Being one of a collection of movie directors whose work I particularly like and why.
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?