The Coen Brothers’ filmography as the bridge between noir, nihilism and a post-scientific world.
Let’s start from the beginning. As it happens, this essay was supposed to be about something completely different. I started doing research after having seen Suburbicon, a Coen Brothers script directed by George Clooney. I didn’t particularly dislike the movie, but it was obvious that a certain je ne sais quoi had been lost from the original script. Since I really hate having to explain myself with French vagueness, I decided to try and understand what had gone wrong, and in particular to find out why the randomness of Suburbicon feels so incredibly subpar compared to the usual Coen Brothers brand of chaos.
Turns out, to pinpoint exactly what the Coen’s chaos is appealed to me far more than critiquing Clooney’s errors. The philosophical debate surrounding the brothers’ work thrives to a degree I wouldn’t have imagined: beyond the usual predigested YouTube content, interpretations reach back to authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Aristoteles, to the usual crowd-pleasers Camus and Nietzsche but also more less popular thinkers like Lacan and Heidegger. Without a doubt, the success of the Coens’ filmography can be partially attributed to the richness of the subtext they hide in every movie. Critically, they succeed in finding a satisfying middle ground: they avoid exaggerating with the philosophical charge, letting events unravel smoothly, but there’s also a sense that everything in the script has a precise purpose, even if it doesn’t appear to from a strict story design perspective. It’s this sensation, the fact that everything carries a meaning beyond the protagonists’ understanding, that creates the basic conflict present in every Coen brothers movie: can the characters survive a world they cannot possibly hope to control or understand?
This question is nothing new. The theme of “individuals trapped in the labyrinth of hostile fate” was the defining formula of noir cinema between 1920 and the early 50s. The upheavals of world war one had left the globe without a political order and deprived from universal values, opening the doors to movements trying to make sense of post-war chaos. The protagonist of film noir is often an antihero, motivated by the hid basic instincts and simply survival. Of course, the antihero is a “he”, as women were simply objects of erotic desire. “Cynical, ruthless, looking to take advantage and lacking in sentimentality, they’re typically insecure, disillusioned loners”. They need to navigate a complex world of smoggy, concrete jungle of skyscrapers and intrigue. To counterbalance the bleakness and survive his own self-destructing instincts, the antihero is often armed with a healthy dose of black humor. This trope doesn’t just satisfy screenplay necessities to create an appealing protagonist; as observed by Thomas Hibbs,
“Angst and fear can be sustained only for so long; endless and pointless terror becomes predictable and laughable. […] [T]he degradation of affection — the perverse erotic attractions in which noir often wallows — lends itself to wry and detached irony […]”.
After the 50s, the reality of the Cold War contributed to suppress the nihilistic instincts on which noir antiheroes thrived. Nevertheless, its legacy was here to stay, and when the times were ripe, the genre reemerged. Neo-noir shares many similarities with its 40s predecessor, but is also characterized by a kind of technical and philosophical maturity.
Well, maybe more than maturity, adolescence would be a good definition: if on one hand neo-noir authors are comfortable playing with the tropes of the genre, they also embrace a kind of Nietzschean nihilism that defies the more fatalist mood of classic noir. Originally, everyone equally suffered the injustices of a void and random world. Nietzsche abhorred the idea of humanity being submitting to this hopeless state of the world, what he called “the decline and recession of the power of the spirit”. He preached the transformation and surpassing of the decaying order by reaching a state of affairs beyond good and evil, marked by aesthetic self-realization unconstrained by the vestiges of previous civilization.
Classic noir never contemplated a possible escape from the “labyrinth of hostile fate” humanity is forced in. Overwhelmed by the world, characters could at best survive until the end credits. Instead, neo-noir depicts protagonists capable of mastering the hostile world.
[In Body Heat, Basic Instinct or The Usual Suspects], certain characters rise above the noir labyrinth, not by passing through it or learning to navigate its shifting water, but by acts of diabolical will. […] The most resourceful of these characters are in control of the noir plot, using their cunning artistry to ensnare others.
But like yours truly when he was an angsty teen, the thrill of having sorted it all out had some pretty comical side effects. For one, nihilistic antiheroes and their world have something intrinsically comical to them. Being beyond our mortal logic and since they operate in terms of an alien morality, nihilist narrative worlds operate in a literal incongruous way, defying the cause-effect rationality we’re used to.
Demonic antiheroes like Dr. Lecter or the elusive Kaiser Soze become themselves sources of entertainment because they act in ways we don’t understand and for motives which seem petty and unremarkable for us. Their logic, if it can be called that, operates using hidden connections and complex behavioral codes which are ungraspable for their victims. This also shows an inherent shortsightedness of neo-noir cinema, as it confers to these diabolical figures superhero-like powers without realizing that to accommodate them, the world too must become absurd and chaotic. If professor Lecter manages to successfully profile Buffalo Bill without ever meeting him we allow the world to function in the same chaotic and twisted way Lecter’s mind does. But then these individualistic Übermenschen become a lot more unremarkable: they’re just going with the flow of an even madder world. The question thus should be reformulated: from “How can characters win over the labyrinth?” becomes “How does the labyrinth even function?”.
An Austrian in Minnesota
It’s this the context that the Coen Brothers release their first feature-length movies. While questioning the functioning of the world is something all artists do their own way, it’s worth noticing that philosophical undertones can be especially interesting to search for when the artist in question has a degree in philosophy from Princeton. Finding out that Ethan Coen wrote his thesis on Wittgenstein was particularly interesting for two reasons: first, it excites me to a fangirly degree that one of my favorite scriptwriters and directors has studied one of my favorite thinkers. Second, it also offers an insight in how Wittgenstein’s ideas subtly influenced the brother’s filmography: instead of the direct inspiration we often search in movies, the Viennese philosopher may have had a more elusive but far-reaching effect on such unique creators.
Wittgenstein is considered one of the most revered and important thinkers of the 20th century, but he certainly doesn’t benefit from the same pop notoriety of many of his colleagues. This is largely due to the complexity of his thought, if not in its contents then at least in its exposition and consistency over time. Starting as a logician and enfant prodige of Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein was especially interested in understanding how language works. With the revolutions physics and chemistry being reached thanks to the rigor of the scientific method, a movement emerged trying to apply similar logical and mathematical methods to philosophy. Language can be interpreted as the set of logical rules which make up the basic functioning of human nature: by understanding how it mirrors reality it’s possible to reach a scientific understanding of how humanity relates to the world it experiences. Russel himself believed for example that linguistics could be understood as a mathematical system akin to that of natural sciences, making advancement in the study of philosophy indeed something very possible.
While subscribing to this brand of “scientism” during his youth, during World War One Wittgenstein started to drift in a more mystical direction, much to the dismay of his former mentor. He shifted from believing the functioning of the world could be understood in its entirety to believing that language (and thus logic) are after all limited in what they can express, and that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”, as only the experience of reality, and not the retelling of it, can lead us close to the experience (and not logical understanding) of those deep truths. Through the limited lenses of human language, what may well be a rational and ordered world becomes a chaotic mess we can only characterize with wide strokes. By the time the protagonist of Sunset Boulevard was struggling to make sense of the crumbling world of silent cinema, Wittgenstein was arguing against the idea that our understanding of the world could go beyond the limited conceptual apparatus we’re born into. Ray Monk writes that
Wittgenstein […] [saw] language not as a manifestation of ‘crystalline purity of logic’ but as a rich variety of living forms that resisted the attempts by logician to impose upon it a unitary logical form.
