican drug runner wanders off with a satchel full of hundred-dollar bills, then dies. About a quarter mile behind him are a half-dozen dusty four-wheel-drive pickups full of yet more shot-dead drug traffickers.

A hunter who can’t shoot straight named Llewelyn Moss happens upon the trucks and their deceased occupants first, then tracks down the guy with the case o’ cash. Right here you want those guys from “Mystery Science 3000” wisecracking, “cool, he’s from that parallel universe where things go good for the guy when he decides to keep the money.”

Whatever planet Mr. Moss is from, he does defy the common sense handed down by every novel, movie, short story and soap opera episode from the time of Aesop to future media forms as yet uninvented: Keeping the money ruins your life.

As expected, things get increasingly complicated — and violent — for Llewelyn Moss. Death, that is, Mr. Chigurh, is after him with a vengeance you’d think might better be reserved for whoever cures cancer or AIDS.

As cinema, it’s a solid film with strong performances from Josh Brolin (who looks uncannily like his dad) as Moss and Javier Bardem as Chigurh, who carries the trademark Coen Brothers homicidal smirk throughout.

Tommy Lee Jones plays a Texas lawman who should be trying to do something about all the unfolding mayhem, but isn’t. Woody Harrelson is sort of tossed in there for no obvious reason.

The story is based on something by Cormac McCarthy, who writes novels about tough guys who soldier on through ceaseless carnage because, well, soldiering on through ceaseless carnage is just what they do. Against formidable odds — and with a formidable disregard for punctuation — McCarthy’s novels succeed impressively. I’ve read a bunch and liked them all.

His books are usually meditations on the bleak corners of the human character. Not funny, or ironic, or sarcastic. Tough, you might say, like the West itself, where most of his stories unfold.

The Coens, in contrast, make movies about fools and the blood-soaked consequences of their their folly (except for “O Brother Where Art Thou,” which had fools aplenty, but not much blood. It’s my favorite Coen brothers film).

I might need to see the movie again to be sure this coming together of Coens and McCarthy really works. The movie is stylish, beautifully photographed, peppered with authentic-sounding West Texas twang. It has McCarthy’s characteristic rough dudes doing what they must.

For now, though, the movie seems not quite amusing enough for spot in the Coen cannon, and the characters are not quite enduring enough to be authentic McCarthy-esque protagonists.

But if it makes me want to see it twice, “No Country for Old Men” must have something going for it.

(Wow, this pic just won Best Picture).

Confessions of a debt hater

There might be a $200 balance on my MasterCard. It gets paid automatically every month. My car is 18 months old and paid off.

I don’t have a mortgage because the payment on condos as nice as my apartment is almost double what I pay in rent — and it’s somebody else’s job to mend the roof, replace the carpet and repair the fridge. Strikes me as pretty good deal.

I used to think my dad was a skin-flint because when we were kids, getting money out of him for toys, ice cream and candy was like pulling teeth. One time when I was in my 30s I told him I thought he was penny pincher.

He got a little hurt at the accusation, but said, “Well, I don’t spend money I don’t have. If that makes me a penny-pincher, so be it.”

Later I realized he wasn’t being tight with a buck so much as he was trying to teach us rugrats an important life lesson: if you ask for money you haven’t worked for, one of the most likely replies is “no.” This was good preparation for growing up in a world where asking for money can bring a “yes,” but you have to pay it all back and reward the giver with a bunch more because he has it and you don’t.

I also read something else later in life that stuck with me: Rich people earn compound interest; poor people pay it. I’d rather be an earner than a payer.

It’s strange being out of debt in a society so thoroughly greased by it. I read the other day that because the United States imports more than it exports, it’s in a perpetual state of debt. All those foreigner-bashing Republicans probably would just as soon not admit that China and Saudi Arabia are paid-up partners in the American Experiment. (Interestingly, this actually makes them much friendlier to us, because their fortunes are riding on our continuing to keep borrowing to pay for stuff we don’t need and can’t really afford. See, it’s always good to have partners).

I think the main reason I avoid debt is that it’s just one more complication. I pay what I owe every month and the issue’s settled. I don’t have to worry about my neighborhood going to hell, I don’t have to worry if my roof needs to be replaced, I don’t have to worry about getting fired, getting foreclosed on and having terrible credit the rest of my life.

