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IDSEMUG 1805 - The Coen Brothers: Failure and the American Dream

One of the most powerful myths in American society is "the American Dream," which promises that opportunity is available to all, and that material success and happiness will come through individual effort. This dream deeply informs our psychic and political lives. In most cases American popular culture reproduces and even magnifies this myth rather than subject it to criticism. Economic downturns, lost wars, and social stagnation are rarely acknowledged in popular American cinema (without some redemptive factor), and abject failure is a surprisingly rare subject. Yet the Coen Brothers—two of the most critically acclaimed contemporary American filmmakers- have made failure their primary subject. From the recent Hail, Caesar! to their first film, Blood Simple, their work abounds with losers, lost hopes, and broken dreams. Their films also challenge and rework established film genres—the western, crime caper, film noir, musical, and even art house film—as they disturb the ideology that drives these narrative forms. In this class we will examine how the genres of American film are structured by the American Dream, and how the Coens criticize its promise of prosperity, upward mobility, recognition, and fulfillment. In addition, we will explore how artists, social scientists, activists, and journalists—from the Great Depression to Occupy Wall Street--have sought to portray an alternative (bleaker) view of American life. Readings will include sociological texts, such as Michael Harrington’s The Other America, Galbraith’s The Affluent Society as well as novels and films. Add Consent: Department Consent Required.
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