On the Coen Brothers and Nihilism
I am sad to say that I only recently managed to watch No Country for Old Men. This is an intolerable sin; however, it is merely yet another tacked to the millions that will already drag my soul to the lands south of Heaven.
Today, several days later, I find myself thinking still of the film and what it means. Well, let me rephrase: I am not thinking so much about what the film itself means but more what it means in relation to my understanding of the greater Coen Brothers library.
I have come to believe that they (Ethan and Joel) are nihilists.
The reasons I think this are many and varied, but there are a few films which seem to directly speak to this idea. There is a theme that runs through many of their works that I can only sum up as “things happen, and they do so for no rhyme or reason, and there is no guiding force behind them.”
The most obvious example of this is, of course, No Country for Old Men: Chigurh is effectively a force of nature. He simply happens. Nothing that Sheriff Bell does can stop him and Chigurh’s actions further send Bell into despair for his ability make a difference in the world.
Fargo. Fargo is a brutal film and it is sometimes easy to forget that while remembering only the funny parts. We, from the vantage point of Frances McDormand’s character, are mere observers to what amounts to a series of random acts of violence (they have a reason – but again, it is something that happens). It doesn’t happen to us; we are the investigators.
Now, The Big Lebowski speaks to nihilism, but it does so in a mocking tone. This is, I think, intentional: the three “toughs” claim to be “nihilists” but do so in a manner that is so transparently cliched that they cannot be taken seriously. They believe in “nothing,” which is a logical fallacy.
The Dude, however, is possibly a true nihilist: he goes through life understanding that “shit happens”. And, in the course of the movie, it does (Donnie’s death being just one element).
(I should point out that I think Lebowski is one of, if not the, greatest comedy ever made. I have found that it takes most people three viewings to catch the full “zen” of the film. If you have not watched it in a while, I suggest you do so.)
This thread – that things simply happen – rears its head even in their most screwball comedies (though typically with less violence). For example, in Raising Arizona we have a biker who might as well be the devil and at the end of the film we are left with the concept that hope is futile because everything may be a dream.
“And then I woke up.”
What are the tenets of “true” nihilism? In a sense, they can all be reduced to the idea that any moral direction that exists is a falsehood. If there is a “god”, it cares little about us and less so about what is “good” or “evil”. Many people attach an emotion of “despair” to this idea but I do not think that is accurate: despair assumes a morality within it.
(This is not too far from my own philosophical and religious beliefs: I think there is a god of some sort, but I also believe that we are to him as a single bacterium on my skin is to me: irrelevant. Applying a moral stance to a deity is arrogance in the extreme; “good” and “evil” are relative to our own mortality.)
I’m not entirely certain where I am going with this writing save this: in a world where In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale could have been made, god must surely be oblivious to our plight.