I love movies. I have loved movies all my life. I grew up on them. When I was eight years old, I managed to convince myself I would make movies when I grew up. Now I am in the process of getting a degree in Film Studies. I write about film more than ever before, partly because I have to for my classes, mostly because I enjoy it, because I have something to write about. Sometimes it helps me understand the film better; sometimes it helps me understand myself better.
I created this blog as a place to showcase my work, and also as an incentive to keep writing reviews, analyses, and essays over breaks, when there’s no one here to grade me.
I have tried many times, and failed, to explain in a coherent manner why it is that I love films. Here is my best—and most coherent—guess.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

"Must Be Exhausting": Nihilism, Irony and Comedy in Coen Neo-Noir

“The Absurd is not in man… nor in the world, but in their presence together. For the moment it is the only bond uniting them.”
–Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

 “That’s life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you”
–Al Roberts, Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)

Bunny Lebowski: Ulli doesn’t care about anything. He’s a nihilist.
The Dude: Ah. Must be exhausting
The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998)

Joel and Ethan Coen, the double-brained, quadruple-handed creative entity behind some of the most boldly original films to come out of the post-New-Hollywood generation, have created and maintained a unique, unmistakable signature style, a willful blend of darkness, humor, and sophistication. The sixteen movies the brothers have written, directed, and produced to date mostly limit themselves to the confines of two recognizable registers, film noir and comedy. Prior to the darkly comedic unraveling of noir themes, characters, and motifs in such postmodern works as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), the Coens were already making (self-)consciously comic use of noir plots and stylistic techniques through their characteristic mix of irony, poetry, and drama. Commentators, noting the pair’s cold, cynical treatment of characters and their fiercely, hyperconsciously intertextual play on films past, have sometimes described the Coens’ work as emptied out stylization or as unnecessarily grim, pessimistic, and even amoral. Using Blood Simple (1984), the filmmakers’ first feature effort, I will argue that far from social, moral, and political apathy, what emerges in the films of the Coen brothers is a consistent, if occasionally nihilistic, philosophy of human experience. The directors’ work manages to repurpose and revitalize conventions of past cultural forms in a way that is meaningful to the present moment. Perhaps even more importantly, their films amount to a deeper investigation of the human condition that is as serious and engaged as it is humorously macabre.

In Blood Simple, the brothers play with and transgress established forms of both film noir and hardboiled fiction, especially the writing of James M. Cain  ( although the title is a reference to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest). The film locates the story not in the customary dark city of noir, but the spare, inhospitable desert, closer to the settings of Jim Thompson’s crime fiction. The first moments of the movie expose a barren southwestern wasteland shot at odd low angles that disorient perspective. We are presented with an empty road with a blown-out tire left behind like road kill and oil wells reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), slate-colored skies hanging over pastureland and lonely blacktop, and a small house standing on the edge of nowhere. This is an ambiguously barren, bleak realm which, like the blank billboard in one of the opening shots, communicates not “nothing,” but rather that there is nothing left to communicate but sheer desolation. The images are accompanied by the Texan drawl of an unnamed narrator:

“The world is full of complainers. And the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. Now I don’t care if you’re the pope of Rome, President of the United States or Man of the Year; something can all go wrong. Now go on ahead, you know, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help, and watch him fly. Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else... that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, and down here you’re on your own.”

In a departure from classic noir, the voiceover in the beginning doesn’t harken back to some guilt-laden past, to some crime that can be only judged in relation to the present; instead, the words that open Blood Simple seem to lead into the space where the action is yet to take place.

The movie begins with the above general philosophical statements, which lay down the rules for what is to come. Viewers of noir have been conditioned to expect at least two things from the voiceover narration: first, that the detective addressing them will be the protagonist of the film, and second, that the information given by the narrator is an important part of the mystery that will follow (Snee 218-19). In Blood Simple, neither is a safe assumption. The film is told by the murderer and ends with his death, a feat perhaps more audacious than the narration in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) by a dead man who has been lying face down in a pool all along. In Coens’ film, the voiceover is not a confession as much as it becomes a confirmation of moral equanimity, “a laconicism of complete failure” (Seesslen 60).

