September 26, 2009

A Conversation with the Coens & a Look at Their First Decade (1984-1994)

Last night I had the once-in-a-lifetime luck to score a ticket to the 50th Regis Dialogue at the Walker Art Center, a 2 and 1/2 hour discussion between Elvis Mitchell and Joel and Ethan Coen. The conversation kicked off the second week of the Walker's current Coen Brothers retrospective, Joel & Ethan Coen: Raising Cain, and the the good news for those who couldn't get in last night is that the films of the Coens will still be shown in 35mm in the comfy Walker Cinema through October 17th. Click here for the remaining schedule, and note that the Burn After Reading screening is free. 

The brothers also attended the reception following the dialogue, but even as I was literally brushing shoulders with them I couldn't work up the nerve to ask them: in No Country for Old Men, where is Anton Chigurh at the Desert Sands? I did ask Elvis Mitchell but I think we were talking past each other. My question was about the night scene at the hotel where Chigurh is looking through the keyhole, not the day scene when Tommy Lee Jones first arrives and finds Josh Brolin. Elvis was convinced that Chigurh wasn't there, that it was an out of sequence scene. Well obviously, but that's not the scene I'm talking about. By the time I realized the misunderstanding, both Joel and Ethan had wandered away from us left the reception, leaving it a mystery forevermore. Wasting an easy 10 minutes standing right next to the Coens and not asking them a question, let alone that question, is something I'm going to be regretting for a long time. 

What would you have asked the Coens, given the opportunity? Everybody knows that they are among the most private personalities in Hollywood, and Elvis Mitchell deserves props for his attempt at getting them to open up about their childhood and influences. But the Coens are the Coens, and their inherent reluctance to talk makes interviewing them akin to pulling teeth; indeed, it looked like they'd rather have been at the dentist than on the stage. Pregnant pauses were filled by countless "yeah"s and "uh-huh"s, to the point that I was waiting for Mitchell to throw up his hands in defeat (he almost appeared ready to a couple times).

Despite all of this he was still able to squeeze out some interesting insights about their influences and childhood. Although it would have been nice to have a Minnesotan ask them about Minnesota, the truth is that a.) by now the Coens have been New Yorkers longer than they've been Minnesotans, so despite A Serious Man they're probably not as nostalgic for this place as most people think, and b.) Mitchell proved to be a brilliant analyst of their films, surprising even Joel and Ethan with his insights into their literary style and story patterns. Overall I still think it was a really interesting discussion, and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't one of my most memorable film experiences. (Here's a longer recap by Tad Simons.)

Now while I still can't claim to be anything close to an expert on their films (I still need to see Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, and several others I've only seen once or twice), I'd like to remain true to my goal of writing something on each of their films before this retrospective ends. So here I'm offering some thoughts on the five films the brothers made in the first decade of their career. I hope to follow this with a second decade (1995-2005) and present day overview as well. Obviously I owe some thoughts to A Serious Man once I see that next weekend, since I've been howling about how good it will be for so long.

(Title screens via the Walker blog.)

Blood Simple (1984) 

As I mentioned last week, I saw Blood Simple for the first time only recently, but it made an immediate impression on my understanding of the rest of the Coen films, particularly No Country for Old Men. The desperate characters, the mind games, the desolate Texas landscape - in just one film they had already established a wholly unique style of storytelling (Ethan claimed the story was inspired by crimes of passion that were prevalent in Texas in the mid-80's). Everything is weaved together so seamlessly that you can't believe they were only in that this was their first feature (interesting trivia: Blood Simple premiered before its theatrical release at the Walker in 1984).

It's not nearly as polished as their other films, but of course they were working with a tiny budget and mostly amateur cast. It actually took me a while to recognize Frances McDormand as Frances McDormand, and I thought Dan Hedaya was enjoyably smug as well. All in all Blood Simple is just a flat-out solid debut, and the stylish scene transitions (the finger pointing, the bed falling) are worth rewinding and rewatching a few times.

Raising Arizona (1987) 

I'm fairly sure Raising Arizona was the first Coen Brothers movie I saw, thanks to my older brother. It was harmless comedy and I probably missed most of it considering how young I was, but it always remained a kind of campy, nostalgic movie memory for me as I grew older (and even as I became allergic to Nicolas Cage). 

