Section: Lebowskia | Date: September 5th, 2009
By Arch Dudeship Dwayne Eutsey
In The Dude AbidesāThe Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, award-winning religious columnist Cathleen Falsani offers a unique and engaging look at the āspiritual messagesā she finds permeating the Coen Brothersā movies.
Now, āspiritual message.ā Odds are, thatās not what most moviegoers expect to find in the darkly comic and brutally violent cinematic vision of Joel and Ethan Coen. Neither is the word āgospel,ā for that matter. While wisely resisting the temptation to cram their films into what she calls a āGod-shaped box,ā Falsani succeeds for the most part in tracing the theological threads she sees holding the āCoeniverseā together.
She writes, āWhile marked by murder, mayhem, deception, and all manner of chaos, there is an orderāa moral orderāto the world depicted in Joel and Ethan Coenās films. Thatās the good news. The bad news is that when the moral order is upset, the consequences can be dire, brutal, and swift.ā
Published by Zondervan, a Christian book publisher whose mission, according to its website, is to produce āresources that glorify Jesus Christ and promote biblical principles,ā The Dude Abides will probably challenge (in a good way) the expectations of Zondervanās religious readers as well as the more secular-minded among Coen Brother fans.
As a self-described āsometimes churchgoing Catholic-turned-Baptist-turned-freelance Episcopalianā who has interviewed the likes of Bono from U2 and some guy who ran for president named Barack Obama, Falsani is certainly up to the challenge of navigating her work between the two groups. Her down-to-earth writing style glides easily from summarizing convoluted Coen Brother movie plots to drawing from Zen Buddhism, Jewish mysticism, and her own open-hearted Christian faith to interpret them.
The book covers each of the Coen Brothersās movies, from their 1986 debut Blood Simple to A Serious Man (due out this fall), with each chapter focusing on a different film. Falsani uses a āforest and the treesā approach to organizing the chapters, providing a short overview of the movie first, followed by a more in-depth theological discussion of it before concluding with a brief āMoral of the Story.ā This structure not only provides a great introduction to each movie for those who are unfamiliar with the films, but also appeals to a die-hard Coen Brothers fan like me.
Falsaniās movie analyses should also intrigue the uninitiated and fans alike. She sees the Coen oeuvre as consisting broadly of cautionary tales (such as Blood Simple), āJudeo-Christian morality playsā (like Fargo), holy fools (Hi McDunnough in Raising Arizona), foolish hubris (Barton Fink), and unflinching explorations of the nature of evil, Job-like suffering, and the distance or seeming absence of God (No Country for Old Men, A Simple Man).
Her interpretations also provide nuanced ways of understanding the quirky characters populating Coen Brother films. For example, she places The Dude (the burnout main character of The Big Lebowski) within kabbalistic lore as a lamed-vavnik, āa righteous soul with whom the eventual healing of the world abidesā. Other theological takes may seem a little strained, though. The pregnant sheriff in Fargo, Marge Gunderson, is certainly an endearingly good-hearted character, but is she really a redeeming Christ figure as Falsani posits?
There are other interpretative quibbles I have, but, as The Dude would say, thatās just, like, my opinion and her opinion, man. Besides, that may just be the point. Falsani doesnāt intend for her book to be a definitive study of all things Coen. With its section of group study questions at the end, the bookās intention may be to help elicit conversations (albeit from a more or less Christian frame of reference) about these complex movies (sample: āAfter exploring the Coensā fourteen films, what do you think the two brothers make of God?ā).
For Falsani, the Coen Brothersā cinematic gospel is more concerned with posing lifeās deepest questions than it is with providing us with ultimate answers to them. In The Dude Abides, she makes a good-faith effort to offer her responses to the questions the unorthodox filmmakers raise and invites her readers to do the same.
Maybe by sharing our responses with one another in a similar spirit, regardless of our religious faith or lack thereof, weāll find a way to abide together a little better. And I donāt know about you, but as the Stranger says at the end of The Big Lebowski, I take comfort in that.
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