The second sequence, opening with a back view of the protagonists looking through the car windshield towards a nighttime highway illuminated by the glare of the headlights—a direct allusion to Robert Siodmark’s classic noir The Killers (1946)—depicts Ray (played by John Getz) driving Abby (Frances McDormand in her first screen role) to Houston at night; she is fleeing her husband, Marty (Dan Hedaya), whom she fears she will kill if she doesn’t leave. As early as the first minutes of the film, a crisis has clearly already interrupted the mundane Texas life of the characters. These opening moments, through the juxtaposition of the landscape shots and the sequence in the car, make it clear though that the clash will not be primarily between Abby and her husband, but also a clash between individuals (any of the characters) and their environment. As the film’s first two words, “the world” of Blood Simple is ruled by misunderstanding, mischance, miscalculation and mistrust, an environment in which the inability to communicate becomes a seemingly inalterable condition of human experience. James Mottram writes, in The Coen Brothers: The Life of the Mind, that “the film’s central theme is communication breakdown…. The characters only ever see part of the whole picture. This is a world where nothing is as it seems” (20-21). In such a setting, more reacting (or acted upon) than acting, most Coen protagonists have become “walking embodiments of that famed postmodern bumper sticker, ‘Shit Happens’” (Sconce 364).

This ironic or even nihilistic stance, however, seems especially appropriate in the context of film noir, with its inversion of traditional values and corresponding moral ambivalence, feelings of alienation, paranoia, and cynicism, presence of sometimes unexplainable crime and violence and disorientation of the viewer.  The Coens investigate, subvert and demythologize the generic tradition of the noir detective narrative. Their specific contributions to 1980s neo-noir are the complexly intertwined themes of the unpredictability of human experience and the failed communication that renders impossible any meaningful connection with others. Noir’s narratives of mischance, in which bourgeois characters are sucked into a criminal undertow, are divided into two broad tendencies by Foster Hirsch in Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir: 1) in the first, characters crash into crime scenes through mere happenstance, and the films which fall under this category therefore posit a world in which misfortune can overtake anyone for no reason at all; or 2) noir assaults characters who seem to either invite or deserve their misfortune. While films of the classic noir tradition more commonly subscribe to the second tendency, Coen movies (and postmodern noir in general), on the other hand, more often reflects “the sheer, absurd randomness that has always lurked at the heart of noir” (211-12). In “Deceit, Desire, and Dark Comedy: Postmodern Dead Ends in Blood Simple,” Alan Woolfolk writes that “individual purpose and social order are fictions that may dissolve at any moment in the face of uncertainty to reveal… the dark humor of the postmodern absurdity of life” (87). This tendency marks the broader cultural phenomenon described by Jeffrey Sconce as “the shift from the modernist protagonist’s search for meaning to the postmodern ensemble ‘fucked by fate’” (Sconce 363).

According to Georg Seesseln, the Coen brothers create worlds full of (often contradictory) rules which nobody abides by. “The fatal mistake” of the protagonists is that they think they are the only ones who don’t stick to the rules. Under these circumstances, what emerges is a “meta-rule of deception and coincidences” that always spells failure (288). Each character tries to tell his own story but never quite pulls it off. Most of the time others get in his way, and even when they don’t, he manages to screw it up on his own, or his modest efforts are blighted by the arbitrariness of fate. Accordingly, in Blood Simple there are no authority figures to speak of, the law is entirely absent, and violent consequences are just as often motivated by good intentions as ill thought. The meaninglessness that verges on absurd in the Coens’ ridiculous pantomimes recalls Nietzsche’s characterization of nihilism, described as “a condition of tension, as a disproportion between what we want to value (or need) and how the world appears to operate” (Carr 25).

