The Coen Brothers and The Comedy of Democracy. Sara MacDonald and Barry Craig. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018.
This is both a thoughtful book and a light-hearted one—not very big (about 100 pages of text) and modest in its goals. Authors MacDonald and Craig present their main theses in a helpful Preface and Introduction. First, the movies of Joel and Ethan Coen might have serious teachings, even if they are produced primarily for entertainment. Second, while the tragic or grim movies by the brothers may present a bleak view of how it is necessary to go on somehow in a meaningless world where evil is likely to triumph, the comedies have something different to say. Third, these authors are confident that the Coen brothers suggest in a number of comedies that modern liberal democracy is the best possible regime for human beings. In addition to sharing in the enjoyment of a number of movies, the book offers reflections that are relevant to political philosophy, and can stimulate further thought.
The kind of comedy they claim to be explicating is one of justice realized, in a world that is very familiar to us. Many of the apparent frustrations of human life can be and are resolved by skillful or successful comedy—as it was, for example, by Aristophanes, and as has been explicated by Hegel. Above all, the appearance that different noble or desirable things might be incompatible, or the achievement of one might occur only by the sacrifice of others, is reconciled or—let us say the word—synthesized by a kind of rational process that goes beyond the rationality of any one person. For Hegel, as presented by our authors, comedy achieves or articulates a perspective that is superior to that of tragedy. A tragic hero mistakes a part of human existence for the whole; a revelation of the partiality of the merely partial is shattering. A comic hero, on the other hand, finds his or her way from a part at least some distance toward the whole. Comic writers are able to discover how history can transcend and reconcile conflicts in human life, and then convey that transcendence to an audience. The greatest transcendence is found in a political regime—liberal democracy–in which individuals are free to pursue their rights, with economic rights at the core. It would not be surprising to find selfishness, crime, and violence; but it is people’s freedom—and perhaps only their freedom—that allows them to discover both rationality and love, including the love of friends and a family.
It might be worth pausing here to consider whether it is realistic to try to learn something from movies. The authors say that in their own teaching they make use of contemporary authors as well as the classics, but film and television also have a place in the classroom. “It is clear that film is a contemporary art form that is able to contribute to the exploration of [the most important] questions. It is also clear that great films can hold their own alongside great books.” At the risk of rudeness, one might suggest that we had better hope so; the twentieth century probably produced more memorable movies than memorable books, and it seems increasingly unlikely that books written in our time will be remembered as classics. If movies do not bring us wisdom, where are we to turn for such a gift?
We are familiar with the notion of “escapism,” and in some cases there is a sense of a temporary escape from the real world to a more fantastic or unlikely one, after which we, along with characters in a movie, return to the real world having learned certain lessons. In the example of romantic comedy that the authors borrow from Hegel, issues between lovers that might seem irreconcilable (family feuds, previous or rival love affairs) prove not to be irreconcilable after all when they are seen from a very different perspective. With tragedy there is the somewhat different notion of “catharsis,” borrowed to some extent from Aristotle. Characters who may be greater or more heroic than most of us (although modern genres, including the novel, tend to focus on ordinary people) struggle with fates that cannot be changed, and may be too much for anyone. We are taught, as it were, to reconcile ourselves to more ordinary lives with more ordinary struggles.
Politically speaking, tragedy may be more “conservative,” while comedy may be more hopeful or reformist. In the language of Barack Obama, someone who can see the possibility of reconciliation between apparently opposed positions may be a uniter rather than a divider, and may find a way to a political solution that reflects a greater unity. Tragedy may make us skeptical of human solutions to apparently intractable—or natural—problems. On the other hand, comedy may open us to utopianism, including the possibility of fanatical efforts to re-shape humanity so that we can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past; tragedy may encourage not only realism but defeatism or even nihilism, which may open us to radical violence in a different way.
“Raising Arizona” (1987) and “Fargo” (1996, action in 1987)
The first comedy our authors deal with is “Raising Arizona.” A habitual criminal (H.I. or Hi), who has already spent substantial time in prison for non-violent robberies, falls in love with a police officer (Edwina or Ed)—the one who has repeatedly taken his picture as part of the intake process in jail. She returns his love, on the condition that he give up a life of crime. The early plot twist, generating a series of crises which ultimately have to be resolved, is that the newlyweds resolve to have a child, and discover that it will not be possible for them to have a biological child together. The news is full of a story about a furniture tycoon and his wife giving birth, with some kind of assisted fertility, to quintuplets. Ed, supposedly the sworn defender of both the law and the Constitution, proposes that they kidnap a baby, with the excuse that the parents of five will still have four, and who knows, the one who is kidnapped may receive better care this way. Ultimately they return the baby, and make a deeper resolution than ever to live patiently, according to the law, still hoping to have a child one day. Their best hope is to leave Arizona, their home state. (The fact that Hi has a record in Arizona prevents them from adopting legally there). The worst criminals in the movie either return voluntarily to prison, or get killed in a way that would have been difficult to plan; there are elements of sheer good luck in the resolutions achieved in the movie.
For MacDonald and Craig, the lessons seem to be that the older Arizona of frontier days, where it might have been necessary to deviate from the law to get ahead, and indeed a certain kind of violent cowboy might be a hero, is being replaced by a new, more peaceful and lawful Arizona. The change is for the better, and it meets deep human needs, including the need for love and family. One might think the love of a baby is about the easiest kind available (although “undemanding” would not be the right word for the tasks of caregiving); literally everyone who meets “baby Arizona” falls in love with him. The movie is set firmly in the Reagan years, as well as in a specific state that voted repeatedly for Reagan, and there are certainly questions about whether unbridled capitalism, such as in the cut-rate furniture business, is necessarily morally superior to crime. (There are clear suggestions that successful capitalists can be as nasty as criminals, but they are typically smarter).
If Reagan stood for the defense of “free markets” as opposed to government regulation, this might be seen as somewhat questionable; but the “social conservatism” of the Reagan years probably fares better. Not only are there repeated suggestions that parenthood might redeem bad or questionable people; but there are strong hints that the main reason people turn out bad is that they have bad childhoods—something responsible adults might do something about. (There is very little suggestion in the movie that government programs of any kind are of much help in the raising of children). In a way the protagonists discover and explore nature; with a newborn baby, we might say nature is unchanged, uncorrected or unspoiled. What makes a baby lovable is that almost every aspect of his or her life remains merely potential; adults can read any hope they like into the child’s future. Nature at its best or friendliest shows the potential of possibilities that are yet to be explored, and freedom from brutal realities that are yet to be discovered. But the protagonists also learn through law, civilization, and history, any of which might be somewhat different from nature. A society can prove itself as a good provider of human satisfactions, which are all the sweeter and more lasting if chosen freely; some societies are better than others; and the improvement is probably revealed through history, with the new generally better than the old.
MacDonald and Craig argue that it is the family as explored by John Locke that we find celebrated in this movie. Somewhat engagingly, our authors point out that “Locke, while not a writer of comedy, was one of the philosophic inspirations of the American founding.” As they say, Locke insists that the authority of parents over children is less than had been believed traditionally; parents only have the power they need to ensure that children grow up to be “useful.” While the authority of parents is treated as quite distinct from that of governments, our authors point out a similarity: “As parents are naturally guided by their inclinations to care for and educate their children, so governments should be rationally guided by the same protective concerns—seeking to ensure the safety of their citizens’s lives, liberties, and properties.” There is a similarity between “love between parents and children” and “justice within political communities.” Somehow Locke describes us as having both rights and obligations, with rights being more fundamental. There is an obligation “to care for one’s own children and others,” as much as possible, “when [one’s own] preservation comes not in competition.”
It is very American to think that if one ventures down the road of a modern liberal understanding of things, there is a reasonable chance you end up at some of the better Disney movies: taking care of oneself; enjoying the success of others in a live-and-let-live kind of way; remaining skeptical of the claims of any individual to having authority over another. The family can become a group that one can count on for warmth and support, if not for the intense closeness and necessary discipline of the pre-democratic or traditional family. It is reasonable to find the so-called nuclear family, in which it is fairly easy to like each other, rather than a larger extended family which is more likely to include some stinkers. Tocqueville describes democratic American families in action as long ago as the 1830s; he says it is so pleasant for parents to see their children as friends and (eventually) as equals that people who grew up in a more aristocratic world can immediately be won over to the new one based on the joys of family life. There will be many economic and other ties to people outside the family, in a world that can be harshly competitive; the “new” family can provide at least a conditional “haven” (to borrow from Christopher Lasch) in such a world.
The emphasis on the American family raises questions. There is a freedom from some of the obligations of the past, but how far does that freedom go, and what are the real limits on it? It may be tendentious to go on about this at greater length than MacDonald and Craig do, but it is part of giving credit to the Coen brothers to see the issues that are raised in their work. Locke addressed traditional views linking the patriarchal family to politics, and the authority of political rulers. In Locke’s time and place, the traditional arguments, to understate the case, were rooted in the Bible, and Locke strengthens his own case by often appealing to the text of the Bible, and showing that his most prominent opponents, such as Robert Filmer, make mistakes in interpreting the sacred text. Ultimately, however, albeit in passages that may be difficult to find, and easy to forget, Locke shows that a careful reading of the Bible reveals views for the guidance of human life that Locke himself rejects. He is not simply opposed to this or that “conservative” interpreter of the Bible, who may be eccentric or unreliable, but to the tradition as a whole insofar as it contradicts what he takes to be the teachings of reason. One remarkable result of Locke’s careful approach is that it is possible for well-meaning people to accept most if not all of Locke’s teachings while providing them with at least some support from extensive quotations from the Bible. The American regime, at least until the 1960s, provided plenty of examples. Part of the humour of “Raising Arizona” is the idiosyncratic diction of the characters, redolent of the Bible among other sources, differing slightly even from one character to another. Of course when one speaks of the respect in which the Bible is held, or was formerly held, in the U.S., one must also speak of the vast variety of religious denominations that are found there. Idiosyncrasy and individualism are valued as expressions, to some extent, of personal choice and interest.
Surely the ongoing appeal of the Bible is partly that it supports the notion that we have obligations that are separate from, always potentially opposed to, our own self-interest, and in this light, such obligations are to some degree beyond question. As long as people read the Bible, they may have difficulty in trying to shake the idea that no matter how free we feel ourselves to be, there is such a thing as divine punishment. Does Locke in all his diligent searching find any such obligations as the Bible describes, other than the “obligation” to protect our own rights, above all the right of self-preservation? According to Locke, for example, the fact that humans have a desire for copulation, and this desire is not directly related, as far as we can tell from our experience, to any thought about children, is something we can know with confidence whether the Bible says so or not. There is plenty of evidence that if adults are not taught to be reasonable, they are likely to be indifferent or cruel to their own children; telling fathers that they are authority figures may lessen the indifference, but is less likely to lessen the cruelty.
Locke appeals to the fact that people may come to want children, and this desire might be rational, or might be made more rational than it would otherwise be, if it is a matter of wanting to preserve or continue oneself. The individual making such decisions does not do so as part of some non-political or pre-political “whole,” such as a patriarchal family, but as a rational individual. Having children is often good, for example, in that one may need allies in life in the medium to longer term, and some short-term sacrifice can make this possible. (Warm relationships, or actually getting along, may be a kind of bonus, based on mutual respect for each other’s rights). The relationship between parents and children has so much to do with personal security and economics, and so little to do with biology or even love, that any adult can easily become a parent in every sense that a biological parent can ever be. “By interpreting the concern for children in terms of the strongest and most stable human desire, that of self-preservation, Locke provides the basis for a relatively lasting connection between fathers [and mothers] and their children without giving fathers the great powers patriarchalism thought necessary.” Obedience, including the obedience of children to their parents, is “not the biblical virtue [expressed in the Fifth Commandment and in many other passages] but a temporary necessity [owing, for example, to a child’s weakness].” Whether parents deserve or can reasonably expect any honor or respect from any grown children depends on material circumstances: how they have treated the children in the past; whether there is an inheritance to provide an incentive for good behavior; whether parents have actually done, or are likely to do, more for “their” children than say an employer or some stranger has done.
