Will Self Is Wrong About the Coen Brothers

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.

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16 thoughts on “Will Self Is Wrong About the Coen Brothers”

  1. I agree with everything you said about the article, pretty bad criticism and thoroughly unpleasant to read.
    But I will say that “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” is ppot-on.
    They make enjoyable films but are massively overrated (not by themselves I must add).

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  2. i couldn’t actually finish reading the self article in the guardian. it was like reading about sarah palin. not good for my blood pressure. filled with pseudo-pithy salvos that withstand no scrutiny. but good response.

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  3. I hate everything Will Self is saying here except the inception line. I wish somebody had said that in another context so that I could run around quoting it all day.

    For me the biggest problem with the whole thing is that other than briefly mentioning the Jesse James movie he doesn’t mention at all what he does think is good film. So by only making negative comments about films he doesn’t like he prevents himself from being vulnerable to attack. I’d like to know what Will Self’s favorite films are so that i can write a stupid essay making fun of them and send it to him.

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    1. Yeah, it’s a hack job.

      I think it’s funny he mentions Jesse James — I guess to provide a “better than True Grit” example — when that movie is a very fine imitation of Malick, who probably *is* the great American auteur. Only, I think Self knows nothing about America, otherwise, he would realize that the Coens’ films are finely tuned evocations of place, and not grotesque hyperboles.

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      1. I’m sorry, but there’s no way Fargo is not a ‘grotesque hyperbole’–there is such a thing as a Minnesota accent, but that movie presents a ludicrously hypertrophied, vaguely cartoonish take on that–one that bears, might I add, no resemblance to reality. The way it ends, the mistaken identities along the way–it’s an exaggeration of several different types of comedy which, taken to their extreme, really just end up being distasteful and offputting.

        As for Terrence Malick being the great American auteur, if he had stopped making movies after Days of Heaven I might agree with you, but instead we’ve gotten the bloated, clichéd war epic of Thin Red Line and the frankly embarrassing New World. Tree of Life doesn’t appear likely to redeem that rotten streak. If there’s a great American auteur still living, it’s without doubt David Lynch.

        Self’s essay makes me blush it’s so shamelessly stupid and shallow. But this criticism of yours will from time to time lapse into a kind of transparently resentful, blissfully anti-intellectual tirade about all those ‘self-satisfied snob[s]’ out there, damn it! But hey, it was funny to read.

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        1. I don’t see anything “blissfully anti-intellectual” about what I’ve written: my attack is on those (like Self) who do not see that they do not see their own blindnesses. Critics like Self (James Wood also comes to mind) rest all of their claims on a supposed intellectual/aesthetic superiority. I have no problem with the idea of a critic as a tastemaker or gatekeeper, but I generally think that role should be to enlarge appreciation. The internet is rife with would-be critics who love to point out that the emperor has no clothes. That may be a fine starting place for a critique, but usually ends up with the writer simply pissing all over peoples’ taste and intelligence. There’s nothing intellectual at all to that.

          Not sure what elements of the frankly brilliant The New World are embarrassing, and I think it’s bizarre to call a film like The Thin Red Line “clichéd,” but, sure, Lynch can be the great living American auteur if you wish (I don’t see the need to name one, in all honesty, but Lynch is great, even if he made a few mediocre films).

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  4. I’m certainly glad someone has voiced their perfectly understandable distaste at Self’s ridiculous article. Nothing wrong with rubbishing any film per se (though why bother?) but the sheer sanctimonious, pompous, dismissive, pre-emptively wrongheaded nature of Will Self’s gubbins piece was both offensive and revealing: he clearly hasn’t bothered to watch some of these films. It must’ve been a ‘to-order’ piece: ‘Will, 500 sheets for a spot of provocative iconoclasm?’ His excuses-for-discursive-solipsism ‘psychogeography’ books aren’t selling, so perhaps he’s a bit tetchy. Incidentally, he seems, at one point, to dismiss Brad Pitt, then bigs up Jesse James. Clearly, the ‘no good’ Pitt didn’t detract from the film, or perhaps he hasn’t actually seen it and needed a handy comparison to rubbish True Grit with?

    I agree about James Wood also.

