(The following is Bill Ryan's second post in our ongoing discussion of The Man Who Wasn't There. My response will follow on Friday. You can click here to access Part 1 and Part 2.)
I should perhaps have been more clear on what I took to be the source of the joke, or at least the audience’s laugh, in Ed’s scene with the medical examiner. I don’t believe that people were laughing at the situation, necessarily, or the reveal that Ed and Doris hadn’t been intimate in a long time, or that it was Big Dave’s baby. They were laughing at the choice of words, which means, to some degree anyway, they were laughing at Ed. Had he said something like “My wife and I haven’t been intimate in a long time,” I don’t know that the reaction would have been the same. This is why I think, and still feel, that the Coens were going for a laugh. But it’s strange, though, and interesting, because Alan Fudge as Diedrickson, the ME, plays the scene very straight, as a man performing a highly unpleasant act because he believes it’s the right thing to do. When he gets that answer, he gets out of that bar as quickly as he reasonably can, but the Diedrickson half of that scene is pitched at about the tone you’d expect such scene to be pitched. It’s as if Diedrickson, a normal human being, has suddenly found himself within the bizarre reality of Ed Crane, and he doesn’t like it.
That last point has a lot to do with my eventual turnaround on the film. You mention absurdity in your last post -- as well as the film’s “fun-house fatalism”, which is a pretty apt description, I’d say, and in this case may be the same thing as absurdity anyway – and that’s really the form of The Man Who Wasn’t There: it’s an absurdist noir. And Ed knows it, at least the absurdist part, as much as he or anyone else can know such I thing. He suspects, at least, that cosmic and existential absurdity has become the enveloping force in his life, and by the end he is trying, desperately and stupidly and ignorantly, not to mention uselessly, to claw out some kind of definable shape, or to maybe claw out a window to let some light in. Before I go too far with this, let me say that, while my not-quite-negative, but a least disagreeably bewildered, opinion of The Man Who Wasn’t There took a sharp turn towards the positive some time ago, I never had to explain that before, or even really think about it, until now, and my viewing of the film (my fourth or fifth overall, I’d say) the other night locked a bunch of stuff into focus. Two things, primarily, but the one salient to my current point – the other I’ll get to in a bit – is that while the film does stack tragedy upon tragedy, its structure is to stack absurdity upon absurdity.
Some of those absurdities end in death, but that’s just a part of it. I’m not sure there’s a comic moment in the film that doesn’t have some amount of near surreal lunacy to it – take Tolliver’s sudden, grunting decision to put on his wig only after he realizes Ed’s visit is of a business nature – which I suppose is not entirely uncommon to the Coen brothers, but it usually has a different purpose. Most of the Coens comedies are actually pretty sweet, or light-hearted, or just goofy, and the comic relief in their other films tends to be just that (not always, but I’d say generally that’s the case). But the comedy in The Man Who Wasn’t There is almost entirely in the service of breaking down Ed Crane. Birdy’s attempt to give Ed a friendly thank you is played for laughs (again with the absurd phrasing: “Heaven’s to Betsy, Birdy!”) but it also serves to finally, and thoroughly, crush Ed. Not that much was needed to accomplish this, but after her thank you attempt lands them both in the hospital, Ed has nothing left, not even the sliver of hope that he could repent or find redemption (through music?) that put him in the car with Birdy in the first place.
In the way it uses humor, the film is – you’re exactly right about this – joined at the hip with A Serious Man, but also Burn After Reading, and manages to be a spiritual cousin to both. It’s as if the Coens made this movie, and then decided to remake it by splitting it into those two later films. The hopeless, violent absurdity of The Man Who Wasn’t There became the film where a friendly and grinning Brad Pitt gets shot in the face, and the groping, spiritual absurdity (but, weirdly, not hopeless in either film) found its way into the movie that ends with the devastation of a looming tornado.
The spirituality of The Man Who Wasn’t There finds two expressions, one in the (absurd?) camera move that goes from a large crucifix statue in the Crane’s neighborhood church, down to a priest reading out Bingo numbers. The audience is initially led to believe the Cranes are churchgoers, but no, Doris just likes Bingo, and believes, in that wonderfully bitter line from Ed’s narration, that heaven was on Earth, and “if there’s a reward, Bingo was probably the extent of it.” Ed’s not so sure, though, and admits that, even though they’re not actually attending mass, he finds the church surroundings peaceful. But Ed’s mind is flighty and unspecific on this matter. It’s not that he thinks church, or Christianity, itself holds any answers for him. He just suspects that maybe something does, which leads to the second expression of spirituality in the film: UFOs. The comic absurdity reaches its apex with this stuff, but you’re absolutely right to say that it’s a testament to the Coens’ ability to find new ways into their characters. You also point out the national obsession for UFOs at the time the film takes place, but I’d also say that the Coens have steeped their film in pulp – that’s the source of Ed’s narration, after all, his scribbling for a true crime pulp that paid for his story from Death Row – to the point where stories from Amazing Stories sort of get mixed up in it all, too. But what I’m getting at is, the pulp expression of spirituality, or hope, or religion, or God, or whatever – for Ed, that’s UFOs. Big Dave’s widow thinks he was killed by the government (it should be noted that Katherine Borowitz plays this expression of grief-induced madness with a certain comic, twitching mania) because of what he knew about UFOs, which, while not the case, implies that Big Dave led an absurd existence himself, right up until he got it in the neck. In any case, it leads Ed to cast his eyes up to the stars and imagine something bigger that might possibly make sense of it all.
