Thursday, January 3, 2008

The West Texas landscape in film

The two films that have received the most critical attention of the holiday Oscar season are the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men and P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Curiously, both were filmed in West Texas. As I have pointed out in earlier posts, it is a stark landscape, exceptional for its aridity and harsh, piercing, and beautiful light. In short, it is well suited to stories with biblical themes, which is undoubtedly why the Coens and Anderson chose to shoot their movies there (the Cormac McCarthy novel on which the Coen’s movie is based also takes place along the border, while There Will Be Blood, adapted from a muckraking Upton Sinclair novel, Oil!, is set in Southern California).

Spending Christmas at home in New England has increased my awareness of the contrast in landscapes. West Texas certainly has something in common with the Plains—the absence of trees means that the entire sky is visible, making one feel far more insignificant and exposed than in a hilly, forested place. On the other hand, such panoramas can be inspiring and liberating. No wonder that Marfa, a few score miles north of Big Bend, is an artists’ haven. It has been suggested that both films are “great American movies;” in that these stories of men who encounter great opportunity but ultimately are undone by greed evoke American themes of capitalism gone wrong, such adulation may be deserved. Certainly the acting of Daniel Day-Lewis and Josh Brolin is superb, though the Coen Brothers short-change character development by evoking themes of fate.

Quite a few developers have tried to make a fortune in West Texas, and most have failed. The landscape destroyed and was destroyed by the cattlemen of the late nineteenth-century. Too dry for open range grazing, its fragile grass ecosystems were ravaged by cattle before the cattle themselves died of thirst or cold or were shipped away to greener pastures. Even now, the semi-desert is mainly populated by invasive species, though there are efforts to bring back the native grasses. Abandoned fencing, homesteads, and various short-lived adaptations are now important features of the landscape in their own right.

Somehow, the light of West Texas, in its intense fragility, evokes the fleeting nature of human settlement out there. This quality is not unique only to West Texas—I’ve noticed it also in Idaho (it is omnipresent in Napoleon Dynamite, where it evokes the austerity and loneliness of its characters, behind their hip humor). Quite likely it is present throughout the American West, and indeed the dryer, more rugged regions of the world. Perhaps that is why country music, with its reliable and comforting themes of love and family, is so popular among inhabitants of these rather desolate places.

Such light, like these two remarkable movies, suggests that it is hubris to inhabit such places permanently.

These pictures are all from Big Bend National Park. The large rock mesa is Casa Grande, in the Chisos Range, while the pool of water amidst rock walls is part of the nearby Window.

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