Okay, folks, here we go, part one of my conversation with Dennis Cozzalio about the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There. The way it'll work, because of the time difference between Dennis and me, and our work schedules, is I'll post my half here first, and Dennis will post it over at his joint, and then his response will be added later in the day. Got it? Good! Let's do this!
BILL: Okay, I’m going to try to begin with a “grabber”: The Man Who Wasn’t There is the only Coen brothers film that ever made me uncomfortable.
Wow, who could ever stop reading after that bombshell? So let me write some more things to keep that momentum going. First, I should probably note that I do love the Coens’ comedies, but my preference is for their more serious (which isn’t always synonymous with “violent”, but often is, and also, curiously, is almost never antonymous with “funny”, which is more to the point I will eventually be making) films. The Man Who Wasn’t There followed two straight comedies, two great ones, The Big Lebowski and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?. Even as a fan of both of those – especially the latter, at least at the time, though now it’s probably a push – I was raring for the Coens to get back to what, given Blood Simple, you’d have to call their roots. Except of course they have two sets of roots, their second film being the entirely zany Raising Arizona, so the tonal divide has always been there, and has always been hazy, Blood Simple having a few laughs of its own. This has also contributed to a common knock against the Coens, at least indirectly, which has to do with their alleged coldness, and, especially, the mocking and disdainful regard in which they supposedly hold their characters. As someone who has been moved by Raising Arizona, Oh Brother, Where Are Thou?, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man, even Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski, and who loves HI and Edwina and Marge and Ulysses and Tom and Leo and the Dude and Donny and Walter, and so on, I’ve always bristled, at the very least, at this ridiculous criticism, especially since, for a while, this was received wisdom for a while. “Yes, they hate their characters – we must use this as the base from which to build our opinion.” That, and the idea that, with their interest in genre films and styles from early Hollywood, the Coens were merely constructing pastiches or spoofs or icy, ironic dissections, rather than real, full-blooded movies. The answer to that came from either Joel or Ethan (whichever) around the time of The Hudsucker Proxy, when he said (paraphrase): “We think, ‘Hey we like this kind of movie, let’s make one,’ as opposed to ‘Let’s comment upon them.’”
There’s so much that goes into my initial reaction to The Man Who Wasn’t There that I don’t want to get lost in it so early, but basically, with all this in mind, going to see it in the theater in 2001, I was mighty pumped for it. It was a crime film, specifically in the noir style, even black and white, a visual approach I was very excited to see the Coens (and Roger Deakins) take, and a wonderful cast led by one of my then-and-probably-still-I-guess favorite modern actors, Billy Bob Thornton (never have the Coens cast better than they did here). As for its antecedents as a crime story, if Miller's Crossing is Dashiell Hammett, and The Big Lebowski is Raymond Chandler (in a roundabout way), then The Man Who Wasn't There was James M. Cain, with some Jim Thompson in there, too. Cain's characters tend to have a lot of misguided passion, which Thompson's characters can have, too, but the very gradual shift in morals that occurs in The Man Who Wasn't There feels more like some of Thompson's work. But the setting -- the California no one else writes about, the everyday California, with small businessmen looking for some meager leg up, casual adultery, and one choice made by one man that brings down the whole world (plus, the final few minutes is straight The Postman Always Rings Twice territory) is all Cain. And I watched it, and I just didn’t know what to make of the damn thing. The tone of it had me all screwed up. Even early on, when James Gandolfini as Big Dave tells his story of World War II cannibalism, a grotesquely absurd tale that he uses as a punchline any time he doesn't like his wife's cooking ("What do I say when I don't like dinner?"), I wondered how seriously the Coens were taking this thing that I wanted them to take very seriously, indeed?
