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The Coen Brothers and the Comedy of Democracy



Mother (47) walks down a dimly lit set of stairs into a smoke-filled basement. A circle of candles cast light on a dingy beige bathrobe hanging on the far wall. A teenage girl sits in the center of a rug smoking a joint and staring at the bathrobe.

MOTHER: What are you doing? Are you smoking? Are you doing drugs?

GIRL: Chill. It’s, like, part of my new religion. I’m praying.

In 2005 a new religion was conceived—Dudeism. A religion inspired by the ever-so chill—chill to the point of being comatose—character, the Dude in the Coen brothers’ cult classic film The Big Lebowski. Dudeists adhere to a strict regimen of relaxing—even when that requires a little medicinal help. So it is perhaps not surprising that some serious academics often dismiss the Coens’s comedies—they know that all religion is bunk, drink craft beers with clever names and have long since turned in their roach clips for organic herbal teas. Their capacity for laughter and fun dried up about the same time they realized that Marx was no longer relevant. Others might just describe them as cynics.

Given the tragedy of their circumstances, these academics focus instead on the dark themes that that also prevail in the Coens’s dramas. These films they describe as postmodernist, nihilistic or existential.1 Movie critics similarly comment on what they take to be either the seeming mean-spiritedness with which the Coen brothers view the world and its inhabitants, or the uncaring nature of the cosmos.  Both interpretations lead to the same conclusion: regardless of one’s moral integrity, inexplicable and unfair circumstances will confound any sense of justice or attempt to discern meaning. Speaking about Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, and O Brother Where Art Thou, David Denby from The New Yorker writes, “In those movies, one could detect the brothers laughing at a world of fools who never understand what’s happening to them and mess everything up.” In Salon, Noah Kumin notes, “Inside Llewyn Davis, like all other Coen Brothers movies, is the story of a man for whom everything goes wrong.”2 From the position of most reviewers, the Coen brothers expose a world unhinged from any moral and rational telos—a sentiment for which a little more Dudeism and some MJ might be the only solution.

Fortunately, another perspective is possible, one in which the Coen brothers’ universe is not without meaning, devoid of morality or justice.  For while it is true that their darker films or dramas investigate the nature of evil and the often-devastating effects chance has on the lives of individuals, if we lower our brows and glance at their comedic work, we see that among some truly funny jokes and absurd situations everyday people, facing significant temptations and challenges, are nonetheless able to find reason for acting in moral and ultimately just ways.

In his dialogue, The Symposium, which, when translated from ancient Greek, means drinking party, Plato depicts Socrates and a group of friends spending an evening giving speeches about love. As you can imagine, the undercurrents of the speeches are decidedly erotic.  The men not only desire to make good speeches, they also desire the attention of one of the other men present. The result is both funny and tragic. These are serious men talking about serious things.  Socrates, after all, has taken a bath for the occasion and even deigned to put on shoes. Yet, their solemn tone masks a common and often comically pressing desire. One can imagine the winks and nudges among the listeners as they watch each preform these strange mating dances.  At the same time, however, a sense of tragedy is invoked. For no matter how grand the speech nor how willing their partner, the climatic moment is brief and neither speech nor sex allows them any satisfactory rest with the true beauty they desire.

This point is highlighted in a particularly funny point of comparison.  Just as Socrates finishes telling a story wherein his teacher Diotima explains that one’s physical erotic longing should be kicked to the curb in order to allow one’s soul to ascend to the beautiful, Alcibiades makes his very sensual entrance. He is “plastered” and, fully uninhibited, he tells the group about his very physical and persistent desire for Socrates.  Indeed, Alcibiades’s desire is so large that nothing in the finite or natural realm can satisfy it. In another dialogue, Socrates describes Alcibiades desire, saying “by presenting yourself [to the Athenians] you’ll show them you deserve to be honored more than Pericles or anyone else who ever was. Having shown that, you’ll be the most influential man in the city, and if your greatest here, you’ll be the greatest in the rest of Greece, and not only in Greece, but also among the foreigners who live on the same continent as we do.”3 One of Socrates’s most promising students, he is unable to climb the ladder of love that Diotima and Socrates describe. Instead of seeking a metaphysical end, Alcibiades turns his attention from Socrates to the world, leading him to betray the city and people that love him in his quest for greater and greater glory. Like Alcibiades, we leave the dialogue frustrated. Neither Diotima’s neutering of desire nor Alcibiades’s rampant sexuality seems particularly satisfying.  Love, it seems, must take up both our finite and physical desires, desire that are satisfied quickly, often too quickly, as well as a desire for what is infinite and transcendent even when these objects seem just outside of our grasp, evading any climax. Socrates ends the nightlong discussion in a private conversation with two of Athens’ greatest playwrights: Agathon, a tragedian, and Aristophanes, a comedian.  Socrates counsels both, saying that good authors should be able to write tragedy as well as comedy.4