Even love—or whatever fuels the romance in the film—is born seemingly by chance, out of necessity, loneliness, and opportunity. The plot kicks off with the inversion of the classic noir scenario—instead of the lovers trying to get rid of the husband, it is the husband who seeks the death of the adulterers. This reversal leads to a series of at least partially unforeseeable events which appear to be completely out of control. The unfolding of narrative in Blood Simple becomes not only a negative reflection of the original model, but also leads to “a chaotization of the entire system” (Seesslen 58). It’s interesting to note that, as if governed by the rules and expectations of classic noir, the hired killer ends up murdering Marty. Each of the four protagonists of the film, character types which have become staples of noir—the young, frustrated wife, the hot-blooded lover, the spurned husband, and the shabby private detective—is deconstructed. Instead of the melancholy heroes of film noir, we get four wicked, unsympathetic, but very ordinary people, defined primarily by their differences from the sophisticated schemers of the Double Indemnity (1944) stripe.

For Visser (Emmet Walsh) the filmmakers fuse together and complicate the writing of Cain and Hammett. The latter’s private detective, Richard Martin notes in Mean Streets and Raging Bulls: The Legacy of Film Noir in Contemporary American Cinema, unlike Chandler’s Marlowe, was already a flawed figure given to excessive use of force, sexual temptation, and alcoholic self-indulgence. In placing the character type in the sociopolitical context of mid-eighties America, the Coens produce a wholly reprehensible investigative figure (“Gimme a call whenever you want to cut my head off,” the detective tells Marty, “I can always crawl around without it”). In this sense, the “errant knight” private investigator of the forties, having already evolved into the ineffective loner of the seventies, has been usurped in Blood Simple by the sociopath of the eighties, “a figure who stems from rather than ventures into the noir underworld” (Martin 106).

The lovers similarly challenge the conventions of classic noir. Rather than a huckster, Ray is a remarkably dim but likeable oaf, while Abby becomes a sort of “counter-fatale, who never seems to understand or to connect with the rules of the noir game her infidelity has hurled her into” (Hirsch 222). Early in the film, Abby tells Ray that her psychiatrist says she is as normal as anyone can be. The statement is quite true, and bolstered by McDormand’s freckles and corn-fed appearance. The woman is neither the villainous seductress who lures men into deep, deadly trouble in classic noirs like Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), nor the victimized woman of neo-noirs Klute (1971) or Chinatown (1974). Martin points out how the escalation of neo-noir productions from the eighties until the mid-nineties was accompanied by a gradual erosion of the fetishistic fantasy of the femme fatale and the revelation of a greater degree of irrational masculine violence (92-96). In Blood Simple, significantly, it is not the pair of adulterers that spins a web of duplicity, double-crossing, and deceit. The shift of emphasis away from the typical femme fatale scenario pushes the blame for all of the death and destruction on the men of the story—it is the partnership between Marty and Visser which, gone bad, explodes into violence. Abby is the only character who remains, in Joel Coen’s words, “relatively innocent throughout” (qtd. in Rowell 19).

The protagonists of Blood Simple, in tune with the characteristic idiotically criminal and criminally idiotic universe of the Coen brothers, are awash in a kind of general ineptitude in all things illicit. First, Visser leaves both the incriminating doctored photograph of the two sleeping lovers and a lighter which bears his initials at the scene of the crime. Marty, much to Ray’s later surprise, is not even dead. Ray, his second would-be killer is similarly unable to finish him off and finally buries him alive. Thinking he is covering up for a murder Abby committed, he tries to clean up Marty’s blood with a satin jacket that merely spreads it around. Later, Abby visits Marty’s office, and, seeing the blood on the floor, connects it to her husband’s report of a good deal of missing money from the safe, concluding that Ray killed Marty for the money. Through a Cainian tangle of illegitimate motives and ironic disconnections, Visser ultimately finds himself trying to do exactly what Marty had commissioned in the first place, but the job proves beyond him.