Locke suggests that parents must do what they can to ensure children are “useful to themselves”; there may be an ambiguity as to whether this means useful to the parents, or to the children themselves, or to both. Locke distinguishes himself from the Bible by saying he is opposed to conceding that any parent morally has the power of life or death over a child; among other reasons, a dead child can hardly be useful. What about less severe forms of discipline? Of course from an early age a child can store memories of mistreatment, and act accordingly, if only by running away and becoming “useless” to the abuser; Locke suggests more than once that a child can go to work for money, “shift for himself,” at a younger age than some people might expect. Rightly or wrongly, many middle-class people today protect children from the workforce in order to ensure more education, and higher lifetime earnings. Locke seems confident that with his emphasis on economic security, as the basis for increasing prosperity, his approach is consistent with, and probably supports, substantial growth in population. One might borrow language from our own age and say his arguments as a whole are pro-natalist rather than anti-natalist.
When things go well between parents and children, and the constraints that applied to a father who was a powerful authority figure are gone, there may be more opportunities to relax and enjoy family life in a spirit of genuine affection. The great advantage of starting with a baby, whether biologically one’s own or someone else’s, is of course that the child can be socialized to a specific family, and adopt the manners and habits that are attractive in that context. Some parents or “parents” in “Raising Arizona” believe strongly in following the teachings of Dr. Spock on the care of babies—or at least they believe in the virtue of having a copy of the book. Despite this sense that there is a reliable text produced by an expert, the actual child-rearing we see, even among more or less decent people, varies considerably. Freedom on the part of parents obviously does not guarantee a good outcome for children; yet the movie seems to take the view that freedom is so good in itself that it argues against any agency trying to micro-manage such matters. Various people have at least a brief opportunity to try being “parents” to baby Arizona (there are several actual and attempted kidnappings); all except the original or birth parents seem worse (their actions subject the baby to extreme danger), and the movie poetically has Hi and Ed return the baby to those parents. There is some reason to wonder whether the original Arizona parents are likely to be great parents. Hi hopes to get the reward money that has been offered—surely an extreme example of chutzpah—but it is Ed (not, as our authors suggest, both lovebirds) who say it is not right to be thinking of getting something for themselves.
How free are Lockean individuals? Many things that we think of as becoming common only after World War II, and perhaps more common in the U.S. than elsewhere, are anticipated in Locke: the use of birth control to ensure that sex can be rationally separated from procreation, and procreation can be planned; liberal divorce to ensure that adults can live in arrangements that they find convenient—including, presumably, arrangements for custody and visiting of minor children; in vitro fertilization and other methods to ensure that people who want children can have them. “The primary purpose of Lockean law is to resolve controversies and to protect the property and lives of citizens from the violence of others. It is not primarily intended to foster a particular way of life [Biblical or otherwise], but to be a neutral umpire which leaves each individual as free as possible to follow his own will in disposing of his person, actions, and possessions.” From such freedom, “Raising Arizona” as interpreted by MacDonald and Craig implies, can come true human happiness.
“Fargo,” like “Arizona,” is set in the Reagan years, and there are parallels between the two movies. There is both crime and punishment, not always according to law, in both movies. There is family life, and love. As in “Arizona,” in “Fargo” there is a baby somehow at the center of the action—in this case, the child that Marge the chief of police is expecting, still in utero as she continues to work late in her pregnancy. In “Fargo” there is a sharper divide between the good people and the bad people; the bad are truly evil, and the good do not seem to need to struggle much to remain good. “Fargo” seems to make a clearer or easier case for avoiding a life of crime. There is a weak individual at the start of the movie’s action, Jerry Lundegaard, more or less unsuccessful in a job which he has been given as a family favor. He has somehow come to owe a million dollars, presumably to criminals, so he decides to “fake” his wife’s kidnapping in order to get the money from his wealthy father-in-law, Wade Gustafson. Extreme violence ensues.
Wade the father-in-law is among the quiet, decent, probably scrupulously law-abiding “Minnesotans” in the movie; he is also avaricious and penny pinching (but perhaps not as mean as Nathan Arizona the father of quintuplets). In a way Wade’s refusal of a loan to Jerry is also part of what precipitates the violence, including his own death. There is supposed to be an understanding that no one will get hurt in connection with the fake kidnapping; instead seven murders unfold, the most grisly of which has made “wood chipper” into a part of popular culture. Of the two criminals who are hired for the job, one is much more habituated to violence than the other, and he sets the tone for the criminal part of the movie. Against all this brutal and somewhat horrifying crime, we have a police officer (Marge) who can fairly be described as dull and dutiful, female and visibly pregnant, solving the case (although realistically she is entirely too late for the seven victims), when she is not chatting about mundane matters with her husband Norm.
In the case of “Arizona,” MacDonald and Craig are somewhat opposed to various commentators in that they are sure there are serious teachings to be found in this very fun movie. In the case of “Fargo,” there is a much more specific disagreement between critics in general and our authors.
Reviewers have commented on the “cheesy Norman Rockwellian” setting as well as the emptiness of the American Dream depicted in the course of the film. The Coens encourage this somewhat cynical reading of middle America … While critics focus on the financial and moral bankruptcy of Jerry Lundegaard and the criminals he hires, their derision for the majority of the people in the heartland, represented by Marge and her husband Norm, means that they miss the essentially hopeful vein of the film . . . At the end of Fargo, justice and love have prevailed, and Marge’s unfaltering devotion to both details an account of how love can be the foundation of justice even when faced with the most heinous of crimes. (24)
It is simply not clear that Marge and Norm can bear the weight of this analysis; in some ways there is less to them than there is to Hi and Ed in “Arizona.” Our authors begin their chapter on “Fargo” with a silly knock-knock joke between Marge and Norm. The sense is that Norm is slower on the uptake than Marge, but she enjoys speaking at his level and enjoying what he so obviously enjoys. Norm is an artist, possibly specializing in painted duck decoys that are both beautiful and practical for his Minnesota neighbors. In the course of the movie he finds out that a painting of his—a painting of a duck decoy–is going to be used on “the three cent stamp,” and Marge quietly celebrates with him. In their expectation of their child (if they are excited, they hide it well), Marge and hubby seem to have become somewhat infantile themselves.
As for the struggle against injustice, Marge’s sense of duty cannot be questioned—indeed many viewers will wonder if she should be driving around, checking crime scenes, at her advanced stage of pregnancy. One can see how she has been promoted to chief of police in this small-town police force; she is likely to be the brightest person on the force, and indeed one of the brightest people in town. There is still a question, however, whether she tends to assume not only that “most folks are good,” and these violent criminals from “outside” are the exception, but indeed that the people she sees every day, people like Jerry, cannot possibly be criminals. (The two criminals are hired in Fargo, North Dakota, just across the state line and therefore technically “outside” Minnesota where the “good” protagonists all live.)
Reviewers have speculated on why an interlude between Marge and Mike Yanagita, an old high school classmate, is included in the movie. Mike makes clear he has romantic thoughts about Marge. Marge may have had similar thoughts, at least at the back of her mind; she goes on a kind of date with him, and fixes herself up for it. Surely many of us would like to believe the unlikely proposition that we are approximately as attractive as we were in high school. Marge eventually lets Mike know there is nothing doing; Mike cries and asks for her sympathy, saying his wife has died. (He may have been suggesting Marge would commit adultery, but supposedly he wasn’t going to do so himself). Later Marge discovers that Mike lied; his wife is still alive. Some suggest this explains the presence of the interlude; from the discovery of Mike’s dishonesty, Marge is able to re-consider the question whether Jerry has lied, and this allows her to unravel the case. Without knowing why the Coens included the “Mike” interlude, it is remarkable to suggest that a detective wouldn’t think one of her neighbors might lie until she is forced to recognize that another has done so. She has been living in a fairy land—or she has been foolishly believing that to be the case—and she has to be shocked into a recognition that ordinary Minnesotans might lie, to say nothing of committing serious crimes.
In their chapter on “Arizona” MacDonald and Craig refer to the thought of John Locke. In the chapter on “Fargo” they discuss Plato’s Republic at some length. Socrates warns that poets and other artists have a tendency to use their art for deception—either to present what is real in a deceptive way, so that the consequences of bad actions, for example, are minimized or romanticized; or to abandon what is real, and encourage people to give up on reason in favor of living in a fantasy. Socrates, at least as presented by the fantastically poetic Plato, is more than willing to beat the poets at their own game—to use art to reinforce the search for truth, rather than short-circuit such a search. If the truth comes to appear harsh or disappointing, a more edifying picture of the truth, not one that is fundamentally misleading, might be presented in order to encourage the search even in what seem to be difficult times. The Coens, according to our authors, show their willingness and determination to use art, sometimes deceptively, to encourage truth and justice, not to undermine these goals. The other theme our authors draw on from the Republic is that of the tyrannical life as opposed to the just life. The tyrant is controlled by passion rather than reason; the proof of this is in the irrational extremes to which he will go in order to achieve short-term benefits for himself: turning on friends and family, using violence somewhat indiscriminately, and so on. The Coens, say our authors, follow Plato in using art on the side of good people and justice, in opposition to bad people and injustice.
Perhaps we can borrow from Nietzsche and say there is too much interpretation here, not enough text. The only powerful motivation that seems to be at work in “Fargo” is money, probably combined with a certain amount of recognition or respect. Jerry wants to be a big shot, like his wealthy father in law–who has earned his money. Jerry’s debts spur him to become a criminal, and the criminals he hires are familiar with doing bad things for money—sometimes even for small amounts of money. It is probably rational to avoid a nomadic, unsettled life of crime, in which every big fish criminal can be swallowed by a bigger fish; does that mean it is rational—the best we can hope for—to live the dull, quotidian, mundane, anodyne life of the bourgeois? A life in which Marge, a police detective, has sunk into a kind of cheerful, bland ignorance of human nature? Granted, there is a similarity to some great detective stories, such as the Maigret stories by Simenon. The detective has a much duller life than many criminals, he works in a sometimes pedestrian way at a routine, lacking in glamour (of course successful criminals also benefit from a careful, methodical approach to their crimes); and in his bureaucratic life, he is often denied the recognition he deserves, and is forced to deal with politicians or dullards. The love of his wife, and domestic tranquility of his home, along with apparently endless varieties of French cuisine, are all great comforts. Yet the underlying joke is always that Maigret is a student of human nature, and crime in its many guises (often non-violent) allows him to learn a great deal, while Simenon shares knowledge with the reader. Does Marge learn anything in the course of “Fargo,” or does she simply prove, predictably enough, that Marge is always Marge, and in some important ways this will be good enough?
If we are to refer to the Republic in understanding “Fargo,” MacDonald and Craig come close to suggesting that everything would be great if only we could get back to the “healthy city,” perhaps the first city we see in the Republic, in which everyone works hard on specialized tasks, and looks forward to a good night’s sleep every night. There is limited recreation, perhaps a hymn or two after a meal and before bed, and sex only with a view to reproduction. There seems to be no art to speak of, no ambition, and none of the arguably noble or good things, other than money, that might excite or stimulate such promising yet dangerous aspects of the human soul. To be even nastier, we might say the “good” side of small-town Minnesota in “Fargo” reminds us of Nietzsche’s last man: not only clinging to simple comforts, but more and more inclined to believe that these are enough—it is a relief to be rid of those great, sometimes terrible passions of the past.
If we compare “Fargo” to “Arizona,” there simply seems to be a richer presentation of human psychology in the latter movie. What makes H.I. go straight in the end? First, probably, he will follow Ed’s lead. He followed her into accepting normal domestic life, he followed her into taking the child, and he follows her into giving the child back. Secondly, he is not as young as he used to be, and the violent chaos that has come upon them has probably been a bit shocking; his ex-con friends beat him, tie him up, and take the baby. Twice he is the rabbit in a long violent chase, involving bullets whistling around him and dogs chasing him, as a result of trying to steal a large bag of diapers. For a while a bag of diapers (or even two bags) is the McGuffin in the movie. (If you enjoy movie comedies, you will enjoy this one). The criminals are becoming more violent than he remembers, but so are the police and even neighborhood dogs.
There is a third fact which is lurid, larger than life, and up to a point unique to him, which probably points H.I. toward returning the baby, and giving up crime altogether. He has imagined a kind of monster or ogre in human form, who brings destruction wherever he goes, hunting him down as a punishment for the wrong he has done in taking the child. As frightening as the more or less realistic events in the movie are, he is terrified of even more gruesome horrors that might be inflicted on him by this avenging monster. It turns out there really is a monster—a man on a Harley named Leonard Smalls; he doesn’t seek revenge, but he does capture people for whom there is a reward, or simply people like babies who have significant value on the black market. He is in some ways supernatural, able to start fires and explosions spontaneously. He is immediately reminiscent of the Devil and Hell; Ed calls him a “warthog from hell.” When Smalls appears on the highway and takes the child, Ed says “what is that?,” and H.I. says “do you see it too?” He might have thought this monster existed only in his imagination. There is surely a hint of an afterlife for human beings, such that punishment for sin is somewhat more certain than a reward for justice. (“Raising Arizona” seems to become “Leaving Arizona,” and waiting patiently for a child and a better life with a family; at least slightly reminiscent of waiting to depart this earth and live in heaven).