In the Aesthetics, G.W.F. Hegel further defines the nature of comedy in relationship to tragedy.  Tragedies, Hegel argues, occur when an individual endorses a particular principle as the whole, denying the truth of all other goods:

“in tragedy an unresolved contradiction is set up … however justified the tragic character and his aim, however necessary the tragic collision, the third thing required is the tragic resolution of this conflict. By this means eternal justice is exercised on individuals and their aims in the sense that it restores the substance and unity of ethical life with the downfall of the individual who had disturbed its peace.”[1]

When the necessary partiality of an individual’s position is revealed, such a person is destroyed.  An essential element of the tragic viewpoint is the belief that these seemingly competing principles cannot be reconciled. The good is seen as divided within itself with no resolution possible.5 In relationship to Plato’s suggestions about the nature of human tragedy, Hegel goes further.  Seeking the good, the tragic individual perceives only a part of it and adopts this part as the whole.  In so doing, she believes herself to be sufficient.  The eventual revelation of her insufficiency is the source of her later destruction.

If Hegel’s account of the potential tragedy of human life is darker than that of Plato, his account of comedy is more hopeful.  In Plato’s argument, human life is comedic because, even if unsuccessful, we are moved by our love of the good to become better and seek the same for others.  In Hegel’s argument, comedy results when we recognize that what first appeared as competing elements are not simply opposed but in fact essential to the completion of one another.

In comedy, Hegel argues, communities and individuals persist in seeing only part of the good as the whole; however, when this error is brought to light, they are able to withstand the dissolution of what they had believed because they recognize and accept the fuller truth as their own.  The good is not divided into competing principles, but rather, these principles are incorporated and reconciled into a harmony.  Hegel describes the comic individual, saying, “the comical as such implies an infinite light-heartedness and confidence felt by someone raised altogether above his own inner contradiction and not bitter or miserable about it at all: this is the bliss and ease of a man who, being sure of himself, can bear the frustration of his aims and achievements.”6

In a simple way the much-maligned romantic comedy takes up Hegel’s argument. As the story goes two people are thrown into a situation that pits them against each other.  There may be a scheming or jealous best friend, a case of a mistaken identity, or one person may prefer mustard and the other ketchup—no matter. There is an undeniable sexual attraction, but our lovers take a principled stand from which they will not be moved. Then by a stroke of fate or chance, the scales fall from their eyes. It is always better at this moment if a dog is involved because everyone likes a dog. They realize they have made a mistake, adopt the dog, and live happily ever after.  It is a simple and predictable storyline.  Yet, that it is predictable indicates the strength of Hegel’s position. Our rom com lovers do not slink away in embarrassment to their untimely end. They do not put out their eyes.  Instead they just realize that they made a mistake. In so doing they see a broader truth, even if it means merely conceding that some people may prefer ketchup, and are united. And, of course, have amazing make-up sex.

Liberal democracies, Hegel argues, most fully embody the possibility of a comedic solution.  As Hegel says, “The truly substantial thing which has to be actualized, [in politics] however, is not the battle between particular aims or characters … but the reconciliation in which the specific individuals and their aims work together harmoniously without opposition and without infringing on one another.”7 In these communities, diverse and competing accounts of the good represented in the freely chosen actions of citizens are reconciled within and serve the greater good of society as a whole.