Throughout all of these actions, the viewer always knows more than the characters about who’s murdering whom and why, which allows the development of a certain ironic distance from the black comedy of errors unfolding onscreen. Each character sees every other character in the film as a possible murderer, while the actual murders are carried out in complete ignorance of the victim/killer relationship. As Georg Seesslen points out, the characters actually know less about themselves, those around them, and about their relationships with each new step and turn of the plot (52). In a dynamic the Coens will repeat in subsequent neo-noirs Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), and—to some extent—Fargo (1996), Blood Simple is in essence about individuals forever misinterpreting each other’s actions, a motif characteristic of noir in general, here taken to excessive extremes. The absurdity of the situations recalls Thomas Nagel’s idea of “the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt” (157). He continues, “reference to our small size and short lifespan and to the fact that all of mankind will eventually perish without a trace are metaphors for the backward step which permits us to regard ourselves from without and to find that particular form of our lives curious and slightly surprising” (Nagel 163). The response, according to Nagel, is neither anger, resentment, nor escape, but an ironic acceptance of the absurdity that “is one of the most human things about us” (165). As Joel Feinberg points out, “irony is on balance an appreciative attitude. One appreciates the perceived incongruity much as one does in humor, where the sudden unexpected perception of incongruity produces laughter” (277). In Blood Simple, the irony and humor emerge partly out of the disconnect between characters’ and viewers’ experience, the former never letting on that there might be even anything remotely preposterous about (what Foster Hirsch calls) the “melodrama of mischance” they’re enmeshed in (211-250).

The link between violence and farce as forms of failure will become the basis of the Coens’ particular brand of dark comedy in subsequent films (Palmer 24-25). As Schuy R. Weishhar notes in “The Mundane and the Catastrophic in the Films of Joel and Ethan Coen,” “those scenes of ridiculously but brutally barbaric violence, those in which Coen brothers characters are reduced to bumbling idiots, cartoonish caricatures of themselves—those scenes that are now regarded as ‘classic Coen brothers’ moments—such scenes are also deadly serious” (121-22). The depiction of characters trapped in a labyrinth at the mercy of a hostile fate can transform the tone of the action from the gravely tragic to the absurdly comic with startling ease. The humor erupts even when—or is it especially when—it seems the most inappropriate. “With the Coens, the very worst does happen, but even so it can be shown to have its funny side; black humor finds its source in the wreckage that can result from human imperfection” (Palmer 25).

Hitchcock’s influence, his interest in the macabre and black humor, in mixing suspense with near-slapstick, is particularly apparent in Blood Simple’s prolonged burying sequence. First Ray tries and fails to muster the will to run Marty over in his car, then unsuccessfully attempts to kill the man with a shovel and finally, shockingly, decides to bury him alive in an open field on the side of the highway. The tone oscillates between drama and the grimmest kind of humor, ending with an image (Ray stomping on the grave that contains a screaming man, slowly suffocating to death) straight out of a B-horror movie. There is no dialogue or music in this twenty minute long sequence, only Ray’s grunting, sighing, labored breathing and Marty’s groaned attempts to threaten his abductor. This creates the feeling of time mercilessly stretching out, as though we are to understand that the awfulness of the act is surpassed only by the awfulness of the non-act—and here we might remember that Ethan Coen was once a philosophy student, but more on that later.

The stylization in the film, although often flamboyant, serves to create a mood of unfamiliarity and mystery that complements the main themes of the narrative. In its disruptive moments—as when the camera makes threatening movements that do not seem to be required by the action—the Coens’ technique reminds us of the random instability of the character’s universe, and of noir in general. The use of sound throughout the film throws us—and the characters—into an even deeper confusion. For instance, when Marty calls Visser from a phone booth on a busy road, he has to shout to make himself heard over the roar of the passing cars, but even then we can’t always make out exactly what he’s saying. On the other end, Visser speaks in little more than a whisper, but both we and Marty understand him perfectly. The fact that the voices overlap prevents us from telling ourselves that we are visually in one place and acoustically in another. We are everywhere and nowhere, and the process of communication of which this scene is only an example, is in itself entirely irrational and creates only further uncertainty.

“What is most certain is uncertainty itself,” Barton Palmer writes in Joel and Ethan Coen, “the fact that ‘something can always go wrong,” as the narrator wryly observes…. Like the bewildered and rightly paranoid [noir] protagonist… the characters in Blood Simple find themselves trapped in an unfathomable universe of deadly violence” (17). The crisis the protagonists find themselves in demands actions and decisions, which Coen characters almost always make without foreseeing the consequences and which they engage in without much reflection—as do Abby and Ray, but also Hi and Ed in Raising Arizona (1987), Jerry in Fargo, and Chad and Linda in Burn After Reading (2008). Conversely, the characters who reflect on their actions get lost in their ruminations (Tom in Miller’s Crossing, the title character of Barton Fink, Larry in A Serious Man [2009]), and sometimes (as in The Big Lebowski [1998], O Brother Where Art Thou? [2000], and The Man Who Wasn’t There [2001]) the brothers’ protagonists seem to alternate between the two tendencies. The result is always that the initial crisis spins out, centrifugally expanding into a series of misadventures and misfortunes that become correlates to it.