MacDonald and Craig seem to reduce Smalls, or the combination of the imaginary monster we first see, and the real Smalls who is eventually killed, to something less than he is in the movie. They seem to think he has existed in Hi’s imagination as his own powerful and vengeful self, getting back at the world. He is also the violent, old-fashioned, excessively violent kind of man who might have been needed to settle the West, but is now a problem that must be solved. We might think even more plausibly that this monster—frightening us with the thought that wrong-doing will be punished—provides a powerful motive for Hi to go straight. Figments of the imagination overlap with things we can only see in movies, and even with the possibility of divine revelation. All of these aspects of what is strange and somewhat frightening might in some cases help to enforce justice, or a sense of the common good, or persuade people to undo the wrongs they have done. By comparison, there is no motive to be good in “Fargo,” or no indication why somewhat ambitious people would choose to be good. There is of course a kind of overblown idea that we should be scared straight by the violence that is unleashed by a criminal who is at least initially non-violent. Is it true that if we allow any crime into the fairyland of the Coen’s Minnesota, through any tiny crack, nightmare violence will result, and this thought should be enough to keep us on the straight and narrow? Somehow this is not persuasive.
Both “Arizona” and “Fargo” present characters with somewhat stunted intellectual lives. In “Arizona” there is more of a sense that such people can have a great deal to teach us. It sometimes seems the Coens are mocking peasant-type people simply because they are peasant-types. The brothers invite audiences to enjoy their own superiority—“thank goodness I’m better/smarter/more sophisticated than that.” In “Arizona,” at least, people whom one would expect to be barely literate come up with erudite and well-formed speeches requiring a substantial vocabulary, and some knowledge of history and literature, including the Bible, as well as popular culture. This is a kind of never-ending in-joke; imagine if people like that were able to talk like that. Perhaps it would provide some solace, including humor, in lives that are otherwise stunted if not miserable. In “Fargo” the good people seem less miserable, but possibly even more stunted.
One solution to the problems of justice is to say we should “go back,” as much as possible, to the healthy city—put the contents of Pandora’s box back in the box, as it were, and close the lid. A more realistic solution, and one that involves more of an exploration of human nature, is to work on specific cures for the “feverish” city, which comes after the healthy city in the Republic. Insofar as utopia has never existed, the healthy city is not a real or historical starting point. We probably live in some variation of the feverish city, where human beings have ambitions both good and bad. Justice comes to sight as “the good of others,” rather than as one’s own good, so an argument must be made that we can achieve both. For Socrates in the Republic, the healthy city becomes the feverish city because of the need for more land, and for soldiers to go somewhere and take land and other goods for the benefit of their own city. From that point, the key to the dialogue is the education of soldiers. It is not possible to simply assume away a rich variety of music (including poetry): we need to draw from a rich palette, or array of possibilities, to find the “right” music for the just city.
“Arizona” presents us with an America that is more like the feverish city. There are extreme desires for recognition and love, as well as cash, but there are possible reforms for this society that are consistent with freedom. Given varied, interesting, romantic characters—some of them like pirates, varying as to the danger they pose to innocent people—there is surely no desire to simply return to the healthy city, where the good people all seek to have limited or even stunted desires. The pirates or criminals, to some extent, stand in for the soldiers in the Republic who need to be educated. The period when such people are needed—the frontier days—are over, so now we need more peaceful people, dedicated to lawful commerce and (of course) the family, including some of those lovable fetuses and babies. MacDonald and Craig are surely correct that the state of Arizona is meant to remind us of the “old” Western frontier. The landscape of the great John Wayne westerns is still visible, even if relatively small parts of it are dominated by huge chain stores, open and brightly lit at night, and “streets” are cluttered up with trailers, poorly-built houses and some of the claptrap of barely solvent retail businesses. As in the Republic, land was taken from someone else, more recently in Arizona than in some places to the north and east. Perhaps the missing characters in both “Arizona” and “Fargo,” both set west of the Mississippi, are the so-called Indians of whom no mention is ever made.
“The Big Lebowski” (1998, action in 1990)
Of all the Coen brothers’ movies, this one may have the biggest ongoing impact. To call it a cult movie is an understatement. Veneration of the Dude as a role model for enjoying life, avoiding stress, and yet handling issues that cannot be avoided by a decent person, has taken on the status of what both Wikipedia and MacDonald and Craig call a “religion”—Dudeism. The character of the Dude, and perhaps this movie as a whole, reminds us that boomers in the West have had a tendency to reject the religions of their parents, and to look askance at religion in general, yet they have often had confidence that some kind of Eastern religion, probably a bit like Buddhism, is entirely a good thing. The Dude is presented as a true hero—prepared to fight for justice, a good friend even when his friends make this difficult, a man who doesn’t look for trouble or try in any forceful way to win converts; both wise and good.
The ongoing joke of the movie is that the Dude is outwardly, and not only outwardly, a pothead slacker who can barely be motivated to do much of anything except go bowling with his friends Walter and Danny. Yet the Dude is also a genuine hero–in some ways the residue of American manhood. He likes things exactly the way he likes them. At least a few times a day he likes a White Russian, which he might jokingly call a Caucasian, just so. He likes the freedom to soak in a tub, smoking a joint—in fact he likes smoking a joint just about anywhere, at any time. His life is summed up by the phrases “the Dude abides,” and “takin’ it easy,” but it is always clear he has a certain stubbornness about having things his way—he will resist being pushed around. (You have to check very carefully, or the store will fraudulently sell you milk that is “off”). His stubbornness, in defense of a sense of property and perhaps propriety, initiates the action of the movie. A wrong has been done to him, and he sets out to correct it. He even makes a little speech about the need to do the right thing, and how it helps to have a pair of testicles in doing so.
The theme of manliness is reinforced by the stranger, who more or less narrates the movie. He is a very cowboy-like character, such as one would find in the old westerns, played by Sam Elliott. Elliott makes it clear he belongs to a bygone era; he’s a bit concerned about what is coming, and he discovers, perhaps to his surprise, that things are not all bad as long as “the Dude abides.” He seems uncomfortable at first with the notion that the Dude is a hero, but he becomes reconciled to the idea that the Dude is the right man for his place and time—the Los Angeles of “today.” Of course, in a very loose way “The Big Lebowski” follows the story arc of “The Big Sleep” (there’s even a Maude), so the Dude more or less does what he has to in order to achieve something comparable to the successes of Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer—drinkers with a sense of justice, who liked their autonomy and their pleasures.
This movie, like the earlier two, has some specific historical and political reference points. Bush Sr. is President, he makes a speech on TV about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and the Gulf War of 1990-91 is getting underway. The country will be at war on a bigger scale than at any time since the end of the “Vietnam conflict” (let us say 1973). War is traditionally seen as a test of manhood, and the movie reminds us that an older war may have lingering effects while a new war is prosecuted. The Dude’s friend Walter is a somewhat crazed Vietnam veteran, much more prone to anger than the Dude, always on a short fuse, and willing to fight over little or nothing, usually claiming it is a matter of principle. In his mind, he fights for justice, but we see him commit unthinking and dangerous violence. Perhaps American manhood has been split into at least two: the Dude and Walter. (Danny contributes simple-minded and repetitious dialogue, funny in its own way, and puts up with a lot of verbal abuse from both the Dude and Walter).
In some ways, except for their love of bowling, Walter and the Dude are unlikely friends. (And even when it comes to bowling Walter is inclined to pick fights that the Dude avoids). Back in the Vietnam era, they were to some extent on opposite sides: Walter a soldier in uniform, the Dude a leader of the Students for a Democratic Society, who made their name by protesting the war. In the intervening years, the Pentagon has become clever enough to avoid drafting anyone; one doesn’t have to be too cynical to say one of the main or underlying reasons for anti-war protests was removed. The Gulf War will presumably be accepted by a cross-section of Americans with resignation if not enthusiasm. It is possible to argue that the U.S. was propping up a series of Saddam Hussein-like characters in Vietnam; the Gulf War gave them a chance to oppose and constrain such a leader.
It seems a promising time for Americans of a certain age, coming from different experiences and points of view, to see if they can reconcile their points of view (there may be a synthesis on the horizon) both for their own good and that of their country. What about women, one may ask? There is Maude, a liberated woman and practitioner of New Age rites. She has very little interest in the past, and focuses on certain aspects of the present as pathways to the future. For one very literal example: she has been looking to get pregnant by a promising man with whom she does not plan to have a relationship; in the course of the movie she picks the Dude. He is not only fine with this, it probably instills in him a little optimism about the future. (Yes, another baby, this time barely detectable even by ultrasound). By some miracle, with the 60s some distance behind them, Americans may find some way to unify or even pacify some male archetypes–the hippie, the Vietnam veteran, and the classic cowboy such as one might find in an old movie—and then some liberated women to fill out the picture.
The Dude seems to speak and act for many Americans in believing that the angry Vietnam veteran must be somehow reconciled to his own new life, and to life in ever-changing America. Walter must somehow learn to cool his anger in the short term, reflect on the words and experiences of others, and become less of an angry person in general. Maude is in some ways the opposite of Walter; they are unlikely to speak to each other, or understand each other. The Dude is the wise intermediary. Maude is rightly enjoying her freedom to do exactly as she pleases, but this is only public-spirited insofar as it sets a good example—perhaps especially for women. There is a lot of work to do in trying to help people who are likely to be left behind. In different ways Walter and Donny are charity cases whom the Dude is uniquely well-suited to help.
The three “boys” get involved in a mission to achieve justice—initially simply to get someone to pay for damage that is done to the Dude’s rug, but eventually to rescue a damsel whom they believe is in distress. (Yes, another kidnapping of a wife). There is always some question, when they go from the rug to the rescue of a lady, whether they are thinking more of justice or money; the Dude and Walter take turns believing that the kidnapping is fake before they are both forced to realize that it is. Once again there is a cruel, somewhat successful businessman; in this case it turns out he inherited his money. At any rate, for different reasons the boys are prepared to abandon their usual life and take genuine risks. Of the three, it is Donny who dies of a heart attack, probably related to a violent confrontation between good guys and bad guys. Walter and the Dude both believe something properly formal and ceremonial should be done to commemorate Donny as his ashes are disposed of. Walter turns his speech into an angry shout-out to the forgotten American dead in Vietnam, of whom Donny was certainly not one, and then inadvertently causes the ashes to blow all over the Dude. The Dude, who despite his passivity is always capable of anger for more or less correct reasons, loses his temper. With the very next scene, the movie comes to a close, the Dude and Walter once again bowling together, and some commentary provided by the “stranger.” We hear a repeated refrain: the Dude abides.
Once again MacDonald and Craig compare a movie to some great or well-known texts: in this case, Dante’s Divine Comedy and the works of Emerson. At least in the case of Emerson, there is some support for this connection in the words of the screen play: sometimes, in a crisis, either you eat the bear or the bear eats you. Emerson was referring to a farmer; no one in the movie is a farmer. Emerson says a man who works hard for himself and his immediate family can indirectly benefit all of society; the Dude, remarkably shiftless except in a rare emergency, doesn’t have a family, yet might . . . somehow . . . benefit other people. One might as well add the strange fact, perhaps good for winning a bet, that Emerson coined the expression “do your own thing.”
Is there any real sign of Emerson’s idealism in “Lebowski”? A lot of hard work that is not primarily intended for public benefit, but somehow achieves it? It is hard to find anything like this. It seems to be happenstance that the boys all like bowling. Hobbies might overcome differences, and achieve some of the group identity that used to be achieved in a more sectarian way by churches, for example. Do the bowlers at least raise money for charity, like service clubs? Whatever fire of youthful idealism the Dude once displayed seems to be damped down to coals at best. He has given up on a number of jobs or careers, with a clear sense that they are not good enough; his source of income is a mystery. Does any Emerson material belong in an essay on “The Big Lebowski”? Is any of this enough to make one want to read Emerson or understand his thought?
