The Coen Brothers’ collection of short films, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” includes a piece I haven’t been able to get out of my head. It’s set in the late-19th century American frontier and a small show wagon travels between mining camps and remote towns. The “show” is a quadruple-amputee actor, strapped to a board, who is set up each night to entertain whatever audience can be attracted. The actor recites Shakespeare, Shelley and other poets, and finishes with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. His manager passes a cup. People give what they can.
The actor is a beautiful young man without arms or legs. He is totally dependent on his owner (“I bought him in London”) to feed him, move him, keep him alive. His recitations are pure and heartbreakingly moving. But there is fear in his eyes as he watches his owner/manager’s every move.
Times are tough. Audiences grow smaller. At one stop, a larger crowd is attracted to another show — a chicken that appears to be able to do math: The audience calls out an addition or subtraction question, and the chicken pushes a button corresponding to the answer. It’s a fraud, but it fills the cup. The actor’s owner is impressed and buys the new act. The beautiful quadriplegic artist has been replaced by a chicken.
It’s a gorgeous piece of moviemaking, and a stunning piece of acting. It’s also one of the most depressing motion pictures I have seen.
America can be understood as the sum of its myths, and many of them are attached to that frontier the Coen Brothers work over in their movie. One of those myths is that we are a self-sufficient people. We don’t need society or government, help or handouts: We can take care of ourselves. Dammit. Rugged individualists, all of us, self-made, dontcha know. We declared independence, and we embody it as part of both our national and personal identities.
My adorable granddaughter, Rosalie, is almost 2 years old now. She knows exactly what she needs and she’ll let you know. Hungry? She’ll take your hand, lead you to the refrigerator, lift out a bottle of milk almost as big as she is and hand it to you. Tired? She’ll drag her blanket behind her, point to her bottle and crawl up into your lap. In need of a hug? She’ll lift up her arms, smile and say “up … me.”
But Rosie is not in charge of her world. She’s tiny. She depends on others to feed her, clothe her, change her diaper, move her around, protect her from everything and anything that can harm her. She’s a happy, healthy child who exudes independence, but she is as dependent on others as that amputee artist.
We once had a client who had a business providing medical equipment to people with disabilities. We helped them stage an event that brought in speakers from around the country. One of them argued that we should all understand ourselves as “temporarily able-bodied.” Even if we are healthy human beings, we are capable of taking care of ourselves only some of the time. Not when we are babies. Often not when we are old. Not when we are sick or injured. We may believe in our own self-sufficiency, but for chunks of our lives we are absolutely dependent on others. This is true, in varying degrees, whether we are rich or poor, whether our skin is black, white, brown or some other color, however many degrees we hold and whatever gender we claim.
We are social animals. As individuals we live longer and better lives when we are surrounded by circles of friends, family, neighbors we know, partners we trust. As a nation we are interdependent on each other and the environment we inhabit. The decisions we make, whether we make them for selfish or selfless motives, affect others and their decisions affect us. We survive together or not at all.
Rosalie is very articulate, though none of us understand what she’s saying, which must be very frustrating. She thinks we are all a bit slow. Recently she has been inventing words. When she has a problem she’ll ask for “holp” as in “me … holp.” We have decided this is a combination of “help” and “hope.”
Doug Wilhide is a writer in Minneapolis.