The relentless pursuit of self-interest motors all of these plots, but intention has very little to do with outcome. No matter how well conceived, characters’ plans are derailed by mischance and often fatal bad luck, running afoul of the unforeseen, “as if to say the universe has no inherent order, at least none that humans are capable of predicting” (Madison 15).

It is not an exaggeration to say that nearly every major action in Blood Simple is determined by unchecked passions—not just erotic impulse, but raw motives of fear, greed, revenge, and anger that cause individuals to go “simple.” Ironically, the proverbial last man standing is the woman whose weakness and dissatisfaction set the story into motion. She survives less as a result of her intelligence and sangfroid—though she displays both—than of random good fortune. In the final scenes, Abby kills her would-be assailant while under the impression he is someone else, the irony of her misunderstanding prompting a bitter laugh as the dying man recognizes the absurdity of the situation. In many ways, the film’s ending is the sum total of its deceptions and misconnections, evidence of the gap between intention and effect and of the irrelevance of initial motives.

“In the end, there is little to choose, morally speaking, between violence coolly calculated and violence that is the accidental result of ghoulish farce, that is, between Ray’s gruesome silencing of Marty (in order to save Abby), and Visser’s shooting of Ray (where self-preservation is the motive). The film’s rough justice spares only Abby, who has “no innocent blood on her hands” (Palmer, Joel and Ethan Coen 24). The resolution is deeply ironic, a proof of the propositions about human life the detective had advanced at the film’s beginning.

The Coens’ resurrection and renovation of classic Hollywood genres reflects the postmodern sensibility, or, as Georg Seesslen puts it, what happens in a Coen movie is similar to the musical technique of sampling (238). This recycling and reworking of noir motifs, the manipulation of images and a persistent attention to technique are readily acknowledged by the filmmakers. “It’s the Same Old Song” features on Blood Simple’s soundtrack and is repeated self-referentially over the closing credits, underscoring the directors’ knowing re-appropriation of past forms and cultural material. As an exercise in transgeneric filmmaking, and in its references and allusions to classic noir, its self-reflexivity and the use of obvious symbolism, Blood Simple reflects what Frederic Jameson, in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, calls the “well-nigh universal practice today of what may be called pastiche” and the exclusion of genuine “historicity” (64-71).

In a formulation reminiscent of Jameson’s original presentation of pastiche as lacking “parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter… blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs” (65), Elliot Stein’s 1984 review in Film Comment accused the Coen brothers’ self-conscious bravura stylization of producing a “callous banality” that has been cobbled together from “Prof. Lawrence Kasdan’s Film Noir 101 course,” the story’s emptiness dressed up with “vacant virtuosity” and pointless visual excess (cited in Palmer, Joel and Ethan Coen 28-29). While many critics have railed against the current generation of independent filmmakers, complaining these directors are “all flash and no substance,” there are an abundance of arguments against such easy dismissal of the Coens’ films as pointless deconstructions or hybridizations of familiar generic categories.

At the same time that the brothers engage noir themes, motifs, and tone, they also engage a certain version of the real, their stories and characters exemplifying important trends within American culture. Blood Simple stands as a challenge to the indictment of all texts of the postmodern era as lacking a connection with the contemporary, or simply purveying an aggressive flattening of the past. The Coens’ films are undoubtedly postmodern, “yet engage in a dialogue with genre and with classic studio films that does not slight the political and the cultural” (Palmer, Joel and Ethan Coen 60). Thus, far from a general apathy, their films make very direct statements about American society and politics, “even if these can’t be classified as unambivalent ‘messages’” (Seesslen 248).