MacDonald and Craig might have been tempted to compare this movie to Homer’s Odyssey, except that they probably had that work in mind for the discussion of “O Brother” (see below). Two men have survived a great war—the warrior as a participant, the somewhat intellectual type as a critic. Of course in Homer Achilles the famous warrior dies, whereas Odysseus who takes some part in the fighting survives. The Coen brothers’ soldier is wounded psychologically by the war; the dead Achilles actually speaks to Odysseus in Hades and makes it clear he is restless, and regrets the life he lived on earth. Homer’s Odysseus survives a number of adventures after the war, for the most part defending his men until they are all killed. He turns down opportunities for endless sex with gorgeous divine or semi-divine females. The Dude knows better than to seek out adventure, he mostly succeeds in avoiding it, and he enjoys a sexual escapade with Maude. Odysseus goes home to Penelope; the Dude doesn’t have a home in this sense. We can see there is not a particularly good fit, except for the humor that might be pointed out by the contrast between Homer and the Coens; but the fit may be better than what our authors have attempted.
With reference to the Divine Comedy, one is tempted to suggest that this time our authors must be kidding. Dante’s masterpiece is well known for its detailed presentation of Christian theology, particularly what would become known as its Roman Catholic form; there are vivid pictures of many different kinds of afterlife—bad (Inferno) and good (Paradiso), based on one’s actions and thoughts on earth. Dante learns from a pagan poet, Virgil, who presumably has nothing to do with Christianity, and from an idealized woman named Beatrice. Dante is given a chance to immerse himself in both the Christian faith, mediated through the Church in Rome, and the wisdom of the ancient pagans, centered once again in Rome. One might like to think he has found a way to integrate or synthesize the two. Since the Church never put this book on the Index, something they did for Dante’s book on monarchy, one gathers the leaders of the Church believe a synthesis was achieved, with the Roman Catholicism of the high Middle Ages the winner.
On the other hand, when the Church endorsed the Divine Comedy, it was almost always in an expurgated edition, so there may be trouble brewing for the church here. The sins of certain cardinals are highlighted by Dante; and people including “sodomites” who are regarded as great sinners by the Church are not necessarily so regarded by Dante. Dante seems to re-discover patriotism through his contemplation of the ancients, and from this point of view he may find that the Church’s universalism undermines patriotism, and the virtues that are most likely to support patriotism. In short there are at least two possible lists or sets of sins, and two or more possible understandings of what the appropriate outcomes in the afterlife might be. Dante may quietly endorse the pagan approach more than, or even as a substitute for, the Christian one. Either way, an apparent synthesis is not simply something that is brought about by history, more or less delivering the best of the past by a kind of selection; if synthesis occurs at all, it probably involves hard choices, and great thought by great thinkers such as Aristotle, “master of all those who know.”
It would be difficult to find any Coen “text” that corresponds in detail to any of this. Dante presents us not only with a great book, but with an introduction to all the great books in the West up to his time: Roman Catholicism on the one hand, another kind of Roman greatness on the other. It is hard to see how “Lebowski” points us to any book. The idea seems to be that a pothead slacker, perhaps even one who is fairly typical, or barely above average for his kind, reading Sartre (one of whose books seems to be lying around), is enough. There is some aspiration to being good if not great in the movie, but always with the assurance that an easily attainable kind of success in life is enough. There is more acceptance of mediocrity than vigilant or rigorous search for the truth or heroism. Even more than in “Fargo,” it is hard not to think of Nietzsche’s last man; in this case there are even copious amounts of drugs and alcohol to smooth the edges of a life that is designed to avoid “hassle,” and achieve a kind of happiness.
A comparison to the Divine Comedy may be appropriate on one condition: there is no longer any need to integrate or synthesis large or difficult bodies of thought such as “Christianity” and “the greatest works of the Greeks and Romans.” All of that is somehow behind us, yet perhaps still with us in some way—if you believe that history keeps washing up on our shores exactly what we need, or what is best from the past. There is an argument that we don’t need to read a Platonic dialogue. As long as we have graduated from high school (or so) we probably “get it”; we get references to philosopher kings, maybe even Platonic ideas and Platonic love affairs. Our vocabulary and sentence structure come from somewhere, they are in our heads, so we have probably learned from Plato, Jesus, Dante and a bunch of other people, without knowing it. A serious consideration of big, difficult alternatives may have been necessary, or seemed necessary, in the past—in specific times and places. (Perhaps history was always taking care of things, unknown to those poor thinkers hacking away on their books).
Whatever was the case about the past—still paraphrasing an argument—today we can probably say the time and place are right for a kind of completion of human life—there is probably very little left to learn, but somehow we still want to encourage people like Maude to keep on exploring what seems to be new. The immediate, short term reconciliation of Americans over Vietnam, the Gulf War, sex and crime is only a glimpse of the larger reconciliation that is taking place—arguably the reconciliation or synthesis of all thought, from all times and places, with very little help from books.
To the extent that we need to make a case for the present against the past, including a very slight knowledge of books on the one hand, and intense absorption in difficult books on the other, the ultimate test may simply be happiness. Those old-fashioned people, for all their preening about virtue and wisdom, seem to have been mostly unhappy. They certainly inflicted a lot of pain on each other, and on victims who may have been innocent bystanders. It may even be that they inflicted injustice on each other and on innocent people partly because of how mentally unhealthy or screwed up they were themselves. How much better the Dude’s life is by contrast! He hasn’t given up on sticking up for principles, for property, or for people including some he may not like; he has however, come close enough to indifference to such matters that he can truly enjoy a joint and a soak in the tub. The notion of the “last man” involves more than someone who is simply lacking in ambition or drive, putting a kind of simple-minded comfort before everything. The deep thought behind such a life, in what seems a late stage in the West, is the conviction by the “last person” that she or he has reached the pinnacle of civilization—and there is at least vague awareness of evidence to this effect.
At this point we can surely question MacDonald’s and Craig’s suggestion that great movies can substitute for great books—unless we mean by this that great movies can demonstrate our superiority to book people from the past, whereas people in the pre-movie days, by definition, had nothing to say about movies. Can we draw a contrast by saying movies are good at looking at the outside of things, including people, and at best can only consider the inside by indirection or analogy? One thinks, for example, of characters in Ingmar Bergman films, staring off into the Scandinavian gloom. Books, on the other hand, may be quite weak on exteriors, including how people look; they are well known for leaving such things to the imagination. (Of course there are writers in recent times, influenced by the movies, who carve out many “cinematic” exterior details to keep us going). Part of what makes “good” characters in Coen movies seem happy is that they look good, and their lives look good—in their externals.
“O Brother Where Art Thou” (2000, action in the 1930s)
For this movie MacDonald and Craig are on solid ground in making comparisons to Homer’s Odyssey. At the risk of insulting the reader, Homer left behind a pair of works. The Iliad, focused on events of the war at Troy, comes first chronologically, followed by the Odyssey, in which we see Odysseus/Ulysses, having survived the war, make his way home to his wife Penelope through a series of dramatic, indeed fantastic adventures. The great warrior Achilles was killed in the war, but Odysseus gets to speak with him in Hades in the course of the Odyssey. We also find out in this later book how the war ended: not, apparently, by divine intervention, or in any of the ways the gods foretold, but by Odysseus’s ingenuity in thinking of the idea of the “Trojan Horse,” and Greek lies and deception in making the trick work.
One can say that the most straightforward storyline in “O Brother” fits the Odyssey to some extent. The action takes place in the U.S. South in the 1930s, and we are reminded that a great Depression is underway. A man named Ulysses, who goes by Everett, escapes from a chain gang in Mississippi, along with two men who are chained with him. He is the most articulate of the three, the natural leader, and we find out well into the movie that he lied to the other two in order to get them to co-operate. As far as we know at the beginning, the three are treasure-hunters, with only Everett knowing where the treasure is. It turns out Everett has received word that his wife Penny (yes, Odysseus/Ulysses and Penelope), having divorced him at some time in the past, is going to re-marry in a few days. He is determined to get home in order to stop the wedding. He conceals this plan from his comrades at the beginning. Everett gets home, with his companions, just in the nick of time; but there are more complications.
There is a theme of “constant sorrows,” both musical and otherwise. The original three “boys,” all white, have been joined off and on by an African American named Tommy Johnson, who has sold his soul to the Devil in order to become a master of the guitar. The four of them record a song, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrows,” in order to make some cash; the song becomes a hit in the course of the movie. (“Odysseus” means literally something like “man of constant sorrows”). By performing the song live in a way that wins over the Governor of the state and helps him get re-elected, the “boys” all get both pardons and job offers; this means Everett is “bona fide,” worthy of marriage, in the eyes of Penny who probably never stopped loving him. There is one mix-up about a ring, which Everett seems to resolve with the help of either modern science or divine intervention, or both; in the closing seconds there is another mixup about a ring. Penny can be stubborn, and she has made it clear that unless the ring is done right, she will not marry Everett.
The gubernatorial election in Mississippi intrudes in the movie from time to time, and then becomes a big part of the apparent resolution toward the end. The incumbent, Pappy O’Daniel, seems to be an ordinary crooked politician who has been at it much too long. He, his son, and his advisors, are all grossly fat, with lots of crude observations about the voters, and all at a loss as to how to win. It turns out to be significant that Pappy hosts an “old timey” music show on the radio. The electoral challenger, Homer Stokes (Homer!), seems much more promising, using a broom as a prop along with a “small person,” let us say—to represent the “little guy” that Homer allegedly will always fight for. As far as we can tell, he is against cronyism and corruption, which he rightly attributes to the Pappy administration.
One major twist achieves an intersection of several stories. The three white boys (wearing blackface) come across a huge Ku Klux Klan ceremony in the woods at night. They soon realize that the main event is intended to be the lynching of none other than Tommy. They manage to free Tommy, kill one of their oppressors, and break up the Klan’s party. Remarkably enough, they are wearing blackface since they were hiding in the woods at night. Whether they realize it or not, they have helped to bring about the downfall of Homer Stokes, who is the red-bedecked Grand Wizard.
Both candidates are at the big live performance which ends up saving the day. Stokes recognizes the boys as the “miscreants” of the night in the woods, and expects the crowd to support him in a desire to lock them all up. The crowd is loving the music, wants it to continue, and clearly wants the boys to remain free. Stokes plays the racism card, confident that it can’t miss: he’s sure the boys aren’t 100% white (otherwise why would they have acted as they did?); it was a solemn Klan ceremony that they interrupted (although he doesn’t say the name of the Klan); and the one “colored” boy, according to a good authority, has sold his soul to the devil. None of this impresses the crowd, which cheers as Stokes is carried out of the room on a rail. Pappy, seeing his chance, joins the boys on stage, asks Everett to confirm that they will give up a life of crime, pardons them, and promises them big jobs in his administration. Homer, the former front-runner, is finished; Pappy the cynical incumbent, is a shoe-in. One can pick and choose which part of this story is the most incredible.
MacDonald and Craig see many connections to the Odyssey, but also see that there are great differences between the book and movie. The “boys” in the movie don’t seem ever to have been involved in war in any way; “for the ancient Greeks and Romans, it would be inconceivable to illustrate heroic virtue separated from war” (78). Inconceivable? There is at least an argument that Odysseus achieves a peak of virtue that is different from that of Achilles—more a matter of thinking, less of doing. (Odysseus is a warrior, but he avoids the great one-on-one duels in which one’s odds of survival seem to be about 50/50; he seems to be better at persuading some of the other guys to suit up and get out there). He may even represent a step toward Socratic virtue, in which war seems to play a minor part.
It would be a bit much to expect a first-rate commentary on Homer alongside a kind of philosophic review of the Coen movie—the Coen brothers, always a bit enigmatic in commenting directly on their movies, have denied that they made any kind of careful study of Homer during the making of “O Brother.” It would be tendentious to go on about the role of the gods or the divine in book and/or movie (a bit mysterious in both cases, it turns out), or the difference between aristocratic and democratic heroism. (Everett seems to know from the beginning he can’t succeed on his own, and he learns even more deeply of his dependence on others in the course of the movie). Christianity is very much a part of daily life in the movie, but to say the least it is often hypocritical, and seems to be particularly cruel as it is practiced by the one-eyed bible salesman (kind of a Cyclops as in the Odyssey) and the KKK. The Greeks may have had nothing quite like this.