As most of the reviews of the Coen brothers indicate, the modern tendency is to highlight the tragic. A story is just better, it seems, when someone puts her eyes out.  Comedy is taken to be less serious, and, for the most part, is understood as existing for the sake of pure relaxation or thoughtless recreation.  When it is taken seriously, as the Coen brothers’ comedies sometimes are, it is understood to demonstrate the absurdity of human life, pointing again to nihilist and possibly tragic conclusions.  Yet, as Hegel understood, there is nothing easy about good comedy.  Human life and human societies are replete with seemingly competing and even opposing interests.  As we know, if these divisions are left unresolved, they can result in terrible consequences for individuals and communities.  Discerning how diverse principles and interests might be reconciled into a harmony is not easy, and yet, it is exactly this that good comedies do. It is our proposition that the Coen brothers make good comedies.

Although sometimes dark in their humour or screwball in their antics, in their comedies the Coens reveal individuals who seek goodness even when discerning what the good is is difficult and achieving it is in distinct opposition to an individual’s immediate self-interest.  In Fargo, for instance, Marge Gunderson, a decent and hardworking police officer, works tirelessly to discover the truth about the roadside homicides that have disrupted life in her small community even though she is seven months pregnant and in doing so places herself and her unborn child in great jeopardy.   Although terrible crimes are committed in the film, eventually the truth is revealed, and the final scene is of Marge congratulating and comforting her husband on his small victory of having a painting chosen to be represented on the three-cent stamp.  The over-emphasized accents, a small town that is not particularly creepy, and the fact that Norm makes her eggs continuously reminds us that while terrible things might happen in the world, there are more people like Marge and Norm than there are cold criminals.

Further, through the course of the Coens’ comedies, we see, in the very act of fulfilling our particular desires, we can simultaneously seek and will more universal goods.  For example, in The Big Lebowski, while he is initially motivated only to get his rug back because “it ties the room together,” the Dude is moved to seek the truth about a potential kidnapping and an apparent act of fraud.  By engaging in this larger quest for justice, the Dude not only becomes a better person, he inspires his friends, specifically, Walter, to become better as well, resulting in a stronger friendship, one now defined by a common understanding that respects their inherent and often humorous differences. Moreover, while Marge Gunderson is perhaps motivated to seek justice because she understands that her private interests are intimately bound together with a safe community, the Dude does not have such immediate stakes in the game. Instead, his friendships become the impetus for his action, even if the same friends sometimes drive him to drink (more). Importantly, in both Fargo and The Big Lebowski, it is the free pursuit of their particular interests, a happy marriage, a safe community for one’s child, and winning a bowling tournament, that lead these characters to seek the good of the broader communities of which they are a part.  The political point that pervades the Coen brothers’ comedies is founded on an understanding that freedom is essential to the attainment of justice.

Both O Brother Where Art Thou and Raising Arizona ask us to revisit the previous accounts of justice, specifically the heroism of ancient Greece as exemplified in Homer’s work The Odyssey and the early modern philosophies that inspired America’s founding. While these previous positions are treated sympathetically, the Coens invite us to realize the changing circumstances imposed by time and development necessitate different virtues. In each, rather than the individual heroism that was celebrated in both the Homeric epic and the wild west, our protagonists realize that their happiness is dependent on the happiness and well-being of others and they must work to this end if their lives are to have any meaning.

This argument is further revealed in Hail Caesar. Seemingly the film with the most moving parts and loosely connected plot lines and characters, Hail Caesar, shows a community that incorporates a variety of differing interests that each ultimately play a role in the production of a coherent whole. Its protagonist, Eddie Mannix, recognizes the relationship of his particular life to a universal good even if he struggles to reconcile them.  We see him repeatedly in a Catholic confessional—that his sins consist of smoking a few cigarettes is particularly apt, for what greater crime could one currently commit in the morally upright world of Hollywood? Similarly, Mannix’s job requires that he draw together the particular interests and talents of others in order to ensure that coherent films are made. In doing so, he takes genuine interest in the well-being of his actors, thereby ensuring both the good of the movies at stake as well as the individuals who make them.  In the image of a movie studio making a particular film, we are shown an account of a created whole dependant on the well-being and fulfillment of each of its component parts.

