Mining William Faulkner's work and biography for inspiration, the Coens have managed to grant the Southern bard the popular acceptance that always eluded him, writes Daniel Arizona ...
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"This boy is a wonderful comedy writer", H.L. Mencken once said of William Faulkner. Yet we seldom associate Faulkner with humour. The term "Faulknerian" tends to connote that blend of Southern gothic tragedy for which the author is most recognised. Many assume that Faulkner's work is little more than lurid tales of burning barns, kitchen castrations and moaning man-children, but this does a disservice to his novels and short stories. It ignores a fundamental aspect of Faulkner's work: the pairing of the comic with the tragic, the screwball with the sordid, the goofy with the grim. It is a rare mix of light and dark, and one that is most closely emulated today in the smart films of Joel and Ethan Coen.
Mining Faulkner's work and biography for inspiration, the Coens have managed to grant the Southern bard the popular acceptance that always eluded him. The films recall Faulkner's style and hallmarks, such as his use of exaggerated and repetitive dialogue--either mile-a-minute or tight lipped--slapstick violence, farcical situations, absurdist chases, voluptuous sirens and reprehensibly hilarious bovine acts. The Coens' (mostly) subtle allusions to his novels always tend to elicit a knowing chuckle from Faulknerians in the audience. (We are few but mighty, and very pretentious.)
It is easy to see why the Coens are attracted to Faulkner. The author's best work has a distinctive blend of levity and doom. His most productive and creative years were during the 1930s and '40s, the golden age of screwball comedy and film noir (genres that clearly speak to the Coen brothers). He often reveals his obsessions in darkly comic tones, or disguises them as corny bathroom humour. He is probably the only Nobel Prize-winning author who would imagine, let alone conjure, a poetic love scene in which a drooling idiot tries to woo and console an embarrassed cow that just soiled him (this is the Faulkner that Oprah didn't want you to see):
When he moved toward her, she whirled and ran...in a blind paroxysm of shame, to escape not him alone but the very scene of the outragement of privacy where she had been sprung suddenly upon and without warning from the dark and betrayed and outraged by her own treacherous biological inheritance, he following again, speaking to her, trying to tell her how this violent violation of her maiden's delicacy is no shame, since such is the very iron imperishable warp of the fabric of love.
As absurd as this scene is on its surface, Faulkner actually wants us to believe that not only is this love real and heartfelt, but also a romance for the ages. What many readers might identify as purple prose or lousy writing (see Clifton Fadiman, literary criticism's biggest tool) is merely bathos gone wild, a blend of lofty and lowbrow that captures something real and monumental.
Along with Faulkner's standing as a "prestige" author at Random House, he was also known as an outsider, particularly during his years working on mostly B-movies in Hollywood. As a Southerner, he hated the sprawl of Los Angeles; as a serious author, he felt alienated by a system that rewarded hack-work; and as a binge drinker, he found himself with the (largely unwarranted) reputation for unreliability. Faulkner's stints as a dissatisfied screenwriter inspired the Coens' caricature of him as the bibulous W.P. Mayhew in "Barton Fink", a film about the clash of earnest artistic ambitions and the vapid business of make-believe. "Bill" Mayhew is an acclaimed and dissolute novelist with harsh words for Hollywood and cynical advice for the film's hero, Barton, a blocked writer who must churn out a cheap "wrestling picture."
I've always seen the film as the Coens' way of embracing Faulkner's defiant brio, in light of offers from mainstream movie studios looking to commodify their appeal. They giddily lampoon his image as a tortured, besotted artist, even as they borrow heavily from his work. As both the taciturn creator of American masterpieces and a man who drunkenly passed out and fell off a polo horse in front of his boss at Twentieth-Century Fox, Faulkner is a perfect Coen brothers hero.
Both Faulkner and the Coen brothers understand comedy, whether dark, farcical or just plain silly, as a universal and versatile conveyor of truth. The Coens have always said that their ambition is to entertain. Despite what some see as oblique artistic feints, their movies are more "Duck Soup" than duck consommé. The Coens' Faulkner is not the avant-gardist of "The Sound and the Fury" (1929), but the avuncular social humorist of "The Hamlet" (1940).
A novel about the infestation of a small Mississippi village by the Snopes clan (an assortment of poor sharecroppers and misfits), "The Hamlet" showcases Faulkner's comic talents. It includes a town-wide infatuation with a buxom backwoods Venus, a cold-blooded murder (and nightmarish disposal of the body), a cockamamie hunt for buried treasure, and even a showdown with the Devil himself.
Sound familiar? Many of the Coen brothers' films pay homage to this book; "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", with its Depression-era Mississippi setting and stylised comic dialogue, is the most obvious example.
Faulkner sets most of the action of "The Hamlet" around a country store, the social and economic core of the small community. Much of the plot is recounted as hearsay--either told to or announced by a travelling sewing-machine agent by the name of V.K. Ratliff. Faulkner's method of stitching together the narrative emphasises that the devil is in the details--the half-truths, the misunderstandings, the character quirks and dramatic ironies. The Coens often employ a similar narration in their films, skilfully depicting hapless and doomed heroes and the seemingly inevitable train wrecks that await them.
What makes a work intrinsically Faulknerian (and so also Coen-esque) is a protagonist who breaks an unspoken, inviolable code, leading to some sort of reckoning. Reading "The Hamlet" is viscerally similar to watching a Coen brothers film in that it begins with big, light laughs, yet gradually gets darker. At some point I'm snickering more uncomfortably, but enjoying myself all the more for it.
The Coens follow Faulkner's example in their wry treatment of even the most sinister and splattered moments. (Who can forget the awkward brutality at the end of "Fargo": "I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper?") This strikes a balance between luridness and meaningful storytelling. For example, shortly after that notoriously gruesome scene in "Fargo", the Coens end on sanguine note: the final scene sees the pregnant police detective and her husband cosy in bed talking about their respective days, by the domestic glow of their television.
This quiet moment harkens back to a scene from "Light in August" (1932), Faulkner's most searing and sustained commentary on race. After 500 pages detailing the long-term effects of dysfunctional and abusive families, Faulkner imagines a night-time dialogue between a husband and his wife in bed in a teasing, post-coital mood. This last chapter works as a hopeful reminder that tenderness can endure, despite what's grim. It's this compassion for humanity, in spite of our greed and hatred, that brings us back for more.
Faulkner doesn't offer any nostrums for society's ills. Much of his work offers only the balm of laughter in the face of cruelty. It is this quality, of over-the-top characterizations and underlying kindness, of horrifying instincts and glorious moments, which the Coens have sublimated into their own brooding and zany work.
(Daniel Arizona is a writer based in New York. His last "Canon Fodder" column was about Barack Obama and James Baldwin.)