Schizophrenia and postmodernism: Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and "The Coen Brothers".
H. I. McDunnough, Raising Arizona
"I'll show you the life of the mind!"
Charlie Meadows, Barton Fink
Consider the following passage, excerpted from the opening pages of a recent biography:
at that moment, standing there, an awful chill went through me and the city seemed suddenly transformed. I was sure that at that very moment bizarre and terrible things were happening in all the city's apartments and seedy hotels and back alleys--that crazed writers were typing furiously, insanely intense grins on their faces; that serial killers were decapitating their victims; that beds were turning into rivers of blood. (viii)
To those of us so unassumingly ensconced in the rational reality we consider sanity, this passage may seem delusional, hallucinatory, paranoiac, may suggest a move away or across from, over into, a world of insanity, a world other than that we would call our own. Clinically, its author's "insanity" broadly suggests a state of schizophrenia, a disorder whose variations and mutations seem--even from a conservative standpoint--markedly self-referential, for the writer could conceivably be diagnosed anywhere along a subtly differentiated continuum of schizophrenia and schizophrenia-like disorders, could be suffering from catatonic, hebephrenic, paranoid, residual, simple, or undifferentiated schizophrenia, from schizoaffective disorder, schizoid personality, schizophreniform disorder, even post-schizophrenic depression. I would not pretend to imply, though, that the author truly is schizophrenic--or, at least, is any more truly schizophrenic than I am. I will admit, though, that we both exhibit symptoms of the same "disorder." The experience described above--that of Josh Levine, author of The Coen Brothers: The Story of Two American Filmmakers--is similar to the experience I too had after I first saw the Coens' Barton Fink.
In a passage preceding that quoted above, Levine characterizes his early thoughts about the film as "tempestuous." He writes that "I remember being both strangely exhilarated and angered by it, and having a desperate need to talk about" it. After the passage quoted above, he continues,
It was as if the whole city had suddenly turned into the dreary and menacing Hotel Earle of the film. Ah, that Coen brothers feeling. I guess this is my own way of saying that my own feelings about the films of the Coen brothers are complicated, a messy combination of intellectual and emotional responses that don't easily resolve themselves into a simple statement. (vii-viii)
In this account, which approximates the momentary infinitude of experiencing a Coen brothers film, Levine exhibits a conscious lack of understanding of what he had seen--and yet, at the same time, he feels compelled to understand it. I have found this same "messy combination" the naked consensus of many a viewer of Coen brothers films. Viewers walk out after--sometimes during--one of their films with the itch to analyze and discuss what they have seen but, inevitably, quickly realize that the film has never walked out on them. It continues to haunt them, sometimes violently, sometimes silently, sometimes hilariously, but always profoundly. Criticism on the subject often attributes such reactions to the Coens' confusing conflation of genres, even to their steadfast refusal to take responsibility for whatever didactic message they might put forth, but I would argue that this "messy combination," this love/hate relationship that remains one of the few consistent characteristics of Coen brothers viewing, is to be found between the lines of Levine's account above: in nothing more, nothing less, than schizophrenia.
As of this writing, the Coen brothers have written, directed, and produced twelve original feature films, each of which, to a greater or lesser degree, exhibits symptoms of schizophrenia. They do not do so as, for example, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) or Nuts (1987) does, but instead simulate symptoms of schizophrenia in their viewers. In other words, they are not about schizophrenia as much as they are agents of schizophrenia. Some readers, of course, may think of more potentially rewarding works by which we might examine this subject: Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (1995), David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001), and David Fincher's Fight Club (1999) would all perhaps come to mind before, say, Fargo or The Man Who Wasn't There. But what I aim to achieve here is more than just a modernist structuralization vis-a-vis Coen brothers films. As the last few decades have seen a growing awareness of schizophrenia as a modality of the postmodern, in the spirit of contemporary "schizoanalysis"--to borrow a term from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari--I aim to claim a space for the postmodern in film and, more precisely, claim a place for the Coen brothers in it, a place where postmodernism is not a method but a modality of thinking, always already a modality of being. The most potent schizophrenic agents in the Coen brothers' oeuvre, Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, present a particularly "messy combination" of moments for their audience and pose grave difficulties for anyone attempting a cohesive, "sane" reading of either. Equally important in these films, however, is the way that, despite their "messy" difficulties, each is received as a competent, even virtuoso whole, complete with its own intrinsic and affective stabilities. Even in their respective disunity, both Raising Arizona and Barton Fink somehow continue to be perceived as unified wholes.
In positing the Coen brothers as postmodernists, I invoke Frederic Jameson's definition of schizophrenia. Jameson, in Postmodernism: or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, draws upon Jacques Lacan in using the term not so much as a clinical diagnosis but as a "suggestive aesthetic model." Schizophrenia is "a breakdown in the signifying chain, that is, the interlocking syntagmatic series of signifiers which constitutes an utterance or a meaning" (26). In film theory, this "breakdown" occurs within the semiotics of the cinematographic image--editing and depth of field--splitting the viewer between two incommensurable narratives. The semiotic "breakdown," however, is but half of the bifurcated schizophrenia that results. Its complement is phenomenological, a contention Jameson illustrates by way of Bob Perelman's poem "China": though literally what Jameson would call "a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers" (26), it somehow hangs together. Such is also the case with the Coen brothers and, of course, their films. Their ontology may purport a basis in the logical synthesis of discrete syntagmatic components, but it emerges instead from the audience's phenomenological encounter with components presented in time and space.
This essay, then, is a reading of three films--Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and "the Coen brothers'--that places emphasis upon the schizophrenic dynamics in each, those moments when, despite the chain of signification's failure to render a unified reading, the audience nonetheless "reads" the respective film. In order to facilitate such a reading, however, one must look beyond traditional models of film viewing to what Vivian Sobchack calls "semiotic phenomenology," a fluctuating dynamic that functions in and around division and permits the notion of one-twoness. I further contend that the third film at issue--"the Coen brothers'--provides a means by which we might introduce a truly postmodern filmmaking, a process by which films are not circumscribed to the modernist structures screened in movieplexes but penetrate to the unassuming domain of "real life." The Coen brothers, according to this view, are postmodern filmmakers, "the Coen brothers" a postmodern film.
Each viewer constructs a film's reality by perceiving discrete cinematographic images and mentally positing them onto a narrative commensurate with that of his or her particular extracinematic reality. Andre Bazin argues that the process of film viewing is thus a continuous oscillation between the synthesis of discrete images in time (editing) and the analysis of discrete images in space (depth of field). Bazin's conception of the former follows Vsevolod Pudovkin, for whom film editing unifies a series of shots in time into a single, cohesive narrative "by guiding the attention of the spectator now to one, now to the other separate element" (10). But Bazin also contends that, within the frame of any edited shot, somewhere amidst its depth of field, the viewer also finds elements whose spatial relationships to one another allow him or her to further infer a cohesive narrative (51). Through this matrix of time and space, the viewer positions the world of the film within his or her own world--a modality that forces filmmakers to adhere, more often than not, to the time/space unity. But just as filmmakers do so to instill a sense of cohesive reality, they may also do the opposite to disrupt that same sense.
One form of disruption common to Coen brothers films is what I'll call the retrospective dream effect (RDE), by way of which the Coens abruptly shuttle viewers between reality and unreality, and as early as their first feature. Toward the end of Blood Simple, Abby lies down to sleep after trying to comprehend the bizarre scene she had witnessed in the back room of her husband's bar. We then see her wake up, walk into the bathroom, and wash her face. Suddenly, she hears breaking glass and footsteps out in the main room. When she opens the door to uncover the cause and sees her husband, Julian Marty, sitting on the bed, we are even more shocked than she, for we know--she doesn't--that her boyfriend Ray has just buried Marty alive. They nonetheless exchange a few awkward I-love-yous, and just after Marty vomits gallons of blood, the film abruptly cuts to a shot of a sweating Abby waking up in her bed. In Pudovkinian fashion, we quickly realize that the sequence we had thought real was in fact only a dream. Until the moment Abby awakens, though, we have no reason to doubt that what we had been watching was in any way less real than the rest of the film, and the relational material within each frame suggests the same veridicality. Only upon seeing Abby startle herself awake does the viewer synthesize--via conditioned application of the time/space unity--the preceding sequence and the one immediately following, recognizing the former as a dream. Thus do the Coens, by way of the RDE, momentarily disrupt the reality of the film.
In order for the RDE to achieve its desired result, filmmakers have to rely upon a seemingly implicit epistemology. The Coen brothers presume that, once viewers see Abby suddenly sweaty and awake in her bed, they will almost immediately infer that she has been asleep and dreaming. There are, however, alternative readings of this shot. Does the Abby we see in bed have to have dreamed the sequence featuring Marty immediately before she awakened? Is it not possible that the sequence is completely unrelated to the shot that so abruptly ends it? The time/space unity dictates that the two relate, but the time/space unity is not by any means dogmatic. If, moreover, we posit that the Marty sequence and the shot of Abby's awakening are not related vis-a-vis the RDE, the Marty sequence becomes aberrational and problematizes our attempts to coherently read the rest of the film. Indeed, without the RDE, one would be hard-pressed to reconcile this sequence with the rest of Blood Simple. But what would happen if a filmmaker created a sequence to imply the RDE but instead actuated a different effect, a "dream within a dream effect"? Or what if a filmmaker created a sequence intended to represent a dream but never showed the dreamer awakening, as if to imply that the dreamer woke up only at, or even after, the end of the film? How then would the viewer know that the dream sequence in question was only that? In short, by violating the viewer's trust in the RDE, the filmmaker can subvert a bedrock film semiotic almost always taken for granted. Such subversion would be counterproductive if the filmmaker wanted the viewer to formulate a coherent reading of the film, but if the filmmaker were more interested in the viewer's affective rather than intellectual engagement, it would perfectly suit the purpose. This kind of epistemological chicanery is exactly what is at play in both Raising Arizona and Barton Fink. In both films, the Coens employ a spatiotemporal matrix to create not coherence but incoherence, to produce in the mind of the viewer a state of schizophrenia that ultimately frustrates a single, unified reading of either.
