The film’s title casts a drop shadow on the phallic barber’s pole.
“Pansies Don't Float”: The explicitly gay Creighton Tolliver’s (Jon Polito) submerged corpse, with his toupee floating off.
the case: The plate glass window in Big Dave’s (James Gandolfini) office
fissures as he attempts to strangle Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton). Crane
ends up knifing him in the neck in self defense.
principal barber Frank (Michael Badalucco)...
tight-lipped second chair Ed Crane. The two barbers are members of a rare
public profession that sanctions male-on-male intimacy, both physically
and in conversation, and across a range of the population.
Modern man: As Crane passes among the people of Santa Rosa, he carries “secrets bigger even than the one about what really happened.”
“Muscle Power”: The image of a male hunk adorns Crane’s prison cell desk...
...and also the wall of the barber shop.
Roderick Jaynes is the pseudonym employed by the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen to disguise the editing of the films they otherwise produce, direct, and write together under one or both of their given names. The use of this fictive persona (a source that dares not speak its name) in regard to the neo-noir ultimately released as The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) is doubly ironic. Here it foregrounds a similar subterfuge of identification in the film itself, a subterfuge that has gone largely unnoticed or at least not remarked on in the discourse surrounding the film.1
As for the working title, “not to float” suggests submersion, something kept beneath the surface, and what in a Hollywood film is more likely treated as submerged (“subtextual,” if you will) than the representation of a homosexual? Yet “Pansies Don’t Float,” like “Roderick Jaynes,” both shrouds and reveals, for, as we will show, more than one “pansy” (beyond the secondary character openly disclosed as homosexual) lurks beneath the surface of The Man Who Wasn’t There. Besides “outing” none other than the film’s protagonist, and assessing the significance of his “closeted” gayness, this essay will analyze the relation of homosexual submersion to film noir as a genre specifically, and to the issue of “gay representability” in American commercial cinema as a whole.
absent cause: plotting
The year: 1949. The place: the northern California town of Santa Rosa (last seen, most memorably, in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 noir classic Shadow of a Doubt). The protagonist: pathologically passive, atypically reticent barber Ed Crane (played by Billy Bob Thornton). Stoical victim of a deadening job and a cuckolded marriage, Crane hatches a plot to blackmail his cuckolder, Big Dave Brewster (played by James Gandolfini), into coughing up the $10,000 Crane needs to get in on the ground floor in the dry-cleaning business.
The scheme backfires ferociously. Big Dave uncovers the plot and tries to strangle Crane, who knifes Big Dave in the neck in self-defense. Crane’s wife Doris (played by director Joel Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand) is falsely accused of Big Dave’s murder and ends up committing a “double murder” in prison—of herself and her unborn child conceived with Big Dave. Crane tries to redeem himself by boosting the career of a gifted teenaged pianist Birdy (Scarlett Johansson), but this plan runs aground when the two are nearly killed in a car accident. Crane recovers from the accident but ultimately is sent to the death house for a crime he didn’t commit: the murder of Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), the gay traveling salesman who had inspired Crane’s dry-cleaning scheme and whom homophobic Big Dave had beaten and drowned. This bizarrely tragic series of events, which would send most people down a sinkhole of despair, leads to an odd form of redemption for Crane. Believing that he has been singled out by aliens and will be spirited away by flying saucer, Crane accepts his state-sanctioned electrocution with beatific calm.
As with most film noir and neo-noir, The Man Who Wasn’t There’s expressionist visual style vies for attention with its convoluted crime story if not trumping it altogether (Bergan 95). In the hands of the Coen brothers, this cinematic “excess” is both heightened through the brothers’ postmodern self-consciousness and transposed through their quirkily mordant humor. The film is shot in the obligatory black and white of classical noir and features noir’s favored chiaroscuro lighting and atmospheric mise en scene. It is set in a time period contemporary to the genre’s heyday of the mid-1940s through mid-1950s and is rife with allusions to notable noirs such as Shadow of a Doubt, Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Scarlet Street, Asphalt Jungle, Out of the Past.
The mood is sullen and murky. The worldview, filtered through the shadowy lens of the main character, is laden with alienation and anomie. Yet an “incredible lightness,” the Coen “touch,” permeates the noir haze. Much of this emanates from the cheeky construction of the ambivalent protagonist, Ed Crane, whose taciturn personality seems as incongruously attuned to his role of voice-over narrator (another classical noir referent) as it is to his barber’s profession.
A more mundane, less “cinematic” occupation is barely imaginable. Notwithstanding the metaphoric connection to “cutting,” the job as barber is static, sedentary, uneventful, all talk and no action—and, in Crane’s case, at least diegetically, not even talk. Yet, for the psychological, interior, hidden conceits of film noir, the combination of immobility and muteness turns out to be not a bad match after all. Indeed, when the sexual orientation that dares not speak its name is added to the mix, the seeming incongruity becomes a coup. Barbering is one of the few public professions in which a man is not only allowed but encouraged to touch—in a sense, to fondle—other men, indeed the whole range of the male population, with no gay stigma attached.
In the other major socially sanctioned male-on-male occupation, contact sports, while sexual overtones are certainly in abundance, the range of maleness is more limited and the physical contact more aggressive. Compared to a man’s pinning another down or knocking him cold, cutting a man’s hair connotes a kinder, gentler homoeroticism. Beyond the physical closeness it engenders, barbering also entails a certain kind of intimacy in conversation. Of course, in Crane’s case, conversation is precisely the part of his job description that is missing—an absent cause pointing to a graver lack in both Crane and The Man Who Wasn’t There.