Ridley Scott's The Counselor, from an original script by Cormac McCarthy, inspired quite a bit of critical hyperbole on both sides of the assessment scale, the most ridiculous of which was Andrew O'Hehir's very silly "worst movie ever made" screed, which was in part based upon the extremely dubious proposition that Hollywood executives use the phrase "the devil's candy" with the regularity of a Porky Pig stammer. I don't want to be "meh" about the movie, which I greatly liked in part, but...I was kind of "meh" about the movie. The profound moral schema that a few of its admirers cite was kinda spoiled for me on account of the whole (speaking of spoilers, um, skip this part if you're still looking forward to seeing the movie) femme-fatale-comes-out-on-top finale, which is the sort of thing that tries to raise misogyny to a near-mystic level and never really comes off. (See Basic Instinct.) (I also found Cameron Diaz's performance as said femme fatale to be borderline disgraceful.)
There's also the fact that this is a genre movie with an almost self-consciously literary veneer on it. Now this doesn't bother me, except, in this case, for the self-conscious part. That's to say, Cormac McCarthy is in a sense both a literary writer and a genre author. I've never found the two to be mutually exclusive myself. In McCarthy's case, the genre could well be some kind of horror (see Child of God), crime (No Country For Old Men), or the Western, sort of (see of course, Blood Meridian, a novel very much beloved of David Foster Wallace, who knew quite a bit about fiction both literary and genre). My reservations about how this works in the context of an original script directed by a visual virtuoso such as Ridley Scott are...well, they're actually immaterial to what I want to talk about in this post, which is this whole decapitating-a-guy-on-a-motorcycle-with-a-wire -strung-across-the-highway thing.
You read that right. There's a lot of talk in The Counselor, but every now and again there's some grisly, vividly shot and edited action, and one of these sequences involves stopping a speeding motorcyclist—a criminal courier of sorts—in the most extreme way possible. By cutting off his head as he's speeding down the road.
In McCarthy's screenplay, the description of the setting up of the decapitating wire is done in sober, meticulous detail that would likely pass muster in Popular Mechanics. McCarthy introduces a man "carrying a roll of thin monel wire over one shoulder," crossing the road and going to where "a tall metal pipe is mounted to one of the fenceposts."
"He loops the wire around the corner post and pulls the end of the wire through the loop and wraps it about six times around the wire itself and tucks the end several times inside the loop and then takes the wire in both hands and hauls it as tight as he can get it. Then he takes the coil of wire and walks out and crosses the road, letting out the wire behind him."
At the side of the road from whence this man walked, there's a "vertically mounted iron pipe at the right rear of the truckbed." The man "threads the wire through a hole in the pipe and pulls it taut and stops it from sliding back by clamping the wire with a pair of visegrips. Then he walks back out to the road and takes a tape measure from his belt and measures the height of the wire from the road surface. He goes back to the truck and lowers the iron pipe in its collars and clamps it in place again with a threaded lever that he turns by hand against the vertical rod. He goes out to the road and measures the wire again and comes back and wraps the end of the wire through a heavy three-inch iron ring and walks to the front of the truck where he pulls the wire taut and wraps it around itself to secure the ring at the end of the wire and then pulls the ring over a hook mounted in the side rail of the truck bed. He stands looking at it. He strums the wire with his fingers. It gives off a deep resonant note." See, I wasn't kidding about that Popular Mechanics stuff.
"The wire hums." And so it goes, until McCarthy calls for a "shot of the green rider with his face turned back to the floodlight now behind him." And... "suddenly his head zips away and in the helmet it goes bouncing down the highway behind the bike."
Yikes! Ridley Scott being the visual virtuoso that he is, he pulls off the scene with great dispatch and to ostensibly impressive effect, so much so that you might forget for a moment that the whole thing is preposterous on several levels. Yet there's something about the whole Guignol aspect of the killing method that makes it arguably irresistable for a writer. As it happens, another literary writer who showed an oblique affinity for genre, Truman Capote, described just such a mode of murder, while simultaneously acknowledging its preposterousness, in his 1975 sort-of non-fiction novella Handcarved Coffins. Handcarved Coffins finds Capote trying to return to the form he claimed to have invented with In Cold Blood, but having dissipated a good deal of his genius, he here approaches it from an easier angle, making himself a character in the crime narrative and telling quite a bit of the story in the form of scripted dialogue. Capote's guide and docent in this "account of an American crime" is an investigator named Jake Pepper, and early in the narrative he tells Capote of the killing of his friend Clem Anderson, decapitated while driving what's described as his "homemade jeep" over a "narrow ranch road." Here's their exchange:
TC: The wire, yes. I have never understood about the wire. It’s so—
TC: More than clever. Preposterous.
JAKE: Nothing preposterous about it. Our friend had simple figured out a nice neat way to decapitate Clem Anderson. Kill him without any possibility of witnessed.
TC: I suppose it’s the mathematical element. I’m always bewildered by anything involving mathmatics.
