Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Major Arcana #7: THE CHARIOT - Cormac McCarthy, Guy Ritchie

This is the eighth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.

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THE CHARIOT: Cormac McCarthy, Guy Ritchie

Among the Major Arcana, The Chariot represents the peculiar single-minded character of military strength. It  is the conquering warrior, the disciplined regiment, and the raging berserker. It is the vanguard of nationalism and narcissism, where man takes his animal nature and releases it from its bondage, but channels its energy through tactics, into methodical, orchestrated dominance and self-assertion.

Cormac McCarthy is the modern author of this kind of domineering masculine character. He is related to the Emperor, perhaps being one of his appendages, but he represents a fundamentally different, more naive spirit. McCarthy uses the tropes of the Western, and more recently the post-apocalyptic survival saga, to enmesh his characters in irresolvable conflict: not simply with other powerful men, but with whole worlds and ways of life, which they must overcome, both for their material prosperity and for their very survival.

In McCarthy's austerity, there is also a necessary naivety, especially toward the implications of his own fascination with violent retribution. It is the soldier's innocence, the ability to shut off such higher functions as panic, self-doubt, and empathy, so that only the animal id remains. There are only the slightest glimpses of love in McCarthy's work -- such fleeting examples as Llewellyn Moss's love for his young wife, and the Man's protectiveness of his son -- but these seem like brute physical connections, more primal, eliding the rigorous work of bridging differences and sacrificing one's self-interest (both are important in truly complex, compromised characters). Meanwhile, these weary warriors know no solace or harmony... they are entirely the products of violence, architects of moral reckonings in which the strong always prevails, regardless of moral position.

On one hand, this is how the world often works. On the other hand, as my friend Evan once said, McCarthy seems dangerously close to inventing depraved monsters (Anton Chigurh, Judge Holden), and then giving them his gruff approval.

If the poets of violence were cast as circus clowns, Guy Ritchie would be the auguste to Cormac McCarthy's whiteface.

Guy Ritchie is a mirror image of McCarthy: instead of discipline and austerity, he is an irrepressible conductor of revelry and mayhem. I said, above, that there's a certain troubling naivety in McCarthy's violence... Guy Ritchie's films are just as naive, but their artificiality is a vaudeville flourish, rather than a ritualistic pretense of seriousness. Thus, though Guy Ritche paints the screen with more blood spatter and murders more meaningless extras, his violence is also less troubling, having less of a sentimental claim on the viewer.

Ritchie is no longer a cult director... I've argued that Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows had an obscure brilliance, but it was not an obscure film. But among those who feel a special affection for Ritchie as an auteur, he will always have two signature films. His first, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, staked out the tonal territory that Ritchie would forever call home. His next, Snatch, is probably the apotheosis of the Guy Ritchie gesture, a British crime film about hustling and extortion in the world of underground boxing. Its most important development? The Trickster protagonist, played by Brad Pitt, who would reappear, as an archetype, in many of Ritchie's successive movies.

In these two directors -- in particular, in the space between them, the tension that their contrast defines -- we find the Chariot, the engine of conquest, in its discipline and release, its catharsis and its brutal innocence. They are an odd couple, but like every Major Arcana, they belong together in their unbridgeable difference.