#69: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: The Coen Brothers on Stories and Death in the Wild West


Those wily Coen are at it again! From the fellas who brought you The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and A Serious Man comes The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a six-in-one special that follows wild characters through the Wild West as only the Coens can conceive it. Six short films connected thematically comprise this film, which better win some Oscars, because it’s fucking good. You might consider it the Coen brothers at their best. Because The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is about three things the Coen seems to love most: Songs, Stories, and Death. And, of course, how the three are closely related. 


Those Coens sure enjoy their songs. I mean, what soundtrack is more iconic than O Brother Where Art Thou? All right, Rocky 4, but apart from that, what else? Nothing, that’s what! The Coens are enamored with the way that songs carry on stories and traditions, the way they are passed down through time. There’s the song of the railroad workers at the beginning of Brother. There’s the song that Danny has to learn for his Bar Mitzvah in A Serious Man. There’s the songs that Oscar Isaac sings in Inside Llewyn Davis. And now, there’s numerous songs throughout Scruggs, including the titular character playing and singing “Cool Water” while riding his horse “Dan” to start off the film. After all, the word “ballad” is in the title, and ballads are among the oldest types of stories that exist — songs passed down around the fire, spread through the oral tradition for all to remember through time.



Tom Waits in “All Gold Canyon”

Tom Waits in “All Gold Canyon”

Speaking of old stories, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is enamored with storytelling. The entire movie is framed as a storybook, and before each of the six stories, we see a hand turning the pages of a book and arriving at the new story before we fade into the Coenic rendition. With the exception of “All Gold Canyon”, which was based on a Jack London story and stars Tom Waits as a prospector, all these stories were written by the Coens.

Among the earliest stories are parables, which have deep moral lessons hidden within. This is contrasted with fables, which tell the moral outright at the end. Parables leave it up to the reader. There’s also mythology, which the Coens greatly appreciate given their Jewish, Old Testament-heavy upbringing. And finally, there’s the classic American story: the Tall Tale. 

Ole Pecos Bill

Ole Pecos Bill

Who can forget the stories of John Henry battling the machine on the railroad, or Pecos Bill riding the tornadoes, or Paul Bunyan chopping down trees with one sweep of the axe? These are stories that arose from the American Frontier, and the Coens play with those tropes, especially with Scruggs himself, who is an over-the-top, infamous outlaw known for his pleasant demeanor and sharpshooting. 

The Coens have long been fans of stories within stories. Heck, even The Big Lebowski is set up as a story being told to us, via Sam Elliot, the mustached “Stranger.” They seem fascinated with the mechanisms of storytelling and how the story itself transmutes meaning, as opposed to an explicitly-stated moral at the conclusion. (This is why many were POed at the end of No Country For Old Men — because they had to interpret it themselves, and that’s hard, man!) The stories of Scruggs suggest that the Coens are so enamored with the devices of storytelling, because storytelling is our key to immortality. 


Many have pointed out the bleakness to this film, due to the fact that all of the stories involve some contemplation of — and confrontation with — death. The Big D. That inevitable conclusion to our existences that we do our best to avoid, both in thought and action. The Coens want us to contemplate it. They want their characters to contemplate it. They find humor in it — such as when Scruggs kills Clancy Brown in the old saloon over cards — as well as tragedy — such as the brutal ending of “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” 


The final short, “The Mortal Remains”, suggests that our approach to our death in large part determines the quality of our lives. Are we desperately clinging to notions of who we believe we are, and were, like the terrified woman in the center of the carriage? Or are we able to fastidiously adhere to its inevitability, like the French guy who goes through the doors at the end? When that inevitable moment comes, how prepared will we be to accept it? 

Regardless, the Coens appear to believe that stories are a gateway to transcendence. Though the lives that animate the stories are impermanent, the stories themselves get passed down through time, and those impermanent characters become immortalized in memory. The Kid may have killed Buster at the end, but one day, The Kid will meet his match as well. As the last line of the titular story states, “There is another kid out there now, somewhere, just learning to sing, and sling a gun, and hoping to earn a legend of his own. Perhaps some day he will meet The Kid, and that will be another story--different, yet the same.”

We are playing out the same stories, in different forms, and these stories carry eternal lessons that recur through epochs and generations, cultures and religious traditions. In a time when virtue and morality is threatened under the postmodern veneer of relativism, the Coens turn to stories to remind us that there are values worth living for, values that transcend and philosophical interpretation, and our adherence to those values in large part determines how prepared we will be to meet our inevitable mortality. 


0-4:00: Bullshit Stream of Consciousness

4:00: “Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and the Vision of the West

9:00: Traditional Narrative and Story Structure

24:00: Coen Bros and Disney

26:00: Heidegger and Scruggs: Being-Toward-Death

29:00: The Mortal Remains: A Carriage Ride of Death

36:00: Sartre’s No Exit

38:30: A Coen Bros Trope

41:00: The Recurrence of Stories Through Time: Songs and Jewish Tradition

43:00: A Serious Man, the Book of Job, and how stories communicate meaning

49:00: The Origins of Storytelling: Ballads, Fables, Parables, and Mythology; Psychotic interpretations of The Old Testament; Religious Truth vs. Historical Truth

54:30: Tall Tales: Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Pecos Bill, Casey at the Bat, and Buster Scruggs

1:00:25: The Ending of “The Gal Who Got Rattled”

1:04:15: “Meal Ticket” and the Disney-fication of Stories (and A Few More Reasons Inception Sucks)

1:11:00: Final Thoughts 

#68: Darth Maul and Airplane!


This episode is mostly about the movie Airplane! Airplane! is a funny movie. It’s filled with silly jokes, rich parody, and Lloyd Bridges, who is addicted to sniffing glue. We revisit this classic comedy and finds points of richness. Along the way, we discuss the difference between satire and parody, our current PC culture, and Darth Maul. Maul gets the most airtime, apart from the film de jour, and we hope that we can find ways to continue talking about Maul, because he’s significant, and we’re still not sure why. So if you have any insights on Maul, please come to our website, generalsnobbery.com, and let us know your thoughts. Maybe Maul is the hope we need. If not, there’s still Airplane! for some good old-fashioned laugharoos. 


#66: The Goonies and Sex (Thanks, Freud!)

There's no way around it, Listener.  The Goonies is all about sex.  In particular, it is a coming of age story about what it means to be an American boy discovering sexuality for the first time.  Can the Goonies, by traveling deep into a cave, discover the treasure they looking for?  The treasure of ONE EYED WILLY?  Or, will they be thwarted by those mother-loving Italians, the Fratelli Brothers?

We know how it happened.  Fresh from the throes of his new-found, burgeoning love, having arisen from the dark Temple of Doom, Steven Spielberg demanded a movie about boys learning about sex.  And when the director of Jaws wants a movie about boys learning about sex, America gets a movie about boys learning about sex.

We got Astin, we got Brolin, we got Short Round, and all the rest, teaching us, the viewer, of the diverse ways American boys experience the onslaught of sexuality.  Some are timid.  Some are confident.  Some don't quite get it.  Some use gadgets.  

No matter what kind of puberty you had, we can all relate with Mikey.  All he wants is to find ONE EYED WILLY and save his family.  Is this really so fantastical?  Isn't that what every man has wanted throughout all of time?  I guess you could say, we can all relate with Mikey, especially Steven Spielberg who, once again, seems to be enthralled with the sexual awakening of these young boys.

As always listener, thank you for joining us.  We have no doubt that this episode will forever change the way you think about your GOONIE.