LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
From 1984's "Blood Simple" to "A Serious Man" in 2009, the films of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have provided plenty of food for thought for both cinema fanatics and the occasional moviegoer. Few people would consider the movie makers theologians, including the Coens themselves.
But religion writer Cathleen Falsani has been finding biblical messages in their medium. For example: whether their film is a farce about a crime caper or a gothic tale of betrayal, the worlds the Coens create on screen have a moral order.
Falsani explores the spiritual dimensions of their films in a new book called "The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers." And she joins us from KUCI in Irvine, California. Welcome to the program.
Ms. CATHLEEN FALSANI (Author, "The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers"): I'm so happy to be with you.
HANSEN: What do you mean there's a moral order in their films?
Ms. FALSANI: There is. It might not be the moral order many of us are hoping for, but it's there. It's there. People say that their worlds are chaotic, but I see a definite rhythm to good and bad and cause and effect.
HANSEN: Yes, but do you have to figure out who good and bad is, what good and bad is?
Ms. FALSANI: Yes.
HANSEN: Yeah, elaborate.
Ms. FALSANI: Well, what I say in one part of the book is, you know, beware of who you think is a good guy and a bad guy 'cause it's often turned on its ear by the Coens. But if you do something, there is an effect. When you make a choice and you make the wrong choice, you're going to get it in their world. And then sometimes, as in the case of "A Serious Man," even if maybe you don't make the wrong choice, you still might get it.
It would seem to me in most of their universes, the Coeniverses, I call them, there is a God and sometimes God interacts more with humans than others. And usually when God is interacting, it's to save them from themselves. Like in "A Serious Man," we're not really sure if God is interacting with poor Larry Gopnik at all.
(Soundbite of movie, "A Serious Man")
Mr. MICHAEL STUHLBARG (Actor): (as Larry Gopnik) Marital problems, professional, you name it. This is not a frivolous request. This is a...I'm a...I'm a...I've tried to be a serious man, you know? Tried to do right, be a member of the community, raise the...Danny, Sarah. They both go to school, Hebrew school. A good breakfast. Well, Danny goes to Hebrew school. Sarah doesn't have time. She mostly washes her hair. Apparently, there are several steps involved, but you don't have to tell Marshak that. Just tell him I need help. Please? I need help.
Ms. FALSANI: Either they're wrestling with some of the questions that I think all of us face at one time or another about: What does it mean? Who am I? If I'm trying to be a good person, why do lousy happen to me? And Larry Gopnik looks to rabbis for some answers and doesn't really find them.
HANSEN: And he doesn't really find them at the end of the film either - not to give it away.
Ms. FALSANI: Maybe, maybe not.
HANSEN: We don't know.
Ms. FALSANI: We don't know.
HANSEN: It's ambiguous.
Ms. FALSANI: Yes.
HANSEN: "A Serious Man," you say, is probably their most autobiographical. And this is like...there's a Job-like figure.
Ms. FALSANI: yes.
HANSEN: But why do you think it's their most personally spiritual movie?
Ms. FALSANI: Well, I think it's their most overtly religious film, certainly. It's set in a Jewish milieu. It's set in the town where they actually grew up, St. Louis Park, Minnesota, one of the suburbs of Minneapolis in 1967, which would've been the year that Joel made his bar mitzvah. It is maybe not autobiographical, but certainly self-referential.
HANSEN: We have to talk about the Dude, since he is in your title of your book.
Ms. FALSANI: Yes.
HANSEN: And, of course, you know, it's Jeff Bridges, you know, looking everything like a messiah - long hair, beard, you know, the cover has him with a red halo. But how does he fit into the model of a biblical figure? He's being put upon in this movie, but he always have a rather Zen-like attitude about it.
