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The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers

The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers

Edited by Mark T. Conard
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers
    Book Description:

    In 2008 No Country for Old Men won the Academy Award for Best Picture, adding to the reputation of filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, who were already known for pushing the boundaries of genre. They had already made films that redefined the gangster movie, the screwball comedy, the fable, and the film noir, among others. No Country is just one of many Coen brothers films to center on the struggles of complex characters to understand themselves and their places in the strange worlds they inhabit. To borrow a phrase from Barton Fink, all Coen films explore "the life of the mind" and show that the human condition can often be simultaneously comic and tragic, profound and absurd. In The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers, editor Mark T. Conard and other noted scholars explore the challenging moral and philosophical terrain of the Coen repertoire. Several authors connect the Coens' most widely known plots and characters to the shadowy, violent, and morally ambiguous world of classic film noir and its modern counterpart, neo-noir. As these essays reveal, Coen films often share noir's essential philosophical assumptions: power corrupts, evil is real, and human control of fate is an illusion. In Fargo, not even Minnesota's blankets of snow can hide Jerry Lundegaard's crimes or brighten his long, dark night of the soul. Coen films that stylistically depart from film noir still bear the influence of the genre's prevailing philosophical systems. The tale of love, marriage, betrayal, and divorce in Intolerable Cruelty transcends the plight of the characters to illuminate competing theories of justice. Even in lighter fare, such as Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, the comedy emerges from characters' journeys to the brink of an amoral abyss. However, the Coens often knowingly and gleefully subvert conventions and occasionally offer symbolic rebirths and other hopeful outcomes. At the end of The Big Lebowski, the Dude abides, his laziness has become a virtue, and the human comedy is perpetuating itself with the promised arrival of a newborn Lebowski. The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers sheds new light on these cinematic visionaries and their films' stirring philosophical insights. From Blood Simple to No Country for Old Men, the Coens' films feature characters who hunger for meaning in shared human experience -- they are looking for answers. A select few of their protagonists find affirmation and redemption, but for many others, the quest for answers leads, at best, only to more questions.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7323-8
    Subjects: Film Studies, Philosophy, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)
    Mark T. Conard

    Since arriving on the cinematic scene in 1984 withBlood Simple,Joel and Ethan Coen have amassed an impressive body of work that has garnered them critical acclaim and a devoted following. Their highly original works include both comedies and dramas and cover various genres (neo-noir, the romantic comedy, the western, the gangster film). However, most, if not all, of the Coens’ films defy exact categorization, and they always bear the brothers’ unmistakable stamp. From the Irish gangster morality playMiller’s Crossing(1990) to the film blancFargo(1996), from the neo-noir comedyThe Big Lebowski(1998) to the Odyssean...

  5. Part 1. The Coen Brand of Comedy and Tragedy

    • Raising Arizona as an American Comedy
      (pp. 7-26)
      Richard Gilmore

      Raising Arizona(1987) begins with what sounds like the slamming of some prison doors. It is, to be sure, an ominous sound, and proleptic in at least two ways. First, it anticipates the sound that our protagonist is about to hear within minutes of our first meeting him, and second, it anticipates one of the major themes of the movie, which is, in the words of Ethan Coen, “family life versus being an outlaw.” That is, presumably, to the outlaw, family life can seem like some prison doors swung shut. Immediately following the sound of the slamming prison doors there...

    • The Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself: Nihilism and Comedy in Coen Neo-Noir
      (pp. 27-40)
      Thomas S. Hibbs

      From their inaugural film,Blood Simple(1984), through the film blancFargo(1996), toThe Man Who Wasn’t There(2001), the Coen brothers have exhibited a preoccupation with the themes, characters, and stylistic techniques of film noir. By the time they madeBlood Simplein 1984, neo-noir was already established as a recognized category of film.¹ Prior to Quentin Tarantino’s darkly comedic unraveling of noir motifs inReservoir Dogs(1992) andPulp Fiction(1994), the Coens were already making consciously comic use of noir plots and stylistic techniques. Lacking Tarantino’s penchant for hyperactive and culturally claustrophobic allusions to pop culture,...

    • Philosophies of Comedy in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
      (pp. 41-54)
      Douglas McFarland

      It is said that upon a visit to Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Groucho Marx was taken to the mound of rubble that had been the site of Hitler’s bunker. Groucho stepped out of his jeep and climbed to the top of what constituted Hitler’s gravesite, where he unexpectedly proceeded to dance the Charleston. On one level, the gesture is meant to defy evil, to assert the celebration of dance over the horrors of Hitler’s madness, to demonstrate the irrepressible energy of the human spirit. Groucho, in short, thumbs his nose at the Führer. But his...

    • No Country for Old Men: The Coens’ Tragic Western
      (pp. 55-78)
      Richard Gilmore

      No Country for Old Men(2007) is, one might say, one more step in Joel and Ethan Coen’s cinematic effort to say something about this country and about being a member, a citizen of this country, the United States of America.No Country for Old Menfeels like a very different kind of movie from every other Coen brothers film. It is more serious, or it is serious in a different way from their other movies. It is not unusual for the Coens to take on dark themes in their movies, but previous toNo Country for Old Menthere...

    • Deceit, Desire, and Dark Comedy: Postmodern Dead Ends in Blood Simple
      (pp. 79-90)
      Alan Woolfolk

      As the inaugural film of Joel and Ethan Coen,Blood Simple(1984) is a startling exercise in transgeneric filmmaking that is difficult to characterize accurately not only because it draws upon the genres of film noir, comedy, the detective film, and the thriller but also because it is almost too obviously and pejoratively postmodern in its self-reflexivity, the use of obvious symbolism, and what Fredric Jameson calls the “omnipresence of pastiche” to the exclusion of any genuine “historicity.”¹ Indeed, there is a strong and compelling case to be made thatBlood Simpleis an innovative product of the culture industry’s...

  6. Part 2. Ethics:: Shame, Justice, and Virtue

    • “And It’s Such a Beautiful Day!” Shame and Fargo
      (pp. 93-108)
      Rebecca Hanrahan and David Stearns

      The drama ofFargo(1996) begins with a conversation in a bar. There, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) negotiates the kidnapping of his wife with two unsavory characters, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). Carl asks Jerry, incredulously, “You want to have your wife kidnapped?” Jerry confirms his desire with an unhesitant, untroubled, and unashamed “Yah.” Carl, though, is concerned. And though his concern is primarily directed at the financial wisdom of the venture, he isn’t mollified when Jerry reassures his two associates that the plan is “real sound. It’s all worked out.” The ransom, Jerry explains,...

    • Justice, Power, and Love: The Political Philosophy of Intolerable Cruelty
      (pp. 109-124)
      Shai Biderman and William J. Devlin

      What do we mean when we say that “justice must be served”? What is the difference between a “just act” and an “unjust act”? What is it that makes our relationships—whether they concern a family member, a loved one, or even a stranger—just and fair? Is it the case that justice is merely rooted in power, control, and domination, so that those who have the power determine what justice means? Or is justice rooted not in dominance but in agreement, where, through a sense of love, care, and concern toward others, we seek a balance of shared interests...

    • Ethics, Heart, and Violence in Miller’s Crossing
      (pp. 125-146)
      Bradley L. Herling

      WritingMiller’s Crossing(1990) was no easy task. According to their own reports, the Coen brothers started with a set of images: big hats, men in overcoats, and—the woods. These glimpses, along with their fascination with Dashiell Hammett, led the Coens to a hard-boiled scenario involving crime, corruption, and thuggery, with a hero who is caught in the middle. But progress on the screenplay was fitful, and at one point it halted altogether. The brothers decided to take a break to work on something else and clear their heads. The result of this hiatus wasBarton Fink(1991). As...

    • “Takin’ ’er Easy for All Us Sinners”: Laziness as a Virtue in The Big Lebowski
      (pp. 147-162)
      Matthew K. Douglass and Jerry L. Walls

      The opening scenes ofThe Big Lebowski(1998) portray a lonely tumbleweed as it rolls aimlessly down the streets of Los Angeles. The tumbleweed, once verdant and firmly planted, has long since surrendered to the wind and now goes wherever it blows. Immediately thereafter we see an unabashed loafer, a man whom the narrator describes as “quite possibly the laziest [man] in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the running for laziest worldwide.” Like the tumbleweed, this man has long since taken the path of least resistance. He may have once been vigorous and idealistic, but blithe...

    • No Country for Old Men as Moral Philosophy
      (pp. 163-176)
      Douglas McFarland

      Amid the eruptions of violence and carnage in their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’sNo Country for Old Men(2007), the Coen brothers address fundamental questions concerning the place of duty, responsibility, necessity, and luck in human affairs. These questions are addressed in a rich and what one might call philosophical manner through a fictional narrative charting the interactions among three principal characters and their involvement in a drug deal gone murderously wrong. The film maintains an austere tone without references to popular culture and the self-conscious reimaginings of traditional genres that one normally associates with a Coen brothers film. Perhaps...

  7. Part 3. Postmodernity, Interpretation, and the Construction of History

    • Heidegger and the Problem of Interpretation in Barton Fink
      (pp. 179-194)
      Mark T. Conard

      The Coen brothers’Barton Fink(1991) is the story of a New York playwright who desires to create a new, living theater about and for the common man and who sees it as his job “to make a difference.” The year is 1941, and upon the success of his (presumably) first produced play, Fink (John Turturro) is lured into a Faustian bargain to go to Hollywood and write for the movies. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, however, and despite his newly formed friendship with his next-door neighbor and common man Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), and despite counsel from another writer,...

    • The Past Is Now: History and The Hudsucker Proxy
      (pp. 195-210)
      Paul Coughlin

      When Moses (William Cobbs) utters this phrase in the opening sequence of the Coen brothers’The Hudsucker Proxy(1994), his commentary is intended to launch the film’s “story”: Norville Barnes’s (Tim Robbins) rise and fall and rise again as the corporate stooge cum genius of Hudsucker Industries. But it also establishes a critical element that characterizes all representations of the past: their fundamental textual character. History (the past) is a story. The postmodern age has decreed that history is something of the present, rather than the past: we access history through the texts that define it, the texts that conduct...

    • “A Homespun Murder Story”: Film Noir and the Problem of Modernity in Fargo
      (pp. 211-224)
      Jerold J. Abrams

      Winner of two Academy Awards (Best Screenplay and Best Actress, Frances McDormand), the Coen brothers’ filmFargo(1996) is a noir detective story set in Brainerd, Minnesota, and Fargo, North Dakota, about a working-class man gone bad. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is an unethical car salesman who swindles customers into unnecessary extras like “TruCoat” sealant at the last minute of sale. Married to a Martha Stewart–like housewife whose father, Wade (Harve Presnell), is wealthy, Jerry is exploding with debt and anxiety. Frantically he looks for a way out and finds one. He hires two thugs, Carl Showalter (Steve...

  8. Part 4. Existentialism, Alienation, and Despair

    • “What Kind of Man Are You?” The Coen Brothers and Existentialist Role Playing
      (pp. 227-242)
      Richard Gaughran

      Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen presuppose an absurd world. This statement implies more than casual viewers might imagine. True, many images in their films appear at first merely strange, incongruous, or even repulsive. An infamous scene fromFargo(1996) comes to mind: hired kidnapper Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) crams the corpse of his partner, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), into a wood chipper, strewing his shredded remains across the snow. For what purpose? If Grimsrud wants to dispose of a murder victim, he could surely conceive a better plan than this one, which, rather than concealing evidence, spreads it widely. We...

    • Being the Barber: Kierkegaardian Despair in The Man Who Wasn’t There
      (pp. 243-266)
      Karen D. Hoffman

      Like so many of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen,The Man Who Wasn’t There(2001) concerns itself with the creation of a character, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), as much as with the telling of his story. As the film’s title suggests, Ed is notably absent from his own life. In the world without really being a part of it, Ed lives in despair. Taking stoic detachment to an extreme, Ed displays so little passion and engagement in life that a mere nod of his head constitutes a substantial gesture.

      As the film progresses, Ed becomes more aware...

    • Thinking beyond the Failed Community: Blood Simple and The Man Whom Wasn’t There
      (pp. 267-286)
      R. Barton Palmer

      In the manner of a flamboyant postmodernism eager to ransack for re-use what Fredric Jameson has termed the “museum of dead styles,” the neo-noir films of the Coen brothers offer a rich vein of allusion to both classic film noir and the hard-boiled fiction (especially that of James M. Cain) that was noir’s principal narrative and thematic source.¹ Jameson asserts that postmodernist cultural production is inevitably empty, with “energetic artists” cast adrift in a kind of intellectual and social weightlessness, being forced to wear the “masks of extinct mannerisms.”² Postmodernism may well, as Jameson suggests, foreclose the possibility of originality...

  9. List of Contributors
    (pp. 287-290)
  10. Index
    (pp. 291-296)