Blood Simple features a drama rooted in central features of the American character: independence and self-determination. In a decade in which mainstream American filmmaking saw a return to older values and a new Horatio Algerism that emphasized hard work, endurance, and resolution, re-enacting the foundational African myth of self-fashioning, the Coens’ characters’ schemes of self-improvement invariably came to nothing, and “Visser’s twisted commentary on American ideals [was] like a slap in the face to the patriotism of fear that reigned in 1984…. With the country locked in a potentially apocalyptic arms race with Russia, the first voice [of the film] casually praises socialism and casts a shadow on American individualism” (Rowell 7). The fact that this commentary, a crude philosophy of individualism, is delivered by the most immoral and unappetizing figure in the movie gives the film a thoroughly political bent. One critic went as far as to call the movie, “among other things, a radically anti-American film” (Seesslen 62). In the ruthless burlesque of the self-made man, Blood Simple advances beyond the inauthenticity of Jameson’s “blank parody” (65); it offers a return, as Palmer notes, “albeit in a more cynical vein and in a more marginalized area of the industry, to the questioning of cultural certainties that gave so much intellectual force and enduring value to the principal films of the Hollywood Renaissance” (39). Offering a similar argument, Richard Martin sees the independently produced neo-noirs of the eighties as a revival of the neo-modernist neo-noir projects of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, and Francis Ford Coppola, although “with a greater… postmodernist… emphasis now placed on self-referentiality, playfulness and ‘entertainment’” (105).

However, the Coens’ linking of sources and references to film history as well as contemporary movements in society doesn’t always fully succeed; contradictions remain, and this is why their films have on occasion been described as empty—or worse, as some critics have been led “into a familiar chain of indictment reaching back through critiques of cynicism, irony, postmodernist, secular humanism and cultural relativism, all the way to the grand architect of modern disaffection Nietzsche…” (Sconce 350). In a 1998 editorial for the Los Angeles Times, film critic Kenneth Turan bemoaned what he described as an onslaught of “pointlessly and simplistically grim films.” In the same week, Manohla Dargis, writing for LA Weekly, coined the phrase “the new nihilism,” concluding that “we are being inundated with a cinema of hate,… a cinema that encourages our sadism, our scorn, and, worst of all, our total disinterest toward the world, other human beings, and just maybe ourselves.”

While never making direct reference to the Coens, these articles concern a certain style of postmodernist filmmaking to which the brothers undoubtedly belong, one that manifests a predilection for irony, black humor, fatalism, relativism, and, yes, even nihilism. Add to this the Coens’ cynicism and, perhaps even misanthropy in creating characters which are undoubtedly mentally underpowered and morally challenged, and it is understandable why so many commentators might confuse this cultivated illusion of blank disengagement with actual moral and political apathy. But we must remember that, as Jeffrey Sconce notes in “Irony, Nihilism, and the New American ‘Smart’ Film,” no form of irony is truly disengaged from its material: “Behind the veneer of studied detachment, cultivated disaffection and ironic posturing, many of these films are extremely politicized and even rather moralistic” (352). What we get in Coen brothers films is not apathy, but a consistent philosophy of human experience, indeed a clearly—if not always clear-cut—moral outlook on the world.

Nietzsche’s view of a world in which everything is continually changing and nothing is stable and enduring seems uncannily close to the universe created by Joel and Ethan Coen. Nihilism involves the dissolution of standards of judgment; for the nihilist, there is no longer any basis for distinguishing truth from falsity, good from evil, noble from base action, or higher from lower ways of life (Hibbs 139).  “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions,” Nietzsche writes in an influential early essay (“On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” 84); consequently, every concept of being—from the self to God—is a fiction. One of Nietzsche’s most famous and most provocative statements is that “God is dead.” The claim of Western religion that there is some permanent and unchanging otherworldly realm or substance thus becomes untenable, and with it so do Western metaphysical systems, the source of or foundation for our understanding of human existence, our morality, and our hope for the future, among other things. “All moral codes are seen to be merely conventional and, hence, optional” (Hibbs 139). The death of God—the loss of permanence, of a transcendent source of value and meaning, and the resulting disorientation and nihilism—leads to existentialism, characterized by Robert Porfirio as “and outlook which begins with a disoriented individual facing a confused world that he cannot accept” (81).

