Marge (Frances McDormand) in Fargo, 1996. Illustrations by C.Palomares
The Life of the Mind: the Coen Brothers and the Failed Artist by Gabriella Edelstein
Hail Hollywood! by Claudette Palomares
The Podcast: A Coen Brothers Retrospective Spectacular!
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The Life of the Mind: the Coen Brothers and the Failed Artist
By Gabriella Edelstein
What is it about the Coen Brothers corpus that brings out a critical desire to organise and hierarchise? If you do a Google search, half of the results proclaim to be the Definitive Ranking of all 17 movies. The abundance of these listicles is surely because Joel and Ethan Coen are the ideal auteurs: they’re prolific, as well as a critical and financial success. But most importantly, they have managed to seem outside of the Hollywood establishment – which is probably because they produce their own films. Appreciating their films means that you too are clever enough to be outside of the Hollywood machine.
The (in)definite rankings also tell us something about our reaction to ‘genius’: by ascertaining what is the best of the best, we may be able to grasp onto some of that elusive genius ourselves. Maybe, we also feel this need because it reflects back onto the Coens’ preoccupation with talent in their films, or, more specifically, failed talent. In what I’d like to call the ‘Failed Quest’ sub-genre of the Coen Brothers’ corpus, their protagonist embarks on an utterly redundant journey. If the protagonist doesn’t land up back where he started, he’s even further down in the (usually self-created) mire. In Barton Fink (1991), A Serious Man (2009), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) (possibly also The Big Lebowski), the Coens create characters who either cannot reach their potential because they are limited by their own dimwittedness, or because they lack the empathy and soulfulness needed to reach the great heights to which they aspire.
The Coens have created a character archetype that pervades their Failed Quest films: the talented everyman. Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a one-hit wonder playwright, Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physicist out of the Book of Job, and Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer from Greenwich Village who just wants to get a gig. At the beginning of their respective films, all three of these characters seem prodigiously talented; but, as their various stories unravel, it becomes obvious that none of them have the potential for genius.
This is best captured by Llewyn Davis, who is clearly a very good singer and guitar player, but the abyss that is his personality results in an utter lack of soul when he performs. The film perhaps posits that Llewyn could be a better artist if he was just a better person. He sleeps with his best friend Jim’s (Justin Timberlake) girlfriend Jean and then tries to inveigle Jim out of the money for an abortion. He insults the parents of his dead musical partner when they invite him into their home, and even loses their cat. Jean (Carey Mulligan) may be a bit forceful in her insults, but, she does hit the nail on the head when she prophesies Llewyn’s continual failure: ‘you don’t wanna go anywhere, and that’s why all the same shit is gonna keep happening to you, because you want it to…. And because you’re an asshole’.
The final clincher of Inside Llewyn Davis is when we’re made to realise the total pointlessness of the hero’s journey. A few minutes before the end of the film, Llewyn leaves the stage after what is the best performance we have seen him give, only to be succeeded by the young Bob Dylan. We suddenly see that we have been following a nowhere man for the duration of the film, and like the protagonist himself, we have to ask, “what was even the point?”. The film takes several moments to ask this question, like when Llewyn turns to the toilet cubicle wall and sees inscribed there, ‘What are you doing?’. Llewyn’s problem is that he isn’t doing anything differently. Indeed, at the end of the movie, Llewyn relives the opening scene, where he is beaten up by a stranger in an alleyway for his behaviour the night before. The Coens’ choice to structure their movie in this hamster wheel manner reinforces that Llewyn is caught in the circle of his own failure. Inside Llewyn Davis makes manifest in its structure the ouroboros of Llewyn’s character. The snake that eats its own tail is like the narcissistic artist: his only means of creation is through constantly consuming and regurgitating himself. By framing the movie around Llewyn’s circular life, the Coen Brothers perhaps come to a conclusion about the great question of “Why?” which guide their Failed Quest films. In the Coen universe, it may seem as though some higher power has it in for you, but you’re floundering because you’re choosing to.
