Thursday, December 23, 2010

Exclusive Interview with Paul Wright, Ph.D., Instructor for “Trafficking in the Absurd: The Coen Brothers’ Films”

By Meredith Slifkin

Where will you be Wednesdays this January? Sign up for the new BMFI course, “Trafficking in the Absurd: The Coen Brothers’ Films,” which meets on Wednesdays (Jan 5.-Jan 26) from 6:30pm-9:30-pm in the Multimedia Room. This exciting course will examine the “comic absurdity” and “flawed humanity” prevalent in the works of the notoriously quirky (and brilliant) Coen brothers. There will be a special focus on Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, and A Serious Man.

The instructor for “Trafficking in the Absurd” is Paul Wright, Ph.D., who was good enough to give me an exclusive interview about the course, and about his personal interest in the Coen Brothers. Wright is an Assistant Professor of English and the Co-Director of the Honors Program at Cabrini College. Previous courses he has taught at BMFI include Scorcese’s Cinema of Loneliness, Kurosawa: East Meets West, and Icon in the Director’s Chair: Clint Eastwood. Posted below is our enlightening interview:

Q: Why the Coen Brothers? What attracts you to their body of work, both personally and academically?

A: The Coen Brothers first got under my skin with their unique sensibility sometime around 1986, when I saw their first feature, Blood Simple, on television late one Saturday night. Aside from being unable to sleep for the suspense of that film, I was struck by their knack for exposing the self-delusion of their characters--the characters' inability to see the world except through their own prism of misbegotten assumptions. This is a theme the Coens have returned to many times over the years. Academically, what has continued to enchant me is their unabashed love of film genre. They have tackled nearly every cinematic genre imaginable--suspense, slapstick, the gangster film, art-house, film noir, spy-thriller, western, spiritual morality tale, and more. They approach each film genre with a genuine passion for the material and the form, but always with an eye toward ironic re-imaginings of those forms.

Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998). "Trafficking in the Absurd: The Coen Brothers' Films" begins Wednesday, January 5 and continues on Wednesdays through January 26.

Q: “Trafficking in the Absurd” is a striking name for the course, can you explain your choice of this title?

A: I think it was a viewing of The Big Lebowski that inspired me here. When the Dude (Jeff Bridges) is told another character is a nihilist, he responds, "Ah, that must be exhausting." I think this perfectly captures the Coen Brothers' playful (and to my mind, very healthy) sense of the absurd in so many of their films. For them, life's absurdities are not merely existential or coldly philosophical in nature--they embody the self-involved comedy that each of us makes of our daily lives, so often without intending it. It's not just the Coens who "traffic in the absurd"; we all do.

Q: What can students hope to get out of this course?

A: To build more on the previous response, I'm hoping that people come away from the course understanding that blunt honesty need not equal contempt. Aside from the course's focus on the great artistry of the Coens as writer-directors, I stress that for all the Coens' revelry in human beings' penchant for self-importance and self-deception, the Coens' brutal candor and irony never amount to outright contempt for the human condition. I have read some dismissive assessments of the Coens that argue they are misanthropes. This seems as off the mark to me as criticisms of the great Japanese director Ozu, who was said to have treated actors only as props and "colors" for his palette. I think these criticisms of the Coens miss their fundamental appreciation for the downright charms of flawed human beings trying to break out of the orbits of our own delusions. There is something profoundly engaging and affecting about Coen characters; even a villain in Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men has a perverse charm. While most of us (thankfully) are less like Anton and more like the bumbling characters of Burn After Reading, what's essential here is the quirky charisma of Coen characters. It might be unsettling just how much of ourselves we recognize in these characters, but that recognition is also a great pleasure in its own right. There is a reason so many gifted actors gravitate toward the Coen Brothers, and I think it's bound up with the celebration of flawed humanity in their writing.

“It’s not just the Coens who ‘traffic in the absurd’; we all do.”

Q: Your academic interests also include the European Renaissance, does this influence your work in film studies at all? I imagine Machiavelli is actually pretty relevant to the films of the Coen brothers…

A: Yes, when I wear my other academic hat, I teach the European literary traditions of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. I did my doctorate in comparative literature under the direction of an historian; I suppose "cultural historian" is the best way to describe my scholarship. This isn't as far-fetched a connection to cinema as one might think. If there is a defining feature of Renaissance culture, it is its increasingly anxious sense of the theatricality and performative aspects of our world. Long before becoming a best-selling Shakespeare biographer, Stephen Greenblatt famously wrote about Renaissance courtiers and writers engaged in "self-fashioning"--i.e., the drive to mold and in essence create the "self" as a fiction indispensable to our social lives. If you think about the Coen Brothers' ironic sense of their characters trying to fashion their own lives and meaning in the world, you realize that many of the themes we ascribe to modern theater and cinema (or even "post-modern" society at large) have deep roots in the historical past. I actually find a powerful resonance between my two areas of study. As for Machiavelli, one can certainly find in The Prince a kind of handbook for would-be "players" and manipulators. What I love about your question is that, like the Coens, Machiavelli also has a real knack for exposing those princes who fail precisely because they assume the world looks at things as they do. This is the cardinal sin of the Coen Brothers' moral universe.

Michael Stulhbarg in the Coens' 2009 Oscar-Nominated,  A Serious Man

Q: Do you have a favorite film by the Coens? Or any on the syllabus that you’re especially excited to be teaching?

A: It's so tough to pick a favorite obviously, so I can only throw out the powerful associations of certain of their films that get me every time. As I said above, Blood Simple had the most formative impact when I saw it in high school. Miller's Crossing also comes to mind as it bridges the venerable gangster genre with the primal loneliness that comes with living among others; I often think of this film as the existentialist's Godfather. O Brother Where Art Thou, that loose and wonderful adaptation of Homer, speaks to the literature professor in me. Fargo channels my inner mid-Westerner, and as an adoptive father, I can't watch Raising Arizona without laughter and tears. If I had to pick two films that are favorites in my current stage of life (whatever that is exactly), I'd have to go with The Big Lebowski and A Serious Man. Lebowski has the virtue of being endlessly re-watchable and charming; A Serious Man is its more somber and philosophical cousin, I suppose. Both are films I find myself sharing and quoting obsessively with a like-minded soul in my life. At any rate, I guess you could say I love the Coens all round.

Special thanks to Paul Wright for graciously agreeing to this interview. Sign up now for “Trafficking in the Absurd: The Coen Brothers’ Films.” The cost is $100 for BMFI members and $125 for non-members. Click here to register online, or call 610-527-4008 x107.

No comments:

Post a Comment