The Coen brothers’ films capture the hilarious and hopeless aspects of American lifeby Francine Prose / December 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
Inside Llewyn Davis: the protagonist “could be the hero of a Dostoevsky novella”
There’s something about the way Americans joke around that I value when I’m at home and miss anywhere else. Like any humour, it’s difficult to analyse or describe. I can list a few elements: irony, pathos, mayhem, violence, slapstick, a combination of wild outrage and a shrug at the way the world is.
Since the earliest days of American film, its most memorable scenes—Charlie Chaplin eating his shoe in The Gold Rush, Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock in Safety Last!, Buster Keaton riding the cow-catcher of a locomotive in The General—have contained these qualities. But modern American cinema often seems to feel that there’s something not quite serious about humour. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is notably short on laughs, as are other masterpieces, such as Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. When we laugh anxiously at a Quentin Tarantino film, we’re mostly noting the perverse joy we’re surprised to find ourselves feeling as we watch someone’s head blasted off. Woody Allen’s whiny, self-admiring, misogynistic brand of comedy has never struck me as funny, while Stephen Spielberg’s humour—the goofiness of ET going trick or treating, or of Richard Dreyfus making an outer-space landing dock out of the mashed potatoes—has always seemed a bit treacly for me, and in any case he’s become quite serious, even self-serious, since Schindler’s List.
But the Coen brothers get it right: they capture what it is about American life that make us want to simultaneously laugh out loud—and shoot ourselves. No other filmmakers since Stanley Kubrick have so successfully mingled the grisly and the hilarious, or are so adept at making us see the bright side of our nightmares. Though their films are remarkably diverse, one can’t imagine the Coens’ movies being set—as several of Woody Allen’s recent films have been—in Europe. Nor do we feel the influence of European directors, as we do watching Scorsese, for instance. The Coen brothers seem less indebted to Rossellini than to the photos of Weegee, who transformed the crime-scene photo into art, and Diane Arbus.
The Coens—whose new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, comes out in January—work collaboratively, writing, directing and producing. Born in St Louis Park, Minnesota, Joel in 1954 and Ethan three years later, they made their…