The Coen brothers’ films capture the hilarious and hopeless aspects of American lifeby Francine Prose / December 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 first film, Blood Simple, in 1984. Starring Frances McDormand, who has appeared in many of their films and is married to Joel, Blood Simple offered an irony-laced, stylishly violent new perspective on the familiar noir plot about a spouse who hires a hit man to kill an errant mate. In 1987, the Coens directed Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona, a wickedly antic approach to the subjects of adoption, fertility, parenthood and so forth: if you can’t have a child of your own, you might as well steal one from someone who appears to have too many. The Coens are never better than when they are revealing the variety, richness and beauty of the bleak American landscape, from the snow-bound highways and cabins of the Upper Midwest in Fargo, to the terrifyingly cheerful facades of the suburban houses in which A Serious Man takes place, to the sagebrush desert where Javier Bardem, as the villain in No Country for Old Men, coolly dispatches his victims with the weapon used to kill cattle in a slaughterhouse. In Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens capture precisely what New York looked and felt like, in the dead of winter, in the early 1960s. We get the rather chilly reality behind the sweetly romantic young-love-in-the-snow fantasy image of the singer and his beautiful, long-haired girlfriend that famously graced the cover of Bob Dylan’s second LP, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Music—especially American music—has always been important in the Coen brothers’ films, most obviously in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in which George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson played three convicts who escape from a chain gang and set off across Depression-era Mississippi in search of buried treasure. The aching harmonies of bluegrass, the soaring energies of African-American gospel, and the haunting rawness of the Appalachian dirge—Ralph Stanley’s hair-raising, a capella version of “O Death”—provided a thrilling background for the action without competing with it. In Inside Llewyn Davis, music has moved even closer, so to speak, to centre stage. Its eponymous hero, played by Oscar Isaac, is a folk singer; as the film opens, we see him performing. Throughout, the film reminds us of what’s great about American traditional music: its authenticity, its beauty, its sweetness, its equal indebtedness to the blues and to those creepy British folk ballads about dead brides and murdered children. It also succeeds at the harder task of making the audience see what was alive about the 1960s folk music revival, a movement whose goofy and nerdy excesses are almost irresistibly easy to parody. Llewyn’s passion for that music, and his inability to create, for himself, a career—or a life—remind us of a current that runs through many of the Coen brothers’ films: you can have talent, promise, a moderate amount of decency and luck, and things might still not work out. This may be the least American aspect of the Coen’s work, the least characteristic of a culture that (openly and privately) believes that hard work and good intentions will pay off, and of a country in which, to quote Julian Barnes, “emotional optimism is a constitutional duty.” Nowhere is this rejection of Hollywood’s normal moral universe more evident than in A Serious Man. Apparently based on the Book of Job, the film subjects a Minnesota physics professor named Larry Gopnik to a series of escalating misfortunes: marital, professional, physical. Llewyn Davis is younger and better looking than Gopnik, and he has a more visible and charismatic talent, but, again, things don’t work out. Given that we (Americans in particular and human beings in general) prefer our heroes to be heroic, or at least well-intentioned, the Coens get considerable credit for creating a character like Llewyn Davis—handsome, gifted, honest—but nonetheless handicapped by a series of personal failings that make us understand why his beautiful friend Jean keeps calling him an asshole. In the spectrum of directors that runs from the despotically controlling to those who give their actors the freedom to take things almost too far, the Coen brothers belong to the second group. Partly because of their willingness to let actors test their limits, they have established a sort of repertory company of profoundly talented performers: McDormand, Clooney, Turturro, John Goodman, and a range of character actors whose faces we know better than their names. Some of their most memorable scenes are the most hellish: scenes in which an actor appears to have been encouraged to take it over the top. One such passage occurs in Miller’s Crossing, as Turturro, playing the very small-time gangster known as The Schmatte, kneels on the ground in the forest and begs his friend and assassin, played by Gabriel Byrne, for his life. Years after watching the film, you can close your eyes and see Turturro screaming, “Look in your heart, Look in your heart!” You can see Frances McDormand in Fargo, as the pregnant cop clumping through the snow and chewing over every word as if thought were a visible process. A similarly unforgettable moment occurs in Barton Fink, when Goodman, as the burly, boorish neighbour of the eponymous blocked writer, comes racing down the corridor of a hotel in flames, yelling, “I’ll show you the life of the mind.” In Llewyn Davis, Goodman again outdoes himself as a boring, vaguely professorial, junkie jazz musician. It would not be a spoiler to say that there is a scene, involving him, that, for better or worse, is one of those images that the Coen brothers can lodge forever in the viewer’s mind and that comes to represent, for us, the grubbiness of Llewyn’s experience. When Lleywn finally gets out of New York, he embarks on a brief road trip to Chicago that gives us a panorama of beautiful farmlands and urban settings that capture how really bleak long-distance bus stations were, in those times. As American road trips go, it’s neither Jack Kerouac, nor Nabokov; it’s more like a nightmare journey of missed connections, bad luck, and of the sort of places that seem to have gone straight downhill for decades since Edward Hopper might have put them in his paintings. Along the downward spiral that Llweyn takes is an unfortunate evening during which he heckles another perfomer at the Gaslight, the café where he himself often performs, by the grace of its owner. On stage, a dumpy, unattractive, ageing country woman who seems to have been dressed by Walker Evans, is playing an autoharp and singing. She is closer to the sort of musician we might have seen in the background of O Brother, Where Art Thou? than to any of the young white bohemians who have populated Inside Llewyn Davis. At this point the Coens do an interesting thing, which seems typical of how much they can get from a single scene. We ourselves don’t want to watch the woman sing, all that much, but when Llewyn starts yelling at her, and when what he’s yelling gets more aggressive and sexually suggestive, we may feel, as Llewyn’s friend and lover Jean does, that we’ve had enough of this asshole—even though we may have been rooting for him, for the last two hours. It’s very rare, in film, as in life, to find ourselves wishing the best for a character even after we see him tormenting the helpless and innocent. Having said, at some length, what’s American about the Coen brothers’ work, let me add a brief coda about what’s also universal. Llweyn could be the hero of a Dostoevsky novella, the underground man in 1961, auditioning at the famous Gate of Horn folk club in Chicago. There are guys like Llewyn everywhere, talented young men who happen to be self-involved and unlucky, and who lack much dependable help from anyone: family or friends. Yet another visual equivalent of an earwig repeating scraps of song in our head is a scene, set at a painfully accurate Upper West Side faculty dinner party, at which Llewyn refuses to play along with the rules of civility, and wrecks one of his last options for a comfortable couch on which to sleep in New York. Some version of that scene (a young man impulsively biting the hand that’s been feeding him) could be set in contemporary Brooklyn, in Los Angeles, in London, in Berlin—and probably, for that matter, in Lagos or Lima. And the sorrow we come to feel for Llewyn and his blighted hopes would seem to contradict the common criticism one hears, that the Coens are more interested in whimsy than in the deeper aspects of experience. Chekhov said that the artist should go from the particular to the general. That is what the Coen brothers do every time they send their losers and dreamers, their underground guys into the American landscape and onto the screen, where they act out tragicomedies that could happen to anyone, any time and anywhere, though we may have reason to hope that such things won’t happen to us, or to those we love.