Friday, January 14, 2011

"What have I to dread, what have I to fear..."

If I were to list my ten favorite films, two or three of them would certainly be films made by the Coen brothers, and most of the rest of their films would easily make my top fifty. Armond White, in "The Coens Keep the Faith," explains why they are more than simple entertainments:
.... Common as agnostic pronouncements are in faddish Hollywood, where stars routinely embrace cults and exotic, indulgent philosophies, the Coens take a different route by regularly—steadily—examining their characters’ principles and their own ethnic-cultural roots. The lack of honor among thieves in Blood Simple, the post-Carnegie corporate ethics in The Hudsucker Proxy, the lapsed 1960s radicalism in The Big Lebowski, the Washington, D.C., conspiracies in Burn After Reading, the commercial exploitation of marriage vows in the legal comedy Intolerable Cruelty—all show the Coens reflecting on fundamental social values as a way of taking the contemporary moral temperature. That return to basics explains the genius of updating Homer’s Odyssey to the pre-civil-rights era American South in the Coens’ folk-music operetta O Brother Where Art Thou?; refracting film-noir codes in Miller’s Crossing and pulp-fiction fantasy in The Man Who Wasn’t There; the Yiddish folktale prologue of A Serious Man; and the collision of a black Southern Baptist woman with an unscrupulous white con artist/professor and his gang in The Ladykillers. ....

The classicism of the Western permits the Coens to reiterate the strange longing that was almost inchoate in No Country for Old Men, when Tommy Lee Jones, after witnessing the abyss, recounted a dream about seeing his father in the hereafter—a monologue that puzzled horror-movie habitués keyed up by the film’s cavalcade of senseless, unstoppable violence. They could not comprehend Jones’ belief in the hereafter but expected fashionable nihilism. Yet this longing—recurring as it does in the heartfelt twang of True Grit’s score (“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” sung dulcetly by the great folk artist Iris Dement) and in the film’s blasted landscape, which describes America’s long fall from paradise—is also what distinguished the Coens’ modern spiritual search in A Serious Man. The Coens’ most Jewish film holds hands with True Grit and its Christian fundamentalism. Both films reveal the brothers’ richest, most ecumenical meaning—and without a single snarky moment. Who knew America’s coolest filmmakers would turn out to be its most openly spiritual? [more]



The Coens Keep the Faith| First Things