The Movie that Haunted Coen Brothers
‘Big’ writers generally avoid writing about movies, or, at any rate, writing seriously about them. Part of the reason is that for a big writer (or a would be big writer), there is always the immortality thing to consider, which is as natural and understandable as any other quest by human beings. Immortality in some form has, of course, been one of the holy grails of human history and civilization. Writing about such things as movies might affect their chances. You just have read a little about a writer like Samuel Beckett and read some of his works to see what I mean. Movies, ‘the art form of the (twentieth) century’, even the best movies, are still not fully accepted as belonging to the the haloed territory of High Art. An unfortunate consequence of this is that it is hard to find what great writers have written about movies in general and about specific movies. Some might say that there haven’t been all that many really great writers in recent times, but that is a risky territory for me to go into.
Obviously the above consideration doesn’t apply to every great writer. George Orwell is one example: I am not sure whether he wrote about movies, but he did write about other unsafe things. But then the evidence seems to suggest that he wasn’t exactly planning on becoming a great writer, at least not in the way Beckett was. He had other things on his mind. This unexpectedly makes me add here that avoiding politics by ambitious writers is more often than not because of the immortality factor.
Mark Twain is another example (in the category of Orwell, not Beckett). Is it just a coincidence that both had politics in their writing? I mean explicitly: Everyone has politics at least implicitly, whether they like it or not.
Coming back on track, it was, therefore, a surprise when, after discovering (and recognizing as a masterpiece) ‘The Night of the Hunter’ (not having heard of it before that) some years ago, one of the very few reviews or any writing that I found about this (till recently) neglected exceptional work of art was by Margaret Atwood. It is called ‘Why I love Night Of The Hunter’. The movie made such an impression on her mind that she doesn’t now remember who she saw it with. Some of the images have haunted her ever since, she says, especially the famous ‘underwater Shelly Winters’ scene ‘in her aspect of wrecked mermaid’, which has made ‘several disguised appearances’ in her own writing.
Since then I have come across many others, writing that this particular scene haunted them and it’s easy to see why. In my opinion, though, this scene is just one of the minor things that make this movie great.
Among those haunted by images and scenes from this movie are the Coen Brothers, known for their ‘quirky’ ‘indie’ movies. To digress a little, I think it is quite wrong to see them as anything other than Hollywood. They represent the best of the mainstream Hollywood. None of their movies strays too far from the Hollywood style. But that is not necessarily a failing. As I said, they represent the best in this tradition. And they do push the boundaries.
I have been meaning to write about them and the Charles Laughton movie ever since I saw one of their movies after The Night of the Hunter (let’s make an acronym to save my labour: TNOTH), though I had seen two or three earlier. They are said to make numerous references to other movies (nods, as they are called, or tributes), which apparently they claim that they don’t do deliberately, but that doesn’t matter much.
I can’t really say that I am a fan of their movies, but I do like most of them, to varying degrees, like everyone else I guess. But here I am not going to review their movies or even TNOTH. It just gives me pleasure to point out some interesting facts which might be relevant for reviewers of their movies. I had once somewhere read about a few people having influenced them, as is usual in biographies, even very brief ones. And I have also read about specific influences on their movies. When I had checked last, I couldn’t find any mention of TNOTH, but it seems now it is mentioned in several places that this is one of the movies that influenced them and I feel vindicated.
So let me mention a few of the readily observable of such influences. I said the movie has haunted them and it is based on the way images and motifs from TNOTH repeatedly occur in their moves. Their first movie that I remember seeing was Miller’s Crossing. I have since seen it again and it is one of my least favourite of their movies. And it is the only one of their movies for which I can’t recall any example of image or motif from TNOTH. This might be partly because I haven’t thought much about Miller’s Crossing, as I have in the case of other movies by them.
Let me take each of those cases where I can recall, though I won’t cover all of them:
No County for Old Men
Apart from the fact that the movie is set in the West, it is about a serial killer who is almost supernaturally good at hunting people (down). He is a ruthless and cold blooded killer, but he has his own code of conduct, his ‘principles’. Somewhat like Harry Powell, the preacher in TNOTH, although there are differences. And both are hunting for money, which is easy to forget in all their killing. Still, in both the cases it is not very clear what is their primary consideration: money, the violence (which is often shown to be the primary and sole motive for psychopaths: by shallower story tellers) or their ‘principles’. Both are confronted by a woman (young in one case, old in another) towards the end. One meets his nemesis, while there is just a slight hint of redemption for the other, even though the young woman has to die for that. Both movies have a long segment involving the ‘hunt’.
What I wrote above for No Country for Old Men is also true of Raising Arizona, except that, since this was a comedy, all similarities are passed through a comic filter. Just like in the other two movies, here also the killer-hunter seems to be ‘more a force of nature’ (a comment the directors made about the actor who played the role in this movie) than a real human being. As one of the comments by a character in No Country for Old Men indicates, he sort of represents all the violence in this land that is ‘hard on people’. Now I might have something more to say about these things, but here I intend to perform duties nearer to accounting than to criticism.
You could say that I am doing this on behalf of Charles Laughton, the great actor, who only made one movie because this one movie, which he rightly believed to be very deserving, wasn’t received well at all at that time. May be I am doing it just to show off, but I like the first idea better.