Everett wavers as to whether he believes his cleverness is enough to succeed—in which case, he can probably do without religion. At the end of the movie, the strangest part of a prediction by an old seer or sage (an elderly blind black man—of course a bit like Tiresias) seems to come true: a cow is found standing on the roof of a cotton house (after a flood). Everett seems more than ever shaken out of his faith in rationalism (68-9, 76, 80). This is at least somewhat reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and the prophecy that Macbeth will never be conquered until a forest called Birnam Wood climbs up Dunsinane Hill; Macbeth takes this as reassurance that he cannot be defeated, but when hostile troops on the move disguise themselves with branches from that very Wood, the prophecy more or less comes true. We have a classic Western text with a hero who has to deal with a domineering wife; but of course the comparison should not be pushed too far. Everett doesn’t kill a king or strive to be king; at most he helps defeat a popular front-runner, and get the marginally superior incumbent elected.
It is worth noting that MacDonald and Craig go to the trouble of indicating that Everett/Ulysses in the movie is not a good candidate to be considered Nietzsche’s last man (78), indicating that they have at least had some doubts on this score. They are probably right about that. Everett is in many ways an ordinary person, clever, sometimes too clever for his own good, but he surely shows a capacity for leadership, and for enduring and overcoming a series of challenges, some of which are unpredictable. He may be something of a modern-day hero. We have already indicated that other Coen characters, in other movies, are better candidates for the last woman or man.
Music, Art, and Justice
Sometimes our authors spend a lot of time on possible connections between the movie and a text, and less time on what seem to be important elements of the movie itself. Perhaps the major part of the movie that is missing from MacDonald and Craig’s account is the music–which is all-pervasive. Bluegrass songs are playing in much of this movie—the soundtrack made more money than the movie itself. Certainly in the 1930s, and even today, this is primarily the music of whites, drawing from deep wells of inspiration in the South. There is an authenticity to this—the characters with speaking roles are almost all white. In the dramatic triple reversal—the boys getting jobs with pardons, the governor gaining the upper hand in the election, and Everett winning back his wife—it is the music that seems to have this power to change people, and bring about transformative events. There is an undeniable sweetness and power to the bluegrass that we hear; an appeal to common humanity, and often to God. Several songs are about seeing the best in things: looking on “the sunny side of life,” and celebrating a beloved (“You Are My Sunshine,” a song co-written by an actual Governor of Louisiana). Even if one has suffered a great deal in life, one can dream of “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” (the song that plays over the opening credits). The most central and repeated song, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” presents a sufferer whose ordeals somewhat resemble Everett’s. He looks forward to “sleeping” in his grave, and then to meeting his beloved “on God’s golden shore.”
It is difficult not to wonder if the Coens think music, or a special kind of music, or social events and attitudes that develop around the music, might have caused dramatic improvements in the lives of people. Or is such a thing only likely in the movies as opposed to real life? The boomers are used to thinking that “their” music has made the world better and more just; such music has something to do with making the Dude the Dude in “The Big Lebowski.” Since this is all taking place in Mississippi in the 1930s, one has to ask further: if it is at all likely that music can made people more attached to each other, more inclined to seek justice, how would this apply to relations between whites and blacks in the Jim Crow regime of segregation?
MacDonald and Craig remind us that the real U.S. South of the 1930s would have displayed far more violent racism than we see in this movie. When Pappy promises jobs to all the “boys,” it seems clear that he includes Tommy, and it may be that “the crowd requires” this move on his part. In the movie, “the crowd has come to see what Pete, Everett, and Delmar already knew: segregation is an artificial and hateful construct” (76). A strict reading of the “triple reversal” scene might indicate that the only reason the white audience rejects the Klan is in order to hear more of the music; neither they nor the Governor who is now likely to be re-elected has any intention of shutting the Klan down, or ending segregation. Nevertheless, we might hope. The movie “ennobles the Jim Crow south, especially the south of the poor whites.”
There are brief references to the Jim Crow laws of the day. At one point when the police catch up to them, the three whites soon find that Tommy has already “lit out . . . scared out of his wits.” Whatever goes badly for hopeless lawbreaking whites is likely to go even worse for a black man, whether he has broken any law or not. Everett foolishly tells the blind radio station/recording studio operator that three of the four “boys” are Negroes, possibly thinking that “black” music is better than “white” music. The producer actually refuses to record “Negro music,” claiming there is no market for it; so it may be that Tommy’s only chance of making money is to play with white performers. (Tommy does get to perform a nice blues number at one point—just for the boys). Otherwise, though, our white heroes are so badly off—so unable or unwilling to plan for the future, so naïve about the people they are up against, so familiar with poverty and even starvation—that they never seem all that much better off than many of the blacks they see around them. The chain gangs are not segregated by race—even if the blacks outnumber the whites there. The three grave-diggers near the end are all black, and they sing a beautiful spiritual—the first one we hear in the movie. This may be a job that whites cannot make their fellow whites do, except in a real emergency.
There is a constant threat of lawlessness, affecting both whites and blacks. Tommy is nearly lynched on his own; but Pete is also nearly lynched by a sheriff’s gang, and all four of them come close to being lynched in the last minutes of the movie. The three white boys are reported to the authorities by Pete’s close relative who is hoping to collect the bounty; later the Sirens, who at first seem barely human, turn Pete in for the same reason. It is apparently not worth anyone’s time to turn Tommy over to the authorities. The sheriff who has been pursuing them—who is much more interested in runaway convicts than a free black—is not impressed by the law, which he says is a “human institution”—presumably meaning purely conventional, not natural nor ordained by God. Surely this is the spirit of the Jim Crow regime: the people in charge will make chosen victims suffer, usually on the basis of race combined with poverty; they will use the law as a cover or pretense; but they will change the law as necessary in order to do as they like.
Now the incredible part: for at least a sizeable group of people in Mississippi in the 1930s, one hit song, culminating in one live performance, holds out the hope of changing all this. The people no longer have any allegiance to the Klan or a racist, lawless regime; they want to recognize not just the equality of human beings, but the right of talented musicians of any race to be recognized, so that everyone can enjoy their music. It is not even a case of white people being won over by black music, such as spirituals or Delta blues—a phenomenon that came about in the 50s and 60s. Rather, it seems that white people can be inspired by the beauty and truth of their own music to transform their political and social world, making it more just and loving. “Constant sorrow”–in a place where more or less everyone is poor, and trying to make the best of it, and where living in prison isn’t all that much worse than freedom with starvation–knows no racial distinctions.
One might say this exaggerates the power of show business to do good, or make the world more just. One might say it amounts to a strange summary of events in the Jim Crow south in the 30s: thank God the white people were there with their music to save the day. Why the focus on white people and their music rather than black people and their music? To show black people singing and enjoying momentary pleasures, as the white people mostly do in the movie, would be to imply that blacks were basically satisfied to live under Jim Crow—their thinking was so co-opted or controlled by whites, they couldn’t imagine anything better. Music alone, it might be suggested, provided solace for, and somehow even compensated for, a lot of suffering. This would have been much more of a defense of Jim Crow than the Coens provide—something in the spirit of Disney’s “Song of the South” (1946), which Walt Disney apparently believed was going to be his great classic.
If there was a kind of alternative future available for the South, in which music brought whites and blacks together, why did such a change not happen? If the potential was there, why did the South remain stuck until it was forced to change, to some extent by “outside agitators,” and the U.S. federal government, in the 1950s and 1960s? The boomers have often suggested that they contributed to ending injustice in the South simply by supporting—and paying for—various kinds of roots music, and then the “rock ‘n roll” that combined some of them. Do the Coen brothers actually think music is better—more likely to improve the world—than their own art form, the movies?
The three white boys see a movie together in a theater—Pete, unfortunately, for the time being once again in a chain gang. We see an attractive young woman taking off some of her clothes, and then performing a kind of dance for a few men—presumably some kind of audition. The movie is “Laughter in the Air” (1933), about a group of theater people trying to put a show together while the new female lead is pursued by both her male co-star and a lecherous producer who has put up the needed money. The actual stage show might show a woman in a somewhat skimpy outfit, dancing, but there would be no reason to show her undressing for an audition, with ominous overtones for her, or for vulnerable women in general. In the movie the lightheartedness of the show, perhaps what seems the innocence of a woman undressing in a “business” context, conceals, but is linked to, the grossness of some of the human beings behind it. Obviously something similar could be true of a musical show, but there may be something more objective in whether music is good or not, or pleases an audience or doesn’t. Movies, by showing or promising female nudity, have raised moral debates from the pre-Code days until today’s MeToo movement.
Given the moral issues that are raised in this movie, why do the Coens not attempt to comment on previous movie depictions of the South? As soon as one asks the question, one thinks not only of “Song of the South,” which came out a decade after the events of the movie, but of “Birth of a Nation” (1915), a silent movie which was hugely popular, including in the South. According to Wikipedia, this film still stands as one of the landmarks of film history—the first American motion picture to be screened in the White House (for Woodrow Wilson, whose support for “the self-determination of peoples” may have had some exceptions or limitations); its release one of the events that inspired the reformation of the Ku Klux Klan. The movie may have been responsible for the clarification and popularization, for many people, of the view of the white South as “the lost cause,” that fought the Civil War in a more noble way than the North did, and was forced to subjugate people who were not qualified or able to achieve freedom. “Gone With the Wind” (1939), released after the events of the Coen movie, probably took the mythic and sympathetic view of the South even further. Clearly there was a receptive audience for all this—a justification for the white South inflicting deliberate, often lawless cruelty on many people, and for the North doing little or nothing about such events after the time of Reconstruction.
There have been so few movies based on events in the Civil War that are pro Union, it has been said that the Union is “Hollywood’s lost cause.” Possibly Buster Keaton’s greatest film is “The General” (1926); he plays a railroad engineer who is desperate to join the Confederate army but is declared unfit for active service. He manages to perform heroic service for the South despite setbacks, using his skills as an engineer along with his usual ingenuity and physical agility. He apparently explained his decision to make his movie pro-Confederacy by saying “It’s awful hard to make heroes out of the Yankees.” In “Our Hospitality” (1923), another masterpiece set in the 1830s (decades before the Civil War), Keaton plays a southern lad named Willie who is raised in New York in order to keep him out of a Hatfield and McCoy type family feud. On the train ride south to claim his inheritance, he falls for a girl who is from the “other” family; her brothers keep trying to kill Willie. It is against the rules of Southern hospitality to kill him when he is inside the “other” family’s home; tremendous efforts are made to kill him somewhere else. Generally speaking, Southern males in this movie have a kind of crazy obsession with violence. One might think the constant presence of slaves might help to explain this attitude, but Keaton doesn’t really go in that direction. Willie’s old family estate is a pathetic shack (like the place where Everett grew up); perhaps if the South could give up the feuding and violence, they could make some economic and material progress.
Are the Coens suggesting in “O Brother” that great art, including great movies and music, might have given the South a different future if it had been on the right side? The Coens do not deal with the Civil War, nor do they use their movie to confront Jim Crow, or its previous depiction in movies, directly. Nor, as we have said, do they make any effort to present “the black point of view.” They do, however, invite us to ask about the power of art in the face of injustice, and in general the limitations and sufferings of human life. Does art have great power for good or bad? If so, can one predict, based on what one knows about human beings, that art is somewhat more likely either to serve the bad, or accept payment for singing, dancing, and staying to one side, than to actually serve the good by making the world more decent or more just? In “O Brother,” the three boys encounter three beautiful women in flowing but skimpy outfits, who are apparently out to seduce them partly by singing a beautiful lullaby. Of course someone calls them “Sirens,” as in the Odyssey. It takes us some time to realize that none of the three boys has actually “committed fornication”; Pete was taken prisoner by the ladies so that he could be turned in for a bounty, and the other two boys simply fell asleep. We don’t see the women get all that naked. This is more innocent than Homer, and much more innocent than most movies. It’s as if bluegrass music raises possibilities of decency, mutual respect and love, and perhaps justice, that may not be true of any other art form, including the movies.
“Hail Caesar” (2016, action in early 1950s)
Finally, the Coen brothers made a movie about the movies. (This is the second such movie for the brothers, after “Barton Fink,” 1991). “Hail Caesar” focuses on the question of what art, and of course specifically movies, can accomplish. Can they capture some aspects of human reality in a way that nothing else can? Is there a danger that they teach us to expect the unreal, or prefer it to the real? Are they basically honest and reliable, or dishonest and unreliable? Can one tell art that is better in these respects from art that is worse? MacDonald and Craig bring up Plato’s Republic once again, and the notion that only philosophy can be counted to seek the truth rigorously, or even maintain confidence that there is such a thing as truth. Let us consider some high points of the movie first.
