On the occasion of the new Coen brothers movie, LGM is pleased to welcome back Elizabeth Nelson, frontwoman of the great band The Paranoid Style, to talk all things Coen with the critic Adam Nayman. Enjoy!
Film critic Adam Nayman’s recently published career overview of the Coen Brothers This Book Really Ties The Films Together is one of the finest works of cinematic literature in recent memory. Trenchant and knowledgeable regarding its knotty subject, and generous and uncondescending in its expertise, Nayman’s commentary makes for an ideal entry point into the deep catalog of what is arguably America’s best contemporary filmmakers. On the occasion of the recent release of the Brothers’ new anthology The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, I spoke with Nayman about his impression of their most recent work, where he thinks it falls in their tradition, and what it says about their worldview.
Please be aware that the following discussion contains a great many spoilers about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs!
EN: Let’s begin with the first episode of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which is the title track of their anthology. As a character, Buster Scruggs suggests a sort of wedding of the goofy cowpoke Hobie from Hail, Caesar! and the killing machine Anton Chigur from No Country For Old Men. What was your reaction to Tim Blake Nelson’s singing, murdering cowboy?
AN: He’s quite a chilling creation, the idea of someone who, on one level, is very ingratiating and sweet and very self-aware, and on the other, there’s this absolute, cold, sociopathic dispatch he has for killing other people and he makes us complicit in it. It’s a bit like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games – where this family gets murdered in their lake house and the two killers keep talking to the camera being like, “Are you enjoying this?”.
Death in the first episode is entertainment, death is spectacle, death is shown as part of the natural cycle of life, the idea that there’s a faster gun coming along and is going to replace you. So in a way, they’re announcing a lot of their themes. I also just find that opening episode is a bit of a gauntlet drop to a certain kind of Coen critic, which is like, “if you hate us for being glib and cartoony and misanthropic and you think we’re nasty – here you go.” And it’s amped up in a way that they haven’t done in a long time. And I know a lot of friends of mine hate that episode, they think it’s just the pits. And I think it’s amazing.
EN: Scruggs is such a vivid oddity, you can almost imagine him turning up on Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Buster Scruggs could be a cousin of or an adversary to Tiny Montgomery or Ruben Remus.
AN: I love that you mention the Basement Tapes, because of course there’s such a close relationship to Dylan. Starting with the fact that they’re all Jews from Minnesota, right? Dylan’s always – or often – reworking old tropes and styles and myths and making it his. He’s sort of a pastiche artist and a postmodernist, but he’s also sort of a genre unto himself. And I thought that Inside Llewyn Davis really put those cards on the table. Dylan at the end of that movie represents the other way. The other way out. I don’t know how much they see themselves as Llewyn Davis, because they are obviously successes while he is a failure, and they are forever two, while he is only one. But I thought what they seem to get out of Dylan at the end of Llewyn Davis is that he can create as opposed to being simply trapped within a frame. It feels like the doom in Buster Scruggs has to do with the fact that all these characters can’t help but be trapped in their situation and trapped within the Western frame, which demands death. Death is the flipside to the heroism of old Westerns. The Coens skimped on the heroism and show the death. But their characters in Buster Scruggs are like characters in folk ballads, and I think what you said about Buster is very true, but I could imagine a song called “The Gal Who Got Rattled” about Zoe Kazan’s character, or I could imagine a Dylan song about that deathly stagecoach.
EN: The shootout scene at the end of the first episode of Scruggs actually reminded me of the end of Llewyn Davis when the Dylan figure arrives and everybody immediately understands an existing order has been overturned. The rapid overturning of power seems to be a recurring theme in the Coens’ cosmology. To evoke Dylan again, “He who is first will later be last.”
AN: Totally. And acceptance of cycles is obviously a big thing for them, which I think is where a lot of the impatience with them comes from. Certain people find that the Coens’ acceptance of the cycle of life and the indifference of life is variably reactionary or apolitical or passive or nihilistic. I find it deeply human.
EN: “Meal Ticket”, the third and one of the most challenging and moving of the six episodes of Buster Scruggs alludes in the most basic terms to that indifference in a number of ways. In its simplest terms, I thought “Meal Ticket” was a parable regarding the mendacity and exploitation of artists by those that they entrust their careers to. Did you see that?
AN: I can see that in some ways. I thought a lot of Llewyn Davis in the unspoken admonishments occurring in the back of Liam Neeson’s mind as it goes along. I also thought of Llewyn Davis because of the Wingless Thrush – the performer in “Meal Ticket”, the titular “Meal Ticket” – he’s an interpreter, not a creator. I find this character, his weirdness, his affect, his total lack of anything to say but what he’s memorized very disturbing. Very, very disturbing.
But oddly I didn’t find the Liam Neeson character – ostensibly the exploiter – disturbing at all. It’s disturbing that he’s a drunk and so exploitative and nasty and a murderer, but you can almost understand those things. And also, I mean, I don’t know what you think, but are we allowed to find the ending funny? Because it’s kind of funny. The joke is in the inherent relationship between a falling rock and a wingless thrush. There is only one way of both for them to go, you know?