Mark T. Conrad argues that film noir is a type of America response to, or recognition of, this seismic shift in our understanding of the world, a view that explains the pessimism, alienation and disorientation, and the threat of nihilism and meaninglessness that many critics have noted. For Americans, Conrad continues, the belief in what Nietzsche called God, in the sense, order, and meaning of life, is encapsulated in the idealistic faith in “progress and the indomitable American spirit” (19-20). Film noir’s “bleak vision of contemporary life,” it has been argued, “offers the obverse of the American Dream” (Palmer, Hollywood’s Dark Cinema 6) or, as David A. Cook put it, noir “held up a dark mirror to postwar America and reflected its moral anarchy” (cited in Snee 215). The thread running through the design of film noir is “the sense of meaningless per se, not that life just happens to be going wrong for the time being and in one particular respect” (Sanders 93, emphasis in original). This description seems almost tailor-made for the Coen brothers’ films, but do meaninglessness and chance always spell hopelessness? Indeed, thematically, their movies frequently focus on crisis moments that seem to betray a kind of cynicism about human life that can be aligned to nihilism, but therein are also the comedy and the social critique, in the contradiction between the infinite ambitions of the characters and the existential finitude that threatens them.

The Coens are not passive nihilists, pessimists, representatives of “the decline and recession of the power of the spirit” (Nietzsche, The Will to Power 17). Like Nietzsche’s, their nihilism is “ambiguous”; if, in one sense, it is the “unwelcome guest,” it is also an opportunity, clearing a path for “increased power of the spirit” (Nietzsche, The Will to Power 17). Active nihilists, according to Hibbs, see the decline of traditional moral and religious systems as “an occasion for the thoroughgoing destruction of desiccated ways of life and the creation of a new order of values” (139-40). Irony, in the way the Coens employ it, might ultimately be the key to this intervention, not a passive retreat from involvement. This is not to say the Coens’ universe and, with its intricate ballet of clashing motives and violent movement, is not a place where characters’ lives are still cynically displaced by the often cruel contrivances of chance, but that the embrace of this meaninglessness might ultimately provide the ultimate form of meaning, in the end allowing the few wearied and worn survivors of fate to pull together and imagine a different way of life. The filmmakers are not disengaging from belief, politics, and commitment; they are strategically disengaging form a certain terrain of belief, politics, and commitment. Even when they reach the point of nihilism, we should remember that nihilism itself is not so much a belief in nothing as a refusal to believe in someone else’s something. “Nihilists! Fuck me,” Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) exclaims in The Big Lebowski. “I mean,” he continues, “say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.” I mean, say what you want about the darkness or self-consciousness of the Coen brothers’ vision, but at least it’s an ethos.

 Works Cited

Carr, Karen L. The Banalization of Nihilism. New York: State University of New York Press, 1992. Print.

Conrad, Mark T. “Nietzsche and the Meaning and Definition of Noir.” The Philosophy of Film Noir. Ed. Mark T. Conrad. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006. Print.

Dargis, Manohla. “Whatever.” LA Weekly. 26 Nov. 1998, n.p. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.
Davis, J. Madison. “The Idiotically Criminal Universe of the Brothers Coen.” World Literature Today 89.1 (2015): 14-16. Literary Reference Center. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.
Feinberg, Joel. “Absurd Self-Fulfillment.” Time and Cause. Ed. Peter van Inwagen. Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1980. Print. 

Hibbs, Thomas S. “The Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself: Nihilism and Comedy in Coen Neo Noir.” The Philosophy of Neo-Noir. Ed. Mark T. Conrad. Lexington, Ky.: University
Press of Kentucky, 2007. Print.
Jameson, Frederic. “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review 146 (1984): 53-92. Print..

Lewis, Jon. “The Coen Brothers.” Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers. Ed. Yvonne Tasker. New York: Limelight, 1999. Print.

Lowe, Andy. “The Brothers Grim.” Joel and Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings. Ed. Paul A. Woods. Medford, NJ: Plexus Publishing, 2004. Print.

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