Friday, May 30, 2008

Does "offbeat" count as a worldview?

Just today, my colleague Lynnea the Movie-Lady was kind enough to invite me to submit an abstract for something to be included in the volume on the Coen Brothers that she is co-editing. Over lunch, we cussed and discussed this Outlawyer stuff I posted on a little while ago, and tonight I sent her an abstract. Just between you and me and the virtual gatepost, the title--"'I don’t have some way to put it—that’s the way it is': The Outlawyer as a Recurring Character in the Films of the Coen Brothers"--despite its clunkiness, may be the best thing about it. I hate writing abstracts. I'll spare you this one, and you can thank me without knowing why.

Eh. Launch the sucker and see if she floats. I just don't want to screw up my friend's book with said sucker, you know?

Anyway, in the abstract I promise to take a stab at some reasons why the Coens are fascinated by this type of character, so earlier today I did a bit of Googling about to see if somewhere out there someone has hazarded a guess as to the Zeitgeist of their version of the Universe. Lynnea had warned me at lunch that little if any sustained criticism of the Coens is out there, much less of the sort that I would be looking for, and she was right (though it's a bit surprising, given that these guys have been making films for almost 30 years now). The answer to my question, more often than not: "offbeat," with "quirky" in second place; I also recall "dark" used a couple of times. Each is used in front of "worldview," which itself remains stubbornly unpacked, as if the reader knows immediately in what that worldview consists. Complicating matters is that all the reviews of No Country for Old Men note the absence of this offbeat worldview.

I don't know about you, but these begged questions' tin cups are rattling pretty loudly.

Are we so post-modernized that we are now, even, post-metaphysics? Have the Big Questions been so thoroughly answered (or, alternately, have we've decided they don't require answers) that a writer can say, in effect, "My worldview is offbeat" and the masses nod comprehendingly, saying, "I can relate"?

Obviously, this character-type appeals to something in the Coens or else he wouldn't keep appearing, in more and more ominous form, in their films till we see its apotheosis in Chigurh. But what? "Offbeat" easily works for the most part for Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona, but only at first for Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink, and not at all for Chigurh.

Anyway. This isn't a bleg; I'm just asking some questions out loud that seem to me to matter regarding the Coens' films. I'll let you know if I get something beyond "offbeat."


R. Sherman said...

Are we so post-modernized that we are now, even, post-metaphysics?

Actually, the problem is that too many have become used to deploying jargon in lieu of clarity of thought and succinct expression of same. In truth, calling the Coens "quirky" demonstrates only that the critic involved doesn't have the intellectual muscle to formulate a coherent description of the world view present in their movies.


John B. said...


In (some) fairness to the pieces I referred to, they're reviews and not scholarly pieces. But what I found is as Lynnea says: there's just not a lot of sustained, serious criticism of their work out there. This book really will be a substantial contribution to the field, if only because it will significantly increase the quantity of what's published.

Joel said...

I'm kind of surprised there's been the lack of "sustained, serious criticism" of Coen Bros. work out there, if only because their body of work seems (sometimes) to be made *for* critics instead of mass audiences.

John B. said...

It surprises Lynnea and me, too. The Coens assume an educated audience who go to the movies for more than escapism. There's also the fact that they have a sizable body of work.

I think the lack of scholarship explains in part the very quick turnaround for the book manuscript (Scarecrow is publishing it, by the way): An August 1 deadline for initial drafts of articles; returns of edited drafts in October; corrected drafts due late November; an anticipated January/February 2009 publication date.

Doc said... so far as their treatment of Homer went, there was indeed, some ‘quirkiness’. They played McCarthy straight up however.

So what makes the Coens off-beat, per se? Or, more to your evolving theory, why their fascination with the 'other'? Not to rain on your parade before I disappear on vacation (timing is everything) but I don't see any pattern in their work that suggests a preoccupation with the 'other'.

'Raising Arizona' was off-beat, as were 'Barton Fink', 'The Hudsucker Proxy', 'The Big Lebowski' and 'Fargo'. Maybe 'Bad Santa'. But the Coens only cast anti-heros in the last 4 films mentioned, not true ‘others’; a move that has been popular in fiction and movies since at least the 40s...

'The Ladykillers', 'Blood Simple' or 'Miller's Crossing'?

Eh. I don’t find the Coens off-beat or, excuse me, even remarkable.

I'm not a 'fan' of the Coens, the way I was a fan of Kubrick, Altman or De Palma (to name just a few). That's because the Coens aren’t that big a deal, really. You can't look at their body of work and go "Genius!" (hand slapping forehead) There does not seem to be a signature style or theme running throughout all of their work. They don’t seem to be trying to ‘say’ something to their audience. To be frank, if they had not adapted Homer and McCarthy we wouldn’t be having this conversation – they would be just another writer-director pair knocking about Hollywood, talented enough to make the small film that will bring in respectable change, but certainly nothing blockbuster. In fact, I’d be willing to surmise that their future work falls way short of both “Oh, Brother…” and “No Country…” and the next big coin they garner is due to Name Brands starring in the films.

