Thoughts On: The Coen Bros Hero Narrative Pt. II


The Coen Bros Hero Narrative Pt. II

Thoughts On: Select Coen Bros. Films

Part two of our look at what unites many of the Coen bros' films. Part I.

We shall continue on from the previous post and begin to question why the Coens use their particular kind of drama. To open this discussion, we have to summarise the basic course of drama in each of our 6 films in hope of seeing a pattern. We shall begin with No Country For Old Men.

No Country For Old Men is a film about a man who comes upon a lot of money at the scene of a gun fight. He takes the money, but in doing so welcomes the chase of Anton Chighur - an almost demonic figure who will relentlessly pursue him, killing whoever he must, motivated only by an ambiguous principal of malevolence.

Raising Arizona is a film about a loving couple, one of whom is seemingly addicting to crime, the other a policewoman. The two want a baby, but cannot conceive. They then decide to kidnap and raise as their own a baby, one of a newborn set of quintuplets. As they go on the run, however, they're chased by a vicious bounty hunter.

The Big Lebowski follows Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski, a lazy middle-aged child of the hippie era, who is misidentified by goons looking for money that pee on his rug. The Dude decides to confront the Lebowski who the goons were looking for and ask for a new rug. In doing so, he steps into a world of trouble where he is pursued by a vast array of people wishing to rid themselves of their issues and exploit The Dude for money or his seed.

You will quickly notice a trend. Many Coen bros films are about a character who sets their sights on an earnest, but, ultimately stupid goal. The quest they are willing to confront quickly reveals itself to be far too great in scope for these fools as, through their stupidity, they awaken something approximating hell and the devil. If we quickly analyse the last three of our films, we will see this general plot more succinctly.

Burn After Reading follows a trainer at a gym who wants to have plastic surgery and a CIA agent who has just been fired and whose wife is trying to divorce him. Their two paths cross when the trainer finds secret documents that the ex-CIA agent's wife steals from him. Because of a sour interaction, the trainer and her friend fall into a ploy to sell the CIA's secrets for money, but, in doing so, associate themselves with the chaos surrounding the CIA agent's life that is, ultimately, devastating.

A Serious Man is about a Jewish professor whose life circulates around him in peaceful uproar; his brother is in trouble with the law and is sleeping on his couch, his son is becoming a delinquent, his daughter does not respect him, his wife wants to divorce him for a man he finds unbearable, he is lusting after the next door neighbour, who is married, his students are trying to bribe him to give them better grades and someone is trying to prevent him from getting 10-year by writing defamatory letters to the faculty. The professor attempts to confront all of his issues by finding a Rabbi with all the answers, but only manages to further fall prey to the chaos that is his life.

Finally, Fargo is a film about a businessman who is going to have his wife kidnapped so that he can extort money out of his father-in-law. Having set the wheels of the kidnap in motion, no matter what the businessman does, no matter how complicated and messy the situation becomes, he cannot calm it down nor bring all to a halt.

Though each of these films are very different, they have a basic narrative that unites them. Each film is then concerned with a character, or a set of characters, setting for themselves a foolish goal that awakens the devil and/or gives rise to hell. The devil in No Country For Old Men is Anton; in Raising Arizona it is the bounty hunter; in Fargo it is Gaear (the mute accomplice). Hell is in each of the mentioned films and it is what characters are trying to escape; the ploy of Burn After Reading, Fargo and Raising Arizona; the mid-life crisis in A Serious Man; the theft in No Country For Old Men; the network of absurd demands in The Big Lebowski. It is important to distinguish the conflict that emerges in Coen bros films from many other similar narratives via catalysis. In such, almost all films can be described as having an action that opens up a world of troubles - hell or the devil. It is not insightful to suggest that this is what the Coen bros films do. However, whilst everything from Avengers to Mary Poppins can be described by this formula of actions leading to consequences, our Coen bros films have a particular kind of action that leads to a particular set of consequences, a particular hell.

As said, hubristic, foolish and naive action catalyse most of the drama in Coen bros films. In Fargo, Burn After Reading, No Country For Old Men and Raising Arizona, the foolish action is a character committing a crime that they think they can get away with. The Big Lebowski has a similar central contrivance in that The Dude thinks he can get away with deception; many characters in Burn After Reading and Larry from a serious man do so too - Larry is a unique case, however, as he is primarily trying to deceive himself, trying to live blindly. In addition to committing to foolish actions, deceptive and/or criminal, characters in Coen bros films also have foolish goals or ideals. Llewelyn thinks he can run off and live a good life with drug money from the cartel; The Dude wants his carpet replaced; the McDonnoughs want a baby; Larry wants a simple past to exist perpetually; Jerry wants money; Linda wants her surgery. All of these goals are genuine and we empathise with characters because of this, but, they nonetheless remain silly--or, at the least, naive. Each of these goals is attached to a sense of fate and inherent tragedy, to the unfairness of life. This is another reason why we empathise with our protagonists. Is it fair that Llewelyn lives in a trailer; that The Dude's carpet is peed on; that Larry's wife wants to leave him; that Jerry's family won't help him with money problems; that Linda's body is changing; that the McDonnoughs can't conceive?