In “Hail Caesar,” Eddie Mannix is a “fixer” for a movie studio. When problems arise in either the production or marketing of a movie, or indeed in a star’s career, Eddie is the person who gets things back on track—generally without being told that this is his job. As viewers we become aware that there is a world within the movies, more or less edifying or in support of the “values” of the American middle class in the 1950s. We see plenty of movies in production: a western featuring some old-time cowboys; a drawing room drama, dressed up and stuffy; an Esther Williams-style swimathon; a musical with at least one huge production number. There is obviously a tendency toward the light, fluffy, and escapist—despite the fact that the 50s saw a number of “serious” or message movies made (95-6). There is also so to speak a real world, outside the movies, but as far as Eddie Mannix the fixer is concerned, this world is mainly of interest insofar as it relates to the successful production and marketing of movies. From this point of view, we encounter some fairly serious problems, including some striking departures from the somewhat fanciful world or worlds depicted on the screen.
Perhaps most comically, a drawing room drama is being filmed, all British accents, dress up, and starchy manners. A substitute for the male lead has to be found quickly, and the studio head himself suggests a cowboy star to fill in. This star, Hobie Doyle, never acts, he simply plays himself with the drawling accent of somewhere out West. He has genuine cowboy skills, including horsemanship and rope tricks. He gets uncomfortable on dress-up occasions, with any kind of formal manners, and perhaps with women who belong in that world. When the director tries to film him in the stilted drama, he more or less freezes. It seems he could not be more wrong for the part. Of course Eddie finds a solution; Hobie will say virtually nothing. In the slightly bigger picture, Hobie is on the way out as a star—in his latest movie, his scenes are stolen by a clown who performs tricks like falling into a water trough. On the other hand, he shows some ability to be the Eddie—the studio fixer—of the future.
The female star of the latest in a series of “aquatic” movies, DeeAnna Moran, is pregnant. She needs to finish shooting the scenes in a tight-fitting mermaid outfit before she is showing; more seriously, she seems to need both to dispose of the baby (Eddie is a Catholic, and abortion is apparently out of the question) and get married (92). DeeAnna’s life has not been settled or respectable; she had foolishly married twice without deferring to Eddie’s advice, and the divorces had cost the studio a lot of money. This time she is willing to accept Eddie’s advice, and assume a basically fake respectability, for the sake of her career. Let’s face it, she’s not as young as she used to be. Eddie reassures her: her aquatic pictures are very important: “The pictures do well for all of us. And it’s a tribute to you: the public loves you because they know how innocent you are.” Just like an actor, Eddie has to deliver his lines with conviction. Unfortunately, neither DeeAnna nor Eddie realize that the father of her child is a married man who has every intention of staying with his wife. Eddie saves the day, or at least starts the right wheels in motion; the studio’s legal adviser agrees that it might be possible for DeeAnna to adopt her own child. As this is being worked out, DeeAnna decides to marry a very businesslike, hard-working young man who, naturally, is prepared to sacrifice for the studio and the movies. He shows great potential to be another Eddie of the future.
The biggest singing and dancing star of the latest in a series of musicals, Burt Gurney, turns out to be both Communist and gay. We get to see him perform in a big production number, a version of a Gene Kelly-style song and dance number about dames, or rather the lack of dames. Possibly borrowing from Mel Brooks in “Blazing Saddles,” this production could not possibly be more gay—a fact which presumably would have been lost on audiences in the 50s (93). Eddie is against Communists, but they really only become a problem for him when they first kidnap a big star during production (yes, another kidnapping), and then teach the star to make speeches denouncing the head of the studio, and indeed the entire movie studio system. It is this kind of speech by the star that makes Eddie lose his temper for the only time in the movie. As for a star being gay, again this in itself doesn’t necessarily make trouble for the “business,” as long as it can be hushed up. Eddie knows how to take care of this problem.
Baird Whitlock, the star of the movie within a movie “Hail Caesar,” is probably the second most prominent character in the movie. This movie presents problems even before Baird’s kidnapping. It is to some extent a depiction of the life of Christ, and Eddie consults the clergy of various faiths to ensure that the movie will be as inoffensive as possible. The clergy remind us that there are several quite different widespread interpretations of the meaning of Jesus’s life. Their various views are never truly reconciled, but in the end they all agree that will not take part in any public protest. Are they all pleased simply to have something about the Bible featured in a movie? Are they pleased to feel they are part of it? Perhaps this is one meaning of a “synthesis” of different and opposing views.
At any rate, it works for Eddie, who has very little interest in actual theology. The Coen movie actually opens with Eddie going to confession, and it becomes apparently that he does this often—with visits often only a few hours apart. What he keeps confessing is that he is sneaking cigarettes after he has promised his wife that he would quit. There is no doubt that he is happily married, and he would like nothing better than to be home for dinner every night; unfortunately, that is impossible because of the demands of his job. He is courted assiduously for a different job, in some ways a better job, by a representative of the Lockheed Corporation. In an attempt to close the deal, the recruiter mentions that Lockheed is now involved with nuclear weapons. Eddie says “Armageddon” and the recruiter says “Lockheed was there.” This allows the viewer to think there is something evil in the weapons business in comparison to the movie business. MacDonald and Craig think that what really turns Eddie against Lockheed is the recruiter’s insistence that there is something wrong with the movies; he calls them “make believe,” a “circus.” (95)
Eddie hesitates enough about his decision that he asks a priest for guidance.
Eddie: May I ask you something, Father.
Priest: Of course, my son.
Eddie: If there’s something that’s easy. Is that…wrong?
Eddie: – Uh… easy to do. Easy to… Like an easy job. No, it’s not a bad job, it’s not bad. But…then… There’s this other job. That’s… It’s not so easy. In fact, it’s hard. It’s… It’s so hard, Father, sometimes I don’t know if I can keep doing it. But, it… it… But it seems right. I don’t know how to explain.
Priest: God wants us to do what’s right.
Eddie: Yeah. Yeah, course He does.
Priest: The inner voice that tells you what’s right, it comes from God, my son.
Eddie: – Yeah, got it.
Priest: – It’s His way of saying that…
Eddie: Yeah, yeah, I got it. Thanks
It seems that Eddie has already made his decision.
This all gets funnier when we see Baird’s kidnappers in action. The kidnappers turn out to be Marxists. Most of them are Hollywood screenwriters, but their eminence grise or actual living political philosopher is none other than Herbert Marcuse—with Marx and Freud, one might say, philosopher to the boomers. These leftists, debating in a beautiful house on the beach, take up a lot of time in this movie. They are, one might say, not the most impressive people—blowhards who keep shouting each other down over fine points of doctrine. There is a similarity between these effete twits and the members of the clergy we see haggling about points of theology. Everyone who is any kind of intellectual, it seems, wants to get his or her point of view into the movies. This is a way of reaching the masses, but it may also be that simply getting a doctrine into the movies is a kind of confirmation of its plausibility if not truth.
The Marxists and the clergy are both desperate to affect the movie business because they know they have trouble gaining traction with the public. The Coens get the screenwriters to admit they did what Joe McCarthy accused them of doing—putting Communist messages into mainstream movies. The examples they give are forgettable and trivial—they haven’t been convincing anyone of anything, just as they can’t really convince each other or (except momentarily) Baird. The movies win. They are artistic—enough; religious—enough; a solution to the issues raised by Marxism—or close enough. The Marxists believe or assume that economics is fundamental; the movies reflect the fact that we know better, or at least there is a lot of explaining to do if someone is to get us to give up things that seem very different from economics.
The Marxists try to bring their doctrine home to each individual—Baird, they claim, is a mere slave to those who own the means of production—in his case, the studio owners. The screen writers have thought a bit, to say the least, about their own situation. They might make quite a bit more money if the proceeds of successful movies were shared more widely. Baird takes them on quite cheerfully—willing to agree with them without understanding much, which irritates them. Then he seems to go through an actual conversion to Marxism; again, it is fair to say the conversion seems pretty superficial from the beginning. The one person who is actually determined to serve the Soviet Union, at some sacrifice to himself, is gay actor Burt Gurney.
The movie seems to dramatize one of the great problems underlying the work of Marcuse: it is hard to find a suffering proletariat in modern capitalism, especially in the U.S. The silly intellectuals in the beautiful beach house wouldn’t know a member of the proletariat if they banged into him on the street in broad daylight. The workers who are supposed to be potential revolutionaries are more or less happy with their work, with the rewards for that work, and with family life. They are too rich to become a true Marxist proletariat. Who then will lead a revolution? People of color, who are hardly evident in the movie? Women, who seem to have some freedom to do what they want, and are more or less thriving? Low-paid workers in the movie business, who are at the mercy of overgrown adolescents, on the one hand, and ruthless profiteers on the other? Somehow the movie comes across as a kind of valentine to the United States of the 1950s—at least as it is seen both on screen, and a bit behind the scenes, in the movie business. We get substantial glimpses of people behind the scenes, who make movies possible; the ones who show up every day, as opposed to extras who come and go, are presented as the hard-working salt of the earth. People make sacrifices for the movies, and the country might be harder to defend if it weren’t for the movies allowing us, in more or less harmless or edifying ways, to forget ourselves.
During the brief time that Baird is a Marxist, we actually get to see a confrontation between his faith and that of Eddie. Baird tries to convince Eddie of some Marxist talking points he picked up during the somewhat farcical abduction.
BAIRD: Yeah, we’re just confirming what they call the “status quo.” I mean, we might tell ourselves we’re “creating” something of artistic value, that there’s some kinda spiritual dimension to the picture business, but what it is, is this fat cat Nick Schenk [based on a real life studio owner] out in New York running a factory that makes these lollypops to pacify the—
Eddie, usually fairly gentle with the stars, reacts violently, grabbing Baird “by the breastplate,” hauling him to his feet, and slapping him twice, “forehand and backhand.” Then Eddie pulls Baird “chest-to-chest and holds him there so that he may stare straight into his eyes as the words pour out”:
EDDIE: Now you listen to me, buster: Nick Schenk and this studio have been good to you and to everyone else who works here. If I ever hear you badmouthing Mr. Schenk again it’ll be the last thing you say before I have you tossed into jail for colluding in your own abduction.
BAIRD But Eddie, I didn’t—Slap! Slap!
EDDIE Shaddup. You’re gonna go out there and you’re gonna finish “HAIL, CÆSAR!” You’re gonna give that speech at the feet of the penitent thief and you’re gonna believe every word you say. Slap! Slap!
EDDIE (CONT’D) You’re gonna do it because you’re an actor and that’s what you do. Just like the director does what he does, and the writer and the script girl and the guy who claps the slate. You’re gonna do it because the picture has worth and you have worth if you serve the picture and you’re never gonna forget that again.
BAIRD (blubbering) Okay Eddie, I won’t forget it.
EDDIE You’re damn right you won’t. Not as long as I run this dump.
This is the only time we see Eddie lose his temper. He emphasizes the 50s blue-collar virtues. Everyone working on a movie has a job to do, and their duty is to do exactly that job, working as hard and conscientiously as possible. For an actor, this might require actually believing the words that he or she speaks. This seems like a harder job than most, and perhaps this is why (in addition to the difficulty in trying to replace an actor once shooting has started) actors are given leeway to be wilder than your typical blue-collar worker in the movie business. In his way Eddie affirms what Baird had just denied, namely that movies have artistic value. “The picture has worth.” This is something that Lockheed would apparently be unable to say about any of their products.
There are at least substantial hints of religion—of the human need for religion—in other movies we have discussed. Hail Caesar comes closer to an assertion that a community needs an actual, non-ersatz religion if it is to be united with a sense of purpose. The movie-within-a-movie has a Roman soldier (played by Baird) converted from service to Rome to service to Jesus. He is impressed at the obvious sincerity of Jesus in seeing the humanity in everyone. But what exactly does Autolochus believe about Jesus? Baird has memorized the big conversion speech, and he does a great job of it, but he falters at the end over the word “faith.” Does Autolochus actually have faith at the end of the 1950s movie? Does Baird have faith at the end of his work as an actor? Does Eddie have about as much faith as anyone—faith in the American way of life, faith in the movies, faith in whatever it takes to keep disparate, passionate, partly opposed people all working together? The last words in the movie come from a narrator:
The story of Eddie Mannix
Will never end
For his is a tale written
In light everlasting
MacDonald and Craig struggle to draw clear lessons from this movie. One possibility is that “the point of the film [may be] as clear as it is heavy-handed: people in 1950s America were a bunch of suckers. They were entertained by self-evidently fake and silly movies. In the same way they swallowed as truth the obviously false stories peddled by religion on the one hand, and capitalist society on the other.” After enjoying the movie and entering a long discussion, this would be a disappointing conclusion. “If this is the message of the film, it is a pretty tedious one, in that it has been told more times over the past fifty years than anyone could possibly count” (100-101). Of Eddie himself, it might seem that we have to conclude that he is “either corrupt or deluded.” There are indications that he is sincere; “is he just a credulous dupe?” (102). MacDonald and Craig suggest, in their final pages, that the movie explores “the movie industry, religion, and economic systems.” The guiding subject is “the belief required for all of them to function” (103). Movies, even in contrast to other art forms, have “the ability to present multiple sides of an issue … in films a sustained dialectic can be presented. The Coens excel at this sort of complex presentation” (104).
