(The following is my second post, part 4 of my discussion with Bill Ryan about Joel and Ethan Coen's The Man Who Wasn't There. You can access the previous sections by clicking on part 1, part 2 or part 3, or you can visit Bill's blog The Kind of Face You hate, where you will also find our conversation posted in its entirety.)
Right off the top, Bill, I have to say how moved I’ve been in reading your posts on The Man Who Wasn’t There, a movie which generated little to no interest from the viewing public when it was released and holds somewhat diminished stature even within the cult of the Coens. I particularly value your adept and, yes, sympathetic way of sizing up the characters. TMWWT is certainly not an easy movie to love, like The Big Lebowski, or even to admire, like most of their others, either the “serious” ones or those that are more overtly comic. (By the way, I think you’re right to have so eloquently pointed out that this distinction between forms is a very fuzzy line of demarcation in their work. The uniquely integrated way the two sensibilities coexist is at the heart of some of the confusion about how to approach and interpret their movies, and their attitude toward their characters. But I’m getting ahead of myself…). In any case, you’re doing a bang-up job of making a great case for why a little extra effort to do so can be a rewarding endeavor.
The thing I’ve enjoyed most about our exchange so far, and specifically in reading your entries, is how you’ve deepened my own understanding and appreciation of the movie by disproving the central tenet of the Uncertainty Principle, as expressed by the sociopathically overconfident defense attorney Freddy Riedenschneider. In defending Ed, charged in the murder of the desperate but, as far as I can tell, legitimate would-be dry cleaning entrepreneur Creighton Tolliver (a man who certainly had his own vision of the future), Riedenschneider describes his client as the very essence of modern man, a schlub (just like you jurors) who’s not self-aware, calculating, intelligent enough to put all the homicidal pieces together, “too ordinary to be a criminal mastermind, an ordinary man guilty of living in a world that has no place for him.” The attorney invites the jurors (and us) to consider the emotionless husk of Ed’s outward appearance—and we’ve been privy to it for much longer and in much closer proximity than the jurors have-- and conclude that the closer we look at Ed, the less sense he makes as someone not only who could be guilty of killing but also as one who is fully engaged in the business of living.
Of course, Riedenschneider’s tactic is completely cynical and misses what we’ve come to sense about Ed, that there is something there beneath the muffled, drained expressions, visible through the ever-present cloud of cigarette smoke, if we could be convinced to look closer, to actually see what’s there rather than just use the movie’s often sardonic humor as a reason to dismiss deeper inspection. Because The Man Who Wasn’t There fails if it turns out to be simply a hipster’s pose, all film noir sheen and no substance. I think the fact that, as I suggested in my last post, the movie has its own texture and rhythms apart from those of the movies in which its rooted, that it is not simply an exercise in “spot the references,” indicates that Riedenschneider’s uncertainty does not apply here.
But even more so, the way you’ve located the center of Ed’s spirituality (and that of the movie) goes a long way toward illuminating what the Coens are up to in this movie in revealing the value, despite his counsel’s claims, of a closer look at Ed.
One of the things I focused on during my most recent viewing of the movie is the way the Coens provide the outward appearance of adhering to some of the obvious tropes of film noir and use them to expose cracks in the deadpan reserve of their main character. The one I’m thinking about primarily is that omnipresent voice-over, Ed’s narration, where 90% of Billy Bob Thornton’s performance resides. This is where you get much of the essential information about the way an outwardly unaffected person like Ed Crane sees the world, interprets the actions of those around him. So you get a lot of musing about his own limitations (“I’m the barber”) and how he’s been deadened by interacting with people who strive to put up fronts that are far more transparent than they can allow themselves to imagine, like Doris and Big Dave, or even the incessant talkers, like his brother-in-law, the owner of the barber shop where he works, for whom he has little patience or interest. But the indicators of what you term Ed’s spirituality and his willingness, his need to look beyond the arid surface of his life are there early on in the narration—naturally, since what we’re hearing turns out to be the verbalized writing of a man considering his life from what is essentially the end of it. It’s not unusual for a noir narrator to be cognizant of his soul; what’s wonderful about the way the Coens have written Ed is that his occupation, the thing he does to literally occupy his time, to earn money, to distract him from his own existential worries, the thing that he outwardly seems to do almost by rote—cutting hair—turns out to be the activity that frames the way he sees the world and muses on the big questions.
At first it seems like a point of view that is forced upon him by his physical position in his job— through simple proximity and positioning, he knows the top of a man’s head. Somewhere in the dark recesses of my own cobwebbed mind I even seem to recall one of the Coens (perhaps on the DVD commentary?) saying that everything you need to know about the movie can be gleaned from looking at the many different haircuts on display. Especially to their detractors, this might sound like just so much more facetious Coen-osity, and maybe it is. (I like to think other elements in the movie are equally as expressive as the admittedly boss contours Ed shapes on some of those little punks seated at one of his stations.) But seeded in Ed’s narration is a kind of skewered philosophical musing that might sound silly or inappropriate coming from anyone else, but coming from Ed, as he scratches at his own deadened exterior from the inside, looking for some sort of illumination, it’s rather poignant. And it’s why I like your term “absurdist noir” so much. How else to characterize a hard-boiled picture where the narrator, instead of cracking wise about real estate or his own doomy temptations a la Walter Neff, muses about the implications of the scientific fact that hair continues to grow for a certain period of time even after a body has died? Of course Ed is thinking about death, whether it’s from an awareness imposed upon him before the fact (on screen) or one informed by the fact that he’s speaking from a time after which he’s experienced it firsthand. But it’s his connecting up of death, and the implications of death, with his occupation that reveals his yearning spiritual curiosity, one which, as you extrapolated so well last time, leads him to discover his own hopes for something bigger than the puny activities of a planet full of self-possessed people in the most unlikely of firmaments.