Although it appears to be a total departure in tone from Blood Simple, you can still pick up the Coenesque cinematography and sardonic character treatments (including John Goodman in his first of five Coen films), and their flashy editing style is amped up a little for comedic effect. I think I've come to appreciate Raising Arizona in recent years more for its fast-paced entertainment than its actual comedy, but either way it's still as rewatchable as any of the Coen movies.

Miller's Crossing (1990)

The third film in the Coen filmography is also one that I saw recently for the first time, and I can say with some certainty that one time just isn't enough (a sentiment echoed by Mitchell last night), so I'll need to revisit this one to be able to fully appreciate it. It's a hard-boiled noir that doesn't apologize for its complexity, though the fact that the Coens got stuck while writing it may speak to unnecessary plotting. Apparently Miller's Crossing is based on two Dashiel Hammett novels, neither of which I've read, but if the alternative is a bare-bones, vanilla story, well I guess I wouldn't want that either.

What stands out to me the most in Miller's Crossing is the maturity of Barry Sonnenfeld's cinematography, this being the third (and last) film he shot for the Coens. Some of my favorite shots are of the hat floating away after the title sequence, and the "Danny Boy" shootout shown here:

Barton Fink (1991)

Probably the most disturbing film the Coens made in their first decade is Barton Fink, the noir/horror/comedy that they wrote, ironically, while suffering from writer's block as they tried to finish Miller's Crossing. This movie exhibits the unpredictability of the Coens maybe better than any other; the characters are so bizarre and the atmosphere so surreal - Charlie Kaufman must have been influenced by it - that you can't really grasp the meaning of all of it until afterwards, and even then you might need some help (I did). 

Barton Fink also appears to exist as more of a social commentary than any of the other Coen films, at least in this first decade. The brothers made a point last night to identify themselves simply as storytellers, but this story says a lot more about culture and Hollywood business than they're probably willing to admit.

Another key aspect of Barton Fink is the cinematography by Roger Deakins, who has since lensed every one of the Coens' movies. His style is evident here in many of the hotel scenes, and there is one shot in particular that I love, when John Goodman bends the bedposts apart and the rounded steel cap falls and rolls toward the camera in perfect focus. This isn't that shot, but it showcases another great part of Barton Fink - John Turturro's performance:

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

Otherwise known as The Movie That Wasn't There, this much-maligned Coen film was not mentioned by name - not once - in the entire 150 minute discussion last night. I don't know if it's because the Coens themselves don't like this film or they think that audiences and critics still don't, but for as much style and risk it seems like they put into it, you'd think they'd be a little more proud of this effort. I think it loses its way a little bit after a promising beginning, but it's humorous enough (even family friendly!) and features capable acting from Paul Newman, Tim Robbins and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

As with the bed post scene in Barton Fink, there is a shot in The Hudsucker Proxy that seems like it would have required a million takes. It's hard to see with the quality of this video, but how do you throw a bunch of hula hoops into an alley and have just one of them, all alone, perfectly roll out to the sidewalk and turn?

Coming soon - The Coen Brothers: The Second Decade (1995-2005)...


  1. Just a quick response to say - how exciting! I don't know what I would have asked them, but at least the Chigurh question was a great one to consider.

    As for the films you cover here - I've seen all of them and, as surprising as it may seem to many, my favorite is The Hudsucker Proxy. What amazing writing! What a wacky surrealistic world - a darkly comic Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Tim Robbins is amazing. Jennifer Jason Leigh is phenomenal. I've shown this to a couple of senior English classes just for the dialogue - and because teenagers these days are not used to hearing an actor or actress speak that many words. Leigh's facility for her rapid-fire dialogue - kind of a throwback to 30s movies with Jean Arthur - is just amazing! Amazing!

  2. Congrats Dan! This was an absolutely fantastic experience here! Yes the Chigurh question is precisely the one we would have all wanted to ask. As I've stated elsewhere my favorite Coens film is FARGO, but HUDSUCKER and several others are loved too. I am looking forward to A SERIOUS MAN. That's terrific that you had a conversation with Mitchell too, who writes for THE NEW YORK TIMES! A weekend to remember indeed!!!

  3. Dude, I didn't know you talked with Elvis. You left that out when we saw you on Saturday. That's great. He was one of my favorite critics when he worked for the Times.

    BTW, I think the brothers would have said something along the lines of "it doesn't matter where he was" in response to your question. That was my take on the scene. I think he was next door, but the reaction of Bell to his 50/50 choice of rooms was all that we needed to know as a viewer.

    Some people called this series of events at the motel "sloppy" by the directors. I saw it as a clue that the plot details in the first 2/3 of the movie were not as important as the themes of fate, death, the arc of society in the early 80's, violence, and eventually the loss of physical and spiritual energy of an old man.

    But we can talk about this some other time, preferably over a tall lager and a bowl of mixed nuts.

  4. I'm jealous, but also secretly glad they were cryptic, inscrutable and relatively unhelpful in analyzing their films. They make for boring interviews, but seeing artists who genuinely like to let the work speak for itself is very refreshing.

  5. Despite my fascination with the "Where's Chigurh?" mystery, if I was at an event and the Coens were asked that question, I'd plug my ears so as not to hear the answer. Similarly, I have no desire to turn up the volume at the end of Lost In Translation to be able to hear the whisper. And I've never watched the deleted scenes of various movies like Unfaithful that -- as I understand -- shed some light on their ambiguities. It's good that it's a mystery. Not to mention that if the Coens wanted us to know without a doubt, well, they should have been more explicit in how they filmed it. I presume that scene is as direct as they want it to be.

    So, what would I ask them? Good question. Probably something about The Big Lebowski and its relation to The Big Sleep. Perhaps they've already discussed the subject extensively, but I'd just be curious to hear their thoughts on what they reimagined and ignored there.

  6. Can't wait for your views on the Coens' second decade of movie making.

  7. Apologies for my brief absence here; thanks for the thoughts, all.

    Hokahey, a Hudsucker fan! I thought this could bring some praise out of the woodwork. I'm not really sure why people don't like it, though I've heard it "lacks heart", which I don't entirely agree with. I love the beginning and like you I really enjoy Leigh in what was probably one of her best roles. She really nailed the period dialogue, like you say.

    Thanks, Sam, I'm just trying to keep up with you and all of your encounters out there! Seems like you've met pretty much everyone who's come through NYC in the last year. Yeah I really was impressed with Mitchell; the man was just on top of every reference the Coens through out, and in a genuine, knowing way.

    Tony, it's a date! We should see ASM this weekend maybe? I think you're right, sadly, about the Coens' expected response. They probably would have answered my question with a question or something annoying like that, or like you suggest, tell me that I'm missing the point and that it doesn't matter, it's all about Tommy Lee Jones, etc., etc. I also agree that it is not at at all sloppy. You'd have to be crazy to call anything they've done in any movie sloppy, in my opinion.

    Craig, to some extent I agree that overexplanation or philosophizing about one's work can be annoying and/or unwelcome (see: Errol Morris), but in this case it was a little frustrating that they didn't let loose just a bit more. As Tad Simon says in that write-up (I really recommend reading it), they "played the part of humble geniuses, often giving the impression that they don’t quite know how they do what they do—they just do it." He's right, but it's annoying because it's not true! Obviously they put a lot of thought and meaning into their decisions, so for them to play it all off as casual and spontaneous was a little disappointing.

    Jason, you are a catalyst behind that question of course (everybody else, click on the link I provided to see Jason's incredible dissection of the scene), so it's funny to hear that you'd rather not find out. I guess it was fate that I was left without an answer; maybe they sensed me inching toward them or overheard me asking Mitchell. Still, I would have liked to see their reaction to it - probably eye-rolling. Anyway, The Big Sleep/Lebowski connection is interesting as well - have you seen this interview, in which they address it directly, or at least mention it directly? Sounds like they used The Big Sleep as broad justification to make Lebowski deliberately complicated, as opposed to specifically picking at bits from it. At least that's my understanding.

    Thanks, Shubhajit - might be a little late in coming as I've just been swamped at work this week, but my personal "deadline" for the last two overviews is the end of retrospective here on 10/17.


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