And later, with the UFOs, and Birdy's (Scarlett Johansson) attempt to thank Thornton's Ed Crane, which adds some let's say highly adult themes to some deliberately old-fashioned, rear-projected mayhem, plus let's not forget Jon Polito's very welcome return to the Coen fold, yet still, I thought (then), weird presence as Creighton Tolliver, the gay, innocent (in comparison to most people in the film), vain, and be-wigged dry cleaner whose search for an investor leads to the deaths of pretty much all the film's principle characters. All of this left me unsteady, in a way I wasn't used to with the Coens, who up to then seemed to be making one film after another that was pitched specifically to my sensibilities. Of course, it's hardly as if The Man Who Wasn't There feels like anything other than a Coen brothers film, and their movies always have jokes, but I felt like, for the first time, the charge that perhaps the Coens are too ironic for their own good, and less interested in making films than in mocking them, might not be too far off.
The scene that really made me squirm, when I saw it in the theater, is the bit where Diedrickson (Alan Fudge, one of an endless parade of unknown character actors in Coen brothers films who come in, nail the part, and then seemingly disappear from the film world once again), the medical examiner, comes into the barber shop where Ed works with his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco). At this point, Ed has killed Big Dave, after blackmailing him for the money needed to invest in Creighton's dry-cleaning business, using Dave's affair with Ed's wife Doris (Frances McDormand) as the leverage. However, for various circumstantial reasons, Doris has been accused of the murder, and was awaiting trial when she suddenly commits suicide. Diedrickson asks to take Ed across the street for a drink, and in a gorgeous shot of deep black wood and shadows splashed with white sunlight, he reveals to Ed, because he thinks Ed has a right to know, that Doris was pregnant at the time of her death. After a pause, Ed, staring straight ahead, says "My wife and I have not performed the sex act in many years."
In the theater, this got a big laugh from the crowd I saw it with. I didn't laugh. Not because I'm so much better than those people, but because, for one thing, I didn't find even Ed's ridiculous choice of words that funny, but also because I didn't want to. There wasn't much in that situation that I could find humorous, and it bothered me that, clearly, the Coens could.
Now, I realize this all makes me sound like a stone-faced, uptight prig. Maybe I was, or am, or something. But I found the film very frustrating in a way I didn't want to admit, because, Coen brothers super-fan that I am, to not like their new film, especially for these reasons, would be like admitting defeat. And of course the new and separate danger (not really) is that by admitting this, my eventual turnaround on the film, which came much earlier than my recent viewing of it in preparation for this project, it could easily appear that I'm talking myself into liking it. I do not believe that's the case, not least because even from the beginning there were parts of this film that I absolutely loved. There was nothing in The Man Who Wasn't There that I loved more than the sequence that has Ed putting his drunk wife to bed, while Ed's narration recounts their first date -- one which would seem to have offered little promise, but which also neatly forecast their future together -- only to be interrupted by a ringing phone, which leads to the killing of Big Dave, and Ed's return home, with clean hands, to resume his narration, the shadows of lacey curtains fluttering over his face, while Beethoven's "Piano Sonata, Opus 79" (I had to look that up) underlines all this awful grimness with counterintuitive beauty. This sequence is as good as anything the Coens have ever done, and it's the sort of thing I held onto tightly as I left the theater in 2001.
Boy, there's a lot more. The UFOs, the performances, the strange, shaggy final stretch, Freddy Riedenschneider, Ed's strange and empty pursuit for redemption, what that title's all about, not to mention, among other unmentioned things, my final turnaround. But what about you? Did this film ever make you uneasy? Does the film seem anything like the strangest of the Coens films, as I, changed opinion or not, persist in believing? Just what do you make of this?