It’s also nice to have a good rating for all that credit I’ll probably never use.

Scenes from downtown San Jose

I had occasion to be downtown on Sunday morning and decided to squeeze off a few frames. Among the highlights:

Marriott hotel in a water puddle

Thats the skinny tower of the Marriott Hotel reflected in a water puddle on Market Street.

Ferris wheel, Sunday morning

Down the street a ways, a Ferris wheel stands as part of the local Christmas in the Park festivities. Nothing happening this early in the morning, of course. The city’s central park is full of cheesy Christmas displays and gazillion Christmas trees decorated by local school kids. The best parts are the animatronics, which look variously vapid and diabolical. To wit:


Somebody’s cake’s making a run for it.


Keep your children away from this guy.

Another figurine

The most evil of the bunch, if I do say so.


If I didn’t know she was supposed to be singing, well, I don’t know what I’d think. (Well, I do but this is a family Web site.)

City Hall

Later I wandered over to San Jose’s City Hall, which always has promising photographic possibilities.

Great thing about downtown San Jose: you can take in all the highlights in about an hour’s walking.

Great headlines we have known

Those of us who write headlines for a living share a special reverence for one that topped the New York Post of April 15, 1983:


A headline so good you don’t need to read the story, but will because you can’t help yourself. Among the coolest five words ever to appear in large black type on cheap newsprint.

A little-known runner-up for coolest-words-in-black honors appeared in the Peoria Journal Star when I worked there in the late 1990s. It was written in small type atop a crime brief tucked somewhere deep in the local news section on a Sunday morning following a slow Saturday. One of the young wags on the Saturday night crew successfully sneaked this treasure into the paper:

Police find crack
in man’s underpants

I almost coughed up a lung laughing when I saw it in the paper that morning.

The Columbia Journalism Review has a back-page feature called The Lower Case, samplings of heads gone wrong that were best summarized in a small paperback book called “Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge” (another shining example: “Here’s how to lick your doberman’s leg sores!”). News of this feature’s humor potential apparently made its way to the writing staff of Jay Leno, whose headline hightlights became a comic staple.

One of our goals in life as Serious Purveyors of Important News is to keep our headlines out of The Lower Case and off the Leno highlights reel. But I remember the guy who wrote the “crack” headline: couple years out of college, known to read his poetry in public, given to dark thoughts and evil impulses. In retrospect it occurs to me he probably wrote it deliberately to see if he could get it on the Leno show. I seem to recall that he succeeded. An irony pioneer if there ever was one. Back then I thought he was foolish, reckless and devoid of standards of propriety. Today I wish I could say I’d written that headline.

I had one that came close, again at the Journal Star, where pretty much everything had a fighting chance of showing up in print if it didn’t have the F-word in it. I was doing Page One for Sunday’s paper, and my story for the top of the page was a lamentation on the seedy, lurid scandal that got Bill Clinton impeached. My headline:

Impeachment left fabric of Washington indelibly stained”

I just thought it sounded good and nothing more, till a colleague reminded me about Monica’s dress and its famous DNA evidence of presidential shenanigans. My first instinct was to rewrite it — it’s bad form to make cute, clever allusions on Serious Page One News (particularly when alluding to the messy consequences of oral sex) — but everybody else liked the head and talked me into going with it. My Mercury News colleagues were appalled to learn I’d gotten away with such a transgression, but I assured them I had learned the error of my ways and vowed to never sin again. (Today I’m kind of proud of that headline).

Lately I’ve been thinking that if I ever wanted to write a memoir about my life in the news biz, “Police Find Crack in Man’s Underpants” would be the title. Whether I get around to the memoir is anybody’s guess. But the memory of that headline always makes me smile, so that’s reason enough to memorialize it here.

Van Halen in San Jose

It’s Van Halen like it used to be. Not better, necessarily, but most importantly, not worse.

VH put out one killer album in the late 1970s, a disappointing one after that, and a couple pretty good ones up to the mid-’80s. Then they got stupid, dumped their insufferable lead singer and spent two decades proving that even with a guitar god like Eddie Van Halen at the helm and his amazing brother Alex on drums, they really, really needed David Lee Roth’s vocals and cock-rock theatrics.

