The Dissolve has been running a “Movie of the Week” series centered around Fargo, and one of the highlights is an excellent essay by Tasha Robinson about the moral code across the Coen Brothers’ universe.
Among many other observations, she synopsizes Burn After Reading brilliantly. That movie has frustrated me ever since I saw it, since it seemed to be a perfect example of exactly the kind of cynicism and nihilism that they’ve always mocked. Robinson’s essay finally makes it fit in with everything else (the answer’s in the title).
“The Coen Brothers as Moralists and Populists” is one of my favorite topics. I’ve got a tendency to treat works of art as puzzle boxes anyway, where each one has a single correct solution if you just apply enough thought to it. The Coens pack so much pointed but seemingly nonsensical stuff into their movies — including scenes that implicitly say this means something very important while explicitly telling you this is meaningless — that it becomes impossible to resist and impossible to escape. You just end up looking foolish even trying to figure it all out; you realize it’s less a puzzle box than a Chinese finger trap.
It’s even more tempting when you see so many of the movies being interpreted to say something that’s the exact opposite of what they’re really trying to say. It’s like being given a complex treasure map decades in the making, and seeing everyone else digging in the wrong place. And then when you’ve finally found the treasure, somebody’s there to beat you to death and throw your body into a wood chipper. Isn’t that always the way?
Robinson concludes that there’s a consistent Old Testament-slash-Hays Code-style moralizing across the Coen Brothers’ entire body of work. A list of rules, Five Commandments, that determine whether characters are rewarded and punished — with the scales weighted impossibly in favor of being punished — and while there’s hope for sympathy, there’s almost no hope for redemption.
I think much of that is ingenious, but that the truth goes one step further. (Notice how I didn’t say something like “I’m not sure I agree with you 100% on your police work there.” Every day, I’m getting less and less twee). It’s important to stress that there’s a moral center to the Coen Brothers’ movies, since there’s a tendency to dismiss them as arch, cynical, or defeatist. But I think the bigger picture is actually a rejection of the Old Testament notion of a list of rules that can be followed, violated, or subverted.
The overall philosophy — assuming one exists! — is more like Taoism or Zen Buddhism. (Or at least, my cursory and almost definitely over-simplistic outsider’s understanding of those). With this interpretation, the sacred texts are Fargo and A Serious Man, and the closest they have to a kind of spiritual ideal is The Dude.
A Man of Constant Sorrow
Robinson’s essay concludes with “a world of strict moral reckoning or laughable anarchy,” where horrible things happen to good people, virtue is seldom rewarded, redemption is near-impossible, fate delivers punishments that far exceed the severity of the transgression, and the rules are different for comedies and dramas.
If there’s a consistent four-word synopsis of Coen Brothers movies, it’s: “Everything goes horribly wrong.” If you’re allowed to expand on it, it seems like the complete version is “Everything goes horribly wrong, because of something you did.” It seems like story after story is just another case of people getting punished for their sins, other people’s sins, or just having the bad luck of being a character in a Coen Brothers movie.
Looking at it as Good vs. Evil, crime and punishment, makes it seem as if the whole thing is chaotic, capricious, and vindictive. There’s a role-playing game called Fiasco that’s heavily influenced by the Coens’ movies, and the consistent idea among all the different game settings and rule sets is that things are go very badly for all the characters involved. Players roll dice to determine just how badly.
And it seems like the odds are against the Forces of Good. The movies are full-to-bursting with liars, thieves, adulterers, kidnappers, and murderers. A few even have actual, physical manifestations of Evil — Leonard Smalls, Anton Chigurh, and probably John Goodman’s character in Barton Fink. With all of these villains, the only character who comes close to being an actual hero is Marge Gunderson.
But even there, she’s more of an observer than a champion of justice. She does capture the villain, but the genius of that scene is that it’s not presented as a victory of Good over Evil. Instead, it’s an example of what happens when Good confronts Evil and is simply unable to comprehend it. She tells him that she can’t understand why anyone would do the things that he’s done, and especially on such a beautiful day. Crucial to understanding that scene — and the whole movie, I’d say — is recognizing that Marge isn’t at all stupid or naive.
I still think of No Country For Old Men as Humorless Fargo, and there’s a corresponding scene at the end of that movie in which Kelly Macdonald’s character finally comes face to face with Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh. The “sin” that’s instigated the whole story has already been punished, but he’s still there to kill her. Her reaction isn’t so much one of fear, but of grief: she’d known this was inevitable, but she still can’t understand why.