But of all the Coen Brothers’ failed artist shmucks, Barton Fink (John Turturro) is my favourite. He doesn’t realise that his quest to serve the proletariat is in fact pure solipsism, and his obsession with his status as a writer totally undermines any of the Marxist philosophies he espouses. He wishes to create ‘a new living theatre, of and about the common man’, but it doesn’t take too much convincing to have him sell out and move to Hollywood. The film continuously has Barton pointing to his head, talking about the goings-on of his mind and how his writing genius is ‘how I serve the common man’. But when actually given the chance to hear the stories of the true proletariat Charlie (John Goodman), ‘I could tell you some stories –’, Barton cuts him off, ‘Sure you could and yet many writers do everything in their power to insulate themselves from the common man, from where they live, from where the trade…’, he goes on as you can imagine.
Barton’s philosophy, it appears, is completely self-serving; he has no interest in anyone else’s feelings. As Audrey (Judy Davis), a fellow writer, tells him, ‘Barton, empathy requires understanding’. To which Barton responds, ‘What? What don’t I understand?’. Audrey, it turns out, is the true genius of the piece: she’s been ghost-writing her partner’s (a character based on Faulkner) novels. Throughout the film, Barton acts like a shlemiel-Dante figure, taken through the inferno that is Hollywood. In the climax of the movie, when Charlie is revealed to be a serial killer, Barton is truly caught in a hellish apocalypse when the noxious hotel he’s staying in is set on fire. Charlie runs down the hallway bellowing, ‘Look upon me! I’ll show you the life of the mind!’, repeating back Barton’s earlier self-satisfied comment, ‘I gotta tell you, the life of the mind, there’s no roadmap for that territory, and exploring it can be painful’. The life of the mind in Barton Fink is a towering inferno that’s been set alight by the writer’s own failure to live up to the ideals of his artwork.
It’s ambiguous whether the Coen Brothers fail these characters because they’re bad artists or bad people. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. I’d like to think that in the seemingly chaotic moral universe of the Coen Brothers, one cannot be a great director, writer, scientist, or musician, if you fail to connect to the people around you. Maybe these characters need to be more like Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), who isn’t interested in self-manifestation; he simply abides.
Both Inside Llewyn Davis and Barton Fink have fluctuating positions in the various Definitive Ranking listicles. This may be because, if we think too hard about what the Coen Brothers have to say about genius, it may appear that they don’t want to be considered in that way at all. Perhaps what we have here is a situation of the return of the repressed: the greatest fear in the Coen Brothers’ hive-mind is to fail in their art. Luckily for them, the thousands of articles testifying to their genius prove otherwise.
—Gabriella Edelstein, June 2016
L-R: John Turturro as Barton Fink in Barton Fink (1991), Frances McDormand as Marge in Fargo (1996), Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998), Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007), Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
by Claudette Palomares
When I think of the question of the Coen Brothers and Hollywood, I recall a scene from Sullivan’s Travels, Preston Sturges’ satirical fable about the art of making movies. In the scene John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea)—a Hollywood director who has found much commercial success, if not critical or individual satisfaction—announces that he is tired of directing comedies and wishes to make a serious picture. As he tells two studio executives:
I want this movie to be a commentary of the modern condition, stark realism—the problems that confront the average man!
Ever pragmatic, the executives add a little qualifier to Sullivan’s statement: “But with a little sex.”This delightful scene underscores the entire film itself; Sullivan’s Travels is a meditation on what the purpose of a Hollywood film ought to be. Sullivan begins with the belief that when the ordinary filmgoer goes to see a Sullivan film, he should be seeing an unvarnished portrait of himself: life with all its melancholy, its little incipient bursts of tragedy—film as documentary, as an artistic mirror. It’s only when Sullivan runs away from the studio and becomes a tramp himself—confronted with the realities of the Great Depression—that he begins to understand that perhaps the greatest service he can give as a filmmaker is the gift of escapism, the art of buoyancy in the face of hopelessness. Sullivan’s Travels explores that age-old debate about the purpose of art: to educate or to entertain? Is self-sustaining (i.e. commercially successful) art an oxymoron? Is it possible to be both?