As Joel Coen describes him, Raising Arizona's H. I. McDonnough "is caught in an internal struggle. He is being torn in two directions. On the one side is his desire to settle down and have a family. On the other side is his inclination to respond to the call of the wild" (Levine 47). His story plays out as follows: after the "reformed" petty felon marries Ed, "an officer of the law twice decorated," and they learn that her "insides" are "a rocky place, where [his] seed could find no purchase," they kidnap one of the infant quintuplets recently born to Nathan Arizona, an unpainted furniture baron, and his wife. Immediately afterwards, Gale and Evelle, two of H. I.'s former cellmates, Gale and Evelle Snoats, break out of jail to hide out with H. I. and his new family. That same night, H. I. dreams of The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, a dark man "with all the powers of Hell at his command." This biker, Leonard Smalls, is a bounty hunter who soon picks up the trail of the kidnapped Arizona baby. Gale and Evelle eventually learn that H. I.'s baby is actually Nathan Arizona's and kidnap the toddler in hopes of claiming the reward. They bumblingly leave him at the scene of a bank heist, however, and Leonard Smalls arrives to rescue him just before H. I. and Ed arrive to do the same. Smalls thrashes H. I., Ed grabs the baby, and H. I. blows up the biker. In the end, however, finding themselves no more fit than his other temporary "parents" to raise the baby, H. I. and Ed quietly return him to the Arizona home.
Raising Arizona is most often designated a screwball comedy, a farce, and/or a black comedy, and analysis of it generally focuses on its more comedic aspects. Beyond its hick wit, however, lies the deeply psychological tale of a man battling his own divided soul. Throughout the film, H. I. struggles to reconcile his desire to be the ideal father with the outlaw impulse he cannot fully deny, an impulse either consciously or unconsciously reified in the form of Leonard Smalls. Such a reading, though not in any way heretical, does pose problems for a semiotic mapping of the film--which could explain why its psychological content is so routinely ignored or, at best, only cursorily noted. In The Coen Brothers, for instance, Ronald Bergan alludes to the schism in H. I.'s psyche and elaborates at least momentarily upon its crucial dynamics.
There is a strong case to be made for Leonard Smalls being a product of Hi's imagination. When Gale and Evelle, the two dim-witted, giggling brothers, escape from prison, they emerge like some primordial creatures through the mud as thunder and lightning rages. They, too, have come to ruin Hi's life. Is it all a dream that Hi is having in his prison cell? If so, they are dreams within dreams. There is a clue: when Hi, who is the T of the film, is blissfully contemplating starting a family with Ed, he says, 'This whole dream, was it wishful thinking? Was I just fleein' reality, like I know I'm liable to do?' (109).
There is, in fact, more than just a clue. H. I. and Smalls both have matching Thrush Muffler tattoos; peculiarly, a pair of bronzed baby shoes dangles from Smalls's gun belt; H. I. himself says, "I didn't know where he came from or why. I didn't know if he was dream or vision. But I feared that I myself had unleashed him"; also, the shot of Smalls dragging H. I. out from under a parked truck mirrors an earlier shot of H. I. dragging a baby out from under the quints' crib. Unless we read Smalls as a physical manifestation of H. I.'s outlaw psyche, these "clues" become enigmatic; in light of other cinematographic "clues" in the film, they become irreconcilable--outside of a schizophrenic modality, that is.
Viewers of Blood Simple can easily reconcile the incongruence between the scene of Marty's apparent return from the grave and the reality of the rest of the film, since nothing contradicts the idea that the sequence is, in fact, a dream. Not so with Raising Arizona. As Bergan mentioned above, the bulk of the narrative could easily derive from a dream H. I. begins in prison. But if that is in fact the case, where is the shot in which he wakes up? And, even if such a shot would not be mandatory to establish an RDE, why would this dream, some fifteen minutes into the narrative and after H. I.'s repeated prison stints, be interrupted by the opening credits? And, then, as Bergan asks, wouldn't H. I.'s final dream be a dream within a dream? If so, then orienting a time/space unity becomes increasingly difficult, perhaps even impossible.
One might conceivably claim that H. I.'s first dream after the opening credits, the dream in which he envisions Smalls, could be the other half of the dream dialectic. But Smalls interacts with characters other than H. I. He visits Nathan Arizona to challenge his idea of a "fair price" for a "healthy white baby." Also, near the end of the film, both H. I. and Ed confront him: Ed asks, "What is he?" and H. I. responds, "Do you see him too?" Does this exchange imply that Smalls also represents the "outlaw" in Ed? If so, how can he be the physical manifestation of two independent psyches? And even if Smalls's encounters with Arizona, H. I., and Ed are all just products of H. I.'s imagination, this dream, a dream within a dream, still confounds spatiotemporal reality. Even arriving at any cohesive reading of Raising Arizona is problematic, it seems, for to circumvent any aspect of a time/space unity is to render useless the unity as a whole, is to negate its validity as a structural tool.
