Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998) (IMDB)

Stressed About COVID-19? Seek the Tao of Coen

"Son, you got a panty on your head." As purveyors of gallows humor, filmmakers the Coen Brothers teach us how to laugh at things that aren't funny -- but kinda are.

In these surreal days of Coronavirus crisis, my wife and I have taken to late afternoon walks around the neighborhood. On a recent outing, we noticed a neighbor wearing a face mask fashioned out of a G-string. My wife nudged me in the ribs and said, “Son, you got a panty on your head.”

She was quoting the Coen Brothers film Raising Arizona, where Nicolas Cage’s H.I. McDunnough robs a convenience store wearing a pantyhose mask. I laughed and replied with a line uttered by M. Emmet Walsh as Detective Loren Visser in Blood Simple, “Something pretty fucking weird is going on.”

We’re movie nerds. We’ve been quoting Coen Brothers for a while. Pre-pandemic, when offering a neighbor a taste of my exotic dinner experiment gone wrong, I said in my best southern drawl, “Care for some gopher?” (Tim Blake Nelson as Delmar O’Donnell in Oh Brother Where Art Thou) We’ve since realized that the Coen Brothers have become our spirit guides, of sorts, as we wind our way through this stranger than fiction life in the time of Coronavirus. The Coens’ absurd vision and dark humor are perfectly suited to the age of COVID-19.

While rummaging through the refrigerator for something to cook, I sniffed a dubious piece of raw chicken. I turned to my wife and said with that southern drawl à la John Turturro’s Pete, this time, “I think this horse is starting to turn” (Oh Brother Where Art Thou). While watching President Trump justify his response to the crisis on CNN, my wife yelled in classic Walter Sobchak fashion, “You’re out of your element, Donny!” (The Big Lebowski).

After three days without shaving and showering and seeing my disheveled appearance in the mirror, I donned my George Clooney as the chatty Ulysses Everett McGill persona and said, “As soon as I get myself cleaned up and a little smellum in my hair, I’m gonna feel one-hundred percent better.” (Oh Brother Where Art Thou)

We’ve discovered there’s something calming and reassuring about losing ourselves in the absurdity of Coen Brothers characters. Coen Brothers dialogue is like novocaine, taking some sting out of the pandemic. As purveyors of gallows humor, the Coens teach us how to laugh at things that are not funny — but kinda are. Their movies offer a template for coping with the horrors of modern life.

Recently, an anxious neighbor waiting to cross the sidewalk behind me screamed at me for taking too long to back my car out of the garage. The next day he brought me, in a distancing kind of way, fresh-baked bread as an apology. He stood back from the door. His face and hands covered with protective gear. I stood at the door wearing nothing more than my underwear and a T-Shirt. He tossed the bread at me from his safe distance and hurried away. I hollered a thank you at his retreating back, closed the door, then turned to my wife and in my best Gabriel Byrne as Tom Regan imitation (that is, a certain New York accent) I said, “All in all he’s not a bad guy if looks, brains, and personality don’t count.” (Miller’s Crossing)

Chatting with an old friend from the socially distancing phone, he went on a ten-minute rant (I imagined the unsafe spit flying from his lips) about oppressive government and the coming dystopia. He said Big Brother had no right to keep people indoors and prevent group gatherings. I tweaked my imaginary Steve Buscemi mustache and like the uptight Carl Showalter in Fargosaid, “Smoke a fuckin’ peace pipe will you?”

I read about Governor Newsom’s plan to reopen the California economy. He’s been trying to manage a crisis that’s out of control. I realize this is impossible since the old paradigms no longer apply. A sly, sinister smile spread across my face. “If the rule you follow brought you to this, of what use is the rule?” I said coolly, like Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.

Also in the news was that Harvey Weinstein contracted Coronavirus in Rikers Prison. I turned to my wife beside me on the couch raised my eyebrows, smiled slightly and said, “It’s what the Hindus call kar-mah.” (Tim Robbins as Norville Barnes in Hudsucker Proxy)

I didn’t want to drive to Costco with my wife to buy toilet paper and rubber gloves on a Saturday, when I knew a lot of shoppers would be out. Stubbornly, she insisted we go. I stood looking at her, puffed out my gut and just like John Goodman’s Walter in The Big Lebowski I said, “I don’t roll on Shabbos.”

Another friend (again on the phone) complained that if he’d only known the epidemic was coming he wouldn’t have leased that pricey little Mercedes SUV in January. I offered in a kind of hot and sweaty-like sympathetic reply, quoting Trey Wilson as Nathan Arizona Sr. in Raising Arizona, “If a frog had wings it wouldn’t bump its ass a hoppin.”

Lazily gazing out my window the other day, I found myself discerning the attraction between my 60-year old Japanese landlord and his 20-year old Nicaraguan wife. “It’s a fool that looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart,” I muttered like George Clooney as Ulyesses Everett McGill in Oh Brother Where Art Thou.

Wondering how we’ll get through this COVID-19 crisis? Well, we all know what the Coen Brothers would say about that: Let your body hair grow where it may as it will, sit with a slouch, shrug, and say just before putting your headphones on and kicking back, “The dude abides.” (Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski)

Coen Brothers movies are like instructional films for the apocalypse. They’re reminiscent of Red Asphalt, the documentary shown in high school driver’s ed class. The film includes gruesome imagery of dismembered bodies and fatal car accidents. The point is to teach teenagers the perils of driving by scaring the shit out of them. Coen Brothers movies scare the shit out of us by showing the dark potential of existence.

Yup, there’s a Coen Brothers line of dialogue suitable for seemingly every occasion. Call it the Tao of Coen.