Director Profile: The Coen Bros.

Being one of a collection of movie directors whose work I particularly like and why.
Joel and Ethan Cohen
Best known for: Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), Miller's Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), No Country for Old Men (2007), Burn After Reading (2008), A Serious Man (2009), True Grit (2010), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), Hail, Caesar! (2016).
Most emblematic: Fargo
Widely considered the best: No Country for Old Men
Most underrated: Hail, Caesar!
Personal favorite: Blood Simple
First one I ever saw: Barton Fink. In theaters: True Grit

Favorite actors: Frances McDormand, George Clooney, John Goodman, John Turturro
Recurring themes and tropes: Americana and American Myth. The history of cinema, specifically Hollywood. Characters whose grasp far exceeds their reach, their plans leading to that always perfect fiasco. Botched crimes. Identity. Miscommunication. Morality.
Elements of style: Noir. Eccentric characters. Convoluted plots. No fear of surreal/symbolic/absurd plot elements. Hidden meanings.
Reputation: Versatile, idiosyncratic talents. One good with the camera, the other with the actors. Quizzical imps in interviews, they never let on that they know what they're doing, instead bucking against any kind of self-aggrandizement. Even DVD extras take the piss.
Appreciation: As this is the first in a series, I wanted to make sure I picked a director (or director team) of whom I could fairly say "will see anything he/she/they have made, or even buy their films on DVD on blind faith. While my Coens' collection has a couple of small holes, they definitely fit the profile. In drawing up a list of contenders, I noted a certain bias on my part for writer-directors, as it seems to me much easier to establish "auteurship" if the director wrote the script. That's not to say non-writer directors can't be attracted to certain themes, or even bring them out of material where they weren't as central, of course. I'll try to temper that bias with affirmative action, but the proportion will probably favor that group. Now for the Coens...

The writing-producing-directing duo have an undeniable style, not to call it a "universe", as the Fargo television series shows. Taking something from Elmore Leonard - quotable dialog, foolish characters (usually criminals) getting in way over their heads, American settings - the Coens' films can't easily be put into a genre category, whether drama or comedy. I'd want to call them black comedies, but that would be too reductive. The entire oeuvre is in fact very fluid as far as genre goes. They've got near-musicals, the supernatural can intrude on their stories, and their adapted screenplays often play fast and loose with the original material. They've played with black and white, sepia tones, crisp HD, and Golden Age Hollywood Technicolor looks. They've broken the rules by doing away with score, creating meandering plotless narrative, and misleading the audience as to their sources. Enfants terribles and trolls, or mavericks who boldly ignore artificial standards and go on to create truly original work?

They like to switch things up, but there are two constants for me. One is that their stories are iconic American stories, just never the ones you expect. When we see New York, it's too look at the world of folk music. When we see Los Angeles, it's to explore a fantastical, heightened reality Hollywood. But the most iconic Coen world lives and breathes in Minnesota, Arizona, the Deep South, rural Texas, and Suburbia. Their heroes are great American losers - another movie rule they love to break - failures, slackers, bad inventors, artists who make bad decisions, the anxious and the foolish, crooks and wannabes. They deserve their stories be told as much as any "success" - North American history is full of Alamos - and perhaps much more interesting.

The other, and the one that speaks most to me, is that their films have hidden meanings. I love films that require me to be an active participant, and the Coens demand attentions, whether it's to grasp their convoluted plots (useful to confound their dumbass characters), or more crucially, to address themes without highlighting them in the text (à la Christopher Nolan). Cohen films ask questions - How does Inside Llewyn Davis loop back on itself? What is the cat in that film all about? Is he the Schrodinger's Cat of A Serious Man? And that movie's many missed messages, what are we missing? Who is the God of Hail, Caesar? - and the co-directors absolutely HATE to explain themselves, and would rather throw out a self-deprecating joke. That keeps the films alive in ambiguity, most of them deep wells you can go to again and again to draw new and unusual water.

What's your take on the Coens?

8 comments:

Toby'c said...

My favourite is The Big Lebowski.

The first one I ever saw is Fargo, in, I believe, January 2006. It's now my second favourite, and it's firmly in my top 100 films of all time.

The only one I've seen in a cinema is True Grit, my third favourite.

Most underrated for me is Burn After Reading (not even on the IMDb Top 1000).

I've seen ten altogether, plus their segment of Paris, je t'aime. Blood Simple and The Man Who Wasn't There are at the top of my watchlist for them.

Marty said...

I haven’t seen them all but my favorite is no secret.

I absolutely adored Inside Llewyn Davis. There were a lot of themes that really hit home that I could go on for hours.

But another element I love is their film structure. They basically throw out every screenwriting convention to make real characters and the best stories. Hollywood is almost plagued with the 3 part structure finishing in a character arc. The Cohen’s ignore that and do whatever they want. I think that they understand that the majority of the time people don’t arc and don’t learn anything. Stories don’t always finish nicely, they just kind of happen.

Like I’m starting to think the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis might be a scathing critique on the book “Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need”, which is widely used for teaching people to write screenplays. (Why would you trust the guy who wrote “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot”?!)

Green Luthor said...

Admittedly, I haven't watched as many Coen Brothers films as I probably should have (I'm ashamed to admit I haven't gotten around to The Big Lebowski yet), but one of my favorite films of theirs is one they didn't direct themselves (or, at least, they're not credited with directing it). 1985's "Crimewave" was directed by Sam Raimi, but was written by the Coens with Raimi, and was the Coens' second film after "Blood Simple". If you've not seen it (or heard of it), I'd recommend it. (Although my tastes may be suspect, as I also liked Quislet...)

Siskoid said...

Hey Marty! You're the Sam Raimi super-fan, have you seen Crimewave?

Martin Léger said...

I've seen Crimewave! Notoriously hard to find, not even sure if it came out in theaters or VHS around here. It only released recently on DVD. Odd duck of a film. Horribly miscasted (You have Bruce Campbell and you don't use him as your lead?!) and oddly directed. I would of loved to have seen Joe Dante direct it, I think he's better at directing cartoony stuff like that. Although I can't deny that it is kind of fun.


Never knew it was written by the Bros. However now that you mention it, it does follow a lot of their beats. Like A LOT.

Green Luthor said...

Yeah, the production on Crimewave was somewhat troubled, to say the least. Lots of studio interference (Raimi actually wanted Bruce Campbell to play the lead, but the studio insisted otherwise), including not allowing Raimi or Campbell (he was also one of the producers) to be involved in the post-production editing. (Raimi's inexperience also led him to severely underestimate the needed budget and time to complete the film, which didn't help matters.)

Ultimately, neither Raimi, Campbell, nor the Coens were particularly satisfied with the end result (apparently, it's the main reason the Coens have directed just about every screenplay they've written since). Still, I like it.

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Mister Harry said...

I'm late to the party on this one, but:

Most underrated: A Serious Man
Personal favourite: The Big Lebowski
First one I ever saw: Fargo
In theatres: The Big Lebowski

 

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