Nikita Lamba studies film at USC. She grew up all over the world but currently lives in Los Angeles. Nikita feels uncomfortable around cats, has no sense of direction, and enjoys lying to people she meets at parties.
“The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid- term.”
-Larry Gopnik, A Serious Man (2009)
The Brothers Coen have done more than make movies. They have, in fact, sculpted their own universe– with the help of cinematographers Barry Sonnenfeld and Roger Deakins, they have encompassed an entire world in the construction of each of their films. And while, stylistically, the comedic chaos of Raising Arizona (1987) may seem worlds apart from the slick-talking, cigarette-smoking sphere of Miller’s Crossing (1990), there is a distinctly Coenian air that pervades each milieu.
We cannot deny that these characters are the spawn of the same brilliant minds, time and again. And what the Coens really do best is work with characters. Their main characters are distinct, specific, and complex, and supporting characters are absolutely unforgettable. John Turturro as Jesus Quintana, after all, is a mere subplot to the larger mystery of The Big Lebowski (1998), and despite what must be less than ten minutes of screen time overall, Quintana adds an edge of satisfying sliminess to the film that is as important in shaping its tone as any other aspect. The Coens are not ones to waste a single face: even extras in the background are aesthetically coherent, with visages that suggest wild and multifarious stories of their own.
The wonder, then, is the morbidly twisted journey in every movie, the extent of cruelty and misfortune, almost painful for the viewer at times, that the Coens unleash on the characters whom they must love very deeply to have crafted so meticulously. Repeatedly, things go from bad to worse. Characters confront life’s most difficult conundrums, and the Coens themselves are loath to provide an explanation for their films. As an audience, then, it is only through consideration of the Coenian universe and the characters within it that we can make sense of what the Brothers Coen believe and value as they play God within their films.
“The Coens are not ones to waste a single face: even extras in the background are aesthetically coherent, with visages that suggest wild and multifarious stories of their own.”
Take, for one, the Coens’ most recent original feature-length film, A Serious Man (2009). Main character Larry Gopnik, played wonderfully sensitively by Michael Stuhlbarg, is a physics professor whose life slowly spins out of control, despite refrains of his not having done anything. This is a universe, it seems, of brutal indifference. Larry’s wife is divorcing him, he is being hounded by the Columbian Record Club, his brother is getting into all sorts of trouble with the government, his opportunity for tenure is being threatened by an unknown source – all this amidst Larry’s insistence that he hasn’t done anything.
“Actions have consequences,” Larry insists, so how can he be punished with cruel consequence when he hasn’t taken a single action? “What is Hashem trying to tell me?” he begs of the Rabbi Nachtner. And here we see Larry emerge as a Coenian archetype: the man trying to make sense of his world.
Desperate for some kind of answer to the madness that has thrown his world into flux, Larry seeks the advice of three Rabbis. Only two agree to meet with him, the third meets with his son instead, on the occasion of the boy’s Bar Mitzvah. The first Rabbi, a junior in his field, advises Larry to shift perspective, to find his way back to Hashem. In a particular poignantly comedic shot, the young Rabbi looks out the window at a desolate scene and, intent on seeing Hashem in all things, sighs, “Just look at that parking lot.”
The second Rabbi offers a parable: that of Sussman and the mysterious teeth engravings. The moral? “The teeth, we don’t know. A sign from Hashem, we don’t know. Helping others– couldn’t hurt.” Larry’s indignation is palpable. “Why does he make us feel the questions if he’s not gonna give us the answer?” Larry demands. To which the sage glibly replies, “He hasn’t told me.” So Larry keeps searching.
How can we fault a physicist for wanting to know the action that spurs the tragic events that befall him? After all, Newton’s First Law of motion itself states, “Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.” Larry cannot help but question how his life can be spinning so quickly out of control when he has not taken any action that he could interpret as applying external force. But this is where Larry’s true fault lies: physics is his infallible God, but the Coenian universe is not a mathematical one. He insists to Clive Park that Schrödinger’s Cat is but a story to accompany the physics:
You can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing; the stories I give you in class are just illustrative; they’re like, fables, say, to help give you a picture. An imperfect model. I mean — even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.
But the math is not how it really works. What Larry fails to realize is that, yes, according to quantum mechanics, the math makes sense and Schrödinger’s cat is both dead and alive at the same time. However, Larry overlooks Schrödinger’s intent for his experiment, which was to highlight the ludicrous nature of the mechanics. According to the mathematical possibility, the cat exists in a state of death and life simultaneously. But when the box is opened, there is only one truth: the cat is only ever either alive or dead. Though the physics and the math make sense, the real truth of the matter is that the cat cannot be both alive and dead at the same time. While Sy Abelman’s ghost insists that mathematics “is the art of the possible”, Larry is right in trying to contradict him– math is the art of the impossible. Schrödinger’s Cat cannot actually be true, the cat cannot be both dead and alive, and Larry cannot rely on math to help him understand life. Actions do not always have consequences and vice versa.
