George Wilson
"Love and Bullshit in Santa Rosa:
On the Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There

September 26, 2008

Philosophy professor George Wilson (USC) visited the Center on September 26 to read a working paper entitled, “Love and Bullshit in Santa Rosa: On the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There.” Wilson’s close reading was preceded by a screening of the film.

Center fellow Luca Ferrero (UWM, Philosophy) introduces George Wilson

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), done primarily in a film noir style, tells the tale of a “downtrodden, deluded, and doomed barber,” Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), who murders a man. His wife is wrongly accused of the crime and he is subsequently convicted of a different murder that he did not commit.

George Wilson

Ed is trapped in a dead-end job in sunny Santa Rosa and his marriage to Doris (Frances McDormand) is barren, both literally and figuratively. However, Ed, reticent by nature, lives in a world of “garrulous gargoyles,” surrounded by a regular pantheon of American characters. According to Wilson, Ed’s alienation is reflected in one of the movie’s subthemes that is usually glossed over by the critics, that of the paranoid space invasion in which aliens occupy the bodies of the human hosts. Although most critics aren’t sure what to make of this subtheme—just what are flying saucers doing in a noir film?—the noir and space invasion motifs merge by the end of the movie to reinforce Ed’s alienation, as well as the alienating behavior of almost everyone else in the film.

The audience engages with George Wilson

For Wilson, the single possibility of hope in this rather dark film is the marriage of Ed and Doris. Although their relationship is, by most standards, bleak and pathetic, they also exhibit an unusual sort of comfortable intimacy, mutually supporting each other from “the outside forces of manipulation, duplicity, violence… and unremitting bullshit.”

Unlike most other events that combine a film and lecture, Wilson’s lecture drew a larger crowd than the film screening. An exhilarating and wide-ranging question and answer session saw both Wilson and the audience musing on parallels with other Coen brother films and allusions to the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, and Dylan Thomas, as well as cinematic investigations into the nature of truth, the pastiche of ambiguity, and the melding of dream and memory. The Center would like to thank the Film Department for its assistance in publicizing the event.


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