Will Self‘s recent hatchet job on the Coen brothers for The Guardian is the kind of calculated contrarianism that poses for meaningful criticism far too often on the internet. Let me offer his smarmy lede–
Sometimes it occurs to me that the job of a serious cultural critic mostly consists in telling the generality of people that their opinions – on films, on books, on all manner of widgets, gadgets and even the latest electronic fidgets – simply aren’t up to scratch. It’s a dirty, thankless task, but someone has to do it; someone has to point out that, no, Inception wasn’t the last word in sci-fi meta-sophistication, but rather a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent film is like. And by the same token, as the Coen brothers’ True Grit comes galloping into our multiplexes surrounded by dust clouds of Stateside approbation, someone has to take a bead on the whole sweep of their careers, squint, and then if not exactly shoot them down, at any rate cold-cock the notion that the Coens are the great American auteurs of their generation, when, sadly, they are only a moderately clever person’s idea of what great American auteurs might be like.
I’ll set aside for a moment puzzling out whether Self sees himself as a serious cultural critic or a critic of serious culture (whatever that means) — there are too many inaccuracies, unsupported judgments, and logical fallacies in his essay to waste time with this detail for the moment. Let’s start with his premise that the Coens “are only a moderately clever person’s idea of what great American auteurs might be like.” Self links this premise to Inception for some reason, perhaps, I imagine, to trot out his zinger that Nolan’s blockbuster is “a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent film is like.” This is a clever bit of sophistry that ultimately means nothing, an argument rooted in arrogance alone. Imagine a stupid person. Now, ask this imaginary stupid person what his or her idea of “great literature” is. He or she may reply “Stephen King” or he or she may just as easily reply “Shakespeare.” The perceived intelligence of the person has absolutely nothing to do with the aesthetic merit of the literary work he or she ultimately names. I might just as easily suggest that Will Self is a self-satisfied snob’s idea of a clever critic. But what would that actually say about Self’s brand of criticism? Nothing. Self’s claim about the Coens here (and Inception) is simply an ad hominem attack that relies on a perceived (yet never justified) superiority of aesthetic sensibility over the middlebrow masses.
Self tries to take on the Coens’ oeuvre, yet couldn’t even stay awake during Fargo—
Fargo, I’ve always fallen asleep in – all that snow, and Frances McDormand’s mien of winsome determination, why, it’s enough to make anyone nod-off. But now I realise that my failure to stay awake during a film many consider to be among the Coens’ finest, was probably telling me something.
So the film fails the critic, who cannot bother to account for it (Self never even mentions Miller’s Crossing, for the record). Must be all that snow. Even worse, the film doesn’t do what Self wishes for it to do–
Fargo is a film that seems to be a genre noir picture, while never quite committing itself. This capacity the Coens have had to flirt with genre rather than ever wholly embracing it is something that – until someone like me comes along to tell you otherwise – people find particularly engaging.
The arrogance of this line is stunning. Who does Self think “someone like me” might be? Does he seriously see himself as some kind of aesthetic revelator? Self ends by writing that,
the Coens’ central problem [is] their reflexivity as directors, making films of films rather than films tout court. Still, in our benighted age, when films about amusement park rides and electronic fidgets scoop the honours, perhaps Hollywood redux is the best we can hope for.
I still don’t really understand Self’s argument. He seems to think that the Coens make decent Hollywood films, but they don’t make art. He’s upset because he thinks people are falling for two guys who are merely ironizing classic Hollywood structures. And yet he utterly fails to engage those structures, to actually analyze the Coens’ films in any meaningful way. Here’s a sample of Self’s facile criticism–
With O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) you even get another overlay: this isn’t just a retro-style depression-era chain-gang jailbreak movie, but a retelling of the Odyssey to boot. It’s James Joyce with a catchy country soundtrack instead of all that brain-ache wordplay.
How fucking glib is that? O Brother is a musical where every single song intrinsically connects to the particular scene in which it appears. It’s not merely a retelling of the Odyssey, but also an allusive reworking of much of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. At its core, it’s a film about the rise of modernism and the changing cultural scope of the South. And, for what it’s worth, it’s full of brainy wordplay.
O Brother also reworks a 1941 Preston Sturges film called Sullivan’s Travels. This film is a film about a film-maker — this is exactly the kind of ironic self-reflexivity that bothers Self for reasons he fails to account for beyond the notion that such self-reflexivity leads to the dangers of people who think that they are smart but who are really not smart believing that they are seeing a smart film — hang on, that was a long clause, sorry; okay, Sullivan’s Travels is a film about a film-maker who wants to make a film of social commentary, a film of meaningful art, a film he will call O Brother, Where Art Thou? As the director makes his way through the mean mean world, he comes to realize that the average person — the middlebrow viewers that Self holds so much contempt for — would really rather have their pains relieved in some way than experience them again through an art film.
But I get the feeling that Self has little capacity for an emotional response to film — he’s likely far too concerned that the film is trying to like, trick him or something. (It is. That’s the job of all storytelling). And yes, I haven’t bothered to say why the Coens’ films are great, are marvelous, are fantastic films, but this rant has already grown too long, and besides, I think that all one has to do is watch them. (And if you don’t like them, that’s fine. Doesn’t make you “stupid” or “middlebrow”). Finally — and this is just pure meanness — Will Self’s novel Great Apes was so singularly gross, gnarly, and devoid of meaningful insight that it ensured I would never read another word of his literature. His essay on the Coens ensures that I’ll ignore his criticism as well.