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O Coen Brothers, Where Art God? A Conversation Between Matt Zoller Seitz and Jeffrey Overstreet

by Jeffrey Overstreet and Matt Zoller Seitz
March 31, 2013 2:36 AM
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Editor’s note: So, I was watching Raising Arizona for the 400th time the other night, and laughing at the sheer Freudian-Jungian comic bookish-ness of having the lone biker of the apocalypse appear in conjunction with the hero, H.I. McDonough, having a dream. It's almost as if he was summoned by the hero's dream—as if he's a metaphor made flesh. You can see the biker as a physicalization of the hero's internal struggle to put down the outlaw within, and become domesticated. The biker is an id creature erupting from inside of H.I.—the return of the repressed, I guess Freud might say—only he's riding a giant Harley and he's got shotguns and grenades.
And then I started to fixate on something else: the sense that there's an equally strong religious or spiritual dimension to that scene. It's as if the biker is a demon being summoned like a supernatural creature from a horror movie or an ancient folktale. Ed doesn’t call him a “warthog from Hell” for nothing.

And this in turn got me thinking about all the other instances in Joel and Ethan Coen's filmography where it seems as though supernatural forces, or at least nonrational or uncanny forces, are at play—where what you're seeing doesn't quite seem to be metaphorical, if you know what I mean. There's an angel and a guardian angel in The Hudsucker Proxy, and the actual stoppage of time. The villain in No Country for Old Men seems like Satan himself, or a demon from hell, not unlike that biker from Raising Arizona. The bad guy in The Ladykillers is basically Satan, doing battle with an old widow, and their dynamic recalls Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish in The Night of the Hunter, which was a Manichean story that quoted the Bible and from folktales and fairytales rather liberally. A Serious Man draws on Jewish theology and folktales quite pointedly, and it ends with what looks rather like a miracle, or maybe a curse, or the apocalypse; and in any event, the film seems to connect with No Country for Old Men, which also has a fire-and-brimstone, or Revelation, kind of vibe.

And at a certain point I just thought, "I need to get Jeffrey Overstreet to talk to me about this, and see what he thinks." Jeffrey is a novelist and one of my favorite film critics. He writes with great lucidity and compassion about all sorts of movies, from all sorts of angles, but what I value most about his work is the theological-moral perspective he takes on things. He’s not a dogmatic scold, sifting through popular art looking for work that fits a rigid world view; he’s more interested in Looking Closer, as his blog title suggests, to discover what, if anything, the work is saying. That’s what I think he does in this conversation.—Matt Zoller Seitz 

Matt Zoller Seitz: Do the Coens believe in God? Can we even say that for sure? Do they believe in the non-rational, the supernatural? Or are they just pranksters pulling our chains and hoping to spark conversation pieces like this one, while they sit there snickering? What do you think?

Jeffrey Overstreet: As Emily Dickinson says, “Success in Circuit lies….” So, forgive me, but I’ll get to that question about God in a circuitous fashion. 

I think it’s great that the scene that started your engine for this conversation is “The Emergence of the Lone Biker.” I think it’s one of the most intriguing in the Coen brothers’ whole repertoire. (I can’t say “repertoire” in this conversation without giving it an exaggerated Southern pronunciation, just as a Coen brothers character would say it.) Anyway, that scene is not only resonant with apocalyptic, supernatural implications — it’s intriguing in that it serves as one of several portals into their other films. It’s one of those recurring motifs, those strands of thread that stitch the Coens’ whole body of work together.

Raising Arizona’s H.I. has the Lone Biker, who greatly resembles Sheriff Bell’s nemesis in No Country for Old Men —Anton Chigurh. Both are lone figures of chaos, wrath, death, and judgment, prone to blasting “the little things” (bunnies, birds) and the innocents. In fact, there are shots of H.I.’s troubled sleep, in which he dreams of apocalyptic things, that mirror Llewelyn’s troubled sleep after he brings the money home in No Country. There are strong connections between H.I. and Llewlyn, fools-in-arms right down to the way that their stolen goods drag them down into much darker and more frightful trouble. The allure of “what other people have” — money, a family, power, fame — is the pathway to hell for so many Coen characters.

