World Cinema and Framing Narrative

Toward a Neuroscientific Literary Criticism

I have always felt somewhat ill at ease with the films of Joel and Ethan Cohen. While they have been lauded with accolades from literally every court, I have found myself, with a few friends, consistently feeling that their movies ring false. While there were always elements I recognized as false in their scripts, these elements never did fully explained the way their films unnerved me. It was only recently, as their short “World Cinema” (available here) made its rounds of the internet, that I came to realize one of the major failings of their storytelling.
(begin traditional plot rehash, skip this part if you’ve seen it)
In World Cinema we are presented, at first, with two men, standing in a small theater, in what could really be anytown, USA. The two men are the classic dichotomy of America – one, the intellectual, the anglophile, the goateed, the small man, who is showing only two films in what is probably his theater, both in a foreign language, and both on the, well, artistic side of film making, shall we say. The other man, standing across the counter, is the classic American cowboy. Tan straw cowboy hat, plaid cowboy shirt, mustache, the works. We are obviously witnessing the meeting of two stereotypes.
After some deliberation and descriptions, the “cowboy” chooses Climates, the complex, difficult Hungarian film, presented in Turkic. When the cowboy emerges from the theater, he surprises the audience by leaving a message with the person at the desk (our short man has left) to tell the original man that he really enjoyed Climates. The “cowboy” comments that “there’s a hell of a lot of truth in that movie, in my opinion.”
(end traditional plot rehash, pick up here.)
On the surface level, the characters play out well – as wary of each other as they should be, their language and knowledge appropriate to their situations. The point that rings false is the cowboy’s acceptance of Climates. Now, of course, one could critique my criticism at this point by saying that it only rings false to me because I have my own expectations which I approach the people with – that I am too easily drawn into stereotypes. Yet, there is a good, academic reason for my finding this falsehood. To put a lot of deep, complex academic work simply: Neuroscience has discovered that we interpret our experiences, especially our experiences of art, through formerly constructed framing narratives. In short, then, the cowboy would not have the framing structure present to recognize and accept the truth in Climates. In essence, the cowboy has lived out the enlightenment, rationalist thinking George Lakoff tells of, as the attitude, “if we present the truth, people will think themselves to the right conclusion.”
Now, could this simply be a surprising cowboy? Could he have been pondering these things in his inevitable pickup? Could his latent sexual desire for the short man have opened his framing? It is possible, certainly, but let us now think of the Cohen brother’s films as a whole. Each of them seems to have the same basic elements on some level – someone lacking the framing narrative necessary to deal with some philosophical issue enters into that issue experientially, and emerges with a changed perspective, with no clear change of the framing narrative. This is most clearly present in No Country for Old Men where the “Old Man” makes his clear, even philosophical change despite the fact that his framing clearly has no way of assimilating these philosophical thoughts.
Perhaps I am tainted by the time I spent living in Montana. It is true that there are some people who do have more beneath their surfaces than meets the eye. These people, however, seem all too common to me in Cohen brothers films. I have the feeling the Cohen brothers write about these people without ever having really met them, and I likewise have the feeling that, someday, when the two haves of this country meet, their bitter battle will only be exacerbated by a misunderstanding on the “intellectual” side of the ability and the conditions of the change of the other party. To some extent, this is already happening, and my own framing makes me quite likely to grow tired of it.


Daniel Ebling said...


I definitely agree that there is a type of thinking extant among some of the "intellectual community" that a false sense of expectation and unmerited hope should be extended toward individuals who clearly do not value thought or implement it in their existence--almost a sense that for the mere reason that they are human, they must by default tread the path of evolution toward perfection, and it is only a matter of time until they inevitably progress.

But the "is there livestock in any of them?" as a follow up to "there nudity?" was pretty hilarious. :P

Abigail said...

I disagree on the basis that your expectations of the movies/ interpretation of the purpose of their movies provide an improper "framing narrative" for appreciating them.

I also think the framing of the "intellectual" and the "uneducated" are not so different as we tend to think. But then again, maybe this is one thing I'm more optimistic than you in.