31 December 2009

Coens in the classroom

Best wishes for a fruitful and rewarding New Year 2010!

A few weeks ago, I read Cathleen Falsani's The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, an enjoyable summary of theological themes in the Coen Brothers' films.

Falsani describes her book's mission this way:
Each of their fourteen feature-length films is marked by theological, philosophical, and mythological touchstones that enrich even the slapstickiest moments. Each film probes confounding ethical and spiritual quandaries, giving us a tour of nuanced moral universes that may be individual (in the case of Barton Fink), geographic (as in Fargo) or historic (such as the Depression era of O Brother, Where Art Thou?).

It would be dishonest to try to wrestle the Coen brothers' films into a God-shaped box--or wood chipper, for that matter--and that is not my intention. I do, however, take seriously their invitation to wrestle with important spiritual and moral questions. It is in that dialogical spirit that I want to uncover what the overarching spiritual messages of their films--their "gospel," if you will, --might be. While it is clear that the Coens are artists, not preachers, I agree wholeheartedly with one astute critic [Matt Zoller Seitz] who calls them "secular theologians" whose body of work is "one of the most sneakily moralistic in recent American cinema."
I was especially interested in what Falsani had to say about O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a film I have just used for a second year in my classes. I showed it in two parts--last week and this week--and, once again, students seemed to give it a warm welcome. (If you don't know the film, wikipedia's summary might be useful.)

For both conversational English and American studies, the film has many useful features--lots of lively dialogue in regional, informal English, as well as a huge supply of historical allusions of variable accuracy and some amazing music. In class, we worked through many of these variations and allusions with the help of a study sheet I put together based on the film's script.

Falsani sums up the theological content of the film as "...grace--that God extends unmerited goodwill to all of creation, including those humans who don't even recognize God's very existence. Intellect can get in the way of seeing God clearly, as is the case with Everett [Ulysses Everett McGill, George Clooney's character], who protests having any real faith except for when he's most desperate (and his true heart is revealed)."

The film presented me with some dilemmas, which I openly shared with the students. Would the Coens' affectionately humorous depiction of depression-era Mississippi be received in the allegorical spirit it was made, or would it reinforce negative stereotypes of Americans or southerners? I had the same worry about the old-timey and roots music, the river baptism scene, and the Bible salesman. ("What do I sell? The truth, every blessed word of it, from Genesee down to Revelations .... Yes, the Word of God, which, let me say, there's damn good money in during these days of woe and want.") I talked with them about what the Protestantism of the rural South might look like in a Russian Orthodox context, and how folk religion and heart religion are not always the same thing--but neither are they always distinct. The overlap of the two (symbolized for me by Delmar's conversion) is worthy of respect regardless of the cultural dressing. I was greatly reassured by students' clear ability to distinguish between reality, parody, and allegory, on the one hand, and unhelpful stereotypes on the other.

The Ku Klux Klan rally in the film figured in my study sheet, and drew unexpected attention from the students. In the film, the rally leader exhorts the crowd to protect "our heritage" (and "our ladies") as they get ready to lynch Chris Thomas King's character, blues guitarist Tommy Johnson. Students wanted to know whether the Klan still exists, and we even touched on the question of whether there were analogous groups in Russia. It was a sobering discussion.

Afterwards, one student said to me, "I've added this film to my favorites." Another said that she gets more from it every time she sees it. (The film can be seen on a popular Web site here.) Others have sent me links to clips and music from the film.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is probably my favorite film from the last ten years. I'm delighted to have these chances to present it to a new audience.

Righteous links:

A couple of weeks ago, I commented on Obama's Nobel lecture. Lynn Gazis-Sax provides a thoughtful reflection on the nonviolence of "primitive Christianity" (was our loss of innocence all Constantine's fault?), the case for just war, and Christian nonviolence today.

Permanent war watch: "Why war will take no holiday in 2010."

"Ugandan bishop pleads with American Christians on anti-homosexuality bill." Interesting: the bishop can pronounce on Western society having lost its moral fiber, but we aren't supposed to comment on the morality of this bill.

Dessert from the O Brother era....

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