The Man Who Wasn’t There (2)

tmwwt1 Today we conclude our review of the penultimate script in our tour through the Coen Brothers scriptography. Part one of the review can be found here. The only available link to the script I’ve found is through IMSDb.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story? (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) I felt there was great precision in the way the Brothers staged their reveals throughout this script. Although the script doesn’t read this way [it reads connected] structurally speaking the Brothers have delivered a series of short stories which orbit Ed. They give us:

1. The Blackmail Scheme
2. The Imprisonment of Doris for Dave’s Murder [which Ed committed]
3. Doris’ Death by Pregnancy
4. The Execution of Ed for Creighton’s Murder [which Big Dave committed]
5. Ed’s Fascination with Birdy

I love how the setups in the Blackmail Scheme story get revealed in the Doris’ death by Pregnancy story. Doris and Big Dave are even more casual with their relationship than we thought when we experienced them at dinner nonchalantly mingling with the spouses of their cheating partner. Of course, the true beauty of the setup which gets revealed is how Doris gets Big Dave killed, and Big Dave gets Doris imprisoned [she cooks the books to come up with the 10,000 for the blackmail note] and then killed—by impregnating her.

There is similar setup/reveal symmetry in The Imprisonment of Doris for Dave’s Murder, and The Execution of Ed for Creighton’s Murder, storylines. Each person offends Justice [either Natural or Societal] and each person is punished for her/his crime. The sum of this story’s setups and reveals, therefore, tells us that Justice is Machiavellian. In all their other scripts the Brothers have been telling us that Love is Impossible; this script makes an attempt to tell us why.

Birdy’s storyline is unique. I will save it’s discussion for theme. [We will end up tying it together with that last sentence about love being impossible.]

Overall, I found this script to be masterfully plotted:

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) The engine of this story is Ed’s drive to be a real person. He is not one, he knows he is not, but he doesn’t know why. Or, does he?

Ed presents as the least ambitious, engaged-with-life, person in his story. And yet, all the plot points in this story arise because of Ed. If he really isn’t ambitious, why does he tell Creighton he can get the 10,000 for the dry cleaning store? If he really doesn’t care that Doris cheats on him with Big Dave, why does he use his knowledge of their affair to extort the 10,000 necessary to enter that dry cleaning business? Lastly if he is really so dissociated from the value of his own life, why does the following represent his only attempt to tell the truth:

…I killed him.

Riedenschneider eyes him. Wheels start turning.

OK, we forget the blackmail. *You*
killed him. How come?

He and Doris… were having an affair.

Doris eyes him. His manner does not reveal anything.

OK, how did you know?

I… just knew. A husband knows.

Riedenschneider rolls his eyes.

Will anyone else say they knew?

I don’t know. I don’t think so.

How did you get into the store?

I took Doris’s keys.

Will anyone say they saw you there?
On your way there? In there? On your
was back?

…I don’t think so.

Will anyone corroborate and goddamn
part of your story at all?

When Ed admits [through his silence] that no can corroborate, he PRESSES NO MORE on the truth. He allows the lie which sustains his freedom [and his life] to stand.

None of these actions equate with a man who is blank. Ed, in spite of all his ennui, is actually forcefully engaged with the drama in his life—he is causing the drama in his life. I see no other explanation for the arc of Ed’s story then his insistence on overturning the world’s inability to see him.

Ed is dying to be the man who was there.

5 out of 5 points.

Part C) I define the pinch point as arriving in Ed’s exchange with Diedrickson:

…I’m sorry to add to your burden,
Crane, but I’d want to know it it
was me. Your wife was pregnant. First

A pause.

…Well, there it is.

Another pause.

…I’m sorry.

He mutters to himself:

…Hell, I hope I’ve done the right

My wife and I had not… performed
the sex act in many years.

More specifically, I define it as being Ed’s answer to Diedrickson:

My wife and I had not… performed
the sex act in many years.

This scene is masterful. Diedrickson spills the pregnancy secret, has three pause-filled lines of doubt about whether he has done the right thing [clearly he has not], AND THEN Ed finally has his pinch point. The Brothers have allowed us to connect Ed’s emotional dots for ourselves. Sure his response is neutral, but it comes after three pauses from Diedrickson and an ellipsis… of doubt[?] about himself. It’s as if Ed’s heart has just skipped four beats. It’s as if Ed, our hero with no attachment to the world, just died from shock.

From this line, Ed’s story quickly moves from his metaphorical death to his literal death:

5 out of 5 points.

Part D) Which brings us to Birdy. She is [by definition] provocative. Ed has “real” interest in her. If we strip these two of their individuality and consider them as symbols of collective humanity, the brothers are telling us:

Humans are only interested in what is provocative.

If we insist on more clarity from these symbols, we also learn that:

Humans don’t understand what makes provocative things attractive.

I draw this inference from the fact that what Ed thinks makes Birdy attractive to him [her musical ability] is not corroborated by the other humans in his world:

Then you listen to me, for I am
expert. That girl, she give me a
headache. She cannot play. Nice girl.
Very clever hands. Nice girl. Someday,
I think, maybe, she make a very good

And what Birdy thinks makes Birdy attractive to Ed [her body] is not corroborated by Ed:

But I do appreciate it, Mr Crane…

She reaches over to touch his thigh.

…I wanted to make you happy.


It’s OK…

She is leaning over his lap.

…I want to do it, Mr Crane.

Ed is shocked:


He reaches awkwardly, wanting to push her away but not wanting
to be violent.

…No, please.

Please, Mr Crane, it’s OK, please–

The blare of an oncoming horn.

Ed looks up, one hand struggling with Birdy, the other on
the wheel.

The oncoming car.

Ed swerves, tires screech into a skid, Birdy screams.

CRASH: the car hits a roadside tree.

It is natural for us [as humans reading a story about members of our species] to conclude that Birdy was right all along, especially after Carcanogues confirms Birdy is not a virtuoso. We believe that Ed likes Birdy because he is physically attracted to her. A great essay could be written supporting this thesis. However, I think this is far too simple for our Brothers.

When you sum all the events that happen in this story, and you realize all the action happens because Ed has imperfect knowledge of his own motivations, you also realize Ed likes Birdy because he HAS TO like something. Not liking something is what causes the world to treat Ed as though he were “a man who wasn’t there”. To prove the world wrong, Ed finds something to like… Birdy. But, he doesn’t know why he likes her other than that she is provocative. Which means, the true theme of this story is a refutation of Socrates’ injunction to “know thyself”. (2) The Brothers are telling us:

You can never know yourself.

It is hard for me to accurately state the brilliance I see in how the structure of this story supports its theme. The Brothers set out to explain why their primary philosophical belief:

Love is impossible.

Is epistemologically true:

You can never know others if you can’t know yourself.

These Brothers may “owe a cock” to Wittgenstein, but I will not disparage their indebtedness.

10 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) Developing an epistemology through literature is uncompromisingly unique. (3) I owe the Brothers more effort than the [already large] effort I have given them. They deserve to be studied as literary philosophers, like Tolstoy.

5 out of 5 points.

Part B) The writing in this script is technically perfect. Their philosophical subject is, however, remote from the “passions” that make life worth living. I believe this is why this film created little noise after its release.

If you’ve done something beautiful, but you’ve buried it an eccentricity that can’t connect, then I think you’ve failed as an Artist. The Man Who Wasn’t There is sublime, but it lacks resonance.

2 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)

The Brothers seem to enjoy buttering their toast with uninspiring themes. I appreciate the technical precision they bring to their crusade, but I find it very hard to endorse. In that respect, I find them to be a lot like McCarthy.

In this instance, I am going to give them more points than I normally would because they’ve added something interesting to the study of philosophy. They are telling us that we know so little about ourselves, we don’t even know what makes a thing provocative. If you can’t even be sure of the reasons why you choose to look at one thing in favor of another, it would be very hard to put any faith in whatever deduction you make about the thing you are looking at.

In other words, the Brothers are sure Descartes Cogito is a powerful existence argument… they’re just not sure we’re looking in the right place…

8 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 87

2. My statement in part one of this review about this story being a refabrication of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is now supported. If you want textual proof, read the script and pay attention to all the references to shadows. I could do this work for you, but it would spoil the effect of reading it on your own. I decide to follow Camus’ advice, and not spoil everything by making it plain.

3. Is developing a metaphysics through review of popular cuture… as unique?


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