The Coen Brothers and Their Big Socialist Losers

Spinning comedy out of misery, Joel and Ethan Coen have spent decades telling the story of American failure. No wonder they’re so drawn to American socialists.

John Turturro in Barton Fink. (Circle Films / Working Title Films / 20th Century Fox)

Few directors have referenced the history of American socialism in their films as consistently as Joel and Ethan Coen. In a Coen brothers movie, it’s not unusual to hear passing references to a Trotskyist faction like the Shachtmanites, as in Inside Llewyn Davis, or a casual mention, as in The Big Lebowski, of a character claiming to have been one of the authors of the 1962 Students for a Democratic Society manifesto — or, as the Dude clarifies, “The original Port Huron Statement. Not the compromised second draft.”

The Coens make films about American failure — botched crimes; floundering careers; hopelessly incompetent government, police, and legal operations; disastrous family relationships; and imploding love lives. The failure of American socialists and communists to make lasting inroads in the nation’s entrenched conservatism is a phenomenon that’s naturally going to draw them like a magnet — we are, after all, unique in the Western world for never getting a labor party off the ground.

The two Coen brothers films that focus most explicitly on this particular failure are Barton Fink (1991), set just before America’s entry into World War II, and Hail, Caesar! (2016), set in the early 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism. In each, the Coens show us the impasse that blocks intelligent political endeavor. Both films even use the same symbolic image — giant rocks that withstand the pounding of ocean waves.

Barton Fink (John Turturro), a New York–based playwright clearly modeled on socialist Clifford Odets, is convinced his new hit play Bare Ruined Choirs heralds the beginning of something vitally important, “a new, living theater — of and about and for the common man!” This was not unusual rhetoric during the Popular Front period. And yet Fink, just like Odets when he was the toast of Broadway, can’t resist the offer from Capitol Pictures out in Hollywood “to redeem that for a little cash — strike that, a lot of cash.”

The first image of his nightmarish sojourn in California is a sunny but desolate beach, where a wave crashes into an enormous, symbolically immovable rock. It’s the visual manifestation of an epic case of writer’s block that sets in soon after Fink arrives in Hollywood. It turns out Fink’s incapable of writing a screenplay that lives up to his “theater for the masses” ideal while also satisfying a Hollywood studio trying to mass-produce “that Barton Fink feeling” for the entire country. Nor is Fink capable of just churning out the formulaic and hugely popular “wrestling picture” he’s been assigned.

Most damningly, Fink can’t seem to learn anything from the friendly, loquacious real-life “common man” who’s actually got wrestling experience and lives next door to him at the eerie, shabby residence hotel where Fink is staying in order to avoid bourgeois co-option by Hollywood’s more luxurious accommodations. His neighbor’s name is Charlie Meadows (John Goodman). Charlie works as a beleaguered insurance salesman, and he keeps saying, “I could tell you some stories —” just before Fink interrupts once again to lecture him patronizingly about a new theater form supposedly created for people just like Charlie.

When Charlie eventually reveals a dark, flip-side identity as serial killer and incipient fascist Karl “Madman” Mundt, who seems to be targeting Barton Fink for vengeful destruction, Fink asks plaintively, “Why me, Charlie?”

“Because you don’t listen,” says Charlie, in one of the most haunting moments in the film. A big part of Barton Fink’s block is his unexamined elitism and how he lives in his head, over-intellectualizing all aspects of life in a way that inevitably separates him from the very people he claims to want to represent. Fink’s disdain for the movies is, ironically, part of his disdain for the masses who love the movies.

In Hail, Caesar!, set at the time of the blacklist in the 1950s, Hollywood communists hold their secret meetings in a magnificent beach house complete with a view of two immense rocks jutting out of the Pacific. Like the Hollywood Ten, they’re almost all successful screenwriters. But here, they’ve actually been doing what the House Un-American Activities Committee accused the real-life Ten of doing: implanting Communist propaganda in their scripts.

The “propaganda” is so weak and vague, however, that it shows these “Communists” think the mildest liberalism is raging radicalism. One of them recalls, with a smug smirk of triumph, a movie they got made in which a “rotten election was overturned and Gus was made the mayor. I fancy we changed some minds.”

Nevertheless, with their latest scheme to kidnap top movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) and hold him for a huge ransom that they’ll funnel to the Soviet Union, the Communists are confident they’re taking meaningful action toward revolution in the United States — so confident, they sign their ransom note “The Future.”

But there are rival takes on “the future” in Hail, Caesar! There’s the one offered by the Lockheed aircraft manufacturing company executive who’s trying to persuade the studio’s fixer, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), to leave his “doomed” industry. And Eddie’s definitely tempted, looking for a way out of a high-pressure career that involves overseeing a slate of films (and personalities), all in a state of perpetual chaos.

But it’s not just production logjams keeping Eddie up at night — it’s his role, as a studio executive, in shepherding the very hopes and dreams his movies arouse in the American public. And for Eddie, that’s a hell of a responsibility. In trying to manage the reception of the biblical epic Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ — which, if handled properly, will offer Middle America both sex and violence, along with a redeeming sanctimonious virtue — Eddie sets up a meeting with every representative of the nation’s various Judeo-Christian religions: a rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, and so on — with predictably discordant results.

Eddie is a terrific representative American. His basic combination of hard, soul-destroying work, followed by desperate attempts to feel better about it through family life and some sort of redemptive religious (or at least “uplifting”) set of beliefs, can stand for the majority of American lives.

By this point in the early 1950s, the studio system Eddie was serving was already starting to fail on multiple fronts. It wasn’t just television killing the business, but also the government’s trust-busting action that stripped the studios of their theater chains. Plus, thanks to McCarthyism, there was the loss of brains and talent as a result of the blacklist, in which some of Hollywood’s very best screenwriters, directors, and actors were barred from the profession for a decade or more. Finally, worst of all, the guaranteed mass audience began to splinter in the changing post–World War II conditions, making it even harder for the Eddies of the business to predict what “the people” would leave their homes to watch.

When Baird Whitlock is finally rescued from his Marxist captors, he returns from his congenial imprisonment filled with enthusiasm for a book called “Kapital, with a K!” He persuasively argues, “These communists have even figured out what goes on here at this studio” — that is, exploiting workers to generate huge profits for the top tier of studio owners and managers.

Eddie reverts immediately to brutality, slapping Whitlock around and telling him to shut up and do his job, just like “the director, the writer, the script girl, and the guy who claps the slate.” Tormented though he is by his future prospects, Eddie violently dismisses Whitlock’s insight that communism just might have the right idea after all, even if the beach house communists we’ve seen are a feckless and impractical bunch. Eddie chooses the devil he knows — the movies. His own fundamental belief in capitalism, as well as his religiosity, combine to make movies the inevitable choice, because, as he says exultantly in the end, “People don’t want the facts — they want to believe!”

It’s the limitations on “the future” in Hail, Caesar! that comprise the predicament. There appear to be no great options on the table for Eddie, or anyone else. If these are your choices, you’re going to tend to go, however reluctantly, with Lockheed or the movie business. People under capitalism are afraid to tie their futures to a movement that isn’t currently powerful, and doesn’t look likely to become powerful, snacking away on finger sandwiches up in Malibu.

How to get around the rocklike impasse? Coen brothers movies don’t tell us because, of course, they don’t know either.