This distrust for established philosophical scientism may in practice not seem very different from the nihilist perspective: those stuck in a labyrinth devoid of value are as hopeless as the philosophers trying to break through the wall of what is possible to know. In reality, the narrative implications of Wittgenstein’s perspective lead to a far less sympathetic outcome for a story’s hero. If neo-noir‘s Übermenschen have the ability to transcend the chaos of the world by becoming chaos themselves, the Wittgensteinian hero is all but in control. In a world whose dynamics are beyond one’s understanding, even the most cunning plan is doomed to fail because of seemingly random elements. Absurdity as the greatest enemy of an active protagonist is a constant in the Coen brother’s filmography: Barton Fink’s schizophrenic Hollywood milieu, Llewyn Davis’ efforts nullified by the appearance of a much more talented songwriter, Jerry Lundegaard’s financial frauds being exposed in Fargo. These are all characters who fail at outsmarting fate using amoral practices and tricks. (This is failure is what moves the plot forward even in The Ladykillers, which is definitely the best role Tom Hanks has ever played and I will actively fight you if you think otherwise.)
Despite loosening themselves from the net of relationships and values which supposedly held them back, their failure is caused by what may seem the arbitrary intertwining of their lives with other plotlines. The brilliant dialogues written by the two brothers may seem to offer a deeper insight in the world of their characters, but when dissecting them it’s impossible to overlook how inconsequential they often are on the plot when compared to let’s say Tarantino movies. Sometimes the public is shown the series of events leading to this final crash, but not always: in A Serious Man and True Grit for example the randomness is compared to divine intervention, with no background information making the conflation if not plausible than at least foreseeable. This reading is not too different from the accusations moved to Wittgenstein of “mysticism”, and has a similarly accusatory tone for a tradition of screenwriting putting so much agency in the hands of the characters. Robert McKee for example goes as far as writing that:
Each of us knows we must choose and act, for better or worse, to determine the meaning of our lives…Deus ex machina is an insult because it is a lie.
But the failure of amoral women and men of action opens an interesting question: who can succeed in an unintelligible world? The Big Lebowsky is maybe the movie that goes closer to contrast a Wittgensteinian hero to those of classic and neo-noir. Recurring noir tropes such as voiceover, cases of mistaken identity and the erotic exuberance of a femme fatale are set up against a character which is all but a Humphrey Bogart or a Peter Lorre: the Dude is a lazy, laid-back stoner who doesn’t resist anything that happens to him. He’s disillusioned, as we know that he once organized student protests, but he’s no nihilist. He doesn’t pretend to know whether there’s a meaning to existence and instead of engaging superficial amorality of the Nihilists: he just goes with the flow and arguably lives a happier life than that of any other character. What is important to understand is that this view on reality can be described more as a pre-philosophical reflection than an ethical one.
By arguing on the structural possibility of “getting the world right”, the Coens leave the door open to different lifestyles and paths to self-actualization. It wouldn’t even be correct to compare the Coen protagonists to the absurd heroes of Camus or Sartre, who make peace with the apathy of reality only after a painful reflection on their own meaninglessness. Chief Gunderson in Fargo, Sheriff Bell in No Country for Old Men and Mattie Ross in True Grit have all been accused of being “simple characters”, lacking the philosophical complexity of their cult antagonists. But simplicity shouldn’t be understood as shallowness, as all these characters experience doubts and anguish indicating that they’re all but stupid. For Wittgenstein and the Coen Brothers simplicity is a philosophical virtue: it’s the ethical decision that nihilistic behavior won’t reach its role and will only cause suffering. Decency can be hard to maintain at times: opposing the stream of events with dirty tricks and nihilism is not only deadly, but also bizarrely ridiculous. And yet, it’s the only path to a tolerable life; in the words of Larry Gopnik:
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.
The Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself, by Thomas S. Hibbs. From the clickbait-y and yet brilliant volume The Philosophy of The Coen Brothers
Philip Kemp’s introduction to film noir in Movies, a great overview to most film movements.
Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee.
Ray Monk’s How to read Wittgenstein and Joachim Schulte’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: Leben, Werk, Wirkung.
Joost Hengstmengel’s exhaustive blog post ‘Philosophy to the glory of God’. Wittgenstein on God, religion and theology.
Nietzsche and Wittgenstein: Philosophers of the Future, by Michael Peters and James Marshall, available here.