EN: It’s kind of like a particularly dark Old Testament parable. Often in the Coens’ movies there is a preoccupation with the exertion of cosmic forces superseding the comic follies of man, be it natural, supernatural or occasionally biblical. I see certain parallels with Dylan and even Mamet. With respect to their own generation, there seems to be a kind of simultaneous attraction and repulsion to the 60’ ethos of personal freedom backed with the B-Side of Boomer non-accountability. Does that make sense?
AN: Not only does it make sense, that’s basically the plot, subtext, and abiding lesson of The Big Lebowski, even if that movie belongs to a period of their filmmaking predating their “religious” turn. In the 1990s, only The Hudsucker Proxy really imagines (and even visualizes) those cosmic forces; with The Man Who Wasn’t There, whose title is a pun on divine absence (i.e. the Man Upstairs) a new awareness of larger forces, emerges, sidestepped in the screwball exertions of Intolerable Cruelty but very present in The Ladykillers via the portrait of Othar; verbalized in No Country For Old Men; hinted at in the Google Earth views of Burn After Reading; rendered obsessively in A Serious Man; and taken for a spin in Hail, Caesar! Personal freedom in the Coens’ cinema is dangerous, a pathway to excess, temptation and, yes, non-accountability, and yet it’s complicated because Jeff Lebowski is, in some ways, the very best of their characters: he’s harmless; he’s compassionate; and he’s a moral and ethical paragon compared to pretty much everybody else around him, which is less a vindication of the 60’s ethos he embodies than a criticism of what came in its wake (i.e. the Big Lebowski as a mirror-twin for Dick Cheney, if you choose to see him that way).
EN: I interpreted the fourth segment in Scruggs (Ed: the painterly, Tom Waits-starring prospecting saga “All Gold Canyon”) as a metaphor for the solitude, the madness and the ecstasy of the artistic process. Does that make sense?
AN: That’s a great read. The protagonist is admirably driven for certain, except that what he’s going to bring back from his pursuit is bad. He’s wrecking a pristine environment through the madness of his condition. This comes up with the Coens again and again: you start with the small and then it gets bigger and bigger. And then you’re like, “Okay, he seems like a fairly ethical and rigorous guy and he’s out there on his own and he’s earned what he’s found, but like, he’s completely mutilated that patch of land, and when he comes back he’s going to mutilate it further, and the entire wretched civilization that we’ve arrived at now is built on gestures like this. That really boiled down to a kind of greed and a desire to put your mark on something. And he leaves, and things go back to normal, but it’s not like he’s just going to take his gold and go, he’s going to come back and get more of it.
EN: Interesting. In the Coens’ work, even seemingly beautiful pursuits often transpire to be selfish ones. Along those lines, I think it could be argued that one of the things the Coens can be accused of not portraying onscreen often and persuasively is romance unfettered by agendas or complications or machinations. I think the thing that struck me most about the fifth Scruggs segment (Ed: the wistful prairie-travelogue “The Gal Who Got Rattled”) was the genuinely poignant budding romance between the characters Mr. Knapp and Miss Longabaugh. Am I being unfair in this characterization of the Coens?
AN: It’s a really good characterization of them because it is somewhat rare. And that scarcity and that rareness is also just palpable within the structure of Buster Scruggs itself, which is not really filled with characters being decent to each other. In fact, there’s not really one shred of decency passing between people in any of the first four episodes, right? Not one. So, for Mr. Knapp to sort of take this protective posture towards Miss Longabaugh is sweet, and they’re both cute, and there’s that. But there’s also a kind of self-investment for him, right? Like, he wants off the trail life which is somewhat about feeling his oats a little bit and not wanting to become like his boss, the idea that he can get twice as much property if he’s married to her, I mean, he’s a gentler, more romantic, more conventionally desirous version of the guy who her brother was going to try and set her up with anyway. Or kind of even as her brother – I mean, he sees her as a person, but, you know, kind of as a commodity. It’s a marriage of convenience, I guess.
EN: In one sense this is almost like a radical throwback to an era where Westerns were populated with deeply chivalrous men of character.
AN: True. But I also think the episode really culminates with a theme that runs throughout the picture, which is a deep skepticism about gun culture. I’m not re-casting the Coens as anti-gun advocates. They have a lot of violence and killing in their movies and they’re certainly not progressive lefties politically. But I find the idea that the harm is done as self-harm whipped up by a kind of absolutely xenophobic paranoia – which may or may not be true, I mean, within the Western frame, he’s saying the same shit that John Wayne says about the Comanche in The Searchers, you know? It’s like, “They won’t just kill you, they’ll rape you” and all that. She dies because she was given a gun. It’s suicide by paranoia. Suicide by anxiety.
EN: Scruggs positively loaded with ghosts, both literal and figurative. The sixth segment seems a summation not only of the Scruggs omnibus, but perhaps of the brothers’ worldview distilled to its simplest terms. We begin with comical human monologues filled with sound, fury and no discernible meaning. Then we are gradually made to understand these are the blatherings of those who have recently died and they are being ferried across the River Styx. The only thing punctuating the frivolous carrying on is an occasional song which creates quiet and introspection. Is it fair to say that for the Coens, existence is chaos but art is order and meaning?
