Friday, August 6, 2010

My Momentarily Definitive Coen List: #1

Welcome Little Boy

Today is the 65th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.  It is not a particularly pleasant thought to dwell on such a matter, as 'the big one' is such a stupifyingly oxymoronic event on the face of human history.  Perhaps it explains us better than any other marvel.  If you have the will power, look up some of the photos of the burn victims, realize that the far majority of the 70,000 instant fatalities were civilians, and then look at all the happy photos of our troops coming home.  V-Day in the Pacific came because of this awful thing of power (and his li'l brother, Fat Man, unleashed upon Nagasaki three days later).

America showed no mercy
on August 6th.
And again on August 9th.  That was the cost of peace; the release of a monster the likes of which our imaginations have replaced with the likes of Godzilla.  It's the stuff of Lovecraft.  By bringing this to light, I don't intend to cast a shadow on America's actions during the Second Great War.  I only mention it to bring to light the sheer immensity of such an act.

This world can never be defined sufficiently.  Many works of art, rhetoric, or mathematics would have us believe that this world is known, that we can grasp the very essence of what it is we are a part of.  I am of the party that says we cannot do this.

Take God, for example.  He is all-loving, all-righteous, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and also the very end of righteous wrath and anger.  Psalm 78 consists of a retelling of the history of God and Israel, and notes when God was forsaken by His people,

  58For they (Israel) provoked Him with their high places
  And aroused His jealousy with their graven images.
  59When God heard, He was filled with wrath
  And greatly abhorred Israel;

Yet John, the one whom Jesus loved, centuries later, tells us, 

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; 
   and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 
1 John 4:7-8

Our God cannot be contained by our words or definitions.  Likewise it would follow that that which this immeasurable God created would follow suit.  And because of this, there will always be more to discover.  More on this later.

The Man Who Wasn't There won't be most folks' favorite Coen flick.  I get that.  It doesn't have the most zany of characters, nor the most preposterous of plots, nor the most suspenseful moments.

Go watch it.  Have you?  Now summarize.  I summary written on states it as, "...a tale of suspected adultery, blackmail, foul play, death, Sacramento city slickers, racial slurs, invented war heroics, shaved legs, a gamine piano player, aliens, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle."  That about covers it.  Hell, I don't even know what 'gamine' means.

The fourth book of the Bible, the Book of Numbers, has a tendency, like a fair portion of the Torah, to be a bit of a boring read.  But somewhere in the middle of its cycle, in chapters 22-24, we get a glimpse of the character Balaam.  Why is he important?  For one, he talks to the Lord.  And he's not an Israelite.  That's a rare commodity in the days before Jesus of Nazareth.  We learn that Balaam is a soothsayer prophet.  He has been asked to curse the Israelites.  He responds to the Moabite King by saying he can only do what the Lord tells him to do.  Three times he asks, and three times God says no.  He comes out of the story as a pretty stand-up Gentile.  Oh yeah, and there's a talking ass.  After the non-cursing incident, Balaam just walks out of the story, Numbers 24:25,

Then Balaam arose and departed and returned to his place...

Six chapters later we get our postscript on Balaam's life.  He is listed amongst the names of the slain among the Midianites that Israel had just wiped out by God's blessing.  

Balaam is one of the select few Old Testament characters who is verified to exist by extra-biblical documents.  He was an important dude.  And he talked to God.  

This passage holds so much intrigue for me because it's a small window into the workings of God outside of the Biblical narrative.  Balaam clearly had a relationship with God, but mostly, that story is excluded.  All that is kept is Balaam's interactions with the (pre)nation of Israel.  This makes sense in that that is what the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is concerned with; the plight of the Israelites.  There are immeasurable stories of God that we simply are not informed of.  Surely there are.  There is so much.  This, I do believe, is part one of Ed Crane's two-part journey.

 At some point, The Man Who Wasn't There was known simply as The Barber.  Either title works.  Ed Crane, the barber, is caught in a cyclical trap.  Everything is remaining the same while growing more and more distant.  He sees this primarily through his wife's ever blooming relationship with Big Dave, aka Tony Soprano circa 1949.  Mercifully, dry-cleaning comes walloping into Ed Crane's life... that is, dry-cleaning, some abstract thoughts, and Birdy, the pre-Lost in Translation, piano playing, Scarlett Johannson.  All these facets lead Ed towards this truth; the world is convulsing with ideas, and ideas are what pre-empt change.  The hope of change spurs Ed on.  If there can be change, then maybe Ed can get what he really wants. 

From my perspective, the film wears it colors on its sleeve when we get a look into Ed's mind.  As he passes out amidst a car crash, he remembers.  He remembers his wife, and through memory, we are given a slice of her character that draws him to her.  She is wholly other.  This is the hope, that he can again marry his form to hers.  That he can love this different thing, and that she'll love him in return.

Ed's journey is one of revelation followed by resolution.  The revelation is that the world is vast and unknowable in its immensity.  The resolution is that because of the openness of existence, he may yet find a way to articulate his love for his wife.  

When we face the vastness of all creation, let us smile and seek a way to articulate our love for that which we are privileged to play a part in.  Let's sign our names to this place.  Nuclear bombs and all.

Ed Crane: It’s like pulling away from the maze, while you’re in the maze you go through willy-nilly, turning where you think you have to turn, banging into the dead ends, one thing after another, but you get some distance on it, and all those twists and turns, why, they’re the shape of your life, it’s hard to explain, but seeing it whole gives you some peace.

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