What Cormac McCarthy Just Doesn't Get About Entertainment


Once upon a time, The Counselor, a recently-released film, was a promising crime thriller with an all-star cast, a hot director, and a Pulitzer-winning novelist on screenplay duty (that would be Cormac McCarthy). Today, it's a flop that grossed a measly $8 million on opening weekend and got dumped on by critics and audiences. Three people left my screening with less than 30 minutes remaining, which means they considered the icy trudge back to the Union Square subway station a better use of their time.

I did not hate this film, though I have trouble defending it. It features spectacular decapitations (that's right, decapitations — plural), but I doubt 20th Century Fox brags about that in their Calendar section ads. (NOTE: a "Calendar section" was where "newspapers" covered art and entertainment. "Newspapers" were what old people used to read to avoid conversation at the breakfast table). But I'm not interested in whether this was a "good" or "bad" movie — I only care that it's helping me win a heated, long-running argument with my dad.

Let me explain: my dad teaches remedial writing at an art college in Southern California. His students are art nerds, like younger me, meaning if something doesn't involve cartoons or drawing penises on desks with permanent marker, they're not interested. Students take my dad's class for two reasons: 1) previous teachers have dubbed them "bad writers" and graded them accordingly, and 2) they are required to pass his class to graduate. He jokingly calls himself "the most powerful teacher in school" because of the second reason.

To make matters worse, he insists on assigning Blood Meridian as their main reading. Blood Meridian is Counselor-screenwriter Cormac McCarthy's harsh and densely written 1985 Western novel, which involves frequent scalping scenes — a.k.a. scenes where the top of someone's head is forcibly peeled off with a knife. Then, my dad goes home and complains to my mom that they aren't reading it. He seems truly indignant about this, though it's obvious to both me (having read it) and her (who probably got to page 12 before giving up and checking if My Cousin Vinny was on TV) why this is so.

"Dad," I tell him. "Kids don't care about this sh*t. If they're having a hard time reading and writing, give them something entertaining. People learn better when they're having fun."

But my dad couldn't care less if his students are having "fun" or not. He's old school like that: truly and exclusively concerned with the quality of education he's providing. For him, Blood Meridian is such a profound work that he'd be failing these kids if he didn't challenge them to read it. It's rather admirable, if you think about it (nobody tell him I said that).

I envision Cormac McCarthy having a similar chat about The Counselor with his wife last weekend. Her name is Jennifer Winkley, according to Wikipedia. "Jennifer Winkley," he says, "people are dumping all over this movie I wrote. I tried to give them something profound and challenging, and they sh*t all over it." "But baby," she coos, stroking his balding head, "it was so boring. The decapitations were cool, I guess, but the rest was just cold-hearted jerks sitting around having vaguely philosophical discussions that no one could understand. You forgot to entertain your audience. This is a movie, after all." (NOTE: According to Texas Monthly, Winkley holds a degree in English and American Literature from UTEP, so I doubt she actually had trouble deciphering the absurd musings of her husband's characters).

The point being, there are two opposing ideologies here: people like my dad and McCarthy, engaged in what The Newsroom's Will McAvoy would call a "mission to civilize," versus the masses who simply wish to be entertained. McCarthy and Pops fail to realize that the masses always win — they don't care for philosophy or intellectualization, for better or worse. Fail them, and they will punish you.

That is why The Counselor is a flop. And that is why my dad's students are sitting around drawing desk penises instead of reading McCarthy's novel.