This is a question that has been explored time and time again in many of the Coen Brother’s seventeen or so films that they have made since Blood Simple in 1984. Indeed, Sullivan’s Travels might have been the very seed that planted this question: the film that Sullivan wishes to create is based on a (fictional) book titled: “O Brother Where Art Thou”, a book whose basic plot would form the basis for the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film of the same name. Of the Coens’ two most explicitly Hollywood-centered films: Barton Fink and their latest film, Hail Caesar!, Hollywood is a paradox that defies definition: an American Xanadu, both a “stately pleasure-dome” as well as “savage place”. Barton Fink—set in the same period as Sullivan’s Travels—is a study in strangeness, and one of the most explicitly horrific of their films. In Barton Fink, Hollywood is a city of lost souls, an underworld, a purgatory, capable only of creating superficial emanations of the real world. In a conversation that echoes Sullivan’s own, the eponymous Barton Fink (John Turturro) tells the seeming salt-of-the-earth figure of Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) that he wants to create a story of the common man. The great irony of course is that, far from common, Charlie Meadows is a serial killer, and that in choosing Hollywood as the place in which he makes his art, Fink has chosen a world in which power (be it financial, physical or sexual) is the only form of currency, and dissembling, the only possible mode of living. There is no place for art in Barton Fink’s Hollywood.
Barton Fink is a brilliant, bleak film that takes the questions posed by Sullivan’s Travels and finds the darkest, most existential answer to it. Fast-forward 15 years and the Coens tackle Hollywood once again. Yet those of us who adored Barton Fink for its Fauvist nihilism and painterly surrealism may have found Hail Caesar!, in comparison to Barton Fink, anemic: a candy-coloured pastiche that never amounts to anything but much ado about nothing. Indeed, the first time I watched Hail Caesar!, I was disappointed. I had never considered myself bloodthirsty but I found the film bloodless. I came into the film expecting a stiletto and instead encountered a butter knife. What I found was a chafing of Hollywood, rather than a skewering of it.
Central to this problem is the figure of Eddie Mannix—a real life Hollywood player—portrayed in Hail Caesar! by actor Josh Brolin. In Hail Caesar!, Mannix is fixer and general manager of Capital Pictures (the same fictional studio shown in Barton Fink). Although he’s not afraid to blackmail and toss men (and women) around as the need demands, Mannix is ultimately portrayed as a flawed but generally decent man, a man with integrity and a strong sense of justice, whose most pressing pricks of conscience are the lies he tells his wife about smoking. The most salient aspect of Mannix—or the vision of Mannix that Coens presents us with—is that Mannix is a man of much faith. This is shown in the film through his unquestioning loyalty to two fundamental institutions: that of the Catholic Church (Mannix goes to confession every day), and that of Hollywood.
On my first encountering of Josh Brolin’s Mannix, I admit I was rather irked. This is because Hail Caesar!’s portrayal of Mannix felt very much that of the Old Hollywood mode, brilliantine and counterfeit. In reality—far from the devout family man—Eddie Mannix was a deeply violent and problematic figure. To use a Godfather analogy, Mannix was the Clemenza of MGM, his job was to use brute force and subterfuge to clean up any mess that could smear the MGM brand. This included destroying evidence of Spencer Tracy’s alcoholism, Clark Gable’s hit-and-run, Loretta Young’s illegitimate baby (with Gable), and perhaps most incendiary of all, orchestrating the cover-up of the brutal rape of Patricia Douglas by a MGM’s salesmen at a “Wild West Party”, a party engendered by MGM, in which they forced girls in their contracts to be, in essence, expendable bodies for hire. In an unheard of gesture at the time, Douglas would fight for justice, indicting not only David Ross—the man who raped her—but also filing civil suits against Mannix and other MGM executives for conspiracy to exploit and accessory to sexual assault. In a situation depressingly familiar to us sixty years on, Mannix and MGM did all in their power to discredit Douglas, and ultimately won. During the trial, David Ross’ lawyer offered this paralysing defence for his client: “Look at her. Who would want her?” Utterly demoralised, Douglas would leave Hollywood and fade away into obscurity, a venial episode scoured and erased by studio clerics. Mannix would later say of Douglas, “We had her killed.”
