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

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by Jeffrey Overstreet and Matt Zoller Seitz
March 31, 2013 2:36 AM
5 Comments
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The small and humble people of the world

JO: On a side note, while I don't see anything as simplistic as a "Christ figure" in the Coens' films, I do love the way some have speculated that "The Dude" himself is a "holy fool" who acts as a sort of signpost toward Jesus. We see him doing carpentry (badly). We see him "taking it easy for all us sinners." He walks around in a robe, and hangs out with all manner of fools and crooks without an inclination toward judgment. He even bowls alongside a "false Christ" ("The Jesus"). And what does he drink at the grocery? Okay, I know, it's a crazy stretch, probably a coincidence, but I love the suggestion of "dual nature of Christ" in the carton of half-and-half. (Cathleen Falsani has a whole book on this, by the way: The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers.)

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.

MZS: Then what do you think the work reveals, about God, about faith, about the possibility of a moral code that can help us make sense of things? I feel like the Coens are very culturally conservative beneath it all, and not anything close to the snickering secular humanists you might think they are, considering their reputation as pranksters. I felt like the Nihilists in The Big Lebowski were the Coens' playful mockery of critics who've called them Nihilists—"Ja, we are nihilists, we believe in nothing!" they repeat, chasing the hero through his dreams with huge castrating scissors. The Coens aren't nihilists. They believe in something. And yet they don't spell that something out. It emerges organically while you're watching their films, maybe because they're not entirely sure what "it" is, either. They can see the contours but not the details, maybe? It's tricky and very subjective, what they're doing, and what we're doing as we watch they're doing. It's like looking for shapes in clouds. You see what you want to see, and maybe you're right to see it, or maybe if you were a couple of miles in the other direction you'd see something else entirely. 


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."

Chuck Jones clearly loved his Looney Toons characters. He loved their language, their exaggerated features, their cleverness, their vanity, their folly. But he loved those characters. And his depictions of human folly in the circus of those cartoons was a form of insightful humility, about all of us ridiculous human beings. So I think the Coens’ work disturbs audiences because it reminds us that, contrary to so many Hollywood messages, "being good" isn't the answer. Being good is good, but—as Bill Murray says in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom—it isn't enough to fix things. Their movies "ring true" when they remind us that there is a "wrath that's about to set down," as Rooster Cogburn says. If that wasn't true, it wouldn't strike such a resonant chord in audiences. The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in Raising Arizona is coming, and there's something elemental and true about him. We ourselves have unleashed him, as H.I. declares. In No Country, we're warned that we "can't stop what's comin'." There is a moral code, yes, and we violate it in countless ways. We're screwed.

But their work doesn't stop there. It engages and encourages us by leaving us with moments that transcend all of that doom, all of that destruction. Their suggestion of the possibility of grace is not so much a sermon proclamation as a desperate hope.

And it wouldn't move us so deeply if the anticipation of grace weren’t built into us somehow. It moves us because, on some level, we know it's true.

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org.


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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5 Comments

  • 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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