The fifth of nineteen reflections on the Coen Brothers’ filmography and the season of Lent. [View Series]
There is an upside-down nature to Lent as we practice it. In preparation for Easter, the celebration of the fundamental defining moment of Christian faith, we humiliate instead of celebrate; we sacrifice instead of accumulate; we mourn instead of laugh. These forty days emulate so many instances in scripture of forty days or forty years of trial: the Israelites in the wilderness wandering before entering the promised land, and Jesus’ forty days before beginning his ministry. But on close examination, these practices align with the rhythms of God’s order. In order to truly embody God’s gift for the world, Jesus had to overcome the temptations that his power would inevitably create for him. In the wilderness, the Israelites had to unlearn the ways of empire before they could inherit the opportunity to create a society for themselves. In the same way, we enter into Lent to shake off the lies that the powers of our world teach us about accumulation, success, and worth, so that when we reach Resurrection, we will recognize it as a victory, and not as nonsense.
The Hudsucker Proxy is a farce, a comedy about the ironies of wealth, power, and intelligence. In an effort to maintain and grow their wealth, the board of a prestigious corporation installs a fool as CEO to run the company into the ground. Using the twisted logic of the marketplace, the board tries to manipulate failure for their own success. Instead, the fool’s simple-mindedness undercuts their plans by successfully inventing the hula hoop. Of course, this success goes to his head, and the fool begins to become like the twisted powerful, and sees his success dry up in the meantime. Not until he returns to foolishness does he begin to find his way again.
This movie works really well as a meditation on Paul’s words about the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 1:
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? …for God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength… But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.
Lent is foolishness to those who look for victory in the marketplace or the military. It’s when we willingly give up in order to gain what God has called good. Like Jesus and the Israelites in the wilderness, we return to simplicity, to foolishness, in order to find our way again.
A note on the Coen Brothers’ filmmaking now that we are five films in. If Lent is a season of confession, we should acknowledge the Coens’ imperfections as storytellers. In terms of representation, Bill Cobbs’ Moses character in this film is the first significant role given to a black actor in any Coen movie yet, and it is a troublesome one. Moses occupies a trope that is problematic and common in white-storytelling, what Spike Lee has termed “the magical Negro”: a black character who is often constrained physically socially, like Moses in the clock tower, who has mystical abilities that are only employed to save and transform white characters. While the Coens may often get a pass for not centering black characters because of the time periods they choose to tell stories in, they also make choices like this one that do harm. (They will go on from here to give more screen-time to black characters, especially in O Brother Where Art Thou, but even that film leaves a lot to be desired: opening with shots of exclusively black prisoners doing manual labor, before showing that our protagonists are three white escaped prisoners.)