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

Press Play By Jeffrey Overstreet and Matt Zoller Seitz | Press Play March 31, 2013 at 2:36AM

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?
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Tumbleweed Lebowski

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.

Mentaculus

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."

This article is related to: Jeffrey Overstreet, Matt Zoller Seitz, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen


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