A traditional spatiotemporal matrix, in short, is too narrowly constructed to engage Raising Arizona and the schizophrenia it induces, schizophrenia by which time and space become disjointed from the viewer's conception of their real-world counterparts. Barton Fink creates a similar reaction, again rendering an "either/or" analysis flawed, disjointed, schizophrenic. Schizophrenia, in fact, generates not only the structure but, in large part, the very content of the film. To adopt Evelyne Keitel's phraseology, Barton Fink is therefore a "psychopathography"--a text about a mental disorder that simulates the symptoms of that disorder in its audience (6). Significantly, the film's dialogue is riddled with references to pathological heads and minds. John Turturro, who portrays the eponymous Fink, has even commented that "The film is all about heads" (Bergan 33). Indeed, the film as a whole seems bent on the semantic and semiotic slippage between head/"head" and mind/"mind." And, initially at least, perhaps the most accessible reading of it has it that Barton is losing, or has in fact lost, his mind; that the Hotel Earle, Barton's home while working in Hollywood, is his inner Hell; and that Charlie Meadows (a.k.a. Karl "Madman" Mundt), Barton's "common man" neighbor, is a physical manifestation of Barton's downward-spiraling psychological state.
Barton Fink begins innocuously enough, is even relatively humorous early on. As it unfolds, though, the viewer travels deeper and deeper into a sweltering schizophrenic storm: "Much of [Barton Fink's] highly expressive, artfully stylized audiovisual text," Carolyn R. Russell writes, is Barton's "interior subjective state expelled outward--immanent wakeful dream made corporeal" (89). Though one would be hard-pressed to locate a definite moment when the narrative shifts from "sane" to "insane," there are several strong candidates: 1) the cut between Barton's agreeing to go to Hollywood and the wave's crashing against a boulder on the California coastline; 2) the cut between Barton's lying in bed with Audrey Taylor, the secretary he asks to help him write his screenplay, and his waking up the next morning to find her murdered; or 3) the cut between Barton's fainting after discovering his bloodied lover and Charlie's slapping him conscious. And these are only a few of the moments that intimate a possible schism in this ostensibly unified narrative. Each is also a possible RDE--but one without a wake-up scene--that may help guide the viewer through the narrative to a sense of rational reality. What each transition fails to suggest, though, is how the viewer is to read the final scene, that in which, after being fired from his screenwriting job, Barton wanders out to the beach and sees a beautiful girl sitting on the sand. The scene is familiar to him, of course, for he had spent much of his time in the Hotel Earle staring at a representation of it, framed on the wall above his typewriter. If any part of the movie is a dream, or at least a hallucination, this scene would surely be it. The brilliant lighting and relaxed pacing of this "strange but overly neat conclusion" (Bergan 141) are in such stark contrast to the rest of the film that we should perhaps even think of it as Barton's escape, at last, from the nightmare he has been living thus far.
Although this "light," read against the rest of the film's "dark," may very well imply that the final scene represents such a breakthrough, the dialogue in the opening scene suggests much the opposite. The film begins backstage at the opening night of Barton's Broadway play, Bare Ruined Choirs: Triumph of the Common Man. As we watch Barton watch the show from the wings, we hear a few of its final lines of dialogue:
Actor: I'm blowin' out of here, blowin' for good. I'm kissin' it all goodbye, these four stinkin' walls, the six flights up, the el that roars by at three a.m. like a cast-iron wind. Kiss 'em goodbye for me, Maury! I'll miss 'em--like hell I will!
Actress: Dreaming again!
Actor: Not this time, Lil! I'm awake now, awake for the first time in years. Uncle Dave said it: Daylight is a dream if you've lived with your eyes closed. Well, my eyes are open now!
Except for the fact that Hollywood doesn't have an el-train, the Actor's description of his apartment--read by Turturro himself, moreover--may as well be a description of Barton's room at the Earle. And by offering us a reading of the concluding scene itself, the Actor's next lines describe Barton's escape. He lives his life in the dark. He claims to speak for the common man but is too self-involved to listen to him, later made flesh by Charlie Meadows. He rudely ignores Charlie's humble conversations, and it is not until "Madman" Mundt opens fire in the blazing hallway of the Earle, forcing him to see "the life of the mind," that Barton finally apologizes. With his eyes now open, he is ready to walk out of the hotel and into his dream. The semiotics of the film thus renders this scene, with Barton and the girl on the beach, both dream and reality. In Barton Fink, as in Raising Arizona, the viewer isn't sure what to think, how to read the film, how to distinguish between real and unreal. Viewers thus find themselves schizophrenically split between realities, but also, in a Jamesonian way, affectively unified within their own bodies--just like clinical schizophrenics.