“How does the hair know when the soul is gone?” Ed asks himself, his readers, us. Again, the posing of this question, like Ed’s choice of words to describe the fact that he and his wife haven’t had sex for years, could be interpreted as sniggering on the part of the Coens, artists who are well capable of finding humor in even the blackest of death rattles, not to mention the excesses of dime-store philosophizing. But such an interpretation denies the hope with which Ed greets his own fate, during that chilling white-out when he expresses hope for a world beyond this one, where there’s opportunity and desire to explore “all the things they don’t have words for here.” It takes a bit of a leap on the audience’s part to accept the searching aspect of Ed’s personality. We’re more likely to laugh, or to look on him with a mixture of pity and sympathy, not unlike the way he regards Big Dave’s wife when she first tells him of her husband’s alleged alien abduction.
But it’s a measure of the Coens’ sympathy (yes, I do believe they are sympathetic toward Ed and his sense of spiritual suffocation) that they find a way to expand upon this fantastical element of the story in such a matter-of-fact, absurd and yet poetically fulfilling way. Not unlike the conclusion of Melancholia, in which Kirsten Dunst’s cripplingly depressed Justine finds not only release but relief, maybe even fulfillment in the apocalypse, Ed greets his fate with acceptance and with hope. It’s a fate in which he is punished, technically, for a crime he did not commit but one which he knows would not have occurred had he not set the wheels of catastrophic events in motion (in the name of love and moderated ambition, as you suggest). He considers his fate during his last moment in the spirit of discovery, as a chance to finally become something better, something which transcends the pettiness, betrayals and hampered dreams of his earthly existence.
This feeling of Ed looking beyond the haircut, beyond the temporal, whether what’s on the other side is paradise or the simple, quiet rest of obliteration, is the same thing that lifts my spirit when the planet Melancholia slams into Earth, yet shudder with horror at that tornado that provides such a ghastly end punctuation to A Serious Man. In that movie, Larry’s last-minute switching of the boy’s grades, something he’s “ettically” resisted for the entire film, suggests to me a capitulation to the indifferent, biblically-tinged evil of the way humans interact with each other that offers little of a similar kind of hope for his survival, either physical or spiritual.)
I have to start thinking about wrapping up this chapter, but before I do I just want to address that question of “liking the characters” again briefly. Do the Coens “like” their characters, or are they just perverse, cackling puppeteers? It seems fairly obvious to me that when people—critics, viewers, readers—talk of “liking” the characters they’re really talking about whether or not the writer and/or director care about them beyond their simple function in the construct of the plot. Are they just pieces in the puzzle, or does the puzzle begin to revolve around them, finding its way as a narrative because of what they do and how they feel rather than leading them through to “The End” like rats in a maze? Well, if you accept that this is the question, then I think you and I have provided plenty of evidence, derived from the film itself, not to mention other Coen brothers movies (Thank you for bringing up Burn After Reading, another of their pictures that I love almost without reservation) which supports the notion that the Coens’ ability to laugh at the situations their characters find themselves in does not necessarily preclude their sympathy or affection for their characters, or for that matter ours.
Do we “like” Holden Caulfield? Or Walter Neff? Or Ignatius Reilly? Would we want to spend time with even an ostensibly likable and sympathetic character like Roger Thornhill, the beleaguered advertising executive played by Cary Grant who gets swept North by Northwest through all manner of nonsense, none of which is of his own devising? Strictly speaking, probably not, though we certainly sympathize with him.(Cary Grant, on the other hand…). It behooves us then to remember that such “thumbs up, thumbs down”-derived assessments of the worth of character go not very far at all in illuminating what’s going on in any given film or book. And certainly the attitude of the artist toward them is not so easily summed up and deserves a little more investigation than the conventional wisdom is capable of providing.
Well, hell, I’d intended to touch on the performances a bit in this post too, which I find to be uniformly wonderful. But as one observer recently put it, I tend to be “one long-winded bastard” and have once again rambled on beyond my welcome. So I’ll touch on those superb actors a bit next time. I wish I could offer something more on your observation of real-world enterprise in TMWWT and The Hudsucker Proxy, but it’s been far too long—since its original release, I think-- since I’ve seen that movie and my memory of it is far too vague to be of any value here today. I’ll take it up as an invitation to see it again, though, as I’ve always thought that The Hudsucker Proxy is an undervalued movie in the Coen oeuvre. (It certainly proved, if nothing else, that a big budget was no distraction from their signature idiosyncrasies.) As we near the end of this project, I wonder, Bill, speaking as one Coen aficionado to another, what film of theirs might be lowest on your totem pole? Whatever your answer might be (and I suspect it’ll differ from mine) I have certainly enjoyed sussing out why, for both of us, it certainly is not The Man Who Wasn’t There.