Thursday, November 5, 2015

What is it with the Coen Brothers and immobile old men?

Michael Hogan as Otto Gerhardt in FX's Fargo.

Have you been watching the second season of Fargo, Noah Hawley's vast, expansive adaptation of the 1996 Coen Brothers classic, on FX? I'll assume you have. Of course, this season, like the previous, is packed with references not only to the original movie but to other titles in the Coen canon as well. This season's UFO gimmick seems to derive from The Man Who Wasn't There, for instance, while the Waffle Hut location seems like a nod to The Ladykillers. But the weirdest trope to emerge in the series, by far, is represented by Michael Hogan's character, Otto Gerhardt, the patriarch of a regionally-powerful North Dakota crime family. At first glance, Otto is an obvious counterpart of Harve Presnell's business tycoon Wade Gustafson from the '96 film. The two actors even look nearly identical. But a strange thing happens to Otto in the first episode: he suffers a debilitating stroke and is rendered mute and immobile thereafter. He's still very much a part of the plot, but he's doomed to sit and watch the horrible events unfolding all around him, unable to participate. If you saw the last episode, you know how difficult this can be for him.

What's really weird is that Otto is the latest in a whole string of motionless, speechless, geriatric men in the work of Joel and Ethan Coen. The boys can't get enough of this character type, it seems. But why? How has this become such a strong archetype for them? Let's trace this odd behavior back to its roots.

Harry Bugin as Pete in Barton Fink.

Way back in 1991, accomplished New York musician and actor Harry Bugin played the understated role of Pete, the seedy Hotel Earle's terminally-depressed elevator operator, in Barton Fink. Although Pete was a man of very, very few words, he was at least able to engage in some rudimentary dialogue with John Turturro. The Coens must have fallen in love with Bugin's craggy, downtrodden appearance, as they brought him back as the scheming Aloysius in The Hudsucker Proxy three years later. Harry's real claim to pop culture immortality, however, arrived in 1998, when he portrayed Arthur Digby Sellers in The Big Lebowski. In the film's tangled plot, Sellers is a former Branded writer who is now confined to an iron lung in the living room of his modest North Hollywood home. All Bugin has to do in the movie is lie on his back, wheeze, and look miserable. Sellers is little more than a noisy piece of furniture in this film.

"Now, Harry, what we want you to do is..."

Were the Coens done with immobile old men after this sterling example? They were not. In 2008, they released their "middle-age panic" comedy Burn After Reading. In it, John Malkovich plays Osborne Cox, a hard-drinking, short-tempered man who leaves his job at the CIA rather than accept a demotion. Cox is portrayed as a pretentious nitwit who has nothing of value to say, yet refuses to shut up. Ever. In one scene, Cox spends an afternoon aboard a yacht with his aged father, also apparently an ex-CIA man, and the son tells his dad about his ill-considered plan to quit his job and write his "memoir." The father does not talk, move, or react in any way, and at the end of the scene, we see Malkovich pushing him along the pier in a wheelchair. One gets the sense that this unfortunate, helpless man is being held hostage by his useless, long-winded son.

John Malkovich monopolizes the time of his invalid father in Burn After Reading.

And the Coens still weren't done, even after that bravura (uncredited) performance. In 2013, they gave the world Inside Llewyn Davis, the sometimes-comic, sometimes-tragic story of a 1960s folk singer who can't seem to find a foothold in the music business or in life. Throughout the film, the constantly-struggling title character debates whether he should continue on with his music or follow his father's example and become a sailor. This being a Coen Brothers movie, Llewyn is sabotaged by bad luck, bad timing, and his own bad choices at every turn, until virtually all doors seem closed to him. At one point, perhaps out of a vague sense of filial obligation, he goes to see his father, who is now wasting away in some godforsaken rest home. As you may have guessed by now, Hugh Davis (Stan Carp), remains still and silent throughout his "meeting" with his son. His room is so dim that the man himself is almost invisible, practically a ghost.

Stan Carp is a real chatterbox in Inside Llewyn Davis.

And that brings us to the present and season 2 of Fargo, where it looks unlikely that Otto Gerhardt will make any kind of recovery. It seems like Hawley was inspired by the characters from The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading, and Inside Llewyn Davis and wanted to create the ultimate immobile Coen Brothers geezer. Unlike his predecessors, Otto is no one-scene wonder. No, he's still in the thick of it, stationary though he is. The last episode, in fact, put poor Otto at the epicenter of the violence and mayhem. It's an interesting twist on one of the strangest tropes I can ever remember. By the way, before we leave this topic, we must say a word or two about the mysterious, impossibly ancient Rabbi Marshak, the reclusive cleric portrayed by Alan Mandell in 2009's A Serious Man. Marshak is basically immobile and nearly speechless in that film, which he spends parked behind his impressive desk, but eventually he does open up a little in his momentous-seeming summit with the protagonist's pot-smoking son (Aaron Wolff), who has just survived his bar mitzvah. Only a man with Marshak's old school gravitas could possibly make Jefferson Airplane lyrics sound like a pronouncement from God. Behold:

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