Thoughts On: The Coen Bros Hero Narrative Pt. I


The Coen Bros Hero Narrative Pt. I

Thoughts On: Select Coen Bros. Films

A three-part exploration of the Coen bros hero narrative, starting with a look at drama.

Joel and Ethan Coen have cultivated one of film history's must subtle and understated filmographies, a body of work of such profound quality and unique character that intentionally flies under the radar and is, in essence, very evasive. Their cinema is a step removed from the mid-century, art-house realm of Tarkovsky, Bresson, Fellini, etc; a step, too, removed from highbrow New Hollywood à la Scorsese, Kubrick and Coppola. The Coen bros mediate between a modernist/post-modernist sensibility and a mode of film grounded in inherent spectacle. They step away from European art-house cinema, a little like Fellini did, with a focus on joy and nonsense. They step away from New Hollywood, quite like Kubrick, with their ambiguity and absurdisms. Alas, the Coen bros cannot be framed as a descendent of one auteur's cinema, nor a national form, nor a movement. What defines the Coen bros, to me, is their serious investigation of life as a quite possibly meaningless venture. The Coen bros do not formulate a nihilist cinema, nor do they subsume themselves in apathy like many forms of post-WWII cinema did. There is an unmistakable levity, sometimes a contemplative, unemotional distance, about their gaze upon meaninglessness, chance and apathy. This introduces a placidity into their cinema and, as we shall eventually see, it is here where we find the source of the Coens' profundity.

The films that I want to focus on today as to explore this exist, in my view, as a part of the Coen bros exploration of the hero and their journey. These films are: The Big Lebowski, Burn Before Reading, Fargo, A Serious Man, Raising Arizona and No Country For Old Men. This selection of films covers most of the Coens' filmography. Alas, I specify this set of films as I am still to see one or two of their features and am not confident in analysing Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit, Barton Fink and others just yet. I suspect, however, that much of what I will say has much relation with all of their films.

The best place to start our survey of the Coen bros' films is at the level of drama. How do you describe the drama, the action, in a Coen bros film? How do you describe drama and action in and of itself? The latter is a huge topic that, as anyone who follows the blog will know, we have explored a lot before. In my estimation, drama sits at the very centre of cinema. Drama is essentially that which manifests movement through space; it is a kind of cinematic time force. Drama is not a genre of film. Drama is the source of known and unknown mimesis; cinema searching for truth via the imitation the rules of society and the apparent rules the universe. Drama can be categorised and forms of drama differentiated via their ethos and approach to real and unreal imitation - all of which equally seeks to find truth underlying reality. Much more could be said, but, to come directly to the point, I estimate that there are four major forms of drama: Biodrama, Tuphlodrama, Typhlodrama and Melodrama.

Biodrama is action which means to imitate an objective view of reality; is is the kind of action we associate with 'cinematic realism'.

Melodrama is action which makes music out of life, which contrives a world around ideal and chance, around its own ability to contrive; we should all be familiar enough with melodrama and its associations with genres such as action and romance.

Typhlodrama is melodramatic drama that is masked in realism - that moves towards biodrama. This is the archetypal non-melodramatic Hollywood film, that which is fundationally melodramatic, but has reality mapped onto it.

Tuphlodrama is realistic drama perturbed by contrivance. We associate this with 'weird' and 'art' cinemas in which character action is ambiguous, jarring, upsetting or otherwise uncanny.

Coen bros films expose the incompleteness of my theory of drama for they often exist in between tyhplo and tuphlodrama, having at their base contrivance, melodrama, that is perturbed. I would be compelled to refer to the likes of No Country For Old Men as tuphlodramatic as this has a basis in realism, in biodrama, that is shaken up. However, the likes of Burn After Reading is foundationally melodramatic. Mapped onto this foundation is a hint of realism that emerges from the film's basis in Hitchcockian crime-drama. However, whilst the basic drama of this film is undoubtedly contrived, and whilst the representation of the world and interior character conflicts is doused in realism, there is an absurd layer mapped onto this. Thus, melodrama becomes typhlodrama which is then perturbed. This movement takes us towards tuphlodrama, but Burn After Reading has no basis in realism. Because of this, a new category demands to be recognised. We now then introduce Morodrama.

Morodrama has an unrealistic base that is made absurd; we can account for most comedy with this mode of drama. Sticking with our playfully metaphoric Ancient Greek prefix system, I have placed 'moros', which means foolish, before drama to imply a type of action that jests with its own contrivance, that is loud and affecting, but very difficult to speak of. Moros, via Greek Mythology, also has connections to doom, fate and mortality. This secondary meaning is very fitting for our description of the Coen bros' films and says much, too, about comedy as, within this double-meaning term 'moros', is an implication that foolishness leads to doom, leads one to confront their fate. Let us not digress now, however.

Before we begin our analysis of the Coen bros, let us put to rest our general discussion of drama. Today we have introduced a new element to our theory, a fifth form of drama. Here, then, is our new spectrum of drama:

You may speculate that a sixth form of drama should emerge from our logic that morodrama is perturbed melodrama, that the sixth form should be unperturbed biodrama. The logic follows the fact that we have represented above perturbed biodrama and melodrama (morodrama, tuphlodrama) and unperturbed, realistic melodrama (typhlodrama). This should leave space for unperturbed, realistic biodrama, but one can easily recognise that we have come upon repetition; in essence, realistic realism. This, surely, cannot be a form of drama. How would the realistic realist film be differentiated from the realistic film and the typhlodramatic film? Because this is not a viable category, we shall pay it no mind. But, of course, this is still a developing theory, so, whilst we now have five forms of drama where we had four, there is still the chance for a sixth if a study of cinema reveals the necessity for this.

We move on now to drama in the Coen bros' films. Of our six examples, three are tuphlodramatic - A Serious Man, No Country For Old Men and Fargo - and three are morodramatic - The Big Lebowski, Burn Before Reading and Raising Arizona. Distinguishing these films is rather unproblematic. Because of the focus on plot over world and character in The Big Lebowski, Burn Before Reading and Raising Arizona, we sense the writers' hands at work and thus the contrivances that shape and force action. There is a realistic tension in The Big Lebowski and Burn Before Reading (both of which are far less melodramatic than Raising Arizona) that emerges in a shocking way. This does not make them tuphlodramatic, however, as realism, for example, Chad's abrupt death, is used to bring about a sense of the uncanny, to perturb the drama. Morodrama is, essentially, perturbed melodrama, and so this subtle use of realism to such an effect is accounted for by the mode's nature.

The fundamental realism in No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man is rather plain and self-evident - even with the dream sequences (which are known as dream sequences) and the elements of chance. Categorising these films as tuphlodramatic is rather simple then as the focus on world and character is perturbed by ambiguous themes of meaning and nihilism. Whilst one could possibly push a debate on No Country For Old Men being typhlodramatic, I think it is only Fargo that introduces a slight problem in being categorised.

It is not questionable that the drama in this film is perturbed. However, we could debate upon the assertion that the film's foundation is in either realism or unrealism. We are told in the beginning of Fargo that all is based on true events. This is a lie. It was put in place so that audiences would be obliged to approach this as realistic film, a biodrama, and then be shocked with all of the absurdities that follow. With support from the fact that the actual performances and representation of action are not all too contrived, I would be comfortable in suggesting that Fargo then has a realistic, biodramatic base that is perturbed - which leaves this tuphlodramatic. However, it could be argued that because Fargo's realism is based on a lie, all is contrived, and thus this is foundationally melodramatic and, due to the absurdisms, this is ultimately morodramatic. I have stated my position in the debate, but I leave it open.

Having loosely framed our Coen bros films in a theory of drama, we may now begin to question why these modes are utilised. We shall continue to do this in the next part of this post.

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End Of The Week Shorts #77

Next post:

The Coen Bros Hero Narrative Pt. II

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