Ms. FALSANI: On first glance he just looks like a slacker. Kind of a lay-about, sort of a loser. But there's a deep centeredness to him. And I don't necessarily think he's a biblical character, but he certainly, I think, is a lamed-vovnik, which is a sort of Jewish mystical idea of these 36 righteous souls who hold up the fate of the rest of the world on their shoulders. But nobody knows who they are, and they don't know that they are a lamed-vovnik themselves.
And I see him as that sort of person. He's a pure spirit. Not a perfect man, and as the film says, certainly a lazy man, but a good man. He always makes choices to be respectful and caring and give people second chances. And he tries to keep the peace and he tries to keep the community together. And in that way I think he's sort of that righteous figure.
HANSEN: I'm speaking with Cathleen Falsani, author of the book "The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers."
Did you start out with a premise that these underlying references existed in these movies and then look for proof, or did you gradually accumulate an awareness of this way of looking at Coen Brothers' films?
Ms. FALSANI: It started organically with a love for "The Big Lebowski" film in particular, in seeing what to me were really obvious spiritual themes there and then becoming acquainted with more of their work and seeing the themes in "Barton Fink" and then in "Fargo" and then in "O Brother, Where Art Thou" and eventually "No Country for Old Men." And I thought, hmm, if I see these themes in X number of the 14 films that they've made, I bet there's some stuff in the other ones. And so some of it was proof texting and some of it was organically there, and I just went sort of spelunking for the God stuff in their entire oeuvre.
HANSEN: Frances McDormand won an Oscar for her portrayal of Marge Gunderson in "Fargo." She's a pregnant law officer going after some rather violent criminals. It's really not much of a stretch to see her as a Madonna figure. After all, she's pregnant. But is there more?
Ms. FALSANI: I think she is the closest thing to a Christ figure that they have in any of their films. She's certainly, you can see, as mother of God, Marge Gunderson, M.G. I mean, you can sort of stretch and do that kind of thing, but she is the life bearer. She is the person who makes choices consistently for keeping the law, for keeping the order, for being kind, again, in that sort of Dude-ish kind of way. She goes out into the chaos and brings people back into order.
HANSEN: But she really is just doing her job.
Ms. FALSANI: Yep, yep. And she is the quintessential righteous person in the Coen world in that she is deeply, deeply decent. I think that's the highest moral character you can have in the Coeniverse is to be decent.
HANSEN: Yeah. She's humble, she's righteous, but she's surrounded by these scenes of violence. You actually compare "Fargo" to something that perhaps the American Catholic author Flannery O'Connor might write.
Ms. FALSANI: Yes, yes. I mean, there's a lot of violence and sometimes there's violence juxtaposed right up against comedy as well. She's in the hellfire. She's in the blood and the guts, but she's not changed by it. She changes, again, that chaos and tries to drag it back to some sort of moral order. Even when she has the killer at the end of the film, you know, who she apprehends when he's stuffing Steve Buscemi into a wood chipper.
(Soundbite of movie, "Fargo")
Ms. FRANCES MCDORMAND (Actor): (As Marge Gunderson) Three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, you know.
Ms. FALSANI: She doesn't treat him as a subhuman. She doesn't treat him as an evil person. She confronts him with this: I just don't understand why you would do this, all for a little bit of money. And it's a beautiful day. She just has a completely different outlook on life from the people that she works with.
(Soundbite of movie, "Fargo")
Ms. MCDORMAND: (as Marge Gunderson): And here you are and it's a beautiful day.
HANSEN: Are the Coen Brothers aware of any of this that you've written?
Ms. FALSANI: Yes, yes. I actually had a chance to talk to Joel at the Toronto Film Festival, after the Toronto Film Festival. And he was absolutely delightful and thought it was a hilarious idea and sat there with his brother and looked through the book, and they were laughing. So, I took that as a good sign. And I haven't heard from any lawyers, so I guess they must've liked it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HANSEN: Cathleen Falsani is the author of "The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers." And she joined us from KUCI in Irvine, California. Thanks a lot, Cathleen.
Ms. FALSANI: Thank you.
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