“How can we fault a physicist for wanting to know the action that spurs the tragic events that befall him?”
The Mentaculus is the pinnacle of this mathematical obsession. Larry’s brother, Arthur, is the architect of a probability map of the universe, which he calls the Mentaculus. As we hear of Arthur’s success with cards, we must assume that Arthur succeeds in his mapping. He has figured out the probability of all things, but when he applies this in life, he gambles and engages in debauchery at The North Dakota. He has literally figured out the mathematical logic of the universe, but it does not help him because he cannot understand life. Without the decency to apply the Mentaculus properly, the point of the map is moot. The answer does not lie in the mathematics, according to the Coens. So, then, where does it lie? What is the sense in all things?
Perhaps the answer lies in the opening Polish shtetl sequence that precedes the main diegesis of A Serious Man, where a man and his wife confront the possibility of having let a dybbuk into their home. Though the wife stabs the being with an ice pick, the mortality of the creature is not determined, and as it stumbles away into the snow, we are left wondering who is correct: the husband, who insists that the man was a mere mortal who has now been stabbed by his presumptuous spouse, or the wife, who is unwavering in her insistence that the man is a dybbuk and believes she has rid her home of evil?
The best answer seems to be that the Coens themselves anticipated this question from the beginning, and chose to guide their audiences with the opening filmic quotation from Rashi: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” Rather than forcing the answers, the Coens ask us to live with the questions. The shtetl sequence can be read either way. If things turn out well, the man was a dybbuk, and if not, he was a man for whom the couple must pay the price for murdering. Until the end, until the box is opened, the man is both a dybbuk and mortal– the cat is both dead and alive. But only one is true, and since the answer cannot be known, the question only leads to “mere surmise.”
“The Coenian universe is not asking us to dismiss the big questions.”
Of course, looking hard enough for answers will lead to answers of some kind. A moment after Larry takes action, for once, and changes Clive’s grade, a phone call delivers ominous news: there is something the matter with his x-rays. The scene seems to speak directly to Larry’s world-order. Larry makes an immoral decision and God himself seems to call with punishment. But anything can be read into: if the phone call is Larry’s punishment for his immorality then, as a parallel, the looming tornado must be punishment for Danny Gopnik’s faults.
However, this seems too harsh a retribution for the boy. After all, he is about to repay his debt. Yes, he may smoke too much pot for a boy of his age, but The Big Lebowski hardly espouses an anti-drug policy – if anything, it does the opposite – and so we can assume the Coens would forgive the boy for this misdemeanor. And, knowing the Coens and their work, it is silly to even suggest that the Coens would punish such an avid lover of music for his inattentiveness. So the tornado, then, is to contrast Larry’s diagnosis, to show that, in this universe, not all actions have equal and opposite reactions. Sometimes, things just happen.
“Receive with simplicity.” The phrase echoes throughout the film. At a picnic, Larry’s friend Mimi laughs and chides him, “Life is beautiful, Larry. Nobody’s sick. Nobody died. You just need help remembering how to enjoy it.” Things are bad, but they could be worse. So why not see Hashem in the parking lot? The elusive third Rabbi, in his advice to the newly Bar-Mitzvah’d Danny Gopnik, reinforces this:
When the truth is found. To be lies.
And all the hope. Within you dies.
Grace Slick. Marty Balin. Paul Kanta. Jorma… something.
These are the members of the Airplane. Interesting. Here.
Be a good boy.
Rabbi Marshak, in his infinite wisdom and divine connection, chooses the words of Jefferson Airplane to tell Danny that when all is in question and nothing makes sense- “be a good boy.” Find God’s questions in the lyrics of your favorite song. The junior Rabbi sees Hashem in all things; Arthur cannot find Hashem in anything. So is there a God in this Coenian universe? The answer seems to be that, well, there is if you want there to be. If you want to see God in the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane, you can. But more than finding answers, the Coens seem to ask us to consider the questions and their ultimate worth. If the cat is alive and dead at once, does it matter? It only matters once you open the box. “These questions that are bothering you, Larry, maybe they’re like a toothache. We feel them for a while, then they go away,” Larry is told.
