The Man Who Wasn't There

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Twentieth-Century Man

The Coen Brothers turn to Camus for help telling the story of modern alienation.

tom c smith

After Fargo, the Coen Brothers could do no wrong. Ethan and Joel were the kings of black comedy. However, watching The Man Who Wasn’t There (MWWT) leaves one in a confused state, wondering: Is this film noir, or just a bad hair day? Not sure which way to turn, I flipped on some classic Kinks, Celluloid Heroes. And with the very first song the mystery was solved.

“Ain’t got no ambition,
I’m just disillusioned
I’m a twentieth century man but I don’t wanna be here.”

—“Twentieth Century Man” by Ray Davies

Twentieth Century Man. That’s what it’s all about: the song and the movie. Who or what is Twentieth Century Man? Is it an aging British rock star (Ray Davies) or the small town barber (Ed Crane) in MWWT? In fact, Twentieth Century Man is actually a character, and plot, that the Coen Brothers lifted from one of the truly visionary thinkers of the last century, Albert Camus.

Who wants to be a twentieth century man?

Initially, Ed Crane gives the impression that he’s got it all together. But as we get deeper into The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Ed’s life suddenly veers off into a bizarre series of events, we realize that Ed is clueless both to himself and his circumstances. Ed is “just a barber.” He’s not a scientist or a great thinker or an artist. Ed’s lack of awareness and his ordinary occupation qualify him as just an average guy, an Everyman.

Freddie Reidenschneider is a big time lawyer that Ed hires to defend his wife Doris, charged with murdering her boss. While visiting with Doris and Ed in jail, Freddie launches into an inimitable presentation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. As Freddie explains, per this German guy’s theory, you can never really be sure about what you observe because “your looking at it changes it. You can’t know the reality of what happened, or what would’ve happened.” How the uncertainty principle directly pertains to Doris’s case is anything but clear, but this is in keeping with Coen brothers’ movie logic (think The Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Are Thou?).

“This is the age of machinery, mechanical madness
The wonderful world of technology
Napalm, hydrogen bomb, biological warfare

This is the twentieth century, too much aggravation
It’s the age of insanity
What has become of the green pleasant fields of Jerusalem?”

—“Twentieth Century Man” by Ray Davies

At one point, Freddie proclaims that Ed Crane is Twentieth Century Man. It’s clear that Freddie’s introduction of the uncertainty principle as applicable to Doris’s case also applies to Ed.

On the level of popular metaphysics, the uncertainty principle is a dagger in the heart of our commonsense view of the world. Teamed up with the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle shatters the previous stable picture of reality (“the green pleasant fields of Jerusalem”). Its impact is all the more telling in that it is delivered by science, the means by which, prior to the twentieth century, mankind had been slowly and precisely building a set of reasonable rules for the universe. The basis for these rules has been the supposition that the world is observable from an objective point of view. Rules are derived from the predictability of events based on scientific observation of previous events. The scientific observation of events does not call for intervention by the observer. But the Uncertainty Principle shows the fallacy of this traditional method.

Keep your smart modern writers

The focus of The Man Who Wasn’t There is much wider than just the perils of unchecked science and technology, as asserted by the Luddites of the nineteenth century and neo-Luddites of the twentieth century. (Once parted from his electric guitar, Ray Davies is a definite Luddite candidate.) The Coens’ real concern is much subtler than the “uncertainty principle” point introduced by Freddie. Cleverly—with some help from Albert Camus—the Coens have managed to imbed their concern into the very plot of MWWT.

“My mama said she can’t understand me,
she can’t see my motivation
Just give me some security,
I’m a paranoid, shizoid product of the twentieth century.

You keep all your smart modern writers,
I’ll take William Shakespeare.”

