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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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Fargo Suitcase

The whole "white hats versus black hats" view of the world
MZS: It's very elusive, very tricky, very coy, I guess you could say -- the way they deal with these issues, or don't deal with them.

From Blood Simple onward, the Coens have offered up plot after plot after plot wherein good and evil square off, but both good and evil are as comical as they are formidable. Good is noble but rather dull, or conventional and predictable. Evil—or corruption—is more exciting, I suppose, or at least superficially sexier than good, but kind of pathetic in the long run. Anton Chigurh is distinguished by his isolation and his grotesqueness. The crooks in Fargo bang prostitutes in hotel rooms after a Jose Feliciano concert, and seem to last all of ten minutes before Johnny Carson comes on; meanwhile, Marge Gunderson and her husband seem truly satisfied in their "boring" suburban home, in their shared bed.

In the Coens’ work, the settled, slightly boring but essentially satisfied "good" collides with the evil, the chaotic. And the fate of the world, or at least these characters’ own little world, is at stake.

Irma Hall Ladykillers

But here's the really interesting part for me: in a Coen brothers film, you can never be entirely sure if good really defeated evil or if evil destroyed itself, through overconfidence or inattention or just plain bad luck.

Luck is such a huge factor in the Coens’ work. Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, Barton Fink, Burn After Reading and so many other Coen brothers films have plots that seem driven by mysterious clockwork forces that could either be weighted in favor of "good" or not . . . . But then again, you kind of can't tell. And while I think I know what the Coens think of their bad guys, I can't be entirely sure if what I'm seeing onscreen is a condemnation, however comic, or merely a presentation.

Are they moralists, or are they anthropologists?

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.

Think of H.I.'s final dream, the one about growing old with a family and feasting. Think of Marge and Norm celebrating the 3-cent stamp and the upcoming baby. Think of how the most moving and inspiring moment in True Grit comes not when Cogburn blasts the bad guys, but when he carries Mattie across miles and miles trying to save her. The more these characters try and crush evil, or to diagnose it with the intellect, or try to make themselves better through the sheer force of will, the more hopeless and sick at heart they become.

True Grit

Think of poor Barton Fink, who rants and rants about intellectuals who want "to insulate themselves from the common man, from where they live..." And what is Barton doing? He's recoiling from his neighbor, trying to insulate himself from a "common man." But the wallpaper keeps peeling away, and he will eventually have to deal with the ugliness, the corruption, that is common to everyone. His only hope for relief, it seems, comes when he learns to carry his "box of corruption" with him, rest, and look around at what beauty he can find in the midst of the world's seeming-absurdity. (And what is that diving pelican in the final moment but an affirmation that there is something absurd in the sublime, and something sublime in absurdity?)

In the same way, Sheriff Bell in No Country, for all of his efforts, must sit at the table with his wife, confess to a sense of hopelessness and futility, and "lean in" to a dream, to a sense that maybe there is a glimmer of hope, but it exists beyond our control.

O Brother

That is why I think there is profundity in Delmar's baptism in O Brother, Where Art Thou? It's grace. A fool like Delmar, and maybe even a fool like Ulysses, can "be saved" when he accepts grace. When these characters have a sort of Damascus-road encounter with something greater than themselves, and allow the gravity of that to draw them away from their wicked ways. "Well," he tells his friends, "as soon as we get ourselves cleaned up and we get a little smellum in our hair, why, we're gonna feel 100% better about ourselves and about life in general." That doesn't work. But he will begin to feel better about himself when grace inspires him back toward the straight and narrow, when love “cleans him up.”

Even Mattie Ross, for all of her righteous anger, pays a heavy price for trying to fix the world by force. After she is "disarmed," she seems to realize that the greatest reward of her adventure was not justice achieved by violence, but the mysterious bond that formed between her and Cogburn, who strove so mightily to help her.

The Coens' paint a picture of a world botched beyond belief, and beyond humanity's capacity to repair. But there is something transcendent about what those characters who know love enjoy. They touch something that operates in, through, and beyond the human sphere.

Hey, even Private Detective Visser in Blood Simple has a sense of it. He's preoccupied with Russia, where "everyone pulls for everyone else." But in Texas... "you're on your own."  

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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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