Confronting these questions correctly reveals the heart of all Coen bros films. Each of these situations may not be fair, but none of them truly justify our character's reactions. But, what is fair anyhow? Life certainly isn't. And such a conception is what all of our characters struggle with; they can't bear to just exist in a world that is not fair; sometimes they even refuse to recognise that they exist in a world where things are unfair. This reveals a fundamental dichotomy in Coen bros narratives, one that contrasts the chase and the chaser. The chaser is the foolish hero in a solipsistic world - it is Jerry stupidly contriving a master plan to get back at his step-father and become a hero in his own silly realm. The chase sees the fool move into reality, and it is here where an antagonistic force or character emerges: hell or the devil. The chase is then an encapsulation of the truth clashing with the beliefs and words of a fool.

It is now that we can understand comprehensively the Coen bros' use of tuphlodrama and morodrama. The base reality at the bottom of No Country For Old Men, Fargo and A Serious Man is the representation of unfairness that we all would be familiar with; money problems and family problems. At the bottom of Burn After Reading, Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski are conflicts that we can understand via theme and characters as surrogates, but, when put in the context of the narrative, can be seen to exist outside of the plane of the average viewer's reality; these conflicts concern body-image, infertility and justice, but manifest in worlds far removed from our own. We see now why exactly No Country For Old Men, Fargo and A Serious Man have a biodramatic base whilst Burn After Reading, Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski have a melodramatic base. And with that recognised, we can further see that the perturbance that makes morodrama and tuphlodrama out of melodrama and biodrama emerges from the mentioned aspects of foolishness and the chase.

The chase is the element of each Coen bros film that sees foolish ideals and actions tested by truth which sits above the narrative. We can look back now to our conception of the fundamental or universal narrative:

Implied Tao
Unstable Unity Born
Break into Condition of Duality
Consequential Invasion of Duality
Balancing the Ten Thousand Possibilities
Logos (Tao Whispered)

We will not delve deeply into this subject here, but whilst all narratives have a tendency to see an initial situation break down (a character cause hell to rise) before some kind of stability is found by the end, all of this is motivated by this idea of The Way, of Tao, of truth and universal meaning - that which drama inherently searches for and imitates. The Tao of the Coen bros universe is one characterised by the unfairness and meaninglessness of life. So, what oversees each narrative's split into duality and trinity, what sees our character make a stupid decision and have hell rise and the devil come chasing, is this betrayal of the basic Coen bros truth: life is not fair.

There is greater poetry that tweaks this assertion from one Coen film to the next, which makes each individual, but we have seen already in each of our six examples that the core theme concerns foolishness and fate. In essence, each of our films sees a fool call out fate. It is the foolish character of the voice that calls that brings out a particularly damning fate, some kind of doom or the devil. And it's here where we can come to the idea of 'moros' again.

In Ancient Greek, 'moros' means fool; we have preserved this word in modern English with 'moron'. In Greek mythology, however, Moros was the brother of the Fates, the Moira (which roughly translates to dividers or apportioners). He was known as a god of impending doom and personified an active fate that would pursue and punish you. Foolishness, it seems, is embedded with this dual-character by the Ancient Greeks; it is simultaneously a mode of being and destiny itself; to be foolish is to have set for yourself a place and an end in life. It is uncanny that the Coen bros seem to echo the very same idea with their basic narrative of stupidity summoning hell, the devil, or something we may now call Moros. (I have a strong urge to segue into a talk on Space Jam and its Moron Mountain, but I will not indulge it beyond this parenthetical).

Moros is a literal figure in the Coen bros' morodramas (Burn After Reading, Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski). Moros is, in essence, those that mean to kill and harm our main characters. Moros appears also in No Country For Old Men and Fargo. However, Moros is present almost elementally, too - this is especially the case in A Serious Man. Moros, I sense, is the tornado that closes the narrative.

Much more could be explored in this topic, but it would require analysis too specific to each film. Our next subject concerns drama transforming into a narrative, and so this is what we will conclude with in the next part.

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The Coen Bros Hero Narrative Pt. I

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The Coen Bros Hero Narrative Pt. III

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