I guess there is a certain amount of poking fun at certain characters, but that’s because there is something amusing about them or about the way they behave, so I guess you can say that’s poking fun at the character. But the character is your own invention, so who cares?
Coen’s most elaborated “poking fun” at a character can be seen in A Serious Man, 2009 film I wrote about in the article The Comedy of Job. In this film, Coen’s “method” can be most easily observed. Not unlike biblical Job, the main character in the film Larry is tortured by his God, Coen; he loses his wife, he is forced out of his home, he is manipulated at work as a university professor, in the position of authority, his wife’s husband-to-be constantly condenscendingly tortures him and in the end he is is diagnosed with lung cancer. Coen openly admitted that he enjoyed “torturing Larry”. In the quote I emphasized, he says that it is “amusing”, particularly “the way they behave”. In other words, Coen recognizes a certain amount of autonomy of his characters, but tortures them nevertheless. This is crucial. Job wouldn’t have been tortured by God in the way he was if he hadn’t been autonomous being at all, incapable of reflection. He would be similar to an animal suffering pain.
The being which is “poked fun” at, is therefore not a “thing”, but has a certain life of its own, develops its own feelings and courses of action – in Coen’s mind of course, but it seems that Larry, and all the other characters he envisioned are not merely products of a rational mind, but are developed according to their own logic. Barton Fink, in the film of the same name, and countless other characters, do suffer the similar fate as Larry. We might ask ourselves a question, if we allow ourselves such a question, whether Coen’s method is similar, not in ethical terms or in intention, but in the structure of such a creative act, to Marquis de Sade and his castle Silling where his characters are sadistically tortured by a group of libertines for 120 days. It must be noted, Joel Coen is not Pasollini devoid of the intent to make a critique of fascism in the film 120 Days of Sodom. Coen Brothers’ films are not sadistic in content and they are not devised simply for enjoyment in the characters’ suffering.
They have broad philosophical issues elaborated upon in the plot, they rely on masterfully writen dialogues rather than mindless violence (although there is plenty of violence) and outright torture, and in the end, their films are often black comedies and never exploitation horror films. Some Sade’s scholars would say all of this characterizes Sade’s work as well, and therefore the argument is not valid. One could agree and say that the target of this attack is not Marquis himself, but countless petty imitators who fashion themselves after him and “corrupt the youth”, as the Athenians of 4th century BC would say. The structure of the fictional character’s pain accmpanied by enjoyment and the director’s intent on toying with his creation does have an undertone which can remind us of Sade’s novels. Nevertheless, a sharp line must be drawn between genuine sadism and a biblical imposition of suffering on one’s characters. I say biblical because Coens’ films often have an archetypal nature in their narrative, and A Serious Man is once again a great example of this. Parallels to “The Book of Job” are so striking that Coen was probably inspired by the story.
In other words, Joel Coen is not Marquis de Sade who fashions himself after the complete inversion of divine or natural laws, he is the creator of a work of art who permits himself to toy with his characters, in the service not only of enjoyment, but of philosophical ambition. Scholars who are familiar with Sade would immediately discard the idea that Sade’s work is only about the things we see on the surface. Sade’s violent critique of Englihtenment project is as interesting as Coen Brothers’ films, and this is the point where the two converge. Hovewer, the philosophical position of Joel Coen and Marquis de Sade cannot be more different. Although Joel Coen’s words might inspire someone to point a finger and scream “sadism”, Coen’s work speaks for itself in this regard, and it is obvious that after watching Coen Brother’s work we can only become better and not more corrupted.