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The Coens Are the Anti-Spielbergs … Thank God

Is pessimism any more distorted a perspective on life than optimism?  Isn’t it centered in fact much more so than a sunny perspective? So why not enjoy comedies that work from a misanthropic view of the universe — yet leaven the gloom with a sort of philosophical levity? By this, I refer to shows such […]

Is pessimism any more distorted a perspective on life than optimism?  Isn’t it centered in fact much more so than a sunny perspective?

So why not enjoy comedies that work from a misanthropic view of the universe — yet leaven the gloom with a sort of philosophical levity?

By this, I refer to shows such as Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Ricky Gervais’ British version of “The Office.” Even “Entourage” operates from this bleak world view.

But mainly, I speak of the Coen brothers. Ethan and Joel, to be specific.

Their darkly observed humor becomes a sort of philosophy. It invites the audience to laugh with existential recognition — and appreciate the fact that they can.

As mortals, we’re on a helter skelter ride to physical disintegration and oblivion. We might as well chuckle all the way down. And if we can go to movies that understand this, well, once in a while maybe we can appreciate the spirit in which they come.

It may not be the most comforting form of entertainment, but it’s potentially more satisfying.

Call them misanthropes, call their films witheringly dismissive of humanity — as one New Yorker critic did recently — but also know that few other American moviemakers have created such consistently provocative and original work. In a culture – especially the moviemaking one — that is equally dismissive about art, they have found the perfect bridge between art and entertainment.

Let’s quickly scroll through their best known titles to cursorily illustrate what I am talking about:  “Blood Simple,” “Raising Arizona,” “Miller’s Crossing,” “The Big Lebowsky,” “Fargo,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “No Country for Old Men.”

Watching their movies, you can feel entertainment artists at work, who have mastered the form and who impose their view of the universe on the audience. Their movies unfold with often nasty surprise, but they are always revelatory. You leave with the sense that you have been moved, amused, horrified, startled and provoked into deep reflection — all in the passing moments. It takes at least another viewing to appreciate all the intricacies.

Yet, their movies also feel quintessentially American: aware of the verities, such as piety and patriotism, but also deeply aware of the indolent corruptions and constant ironies of being human.

And now there is “A Serious Man,” in which a prologue about a Russian Jewish dybbuk — the mythical figure that is a walking dead man — segues into a quasi-autobiographical satire about becoming a mensch in a Jewish American family in suburban tract Minnesota.

Surprise is their stock and trade. As usual, you have absolutely no idea where the story is going. But, boy, do you keep watching.

The Coens define their end of American cinema as powerfully as Steven Spielberg defines his. Spielberg makes us look at the American Way of Life at a rapturous, Vaseline-coated focal distance. He offers great films that are the movie equivalent of Norman Rockwell images, both quintessentially American but also fabled. They are about what we want to believe about ourselves but, deep down, willfully ignore the conflicting evidence.

The Coens focus squarely on that unmentionable evidence. They gleefully uncover the dust bunnies Spielberg (and his disciple, Ron Howard) shoves under the rug.  

But the Coens’ vision is equally American — it’s just closer in, so that when you focus more squarely on the flag you can see the joins, the seams and the texture of the material — and you are forever within and without the enveloping experience of feeling American. You are stuck in the glorious and imaginative, as well as the banal and the mundane. The simultaneously appealing and disconcerting.

They are the un-Spielbergs, the collective antidote to genial, universalized banality and, in being so, they perform the artistic equivalent of a civic service. They tell moviegoers that all does not have to be humanistic and Rockwellian to be American. That movies don’t have to be laid out as clear as Cliffs Notes. That mysterious and the unfathomable are as much a part of the American experience as familiarity and commonly shared and understood rituals. That suburban homes hide pain, distress and unhappiness; they’re not just the settings for adorable teenagers who hide sweet little aliens in their bedroom closets. 

And that endings that make you say, “What the … ?” have as much validity as those uplifting, hammer-between-the-eyes conclusions that have become a virtual contract between movie maker and audience.  

For all their dyspeptic cynicism, the Coens’ movies are like wild flowers. They take in the carbon monoxide of modern existence and they belch fresh air all over the audience.