This year they got wise, and went on tour. Anybody who remembers getting a shiver at the base of their spine the first time they heard the thunderous opening to “Running With the Devil” on that first album needs to get out and and see ’em while they’re hot and before, if their track record is any guide, they implode again.

Eddie is clean, sober and soloing like you wouldn’t believe. Roth is looking old and slightly ridiculous strutting his stuff like he’s 22 and no teen-age girl is safe, but his voice is fresh and strong. He hits those notes he hit in 1978. Maybe he rested his vocal cords all those years Van Hagar was mucking up the reputation of one of the great American guitar bands. Alex is impressive, and Eddie’s 16-year-old son, Wolfgang, does fine on bass.

They’re playing almost every song on their debut album and perhaps a few from each of the ones after that. The first was that much better than the rest, so that’s not much of a surprise. The real surprise came about nine songs in — opening with the Kinks’ “You Really got Me” and ripping through “Runnin’ With the Devil” proved to be mere early-round warm-ups to a rousing “Everybody Wants Some” from “Women and Children First,” their third album. It was my favorite song of the night.

Somewhere in there, they slipped in “Dance the Night Away,” the radio-friendly hit single from the second album that utterly betrayed the promise of the first. It’s better in concert, I admit, but I’ll always associate it with the disappointment of discovering VH’s sophomore effort was a dim shadow of their debut. Hey, in 1979 these were matters of some import to teen-age boys who required songs about sex, girls and the hope of getting some.

After about an hour it was starting to look like they were checking required songs off a list, then everybody left the stage as if it was an encore. Then Roth came out alone with an acoustic guitar and started into a monologue about how he got into the music biz over 30 years ago, how he and his pals got stoned in a Pasadena basement, how he met a girl … it rambled a bit but but the payoff was “Ice Cream Man,” an old blues cover and one of VH’s best songs. Funny, sexy and delivered as only Roth could. All previous excesses were immediately redeemed.

Later, Eddie’s solo moment lasted more like 20 minutes … should’ve gotten tedious, I suppose, but he’s just so damned superior at it. You don’t complain in the presence of greatness. The solo paved the way for a pounding, spot-on rendition of “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” the most muscular tune from that debut album. They really could’ve closed the show there, but obligingly played “Jump,” their biggest hit before Roth flew the coop. It was passable, which was good in a way because it let folks catch their breath and eased them toward the exits.

I had a free ticket to the show and had to be persuaded to go along. Van Halen isn’t a band I think about much anymore, beyond fond memories of the greatness of that debut album, the first record I ever owned (miraculously, the first stereo speakers I ever owned survived the assault). I wasn’t much much interested seeing an iconic band of my youth hitting the road as an oldies act.

It’s a credit to Eddie’s musicianship and Roth’s showmanship that they did not turn in a by-the-notes, rote recitation of their fans’ faves. They paused in the middle of songs, shifted tempos, improvised, goofed off a bit, and crafted an authentic concert. They know I know how all the songs go, I’m interested in seeing where the band goes with them.

So, yeah, they’re worth seeing on this tour — they’ve gotten raves on every tour stop — if you’re into the signature VH sound or if you’re a fan of world-class rock guitarists. It’s the Eddie and Alex Show, for sure, but something about Roth’s shameless, pile-on-the-ham stage presence completes the scene.

(Here’s another guy’s take on the concert, and here’s a set list).

The almost great San Jose quake of ’07

When the shaking stopped I turned around and saw Chuck, who sits behind me, crawling out from under his desk.

First words out of my mouth: “Looks like we’re going into Page One.” Not that anybody had to be told. The quake rattled the newsroom long enough and hard enough to send our news-detection meters into the red. At first we had no idea how bad things were: we could’ve been just down the road from a minor earthquake, or a hundred miles from one that flattened a small city.

Fortunately, it was the former: a magnitude 5.6 quake on the Calaveras Fault, within a mile of where we used to live in the hills east of town.

Nobody in the newsroom was hurt, but somebody could’ve been: A TV mounted on a high shelf tumbled to the floor with a crash. A water pipe sprang a leak near the business desk and maintenance people had to be called in. Somebody said the pressroom was the safest place to be because the entire press is on rollers. Don’t know if that was any comfort to the guys installing plates three stories up in the beast when it came to life for about 30 seconds.