You could even say that there’s a similar scene in Raising Arizona, when H.I. has to fight Leonard Smalls. The key difference is that he is actually pretty stupid and naive, but the overall tone is the same: this doesn’t make sense. It’s not like it was the other prison escapees, who were bound to betray him sooner or later. This guy literally came out of nowhere, and he’s almost literally unstoppable. It’s only at the last minute that H.I. notices that they share a tattoo and have at least one thing in common, so he can have a bit of empathy.
Good and Evil aren’t opposing forces; Good is the absence of Evil (and vice-versa). Evil — pure evil, as opposed to just self-interest — is such an alien and foreign concept that Good can’t even comprehend it.
Taken together, it makes the whole “canon” seem less Old Testament and more Lovecraft. Evil is omnipresent and almost omnipotent, and it’s our fate to go as long as we can without succumbing to it completely.
THC and Sympathy
A lot of shallow reviews of the Coens’ movies stop right there. Most recently with Inside Llewyn Davis, there were the typical allegations that the film is impersonal and cold-blooded, filled with irritating characters who are difficult to root for, or that it’s just another exercise in the “cool, smirky pessimism of the Coens”. What’s telling about those reviews is that neither finds any point to the movie as anything other than a misanthropic comedy; technically, it’s fine, but it’s a minor work because there’s no soul to it. It’s just one scene following the next.
You’d think that after the Coens went out of their way to show their self-important nihilists as a trio of tights-wearing clowns, it’d be clear what they think of allegations that they’re cynical or defeatist. “Misanthropic” is the absolute worst word you could use to describe their stories; even at their most dark and dour, the movies are ultimately a celebration of people.
To be fair, it’s easy to see why that interpretation doesn’t always come through. I make it a point to avoid reading interviews with the Coens themselves (to “preserve the mystique,” as Llewyn Davis would say), but in the few quotes I’ve seen, they tend to give curt dismissals. There’s one passed around where Joel Coen describes O Brother, Where Art Thou? as the “Lawrence of Arabia of hayseed movies.” The re-release of Blood Simple includes a introduction by noted film preservationist Mortimer Young in which he describes the film as ushering in the age of independent cinema, and commentary track from important film historian and artistic director Kenneth Loring.
If you tend to be a self-important person, and you’re confronted with filmmakers habitually and ruthlessly mocking the self-important, then you’re likely to interpret that as hostility, if not outright misanthropy. None of these characters have any hope of success, and they’re all too stupid or arrogant to realize it. Let us all despair over the cruelty of our existence and laugh and mock the folly of anyone who strives to achieve more. Also, let’s make fun of their silly accents.
Now, I do believe that there’s a recurring theme of characters swept up by Fate (or Evil) and impotently struggling to get free of it. And I do think that it’s fruitless to try to parse the characters into “good guys” and “bad guys.” But it’s absolutely possible to discern the characters who are sympathetic vs. the ones who aren’t. A critic who finds the characters consistently “irritating” is revealing more about himself than about the filmmakers; there’s an inescapable sense that the Coens love some of these characters, even as they’re poking fun at them. Even the ones they don’t love, they still find fascinating.
One of the characters they love the most doesn’t fit the good guy/bad guy ideal at all. He’s a stoner, a drop-out, and he might actually be kind of stupid. For filmmakers who love banter, he’s not that good at it. He doesn’t really accomplish much, but then he doesn’t really aspire to much. And yet he’s one character you’re unequivocally, undeniably supposed to love.
The Life of the Mind
The sympathetic characters aren’t always the protagonists, either. The only part of Robinson’s essay that I disagree with completely is her take on Barton Fink:
Barton Fink starts Barton Fink by queasily deciding to sell out his considerable talent for Hollywood money, and spends the rest of his film suffering the horror-movie consequences.
The theme of the tension between art and commerce runs throughout Barton Fink. But the story is absolutely not punishing Barton Fink for being a sell-out. Just the opposite, in fact: it’s showing the consequences of his arrogance. Fink is acutely aware of his own “considerable talent,” and he’s convinced of his own importance. He talks about “the common man” as a curiosity to be studied, and yet he appoints himself as the Voice of the common man.
Knowing that Barton Fink was written during a period of writer’s block while developing Miller’s Crossing, it’s a bit easier to interpret: the Coens do identify with Barton Fink, but it’s not a lament of the tragic plight of the serious artist. They’re making fun of themselves for having their heads too far up their own asses.
The same idea runs throughout Inside Llewyn Davis, and again, Llewyn Davis isn’t a hero. He sings folk music, ostensibly the music of the “common man,” but he’s horrible with people. He’s disdainful of the music and yet completely convinced of his own superior talent and artistic integrity.