Logical and semiotic incoherence is therefore a fundamental dynamic of the Coen brothers film. It is dynamic rather than symptomatic because, although the Coens don't necessarily adhere to a traditional film semiotic of time/space unity, their efforts to increase their audience's phenomenological engagement with the film rely upon viewers' conditioned attempts to orient themselves by way of that same unity. In the words of Georg Seesslen, the Coens use "irrational perceptions, which go against the conventions of cinematic narrative," as well as "minor violations of the Aristotelian logic of the narrative unit," to produce a "black transcendence" (Korte 238-39). Seesslen suggests that, although the more or less discrete cinematographic elements that constitute a Coen brothers film are ultimately irreconcilable, they are also at the same time somehow reconcilable. This state, in short, is the very essence of schizophrenia--a bifurcated consciousness somehow embodied in only one reality. Raising Arizona and Barton Fink are logically incoherent, yet they also embody a thick affective coherence, part and parcel of their schizophrenic form--body is mind is body, in other words. During the last few decades, moreover, this movement between mind and body in literary praxis has been the subject of much post-structural inquiry, some of the most notable of which, at least as regards film theory, is the work of Vivian Sobchack. Sobchack may not speak to schizophrenia per se, but she has produced a useful model--which she refers to as semiotic phenomenology--by which we might examine schizophrenic film.
In "Phenomenology and the Film Experience," Sobchack enunciates the essential indivisibility between a film and its viewer. While semiotics requires a separation of subject and object, phenomenology assumes an haptic space, "haptic" being more than just tactile, for, as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari specify, the eye, not limited to visual sensory perception alone, can also touch and be touched (492). In this sense, what Sobchack suggests is that, in a world of "carnal density'--to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Crary--there is an undeniable materialism that seems to preclude any Cartesian duality between the mind and body. As she explains it, "the reversibility of perception and expression is neither instantiated as a thought nor synthesized from discrete and separate acts of consciousness. It is given with existence, in the simultaneity of subjective embodiment and objective enworldedness" (37). On the other hand, Sobchack also admits that there is indeed a language of signification, and, therefore, of thought; she posits that, prior to the negotiation of signs, something more carnal occurs:
Before the ascriptions, differences, and systems of exchange articulated in and by what we call 'natural language' (the discrete instrumentality and systematic objectification of experience abstracted from experience for general use), we are always first immersed in the more primordial language of embodied existence. (43)
Sobchack thus admits both sides of the mind/body debate, even admits them both to a field of continual negotiation. She suggests that, before we can conceive conceptually, before we can striate, as semiotic theory requires, we must perceive phenomenologically. But she also suggests that the semiotic process of conception is itself a phenomenological process, one always becoming something else, producing an ever-newer concept--is, in other words, a never-ending process of conceiving. Semiotic phenomenology, then, is the blurring of distinctions between mind and body, between inner and outer. Raising Arizona and Barton Fink not only adeptly confound the complex system of time/space matrices, therefore, but represent the very undifferentiated affection of being.
Joel Coen once indicated in an interview that, above and beyond any semiotic system operating in their films, he and his brother Ethan intend for their viewers a pronounced and deliberate affect. The seemingly unreal elements in their films--the woman on the beach at the end of Barton Fink, for instance--are therefore "supposed to be evocative rather than symbols of hidden meaning. I like the idea of the woman in the picture," he commented. "In a weird kind of way it's emotional, evocative, rather than having a specific kind of meaning" (Levine 86). Images and editing are crucial to the fabric of the film, but part of their essentiality is the emotional and physical responses they evoke in the viewer. They are to affect materially as well as mentally, mental processes themselves being materialities. In the words of Brigitte Desalm, "The barriers between the inner and outer world [of Barton Fink] are permeable" (qtd. in Korte 124). Not only is the viewer of Barton Fink to read, for example, that the German-named Mundt has created in the Hotel Earle a neo-Holocaust for the Semitic Fink, but, inasmuch as the hotel's hallways become engulfed in flame and sweat, the viewer is to be in that very Hell. Dennis Gassner, Barton Fink's production designer, explains that the Earle "had to be organically linked to the film. In a way, it was an exteriorization of the John Goodman character. The sweat falls from his brow as the wallpaper falls from the walls. At the end, when Goodman says that he's a prisoner of his mental state, that it is like hell, the hotel should suggest an infernal place" (Bergan 140).
Whatever Barton Fink may lack in a unified semiotic mapping it makes up for in its phenomenological positing of the viewer in the world being mapped. A similar case can be made for Raising Arizona--but, rather than being unified through feelings of damnation, death, and delirium, Raising Arizona is unified by its own peculiar brand of madness.