AN: I’m not being lazy; I can’t say it better than that. That’s an exquisitely-observed read of that last episode, I think. I would only say that they somewhat embody themselves within the form of the two bounty hunters, to maybe bring it even more into the frame that you’ve put it in. Their job in some ways as artists, as you say, is to organize that chaos, which also means – to some extent – stopping it. That metaphor, which has been around forever, that art is a kind of murder, or art as a crime that’s pulled off and a way of controlling and dictating humanity. And that story, “The Midnight Caller” is not just about the Coens’ films, it’s about everything. We tell ourselves the story of the midnight caller because it’s fun to see him come for someone else. And with stories, we’re always able to be like, “Oh, doesn’t the person realize the midnight caller has come for them? Isn’t that a powerful statement about death?” and then when the midnight caller comes for us, we’re like, “Fuck, I wish I was in a story, but I’m not. I wish that the book would close and re-open and I’d be alive again.” It’s very scary. And I like that these characters seem to be aware that they are, as you say, being ferried to the other side, and they have these moments of realization, with it getting darker outside, and they really have nothing profound to say about death. They have nothing profound to say at the end of their lives.
EN: On some level – and I am an enormous fan – I do wonder if there is not a significant strain of small C conservatism that ultimately runs through their films. Governmental, political and corporate entities are in nearly every instance rendered as feckless, stupid or cruel. Man principally does something terribly wrong even when rigorously attempting to do the right thing. I’m wondering if you agree this is a pattern in their work generally and in Scruggs in particular?
AN: This is an interesting question! On the one hand, you’re right – from the parody of dizzying vertical integration in The Hudsucker Proxy to the twin depictions of Capitol (get it?) Pictures studios in Barton Fink and Hail, Caesar!, the Coens tend to regard corporate entities with skepticism or else satirical viciousness, and yet the films I’ve mentioned are all also in some ways dubious of archetypes like “the little guy” or “the common man,” and in the Hollywood-set ones, a certain acceptance of what Thomas Schatz called “the genius of the system” is present. “Feckless, stupid and cruel”: meanwhile, applies mostly up and down the chain of their dramatis personae, with a movie like Burn After Reading suggesting, in a weirdly equanimous way, that government institutions are only as competent as their employees and those employees are only as “feckless, stupid and cruel” as the citizens they serve and protect. The pattern is there, it’s just designed in such a way that very few of their characters escape implication, regardless of who they work for; whether the point is that our institutions fail us or are set up to fail themselves, being made in our own image after all, is worth debating. As for Scruggs, they are, interestingly, careful to avoid any avatars or stand-ins for political figures, excepting the dog, “President Pierce,” a conceptual joke that rhymes with the dog in Hail, Caesar! being named “Engels”; in both cases, the larger ideological forces these sweet, innocent, imperiled animals represent are hinted at being somewhat malevolent. I think what makes Scruggs a political film at its core is that it tries to reckon with a set of values that have been handed down over time and are currently being held up – in some quarters – as evidence of an America that’s been lost; the criticism that this is a reactionary movie seems to confuse the milieu itself (and the fetishistic care that’s been taken to reproduce and in some places, exalt it aesthetically) with some kind of backward-looking affirmation on the part of the directors.
EN: I think increasingly of A Serious Man as the lodestar film with respect to their philosophy of the world. Obedience is mandatory but unexplained, the pursuit of knowledge is admirable but ultimately fruitless in the face of the awesomeness of nature, and the proof of that is in the next inevitable catastrophe. As their chronicler, I’m curious if you have a working theory about the Coens’ current spirituality and/or their politics in any specific way.
AN: Yes, the pursuit of knowledge is admirable for the Coens, I think, so long as you don’t expect knowledge to equal resolution: Larry Gopnick’s [from A Serious Man] mistake is feeling like he can know things for a certainty when both physics and scripture – secret sharers and kissing cousins, as opposed to oppositional camps – keep telling him otherwise. I guess I’m in the camp who sees these Revelations in the Coens’ films as signs of their (and our) humility rather than torture tests for their characters, but then I’m less worried than others about “mean-ness” in narrative storytelling; not all humanism looks the same, and not all cynicism is empty or unenlightening. I’d hesitate to guess too much about the Coens’ spirituality or politics, although I’m fascinated by both, and suspect that the indeterminateness of the latter is why some critics have looked askance at them for decades – when you spend critical and financial capital on a 2-hour movie about Clifford Odets being an idiotic hypocrite, Left-minded reviewers (which is to say most of us) are going to be a bit touchy. Let’s put it this way: I think they believe in narrative as a way to ask, rather than answer, questions, and if some of those queries are getting repetitive in their work, it’s because the solutions haven’t been arrived at yet – and from there, you can extrapolate a fairly open, provisional spirituality, and perhaps a non-doctrinaire politics as well. Maybe it’s because they make movies with such a terrifying, awesome sense of control that people feel a need to similarly nail them down.
EN: As far as explaining their pictures to their audience, perhaps they believe the obligation runs the other way.