(One of my favorite things about that movie, that I forgot to mention right after I saw it, is its confidence in showing its main character’s arrogance. They don’t need to undermine his talent; he is a genuinely good performer, but that doesn’t excuse his being an asshole. But they also don’t feel the need to play it up, showing wide-eyed reaction shots from an audience or a “hey, he’s actually really good!” from a skeptical agent. It’s easy to underestimate how ballsy it is to have an entire scene where your actor — who’s playing a character that’s been established as an unreliable, irresponsible jerk — is just singing an entire song with an acoustic guitar in front of a man who remains completely stone-faced).
I don’t think it’s an accident that the thing that finally gets Llewyn Davis beaten up — the point at which the movie says, “Okay, that’s enough” — is when he starts heckling the “hayseed” on stage. In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Fargo, and Raising Arizona, the Coens are having fun with their “simple” characters and their accents and their music, but it’s not at those characters’ expense. And it’s not just that they’re not mocking the characters; they have no patience for the people who do.
Burn After Watching
Once all of that is taken together, a consistent theme begins to emerge, and it doesn’t seem quite as capricious or vindictive. Even though the movies are overwhelmingly about crime and criminals, the crimes are more often than not just instigating events. In any case, those aren’t the sins being punished. The true sins in this universe are hubris, vanity, selfishness, self-importance, prejudice, arrogance, pretentiousness, and over-confidence. Essentially, anything that makes a character think that he’s special or better than anyone else.
The most common sin in the Coens’ movies is a person thinking that he can beat the system. H.I. and Ed McDunnough believe that the rules don’t apply to them (and besides, they got more than they can handle). Tom Reagan in Miller’s Crossing is always giving everybody the high hat, always desperate to keep his cool and stay in control, convinced he’s got the whole system figured out, and he knows all the angles. Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There has a normal (albeit pretty miserable) life, but he grows to see his quietness not as a virtue but a weakness. He finds himself better suited to a pulp detective or noir story in a men’s magazine; he doesn’t regret anything he’s done, but he did regret being a barber.
Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are all instigated by con artists, grifters, and manipulators. Everett McGill is vain and sees himself as a smooth talker, but everybody can tell that he’s not “bona fide.” (And O Brother is the Coens making fun of themselves as much as any of the characters; putting themselves in the role of the directors making a film about average people and being pretentious enough to base it on The Odyssey).
It’s probably a mistake to read too much into The Hudsucker Proxy or Blood Simple, since neither’s meant to be taken seriously. But they still fit, more or less. Sidney J. Mussburger thinks he can beat the system by manipulating a naive incompetent who instead turns out to have some brilliantly simple ideas. And Blood Simple shows what happens when really, really, crushingly stupid people try to take part in clandestine affairs and double-crosses.
And Mattie Ross in True Grit was a fascinating character long before the Coens got hold of her, and you can see why the story would be such an appealing project for them. On top of the wonderful language and the bizarre-but-grounded characters, there’s a perfect kind of conviction to the character and her story. She is always absolutely, 100% convinced that there is a code of proper behavior, perfectly and unquestionably covered by the Presbyterian faith, and she is always in the right. If you want to apply the sin-and-punishment idea to it, you could assume that the snake bite is punishment for her pride. But there’s never any sense of selfishness in her motivations; there’s simply what’s right.
What’s frustrated me for years is that Burn After Reading didn’t seem to quite fit. It’s got the usual components: a bunch of charming idiots, arrogant villains (John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton’s characters), and a series of increasingly horrible events that end in senseless death, destruction, and tragedy.
But there’s no sense of justice to it. Our charmingly moronic protagonists are motivated by vanity or pride, and they all think they’ve beaten the system. It results in two “nice guys” being murdered, and only one of the villains put into a coma for his arrogance. And not only do our protagonists escape punishment for all this mayhem, they’re actually rewarded for it. Our “Greek chorus” wraps up the story by saying outright that none of it makes any sense. At the time, I wrote it off as a bit of psychic residue resulting from having to work on No Country for Old Men, the bleak cynicism of that story lingering after production, encouraging them to get it out of their systems with a farce.
That’s why I think Robinson’s interpretation is perfect:
The film ends with a couple of baffled CIA officers debating what they’ve learned from the whole debacle, and concluding that none of it is particularly meaningful or useful. They arbitrarily decide to grant one selfish and small-minded character exactly what she most wants, so they can sweep all the movie’s events under the rug and ignore them—and it comes across as a referendum from the Coens, revealing the lack of a point or a center in a story where the villains are rewarded and the best people (relatively speaking) are punished.
