Monday, March 24, 2014

The Coen Brothers' Cinema of Existential Despair

As I mentioned recently, I finally saw Inside Llewyn Davis, a film I had greatly anticipated, both for its subject matter -the early 60s Village folk scene- and its creators, the Coen brothers.  The Coens are without a doubt my favorite contemporary American film makers, but knowing the storyline of the film, I needed to be in the right emotional frame of mind.  The Coens have made many films, all of which fit into a set of genres (which I have listed at the end of this post), and Inside Llewyn Davis, like Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn't There and A Serious Man, fit in their genre of existential despair.  In these films a man (it is always a man, unfortunately) sees his life unravel before his eyes without any solace or comfort.  For Barton Fink, Llewyn Davis, Ed Crane, and Larry Gopnik, there is no divine consolation, no happy ending, no way out from the crushing hand of fate.

The Coens' movies usually present humanity as stupid, naive, petty, and cruel.  This is sometimes played for laughs, as in Raising Arizona's farcical tale, or dead serious, as in Fargo.  Their films of existential despair are hardest to watch, however, because they ring so true.  Watching Llewyn fail to achieve his dream despite his talent and aided by his penchant for being his own enemy hit just a little too close for me.  It's a very similar character to Barton Fink, a writer who finds his personal hell in LA and whose arrogance and unwillingness to listen to others helps lead to his undoing.

The Coens could make it easier on their viewers by making their protagonists in these films more perfect and more likable.  That way, when the audience sees someone being crushed, they can be fully, uncomplicatedly sympathetic, and perhaps avoid the disturbing thought that they too could find themselves in such a state.  Barton and Llewyn are both highly unpleasant at times, but they are not bad people, just petty and inept like the vast majority of us tend to be.  Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn't There is emotionally stunted and reserved to the point of catatonia.  Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man is probably their most likable "man falling apart," but his inability to stick up for himself and not let people walk all over him makes him incredibly frustrating to watch.

It would be easier to watch these men squirm under fate's cruel hand if they were completely innocent of responsibility for their situations, but they're not.  (Larry Gopnik is the possible exception here because he is explicitly a Job-like character being beset on all sides despite his goodness.  However, his aforementioned passivity in the face of a cheating wife, sponging brother, spoiled children, and a blackmailing student only make matters worse for him.)  Ed Crane meets his downfall after murdering the grotesque man cheating with his wife.  Barton Fink refuses to listen to Charlie Meadows, causing the secret killer to enact his revenge on Barton.  Llewyn Davis constantly alienates those who love and want to help him and ends up beaten down in a gutter after he takes out his anger at those exploiting him on somebody else.

These Coen films are highly subversive because they go against the grain of the American ideology.  We are told that we are the masters of our own destiny, that hard work will be rewarded, that good things happen to good people, and that the universe operates according to moral principles.  All of these films show the opposite.  They show good people suffering, hard-fought dreams crushed, and cruel people in power prospering.  I firmly believe that forty or fifty years from now, these are the Coen films that will be remembered most, because no one else with their sizable audience is willing to probe the cruelty and meaninglessness of existence, and to do it so well.

The Genres of Coen Brothers Movies

This is my least favorite genre of Coen films, mostly because they lack the depth that animates their other work and the streak of cruelty (pun intended) that gives their work their bite.

Raising Arizona
Intolerable Cruelty
The Ladykillers
Burn After Reading

Dark Noir Murder Tales
In many ways these films are superficially darker than their films of personal despair, and also probe the horrors of this world we live in.  At the end of Fargo, when Frances McDormand's character sits in her bed after a harrowing hunting down of the killers, she contemplates the awful world she is bringing a child into.  It is one of the most quietly devastating scenes in cinema history, and sums up the Coens' worldview.

Blood Simple
No Country For Old Men

Existential Despair
Barton Fink
The Man Who Wasn't There
A Serious Man
Inside Llewyn Davis

Historical Genre Flicks
The Coens love to set their films in the 20th century past, and also to recall older historical genres.  They sometimes do this for laughs, as in O Brother, Where Art Thou, which gets its name from a reference to the Depression Era-film Sullivan's Travels while using the Depression as a backdrop.   (Superficially The Man Who Wasn't There, which strongly recalls 1940s noir, could be put in this category, but the storyline of a man whose life falls apart puts it in the personal despair genre for me.)  I put the almost impossible to categorize Lebowski here because it is a takeoff on Raymond Chandler.

Miller's Crossing
The Huduscker Proxy
O Brother, Where Art Thou
The Big Lebowski

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