The Coens love the fact that God uses the small and humble people of the world to shame the greater.
MZS: Well, I didn't want to come at this head-on, because it seems very un-Coen-like, but you went there first: I take it you believe that the Coens believe in God?
JO: Accept the mystery.
Okay, more directly: I think they believe in grace. I think that they're likely to give the great mystery enough respect that they won't name him. They'd rather show than tell. Or, if you will — they don’t believe in God, they believe in G-d. That's my inclination.
But then again, many great artists who profess to profound doubts, cynicism, agnosticism, have given us inspiring theological art. Listen to Woody Allen say he doesn't believe in right and wrong, or good and evil, or God. But then he tells stories about men who, when they commit all manner of sins, are haunted, conflicted, dissatisfied.
Perhaps the Coens' films are another case of the art knowing more than the artists. And that is what should matter anyway. I don't much care what the artist believes. I care to discern what the art reveals.
Annie Dillard once wrote, "There is no such thing as an artist: there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows. When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? When the candle is out, who needs it? But the world without light is wasteland and chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination." I love that. Give me the work and its mystery. Don’t ask me what the artist believes.
There's an aspect to their work that reminds me of going to Sunday school as a kid, and I don't mean that as a knock, not at all. It also reminds me of hearing my grandfather tell stories about his childhood by way of moral instruction. They're illuminating the universe, or at least exploring it. But they're not going about it in a didactic way. There's something fundamentally humble about them, as visually and structurally and generically flamboyant as they sometimes are. I feel like they're figuring things out, too—figuring themselves out, figuring the world out, and laughing at themselves, and the rest of us, for thinking there's An Answer to anything.
JO: I get why it reminds you of Sunday School, but I never get the sense that they're lecturing. I get the sense that they're holding up a mirror to all of humanity, themselves included, and showing us what a hilarious and pathetic mess we all — Coens included — make of things. I think Barton Fink has self-critique built into it — they're making intellectual movies, but they know that even ambitious art like that can only go so far. Their constant nods to Sullivan’s Travels, especially in Hudsucker and O Brother, tell us that they know that there is redemption in a certain kind of self-effacing laughter. I suspect they see themselves as Larry Gopniks... exasperated by the insanity in the people around them, but then capable of perpetuating that same destruction with their own judgmentalism and compromise.
What many people perceive as condescension, as "sneering at their characters" ... I disagree with that characterization. I tend to see that as a sign of their humility, maybe even compassion, and above all... affection. We are deeply moved when Tom Reagan shows mercy to Bernie in Miller’s Crossing. We feel that something has died when he becomes the figure of wrath later. Visceral responses like that are what we need in order to remember what is really at stake in this world. And I love their films for triggering those responses, and making me look for signs of beauty and grace in this world. As Dylan sings – and I can’t wait to see them visit Dylan’s scene in their next film! — "It's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there."
Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play. His book-length interview with Wes Anderson, The Wes Anderson Collection, will be published in October, 2013, by Abrams Books.
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