You ask at the end of your post about the idea that filmmakers must, for some reason, “like” their characters. I don’t know what it means either, and I’ve made my disdain for this notion clear in the past, but does it apply here? By which I mean, do the Coens not like Ed, or Doris, or Big Dave, for instance? To dispense with Big Dave for a moment, he’s a liar and a blowhard and he’s sleeping with Ed’s wife, so he’s not a good guy. But even he has that moment, when he confronts Ed, where he says, in effect, if you’d punched me in the nose, I would have had that coming. He also says he’s not proud of what he did, referring to his affair with Doris. His anger comes from the fact that instead of taking out some reasonable form of retribution, Ed has ruined him. Is there no room for sympathy there? More to the point, do the Coens see no room for it? Then there’s Ed, who does not, in fact, murder Big Dave – I think I’ve been careful about not using that term – but instead kills him in self defense. The worst thing he does in the film is blackmail, which Big Dave might reasonably view as way too far, an opinion the audience might share, but do you? Or do you blame Ed? Okay, yes, you blame him, because he did it, but does it make you dislike him? What do you think of Ed as a person? I think he’s obviously fairly pathetic, and would be a boring man to know, but I also believe that he doesn’t deserve his fate.
Watching the film again, the other thing that really came into focus for me is the surprising, maybe subliminal warmth. It’s a deeply sad warmth, but I was shocked at myself for not seeing how important Ed and Doris’s marriage is to the whole thing. Even though his face never betrays anything, look at what Ed is willing to sacrifice for Doris – he and Frank put up the barbershop just to pay Freddy Riedenschneider, and at one point he even admits his own guilt, to Doris and Freddy, just to set her free. He tells the truth to them both, and you see that sink into Doris’s consciousness. When he tells Freddy he knows about the affair between her and Big Dave, you see that Doris, prickly, acerbic, mean Doris, is actually feeling remorse. Maybe for the first time since the affair began, but it’s real. And that is why she kills herself. If she had any reason to believe the baby was Ed’s, I don’t think she’d have done it. But for her fractured mind, the knowledge that she was carrying the child of a man other than her husband, who was now fighting for her freedom, was too much.
Then of course there’s that little vignette, a memory Ed has while he’s unconscious in the hospital after the car accident. A macadam salesman (Christopher McDonald) tries his pitch to Ed who’s sitting on his porch, until Doris comes home and snarls at the salesman until he leaves. Then she and Ed go inside, she fixes herself another of her ever-present drinks, they sit as far apart from each other on the same couch as they can manage, Ed begins to say something, and Doris says “Don’t, it’s nothing. I’m fine.” End of memory. The Coens have said that this was meant to be a memory that was representative of the Cranes daily life together, and as such, and even without that explanation, it must be the saddest moment in the whole film. There are clues, though, that Ed loved Doris, and maybe Doris reciprocated, but even if she didn’t she appreciated him. In the bathtub, when he’s shaving her legs, she says “Love you.” Was that true? For much of the film, I’d have said no. By the end, I would say yes. Creighton Tolliver’s need for a financer might have been the catalyst for all the death that follows, but after that each character has to make their own decision, good or bad, to keep this madness rolling, and one of the decisions Ed makes that actually makes things worse, is the one to stop at nothing, at least within his very limited imagination, to free Doris. Amazingly, The Man Who Wasn’t There has a beating heart after all.
Well. I’ve gone all this way, and haven’t mentioned the title (which might be self-explanatory anyway, but we’ll get to that) or the Uncertainty Principle, as Freddy sees and applies it. I guess I’ll let you pick up those threads, if you don’t mind. But one other thing I wanted to mention yesterday, but couldn’t find room for, and probably couldn’t find an organic spot to bring it up in any of these posts. Still, it occurred to me that The Man Who Wasn’t There bears some vague similarity to another, very unlikely Coen brothers film, namely The Hudsucker Proxy. As far as the era in which each is set, they are roughly contemporaneous, but more importantly in The Hudsucker Proxy, that film’s sweet fantasia revolves around the fictional invention of a real thing – the Hula Hoop. Meanwhile, in The Man Who Wasn’t There, Creighton Tolliver is attempting to spread the word and the wealth about the newest thing: dry cleaning. And look where it gets him! I don’t really know what to do with this comparison. It may be nothing more than a passing thought…