Simply put, fear is funny. More clearly put, fear is at the root of much of what we consider humorous in films, even though we might not recognize it as such. We call it by different names—confusion, precariousness, coincidence—but the fear that something, whether it’s a job, a relationship, or some larger dramatic situation, might go wrong is always present in cinematic humor. This tendency goes back to the earliest comic films. In one famous scene in Modern Times, Chaplin’s factory worker is supplied with an eating machine intended to feed him while he works, but he can’t eat and work at the same time, and so he’s bombarded by hot dogs and corn on the cob. We laugh a lot at this—not only because of Chaplin’s droll presentation, but because we fear the machine might never stop. In Woody Allen's Annie Hall, we laugh at Alvy Singer’s caustic observations on his surroundings partially because of Allen’s cleverness but also partially because it spooks us, momentarily, that someone noticed the same thing about other humans that we did. In Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, we laugh because we envision a future in which Steve Martin and John Candy might never return home, but also because we know they will eventually return, in one form or another. When we watch Groundhog Day, we fear that Bill Murray will never wake up—but we also, in some small, quiet part of ourselves know that he will, so it’s okay to laugh. Fear and comedy are linked in the Coen brothers’ films as well—and more directly. This connection is a large part of what gives the films their power: we come to expect humor borne out of despair from these two minds, and we wonder what variation will arise next.
From their earliest films onwards, the Coens have used and exploited varying shapes and forms of the horrific for their comic potential. In Barton Fink, our first glimpse of the titular character (John Turturrro) shows him with a mortified expression on his face. Why is he mortified? Because, while watching his play being performed, he is scared of becoming second-rate. It would be easy enough, as well, to read the film’s conclusion, resounding with Charlie Meadows’ (John Goodman) near-immortal “I’ll show you the life of the mind,” as a suggestion that to truly look into the mind would be more terrifying than any of Fink’s visions of mediocrity; even so, the tone of the statement has a slightly leering quality to it, as if the very idea were a joke. In Raising Arizona, what do H.I.’s escaped con pals (John Goodman and William Forsythe) do when they realize they’ve lost Nathan, Jr,? They scream, loudly and comically. Why? Because they’re scared of what the baby might be feeling, the baby’s sense of terror being as far from their experience as they can imagine. This exploration continues as the Coens’ films progress. Fargo is memorable not so much as a crime story as for its interweaving of the violent and the comic. When silent, brooding Gaer Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) blows a police officer’s head off from his car seat, the action is horrifying but also delivered with semi-comic timing; when Grimsrud feeds Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) into a wood chipper, we’re repulsed, of course, but we also giggle, a little, as we do when Jean Lundegaard, after being tied up in a kidnapping staged by her husband and having a hood thrown over her head, rolls helplessly around in the snow. The comedy here is a strong mix of terror and slapstick, made all the more dramatic by the flat, relaxed quality of its characters’ Midwestern accents. The Big Lebowski balances its share of fear and comedy, as well—the precariousness we witness here is the upending of the daily assumptions by which The Dude (Jeff Bridges) lives, on a daily basis. First his rug is stolen, then he’s attacked, then he’s drugged by a porn king—the obvious question, and the big question, is: what next? And the tumbleweed at the end of the film provides an answer, of sorts: because we don’t know, the best answer is to drift, and to take things lightly if we can. There are many darkly comic moments in No Country for Old Men, which flash by us like bullets, but the brothers slow down to present us with one scene which is pure Coeniana, as well as comic, as well as connected, one one level, to fear: a scene in which a black dog chases Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). The dog runs after him, leaps after him, and, perhaps most memorably, swims after him, through rapids and waterfalls, across fields, over fences. Moss runs, of course, because, despite his courage in some ways, he is in some way scared of the dog, and beyond that, scared of being pinned down. Fear is all over A Serious Man, primarily fear of the future, and what grim events it might hold—and yet the Coens, by their own testimony, considered the torture of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) to be central to its comedy, right up to the tornado in its conclusion. Fear lurks in Inside Llewyn Davis too, when viewed from the right perspective. There’s the much-chronicled runaway cat scene, in which Davis could be said to be scared of losing a part of himself, maudlin as the chase might be; but there’s also the fear that goes into any sort of performance, the fear that accompanies any launch of self into the void of an audience’s ears or eyes or minds, a fear empowered and increased by the great, great risk of failure. or rejection.
This is not to say that this is the only thing driving the Coen brothers’ movies. It’s certainly not. Their love of interiors, of drowning us in a certain period, along with the mood of that period; or their love of language (from Miller’s Crossing’s “What’s the rumpus?” to “He’s givin’ me the high hat!” to the outlandishly long sentences of True Grit, largely taken from Charles Portis’s book but doubtless part of what attracted them to the project; or their fascination with dream logic, cf. the progress of Barton Fink from a stiff stage play to a burning hotel—all of these things are part of the mixture as well. But without their humor, and without its (ironically) fearless push to the brink of disaster, their work might not be as compelling. The blazing, wild humor in their films serves as the mystery factor, the invisible keystone in an arch of energized idiosyncrasy. -- Max Winter
Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.