The Rear-View Mirror: The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

There are few directors who can look back at as illustrious a filmography as the Coen Brothers. From the early neo-noir of Blood Simple, the gangster’s paradise of Miller’s Crossing, the surreal Hollywood of Barton Fink, via Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou to more recent films such as No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis: though Joel and Ethan Coen clearly have a style, but they’ve never rested on their laurels. While they’ve had a couple of clunkers, I’m more interested in one of their films that hasn’t really received as much attention as I think it deserves.

The Man Who Wasn't There Continue reading

This is the one with pictures!

And what pretty pictures they are! Oh! Oh!

Okay, enough of that… it’s getting silly. What is there to talk about? Blood Simple, perhaps, which we watched tonight. A fascinating film to watch if you like les frères Coen, because it combines the “Ohshitohshitohshit…” tension of a James M. Cain novel with traces of the subversive humour that would come to full bloom in later Coen movies. Then again, I don’t particularly feel like talking about that movie. Go and watch it yourself, if you can keep yourself from constantly muttering, “Oh. My. God. Frances McDormand is so young!”

What else then? Nate Fisher’s funeral perhaps. It’s strange – when I first watched this episode about 1 1/2 years ago, I mostly felt numb throughout it. The tears only started to come halfway through the penultimate episode “Static”. (When the car pickup guy kicks in the crashed hearse’s window, that does me in completely.) This time, though, the aptly names “All Alone” really got to me. The way all the remaining Fishers, as well as Brenda and Maggie, were locked into themselves by their grief, rage and frustration. The way putting shrouded Nate in that hole in the ground seemed so final – even though this is Six Feet Under, where the dead appear to the living to cajole, taunt and sometimes, very rarely, if you’re lucky, offer much needed sympathy. Even Claire’s flashback to the day Kurt Cobain died (“Too pure for this world”?! Whatever it is you’re smoking, buddy boy, gimme some of that!) didn’t just feel embarrassing. Perhaps I’m just getting soppy and old.

Ruth alone

Or should I write about Deadwood? I’ve already said a lot about the tension that’s been building up since George Hearst’s arrival and immediate claim. It definitely feels like more blood will be spilled before the end of the season – and quite some blood has already been spilled. Not to mention other body parts ending up where they don’t really belong.

So, just one brief note about Deadwood: in addition to the dialogues, the world that is evoked, the storylines, the series’ feel for what the Germans call Spannungsbogen (there’s really no exact English equivalent, which I consider a much greater inadequacy than the lack of Zeitgeist or Blitzkrieg), I simply love the faces. They all tell stories, and they feel so eminently right.

George Hearst, looking for a new captain (preferably with two eyes)

The death of Cranes

Today’s blog entry is about Japanese poetry.

 Not.

The Man Who Wasn’t There isn’t usually one of the films by the Coen brothers that people mention first. You’ve got Fargo people and you’ve got The Big Lebowski people, and sometimes you get an elitist or purist who swears by Blood Simple. Then you’ve got the ‘bad’ Coen films that most people agree to be substandard: Intolerable Cruelty, The Hudsucker Proxy (which I’ve never seen), Ladykillers. For some reason, TMWWT falls under most people’s Coen radar.

There he is! (Or is he…?)

Which I don’t get. I saw the film yesterday evening, perhaps for the fifth or sixth time, and it gets to me every time. In terms of sheer craft, it’s up there with the Coens’ best: the black and white cinematography is gorgeous to look at, as rich and evocative as the best film noir. The music – half Beethoven, half Carter Burwell (the Coens’ regular composer) – is simple and subtle, yet spot on. The script deftly intertwines film noir elements with the absurdity that many of the brothers’ films have, so that the references to ’40s and ’50s sci-fi do not feel out of place (unless you’re a stickler for Generic Purity(tm) – in which case the Coens are probably not to your taste anyway).

More than every other film by the Coens, I find that TMWWT mixes the comic and the tragic beautifully. The sort of postmodern game that they tend to play in their movies is tricky: the films foreground their parodic elements, they revel in their artifice. This film isn’t different: consider, for instance, the scene after the wedding, where Ed puts the drunk, sleepy Doris to bed, and the voice-over starts the story of how they met and got together. This is interrupted by the phonecall that leads to Ed killing Big Dave (James Gandolfini, with more than a touch of Tony Soprano), but afterwards Ed comes back home, sits down on the bed again and continues the Ed & Doris story as if nothing had happened.

No man there, definitely…

Perhaps more than the other films by the Coen brothers, TMWWT doesn’t shy away from pathos, even if there’s always the element of humour. One of the scenes with the Cranes’ arrogant, egomaniac lawyer Freddy Riefenschneider has Ed basically confessing to the killing in front of Riefenschneider but, more importantly, in front of his wife – and she realises what has happened and that Ed knew about her affair. Frances McDormand’s acting, without a single line, is masterful in conveying her heartbreak.

The film’s handling of tones and styles culminates in its final scene – a scene that only the Coens could have pulled off. If you haven’t seen the film, don’t watch the following video. If you have seen the film, watch the scene and then go and watch the film again. You’ll find gems that you may not remember.