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Circles versus lines and the art of misdirection in The Hudsucker Proxy

Most of us are accomplished watchers of TV and film, so we intuitively understand some of the concepts lurking in dense film-theory tomes. You won’t need them for Internet Film School, The A.V. Club’s column about film and television. In each installment, we explore a basic element of visual composition and analyze examples to understand how the formal properties of film and television manipulate viewers.

The Hudsucker Proxy is often considered a “minor” Coen Brothers movie—coming as it does between two bleaker works of near unanimous acclaim, Barton Fink and Fargo—and that may be because the entire film is based on the simplest of tensions between visual elements: the lines and circles that dominate both the aesthetic and the narrative.

The film tells a familiar story of American ingenuity and innocence, and borrows from Frank Capra—the director of such films as Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and It’s A Wonderful Life—not only through its almost black-and-white palette, but also through its tone of unmitigated optimism. That is not, however, the note on which the film begins. The Coens opens with a slow zoom into Hudsucker Tower, the sight of which alerts the audience to the film’s central tension:

The city is composed entirely of hard vertical lines with one important exception: the well-lit clock tower in the center of the frame. If this were another film, the idea that a tension between these lines and circles not only exists, but is actually interesting, would be the kind of abstract talk that turns people away from film theory. But this is not another film, and the Coens want the audience to understand the importance of circles and lines from the opening sequence, in which a man who is all about circles has come to his wit’s—and possibly his life’s—end because he lives in a world made of lines.

Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) from Muncie, Indiana is a modern incarnation of a James Stewart character—an indomitable spirit—and as the film opens, he is about to commit suicide.

How did Barnes reach this low point in his life? Why did he decide to “celebrate” reaching it by plunging from such great heights? In order to understand that, the narrative circles back to the day unemployed country mouse Barnes arrived in the big city, which happens to be the same day he discovered he’s unqualified for every available position in it. He consoles himself with a cheap coffee at a nearly empty cafe, but when he gets up to leave, the camera lingers on the stain his cup has left upon the classified ads:

The circular coffee stain interrupts the rigid newspaper columns, but because Barnes is not there to see this, the Coens must use the universe to do his narrative bidding, so they set the paper adrift and have it chase Barnes out of the cafe and onto the street. When Barnes discovers the auspicious stain, he immediately heads to Hudsucker Tower and enters through the revolving doors at the bottom of the skyscraper. As he enters on the bottom floor:

The CEO of Hudsucker Industries, Waring Hudsucker, exits from the top and drops in a straight line into the diegetic space just vacated by Barnes:

The suggestion is that this typical American success story is circular to a fault. Just as those who rise to the top inevitably and fatally fall to the bottom, so too does capitalism require a hardworking idealist to replace a disillusioned one. So it makes a circular kind of sense that Barnes enters the building at the exact same moment—marked by the chiming of Hudsucker Tower’s clock, no less—that Hudsucker exits it. And, of course, Hudsucker’s suicide loops the narrative back to the opening scene of the film, in which Barnes was the one about to take the plunge. Circles within circles, as they say, except in this case it’s more than an empty truism. The Coens and screenwriter Sam Raimi want the audience to think about how these stories are related, and in particular, how they mirror each other in their circularity—as well as what it will take to break the circular logic the film seems trapped in.

But more on that shortly, because Barnes makes it from the mail room to the office of Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman) in a little under five minutes, at which point he immediately shares “something I’ve been working on for the past two or three years”:

Thinking he has found a moron who can accelerate the company’s “downward spiral” aggressively enough to allow the board to buy the stock cheap when Hudsucker Industry goes public, Mussburger invites Barnes to be the new president of the company. His face is featured on the front page of The Manhattan Argus—which may be a reference to Odysseus’ faithful dog, who waited 20 years for his master, who was out having himself an Iliad and an Odyssey, to return so he could die—and he seems to be the epitome of that archetypal American rise from rags to riches.

Soon enough, Barnes the “idea man” is revealed to be a fraud, after crack reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tricks him into hiring her as his secretary. The ruse is up—for her, at least—when Moses, the man who runs the clock atop Hudsucker Tower, confronts her. When she asks who he is, he replies, “I keep the old circle turning”:

Because of course keeping the “the old circle turning” outside requires spinning clockwork gears. I could continue in this vein, because the Coens and Raimi aren’t exactly subtle with their circles. At the company Christmas party, for example, a stockholder whose shares have bled value for weeks confronts Barnes and says, “You and I have to circle our wagons.” Later at that same party, Barnes and Archer discuss reincarnation, “that great circle of life and death and rebirth,” and karma, “a great wheel that that gives us all what we deserve.”

The issue is not, of course, that the film is full of circles, but what those circles mean—and what they mean, apparently, is fun. Fun, because they bring the film its first hint of color:

Moreover, note the schematics for the as-yet-unnamed Hula-Hoop: a single circle and two lines, one vertical, one horizontal. The tension between circles and lines is instantiated in the hula-hoop as a matter of perspective. A circle is a line if it’s just looked at it the right way, as is made clear in the montage of its production and distribution. Here, for example, is a circle on its way toward becoming a line:

This shot—by second-unit director Raimi, not the Coens—is noticeably different from the previous shots because there’s actually color in it. Instead of the gray-on-even-more-gray palette that dominated the first half of the film, the shot appears to be filmed someplace where the skies don’t perpetually threaten downpour. It is as if the first splash of red revolving around Barnes’ waist has infected the rest of the film with color, so it isn’t surprising that this brighter new diegetic space is augured in by a visual recapitulation of Barnes’ swinging hips:

But all this fun flies in the face of the film’s central tension—if circles are the stuff of life and vitality, why is it that the narrative’s circling back to the film’s opening scene, in which Barnes is about to commit suicide? It’s because all this circularity is nothing more than misdirection. The Coens and Raimi want the audience to believe, through the majority of the film, that no matter how good things get for Barnes, he can’t be saved. He’s doomed to die in the manner as his predecessor, Waring Hudsucker, because those are the laws of the universe they created.

And those are the laws of the universe they created—but only so they could violate them. Barnes does indeed jump, and he does indeed fall, thereby completing the narrative circle that began before the opening credits ran. Only he doesn’t die. In a move that both points to the artificiality of Hollywood narrative like Capra’s and runs contrary to the bleak endings of both Barton Fink and Fargo, Barnes survives. His death would make more sense in terms of the narrative and visual logic, but it wouldn’t be surprising. The deus ex machina on which the film ends is 100 percent cornball, and was reviled by critics at the time. However, it injects a last (and lasting) note of hope into an otherwise bleak film. Why would the Coens and Raimi do that?

“You know—for kids!”