As mentioned above, most criticism of Raising Arizona focuses on its antic action and language, the very elements that phenomenologically bind it to the viewer. In Images of Madness: The Portrayal of Insanity in the Feature Film, Michael Fleming and Roger Manvell describe the landscape of films often referenced during discussions of such action and language, screwball comedies of the 1930s:
In such a world the concept of madness as sanity and sanity as madness seemed to apply to everyday living and easily found its way into the cinematic imagery of the period, in the so-called screwball comed[ies] ... which as Capra said, always resolved themselves into a comedy of unity and left the audience with a 'glow of satisfaction.' (160)
Raising Arizona's very narrative depends upon the incompatibility of opposing forces: a serial convict marries a police officer; the couple cannot have a child by either natural or legal means. These dichotomies, coupled with that surrounding the lawful / lawless nature of several characters, breed moments of hilarity, irony, and confusion. The film's affect, conjured by mixed metaphors, malapropisms, and sinister slapstick, thus feeds from and into the many semiotic slippages of the narrative, unifying it into a consumable whole.
Various characters' cartoonish antics and escapades create for the viewer a world in which anything can and does happen, whether or not it makes sense, whether or not it is actually "sane." My own experience with the film is that with each new viewing I make new connections and break old ones--an act permissible, perhaps even necessary, when a viewer steeped in traditional time/space unity engages a schizophrenic film. Since, in time/space unity, each viewing after the first is a reviewing of the same film, narrative connections made during previous viewings are subsequently read into each new viewing. This process highlights one imperative feature of semiotic phenomenology: that we all live in medias res. Our engagement with Raising Arizona or Barton Fink--or any other film, for that matter--is therefore not limited to one viewing or even several viewings. It extends far beyond and, in many cases, far before.
Inherent in an in medias res existence is the recognition that our reading of a film doesn't end when we leave the movieplex or even several days later. Just as our experiences continuously change, our reading of any particular film is renegotiated with each subsequent reconsideration of it, an act that still further confounds the division between film and life, between one's end and the other's beginning. One can continuously reread any film or narrative, can just as continuously redefine it--and the act of watching a film is only part of the larger narrative of one's life, which too is continuously being defined and redefined. In an in medias res existence, ontologies are forever being reconfigured. Schizophrenic film, then, is a literary category borrowed from an in medias res existence. This category, however, can also be turned back on its origins, can be turned back onto life itself as a literary entity. The same schizophrenic dynamics identified in Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, in other words, can be identified in the real-life narratives of what the media-watching world knows as "the Coen brothers," which is yet another schizophrenic narrative constructed by the selfsame duo. I turn again to Jameson, who posits that all we know comes to us in narrative form, that ontologies are epistemologically constructed vis-a-vis narrative, that "there are no conceptual (but only representational) beings" (392). Even though the Coens themselves are the creators of this narrative, they are the principal players in it as well. Jameson's articulation of postmodern narrative is thus particularly apropos to the Coen brothers, especially when supported by the analytical framework Michael Quinn proposes in "Celebrity and the Semiotics of Acting."
Quinn's theory of acting derives from a model presented by the Prague school, a model that
reduces performance to three principal components: the performer's personal characteristics; an immaterial dramatic character, residing in the consciousness of the audience; and a third, intermediate term, the stage figure, an image of the character that is created by the actor, costume designer, etc., as a kind of technical object or signifier. (155)
Quinn condenses these three definitions into performer, acting figure, and character. In Raising Arizona, for instance, Nicholas Cage plays H. I. McDunnough. H. I. is the character, and the two Nicholas Cages are the performer and the acting figure. The performer is the Nicholas Cage who (I would assume) eats, drinks, sleeps, wakes, laughs, cries, wins, loses--the Nicholas Cage, in short, who is human. The acting figure may be--and I say "may be" because every viewer has a different vision of this Nicholas Cage--the Nicholas Cage who was born Nicholas Coppola, began acting in high school, graduated into the films of his uncle, changed his name to "Cage," won an Academy Award in 1996 for Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, 1995), and, after Con Air (Simon West, 1996) and The Rock (Michael Bay, 1997), became a megastar. In layman's terms, we might refer to the performer and the acting figure as, respectively, "regular guy" and "movie star," and these different "versions" of Cage are different for different viewers at different times in different films. In Raising Arizona, what the viewer experiences is the unity of these three, a symbol more than an allegory, and any reading generated by this symbol is a product filtered first through the individuality of each viewer. In other words, Raising Arizona is a different film for those who have seen Cage in Valley Girl (Martha Coolidge, 1983), for instance, than for those who have not.
The symbolism of acting is precisely schizophrenic, is the particularized embodiment of multiplicities. Performers may be "playing" characters, but as any performer will attest, no character is entirely separate from the performer. On the other hand, the character and the performer are not interchangeable; performers are not held responsible for the actions of their characters, for they are simultaneously only acting figures. This structure is in itself schizophrenic, and on both sides of the screen, for both performer and viewer. The lucrative prolificacy of entertainment and tabloid news media, moreover, formidably attests to viewers' somewhat guiltless proclivity for substituting acting figure for performer, both of which are continually nuanced by their characters' personas. Quinn's attempt to divide acting into three distinct categories may therefore be a function of the time/space unity, but as the schizophrenia induced by such an attempt attests, definite and comprehensive one-to-one mapping is not possible without symbolic unification. Phenomenology produces the symbol, where representation both is and is not--reality and unreality exist symbiotically as one-twoness, the very symbolism at work in the Coen brothers and in Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, the embodiment of the "messy combination" identified by Levine at the outset of this article.
The acting figure phenomenon is, of course, not exclusive to actors. The acting figure is any persona, usually but not always tied to a performer, who is mediatized into the cultural imagination. This infiltration, however, in light of Sobchack's analysis, is not purely semiotic, but semiotic-phenomenological. Thus, in order to more fully capture the dynamic of acting, Quinn's theory needs to be amended to comprehend the phenomenological aspects of viewership, needs to be renamed "The Semiotic Phenomenology of Acting," a need made apparent when we consider the complex nature of figures like "the Coen brothers."
The general tendency, of course, is to think of the Coen brothers as real people, and I do not mean to claim that they aren't--I mean to question the epistemology by which we tend to believe that they are real people. The tendency is to think of the Coen brothers, in Quinn's terms, as performers, with bodies, parts, and passions. But it is important that, for most--excluding only those who have actually met them in the flesh--the Coen brothers are only acting figures, images and ideas mediatized into our imaginations. This proposition is difficult to permit, for we want them to be real, to be performers, signifieds behind the signifiers. This process is what Roland Barthes posits as the reality effect: "'an unformulated signified, sheltered behind the apparent omnipotence of the referent" (139). And, incidentally, the reality effect introduces the postmodern criticism of Quinn's taxonomy; in postmodern thought there is no essential difference between the acting figure and the character. This conflation, the elements of which were never really separate to begin with, produces the space necessary to permit an analysis of the Coen brothers themselves as a schizophrenic film. Between the signifieds and the signifiers of "the Coen brothers," it ultimately becomes difficult even to locate the Coen brothers.
In postmodern discourse there is no essential difference between the acting figure and the performer, and because all that most know of the Coen brothers is the acting figure--"the Coen brothers'--it is more or less irrelevant to speak of what might be schizophrenic aspects of the brothers as performers. However, since even the acting figure is constructed upon the prospect of a performer, a prospect of which I believe the Coen brothers are aware, we will look briefly at the schizophrenic persona that the brothers perpetuate in the minds of their audience. One of the most apparent facets of the narrative schizophrenia in "the Coen brothers" is that rarely are the brothers ever referred to as anything other than brothers; they are two performers in one acting figure. One does not, through the media, hear or read about the film career of Joel Coen or the film career of Ethan Coen the way that one might hear or read about the film career of Owen Wilson or the film career of his brother Luke Wilson. The media presents the Coen brothers as "the Coen brothers," and for good reason: the brothers seem to do very little to dissuade this designation. The Coens, as many critics and collaborators have noted, share a unique fraternity. Russell, in The Films of Joel and Ethan Coen, writes:
Though Joel is nominal director and Ethan producer, the two function interchangeably on the set and work together throughout every step of the filmmaking process. They finish each other's sentences, laugh soundlessly at each other's deadpan humor, and reportedly communicate regularly on a near-telepathic basis. (1-2)
In Sight & Sound, Tim Pulleine terms them a "two-headed auteur" (Horst 114); Seesslen calls them "brothers who do not split up" (221), defines their filmmaking craft as "stereo directing" (222). Roger Deakins, their cinematographer since Barry Sonnenfeld's departure after Miller's Crossing, says that he quickly realized "that I could ask either of them if I had a question. It didn't matter who I turned to. It was whoever was free and nearest or most convenient. They were so totally in sync" (Bergan 12). Director and long-time Coen confrere. Sam Raimi has said, "It's the yin and yang of one being" (Bergan 13). These comments, of course, do not imply that either of the Coens is schizophrenic; what they do imply, though, is that the Coen brothers are schizophrenic, that there is something, possibly biologically, possibly ideologically, schizophrenic in the entity signified by the phrase "the Coen brothers."
The phenomenon of "the Coen brothers" is a rarity these days, and in light of all the splitting-up featured in the popular media, one might be inclined to think that such a fate awaits the Coens as well. But except for Ethan's foray into fiction and poetry and the rare film project he takes on without Joel--scripting J. Todd Anderson's The Naked Man (1999), for instance--the brothers do a great deal together and give every indication that they will continue to. In fact, rather than looking for stages on which to perform and establish their own particular individualities--"Joel Coen" and "Ethan Coen'--the brothers seem to be doing all they can to keep their audience from differentiating between them. With one red herring after another, the Coens continue to perpetuate what is already their own substantially schizophrenic narrative. They seem determined to hide any sense of a performer behind the convoluted and schizophrenic facade of their acting figure.
Seesslen has commented that "The Coens' interviews and press conferences are full of false trails and more or less incomprehensible jokes, and you could stock a library with the books they supposedly haven't read (the Coens don't like to leave traces)" (209-10). Such an appraisal may adequately characterize the brothers' public relations shenanigans (for more about them, see the Lavery article below), but when Seesslen parenthetically notes that the brothers "don't like to leave traces," he understates: much to the contrary, the brothers don't like to leave traces unless those traces are signifiers that lack signifieds. They create, after all, imaginary individuals whom they present to their audience--and without the reprieve of the RDE--as real people. Most notable is Roderick Jaynes, credited with the editing of nine Coen brothers films and even nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Fargo. Most critics and major publications attest that Roderick Jaynes is nothing more than a pseudonym for the brothers themselves--a fact that, nevertheless, does not deter the Coens from their efforts to perpetuate his existence. The feature commentary for The Man Who Wasn't There concludes with Billy Bob Thornton's relating how he once met Jaynes, who subsequently cussed him out, in a health food store. Another such imaginary figure is Edward Schulbyte, an ostensible professor of cinema studies at the University of Copacabana who was invited ("in the interests of balance") to write the epilogue to Bergan's The Coen Brothers. Schulbyte not only lets fly a scathing criticism of the Coens' films but reprimands them for trying "shamelessly to hoodwink" viewers "by inventing certain people" (224). Through the unapologetic invention of various professionals as well as the perpetuation of their strangely symbiotic fraternity, the Coen brothers themselves continue to obfuscate the time/space unity, the film viewer's traditional praxis of unification.
The time/space unity allows viewers to organize disparate elements into a rational reality. Two of those disparate elements are the material presented on screen and the material presented off screen. With the schizophrenia of Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, the Coens confound the material of the former, and with "the Coen brothers" they confound the material of the latter. It is in this act that the brothers are postmodernists. In so designating them, though, I do not simply invoke the genre-mixing pastiche that is often seen as their defining characteristic (Russell 42). Instead, I posit the Coens as postmodernists because they are living/existing in a landscape of their own creation, a landscape that denies the syntagmatic chain of signification that has perpetuated modernist discourse. I do not deny that the semiotic breakdown is not a facet of the brothers' postmodernism; in light of Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, moreover, this breakdown is crucial. Nor do I deny that Jamesonian intertextuality and pastiche are facets of the Coens' postmodernism. I do suggest, however, that these are merely symptomatic aspects of the Coen brothers' larger postmodern modality. The brothers are postmodernists, again, because they consciously deconstruct the narrative within which they construct themselves.
The postmodern condition, which, of course, is only a condition in terms of modernism, therefore depends upon modernism for its very life. It does not occur after modernism, but within it. Where modernism depends upon one unified reality--historical narrative--postmodernism suggests multiple and irreconcilable realities. It is via this modality that "the Coen brothers" emerge. In Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, the brothers use editing and depth of field to produce two narratives that cannot be reconciled outside of their phenomenological encounters with the viewer. The emerging retrospective dream effect continually displaces the viewer from the formal narrative of the films and into a postmodern world--but, even in the postmodern world, in a postmodern narrative, the viewer is equally lost. The modernist audience, continual victims of Barthes' reality effect, cannot semiotically reconcile the narrative of the Coens as acting figures with what they are certain must be the narrative of the Coens as performers. The postmodern landscape--what Seesslen calls "Coen Country'--is therefore the space of semiotic phenomenology, the space where one continually declares ends in a world without them. This dilemma, then, leaves us exactly where the brothers want us. In the end, we're never entirely sure where we are.
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Barton Fink. Dir. Joel Coen. Prod. Ethan Coen. Wr. Joel and Ethan Coen. Twentieth Century Fox, 1991.
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Bergan, Ronald. The Coen Brothers. New York: Thunder's Mouth P, 2000.
The Big Lebowski. Dir. Joel Coen. Prod. Ethan Coen. Wr. Joel and Ethan Coen. Gramercy Pictures, 1997.
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Coen, Joel, and Ethan Coen. Barton Fink Miller's Crossing. London: Faber & Faber, 1991.
--. Raising Arizona: The Screenplay. New York: St. Martin's P, 1988.
Crary, Jonathan. "Modernizing Vision." Williams 23-35.
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Desalm, Brigitte. "Barton Fink." Korte and Seesslen 115-40.
Fargo. Dir. Joel Coen. Prod. Ethan Coen. Wr. Joel and Ethan Coen. Gramercy Pictures, 1996.
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Quinn, Michael L. "Celebrity and the Semiotics of Acting." New Theatre Quarterly 6.22 (1990): 154-61.
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Russell Carolyn R. The Films of Joel and Ethan Coen. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001.
Schulbyte, Edward. Epilogue. Bergan 222-25.
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Williams, Linda, ed. Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1997.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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