Such scandals and more were dispatched with frightening ruthlessness that made Mannix legend. Moreover, Mannix was also not above mixing work with the domestic aspects of his life. Virtually every relationship he shared with women was marked by physical violence, the climax of which was the death of George Reeve (of Superman fame), rumoured to have been killed by Mannix himself in revenge for Reeve sleeping with Mannix’s wife. Mannix’s life, thus documented, was a litany of brutal actions, all made in the name—and the upholding of—MGM: the greatest studio in film history. Watching Brolin’s Mannix, I wondered why the Coens even chose to name Brolin’s character after a real-life person, a figure as seemingly irrefutably tainted as Mannix’s. Wouldn’t they have done just as well with a fictional character? What was the point of basing this character on Mannix, if the character only has a cursory resemblance to the real thing?
What I only began to understand after watching the entire film, and through my conversation with Gabriella afterwards, is that Hail Caesar! is ultimately a story about faith, a story that the Coens shows is littered with half-truths and contradictions. In Hail Caesar!, the Coens show that the core beliefs that Mannix has about Hollywood are not dissimilar to those of religion, particularly of Christian religion. At the heart of Christianity is idea of transformation and redemption, of baptism and absolution, but then, isn’t that the fundamental narrative of Hollywood too? Hollywood’s ability to create stars out of ordinary figures, to smooth out imperfections, to re-mould is critical to its allure. It is also central to American identity. In Hail Caesar!, Mannix visits the priest at confession multiple times a day, seeking constant absolution. Concurrently, he is the priest of Capital Pictures where stars confess their sins to him and he absolves them—or at least eliminates the evidence for them. It is a difficult, if not endless, task, one that requires the ardour and passion that only Mannix sustains. This parallelism between religion and Hollywood is no more vividly realized in the film than the montage which pairs shots of Mannix praying with his rosary, with shots of him walking through the studio lot, dwarfed by monumental sets. The montage and the music crescendos to the final image: Mannix in front of the Crucifixion set from “Hail Caesar” (the fictional film). In this image, the three crosses and Mannix himself are shot in silhouette, while a virulent purple sky is lit ahead. After this episode, Mannix decides to remain another day at the studio system.
The reason why Mannix continues working for Capitol Pictures, day after day, year after year—even when he receives the most potent of offers to move into a more comfortable, better paying industry of government security—is his fundamental belief in the power and significance of the Capitol Pictures, and the belief that movies—great movies—provide a public good that is beyond any tawdry episode, any individual moment of suffering, including his own. Like many religious institutions, the Hollywood of Hail Caesar! is driven by an utilitarian impulse: individuals are expendable, so long as the institution remains. It is no co-incidence that an institution such as Scientology should find its roots and flourish in Hollywood. In the most indelible of Hollywood on Hollywood tragedies: Sunset Boulevard, A Star is Born, Mulholland Drive, among others, this is the price of admission to Hollywood: the exploitation of the individual until their utility is depleted, to which they will be discarded like detritus on the studio lot floor. In the acquisition of fame, comes the loss of self. It is a Faustian bargain of quintessential American tenor.
In the face of such tragedy, why then do the Coens choose to create a comedy? Indeed, Hail Caesar! is an irrepressible film that never dips its toes into anything but blithe merriment. Every character in the film ultimately finds a canny solution to their problems, and by the end of the film, all is right in the world and Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) survives to make another Capital Pictures hit. Here I think the Coens work at two-fold purpose. The first, to use irony to create a statement about the ways we use nostalgia about the past—particularly the Hollywood studio system—to convince ourselves that the world was a better, simpler time. The second, to give us the sort of film that would have made Preston Sturges, and his character Sullivan, proud. A film that makes gives us laughs—but knowing ones. Hail Caesar!, delights and entertains us, but it does not bamboozle us. It assumes that we are smarter than what Hollywood gives us credit for. It trusts that we know better.
—Claudette Palomares, June 2016
Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998)
Next time: Gabriella and Claudette review Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship