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VIDEO ESSAY: The Coen Brothers: Men of Constant Sorrow

Video
by Leigh Singer and Max Winter
July 11, 2014 4:07 PM
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Woe be to you if you should be so unlucky as to be a male character in a Coen Brothers film. You will be punched. You will be yanked off moving trains. You will frequently be plagued either by melancholy or by ethical torment. Things won’t go well for you. And often, you won’t be terribly likable. Take the plight of Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo. Could a terrible kidnapping plan have possibly gone any more poorly than this one? But, at the same time, could there be a less amiable character? The simpering, the crying, the sneakiness, the stammering--who could stand it? Or think of Tom Reagan of Millers Crossing. He perpetually tries to take control—of people, of his job, of his existence—and yet perpetually gets his come-uppance, in grand style, sometimes quite bluntly. His moment of mercy shown to Bernie Bernbaum in the forest, when he could take a shot, and doesn’t, is repaid by punishment, like all the best good deeds. Does he invite this bad luck? Sure, but don’t we all, sort of? Or consider Jeff Lebowski. Just consider him, for a moment. The peeing on the rug? The ferret in the bathtub? The blow to the head? All wholly unasked for, and yet delivered with a vengeance. But, and this is the million-dollar (literally) question, by who? Or what? It’s been tossed out that the Coen Brothers are, in some sense, religious—that, especially as shown in A Serious Man, their films are about how we humans are, in a sense, little more than plastic cowboy and soldier figurines being moved around in someone or something’s deranged, Old-Testament-Style shadowbox, open to whatever hurricane or other unexpected blow from above might descend upon them. But the opposite could also be asserted, that their films show what it is like to live in a world without a G-d, without mercy—and that what might pass for punishment in another view is simply the business of everyday life. How the men of these films transact that business is entirely up to them. One would think that Anton Chigurh of No Country for Old Men was wholly in control of his destiny, being as he is a reptilian sociopath—but even he likes a coin toss every now and then. True Grit? Same story, in a sense: though the men in this film have intentionality, they’re wandering through a terrain—the West—which is famously unpredictable, famously wild. And they’re being led by a young woman a quarter their age. And, beyond that, the Coens have constructed the script in such a way, with such faith to the original dialogue, that one sometimes feels the characters, male and female both, are at the mercy of the words coming out of their mouths. Leigh Singer's beautiful piece places us right in the middle of the Coen dilemma, in a form so exhilarating you might forget how much despair is being depicted.--Max Winter

Leigh Singer is a freelance film journalist, filmmaker and screenwriter. Leigh studied Film and Literature at Warwick University, where he directed and adapted the world stage premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s ‘sex, lies and videotape’. He has written or made video essays on fllm for The Guardian, The Independent, BBCi, Dazed & Confused, Total Film, RogerEbert.com and others, has appeared on TV and radio as a film critic and is a programmer with the London Film Festival. You can reach him on Twitter @Leigh_Singer.

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