Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Coens as passionate witnesses.

by Ryland Walker Knight

After seeing No Country For Old Men I did some thinking. I talked to friends. I read reviews. I was reminded of an almost tossed off reference to their work by Stanley Cavell in his book, Cities of Words. It comes in the 16th chapter, which focuses on Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, in the first three paragraphs. I decided I would quote the passage here as a kind of placeholder while my thoughts continue to develop in regards to the Coens' work, and how we may best evaluate it beyond "Is it good? Is it bad?" Also, I want to interrogate my previous stance on their films that I remember dismissing as "bad." I've already been proven wise to rethink their rather astounding The Man Who Wasn't There, which I now am thinking of as a possible flip side companion to The Hudsucker Proxy: fate literally fights for Tim Robbins' Norville Barnes; nobody, not even Tony Shaloub, really, fights for Billy Bob Thornton's Ed Crane.

A summary of a film comedy written and directed by Preston Sturges suffers most in missing the continuous, virtuosic precision and intelligence of his dialogue, in no case more than in that of The Lady Eve. Sturges is one of the most remarkable mids to have found expression in Hollywood. Not until after the end of the Second World War, with the reception in America of the outburst of filmmaking in Europe -- including films of Truffaut, Godard, Fellini, Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman -- did an American audience become accustomed to finding a film written and directed by the same person. And Sturges' tight corpus of comparatively small-scale films occupies a treasure place in the hearts of those who care about the world and art of film; for example, beyond The Lady Eve, there are Sullivan's Travels and The Palm Beach Story and Hail the Conquering Hero. An instance of this esteem is recorded in the title of the Coen brothers' recent film, O Brother Where Art Thou? (with George Clooney and John Turturro), one of the most notable films of the past few years. It is worth taking a minute to say how that title inscribes a Sturges film.

The hero of Sullivan's Travels (played by Joel McRea, who is also the male lead in the remarriage comedy The Palm Beach Story, an interesting actor of considerable range, but less well known than the male stars, his natural competitors, of the remarriage comedies of the period discussed in this book) is a filmmaker whose great success is based on making thrillers with little intellectual or political content, and who wishes to make a film about something true and important, about suffering. The travels of the film's title are those taken by this director, who escapes the world of Hollywood escape in order to experiece the suffering of, after all, most people in the world, in preparation for making his important film of witness. The narrative takes him to the bottom of the world, in the form of being falsely convicted of murder and sentenced to a southern chain gang, where he discovers that the laughter provided by a Hollywood cartoon may provide the only rare moments of respite in a stretch of fully desperate existence. He contrives to be recognized in this place of anonymity, and returns to Hollywood to apply his hard-won insight, which means leaving unrealized his film of suffering.

The title of his projected work was to be O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Coen film, which opens in a southern chain gang, realizes this unrealized work by, as it announces, adapting (or more accurately, silently remembering names, and imaging sequences to realize them, from) episodes of the Odyssey (the Sirens, the Cyclops), taking as the overall adventure the return of an extraordinarily resourceful, or resilient, man to his native town to reclaim his sought-after wife (and children). The challenge the Coens take up, or depart from, in Sturges' fantasy of witnessing suffering, and which they seem to declare as part of their film (indeed of their corpus of fascinating films), is neither to record nor to distract from suffering. It is rather to witness, on the part of people who recognize, despite all, that life may still hold adventure, say hold out a perfectionist aspiration, but that to sustain a desire to meet the fantastic, unpredictable episodes of everyday modern existence, one must, and one can, rationally and practically, imagine that one will, at need, discover in oneself, in the register of passion, the resourceful persistence of Odysseus, and the mixed, but preponderant, favor of the Gods, call it fortune.

Perhaps we can use this as a kind of springboard into the Coens' pictures to investigate their particular expression of the American experience. I will return to this, along with my fellows here at VINYL, at a later date, perhaps as soon as December 1st, perhaps as late as December 25th. The point is: December will see some Coens writing from at least a few of us here, taking in, as best as time and space and ability will allow, the scope of their work through this notion of witnessing.


  1. The problem I have with the Coen Brothers is that everything they produce feels unlived, like a nerd's term paper. Some projects are better than others, but I never feel transported to another world, or in the grips of a personal vision. All derivative. They even provide the footnotes, with obvious quotes from the movies they admire.

  2. virgil, I agree, with Raising Arizona and Fargo as exceptions. Haven't seen No Country yet, but everything else by the Coens seems as much of a calling card as their first, Blood Simple.

  3. Steven, I am among the few who think Fargo is over-rated. I do like Raising Arizona because it stays true to a certain Chuck Jones/Roadrunner style that fits the cartoon nature of the Coen universe. Along those lines, The Big Lebowski has the same absurdist approach to character and slapstick violence. The Brothers Coen are a guilty pleasure of mine, but I wouldn't give anything of theirs better than a B-. I'm reluctant to see No Country for Old Men; at some point, lovingly photographed gore ain't what it used to be.

  4. They may not be my favorite filmmakers but I definitely like most of the Coens' pictures because they are, for the most part, pretty smart (plus, pretty funny and pretty entertaining). Still thinking about _No Country_. I would say it's worth seeing, even if it is problematic, and grim. Will try to elucidate all that later. For now, there's some interesting notes over at Zach's blog: click here.