Eddie Mannix, in some ways an unpromising character for delivering themes that are both high and deep, serves very well. His “faith, free of any theological sophistication is sufficient to point him to the good in his practical life, domestically and professionally. The films that he produces, phony as they are, can, at times, not only be vehicles for entertainment, but point even to the divine” (104). The movie suggests that there is no theological certainty, other than a kind of probability that there is something out there—perhaps it cannot be represented if, as Socrates suggests in the Republic, “the Good exists in the realm of the intelligible, not the visible” (105). At any rate the characters in the movie, like all human beings, lack “theological certainty”; we live in “unclear situations”; if “the good is utterly unknowable, there isn’t any possibility of ethical action being anything other than arbitrary.” Hobie and Eddie are admirable “because they desire to act ethically, even if their theoretical grasp of eternal principles is vague” (104-5).
MacDonald and Craig are a bit slippery here. If “the good is utterly unknowable,” how does one know that? If the unknowability is such that it justifies a kind of agnosticism about specific beliefs and practices—let us say articles of faith and matters of liturgy—then why does the unknowability justify ethical practice? How does one know that the difference between ethical and unethical matters? There is a closing credit to the movie that says it “contains no visual depiction of the godhead.” MacDonald and Craig say the Coens “nowhere deny” that “such a principle exists.” But with all the humor, do they express any confidence that it exists? Again going back to the Republic, our authors say: “All art can do is point to the absolute through the use of images.” Satire and serious statements “about the distance from the world of appearance to the world of the divine” can belong together just as in “the ancient comedies of Aristophanes, vulgar in the extreme, containing one joke after another, yet also unveiling the most profound philosophical insights” (104-5).
MacDonald and Craig are no doubt on to something. Presenting multiple sides of an issue, and bring to life a “dialectic” involving debates among points of view and ways of life, does seem to be a good description of what movies can achieve. Perhaps movies are the great integrators or synthesizers. Any point of view or way of life that is any way relevant to “us,” in the modern West, can somehow be included, usually on a “live and let live basis,” as long as individuals have a great deal of freedom. The point is not so much that there is likely to be some absolute good, and just in case (as in Pascal’s wager) we should live accordingly. It rather seems that there is great uncertainty about such matters, and there are matter of fact, let us say Lockean reasons for living according to some ethical standard that is more like “work ethic” and “live and let live” than anything more demanding or potentially glorious. The America of the 50s is idealized in that the people who suffered—including African Americans, the chronically poor, and gays—are generally not even mentioned. The plight of gays trying to keep their lives a secret is basically played for laughs. Yet for the audiences that have seen the movie, this older America is clearly critiqued by the Coens not from the point of view of the Bible or Communism, but from the point of view of a later, more progressive version of that society. It should be possible to maintain blue collar attitudes while being more concerned about living and working conditions of ordinary people. Such goals, along with greater freedom and respect for gays among others, ought to be attainable with a shift to the left that falls far short of Communism or even the most “developed” welfare states.
References by MacDonald and Craig to the Republic seem more appropriate in a discussion of “Hail Caesar” than in the case of “Fargo”; questions about which images can be trusted are very much a part of the later movie. Early in the Republic, Socrates suggests that art settles for what is pleasing, and leads audiences to stop short of a serious investigation of what is real, good for the soul, and good for the city. The young men who are the interlocutors quickly agree to reject almost all poetry from the just city, probably trusting that Socrates will show them a path to truth that does not involve mere images (98). Instead, however, Socrates relies on an increasing concentration of images in order to convey the relationship between the philosopher and everyone else. After all this, he reconsiders the poets and seems to allow some of them “back in” as long as their work passes muster. Are the Coens at least trying to achieve something like a Socratic standard—presenting images that are reliable guides to what “the real” might be, and even parts of a pathway to understanding it?
Leo Strauss committed an entire book to Socrates and Aristophanes; he took seriously the possibility that each defended a point of view that was plausible, thought-provoking and articulate, and that despite their considerable respect for each other, they remained rivals in trying to win over thoughtful people, the idealistic young, and “the city” or political community. Aristophanes, we might say, struck first. In The Clouds, he presents himself as at least as wise as a “natural philosopher” or physicist if not wiser (he is perfectly willing to accept scientific findings about clouds, for example). At the same time, he is apparently more public spirited than the philosopher–inclined to defend some of the mere opinions of the city against the radical skepticism that is an all-too-likely result of philosophic activity. As a bonus, one might say, he achieves a better, more complete and happier life for himself. He openly seeks honor from the city—the prize for the best play. With an educated audience such as one found at Athens, this reflected the praise of people who counted, and it confirmed that his plays were both brilliant and constructive. Socrates is presented as admittedly intelligent, capable of making discoveries about the natural world, but imprudent, unskilled at caring even for himself, and likely to have a corrupting effect on his students. At the end of the play, the father of one student has burned down “the thinkery” where Socrates lives, and Socrates is forced to run for his life. This seems to be presented as a just outcome. Aristophanes complains through the Chorus that he didn’t win the “first prize” at a religious festival for this play, even though he considers it the “wisest” of his comedies (518 ff.); perhaps Athenians, with their reputation for enlightenment, did not find the attempted killing of a philosopher to be all that funny.
Just as Socrates is a character in a play by Aristophanes, so Aristophanes is a character in Plato’s Symposium. To say the least the treatment of Aristophanes here is very friendly. By contrast, in the Republic, which is apparently chronologically “later,” the writings of Aristophanes are all banned from the just city early in the work, along with other masterpieces including almost every word of the works of Homer. At approximately the middle of the work, comedians are specifically warned not to “mind their own business” by displaying and especially generating laughter at the prospect of women exercising in the nude along with men. Much later, toward the end, Homer at least is allowed to make a case for himself—explaining almost clause by clause how his writings might be edifying more than not—how they are likely to contribute to the self-discipline and perhaps wisdom of citizens, and the public-spiritedness of the city. The claims of poetry to achieving wisdom must not prevail, but there is at least a serious debate. Aristophanes is not allowed any such appeals process: his works are still completely banned, apparently on the grounds that the kind of noisy horse-laugh that his audience might indulge in is not appropriate for a gentleman.
Is Socrates so convinced that Aristophanes does more harm than good that he thinks it safer to keep him out of decent life? Or does Plato’s Socrates protest too much—using many Aristophanic devices himself in order to establish that he can beat Aristophanes at his own game? Among other things, there are substantial hints that in any ordinary city, a philosopher such as Socrates, assuming his activities are detected by citizens, i.e. they are not kept secret, deserves to be killed. It might be true that Aristophanes deserves to win the prize, whereas Socrates, perhaps in an unreconstructed or “pre-Socratic” form, deserves to be killed. In a way, if Plato is successful there is no longer a need for Aristophanes.
The Symposium is, at least roughly, pro-eros and pro-laughter. The Republic, which is more likely to be taught in political science class, is at least by comparison anti-eros and anti-laughter. Instead of an exploration of the riches that become available to human beings thanks to eros, there is an emphasis on what is necessary for a city—a sometimes angry city—to be strong. It may be the dialogue that presents the clearest Socratic-Platonic alternative to the Aristophanic view, rather than substantially agreeing with it. Presumably Socrates is a bit older in the Republic than in the Symposium. At some point during the years after the writing of the Clouds, we are told in various texts that Socrates went through a turning or re-orientation to a philosophic study of politics. Partly this was a matter of taking politics more seriously than the pre-Socratic Socrates might have done: possibly, for example, cross-examining both the Just Speech and the Unjust Speech, rather than letting their public debate stand (Clouds 880 ff.). As even this implies, another part of the “Socratic turn” seems to have been a greater emphasis on self-knowledge—a consideration of the philosophic life in comparison to other human lives, no doubt including “the political life,” rather than simply accepting the greatness or joy of a life which allows smart people to learn difficult matters. Of course at a deeper level, some version of the Aristophanic critique may still stand: if politics is taken more seriously, meaning any and all political claims, including the claims for the superiority of law and community, are questioned and cross-examined, the result may be a more radical preference for the philosophic life, and a bolder willingness to let the chips fall where they may as far as the good of the community is concerned.
In Plato’s Apology of Socrates, Socrates says his cause has been hurt by the fact that the jurors remember a certain play from years earlier, suggesting that he studies nature and corrupts the young. The success of Aristophanes’ Clouds may have led directly to the death of Socrates. There is a great deal at stake in the confrontation and dialogue between Socrates and Aristophanes, Socrates and other intelligent defenders of Athens, and/or of cities that are “better” than Athens, and between Socrates and his best students whoever they might be.
All of this can only be considered by those who are prepared to go through difficult arguments with some care. As movie makers go, the Coens deserve the attention that MacDonald and Craig give them. They at least come close to considering some of the issues that arose between Socrates and Aristophanes: what kind of art is best both for human beings in general, for a community, and for a rare individual who might achieve wisdom? Unfortunately, the Coens do not quite rise to the level of Aristophanes. They seem to flourish in a world where “a great debate” is not necessary; there are clear indications that such a thing belongs to a more or less benighted past, of which we are well rid.
The closest thing to Socrates in the movies we have discussed would be Herbert Marcuse. He can be said to stand for the proposition that what has happened so far in the West has been progress, on the whole, and what is needed is more of the same kind of progress—more egalitarianism, more freedom from economic want and fear of war. Aristophanes, although he personally benefited from the new, imperialistic, democratic, in some ways corrupt Athens, was at least willing to consider the views of conservatives. Even if they are not wise themselves, they can remind us there is probably such a thing as human nature that will resist progress. Justice may consist partly in taking this into account, as opposed to wishing it away or using force to change things. There are conservatives of a kind in these movies: Edwina the police officer, Marge the chief of police, Penny the long-suffering wife of Ulysses, perhaps Walter the damaged Vietnam war veteran, and Eddie Mannix. Wise conservatives, however, seem to agree that what is usually called progress is not simply something that must be accepted but, as long as it assimilates points of view that had previously seemed contradictory, is actually the best regime for human beings. The best is delivered not so much by prudence, and even less by deep rational reflection, but by history, which is seen as progressive rather than entirely accidental.
As was suggested above, movies not only differ from books, they might replace books if we all agree that we are at a time in history when many important things have changed, and the issues that seemed urgent in the past no longer seem so. We may not have arrived at the time of the last man; we have surely not seen the last movie. Judging from some influential books of the 20th century, however, including the works of Marcuse and Beauvoir, and perhaps Kojève’s lectures, we are at some risk of arriving, thanks to history, at what amounts to the last book—meaning the last book of deep meaning or lasting significance.
 Both authors have been professors at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, NB; she in the Great Books program, he in philosophy. They are now both at Huron University College, affiliated with Western University, he as President or “principal,” she as professor of political science and philosophy.
 It may be difficult to attribute major political events to non-philosophic artists, but without Plato’s Republic, which as at least some jokes, it is hard to imagine Marxist Communism; without Rousseau and Nietzsche, both of whom can be funny, it is hard to imagine the French Revolution or (alas) Nazism.
 M and C 3-4. These authors obviously pick up on Locke’s repeated refrain that mothers enjoy at least as much authority as fathers, but they do not indicate how far Locke goes toward showing there is no such thing as a family; there are arrangements that the participants find convenient, whether these people are related biologically or in some other pre-contractual way or not.
 My source in what follows is Foster. Foster, David. “Taming the Father: John Locke’s Critique of Patriarchal Fatherhood.” The Review of Politics Vol. 56, No. 4 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 641-670.