In the following chapters, we explore several of the Coen brothers’ most prominent comedies to date, specifically, Raising Arizona (1987), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother Where Art Thou (2000), and Hail Caesar (2016).  Each of the following chapters concentrates on a single Coen film, and, as such, can be read as a stand-alone essay, allowing readers to easily engage in the discussions about the films with which they have the most interest. At the same time, readers will note that several themes are repeatedly raised in the context of different films.  For instance, many of the chosen films focus on a particular moment of American political history.  The Big Lebowski, for example, is set at the beginning of the Gulf War while Hail Caesar references the McCarthy hearings. O Brother Where Art Thou is set in the depression era of the rural south.  By these means the Coens raise questions about the nature of American political life and its on-going quest for justice. Further, by featuring children or soon-to-be children, these films suggest that the love parents ideally have for their children is the foundation of just political communities.  Hence, in Raising Arizona, a film set during the years of the Reagan administration, the kidnapping of a baby and the transformation the child has on the individuals he touches drives the plot to its happy resolution.

In several films, notably Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and Hail Caesar, the role and nature of art is examined.  In so doing, the Coen brothers consciously bring their own work as filmmakers under the lens, questioning what place artists have in creating a culture that fosters decency and justice. Is art, at its best, merely a form of entertainment and, at its worst, just empty illusions? As we shall see, the answers to these questions are complicated, for while the Coen brothers indicate that art can be both of these things, it can also reveal possibilities of goodness and beauty that inspire individuals to transform themselves and their lives for the better.

Correspondingly, through the course of these films, the Coen’s explicitly examine the role of faith and the possibility of a transcendent good that is both the source and end of natural life.  As critics and reviewers note, many of the Coen’s films reveal the absurdity to which a human life can fall and the possibility of destruction to which this seeming meaninglessness can lead.  We are called on to remember the wood chipper in Fargo. Alongside these images, however, there are suggestions of a divine love that is mediated in and through the natural and artistic world.  In The Big Lebowski, Maude, an artist, is initially portrayed as flying over the Dude like an angel or a bird, and later becomes the reason for his hope and reengagement with the world around him.

It is also our contention that each of these films is in either direct or indirect conversation with particular writers and philosophers of western tradition. In each essay we highlight the other philosophers and texts that are most obviously prominent, hopefully revealing the depths of the films under discussion and allowing viewers to see the rich dialogue in which the Coens are engaged. In this vein the following chapters show how the philosophies and ideas of Homer, Plato, Dante, Locke, Emerson, Tocqueville, Hegel and Marx are manifest in the work of the Coens.  In each instance, one is able to see the Coens’s engagement with the wider world of ideas. This is not to say, however, that they are merely translating the thoughts of others into a different media.  Instead, the films reveal an engagement and fluency such that the ideas raised are questioned and even critiqued.  Other times the Coens show how the same philosophic arguments have to be reinterpreted so as to be relevant to the modern world.

Progressing chronologically from the dates these films were made, the following chapters argue that, rather than being existentialists for whom the world holds no meaning, in their comedies the Coens examine the nature of justice and the foundations of a happy human life.  Set in a different time period in the United States in the background of each film lies a regime and system of justice based on the freedom and equality of individuals. The Coens’s films investigate how this freedom affects the individuals who enjoy it.  Given the freedom to choose who to love, how to act, and what to do, the Coen brothers examine individuals whose choices span the continuum, from those who will against all goodness and justice, to others who would choose lesser goods over those of the wider community.  At the heart of their work is the argument that given the freedom to pursue one’s particular interests, the majority of people will be moved to will the good of the whole. Through their films, the Coen brothers examine and reinforce the basic principles that lie at the heart of liberal democratic regimes. Most remarkably, they do all of this while being very funny.



[1] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on Aesthetics, Volume II, trans. Bernard Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1975), 1197.


This is an excerpt from The Coen Brothers and The Comedy of Democracy. Our review of the book is available here.

Sara MacDonald and Barry Craig

Sara MacDonald is a Professor of Political Science at Huron University College; Barry Craig is Principal at Huron University College. They are authors of The Coen Brothers and the Comedy of Democracy (Lexington, 2018).

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