DENNIS: Bill, as I was settling down to watch The Man Who Wasn’t There in preparation for the journey you and I are undertaking this week, your recounting of your experience with the audience guffawing over Ed Crane’s numb, detached expression when he says, “My wife and I have not performed the sex act in many years” struck a couple of different chords for me. First, it seems to me many audience members who are going to make the trek out to a theater to see what amounts to American art-house fare from the Coen Brothers are often overly eager to share just how tight they are on what they perceive to be the filmmakers’ wavelength, so much so that no slight joke or snide aside is small enough to not warrant a hearty guffaw. And certainly given the context in which it occurs, a guffaw seems mightily inappropriate. It didn’t seem to me, in viewing the scene last night, that even the Coen brothers, masters of morbid mirth that they may be, were inviting derision here, piling upon humiliation upon numbing loss just for the fun of it. It seemed to me they were giving Billy Bob Thornton’s character some room for his existential exhaustion at this point. I didn’t feel them going for the laugh here. Ed’s phrasing, his detachment from any kind of emotional involvement at this point, is expressed with chilling empathy through the passionless disregard for euphemism with which he describes his sex life with the recently deceased (and, as it is revealed, three months pregnant) Doris, and I think the Coens respect that in this moment. The audience you saw it with, it seems to me, may have been looking for some kind of release, or an indication that the smothering sensation they may have been feeling needn’t be taken all that seriously, and that they laughed doesn’t necessarily mean that they were responding to cues that were placed there by the filmmakers. Sometimes one man’s weary verbiage is simply one man’s weary verbiage. (Maybe the resistance to this movie is rooted in its humor being much more of a intellectual construct than usual, even for the Coens? One of the funniest things in the movie is when Scarlett Johannson's Birdy, after a failed audition with a renowned piano teacher at Ed's insistence, turns to him and confesses that she has no ambition to pursue music professionally, that she hasn't the passion for it. "But you," she says to Ed's deadpan mug, "you're an enthusiast!" It's a great comic moment, and I've never laughed out loud at it.)
The other thing that I realized as I began watching the movie last night, in addition to the fact that I probably hadn’t seen it in upwards of 10 years, was the fact that I didn’t remember being aware of the audience’s reactions, positive or negative, annoying or reassuring, because I never saw the movie with an audience. My first exposure to The Man Who Wasn’t There came several months before it was released here in the U.S. when I created the closed-captioning stream for the movie’s original VHS/DVD home video release, and it has the distinction of being, alongside Intolerable Cruelty, one of only two Coen brothers features I’ve never seen projected in a theater. (I even saw The Ladykillers in 35mm.) Seeing a movie this way means a specific kind of detachment is imposed on the experience from the start, because it requires breaking down the movie into lines of dialogue and patterns of shots and shot changes before you’ve had the chance to establish any kind of familiarity with it at all. Depending on the quality of the movie you’re seeing this way, it can actually help make the experience more pleasant— after all, some (most?) movies don’t give you even this much to think about on their own. But seeing a Coen Brothers movie this way first is to put it, and yourself, at a disadvantage. When the movie was eventually released, during its brief stay in American theaters, I never got a chance to see it (and may have felt less inclined because I’d already been exposed to it). So I never had the privilege of luxuriating in Roger Deakins’ radiantly bleak chiaroscuro cinematography on the big screen, and two or three DVD screening s in the interim years have done nothing to console me in that regard.
Disregarding all that and to attempt to answer your question, what, after all these years, to make of The Man Who Wasn’t There? I’m very interested, as I know you are, in trying to figure out why the movie has held my imagination over the course of a decade, even when the movie’s almost perverse shifts in tone, its deliberate attempt to keep its viewer off-balance, in a disoriented state somewhat resembling Ed’s moral and emotional lethargy, almost seem to invite disengagement. It s telling that the Coens, after having won an Oscar for Fargo, following that film up with the often literally shaggy The Big Lebowski and then stumbling into perhaps their most unlikely box-office success, O Brother Where Art Thou, would then continue to focus on making movies whose central motivation seem to be amusing their creators rather than appeasing audience demographics. This is important because, for the most part, the Coens aren’t interested in telling stories that are deliberately off-putting or insular—they deal for the most part in familiar Hollywood genre types, not for the purpose of deconstructing or commenting on them, as you pointed out, but because these are the movies that hook them as storytellers, and viewers, and luckily for us they just happen to come at those genres from a slightly different angle. Even their most straightforward genre exercises, like the Hammett-influenced Miller’s Crossing or last year’s True Grit, are enlivened and empowered by their sensibility while remaining true to the elements that general audiences would find most appealing about a fast-paced gangster tale or a laconic, elemental western.
