Monday, December 17, 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs




The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a movie written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (2018), may certainly be viewed at a number of levels. (Spoiler alert: Watch the movie before reading this blog.) On the one hand, it is a collection of entertaining stories woven together into one movie. At another level, it is entertainment that causes one to say after each segment, “And the moral of the story is …”. Perhaps we could leave it there and allow the viewer to approach it in one of those two ways. Yet, having seen many other Coen brothers’ movies, I have a sense that there is still more to the story. This movie is much like previous movies of the Coen brothers: it generates certain philosophical questions. Perhaps the theme of this movie is most like their 2009 movie, A Serious Man. In a previous blog, I suggested that the theme of that movie was the “absence of meaning in the universe and that the only answers lie in having a good hedonistic time with sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll.” The opening Jewish myth portrayed in A Serious Man would seem to emphasise the fact that random decisions are the difference between seeing something as chance or as supernatural. The most prominent theme in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is that our only defence against the randomness of life is to dress up in top-hat and tails, put on a brave face and march forward to whatever awaits. But here, allow me to substantiate my case.

I would suggest that if we wish to understand this movie and the mindset of the writers, we will need to watch it multiple times with attention to various details with each viewing. I found that I needed three viewings, the latter two while taking notes, to begin to get a picture of what the Coen brothers are doing. 

Vignette 1: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The opening scene shows Buster Scruggs riding through the desert singing a classic song, Cool, Clear Water, made famous by the “Sons of the Pioneers” in 1941 (Bob Nolan, writer). The song speaks of the souls that long for more. The larger than life cartoon character of Buster Scruggs is considered a misanthrope (one who dislikes all other people) and speaks of the sad and immoral state of the human condition. He claims to have violated the statutes of man and God and is shown to be selfish and devious. He is presented as a protagonist and we find ourselves hoping he will survive his several encounters with people who want to kill him and are as depraved as he is. We buy into the classic white hat mentality in which there are good guys and bad guys. This movie continues a theme established in the 1992 film, Unforgiven (directed by Clint Eastwood), in which the cowboys are no longer divided into “good guys” and “bad guy,” all are broken and evil. There is a randomness expressed in the fact that there will always be a faster gun. Buster Scruggs even admires his killer as the two of them harmonize as he departs to his eternal reward.

Buster Scruggs does have the redeeming quality of being a great singer and entertainer and in one scene, he has the entire town joining in with his songs and antics. The cartoon-like violence is heightened in a scene where Buster first shoots the fingers off of a man before gunning him down in the street. I say cartoon-like violence because it is reminiscent of what happened in Yosemite Sam, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, and Foghorn Leghorn cartoons of another era. Characters exploded, got smashed, got shot, and fell from heights only to survive another day. Perhaps the Coen brothers are making a statement about the entertainment violence with which they grew up and which continues to this day in many entertainment fields (cartoons and Quentin Tarantino movies come to mind). They seem to be asking questions about what this kind of violence says about our culture and the connections between entertainment and behaviours in western society.

Also similar to the cartoons of the past, when Buster Scruggs finally does die, his soul is shown rising out of his body and winging its way to heaven as he and his murderer sing a song about the hope they have of a better life in the hereafter. There is no reference to justice, only hope, and joy in a life beyond this broken world. Of course, the Coen brothers were raised in a Jewish tradition and would have heard many stories of ultimate destinations, justice, and forgiveness. In this and other movies, they often ask questions about the validity of such world-views as Judaism and Christianity.

Vignette 2: Near Algodones

Another selfish man attempts to rob a bank for his own gain. The bank appears to be easy to rob and is in the middle of nowhere with only one employee. But, in the randomness of life, the old man behind the counter turns out to be more than a match for the robber. The banker covers himself with protective pots and pans as a form of dangling armour and takes on the would-be robber.  The would-be robber is arrested, tried, and sentenced to hang. However, just before he is hung, a classic cowboy and Indian battle breaks out and, whether by luck or the grace of God, he manages to escape. But justice appears to catch up with him when he is mistakenly accused of cattle rustling and is hung for that crime. Random events of life and how they conspire for good-luck or bad-luck is a prominent theme in this vignette, particularly as we consider the chance of being saved by a “pan-shot.”

Vignette 3: Meal Ticket

Two men make their living as travelling entertainers. One, the caregiver and leader, the other, an invalid with neither arms nor legs. As they set up to entertain a small crowd it soon becomes apparent that the invalid is a gifted entertainer who has memorized a number of spell-binding monologues with which he charms his audience. The two men do not seem to have a deep friendship; theirs is a business arrangement. As the story goes on, their form of entertainment becomes less and less interesting to the audiences they meet. Other forms of entertainment come and go and take away from the two men’s livelihood. Sadly, it becomes apparent that the two will soon starve if they do not find a better way to entertain the people. 

By chance, the leader happens to see a man entertaining a crowd with a chicken who seems to be able to do math by pecking at numbers on a wall. The leader immediately buys the chicken from the entertainer, and invalid and leader set out down the road with the chicken in their wagon as well. But, before the men arrive at the next town, the leader suddenly pulls the invalid out of the wagon and throws him off a high bridge. We see the leader and the chicken heading off to the next town. 

Many questions remain. Has the caregiver been fooled into buying a useless chicken? After all, he has not yet tested the system. What was the nature of the relationship between invalid and caregiver? Why was the caregiver suddenly so cruel? The Coen brothers are once again showing the nature of the cruel and apparently random world in which we live.

Vignette 4: All Gold Canyon

Next, the Coen brothers tell the tale of a hard-working old prospector who has been working all of his life for that legendary large strike of gold. The film-makers spend much time giving us the impression of how hard he works and that he is a good, salt-of-the-earth kind of man. As he works, he sings an old Irish song:

Oh I love the dear silver that shines in your hair
and the brow that's all furrowed and wrinkled with care
I kiss the dear fingers so toil worn for me
Oh God bless you and keep you Mother Machree

Finally, he strikes it rich and harvests a large amount of gold. But as he works in his hole in the ground with back-breaking labour, an evil man creeps up behind him and shoots him in the back for his gold. We are convinced that the miner is dead, and the story has come to a sad ending. But, miraculously, the old man survives and kills his would-be assassin and is last seen taking his gold away to be sold. We can expect that the old man will live out the rest of his days wealthy beyond what he could have imagined. Again, the story raises questions of the cruelty of man, God’s justice, and the seemingly random nature of this world.

Vignette 5: The Gal Who Got Rattled

A poor man, who has not done well in business, and his sister set out on a wagon-train to Oregon. The brother has suggested that his business partner would be predisposed to marry the sister. So, they set off, but the brother dies from lung disease and the woman is left alone with no prospect of a suitor in Oregon and no money to pay her hired-hand. One of the leaders of the wagon-train takes to the woman and eventually asks her to marry him. He is ready to settle down rather than continue to lead wagon-trains. But, by a strange turn of events (chasing after a lost dog), the woman finds herself separated from the rest of the people and from the wagon-train. The other wagon-train leader (the one to whom she is not engaged), comes to her rescue, but they are set upon by an Indian war party. The wagon-train leader leaves her with a gun to kill herself if he should happen to be killed in the fight.

At a certain point in the battle, the leader plays dead before killing the last of the war tribe. The woman thinks he is dead and so she puts a bullet into her forehead. The wagon-train leader must go back to the man to whom she was engaged to tell him what has happened. It is one more tragic story in the list of Coen brother sagas. Over and over again they are telling the audience that the world is tragic, random, and senseless.

Vignette 6: The Mortal Remains

The final story has to do with five people riding in a stage-coach. Two of the men have made the trip many times before as they use the coach to ferry people dead or alive from one place to the next. We soon discover that there is something odd about the trip and realize that it is a metaphysical journey from the land of the living to the land of the dead. However, the three passengers have not yet clued-in to the fact that they themselves are dead. The two men are “harvesters of souls.” They “help people who have been adjudged to be ripe.” The passengers slowly begin to realize that they are already dead to the world and they themselves are being ferried to the next world.

There are five people in the cab of the coach and each one has one or more opinions on the “two types of people in the world.” They range from the simple to the sublime: “dead and alive,” “all alike,” “lucky and unlucky,” “hale and frail,” and “upright and sinning.” 

Other moral and spiritual controversies are apparent among the travellers; especially the concepts of “spiritual betterment,” “spiritual and moral hygiene,” and the authority of the Bible. One man asserts that “we must each play our own hand,” and “we cannot know each other completely.” We may call another "friend," but “we cannot know their soul.” Although it is not explored, we can tell that each person has a certainty in their heart as to what love is and yet, none of them would agree as to what that certainty is. One passenger asserts that “one can only coax love through subservience,” while another believes that love is domestic and eternal. We are left contemplating the appropriate spiritual destiny of each one on the coach and all three of the unaware passengers have the same look of doom as they approach the door of their next resting place.

The final scene shows one of the travellers walking with abandon into whatever fate awaits him. There is a mood of judgement but no clear sense of justice or mercy. The man simply does not know what awaits him and we get the sense that this rather simple man, who has been a product of his culture, is woefully unaware of right and wrong, love and peace, and ultimate destinies. He simply trudges on, taking what is sent his way and adapting to it as he goes. Perhaps, in the world of the Coen brothers, he represents us all.

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