The Coenian universe is not asking us to dismiss the big questions. It is neither telling us that this world is deterministic, nor telling us that there is some kind of divine logic at play. The universe seems to, more than anything else, work according to the Uncertainty Principle that Larry explains in his lecture. We cannot figure anything out, so we should not be particularly bothered by it– but we will be responsible for it all on the midterm. While the logic of the universe may not make sense, we are responsible for our choices within it, and the Coens urge us to “receive with simplicity”, to help others, and to “be a good boy.”
So if we are to understand from A Serious Man that this is not a universe of logic, nor is it one of divine intervention, then are the Coen brothers nihilistic? Do they believe, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines nihilism, in “total rejection of prevailing religious beliefs, moral principles, laws, etc… and the belief that life is devoid of meaning”? Do they adhere to the philosophical notion that “the world has no real existence”?
Certainly, the Coenian universe does not seem to be one with a higher power, doctrine, or particularly convenient logic, but the Coens cannot simply be dismissed as nihilists. They even poke fun at these suppositions in The Big Lebowski, where a fantastically bizarre European trio, claiming to be nihilists, attempt to extort money from The Dude, played by Jeff Bridges. Though the nihilists claim to “belief in nossing”, they cry that it is “not fair” when they do not receive what they demand. Even the self-proclaimed nihilists assume some degree of “fairness” in the universe and are infuriated when the universe does not give them their due. Here, the Coens lightly mock the human need to search for meaning, to make sense. Even those who believe in nothing cannot help but believe in something. We, as ever-hoping, ever-wondering humans, cannot really be nihilistic after all.
And accusing the Coens of nihilism is not giving them their due: there are few who rival the Coenian respect for particulars. Rather than believing that “the world has no real existence”, the Coens vehemently believe in the glorious peculiar specificities of every existence, no matter how seemingly mundane. Their characters are beautifully ordinary people in extraordinarily ordinary places. They speak in carefully crafted vernacular that is utterly unique to each respective world. The Coenian hero is no superman, but rather, just a person trying to wrestle with the nonsensical nature of life, living by a creed of kindness and goodness to get through the meantime.
Which brings us to the ultimate antihero: The Big Lebowski’s The Dude. While Schrödinger’s Cat characterizes Larry Gopnik: an unanswerable question and a reluctance to take action and open the box, The Dude is the tumbleweed from the opening scene of Lebowski. He is pushed along his journey by the wind of external forces, and is as out of place in his setting as the tumbleweed is in the valley of Los Angeles. The Dude is a relic of another time, blown into his situation and trying to figure out how to tie his room together again. The tumbleweed transforms into its more modern interpretation, the bowling ball, which will roll along, but requires an initial push. The Dude fully absorbs the Coenian idea that things just happen- if he is pushed, pins will sometimes get knocked over. And sometimes the ball will roll into the gutter. There is no rhyme or reason. And the most we can do is try and get our rugs back and hope to bowl in the League Game.
“Even those who believe in nothing cannot help but believe in something. We, as ever-hoping, ever-wondering humans, cannot really be nihilistic after all.”
The wealthy Mr. Lebowski asks, “Is it… is it, being prepared to do the right thing? Whatever the price? Isn’t that what makes a man?” To which The Dude replies, “Sure. That and a pair of testicles.” The Dude does not wonder what it means to be a man– the fact is purely anatomical. The universe has granted him a certain situation, and he will roll with it. He has nothing to prove, he just wants to, well, abide. It is as Walter Sobchak says, “The beauty of this is its simplicity.” The Dude does not want to question or to fight, he simply wants to live, to “receive with simplicity.”
Contrast, then, Walter Sobchak with The Dude: Walter is guilty of looking too hard for meaning. He believes, as Larry Gopnik does, that actions have consequences, and as he doles out punishments, he repeats, “this is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass,” even though the retribution proves to be unwarranted. For Walter, everything is an offense to his conversion to Judaism and everything connects to Vietnam. He believes he has the right to pull out a gun when he thinks someone is cheating during a bowling tournament. Walter is trying to make sense of the world by confronting it head-on. And Walter is unhappy. He is still holding on to the remains of his failed marriage, he is rash and irritable, and he cannot fully appreciate the serious nature of the death of one of his closest friends. He cannot accept the non-logic of the world.
“Sometimes you eat the bear, and that’s all there is.”
The Dude, on the other hand, understands the Psalm written on the wall of the mortuary: “As for man, his days are grass, as a flower of the field, so he flourishes.” Man’s days are grass, so smoke what you want, drink what you like, and enjoy time as a flower. But this philosophy does not save The Dude, no. In fact, his philosophy of simply “rolling along” with whichever forces push him lands him in an incredibly complex and dangerous situation. But he understands that the world does not work according to rational logic. He says to the bartender at the bowling alley, “Sometimes you eat the bear and… uh…” and in the ellipses we are not meant to presume a tautology; rather, we are to understand the lack of one. Sometimes you eat the bear, and that’s all there is. There is no round, full logic, there is no reason. Donny does not deserve to die, but he does. The nihilist’s girlfriend will not be compensated for her toe. There is no fate, and there is no retribution. There is only the interim and what we choose to make of it.