But it does seem that The Man Who Wasn’t There is a special beast. I think you’re spot on to suggest that while the movie starts us off in James M. Cain territory, it deposits us somewhere nearer the bleak, scorched terrain of Jim Thompson. It is Thompson who might have, as the Coens do here, insisted that we indulge in the thorny issue of identifying with, or at least willingly spending time inside the head of this largely passive sociopath Ed Crane and, without insisting on redemption, recognizing in his behavior the way in which we might also have made similar choices. But for all the talk of The Man Who Wasn’t There being some kind of precious, insider neo-noir pastiche, how it actually plays it has precious little to do with the kind of lurid sexual gamesmanship of The Postman Always Rings Twice, the raw tabloid energy of pictures like The Killing (written by Thompson) or noirs like Crime Wave or Narrow Margin, or even the queasy fatalism of something like Two Seconds or Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour.The movie’s stillness, in regarding Ed’s deadpan, perpetually smoking visage which is always taking in what’s going on-- or not going on-- around him with apparent cynical reserve (or is it just a lack of certainty?), and its unfalteringly steady procession through a grim series of events in practically a benumbed hush, seems to me distinctly European. (Roger Deakins’ inarguably gorgeous black-and-white cinematography contributes to this disassociation—there’s nothing on display here that mixes the picturesque and the perverse with the stark roughness of something like Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past or Don Siegel’ The Big Steal.)
What’s more, the movies that this one clearly has on its radar-- pictures like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Scarlet Street and Detour-- don’t feel anything like this one. The Coens would scoff at the idea, but at times The Man Who Wasn’t There, more contemplative than brash or mean, most resembles a noir Robert Bresson might have made, albeit one with scores of dry, wisecracking allusions to modern alienation and even modern aliens, of the UFO kind. This movie embraces the stately, unassumingly attractive small-town California milieu and creates in it the palpable presence of a vaguely sinister energy. It gives you time to really contemplate the intimidating depth of those dark shadows. And those shifts in tone you allude to at the end, especially the ones involving the presence of creatures from another planet who at least one character believes may have contributed in a significant way to the pileup of tragedy upon tragedy in the film’s plot, are jarring, at first. But they also indicate the Coens’ instincts for trying to find an alternate way into the heads of the characters, and alluding to a national obsession with possible life on other planets that was gaining traction during the time this movie takes place, seems a legitimate way of going about that business—even if it would have never occurred to Jim Thompson. It seems initially jokey, but ultimately it becomes, I think, more than that.
The best joke, however, the one that truly reflects the fun-house-mirror fatalism of the Coens storytelling worldview, is that in The Man Who Wasn’t There no one is convicted or punished for anything they actually did—the driest chuckle is reserved for those who are hung out to dry for someone’s else transgression—and for those who do take their deserved lumps for lesser misbehavior, the punishment is wildly disproportionate to the crime. (For a movie that is ostensibly steeped in the visual iconography of film noir—it’s really more an impression of that visual iconography—there are surprisingly few obvious nods to other movies, but the one that stuck out to me as much in 2001 as it did last night was the brothers’ pitch-black tribute to the underwater fate of Shelley Winters in Night of the Hunter, substituting Jon Polito’s bewigged would-be dry cleaning magnate for the starlet and her long, flowing locks.)
There’s so much more to talk about regarding this movie. Thankfully we don’t have to take care of it all at once. So I’ll leave for next time my thoughts about what the title means. I’m glad you mentioned the sequence where Ed has his fatal meeting with Big Dave at Nirdlinger’s department store. I love that sequence too. It's a typically thrilling touch that Ed's own narration is interrupted by Big Dave's call, and then after Ed returns to the house to see his wife asleep as she was when he left, the narration picks up right where the interruption occurred. I also would like to delve a little deeper into this widely accepted, utterly nonsensical platitude regarding the Coens and the alleged disdain they have for their characters. Even if it were true, who was it that decreed filmmakers have to “like” (whatever that means) every character they present? Does dislike preclude artistic or narrative validity? What about Freddy Riedenschneider and the uncertainty principle? And to connect up with another bedeviled Coen protagonist, do you think there’s a link between Ed Crane and Larry Gopnik? (Ed is, after all, a very serious man.) As it turns out, there’s plenty there in The Man Who Wasn’t There, and maybe we can find words for some of the things that they didn’t have words for in Ed Crane’s ill-fated universe.