Joel and Ethan Coen: Searching for a Way Out; Alienation and Intimacy in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

  • M. Gail Hamner
Part of the New Approaches to Religion and Power book series (NARP)


Born in the period of Kurosawa’s rise to fame and Kiarostami’s university education, Joel and Ethan Coen produce films for a completely different cultural world. These two Midwestern American Jewish boys were bred on long winters and boredom, and they grew up with both the existential companionship of Hollywood film and the cultural dynamics of postmodernism. Almost all of the Coen films align with the postmodernism penchant for disruption, parody, and perversion of borders, as evidenced by the playful genre transgressions of their films but also by their split distribution between Hollywood and “real” independent theaters. The brothers are known for early production contract with Circle Films, a savvy contract that allowed them to make three films precisely as they envisioned. They were thus able to thumb their noses at big studio productions,2 and yet still secure a wide crossover reception for their films.3 The brothers’ ability to straddle elite, “art-house “ theatres and mall megaplexes demonstrates that though they sully the surface of categories, genres, cinematic codes, and audience expectations, they also keep their films light-hearted enough (or gory enough) to please broad audiences. Cineastes adore their relentless interfilm citations and insider jokes, while the wo/man-on-the-street savors their vulgarity and apparent disdain for the respectable bourgeoisie.


Space Ship Silent Partner Medium Shot Transcendent Realm Audience Expectation 
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© M. Gail Hamner 2011

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  • M. Gail Hamner

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