The Dude plans to make the best of the world that is presented to him, taking little, and trying not to interfere. He will take the money that falls into his lap through Lebowski’s coercion and the various schemes proposed to him, but he does not have any particular design on the cash. He is unemployed and he plans to stay that way, finding joy in the little things: bowling, baths, perhaps even in a baby that is on the way.
The sentiment is echoed through the Coenian oeuvre. Marge Gunderson of Fargo (1996) says, “There’s more to life than money, you know. Don’t you know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day…” Though she shakes her head and marvels at how she just doesn’t understand, Marge lives by a set of simple principles. “Be a good boy,” because “It’s a beautiful day.” Ed Tom Bell of No Country for Old Men retires from his post as a sheriff, faced with things he does not understand, but though his villain gets away, he finds peace in a simple dream. His father is going to be waiting for him beside a fire “somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold,” and that is enough.
The most puzzling of worlds, then, is perhaps that of Miller’s Crossing. In this world, there are innumerable sets of rules– every character has his own take on “ethics.” And within this depraved, crime-ridden world, there is no wonderfully, sweetly simple Marge Gunderson or Dude. The black and white morality of “‘be a good boy,’ despite everything” does not seem to exist in as clear a binary.
The main character, Tom Reagan, can be distinguished by the way he answers the phone. While Larry Gopnik evades phone calls, and The Dude lets the messages collect while his pager pings and his phone keeps on ringing, Tom Regan picks up the phone, but only when he is ready. It will ring until he decides to answer– which he will– but in due time. Tom possesses some sort of omniscience: he is the only character who can see all sides of the plot and who understands the whole story. And this makes Tom cautious. His actions are measured and careful. His words are deliberate. When Caspar offers Tom a check to settle his overwhelming debt, Tom thanks Caspar, tells him he’ll consider the offer, and waits to see what else Caspar puts on the table. When Tom throws the first blow in a fight and his opponent leaves the room, he does not assume victory or concede defeat, rather, he maintains a defensive stance and waits to see what life will throw his way next.
So what, then, is the rumpus? The problem is that Tom has a heart and it belongs to a femme fatale named Verna. Tom’s ethics are as rigid as Johnny Caspar claims his own to be. He will not allow anyone to square his bets for him. He is willing to take a beating that he figures he deserves. He does not want to waste time on double-crossers, and advises his pal Leo to let Caspar bump off Verna’s brother, Bernie. But when Tom himself is asked to kill Bernie, he falters. Though he is not against killing Bernie, the part of his heart with Verna’s name on it gets the best of him, and he lets Bernie get away.
In a sympathetic universe, the act would have won Tom the girl. But this is a Coenian universe, in which causality is not a cornerstone. Bernie double-crosses Tom, and while Bernie’s deception of others was not reason enough for Tom to off him, Bernie’s direct offense against Tom gives Tom the right to kill him, according to Tom’s perception of justice. Tom kills Verna’s brother, which means Verna cannot accept Tom, even though Tom was playing by his own justified “ethics”.
So Verna chooses Leo -– why? Because “he’s honest and he’s got a heart.” And while Tom may have ethics and may be fair and just in his sense of the terms, the Coenian universe is not interested in relativist justice. The Coens do not sympathize with those who rationalize or those who uphold statutes of righteousness, rather, the Coens love the Marge Gundersons of the world, they love those who try to do good and see good.
The Coenian philosophy becomes more apparent in the examinations of difference between the ending of Miller’s Crossing and that of one of the works on which the film was based, the 1942 film adaptation of The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett. In The Glass Key, the “Tom” character gets the girl and makes up with the “Leo” character. The Glass Key ends with a renewed faith in brotherhood and loyalty, while Miller’s Crossing ends with two men walking away from each other, neither looking back.
“In a sympathetic universe, the act would have won Tom the girl. But this is a Coenian universe, in which causality is not a cornerstone.”
The Coenian universe is not necessarily a benevolent one. Stories rarely tie up with a bow, and if there is a bow, you can bet there will be bloodstains on it. Tom’s world is not simple, so Tom does not get the simple, sweet ending. Miller’s Crossing ends with Tom’s understanding that if he wants to be the man with all the answers, if he is not willing to sit with possibility or take a chance with love and loyalty, he is going to be walking through his half of the forest alone, with just his hat for company. Tom’s hat is as much a part of his person as any part of his body, but he refuses to betray compassion for even the hat, even in a dream.
Just a dream. I was walking in the woods, don’t know why… The wind came up and blew my hat off…
And you chased it, right? You ran and ran and finally you caught up to it and picked it up but it wasn’t a hat anymore. It had changed into something else — something wonderful.
No. It stayed a hat. And no I didn’t chase it. I watched it blow away…
He takes a drag of the cigarette.
…Nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat.
Though Tom does spend parts of the movie chasing his hat – it is, after all, what leads him to Verna for the first time in the diegesis – Tom refuses to bow to anything as fallible as emotional attachment. He bemoans this quality in Leo, and while Tom certainly has emotional attachments himself, he will not give in to them. But by denying this emotional attachment, he denies the possibility of the hat turning into “something wonderful.” As his hat dances into the unknown of the forest, so do all his possible futures with Verna. The Coens prize compassion, perhaps above all else, and in a Coenian world, without compassion, without simplicity, Tom cannot be happy.
The Coenian universe is not necessarily a kind one. Accident and happenstance rule, rather than fate, and, while big questions are asked, few answers are given. This is a universe in which No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh not only exists, but he also gets away. Perhaps Chigurh is the most apt representation of the way things work in a Coenian universe. Though not originally a character conceived by the Brothers Coen, Javier Bardem’s portrayal of the steadfast scoundrel occupies a significant niche in the Coens’ body of work.
Chigurh is a force, perhaps even the force of misfortune in the Coenian universe. His logic is not constant– some of his victims are killed simply for being in the way, others are faced with the toss of a coin. Though Chigurh does not deny that he does not have to flip the coin, he feels he is dealing in fate, rather than condemning his victims by his own hand. He puts faith in his idea of justice and fairness and refuses to take responsibility for his actions. And he is well aware of the senseless nature of his villainy:
Don’t put it in your pocket. It’s your lucky quarter.
…Where you want me to put it?
Anywhere not in your pocket. Or it’ll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. Which it is.
The coin is just a coin, but meaning can be imposed upon it. The coin toss can be read as fate or accident, as Chigurh’s choice or a victim’s luck. Things happen, in the Coenian universe, and we are left to make sense of them. Chigurh acknowledges both the undeniable human need to make sense, to find meaning, and laughs at the absurdity of the fact that the life-or-death-defining quarter is, in fact, just another coin. Chigurh imposes meaning on happenstance, he lives by a set of undecipherable rules, and he seems to be rock-solidly sure in his bizarre philosophy.
“Fate has a place in this universe for those who want it. Free will has a place for those who choose it. Accidents and happenstance abound, and the questions are always swirling in the Coenian air overhead.”
Chigurh does not have the look of a man wrestling with existential conundrums. But we do not envy him. Though, by the end, our only other choice is Ed Tom Bell, who cannot understand Chigurh or his logic or why things work out the way they do, he has his wife at his side and dreams of his father and firelight in his head. Somehow, through Bell, not having all the answers seems a far better deal than being undoubtedly sure and ending up like Anton Chigurh.
Fate has a place in this universe for those who want it. Free will has a place for those who choose it. Accidents and happenstance abound, and the questions are always swirling in the Coenian air overhead. This is the Coenian universe, where little Mattie Ross of True Grit (2010) can believe in her God, where Danny Gopnik can find His questions in a Jefferson Airplane song, and where Tom Reagan and Anton Chigurh cannot have both answers and love. Is there a God? Is everything an accident? Maybe. Or maybe, like the Coenian characters seem to find again and again, we are never to know for sure. Maybe the Brothers Coen want us to sit with these questions, and, in the meantime, marvel over the simple joys in the Marge Gundersons and Mimis of their worlds and ours.
After all, the dybbuk and the cat hold meaning only as long as you let them. Even the nihilists believe in something. And whether a physics experiment, a tumbling weed, or an airborne hat, the path to truth seems simple enough: live with the questions. Let them ache your teeth from time to time and then, instead of forcing the answers, instead of worrying too much about what will or will not be on the midterm, remember that nobody’s sick. Nobody died. There are drinks to be had and hats to be caught in the hopes of something wonderful. There are babies on the way. There may be tornados on the horizon and madmen on the loose, but that has happened and is happening and will continue to happen with no rhyme or reason at all, and the most anyone can do is be a good boy. After all, here you are, and it’s a beautiful day.
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John Connelly says
is this a rabbit hole that i’ve been led to? i take comfort in that if we met at a party , i would be in receipt of a lie. so does my cat. excellent article