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"Down Here You're on Your Own": The American Dream and the Coen Neonoir

by Ethan Tussey

by Ella Tucan for IN MEDIA RESFor over three decades, questions about the philosophy of Coen brothers movies have placed the filmmakers at the center of debates on fatalism, irony, absurdism and the (a)morality of the postmodern. I would venture the first few minutes theyve ever committed to film, in their debut feature Blood Simple, spells out the philosophical foundation of their entire oevre, a worldview that is far from pointlessly grim, nihilistic or apathetic, but actually adds up to a clearlyalthough not always clear-cutmoral outlook on human experience. Set in the spare, inhospitable desert reminiscent Jim Thompsons crime fiction, the opening of Blood Simple exposes an ambiguously barren, bleak wasteland which, like the blank billboard in one of the shots, communicates not nothing, but rather that there is nothing left to communicate but sheer desolation. The images are accompanied by the Texan drawl of an unnamed narrator, a crude philosophy of individualism and resilience. Like all of the directors works, Blood Simple is a ruthless burlesque of the self-made man, a drama rooted in central features of the American character: independence and self-determination. In film after film, their characters re-enact the foundational myth of self-fashioning, but all of these schemes of self-improvement invariably came to nothing. What emerges is a meta-rule of deception and coincidences that always spells failure. In certain ways, this is symptomatic of the broader cultural phenomenon described by Jeffrey Sconce as the shift from the modernist protagonists search for meaning to the postmodern ensemble fucked by fate. The filmmakers, however, are not disengaging from belief, politics, and commitment; they are strategically disengaging form a certain terrain of belief, politics, and commitment. Their movies frequently focus on crisis moments that seem to betray a kind of cynicism about human life that can be aligned to nihilism, but therein are also the comedy and the social critique, in the contradiction between the infinite ambitions of the characters and the existential finitude that threatens them. The fact that Blood Simples commentary is delivered by the most immoral and unappetizing figure in the movie gives the film a thoroughly political bent; Vissers twisted Horatio-Algerism is like a slap in the face of American ideals. As the first words of their first film, the world, for the Coens, is full of misunderstanding, mischance, miscalculation and mistrust. Embracing this meaninglessnessthe meaningless of the American Dream itselfmight provide the ultimate form of meaning.

Coen Bros and Blood Simple

A clip from BLOOD SIMPLE

from Blood Simple (1984)
Creator: Coen Bros
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey