"Secret Shit": The Uncertainty Principle, Lying, Deviations, and the Movie Creativity of the Coen Brothers

By Lavery, David | Post Script, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

"Secret Shit": The Uncertainty Principle, Lying, Deviations, and the Movie Creativity of the Coen Brothers


Lavery, David, Post Script


I. THE RUMPUS

Billy Bob Thornton: People ask me a lot of times in interviews, 'What have you learned as a director when you've worked with other directors,' and they most often ask me about you guys....

Ethan Coen: Well, there isn't anything, right? Remember we were kid ding about that....

Joel Coen: I remember when we were shooting you were about to work with Barry Levinson [on Bandits (2001)], and Ethan was always admonishing you not to tell Barry any of our secret shit....

Billy Bob Thornton: Then I actually showed up on the set with this bag and told the crew that I had the Coen brothers' secret shit in it.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

On the DVD of The Man Who Wasn't There, Joel and Ethan Coen's ninth film, Billy Bob Thornton (who plays Ed Crane, the film's zero-charisma lead), engages in the preceding exchange with the filmmakers. Apparently, the Coens' "secret shit'--with which, we presume, they have painted, in Freudian anal-stage fashion, their auteur signatures all over their twelve films (I mean this as a compliment)--is so secret, so idiolectic, so arcane that many critics find their movies as empty as Billy Bob's bag. Even one of their admirers (he too means it as a compliment) has characterized their work as "intentionally bogus and daft and cool" (Halari 30).

Few major contemporary filmmakers have been recipients of such wildly contrary vituperation and praise. (1) For every David Thomson, who finds Raising Arizona "close to unwatchable: unfunny, technologically impelled, showy, and not just empty, but condescending" (140), we find a Richard T. Jameson, who professes his love for Miller's Crossing's

   fortitude to lay all its cards on the table in the first sequence
   and then demonstrate, with each succeeding scene, that there is
   still story to happen, there is still life and mystery in
   character, there is reason to sit patient and fascinated before a
   movie that loves and honors the rules of a game scarcely anyone
   else in Hollywood remembers anymore, let alone tries to play.
   (22-23) (2)

If Jonathan Rosenbaum, in a review of Barton Fink, derides the Coens' "soulless," "crass consciousness" (248), R. Barton Palmer praises their "magical realism that does not demand verisimilitude or logical closure, but has the virtue ... of permitting more stylization, more moments of pure cinema" (108). If Devin McKinney denounces Fargo as "a fatuous piece of nonsense, a tall cool drink of witless condescension," "a betrayal--of themselves, of their audience, of a human milieu" (31-32), Geoffrey O'Brien finds it "the Coens' most successful film ... because of the way Frances McDormand's character asserted, for once, an independent life" (35). Stuart Klawans finds The Big Lebowski "an empty frame" (36), but Roger Ebert, as if in direct reply, counters that while "Some may complain The Big Lebowski rushes in all directions and never ends up anywhere," that "isn't the film's flaw, but its style." (3) For every Owen Gleiberman, who introduced O Brother, Where Art Thou? as the Coens' "latest misanthropic flimflam" (49), a Charles Taylor, who--contrary to his usual opinion of the Coens--finds it a work of "dogpatch rapture," a case of the brothers "really cooking."

In the continuing rumpus over the Coens, while their extollers find them eccentric geniuses, their detractors characterize them as little more than cinematic grifters. Such radical disparity of opinion almost invites the creation of a critical uncertainty principle. So: what's in the bag? Just what exactly is the Coens' "secret shit"?

II. THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE

   They got this guy, in Germany. Fritz something-or-other. Or is it?
   Maybe it's Werner. Anyway, he's got this theory, you wanna test
   something, you know, scientifically--how the planets go round the
   sun, what sunspots are made of, why the water comes out of the
   tap--well, you gotta look at it. … 

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