The rumbling topped just after 8 p.m. and our first-edition deadline was around 11. Reports from the field started pouring into the newsroom e-mail system and everybody with a notepad and writing utensil started sending bits and pieces of the story. This was my favorite, from Food Editor Julie Kaufmann, who was at a middle school band concert:

At Spangenberg Auditorium in Palo Alto, the Jordan Middle School Symphonic Band kept right on playing “Estampie” by W. Francis McBeth when the earthquake struck in the middle of a concert.

“They didn’t tell us to stop,” said clarinetist Zoe Greene, 13, with a shrug.

“I knew the lights wouldn’t fall because of the safety cords, but I was worried about the curtain” said Chloe Koseff, another 13-year-old clarinet player whose knowledge of stage lighting safety procedures comes from her role as stage manager for the school’s theater productions.

Band conductor Vivian Boudreaux-Mikasa kept the group right on tempo during the shaking. “At first I thought it was the wind blowing outside,” she said. “If it had gone on any longer, I would have told them to duck and cover.”

Had the quake struck half an hour later, the music would have been more appropriate: John Higgins’ “Habitat (Visions of a Fragile Planet)”.

Nice touch there. (More of the Merc’s coverage here.)

Putting the story into words was challenge enough; finding pictures was another matter altogether. The quake happened after dark, so there wouldn’t be much damage within camera range. But in one of those crazy coincidences that happen only to photojournalists (I worked with a guy in Tampa who had a car crash into a travel trailer right in his viewfinder as he was shooting a picture for a story about a dangerous intersection), Richard Koci Hernandez, one of our top shooters, was interviewing a bunch of people in Willow Glen when the rumbling started. Instinctively, he started taking pictures, one of which showed a woman huddling under a sturdy table. When it was over, everybody dashed out of the house and he came to the paper with the lead photo for Page One.

My shift was up at 10 p.m. and by then the newsroom had everything pretty much under control and my prime duty — staying out out everybody’s way and attending to some non-quake-related pages — was pretty much done. I left them to their labors. If it’d been the Big One, however, I’d probably still be there.

It’s a thankful fact of life that news like this unfolds so rarely … big news is almost never good news, and we’d find nits to pick no matter how good the news is (I can see the headline: “Defense workers rue Second Coming”).

What keeps us doing it night after night, wading through story after story of lost dogs, inept public officials, this week’s scientific breakthroughs disproving last week’s breakthroughs? I can’t speak for everybody else; all I know is that the visceral rush of chasing the story after Real News happens would be declared illegal if the Drug Czar got wind of it.

Bay Area news biz, revisited

American Journalism Review reports on what I’ve alluded to in past posts:

The layoff-by-phone drill represented yet another backpedal from the lofty rhetoric of just 11 months earlier, when William Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group bought the paper and its suburban cousin, the Contra Costa Times. MediaNews acquired both dailies in a complicated deal with McClatchy, which in turn had purchased them a few weeks earlier from Knight Ridder, the Merc’s deceased and dismembered former owner. “We have bought the crown jewels of Knight Ridder,” Singleton declared at the time. “They are excellent papers that we expect to make better.”

Perhaps he meant “smaller.” The first layoff at the Merc newsroom (15 people) came just four months after Singleton, known in some quarters as “Lean Dean,” assumed control. A series of resignations starting in June trimmed 15 more jobs. Combined with the Passover cuts, the newspaper’s staff had shrunk by 22 percent in the first year of the Singleton era.

The Mercury used to have more than a dozen reporters in its San Francisco peninsula bureau located about 15 miles from San Jose. Now there’s just one. The Merc gets most of its peninsula news from the short-handed San Mateo Times and the Palo Alto Daily News, a free tabloid MediaNews acquired in the Knight Ridder deal last year. Some parts of the paper’s newsroom have simply just disappeared, among them a five-member projects team that included 40-year Merc veteran Pete Carey, who was part of a group that won a Pulitzer for foreign reporting in 1986. Carey is now a business reporter.

I can also add this: We used to have 40 copy editors. Now we have 15.

Singleton says it’ll be a rough three or four years till things turn around. Well, not so rough for him, I suspect.