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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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Just drifting through, like the tumbling tumbleweeds

MZS: I want to dig into this a bit more, this sense that bedrock Judeo-Christian concepts inform the Coen brothers’ filmography. I think it's self-evidently true to say this, like saying that David Cronenberg is fascinated by the fragility of flesh and its overlap with technology, or that Steven Spielberg has daddy issues. But at the same time, it’s an observation that conflicts with the popular perception of the Coens as being cold or disinterested moral relativists—or at the very least, film school pranksters, guys who are all about homage, and who don't believe in anything, really.

They certainly do hold their cards pretty close to their vests in that regard. But maybe not as close as detractors might say?

They're essentially comic storytellers, even when they're making supposed dramas, but after watching their work for nearly thirty years, I've concluded that deep down, they're among the most moral, even moralistic, filmmakers working in the Hollywood mainstream. Good and evil aren't metaphorical to them, even though they take on overtly symbolic guises at times. There is a right way and a wrong way to live. They do judge the corrupt, the weak, the impulsive and the greedy in very unflattering terms. When the bad guys in The Ladykillers get foiled, they seem to be struck down—smitten as if by God himself, then dumped onto a garbage barge like, well, human garbage, I guess. And then there’s that line in the police car near the end of Fargo: "There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don't you know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well, I just don't understand it." 

What you say about surrendering to a higher power, or to the possibility of enlightenment or even "rapture," as a Christian might put it, runs throughout Joel and Ethan Coen’s filmography—that sense that you have to let go, to surrender to cosmic forces rather than fight them, and let the universe sort itself out. That's not to say that the outcome will necessarily favor Good, or even favor you personally—just that, as the films tell their stories, the universe has a way, and we don't necessarily know what That Way is, and ultimately we're all just drifting through, like the tumbling tumbleweeds in The Big Lebowski.

Do the Coens want to try to make sense of any of this? I don't know . . . There are times when they seem as baffled as the rest of us. They certainly have a fondness for narrator characters who try to put everything in perspective and fail miserably and very amusingly. The narrator Moses—what a name!—in The Hudsucker Proxy, or Sam Elliott's cowboy in Lebowski, kind of lose their places as they're trying to put a frame around things. The Coens seem to get a kick out of tantalizing us with answers while laughing at the very idea that there could be answers. 

JO: Well . . . they sure don't seem to think we'll know answers on this side of Sheriff Bell's dream. But there is something out there. There is somebody running the clock.

I'm uncomfortable with the term "moralists" when it comes to the Coens. Mere moralism isn’t enough. Moralism is just arithmetic: A fool plus his money are bound for hell. That’s not an accurate summation of their sensibility, because look at how the loving and the righteous and the innocent die miserably in their films. Exhibit A: Lana, from No Country. "Karma" is far too narrow a concept for the Coens.

Furthermore, there is too much respect for mystery in these films for the storytellers to be mere moralists.

Now, I don't think the answer is to start trying to pin a religion on them. A Serious Man makes it painfully clear that religion can become like Arthur Gopnick's book "The Mentaculus" ... a labyrinth of laws and reasoning that ends up making as much sense as the absurd, self-contradicting legal defense of Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Religion, while it binds communities and brings meaning through ritual, is ultimately not enough. I’m not willing to brand the Coens as “covert Christians.” And even if I did, the word "Christian" is about as meaningful anymore as the word "conservative" or "Democrat", or the term "the American way." It means a million things to a million people. But they are definitely drawn to a vision of the cosmos that resonates with my understanding of Christ's teachings. That is to say that “righteousness,” the ways of religion, and the law-focused method of an "Old Testament" worldview, are ultimately insufficient. We cannot earn our way to heaven by being good. We cannot save ourselves.

The Coens know that “all have sinned,” and they know that “the wages of sin is death.” Everybody is likely to die miserably in their movies, whether as a result of their own evil or someone else's.

But there is something out there, some kind of offer of grace, and when we glimpse that, goodness happens in us. We begin to love not for selfish reasons, but as a response, as a reflection, as if we are instruments being tuned up by something greater than ourselves.

No, I think that the clearest summation of their worldview comes from Mattie in their True Grit remake: "You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God."

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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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