    On Malick, I thought The Thin Red Line was superb, and I know it’s there to be shot at with the voiceover et al. It was a risky move guaranteed to draw fire, but it’s a rare old thing. The New World, less succesful for me, has many great things about it. And I have to agree with ‘P’ on Lynch.

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    1. I’m reminded of a review of Bladerunner by a TV critic that said it was about “Androids” and gave it 2 stars. How can anyone claim to have an upper ground on something they clearly haven’t watched.

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  5. The article is poorly written, but the Coens are massively overrated and epitomize the worst of postmodernism. Their films are a bunch of glib, wannabe-hip, violent, cool-posturing, irony infused, self-reflexive, meta-generic, designer nihilism. They’re Tarantino with 20 more IQ points.

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    1. The fact that something might be overrated is not the same thing as that thing being bad.

      You seem to set up a rubric, CoenHater, that resists any common postmodern trope, and then, without any specific evidence, suggest that the Coens are failed filmmakers because they employ these postmodern tropes (e.g. irony, self-reflexivity, etc.). This is like saying the Coens make bad movies because they make the kind of movies that I don’t like: circular or tautological reasoning based on ultimately shallow aesthetic claims, or at least ones unsubstantiated in your comment.

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  6. Preferences are perhaps interesting asides, but the Coens simply make good films, overall. That’s it. If I find Last Year At Marienbad pretentious, it may well be that I’m right, but it does not reduce the film in the sense of its exquisite composition. Whatever I think of it, it is not a bad film, ditto The Searchers, Casablanca and countless others. True Grit is far from a bad film, fact. It’s just how it is.

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  7. There is something delicious that the man’s own surname represents his narcissism. Self is a bright guy for sure, the problem is he knows and revels in it. Defining such gradations as middlebrow and upper-middlebrow (nobody would create such gradations unless they believed themselves in at least middle or upper upperbrow) is a definite tell. I find it ironic (grin) that the guy defines at which level of meta you stop as your grade. Irony is nothing but an in-joke, it doesn’t by itself confer any measure of intelligence just how well read you are on any given subject (which with the Internet is easy). As a rule I don’t like private jokes but on the Guardian CIF forum I once replied to a Guardian contributor with an in joke that she would get, and maybe about 5 people reading that article. It was a veiled reference to an invite only tech mailing list I’m on that she’s a member on. It was our secret handshake. That doesn’t make me in the least bit smart, it was just a dumb in-joke.

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  8. Expanding on the point of not watching a film you are critiquing my girlfriend once set fire to our wastebin (cigarette that wasn’t out). I was dozing and when she came into the room screaming that it was on fire my reflex was to look at the flames and rather than do anything shout “well I didn’t do it!”. That seems to be the same logic employed by Self and the lazy guy who reviewed Blade Runner, that they are somehow spared of their duties of you know, bothering to review a film, on the basis that they were asleep while it was running.

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  9. Not a huge fan of the Guardian, but I think that quote “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,” is disturbingly accurate of most people and how they describe mediocre films with hyperbolic reviews. A lot of casual (not to say stupid) film goers call a film a “masterpiece” or “genius” if they really felt impressed, regardless if it was derivative or badly written in comparison to other better movies. Most casual film-goers probably haven’t seen that many movies, hence the fact IMDb users think The Dark Knight and Shawshank Redemption are two of the top 5 movies ever made. I’m guessing about 1% of the people who saw Brazil or 12 Monkeys realize Gilliam adapted them from much smarter and innovative source films/books. That is also something that should make a difference but most people don’t give a shit about.

    To go back to Inception, the film was a flashy, hollow movie that thinks confusing the audience is the same as being profound in the same manner Self notes the Coens think obscure and academic references, ominous minimalism, gritty and “serious” subject matter, and deadpan humor is the same thing as being “smart.” Every time I try and watch a Coen Bros’ movie (or a Nolan film for that matter) I am always busy trying to figure out what the hell is going on and what they are trying to say and then it all fades away immediately after I stop watching. Thought provoking films should linger.

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  10. Lebowski, for a while, was my favourite film. Then I watched ‘A Serious Man’ for the second time, and it resonated way more than the first time. Will Self (& his wife for that matter), are f**king amateurs. Llewyn Davis is the only film that I’ve ever gone twice to the cinema to see. These two films have pushed their way up into my top 5 of all film, and Lebowski had slipped down the ratings.

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