Joseph McBride‘s “The Whole Durn Human Comedy” (Anthem, 3.1) is half-nutrition and half-dessert — a warm, wise, non-linear take on the careers of the great Joel and Ethan Coen.

But around the halfway mark it hit me that McBride and Anthem may have published the first Coen brothers eulogy on dead tree materials. For all the signals seem to say (or at least indicate) that these guys just aren’t feeling it, certainly on Ethan’s part. This is a book that says the Coens have a great history that may have wound to a close, and that their brand is no longer a going concern. We all hope otherwise, of course, but who knows?

The last effort from Joel and Ethan was The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology film for Netflix. But my view is that it didn’t count because it wasn’t really a single-narrative “Coen Bros. film” that opened in theatres. Within that realm, Joel and Ethan have actually been M.I.A. since Hail, Caesar!, which came out in 2016 and was a bit of a disappointment. It was fine (Josh Brolin was excellent) but it also felt incomplete.

If you ask me the last real Coen brothers film was Inside Llewyn Davis, which was nine fucking years ago.

McBride and I did a phoner a couple of weeks ago. I tried to grill McBride about this apparent state of affairs, but the only substantive comment he shared about Joel and Ethan possibly going their separate ways…well, read below.

If you know your Coens, you knew they’ve always conveyed for a contempt for American culture, and one way or another they’ve always delivered a scolding and a critique…which was true of Billy Wilder also, I think. But a lot of people “really hated” A Serious Man‘s mockery of Jewish community anti-semitism…God’s in a bad mood…doesn’t give a shit.

The last effort from Joel and Ethan Coen was The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology film for Netflix. But that wasn’t really a single-narrative “Coen Bros. film” that opened in theatres. Within that realm, Joel and Ethan have been M.I.A. since Hail, Caesar!, which came out three years ago. Except that was a bit of a disappointment. It was fine (Josh Brolin was excellent) but at the same time a bit strained and somehow incomplete.

I “liked” but didn’t love True Grit (’10) all that much. It was basically about Jeff Burly Bridges going “shnawwhhhhr-rawwwhhrr-rawwrrluurrllllh.” It certainly wasn’t an elegant, blue-ribbon, balls-to-the-wall, ars gratia artis Coen pic — it was a well-written, slow-moving western with serious authenticity, noteworthy camerawork, tip-top production design and, okay, a few noteworthy scenes.

So let’s just call the last 11 or 12 years a difficult, in-and-out, up-and-down saga for the boys, but at the same time acknowledge that the Coens have enjoyed two golden periods of shining creativity and productivity.

The first golden period was a four-film run — Blood Simple (’84), Raising Arizona (’87), Miller’s Crossing (’90) and Barton Fink (’91). The Hudsucker Proxy (’94) was a weird, half-successful, half-sputtering in-betweener.

The second golden period (’96 to ’09) was a nine-film run that included Fargo (’96), The Big Lebowski (’98), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (’00), The Man Who Wasn’t There (’01), Intolerable Cruelty (’03), The Ladykillers (’04), No Country for Old Men (’07), Burn After Reading (’08) and A Serious Man (’09).

Our discussion went for on 72 minutes. It was a genuine pleasure — I could talk to McBride about anything and everything for hours. If you have the time listen start to finish.

McBride #1: “Ethan said ‘when we were starting our careers, we weren’t planning to work as a brother team for 40 years. They started out making films together, he said, ‘but we didn’t plan it this way…it just happened.'”

McBride #2: “Ethan is the one who’s written books of poetry and short stories and he writes plays, They haven’t really commented upon it much, but in my book I quote composer Carter Burwell, and he said ‘Ethan just didn’t want to make movies any more, and that he’s very happy doing what he’s doing. And he wants to do more plays and writing.'”

McBride #3: “One thing I like about the Coen brothers a lot is that they don’t explain much to the audience. Much in the same way that John Ford refused to tell people what he was doing. Ford was the first interview I did in Hollywood, and it was very exasperating. I was somewhat prepared for him being difficult but I didn’t know how completely difficult he would be. And I kind of respect that now. Ford was saying to his audience, ‘I’m not gonna tell you what these films are saying.” Which is what the Coen brothers have always more or less said — figure it out for yourself. Which is a sign of respect for the audience.”

McBride #4: “Then again this sometimes leads to confusion, and I think this is one reason why I wrote this book. I tend to want to write books because I feel there’s been some injustice by way of misunderstanding or because some pattern of neglects has been going on, like with Lubitsch who was somewhat neglected although he has a certain following. But a lot of people had never heard of him.”

McBride #5: “The Coens have certainly gotten a lot of awards and they have a lot of fans, but I think they’re seriously misunderstood by some critics and some audience members, and I wanted to deal with those issues.”

McBride #6: “This is an unusual book for me because I wrote with a thematic structure in mind…it’s not a film by film by film thing. With my Welles, Ford and Hawks books I tended to go chronologically, but that’s kind of an old-fashioned approach. With the Coens I figured I’d just focus on the points I want to make and jump around from theme to theme. I took that same approach with my Billy Wilder, but even though the Coen book is coming out in March [of this year] I wrote a lot of it before the Wilder book, back in 2017. And in “Two Cheers for Hollywood” I wrote about 40 pages about them.

McBride #7: “I re-watched all the Coen brothers film over a period of two weeks, but I didn’t watch them in order. I thought it might be more interesting that way, and from that a thematic approach developed. I had a lot of fun writing it that way. Which reflects the way we’re watching films these days. We’re jumping around and watching whatever we want to watch.

Again, McBride’s HE interview…nice and easy.