Six Damn Fine Degrees #90: The scene’s the thing

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Will the Coen Brothers ever make another film together? Or will Netflix’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs remain their last collaboration? Obviously it’s rather ungrateful to look at a filmography that includes greats such as Fargo, Barton Fink and No Country for Old Men and whine that there won’t be any more – but at the same time, is there anyone else who makes films that compare with their genre-busting and their often oddball tone? (The closest I’ve come to considering anything Coenesque is probably the British true crime black comedy-drama – which is what Wikipedia calls it, and anything shorter couldn’t begin to do it justice – Landscapers, which we talked about in one of our podcasts.)

Then again, besides their most recognised films, there are a number of movies by the Coen Brothers that didn’t receive the same praise. Some of them were downright disliked when they came out, sometimes more justifiably so (The Ladykillers), sometimes less (The Hudsucker Proxy). One Coen film that I’ve always felt deserved more attention than it got is The Man Who Wasn’t There, a film noir pastiche starring Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand that in many ways exemplifies the particular tone that the Coens excel at: somewhere between parody and homage, with a sprinkle of something decidedly stranger. I mean, which film noir classic ever included a subplot that concerns dry cleaning, or a scene featuring a UFO?

Perhaps the off-the-wall quality of some of the scenes in The Man Who Wasn’t There is part of the reason why it’s not included in the list of the Coens’ greatest. At times it can feel like the film is something of a collage of typical oddball Coen ideas and characters. They’re all fun in isolation – the scenes with Richard Jenkins as a narcoleptic friend of the family, the two cops telling Thornton’s character about his wife’s arrest, or the piano teacher destroying all hope that Scarlett Johansson’s Birdy will ever amount to anything as a pianist – but in sum it can feel a bit like the Coens were trying very hard to come up with classic, funny, unmistakably Coenesque scenes. Compare this with Fargo, which could never be mistaken for anything other than a Coen Brothers film, but its scenes all contribute to the themes and characters and the very specific world the brothers are creating. At times, The Man Who Wasn’t There can feel like a Coen Brothers best-of compilation.

Warning: There be spoilers in the following.

And yet: there are other scenes where The Man Who Wasn’t There breaks through its brittle goofy, parodic lacquer and manages the odd perfect moment that feels genuine, even earnest, and that is nonetheless entirely in tune with the world the Coens are creating. One of those moments comes roughly halfway into the film: the protagonist Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), generally reactive to the point of passivity, and his wife Doris (Frances McDormand), who is accused of having murdered her boss, Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini), are meeting with their expensive superstar lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub). Riedenschneider is struggling to come up with a narrative to present to the judge and jury – and then Ed basically comes out with the truth and confesses to the murder… thereby revealing to his wife not only that he knew about her having an affair with Big Dave but also that he is willing to go to jail and possibly the electric chair for her, regardless of her actions. Thornton’s acting is almost entirely internalised, and McDormand’s character doesn’t speak throughout the scene, and yet there is so much that is happening between the two of them, communicated through subtle inflections and looks. And meanwhile, the overpriced idiot of a lawyer, who doesn’t have a clue what is going on, babbles on while behind him the real drama is happening.

This scene is admittedly not one of the funny ones, but it is one of the main reasons why The Man Who Wasn’t There isn’t just an oddball noir parody. And there are other moments in The Man Who Wasn’t There that are both funny and meaningful, telling us more about the characters and how they relate to each other. These moments form the emotional glue that connects all the individual parts of the film, so that it ends up packing an emotional wallop that isn’t apparent at first, when we mainly see its parodic intention.

However, this makes me wonder: to what extent am I being swayed by the fact that The Man Who Wasn’t There goes to dark, emotionally compelling places that keep it from being ‘just’ a pastiche that veers into parodic territory? Would I be equally willing to give a straight comedy the same benefit of the doubt?

When I first saw Hail, Caesar!, I admit I wasn’t really taken with it. Sure, there were individual scenes that were a lot of fun, but I didn’t connect with the characters or the world. The film’s parodic aspects came across as glib and self-satisfied. It struck me as the kind of film that’s better to watch in parts than as a whole. I would have admitted that it had set-piece scenes that were fantastic, but what do they matter if I don’t care about the characters or about what’s going on? Then, recently, I had the opportunity to rewatch the film – ironically as part of a Frances McDormand series at my favourite cinema, even though McDormand cannot be in the film for more than a couple of minutes. (It’s nonetheless a great scene, which shouldn’t come as a surprise.) It probably helped that this was the first time I was watching Hail, Caesar! on the big screen, sitting in comfortable cinema seats – but what helped even more than this was that I sat down to see a movie that I hadn’t particularly liked the first time. I’d got my disappointment with the film out of the way.

Hail, Caesar! still isn’t anywhere near the top of my list of favourite Coen Brothers films. I still don’t particularly engage with it on an emotional level – and that’s fine. I often respond more, and better, to films that are melancholy or tragic, at least in part, while comedy is rather hit and miss for me. But that’s a question of personal taste, not of quality. Hail, Caesar! does lack some aspects that I enjoy in films – but in part, that’s because it is a different kind of film. In some ways, it is closer to classic Hollywood musicals and needs to be assessed accordingly. Just like, say, many Fred Astaire vehicles, the overall plot isn’t unimportant as such, but it is primarily the connective tissue that is needed to bring together a series of gorgeous set pieces and standout scenes.

And what scenes they are! Some are literal set pieces, such as “No Dames” with its dancing sailors and gay subtext bursting to the surface or the Russian submarine scene, a parody of Washington crossing the Delaware; others are pitch-perfect comedic shorts, such as Josh Brolin’s Hollywood fixer trying to get the approval of a bunch of clergymen of various faiths for the Biblical epic the studio is making, or the “Would that it were so simple” scene that featured so prominently in the trailers.

Certainly, I could say that, sure, Hail, Caesar! is less than the sum of its parts, that it has standout scenes but they don’t altogether come together to form a cohesive whole, other than in a general sense that the film is about a certain period of Hollywood filmmaking and about the various styles and characters and ambitions that, for artistic as much as for commercial reasons, made up the industry. Or I could look at what the film is and how it works – and how that genre and format may not be my personal favourite, but there’s nothing wrong with a film where the plot and characters are basically the crust that keeps all the delicious filling in one place. There’s nothing wrong with a film that is first and foremost a sequence of great, beautifully crafted, often hilarious scenes. Sometimes a movie doesn’t have to be more than the sum of its parts – in particular if the parts are as good as they are in Hail, Caesar!

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