The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers

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In 2008 No Country for Old Men won the Academy Award for Best Picture, adding to the reputation of filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, who were already known for pushing the boundaries of genre. They had already made films that redefined the gangster movie, the screwball comedy, the fable, and the film noir, among others. No Country is just one of many Coen brothers films to center on the struggles of complex characters to understand themselves and their places in the strange worlds they inhabit. To borrow a phrase from Barton Fink, all Coen films explore "the life of the mind" and show that the human condition can often be simultaneously comic and tragic, profound and absurd. In The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers, editor Mark T. Conard and other noted scholars explore the challenging moral and philosophical terrain of the Coen repertoire. Several authors connect the Coens' most widely known plots and characters to the shadowy, violent, and morally ambiguous world of classic film noir and its modern counterpart, neo-noir. As these essays reveal, Coen films often share noir's essential philosophical assumptions: power corrupts, evil is real, and human control of fate is an illusion. In Fargo, not even Minnesota's blankets of snow can hide Jerry Lundegaard's crimes or brighten his long, dark night of the soul. Coen films that stylistically depart from film noir still bear the influence of the genre's prevailing philosophical systems. The tale of love, marriage, betrayal, and divorce in Intolerable Cruelty transcends the plight of the characters to illuminate competing theories of justice. Even in lighter fare, such as Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, the comedy emerges from characters' journeys to the brink of an amoral abyss. However, the Coens often knowingly and gleefully subvert conventions and occasionally offer symbolic rebirths and other hopeful outcomes. At the end of The Big Lebowski, the Dude abides, his laziness has become a virtue, and the human comedy is perpetuating itself with the promised arrival of a newborn Lebowski. The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers sheds new light on these cinematic visionaries and their films' stirring philosophical insights. From Blood Simple to No Country for Old Men, the Coens' films feature characters who hunger for meaning in shared human experience — they are looking for answers. A select few of their protagonists find affirmation and redemption, but for many others, the quest for answers leads, at best, only to more questions.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Before collaborating on the writing and directing of over 13 films, Joel Coen studied film at New York University, while Ethan Coen studied philosophy at Princeton University. In this text, 14 scholars in both philosophy and film and media studies investigate the philosophical themes and underpinnings of their films. They explore such topics as the competing theories of justice that exist in Intolerable Cruelty, laziness as a virtue in The Big Lebowski, Ed Crane's various types of Kierkegaardian despair in The Man Who Wasn't There; Blood Simple's oscillation between classic noir and postmodern conventions, and the ethical landscape in No Country for Old Men. Edited by series editor Conard (philosophy, Marymount Manhattan Coll.), this volume is written for both fans of the Coen brothers and the philosophically curious, without the technical language. Footnotes are included at the end of each essay for deeper exploration. Both educational and entertaining, this philosophical compilation is recommended for public and academic libraries, particularly those with degree programs in philosophy and film.
—Joshua Finnell

From the Publisher
"This volume is written for both fans of the Coen brothers and the philosophically curious, without the technical language. Both educational and entertaining, this philosophical compilation is recommended for public and academic libraries, particularly those with degree programs in philosophy and film." — Library Journal" —
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813125268
  • Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
  • Publication date: 12/12/2008
  • Series: The Philosophy of Popular Culture
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark T. Conard is assistant professor of philosophy at Marymount College. He is the series editor of The Philosophy of Popular Culture series and the editor of numerous books, including The Philosophy of Film Noir, The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, and The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction Mark T. Conard 1

Part 1 The Coen Brand of Comedy and Tragedy

Raising Arizona as an American Comedy Richard Gilmore 7

The Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself: Nihilism and Comedy in Coen Neo-Noir Thomas S. Hibbs 27

Philosophies of Comedy in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Douglas McFarland 41

No Country for Old Men: The Coens' Tragic Western Richard Gilmore 55

Deceit, Desire, and Dark Comedy: Postmodern Dead Ends in Blood Simple Alan Woolfolk 79

Part 2 Ethics: Shame, Justice, and Virtue

"And It's Such a Beautiful Day!" Shame and Fargo Rebecca Hanrahan David Stearns 93

Justice, Power, and Love: The Political Philosophy of Intolerable Cruelty Shai Biderman William J. Devlin 109

Ethics, Heart, and Violence in Miller's Crossing Bradley L. Herling 125

"Takin"er Easy for All Us Sinners": Laziness as a Virtue in The Big Lebowski Matthew K. Douglass Jerry L. Walls 147

No Country for Old Men as Moral Philosophy Douglas McFarland 163

Part 3 Postmodernity, Interpretation, and the Construction of History

Heidegger and the Problem of Interpretation in Barton Fink Mark T. Conard 179

The Past Is Now: History and The Hudsucker Proxy Paul Coughlin 195

"A Homespun Murder Story": Film Noir and the Problem of Modernity in Fargo Jerold J. Abrams 211

Part 4 Existentialism, Alienation, and Despair

"What Kind of Man Are You?" The Coen Brothers and Existentialist Role Playing Richard Gaughran 227

Being the Barber: Kierkegaardian Despair in The Man Who Wasn't There Karen D. Hoffman 243

Thinking beyond the Failed Community: Blood Simple and The Man Who Wasn't There R. Barton Palmer 267

Part 5 God, Man, and Nature

How Job Begat Larry: The Present Situation in A Serious Man K. L. Evans 289

"A Lead Ball of Justice": The Logic of Retribution and the Ethics of Instruction in True Grit David LaRocca 307

List of Contributors 333

Index 339

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2013

    '. . . persuasively demonstrates that the films of the Coen bro

    '. . . persuasively demonstrates that the films of the Coen brothers often implicitly and sometimes explicitly engage with central issues in the history of western philosophy from Plato and Aristotle to Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre . . . '

    Nietzshe ! cheatsheet neat.sheeit 'duh mountains is in labor . . . ' mickey mountoons

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