Thoughts On: The Coen Bros Hero Narrative Pt. III

02/10/2018

The Coen Bros Hero Narrative Pt. III

Thoughts On: Select Coen Bros. Films

A conclusive look at the Coen bros and their hero narratives. Part II.


This final look at our six Coen bros films will question the means through which drama becomes narrative in the archetypal Coen bros film and what this narrative fundamentally explores.

We have already seen how drama manifests characters and a basic plot. The drama of all Coen bros films is imitative of the fundamental truth that life is not fair. Drama appears on screen through characters who are blind to this truth or who struggle to exist in parallel with it. Thus they manifest a world close to hell - that would be the basic plot. All of these elements combine, however, when we come closer to the resolution of each plot, when characters either fail or succeed in understanding the fact that life is not fair and acting in accordance to such a realisation.

Burn After Reading is a farcical tragedy that becomes too ridiculous to understand the fact that it is a tragedy. The central tragedy is the failed romance. Everything in this film occurs because Linda wants to change her body so that she can find a good guy to go out with. She is blind to the fact that her boss, who clearly loves her, is that good guy she is looking for. It is because of her blind stupidity that he dies and everyone around her who has touches of stupidity or chaos in their lives also dies. We take an objective look at this narrative via the CIA official played by J.K Simmons, whose journey through the film is one towards understanding the psudo-root of all the chaos: Linda wants her surgery paid for. What the CIA official never comes to understand is that Linda failed to become an archetypal positive foolish hero who calls upon higher goodness and, eventually, stumbles upon success. If this was a more conventional Hollywood film, this would see Linda find the fired CIA agent's data, return it to him, fall into a bad relationship with him before, in the end, realising that it was her boss who she loved all along and that, only by performing some act of good, can she get him. All of this is subverted and so there is a tragedy, a stupid one. This leads the CIA official who takes charge of Linda's case to conclude that no one learnt anything from this story - which is almost true. No one learnt anything inside the world of the story, however, the audience, who sees all, should have learnt a lot. If you didn't, you are almost as foolish as the characters - which is a consistent position the audience is put in in a Coen bros film; you can very easily become the foolish chaser if you see not how they are foolish. Alas, what we should learn from Burn After Reading is what Hollywood films, such as Clueless, tell us all the time: look around, look in a mirror, look into yourself, and you will see that you are loved and can find love.

Raising Arizona tells a rather similar story. Instead of being about characters who cannot find love, it is about characters who cannot have a particular kind of love; they cannot have their own baby. They decide to take a baby, and in turn jeopardise their whole entire relationship. This is because they succumb to a criminal's mind set, which is embodied by the ex-con of the relationship, H.I. A criminal often sacrifices much in the present for a hypothetical future that does not necessarily map onto the present reality. For example, they steal a lot of money so that they can be rich in a hypothetical future, whilst, in reality, this hypothetical life is an impossibility, for it is far more likely that they fail to get away with the crime or will be able to appreciate the money they steal. The archetypal hero also sacrifices something for an ideal or outcome that does not resonate with reality. The genuine hero, however, sacrifices in the present, not for a hypothetical, but a literal, future; their sacrifice is often so great that it determines the future and makes their dream literal. We see this across The Lord Of The Rings; the fellowship want to destroy Sauron to bring about peace in Middle Earth. The sacrifice which they must make to destroy Sauron is so great that their dream of peace becomes rational; the goal ahead so impossible that, if it is somehow achieved, great success seems inevitable. The reverse is true in Raising Arizona. It would be easier to steal a baby than it would be for the McDonnoughs to be seen as real parents, to somehow earn that privilege despite their infertility. This is a narrative about cowardly confronting the unfairness of life, about failing to confront reality with a hero's will to sacrifice for the greater good.

The deeper meaning in Fargo can be inferred from the given analysis of Raising Arizona and Burn Before Reading. I will leave this open to you. I will also skip over No Country For Old Men, as we have talked about this film at much length before.

We come now to A Serious Man. It is now that we start to see characters actively confront the Coen bros' implicit meaning (life is unfair) as this sees our main character, Larry, try to do the right thing before disaster and the pangs of fate. Characters such as this often exist as side-figures in Coen bros films. For example, in No Country For Old Men, it is the sheriff that tries to understand why the world is so unfair, who tries to act stoically before dastardly fate (Anton); Marge from Fargo plays a very similar role; and the fired CIA agent in Burn After Reading tries and fails to do this, to deal with a crumbling marriage, and unrelenting crime. It is with A Serious Man that we see a main Coen bros character actively take on the role that minor characters such as Marge do; he tries to deal with fate, to chase it and beat it. Larry lacks direction, however. What he fails to do is look into the void of life and see failure and meaninglessness alongside the potential for more. He then does not understand the stories that the Rabbis tell him; he fails to disassociate from his problems, to recognise that he never existed in a true reality; that now is the time for him to equip himself so he may confront truth and become all the better for it.

It is difficult to truly conclude any discussion on the meaning of a Coen bros film because their narratives are so often characterised by tragedy or failure. We are then not given concrete meaning, only abstract meaning. In A Serious Man, this is most evident; we are told than meaning must emerge from within, from an understanding of meaninglessness and tragedy, from a will to confront the viciousness of the world. However, we are not told, not shown, how to find meaning within, how to confront meaninglessness, how to fight against malevolence. This is not until we come to The Big Lebowski.

The Big Lebowski is a rare and anomalous film for the Coens as this holds the closest thing to a traditional and successful hero arc. Much has been written about The Dude, his philosophy on life and his way of life. All of this, I feel, is encapsulated to a far more intense degree, by the Taoists. The Dudist Way or The True Abide Guide is in words such as this, here is a translation of chapter 16 of the Tao Te Ching:

Attain complete emptiness,
Hold fast to stillness.

The ten thousand things stir about;
I only watch for their going back.

Things grow and grow,
But each back to its root.
Going back to the root is stillness.
This means returning to what is.
Returning to what is
Means going back to the ordinary.

Understand the ordinary:
Enlightenment
Not understanding the ordinary:
Blindness creates evil.

Understanding the ordinary:
Mind opens.

Mind opening leads to compassion,
Compassion to nobility,
Nobility to heavenliness,
Heavenliness to Tao.

Tao endures.
Your body dies.

There is no danger.

I needn't really say more about the meaning of The Big Lebowski other than suggest you read the whole of the Tao Te Ching.

The Coens' hero narrative is one that tests this Taoist mode of thinking. The Coens then ask their characters questions such as "Can you open and close the gate of heaven without clinging to earth?". Furthermore, they ask them to cultivate, not to possess, act without dependence, to excel, but not rule; to generate Te (virtue). This is all in response to their assertion of and apparent belief in some great unknown above us all; in some ambiguous force that generates tragedy and meaninglessness that can only be confronted by abiding, by aligning oneself with chaos itself, yet somehow acting honourably.

Collected here is a broad and meandering analysis of some elements of the Coen bros hero narrative. What we have essentially done across these three posts is see how a particular approach to representing reality leads the Coens to evoke some truth hidden in it. It is through their absurd and uncanny drama that they explore how humans fail to become heroes, how we are all too foolish to abide fate and flow through life, unwanting, unassuming, yet nonetheless stoic and moral. I leave all in your hands so that you may try to relate this to their other films and find more detailed analysis of your own. So, having explored much today, I end with a question to you: What are your thoughts?








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The Coen Bros Hero Narrative Pt. II

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Venom - Superhero Movies: Characters & Melodrama

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