But there are a variety of crooks in the Coens' world. There are boneheads like H.I. and Llewelyn, who take what doesn't belong to them and regret it. There are power-mad figureheads and CEOs and "Men Behind Desks" like Waring Hudsucker in The Hudsucker Proxy and the Big Lebowski in the film that bears his name, and the Hollywood studio execs in Barton Fink, and Leo in Miller’s Crossing... crooks who are insulated and egomaniacal, corrupt and rotten to the core. There are flimsy fools of apathy and inaction, like Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man and Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Those who insist on forcing the world into order through the power of law  —Sheriff Bell in No Country, Tom Reagan in Miller’s Crossing, Rooster Cogburn in True Grit — end up despairing, unless they act in allegiance to some kind of higher law, embracing mercy and mystery.

In fact, the only characters I can think of who aren't seriously messed up are Marge Gunderson in Fargo and Mattie Ross in True Grit.

So, back to your question about God: I think the Coens suggest him via negativa. They show the incompleteness and insufficiency of a vision that leaves God out. There are clearly human evils at work —evils of foolishness, carelessness, folly, and evils of greed and deliberate violence. But there are also evils of apocalyptic, seemingly supernatural proportions. As No Country demonstrates, good deeds and the power of law are not enough to save the world. Ultimately, the best we can do is seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in the presence of something greater than ourselves. 

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  • Chuck Miller | April 12, 2013 9:46 AMReply

    "JO: I think they're out to subvert the whole "white hats versus black hats" view of the world. I think they do believe in good and evil, but they seem to see all of humanity as having one foot planted in both camps. Their character cannot be “the Good,” but the more they "lean in" toward love, the more peace and hope and goodness they find."

    What about Marge in Fargo? I don't see her with "one foot in both camps", she's good. She relentlessly finds the bad guys without breaking one rule, while slogging through the cold and snow very pregnant. Even when a murderer is fleeing she shoots him in the leg.

    Then she goes home to praise Norm on his stamp art.

    There seems to be one truly bad character in every film.; there is only one truly good character.

  • Chris | April 12, 2013 12:19 AMReply

    Thanks for the insightful discussion.

    Obviously you can't distill the ethos of the Coens into one sentence (at least it's an ethos!) but they're pretty consistent in the notion that Evil is Pathetic. It's not that being good can change the world, or that evil is wretched, but that it's pathetic. Look at Jerry Lundegaard and his cast of cretins, the lone biker with the "Momma Never Loved Me" tattoo, Anton Chigurh's drive to act as Fate itself and then being confronted with what fate really means when he's hit by a car, the entire ensemble of loser villains in the Ladykillers or Burn After Reading. You could go on and on. The bad guys are all in their own way pretty pathetic, especially when contraposed against the Marge Gundersons and Matties of the world.

  • Tim Klobuchar | March 31, 2013 10:39 PMReply

    This was a great read -- thanks for doing it. I teach a unit on the Coen brothers in my high school film class, and I could see this as a class reading. We watch RAISING ARIZONA, FARGO, and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. It's fun to see some of the students make connections between the first and last films, which on the surface couldn't feel more different. I've been toying with the idea for awhile of creating a video essay featuring these three films, since I've seen them roughly a billion times each now. You guys touched on several patterns in your conversation (e.g., the dream/nightmare figures, the tendency to end with with sincere, loving domestic scenes, etc.) that I'd noticed, but you picked out even more that I hadn't, like Moss's "troubled sleep" paralleling H.I.'s. Someday I'll get to this ...

  • Jon Smart | March 31, 2013 2:12 PMReply

    Thanks for sharing your conversation. It has sparked some thoughts in the ol' noggin this morning. I am still chuckling about "disarmed" and half and half. I do think the Coen bros would be snickering about that particular choice of words and the theory that they are offering up their view of the Messiah and have given a clue to that by having him drink half and half in Ralph's. I also can't escape the idea that they also would have a nagging thought that something beyond them made that connection for them.
    All of that is speculation though, as I have read little about them and do not know them in any way other than through their movies and the occasional DVD bonus interview. Since the focus of this conversation is what the Coen brothers think, I will say this:
    I can't imagine that someone would take the time and care that they do to create such beautiful and complex characters and stories and then sit back and mock those that take the themes they address and the questions they raise as seriously as they do.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet | March 31, 2013 5:19 PM

    Thanks so much for the comments, Jon. I may have to introduce myself sometime so we can continue this conversation in person. This really is a three-beer subject. I suspect that Matt and I just scratched the surface here.

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