Ronald Bergan’s second edition of “The Coen Brothers” understands the filmmaking duo inside and out. Over the past 30 plus years, the two brothers have amassed a broad, critically and commercially successful film career. In 1984, they won the Jury Prize for “Blood Simple” at Sundance. In 1991, they won the Palme d’Or for “Barton Fink” at Cannes. And in 2008, they were awarded Best Picture for “No Country For Old Men” at the Academy Awards. The book, titled in their name, digs into their filmography and discovers why these two brothers are so brilliant. In the excerpt below, Bergan delves into the language of film they work with and how they learned it. Check it out here:
One critic saw “Blood Simple” as a “grab-bag of movie styles and references, an eclectic mixture of Hitchcock and Bertolucci, of splatter flicks and Fritz Lang and Orson Welles.” Another wrote, “It looks like a movie made by guys who spent most of their lives watching movies, indiscriminately, both in theaters and on TV and for whom, mostly by osmosis, the vocabulary and grammar of film has become a kind of instinctive second language.”
The fashionable label (1980s–1990s style) of “postmodernism” is often conveniently attached to the Coen brothers. If the world is meaningless, then why should art be meaningful? One should relish the nonsensical. According to Jean Baudrillard, in postmodern society there are no originals, only copies, or “simulacra.”
But what some critics have failed to see is that the Coens, from their very first film, were interested in working inside the rules of a genre, and then breaking them from within. They distill the essence of the genre so that each film contains every element that we expect from a film noir, gangster movie, detective thriller, or cons-on-the-run picture, the boundaries being pushed as far as they can go, deconstructing conventional narratives. Their films evoke the atmosphere of classic genre movies, sometimes quoting from specific ones obliquely, without nudging the audience’s awareness of them. They have found a visual language (and a verbal one) that translates the past into the present. The ironic inverted commas that inevitably cling like crabs around most postmodernist movies are restricting (especially to audiences not as steeped in American movie history), while the Coens find them liberating.
Many of their movies are fundamentally films noirs, disguised as horror movie (“Blood Simple”), farce (“Raising Arizona”), gangster movie (“Miller’s Crossing”), psychological drama (“Barton Fink,” “A Serious Man”), police thriller (“Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men”), comedy (“The Big Lebowski,” “Intolerable Cruelty”), social drama (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”), spy drama (“Burn After Reading”) and western (“True Grit”). Yet, however different they are on the surface, each of the films contains elements of the other, horror edging into comic-strip farce, violence into slapstick and vice versa. One thing is clear: the Coens have little interest in what passes for “realism” in Hollywood mainstream movies. As W. P. Mayhew, the William Faulkner figure in “Barton Fink” says, “The truth is a tart that does not bear scrutiny.” Like Hitchcock, the Coens enjoy progressing from the prosaic to the baroque. They could also concur with Hitchcock, who observed: “Most films are ‘slices of life,’ mine are slices of cake.” Pieces of cake, they aren’t!
Most of the movies are influenced, in one way or another, as much by other films as by the holy trinity of American crime writers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. “Blood Simple” and ” he Man Who Wasn’t There” were variations on Cain’s ” he Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity” (the 1944 Billy Wilder film of the latter was co-written by Chandler). The models for “Miller’s Crossing” were Hammett’s “Red Harvest” and “The Glass Key,” and much of Chandler’s written prose was metamorphosed into cinematographic prose in “Barton Fink” and “The Big Lebowski.” Ethan had no qualms about spoofing Raymond Chandler, one of the most pastiched of American authors, in his short story “Hector Berlioz, Private Investigator.” Written completely in dialogue as a radio play, it still manages to convey Chandler through the younger Coen’s quirky, deadpan humor. “Berlioz: I’d seen it all, or thought I had. Then one day—September 14, 1947—she walked in. Since then, I have seen it all.”
Crime is the core of the screenplays, because “we feel that criminals are the least able people to cope in society.” The Coens are fascinated by losers, who appear as the “heroes” of all their films. Kidnapping, which allows for comic or dramatic tension, occurs in five of the pictures, and they are littered with brutal murders. But they are intrinsically fables of good vs. evil. The Coens seem to have heeded Sam Raimi’s recipe for films: “The innocent must suffer, the guilty must be punished, you must drink blood to be a man.”
There are unmitigated symbols of evil who challenge the good at the climax as in any traditional kiddie matinee adventure. The sleazeball detective against the “innocent” wife (“Blood Simple”); the showdown between the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse and Hi, the naive hero (“Raising Arizona”); Eddie Dane, the vicious gangster’s henchman, and the ambivalent gambler hero Tom Reagan (“Miller’s Crossing”); the good/bad salesman Charlie Meadows/serial killer Karl Mundt wrestling with himself (“Barton Fink”); Aloysius, the malevolent sign-painter, struggles with Moses, the black clock-keeper, as the guileless Norville plunges forty-four floors (“forty-five counting the mezzanine”) towards the ground (“The Hudsucker Proxy”); the sinisterly taciturn Gaear Grimsrud confronts the cop, Marge Gunderson, hurling a log at her as she holds him at gunpoint (“Fargo”); the bowling pals Dude, Walter, and Donny stand up to the three German nihilists in black leather who are demanding money from them (“The Big Lebowski”), and Cooley, the persistent sheriff with the mirrored sunglasses, pursuing the escaped convict hero Everett, who is saved by the flooding of the valley (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”). But the most irredeemably evil character of all was the hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in “No Country For Old Men.” The German critic Georg Seessien proffered:
“Evil exists in Coen films in three very different forms. Firstly, in the very real form of power, power that is generally in the hands of fat, older men [Nathan Arizona Sr., Leo O’Bannion, Jack Lipnick, The Big Lebowski], power which is deeply rooted within society and whose continuation is guaranteed by capitalist exploitation and family order. Secondly, in the travails of young protagonists [Hi, Tom Reagan, Barton Fink, Norville Barnes, Jerry Lundegaard, the Dude, Ulysses Everett McGill] whose desire for something or other brings them into confrontation with the fat, older man. And thirdly, evil exists in the form of a very unreal, murderous projection, in wandering killers and monsters [Gale and Evelle, Johnny Caspar and Eddie Dane, Carl Showalter and Gaear, Treehorn’s Thugs and the German nihilists], which come into being at the point where the power of the old man meets the desires of the young hero.”
The Coens paint pictures of a disenchanted America. Their heroes are imprisoned in the ideology of consumerism, little men (Capraesque at one remove) often being pitted against big business and entrepreneurs. (They make a jokey reference to this in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” in which a candidate for governor uses a midget for his campaign slogan “Homer Stokes, Friend of the Little Man.” “Pappy O’Daniel, slave a the Innarests; Homer Stokes, servant a the little man!”) Mammon dominates “Raising Arizona,” “Miller’s Crossing,” “The Hudsucker Proxy” and “Fargo,” in the latter of which, near the end, Marge delivers a rather unconvincing homily to the crook she has just captured. “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that? . . . And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day.”
Joel: “I don’t think there’s a thread, at least a conscious thread, anyway, between the different stories we’re telling. Sometimes when people point out to us things that are common to the different movies, it’s almost like, ‘Oh, yeah, I guess that’s the case’ as opposed to ‘Right, that’s how it was designed.'”
Ethan: “It’s what you call style in retrospect only. At the point of actually making the movie, it’s just about making individual choices. You make specific choices that you think are appropriate or compelling or interesting for that particular scene. Then, at the end of the day, you put it all together and somebody looks at it, and, if there’s some consistency to it, they say, ‘Well, that’s their style.'”