The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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OCT 2019 Issue
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Pea Stones

One of the supporting characters in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is a flashy lawyer who resolves to exonerate a woman accused of murder by using a simplified version of Heisenberg’s uncertainly principle. The harder the jury looks at the evidence, he will argue, the more the act of looking changes the evidence, rendering it ambiguous and leading to what he is ultimately after—reasonable doubt. When the accused commits suicide the night before the trial is set to begin, the lawyer is crestfallen because he has lost the opportunity to put his brilliant argument to the test. Otherwise, he is generally unmoved by his client’s death.

Richard Shiff has written thoughtfully about The Man Who Wasn’t There and its interwoven themes of uncertainty, doubt, and chance. Doubt, in fact, is a topic that Shiff has expanded upon on numerous occasions, so it comes as no surprise that this film would have attracted his attention.1 From a wide range of imagery, Shiff seizes on a seemingly minor detail, namely, the pea stone covered driveway of the accused woman’s home, which plays a role in a handful of shots. The driveway becomes a passive context for the banal activities of parking a car or walking toward the house, each movement resonant with the unique crunching sound produced by shoes or tires on pea stone gravel. This sound, with its empirical specificity, winds up lending credibility to the truthfulness of the overall narrative, producing what Shiff, borrowing from Roland Barthes, calls an effect of the real. “As characters approach or leave the bungalow where essential segments of the narrative occur,” he observes, “they drive or walk over this piece of ground: this is only natural; this is reality.”2

The pea stone becomes the subject of a minor disagreement near the end of the film between the accused woman’s husband and a salesman, who tries to convince him that it is in his best interests to pave the driveway with more durable asphalt. The pea stone looks good at first, but it eventually gets scattered into unwanted places. “Pain in the neck,” he declares. “It never bothered me much,” replies the husband. The two men offer competing opinions, both of which are grounded in the reality of the pea stone. Each is motivated by a distinct practical concern: the salesman tries to sell a new product, while the homeowner defends the status quo of his driveway. Both men advance situational and pragmatic truths, which are verifiable only in terms of the significant differences they make in the context of what is otherwise a passing, trivial disagreement about materials used for surfacing driveways.

Now, there is a significant difference between claiming that facts are distorted by how we look at them and claiming that facts are the product of situational encounters with reality. What the disagreement between the two men suggests is that facts, truths, affirmations, and the like, are not images more or less in conformity with what already exists (pea stone), but rather new things that we add to reality by using it in various ways. How and where truths will emerge, then, depends on pragmatic situations, not on an effort to reveal a transcendent truth once and for all. Henri Bergson put it this way: “Every truth is a path traced through reality, but among these paths there are some to which we could have given an entirely different turn if our attention had been orientated in a different direction or if we had aimed at another kind of utility.”3 “Thus, a truth, if it is to endure” adds Bergson, “should have its roots in realities; but these realities are only the ground in which that truth grows, and other flowers could just as well have grown there if the wind had brought other seeds.”4

In his analysis, Shiff is alert to the fact that there are, in fact, (at least) two uncertainty principles at work in The Man Who Wasn’t There. The first, exploited by the lawyer, amounts to perspectivism. The other, developed in the confrontation over pea stone, is predicated on chance. “A homeowner finds pieces of pea stone where they should not be, but have every material reason to be,” he explains; “Chance puts them there.”5 Chance is a repeated motif in the film, including the unexpected suicide of the accused woman, a sharp letter opener that sits just within arm’s reach, a random encounter between an older man and a younger woman, a violent automobile accident, etc. Accidents, like salesmen and pea stones, or films and philosophy books, are novelties added to the world. They contribute themselves to what William James called the expanding, “unfinished” universe—“growing in all sorts of places, especially in the places where thinking beings are at work.”6

  1. Richard Shiff, Doubt (New York, NY: Routledge, 2008).
  2. Richard Shiff, “Reality by Chance,” Ars Semeiotica, vol. 37, no. 3-4 (2004), 197.
  3. Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind, tr. M. L. Andison (Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams, and Co., 1964), 217.
  4. Ibid, 216.
  5. Shiff, “Reality by Chance,” 199.
  6. William James, Pragmatism, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1907), 259.


Matthew Simms

MATTHEW SIMMS is a professor of art history at CSU Long Beach. His monograph on Robert Irwin is under advance contract with Yale University Press.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

All Issues