Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Ballad of Joel and Ethan Coen


The indefatigable film historian Joseph McBride has now tackled the work of my favorite filmmaking duo, Joel and Ethan Coen. Having written his share of huge door-stop biographies (Frank Capra, John Ford, Billy Wilder, et al), Joe is now devoting  himself to critical assessments of some of Hollywood’s then-and-now greats. The new book is a slim volume called The Whole Durn Human Comedy: Life According to the Coen Brothers.

 I turned back to McBride’s book recently after having watched one of several films that the Coens wrote but did not direct. A British TV movie called Gambit (2012), dealing with high-stakes shenanigans in the London art world, seems to contain the brothers’ trademark blend of suspense and black humor. Starring a stellar  cast from both sides of the pond—Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, Cameron Diaz—it promised to be an enticing romp, along the lines of their Intolerable Cruelty. Unfortunately, without Joel and Ethan’s deft directorial touch, the film seems less buoyant than leaden. The plot (as overseen by director Michael Hoffman) twists and turns, but to little avail. McBride is right when he generalizes that “Coen scripts directed by others tend to go disastrously awry.”

 When the Coens are in charge of their own turf, though, odd and wonderful things happen: like Fargo, and Blood Simple, and Barton Fink, and Inside Llewyn Davis and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (The last of these is a clear nod to a key influence on the Coens, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, which argues the importance of comedy in chronicling the often-dark human condition.) But there are many—both moviegoers and critics—who consider Joel and Ethan taciturn and cynical, and it is they whom McBride is addressing in this book. He begins each chapter with a common complaint about the brothers’ films, then artfully proceeds to debunk it. Are they, for instance, the heartless cynics whom their detractors decry? Are they too fond of caricature, especially ethnic caricature, as seen in the satiric portrayals of Jewish Midwesterners in A Serious Man? Discussing that film as well as The Big Lebowski and the Southern caricatures that abound in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, McBride labels the Coens “equal-opportunity mockers.” Are they lacking in empathy for their characters? Or overly fond of a bleak nihilism that reveals their contempt for any sort of belief system? McBride’s in-depth discussions of Fargo and No Country for Old Men help disprove these claims.

 McBride ends his book with an unexpected chapter called “’Magic*Mirth*Mystery” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” I enjoyed the 2018 film, an anthology-style collection of 6 Western tales,  but never stopped to think of it as a compendium of the brothers’ previous concerns. But McBride insists that “like such films as John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud, and Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, Buster Scruggs is a distillation of the Coens’ work, an eccentric, allegorical, and often nakedly emotional presentation of the filmmakers’ deepest thoughts and feelings.”

 The film opens with a segment in which the Coens exercise their fondness for parody and meta filmmaking. Here is a lampoon of the singing-cowboy trope, calling in every cliché of classic Westerns, including the gunfight in the main street of a sad prairie town. But as the film moves forward, it enters much darker territory, focusing on human cruelty and violent death. Its final chapter, which  hints at the Afterlife, circles back mordantly to the film’s opening, with its mock-elegiac Western ballad, “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings.” Brilliantly macabre fun!




  1. Hi, it’s anonymous with a capital “A”. Two of the greatest movies ever: Fargo and No Country…. Both totally free of “genre.” Only the Cohns could create two unique masterpieces out of untethered uniqueness. A (RML)

  2. "Untethered uniqueness"? I like the sound of that. Thanks, Anon.

  3. Bev, No kidding here, I’m honestly honored by your comment. I hope you find a comfortable place for it somewhere in one of your future essays. Bob.

  4. I'll have to tuck this away in my memory banks, Anonymous. Do remind me!