Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Jewish-Presbyterian World of the Coen Brothers

I don’t write much about movies on this blog—aside from my numerous Disney posts—mostly because I haven’t seen enough of them to have much of value to say. The exception to my general ignorance, however, are the films of the Coen Brothers. I’ve seen all of them except this year’s A Serious Man (which I’m dying to see and which I will probably use in my dissertation once I do), and I like them all, even The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty.

The complaint you frequently hear about the Coens is that their movies are all style and no substance. They’re not—critics must be thinking of the beautiful but vapid work of Tim Burton. The Coens’ work is ripe with profundity, even as it defies analysis; they’re fond of playing tricks on the audience, throwing out red herrings and, presumably, laughing as the bad analyses pour in. (A few examples: the claims that O Brother, Where Art Thou is based on The Odyssey and that Fargo is a true story, both of which they’ve later denied.)

No, the meaning of the Coen movies are hidden beneath the flash and glitter of the cinematography (always perfectly planned and perfectly executed), beneath the complicated dialogue that almost never fits the characters, beneath the layers of postmodern “clues” that lead nowhere as surely as a Thomas Pynchon novel. The meaning, furthermore, belongs as much to John Calvin as it does to the Coens’ secular Judaism, to the first point of his famous TULIP, total depravity.

Calvin, as is obvious to anyone who’s read him or anything about him, is no fan of humanity. God has implanted in each of us an inborn religious drive, but it is “either smothered or corrupted, partly by ignorance, partly by malice” (Institutes I.IV). Man is totally depraved, which, despite the occasional defenses of Calvinists, does indeed mean that every single part of every single human being is tainted and untrustworthy.

This is not an optimistic view, to understate the obvious, and it becomes even darker when one disregards the other four points of TULIP, which serve to lessen and mitigate it. The Coens are forced to disregard the other four points, of course, since they all (unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints) require an active and gracious God. The Coens’ God, best I can tell, is absent and/or cruel, in the tradition of the darker books of the Hebrew Bible, and so there’s no room for election or grace in their theology. (Apparently A Serious Man makes this even clearer; someone should buy me tickets to this movie.)

But they’re almost wholly on board with total depravity. Their dramas, in particular, all feature a force of unrelenting and unexplainable evil. No Country for Old Men’s psychotic serial killer, Anton Chigurh, is the most obvious example, even though he was created by Cormac McCarthy. But all the dramas feature a similarly evil character—think of Gaear Grimsrud in Fargo, or Julian Marty in Blood Simple—that is almost unstoppable by the other, more sympathetic, characters. The amazing thing about the Coens, however, is that these figures of evil never lose their humanity; they maintain the image of God, however perverted and corrupted by violence it may be.

Of the dramas, Barton Fink has the most sophisticated and interesting portrayal of evil. No character in the film is good—even its protagonist, whom we’re set up to like given his similarity to the Coens themselves and his name’s presence in the title, proves himself a patronizing and pompous fool. He’s a “friend of the common man,” as Pappy O’Daniel will be nine years later, but he’s completely blocked out the stories around him.

No, the most likeable character in the movie is John Goodman’s Charlie Meadows, a traveling insurance salesman who lives next door to Barton at the Hotel Earle. He’s a big, gregarious guy, a little stupid perhaps, but he has a good heart and is the “only person in Hollywood [Barton] can talk to.” Problem is, Barton doesn’t listen to him; when he finds out his new neighbor is a writer, Charlie repeatedly declares that “I could tell you some stories,” but before he has an opportunity to do so, Barton launches into rant after rant on the state of American drama, which should belong to people like Charlie instead of “the fifth earl of Bastrop and Lady Higginbottom and . . . Nigel Grinch-Gibbons.”

So the audience likes Charlie Meadows much more than it likes Barton Fink, and that’s why it comes as such a shock when [SPOILER ALERT] he turns out to be the notorious serial killer Karl “Madman” Mundt, who “likes to ventilate people with a shotgun and then cut their heads off.” He’s done just that, it turns out, to a woman with whom Barton has slept—and he’s somehow done it silently, as Barton slept next to her.

The obvious question, of course, is, How could Barton have slept through a murder committed six inches from him? The answers are suggestions rather than statements. The movie takes place in 1941, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor necessitated U.S. involvement in World War II and several years after Hitler’s death camps became known. So one possible answer comes in the form of another question (in the Jewish tradition): How could the United States, and in particular the Jewish liberals in Hollywood and on Broadway, have slept soundly while millions of people were being gassed?

That’s the political answer. The theological answer is that we’re not quite sure that Karl Mundt committed the murder. He seems genuinely shocked when Barton goes to him for help, after all, and he doesn’t seem to have a key to the room, nor could he move silently through it. Barton claims he didn’t kill his lover, but he could have done so unconsciously, in his sleep, which would certainly fit with the Coens’ dim view of humanity. Charlie gives Barton a head-sized box just before he skips town; we never find out if it contains Audrey’s head or not, but when Barton is asked at the end of the film if it is his, he can only reply, “I don’t know.” He finally recognizes depravity—not just around him in individuals or in social structures, but in himself.

Evil is less obvious in the comedies, perhaps, though it’s still there in the form of Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona or Sidney J. Mussburger in The Hudsucker Proxy. More often, however, the Coens show the darkness of human nature in their comedies by flat-out stupidity. The three convicts in O Brother, Where Art Thou have to be three of the dumbest people ever to be projected onto a movie screen, for example; and nearly everyone in The Big Lebowski is so stupid they’d be ejected from a public kindergarten (and probably were).

This is in keeping with Calvin’s view of total depravity, in which God’s presence in the world is blocked not only by evil but by human ignorance, or, as Calvin prefers to call it, stupidity. And this stupidity is exacerbated by vanity: “their stupidity is not excusable, since it is caused not only by vain curiosity but by an inordinate desire to know more than is fitting, joined with a false confidence” (Institutes I.IV.1). If there’s a better description of Ulysses Everett McGill, I don’t know what it is—he even uses his limited knowledge of history, science, and society, to declare that the age of religion has passed, even as God clearly saves him and his friends from execution. The hardened and ignorant human heart denies the presence of grace.

The Coens are not completely committed to total depravity, however, as a viewing of Fargo demonstrates. Frances McDormand, who is married to Joel Coen, plays small-town sheriff Marge Gunderson, whose politeness and kindness are very real (as opposed to every other aw-shucks Minnesotan in the movie) and whose detective abilities save the day. I spent the entire movie waiting for the very pregnant Gunderson to be savagely murdered, but it never happens; indeed, she performs the coda of the movie, the moral, a speech that demonstrates the way in which she accepts but can’t quite understand the depravity of those around her. (Fargo is to some extent Melville’s Billy Budd with a happy ending—Marge is as innocent as a lamb but as crafty as a serpent. She can recognize evil but refuses to participate, whereas Billy can scarcely believe it exists.)

This is in the end a very different vision of depravity than Calvin’s, in that it holds out the possibility of a human-based redemption or exemption from the big T in TULIP. (The Coens, who are getting bleaker as the years progress, may go back on it when they cast McDormand as the truly vain and vapid Linda Litzke in Burn After Reading, a comedy so black that it may be darker than No Country for Old Men.) They don’t hold out hope for a God who intervenes, at least not in benevolent ways, and so if there’s to be hope in this world, it must come in the form of genuinely “good people” like Marge Gunderson. Still, Calvin might approve their oeuvre with reservations. Out of the hundreds of characters in their fourteen movies, we’re given only one who is neither debased nor stupid—hardly a good sign for the human redemption of humankind.

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