By the way, a week or two ago I saw the list of top ten all time favourite movies of Fassbinder (excluding his own) and what do I find? TNOTH is in that list! I had a vague feeling that Fassbinder too (in some indirect way) was influenced by this movie, but I actually thought that I was going too far and probably finding imaginary influences. On second thoughts, it’s not so surprising, because the Brechtian thread connects them, if nothing else.
Getting back to the movie under consideration, here also the killer-bounty-hunter has his own icons. In TNOTH he had the LOVE and HATE tattoos on the fingers (another favourite and frequently copied image from the movie) and his trademark knife (recall Brecht’s Mack the Knife, Brecht being associated closely at one time with Charles Laughton). In No Country for Old Men, he has his special weapon that was originally meant to kill cattle. And he has his coin that has been travelling for a long time. In Raising Arizona, he has several such icons strapped on to him and his bike, including one that says (if I remember correctly) ‘Mama didn’t love me’. Even this comic character has supernatural tracking skills.
There can be another take on the supernatural tracking-hunting skills. No real individual can plausibly have such skills. But a large organisation or institution or syndicate (I just saw Love is Colder than Death) or ‘agency’ can. A system can. Or, to put it better, The System can.
As in, for example, Burn After Reading. It would be a piece of cake, even with more than one to be tracked. And even with clueless individuals involved in the tracking. There is always an army of bishops, knights, rooks – and pawns – acting like remote controlled drones with wills of their own, which have nevertheless been trained to do the bidding of their handlers. Not to mention the latest technology of the day and the latest Mythology of Fear and the old old Ideology of Domination.
One of my favourite bits in TNOTH is when the preacher finally arrives at Rachel Cooper’s place to take away the children and the doll. The young orphan girl, Ruby (who is older than the other children living at the place, being cared for by the woman who earlier turns to the camera and says proudly, ‘I know I am good for something in this world and I know it too.’), this young girl who has become infatuated with the preacher, drops what she was doing and cries out excitedly to Rachel Cooper, ‘The Man!, The Man!’.
The Man is the other take.
O Brother Where Art Thou
The underwater scene makes an appearance here too, though there is no corpse as far as we can see. But there must be a few in the background, given the previous scene. Talking of the previous scene, there is, yet again, the motif of the tracker-hunter with almost supernatural capabilities. This time he is a man of the law, not a man of the Lord, or a man outside the law, but he is a psycho and a sadist alright. He is supposed to be from Cool Hand Luke, but that one wasn’t shown to be an uncannily good tracker. He only looked similar and supervised a chain gang.
I had to think a little for this one. It might not be so obvious, but it’s there. The pregnant policewoman who tracks down the killers (yes, the tracking thing is present here too), one already fed to a grinder by the other, can be seen as reference to Rachel Cooper. The latter was old, the former is pregnant. Neither seems or acts very heroic, unlike many other Hollywood heroines. Both, in fact, seem vulnerable, but they manage to do what they should. They are no Lara Croft.
The Man Who Wasn’t There
The underwater corpse is present here. With the car. Inside the car. Drowned with the car after being murdered. But the murderer in this case is not a psycho serial killer, but a very plausible real person, who cons everyone and is well liked and admired. The protagonist’s wife is having an affair with him. And he is not even a habitual murderer. So the motif of a well liked and admired person, built up by the society, who is actually a murderer is also present, apart from the underwater scene.
Three extra points from me to Coen Brothers.
The Hudsucker Proxy
Margaret Atwood mentioned Harry Powell as a man ‘embraced by society, then torn apart by it’. This applies to the protagonist of The Hudsucker Proxy too. There is even the more specific motif of this sacrificial character being chased by a lynch mob, just as the mob goes after Harry Powell at the end of the TNOTH. And the mob consists of the same people who had earlier built him up, directly or indirectly.
The Big Lebowski
The motif from TNOTH in this film is the one that makes me laugh the most. People reviewing this movie always mention the mysterious cowboy (‘The Stranger’) at the end who has a brief chat with Lebowski. Who is he? This is what I think: He is the grown up John Harper from TNOTH. Of course, there is some artistic license here regarding the age etc., but he can’t be anyone else. And here is my evidence: After his chat with Lebowski, he turns to the camera (he has been the narrator earlier: the Brechtian thread is very much visible even in Coen Brothers’ movies) and gives a little speech in which he also says ‘the Dude abides’. And Rachel Cooper at the end of TNOTH said about children, ‘They abide. They abide and they endure.’, also to the camera. The tone used is the same in both the cases. The Stranger (according to Coen Brothers and as interpreted by me) seems to be carrying on the tradition of the old (‘gun toting’, which is not relevant here) cowboy woman played by Lillian Gish. He seems to have learnt well from her and was really saved after all. He even seems to like adopting orphans, in a manner of speaking. It’s almost as if the Coen Brothers are finally trying to exorcise the TNOTH ghost, which has been haunting them for such a long time.
Margaret Atwood, in her article, also wondered what would John become when he grew up:
Perhaps he will grow up to become a robber. Or perhaps, as his name suggests, a singer of bloodspattered sagas and the author of apocalyptic revelations?
If I am to believe Coen Brothers and you are to believe me, then he seems to have turned out quite alright.
So this story seems to have a happy ending. But it could have ended differently. What if John Harper had been taken away by Harry Powell and been made his apprentice or if Rachel Cooper had not found him at all? Well, then, he could have become what we get in Raising Arizona.
The choice of Coen Brothers has a significance also because, as I mentioned earlier, they are quintessential Hollywood directors, no avant garde or nouvelle vague etc.