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King of Kings: The Coen Brothers and Ozymandias

Their names are Joel and Ethan. Look on their Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said— “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Perhaps no poem has had as much influence on modern culture as this. Percy Bysshe Shelley's 14-line, 111-word, 142-syllable masterpiece of Romantic ephemerality stands as the definitive metaphor of life’s evaporating existence. It is the backbone of the existential despair of Camus’ The Outsider, of Lolita's rotting youth, of Walter White's dark heart of hubris, and of Watchmen's answer to the vanity of human pursuits. But nowhere does it pervade its leering hopelessness as much as it does in the work of the Coen Brothers, who choose to tackle its weight film after film, undeterred by the poem’s own despondent anguish, and instead cast an apathetic eye onto Shelley’s crumbling stone with wandering-mind lyricism, set against the black fog of failed American Dreams.

Even as the Coens have split up, and Joel Coen has – solo – taken on Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, a story lacquered in the arrogance of misplaced ambition and soaked in the personal apocalypse that Shelley so sincerely described in his simple, striking symbolism. As Washington's quaking Macbeth wades against the raging current of time, an inevitable and inescapable fate and fear of death (whether a slave, a sculptor or a king, it comes for us all) shreds even the noblest attempt at immortality, and there is a sense that the Coens have a sick fascination with this obscure irony. Macbeth is certainly not the first cursed character in their filmography. Joel has looked to Shakespeare as the brothers looked to Shelley, the man who created, maybe, the greatest piece of art ever made, about how art – like everything – will come crumbling back to dust.

In their last film as a duo, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coens gouged out Shelley’s ideas and smuggled them into a Western film – a genre historically concerned with myth, legacy, death, and fate – in a beguiling synthesis of form. The vignette “Meal Ticket” is the most direct example of the poem's themes, as their interpretation of his plight is found quivering through sultry mist, peeking out from beneath the sand; a half-sunk shattered visage lies whose impatient frown and wrinkled lips betray its sculptor’s art. Here is a truly dismal piece from the Brothers, where a limbless orator begins the episode by reciting Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, with its two “trunkless legs of stone” becoming far more literal – and something close to the artist’s idea of wish-fulfilment. It is the darkest shade of farce in the Coens’ career, gloating that whether to violence or time, nothing lasts.

Harry Melling in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

We as a culture require a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth or origin, which reassures us about our end. The Ancient Egyptians had religious reasons for why their images were created, to get "beyond" or to "defeat" death. And though the Sphinx and the Pyramids still stand (and stand taller than even the Statue of Liberty), the Ancient Egyptians have completely lost their language, culture and civilisation. Time ticks. Pursuits of even Biblical proportions don't stop the clock. Nature's encroaching entropy stretches forth, strolling hand-in-hand with Shelley's own atheistic feelings of fortune for what he called "the accident of life”, the wonder of a man resigned to the suffocating Sisyphean struggle of someone who is coming to terms with their own unavoidable transience. Temporal creatures, crawling cogs in the great cosmic conveyor belt of existence, striving for purpose and fighting back fleeting breaths only to collapse into the dust. If time and nature can take down the mighty Egyptian kingdom, we as individuals don't stand a fucking chance. Where once stood a great and mighty empire now stands lone and level sands. Where once stood a monument to Egypt’s most powerful Pharaoh now stands two vast and trunkless legs of stone. Shelley knew it and so do the Coens, where harsh truths peek through even harsher landscapes in Raising Arizona and No Country For Old Men (a film where death is inevitable, unstoppable, and personified in one of cinema’s great monsters), or through the snow-covered vistas of Fargo, where the snow can cover up your very existence, or your purpose of living (a briefcase – an image echoed in No Country, two films which – funnily enough – make a perfect flipside of the same coin) in the first place.

Because people die in Coen Brothers films. It isn’t so much about the finality of death as the meaninglessness of life. Death is just the full-stop to a filmography full of characters chasing the American Dream like rodents caught in a giant hamster wheel. There is no redemption, no resurrection, and these films don't stand as morality statements, but as a proclamation: none of us are getting out of here alive. And this existential brutality, this cruel realisation, manifests itself as darkly comic violence. The Coens are in on the universe's sick joke, and perhaps they are taking back some control by forcing their characters into such sadistic theatre. Perhaps there may be a mere gesture towards something 'beyond' that lies in all their films but riddled with fate and destiny spoiling plans, all but soundtracked by the childish giggles of some higher being watching down over The Dude or Chigurh's ill-fated ambition.

"You can't stop what's coming. It ain't all waiting on you,” drawls the ageing Sherriff Ellis towards the end of No Country, a line teeming with so much fatalism and disdain for vanity it might’ve even got Shelley's poisoned juices flowing. These ideas tear through their filmography, from their early thrillers to the more recent and much more restrained A Serious Man – a film that gnaws at our very ideas of existence as an apocalyptic non-prophecy, a shout into the ether – and Inside Llewyn Davis. A burlesque of despair and boredom, Davis is, however, the black sheep. It is the subtle antithesis of doom-draped dreams in the form of self-sabotage: where losing is winning, where victory seems tireless, and a life searching for artistic purpose (and, of course, the vanity of those artists) gives way for people looking not to succeed in fear that it might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

No Country For Old Men (2007)

All of this culminated in the most Coen-esque way possible with their absurdist vision of Old Hollywood in Hail, Caesar! – even in the title alone, signalling the most famous figure of an Empire that must have once seemed infinite – a collision of their George Clooney-led "trilogy of idiots in four parts", and the idiocy of creating a “legacy” through the self-seriousness of filmmaking. Almost burdened by their own success, this is the Coens amidst an endless destroying and rebuilding of their inspirations, a constant swallowing and regurgitation of two lifetime’s worth of film, literature, myth, and religion – the world they've set up unravelling at its seams. And it makes me wonder about the relationship between Shelley and his poem, between artist and creation? Did he align himself with Ozymandias or the sculptor? Shelley's thought that poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world" grandiosely claims that it is the art that will remain when all else is a distant memory. It is a somewhat indulgent crowning, taking the traditional sonnet and deliberately roughing it up, the poem highlights a boiling creative tension of intellect and aesthetics, history and poetry, reason and passion that comes crashing together like the sculptor and his subject.

When all of our achievements, our successes, fame, power, money, health, and prosperity, can only last so long before fading into the "lone and level sands", why should we do anything? Why should we write this essay, or work that job, or even bother getting out of bed in the morning, when all of this will be forgotten? The stream of time and inescapable certainty of decay looms over us at every moment of our waking life, but for the most part, we blissfully ignore it and endure. Because it is exactly that: inescapable. We are only human because we are aware of our mortality. That's what makes life so precious and romantic. And why Shelley’s words – and the Coen’s films – are winning the race against time.

For now.


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