There are two scenes in Burn After Reading that perfectly sum up the movie and the Coen Brother’s style as Directors. Half way through the film a middle manager type at the CIA must take a report of everything that has happened in the movie thus far to his head of department. It is as he tries to explain the bizarre events to his clueless boss we are made fully aware of the stupidity of the characters and the callousness of those not directly affected by it. The same gag is used at the end where the bureaucratic stillness interrupts the violent climax of the film. The entire resolution of the story and the consequences for the characters is explained in dry legalese as a pair of befuddled suits try to understand what happened. This is what the Coens are experts at: Bathos.
Bathos, unlike pathos, is the word used to describe the sublime to the ridiculous. It is the effect of an anticlimax or a hard change of gear that violently alters tone. The whimper not the bang. And the Coens use this all the time. Whether it is a police officer having to point to her badge to make her presence clear to a killer because she cannot be heard over the mulching of his dead accomplice, or the sudden halt in a death fall from a skyscraper of a hapless main character, the Coens love to undercut the severity or emotional intensity of their stories by either introducing absurdity or pointing out the absurdity of the moment. There is, however, more to it than merely being a stylistic choice or just a funny gag (though it is both), it has reality to it that is satisfying but also an often undiscussed philosophical depth. A depth that the Coens themselves even represented in one of their movies.
In The Big Lebowski, itself possibly the most hilariously bathetic of their films, the main group of antagonists are self-described ‘Nihilists’ who “belief in nussing Lebowski, NUSSING” and are spoken of in awed terms by other characters. This is of course undermined at the end of the movie when they show up demanding money as it is ‘only fair’, to which Walter retorts “Fair?! Now who’s the fuckin’ nihilists ya bunch of crybabies?” Whilst it is a laugh-out-loud drumming down of three characters who clearly don’t really understand the concept of nihilism, the ensuing fight in which they are quickly and brutally despatched acknowledges the absurdity of their ethos. Or lack thereof…
So what is Nihilism? Not what most people think of it as, is the answer. Nihilism is an amalgam of a series of complex philosophical beliefs that revolve around pessimism, skepticism and an understanding of the arbitrariness of human life and our values. For most people though, Lebowski’s nihilists represent the general concept but that’s an example in extremis in that they do not believe anything has value or meaning and must therefore be destroyed. This is not really what capital ’N’ nihilism is about. Contemporary secular society is generally nihilistic in that most of us and our institutions believe in science, empirical evidence and material reality, i.e. things that prize objectivity and also aware of its essential lack of purpose, but this also clarifies its problem; it’s actually quite difficult to be a nihilist proper. Lebowski’s comedic interpretation of ‘true’ nihilism is probably its purest form but is pointed out to be a dangerous thing yet it has also been been popularised in culture in recent years through destructive, cruel and villainous characters like Rick Sanchez and the various interpretations of the Joker. But in every way, characters trying to live as nihilists fail to live up to their ambitions and this dysfunction is excellently depicted in The Big Lebowski.
The threat posed by the German Techno Nihilists is supposedly that, because they believe in nothing, they are unafraid and therefore capable of anything, yet as the movie capably points out, that’s rubbish. They care enough about money to break and enter, lie about kidnapping and extort people, and also seem to care a great deal about their physical safety when Walt beats them to a pulp. By making the villains openly nihilistic the Coens are directly commenting on the impracticalities of the philosophy: you can’t believe in nothing and only be motivated by destruction yet continue to live, dress yourself, defend yourself from attack, demand money, etc. Someone may believe in Nihilism or understand its central conceits but it is practically impossible to live by its rules or embody its values. The Coens understand this, representing the reality of nihilism in their entire body of work being about undermining the importance of events in their movies for comedic effect. They constantly reintroduce the uncaring reality of life at moments of high emotion, like in Fargo where William H Macy’s character throws a tantrum while scraping ice from his windows, a feeling we all know and we may have all done something similar. Any other movie might validate the character’s frustration by hanging on it and then cutting to somewhere else, leaving you with the person’s anger and therefore justifying it within the film world, but not the Coens. They stay with Macy and we see him realise his tantrum and its pointlessness, and then have to go back to scraping the ice from his windshield, the comment being “what was the point in that?”. Every Coen movie is littered with this bathetic approach to depicting the futility of our struggles through life and undermining structures and things we find important. But while this may be a representation, or an understanding of nihilist concepts, the Coens aren’t nihilists. They are more interest in the absurd.
The Absurd is different to being absurdist, especially in an artistic or comedic sense. Kierkegaard and other existentialists defined this concept of the absurd but it was named by the French Algerian philosopher Albert Camus, describing it as the conflict between the inherent meaninglessness and lack of purpose in the universe yet human being’s constant desire to seek it. This seems to sum up the Coen’s ideology in a nut shell given how their stories, whether comedies or thrillers, all revolve around fundamentally pointless escapades that offer no resolution or substantive change by the end, and yet the characters always fight their way through the stories hoping for success. Equally villains like No Country For Old Men’s Chigur, who is depicted with the most extreme of nihilistic ideologies, a force of pure destruction, is also subject to the same random whims of fate as everyone else so that despite having slaughtered almost the entire main cast by the end he can still get messed up in a car accident. You can’t intimidate your way out of that. So while the Coen’s characters ultimately may not get their money, their car dealerships or even their rugs back it doesn’t matter, it’s what the characters do with their time and how they live their lives that count. Lebowski ends up happy with his lot, Hi and Ed (it is implied) have a good life ahead of them, Marge and Norm have a good, stable marriage and Mattie Ross goes on with her life, albeit without an arm. These are, ultimately, ordinary people living their lives in a difficult, meaningless world just like everyone else but rather than depict this as some sort of exceptional, noble pursuit, the Coens just attribute this to our inherent humanity that we persevere despite the hardships of life. Meanwhile those who seek to harness this lack of meaning may initially seem scary and powerful they ultimately end up subject to its whims but less prepared for it. In the end, it is those who persevere with the slow, everyday creation of meaning amongst all this horror that succeed and even enjoy life. As Camus put it, the Coens “imagine Sisyphus happy”.
The Dude abides.