 See, for example, Locke, First Treatise #85: God made Man with “a strong desire for self-preservation,” and “spoke to him (that is) directed him by his Senses and Reason … to the use of those things which were serviceable for his Subsistence, and … Preservation. And therefore I doubt not, but before these words were pronounced, I Gen 28, 29 (if they must be understood literally to have been spoken) and without any such Verbal Donation, Man had a right to the use of the Creatures ….”
 See First Treatise, #54.
 See Locke, Second Treatise, #65, 70-73.
 Foster 662.
 Foster 667-8.
 The problem today may be that even rich people feel they are never rich enough to have a number of children; if the spoils are divided among several children, they may not be impressive; child care is expensive, and so on. There seems to be a hope that “open borders” will bring about both cheap labour and a future work force to pay taxes.
 Dr. Spock recommended that babies be “allowed” to cry themselves to sleep at night, rather than being cuddled; it is because the baby quints are left alone that it is so easy to take one, and this approach seems a bit cold in the movie. On the other hand, Dr. Spock became famous for a “permissive” approach to older children, and we may see this taken too far in one family in the movie.
 See again First Treatise #54, Second Treatise #82. The abortion debate might be seen as the intersection between the right to birth control, and the ban on infanticide. Some of the debate in favour of abortion on demand suggests that when it comes to ending a pregnancy, as opposed to preventing one, it may be relevant to consider whether a particular child, at a particular time, is useful or convenient or not. The welfare state might provide a way to ensure children who are born in marginal circumstances can lead useful lives.
 Foster 669.
 369a-373a. Money appears at 371b, and it is possible that the healthy city, if it were ever real, could not survive this innovation. Indeed there are a number of cities in these passages, of growing complexity, with each complication making the survival of the city as a unified whole less likely.
 “Zarathustra’s Prologue,” #5.
 It is true that H.I. and Smalls, somewhat surprisingly, have the same tattoo.
 373b ff.
 “Founded in 2005 by Oliver Benjamin, a journalist based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.”
 The Dude “tells Maude that he was one of the authors of The Port Huron Statement, the founding document for Students for a Democratic Society …. Further, the Dude says he was one of the Seattle Seven…”; M and C 45-6. Our authors suggest the Dude has remained consistent to the principles of the SDS, and they quote the “final” Port Huron Statement. They don’t mention that the Dude says he worked on “the original” draft, not the “compromised second draft,” implying that even the SDS had sold out as far as he was concerned.
 Bunny, the wife who is supposedly the victim of a kidnapping, is also a woman enjoying her freedom; the movie certainly sympathizes with her desire not to go back to Kansas or someplace similar with her husband.
 Twenty years after the Port Huron Statement, “the Dude is disengaged from the fight for democracy and the only ground he cultivates is whatever is required to produce the marijuana he smokes. The Dude’s disillusionment stems from a sense that all of his efforts were for naught”; in other words, he is somewhat the opposite of Emerson; 46.
 It’s never clear what the Dude does for money; in an early draft of the script, it was apparently explained that he was an heir to the inventor of the Rubik’s cube.
 XI. 465 ff..
 The overall theme of the Iliad, as suggested by the opening words, is “the anger of Achilles.” The action of the Iliad is motivated by anger and a desire for justice on the part of the Greeks in general—over the kidnapping of Helen by Paris. In a way the anger of both the Dude and Walter are major themes in “Lebowski.” The characters in the movie go into action to rescue a woman, as do the Greeks in Homer; but again this can easily be taken too far.
 One generation picked up a certain amount of cultural references from “Bugs Bunny”: German opera, Italian opera, historical episodes etc. A later generation gathered at least scattered references, which could eventually be googled, from the Simpsons.
 The major “Maude” scene includes references to the life and Crucifixion of Jesus, including a Russian choir singing “We Venerate Thy Cross” in the background. This is not to pay homage to the Christian story, but to harvest artistic and other ideas from the story in order to achieve some kind of novelty.
 Now we’re talking! Let’s synthesize Marx and Freud!
 This is the story immortalized by Robert Johnson—no relation—which has led many people to think it was this other Johnson who sold his soul; the movie strives to set the record straight
 It is actually Achilles, in the Iliad, who conducts a kind of Socratic dialogue. If we praise noble virtue, such as courage in battle, because it is a sacrifice of what is good—if that is exactly what is praiseworthy—then why does it make sense to pursue it? Despite raising these questions. Achilles does strap on the armour and go into battle one more time; once he is in Hades, he seems to regret what he has done; Iliad IX.395 ff., Odyssey XI. 465 ff.. Is he more thoughtful than Odysseus? Is it possible that while such thoughts are new to Achilles, they have occurred to Odysseus for some time?
 IV.1, V.3.
 MacDonald and Craig describe a time of innocence in the movie as “Arcadia”; 69-70. The movie was printed in a special way to provide its sepia tones—like the music, sweet and melancholy, with lots of images of beautiful countryside. One blogger (Wes Beggett) has pointed out that much of the music is sung by characters in the movie as we watch; the term for this is “diegetic,” and it makes the Deep South of the 1930s appear natural, quaint, and genuine.
 This is one way to understand rock ‘n roll. Two of Elvis’ early recorded songs were “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” more or less bluegrass or white people’s music, and “That’s Alright Mama,” more or less R and B or soul, black people’s music. Hank Williams (Sr.) provides several examples of combining at least two kinds of roots music, “white” and “black.”
 Singer/songwriter Randy Newman grew up in Los Angeles, with relatives in Louisiana whom he often visited in the summer. He depicted the “crackers” in various ways over the years, sometimes negative, sometimes sympathetic if not positive, never really attempting any version of, or homage to, black music. One summary he offered was that New Orleans has historically been good at some things—like food and music—but bad at others—like finances, construction and public works. There is no sign of good food in “O Brother.”
 See Eileen Jones, “The Cinematic Lost Cause.” https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/civil-war-cinema-confederacy-keaton-lost-cause .
 Wearing white flowing robes, and standing and moving in water where they are apparently working on laundry, the Sirens resemble the people being baptized while singing in an earlier scene; they appear pure, and it is natural for the exhausted boys to be reassured by a kind of apparent purity. Pete and Delmar, but not Everett, were “won over” to being baptized in the earlier scene.
 Other similarities: these Sirens more or less cast a spell of enchantment on the boys, and they seem somewhat supernatural in their separation from any human community, and their ability to transpose bodies as they wish.
 There is a female film editor, working in a darkened room filled with her own cigarette smoke, who nearly dies when her scarf is caught in the playback machine. Because Eddie is there, he manages to extricate her. She says simply that she shouldn’t wear a scarf. Is she suffering because she is exploited by the studio? Does the whole business require better health and safety regulations?
 When Hobie finds out about the abduction, he has a good suggestion: some of the extras come and go on a movie set quite casually, with few people knowing anything about them. By the time he says this, we already know that Hobie is correct: it was two extras on the set of “Hail, Caesar!” (hired by the Communists) who actually carried out the abduction of Baird.
 As MacDonald and Craig point out, Socrates says early in the Republic that poets are liars (98, citing 377d). In the image of the cave in Book VII, remarkably enough, it seems that none of the artisans who carve the objects, the shadows of which fall on the cave wall, are liars or even fantasists; one gets a sense that they all tell the truth as far as they know it from their time in the sun (VII. 514a ff.; X.595a ff.). Perhaps the more developed critique of poets and artists is that they have given up on finding what is truly real—what can only be perceived by intellect; and/or they do not intend to liberate anyone from the cave, only to make the shadows as real and intense as possible.
 See below.
 The characters in the Symposium are first-raters—among the greatest and most famous Athenians to this day; the characters in the Republic, other than Socrates, are not of this stature.
 377b ff., 394c-d.
 595a ff., 604e ff.
 Rep 388d-389a; 606a-b; excessive laughter seems to make one indecently or improperly self-absorbed in the same way that, perhaps paradoxically, excessive pity does. Cf. Ari NE 1127b 33 ff., Politics 1336b.
 There are scholars who repeat as a mantra that Plato actually wanted to bring about philosopher-kings, he was frustrated at his own lack of political power, and so on. Every such suggestion in the Republic is a paradox or perhaps a joke. It would be a “concidence” if there was ever a person who was both philosopher and king—they each have a way of life, and these ways are like vectors that never, or almost never intersect. One might think of a Venn diagram with no overlap. While we are at it, it might be true in general that if human actions, based on human passions, coincide with what is called justice, this is always a coincidence. Philosophers admittedly don’t want to rule—it might make them unhappy to do so; but they owe a term of service to the city in return for the philosophic education they received. A philosopher has an obligation to a city, apparently, only if that city provides or at least encourages or allows, a philosophic education (519c-520b); it would seem that Athens barely qualifies, and Socrates did serve Athens to a limited extent.
 See 327c-328b, 473c-474c, 487b-d. Cf. 492d. One might say that decent unphilosophic citizens might consider banning or ostracizing the philosopher; by a real effort of imagination, or in a sever emergency, they might consider making him the ruler; but in the meantime there is no way they will “tolerate” his presence with some degree of awareness as to what he is up to.
 In this dialogue Socrates appeals to his female mentor Diotima, and an argument that bodily pleasures must be kept to one side if one is to ascend the ladder of the beautiful. MacDonald and Craig note that Alcibiades, except for his passionate longing to be with Socrates, is not really affected by Socratic teaching or teachings. “Like Alcibiades, we leave the dialogue frustrated. Neither Diotima’s neutering of desire nor Alcibiades’ rampant sexuality seem particularly satisfying”; xii-xiii. Our authors prefer the reconciling, synthesis, and perhaps inclusiveness promised by Hegel and liberal democracy. It may be that a focus on eros reminds us of the gap between what we seek and what we are likely to achieve. We might calm down a bit if we forget some of the scope or complexity of what we might achieve, or indeed if we somehow produce people who never worry about such stuff.
 Sometimes Socrates simply says “don’t laugh,” as when he evokes the image of naked women and men (452a-e). At other times there is support for proper as opposed to improper laughter; see 388d-389a, 392d-e, 432b-e , 445a-b, 499c. Glaucon’s laugh at 398c—demanding a fuller account of “music,” including words along with “song and melody”–serves a similar function to his interruptions at 372c and following: he reminds us of human erotic desires that it will be difficult for the just city to accommodate.
 The proposal for philosopher-kings seems to come as the city’s somewhat angry demand for the one reform that is essential in order to achieve justice; insofar as it comes with some recognition of what philosophers are actually like, seems more likely to evoke anger than laughter; see again Rep 327c-328b, 473c-474c, 487b-d, 500d ff. Cf. 492d. Is Socrates angry when he recounts specific instances of injustice in a democratic regime: people who are inferior being treated as superior, and so on (557b-558c, 562c-563e)? Democracy is the “fairest” regime, to some extent the most informative (557c-d), and the one with at least some room for philosophy (561c-d); sons who consider themselves as good as their fathers (562e) seem to be good candidates for Socratic political philosophy.
 It is Plato’s Laws which seems most deferential to the traditional Greek gentleman, appealing to the traditional regimes of Sparta and Crete, with an emphasis on the putative intervention by Zeus himself in the foundings of those regimes. The opening scenes, in which an Athenian stranger tries to get some distinguished citizens of those regimes to imagine drinking, as opposed to actually drinking, in order to open their minds a bit and get the ball of philosophic discussion rolling, surely has an Aristophanic quality.
 See Plato Apology of Socrates 18a ff. Socrates suggests it is a “slander” to say certain people, who may have acted unjustly, were his students; 33a. As West says (footnotes 60, p. 85), “Socrates refers obliquely to the claim that several of his students later became prominent in anti-democratic politics.” Alcibiades has a major role in the Symposium, and is the eponymous hero of at least one other Platonic dialogue; Critias and Charmides both figure in the Charmides; see Xenophon on Socrates’ alleged corruption of Alcibiades and Critias; Memorabilia I.2.12-48.
 Plato supposedly gave a lecture, perhaps periodically, called “On the Good.” (See https://www.jstor.org/stable/4182081?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents ).This event received wide notice, and there would be a good turnout. Generally speaking, people in the audience were disappointed at the “mathematical” presentation; they may have come with the expectation that Plato would say “the good is pleasure”—as Glaucon seems to expect from Socrates even fairly late in the Republic (509a). At any rate, if this was the first meeting of a “class,” attendance apparently dropped off drastically for any classes after the first, and there may be little documentation as to what exactly Plato taught. No doubt people were happy to go down the street to take in the latest entertainment—which might be a play by Aristophanes.
An excerpt of the book is available here.