—“Twentieth Century Man” by Ray Davies

“Mother died today, or maybe it was yesterday.” These words are spoken by Meursault, the main character in the famous existentialist novel, The Stranger by Albert Camus. Meursault is a young man living in Algeria whose life takes a turn for the worse after he unfeelingly commits a murder. Meursault’s court appearance—where he is found guilty—is more a trial of character than an evaluation of his liability for the crime. After the trial Meursault is sent to prison and put to death.

In MWWT, Ed kills his wife’s lover (Big Dave) when Big Dave unexpectedly attacks him. Ed catches a break, of sorts, when Doris is arrested for Dave’s murder. But then he’s arrested for the murder of the traveling salesman Creighton Tolliver. The main evidence against Ed is the contract for a dry cleaning business that was cosigned by Creighton and Ed. The contract was found next to Creighton—he was beaten to death—in his car at the bottom of a local lake. Most of Ed’s trial deals not with the crime but his character as Twentieth Century Man. Ed is subsequently found guilty, sent to prison, and put to death.

Billy Bob Thornton is Ed or MeursaultMeursault’s and Ed’s lives should sound similar by now. And this is appropriate, for Ed and Meursault are actually the same person. This is true not only on the level of plot, but also with respect to their personalities. Both are known primarily for exhibiting a total lack of emotion. Both men, for instance, respond in the same calm, almost apathetic manner when proposed to (by Doris and Marie respectively).

The similarities between The Stranger and MWWT are just too coincidental. We can see that the Coen Brothers borrowed directly from The Stranger in order to provide movie viewers (that is, a non-reading audience likely unfamiliar with Camus) with a taste of twentieth century existential philosophy. Unfortunately, while a taste of existentialism may be “arty,” it can also be very confusing.

The concept of the absurd is a cornerstone of Camus’s philosophy. The absurd is that feeling of humanity’s disconnection from the world that became so prevalent in the twentieth century. Such discoveries as the uncertainty principle, quantum mechanics, and relativity are used by philosophers in the tradition of Camus and Sartre to substantiate the theory of absurdity, the “benign indifference of the universe.” Per Camus, the real cause for this “absurdity” is our need for a rational explanation for the universe, an explanation we had thought science could produce. But as we have seen, twentieth century science has produced only confusing results for the masses.

Waking Life is another film that delves into the dark oceans of twentieth-century philosophy. Waking Life treats us to an endless series of speakers spouting forth twentieth-century wisdom, none of which would sound too reassuring to Ray Davies. One of the existential proponents (a professor voiced by Robert Solomon) asserts that existentialism is actually optimistic because it promotes a self that is neither a social construct (postmodernism) nor an immortal pawn controlled by an all-knowing God (Christianity). Solomon’s existentialist self is an indivisible being that is independent and consequentially vulnerable. Via the allegorical tale that is Ed’s life, The Man Who Wasn’t There promotes a philosophy similar to that of Solomon.

I don’t wanna die here!

While in prison, Meursault finally seems—too late, of course—to be getting in touch with himself. As he says, “For the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still.”

Ed, too, undergoes an epiphany while on death row, “You get some distance on it. And, all those twists and turns, well they’re the shape of your life . . . Seeing it whole, gives you some peace.” Having reached a personal understanding, Ed, like Meursault, appears ready to accept the risks (there’s no one “up there” looking after us) and benefits (we’re in control of our own fate) of an indifferent twentieth century view of the world.

“Oh we gotta get out of here.
We gotta find a solution.
I’m a twentieth century man but I don’t wanna die here.”

—“Twentieth Century Man” by Ray Davies

Not to be calling Ray Davies a liar, but he isn’t really a twentieth-century man (this could, of course, be the real point of the song). Ray just happened to be born in the twentieth century. He would have preferred to have lived and died in the nineteenth, eighteenth, or seventeenth centuries—some time when our life-after-death destinations were more established. A time and place where man and his god (and/or science) were the center of a stable universe. One suspects that this is also where those who haven’t caught up with the views of Camus and the rest of the existentialist crew would have preferred to live and die, too.

posted by editor ::: June 02, 2003 ::: philms :::