In other words, it’s not an exercise in cynicism, but a rejection of it. This is what you get when you try to assemble all the components, but have no moral center to it. It doesn’t end up being arch or cold; it just doesn’t make any sense at all. It doesn’t mean anything. And now that we’ve seen it, let’s all pretend it never happened.
Receive With Simplicity Everything That Happens To You
I agree with Robinson that A Serious Man is the most straightforward explanation of the philosophy of the Coens’ movies, but I don’t quite agree with her conclusion. She points out that Larry Gopnik “endures the trials of Job” and all of his attempts to make sense of it or understand it go unsatisfied.
…he questions what godliness means, and tries to make the right choices, particularly regarding a student attempting to bribe him for a better grade. Events around him suggest the world is a chaotic, unjust, random place, or at least a place with no clear answers, as the fables at the beginning and middle of the film emphasize. But the second he crosses the line, when he stops his ethical struggle and decides to accept the bribe, the consequences are instantaneous…
Where I disagree is with the idea that the answers exist in the first place:
He seeks answers in his Jewish faith, which has no answers for him except an exacting “Obey the rules.” It’s no surprise when he doesn’t, given what he’s been through, but the film’s final shot makes it clear that those rules are ironbound, regardless of excuses.
But I think that the message of the entire film is that looking for “rules” is folly. In a sense, it’s a film about Jews that rejects the whole idea of an Old Testament God.
The key scene is the point at which Larry decides to accept the bribe. And on some level, the ending is a final “damned if you don’t, damned if you do” gag, a last bit of sardonic humor. But if that were the entire point, then it could’ve been told with a short film, or one of the parables in the larger story. Instead, the entire story up to that point has been one example after another of people trying to come up with a way to codify morality, to get an explanation in the form of cause and effect. Every bad thing that happens is the result of some transgression we’ve committed. If we can only figure out what the rules are, we can avoid all the tsuris.
But even if we hadn’t already seen every other Coen Brothers movie, we’ve seen plenty of evidence that Larry hasn’t done anything to deserve all the trials he’s going through. Sometimes horrible stuff happens to good people. Believing that we can follow a list of rules is believing that we have some control over it. It’s a kind of hubris, even: imposing an ironclad contract on God, when He’d prefer to play it by ear and take each of us on a case-by-case basis.
When Larry decides to fix the grade, the significance isn’t that he broke a rule and brought down a probable cancer diagnosis and a definite tornado. The significance is that he decided that because the “rules” were impossible to discern, that none of it mattered.
He knows that it’s wrong, or else there would be no moral quandary. But why is it a quandary? Because he’ll be punished if he goes through with it? Or because he simply knows that it’s wrong? The movie suggests that we’re trying to codify right vs wrong, to express it as punishment or reward. But moral behavior is its own reward. If we’re not evil — and most of us aren’t — then we have an innate sense of right vs. wrong.
Therefore, the thing that defines our character isn’t what we do to cause or avoid hardship. It’s how we react to hardship. Struggling to somehow beat the system or circumvent it in your own favor will always end in failure. (And often take down the innocents surrounding you. RIP, Donny). But following the proverb presented at the beginning of A Serious Man — “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you” — really can’t fail, because it sees simplicity as its own reward.
At the end of Fargo, Marge Gunderson goes from capturing a murderer and closing a case of kidnapping and multiple homicides, to lying in bed with her husband talking about stamps. And the man who instigated the whole “adventure” is dragged out of a window in his underwear, wailing pathetically. It’s pretty clear which is the preferred ending, and it has nothing to do with excitement, and everything to do with accepting and appreciating a peaceful (if not perfect) life.
Suddenly, The Dude transforms from unambitious loser to Zen Master. While everyone else schemes and plots, or rages, or plays the angles, or despairs, or struggles to win a game they can’t possibly win, The Dude abides. He’s got more explicit rules about what name he goes by than about right vs. wrong. Whatever integrity he has is innate instead of prescribed. He’s not a hero, because he’s almost completely reactionary.
And he doesn’t want a fortune, or a mistress, or an adventure (although he ends up with two out of three, more or less); he just wants a rug that ties the room together, and the opportunity to bowl with his friends. He’s eternally in the moment. Instead of constantly striving for more, he appreciates what he has. Another word for “lack of ambition” is “contentment.”
With all that, if I were trying to come up with a single summation of the morality across the Coen Brothers’ movies, it’d be this: “Yes, we’re all doomed to an existence in which the answers are unknowable, where we’ll experience both great beauty and horrible tragedy, where there’s no rhyme or reason to how much of each we’ll receive, and where any attempt to take control over our own fate is ultimately futile. But you don’t have to be an asshole about it.”