The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers

The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers

The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers

The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers

Synopsis

In 2008 No Country for Old Men won the Academy Award for Best Picture, adding to the reputation of filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, who were already known for pushing the boundaries of genre. They had already made films that redefined the gangster movie, the screwball comedy, the fable, and the film noir, among others. No Country is just one of many Coen brothers films to center on the struggles of complex characters to understand themselves and their places in the strange worlds they inhabit. To borrow a phrase from Barton Fink, all Coen films explore "the life of the mind" and show that the human condition can often be simultaneously comic and tragic, profound and absurd. In The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers, editor Mark T. Conard and other noted scholars explore the challenging moral and philosophical terrain of the Coen repertoire. Several authors connect the Coens' most widely known plots and characters to the shadowy, violent, and morally ambiguous world of classic film noir and its modern counterpart, neo-noir. As these essays reveal, Coen films often share noir's essential philosophical assumptions: power corrupts, evil is real, and human control of fate is an illusion. In Fargo, not even Minnesota's blankets of snow can hide Jerry Lundegaard's crimes or brighten his long, dark night of the soul. Coen films that stylistically depart from film noir still bear the influence of the genre's prevailing philosophical systems. The tale of love, marriage, betrayal, and divorce in Intolerable Cruelty transcends the plight of the characters to illuminate competing theories of justice. Even in lighter fare, such as Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, the comedy emerges from characters' journeys to the brink of an amoral abyss. However, the Coens often knowingly and gleefully subvert conventions and occasionally offer symbolic rebirths and other hopeful outcomes. At the end of The Big Lebowski, the Dude abides, his laziness has become a virtue, and the human comedy is perpetuating itself with the promised arrival of a newborn Lebowski. The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers sheds new light on these cinematic visionaries and their films' stirring philosophical insights. From Blood Simple to No Country for Old Men, the Coens' films feature characters who hunger for meaning in shared human experience -- they are looking for answers. A select few of their protagonists find affirmation and redemption, but for many others, the quest for answers leads, at best, only to more questions.

Excerpt

Mark T. Conard

Since arriving on the cinematic scene in 1984 with Blood Simple, Joel and Ethan Coen have amassed an impressive body of work that has garnered them critical acclaim and a devoted following. Their highly original works include both comedies and dramas and cover various genres (neo-noir, the romantic comedy, the western, the gangster film). However, most, if not all, of the Coens’ films defy exact categorization, and they always bear the brothers’ unmistakable stamp. From the Irish gangster morality play Miller’s Crossing (1990) to the film blanc Fargo (1996), from the neo-noir comedy The Big Lebowski (1998) to the Odyssean O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), the Coens never fail to have something interesting to say and always say it in a unique and entertaining fashion.

As I’ve already hinted, much of the Coens’ work can be characterized as neo-noir, whatever other styles or genres the brothers are working in. For those unfamiliar with the term, “film noir” refers to a body of Hollywood films from the 1940s and 1950s that share certain visual features, such as stark contrasts between light and shadow and oblique camera angles meant to disorient the viewer, as well as particular themes, such as alienation, pessimism, and moral ambiguity. Classic noirs include The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941), Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), and Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947). Any film coming after the classic period that displays these themes and has a similar feeling to it we refer to as “neonoir.” Later films, such as Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981), and L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997), fall into this category, as do many of the Coens’ films. Blood Simple is a quite self-conscious neo-noir, for example, and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) is clearly an homage to classic noir. As we’ll see later, many or most of the brothers’ other movies can likewise be identified as noirs.

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