Your final query:

“Are we so post-modernized that we are now, even, post-metaphysics? Have the Big Questions been so thoroughly answered (or, alternately, have we've decided they don't require answers)…”

I tend to believe that to be true. At least, in the literati and artistic circles where these things matter. Amongst the lumpen masses, it doesn’t matter – it’s just a film after all. The only serious outcry one can raise anymore is by depicting semi-historical religious figures in less than a (perceived) flattering light. And, really, where’s the revenue in that?

Good luck with your abstract: would love to read it.

Once again, just my synapses frying; your daydreams will vary.

John B. said...

Enjoy your vacation, first of all.

I gave some thought last night to the possibility that, up till No Country, academic types have regarded the Coens as, in the end, "clever" rather than "artistic." In my experience, at least, scholars tend not to spill a lot of professional ink on cleverness. We may quibble as to the aesthetic quality of what does get written about, but it's as though they perceive cleverness as a kind of trickery or as lacking in seriousness (which, in art, kind of amounts to the same thing). But, love or hate No Country, "clever" isn't an adjective most reasonable people would use to describe it.

I've seen most but not all their films, and I have to say that this film is far and away their best (better than Fargo, Sheila, if you're reading this); it may be the one that, for better or worse, gets the old academic presses limbered up. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the earlier films will suddenly appear to be more substantive. I'm not going to be the one who makes that sort of argument, at least.

To confirm indirectly your contention above, I think it's telling that this film is so strikingly faithful to the novel. The Coens get out of the way of their source and let it--not their quirkiness--do the work of shaping the film's story and look.

As to what you say about the Coens' lack of concern about the Other, I think that's right in a film like Raising Arizona: We're meant to laugh at Smalls, and that's about the end of that discussion. Charlie Meadows (Barton Fink) is another matter, though: we initially see him as Barton does, a slightly slow-witted Man of the People about whom Barton figures he already knows all he needs to know. But, as viewers know, he reveals himself to be something, um, other--simultaneously monstrous and, speaking for myself, sympathetic. And as for Chigurh, I don't recall spending a whole lot of time laughing at him while he is onscreen. He's more than a mere device to create conflict; in a very real way, he's running the show in the film.

So far, at least, No Country is the outlier in their body of work. We can hope that, in the words of a review on the film that I read, it shows that the Coens have grown up. But, like, we'll see.

zunguzungu said...

Haven't seen No Country. But I understood O Brother a lot better when I saw Sullivan's Travels, the movie they got the name from. The Coens set out to make the movie that *isn't* made within Sullivan's Travels, and Sturges' film is, itself, so incredibly meta- that I get vertigo just trying to figure out what to call it. So part of the "effect" of "O brother" seems to be that they perform "authenticity" under so many layers of mediation that the performance of performance takes the foreground. And then you throw an incredible soundtrack on top of it. How can one say anything about that? No wonder critics use shorthand like "offbeat."

Ariel said...

Other than No Country, Fargo is the only other Coen Bro. film I've seen, so I don't have anything to add to the informed part of this discussion. I'm fascinated by the question, though.

Lindsay and I were discussing something very similar to this just a couple nights ago, after watching No Country. How would you characterize the Coen universe? "Dark" came up, but doesn't seem to have anything like enough nuance. I agree, "offbeat" is too obtuse as well.

Aunt Bloggie said...

Dear Meridian,

This is hardly the 1st post-metaphysical period. After the Quantum Mechanics disassembled reality as we know it in Copenhagan, philosphy fell into a funk for decades, retreating into a hellish tangle of logic while the anti-meetaphysics of fundamental religion played to the masses. This is where the Cohens serve their purpose in the art world; as transition makers to a return to metaphysical thinking.

Aunt Bloggie

John B. said...

Thanks for the thought-provoking comments, all.

Z., I don't know if you deliberately saw Sullivan's Travels because of O Brother, but my seeing it was by pure accident: I had been seeing a fair number of Joel McCrae films, and that one was just another one on the pile. I'm glad I was sitting down when Sullivan first uttered the phrase. Talk about a weird experience. If it hasn't already been done, someone really needs to do an extended intertextual reading of those two films. It's interesting, incidentally, that in all the O Brother DVD bonus features, no one says a word about Sullivan's Travels. Curious, that: the connections are so obviously there, why not acknowledge them out loud? Or is O Brother the Ulysses to Sullivan's Travels' Homer?


Ariel, yeah: the problem with words like "offbeat" and "dark" and "quirky" is that they're adjectives; when stuck in front of the substantive "worldview" (which, of course, isn't a worldview), they don't define what that worldview is. I think also that No Country complicates things by being so faithful to McCarthy's novel in its language and style. I think it'd be a mistake to argue that McCarthy's worldview is also theirs, but it's also clear (to me, at any rate--since this is what I'll be arguing) that something about Chigurh resonates with other characters in Coens' films.

Aunt Bloggie, welcome and thanks for commenting. I'll be honest and say that I'm not sure I agree with your assessment of the Coens' place in our culture. I've just seen the trailer for their new film, Burn After Reading and, well, let's just say it doesn't look anything like No Country--it looks like a Coen Brothers film. Which is to say that it'll (probably) be smart farce and great fun and better than other farces, but it will also (probably) seem a bit familiar. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But we'll see.

If I could choose a filmmaker who's up to what you claim, I'd pick Charlie Kaufman. But that's just me.