JAKE: Well, the gentleman responsible for this certainly has a mathematical mind. At least he had a lot of very accurate measuring to do.
TC: He strung a wire between two trees?
JAKE: A tree and a telephone pole. A strong steel wire sharpened thin as a razor. Virtually invisible, even in broad daylight. But at duck, when Clem turned off the highway and was driving in that crazy little wagon along that narrow road, he couldn’t possibly have glimpsed it. It caught him exactly where it was supposed to: just under the chin. And, as you can see, sliced off his head as easily as a girl picking petals off a daisy.
TC: So many things could have gone wrong.
JAKE: What if they had? What’s one failure? He would have tried again. And continued till he succeeded.
TC: That’s what’s so preposterous. He always does succeed.
JAKE: Yes and no. But we’ll come back to that later.
Lifting, or borrowing, from Capote, is one thing. But given that the ostensibly factual content of Handcarved Coffins has, since publication, been cast into considerable doubt...well, there's a lot of stuff on the Internet featuring latter-day variations on this improbable decapitation scenario, but its actual origin in the arts may in fact go back to 1968, and to uber-schlock-meister Herschell Gordon Lewis' very hard to watch (I couldn't even bring myself to look at it again for the purposes of this piece) She-Devils On Wheels. In which the aforementioned She-Devils contrive to kill some guy in precisely the same way as it plays out in The Counselor, only on a cheap budget and with an anti-virtuoso directing the proceedings.
This infuriated description of the scene, from an equally infuriated long-form account of Lewis' movie, at the very dedicated website Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension, is a vivid an, to the best of my own recollection, accurate one: "The gang slowly trundle out to their bikes, and after a cut we see them wrap wire around a pair of telephone poles, so that it stretches across the road at neck-height. HGL doesn’t actually tell us what the wire’s for, but he sure takes his time letting us see the girls get it prepared. Then we see the biker poster girl spin around.
"Remember how the bartender didn’t know where Joe-Boy’s gang hides out? You’re smarter than HGL, because HE didn’t remember that event – we now see Whitey and another Man-Eater ride up to Joe-Boy’s hot-rodders. Seriously, HGL – it was like a minute ago you told us that Queenie didn’t know where Joe-Boy was.
"Anyway the Man-Eaters get off their bikes, and again it takes both of them to put one of the bikes on its kickstand. While Joe-Boy’s gang watches quietly, Whitey stabs a hole in a car’s tire. Joe-Boy runs up all aggressive and in-your-face but gets sprayed with a can of … deodorant? Hairspray? Something like that. Joe-Boy, horrified at the threat of chlorofluorocarbons on the ozone layer, recoils, hands to his eyes, and the girls double up on Whitey’s bike and ride off, leaving one of their bikes behind.
"Joe-Boy, enraged, gets on the abandoned bike bait without a second thought, and his gang rush to their cars. Don’t worry about the gang though – we never see them again. Any of them.
"Off Joe-Boy rides in pursuit to the sound of the James Bond theme(!). We see him on the bike, then we see the wire with all the Man-Eaters watching. Then we see him. Then the wire. Then the Man-Eaters. Yes, HGL, I think we 'get it.' You’ve explained it enough. At least this time you only did it with repeated camera shots, not with dialog. That’s a slight improvement.
"Joe-Boy rides into the wire with what one of my viewing companions immediately dubbed, 'The worst decapitation I’ve ever seen.'"
So there you have it. A compelling backward line from Cormac McCarthy to Herschell Gordon Lewis. Who says that "blogs" don't do relevant work in cultural archeology?
UPDATE: Commentator Jason LaRiviere, below, cites "the greatest film to ever feature motorized decapitation by wire is Fellini's Toby Dammit." Indeed. The best segment in the omnibus film Spirits of the Dead, and one that Lewis could not have ripped off (unless he'd just heard about it), because that film was premiering at the Cannes Film Festival just as She-Devils was making its non-illustrious U.S. theatrical run. Hmm.
And the movie didn't even occur to me as I was writing this, even though it's an old favorite of mine. The reason: In the Fellini movie, there's no attempt to make the event plausible in a materialist empirical sense. The wire that cuts off Toby's head is, for all intents and purposes, put in place by a supernatural agent who need not concern him or her self with, say, the chances that the wire will catch some other idiot in a sports car. I am reminded, I have to say, of the Patti Smith poem "robert bresson," and its treatment of a scene in Au hasard Balthasar, and the scene's larger implications. This is the last section of the poem:
there is oil on the road.
the oil is the cause of the car going out of control.
what we want to find out is who put the oil there
and what the motive was.
who put the oil there?
i had to recreate the death of Jackson Pollock
w/the same radical destiny that spun from the
hallowed designs of his own death.
image: no. 11, 14 and portrait of a dream
image: the woman, lee krasner, shading her eyes
with hands brown and spotted.
here we have no accident no crime but a lateral
translation of a man going out of control
the initiation of a girl
(the intimacy of model and clone)
who would teach
as her teacher
film of sorrow
who put this oil here?
who was your teacher?