|I wrote this essay in 1997, well before The Big
Lebowski and the Coens' newest projects (O' Brother Where Art Thou, the Great
White Sea, and the Man Who Wasn't
There), but most of it still remains accurate. While it doesn't go into any great
depth it is a fairly complete overview of the Coen brothers' early success.
*the picture on the left if from the set of O' Brother Where Art Thou
Two Heads are Better than One
After last year's critical and not to mention box office hit Fargo (1996) the Coen brothers seem to be on top once again after their disappointing The Hudsucker Proxy (1993). Ethan and Joel Coen made their debut eleven years ago with the film Blood Simple (1985). Unlike any other contemporary director, they work as a team to write and direct all of their movie; and on some occasions edit them under there joint pseudonym Roderick Jaynes (Blood Simple, Barton Fink , and Fargo). The fact that they work as a team seems to be to their advantage. Big brother Joel went to New York University of Film and TV and Ethan was a philosophy major at Princeton University. It is said, because of their education, that Ethan works out the plot details while Joel handles the visual details. Together forming a complete and air tight movie. The brothers can spend years writing a screenplay; the action, dialogue, camera angles, and movements are all carefully scripted before they even have to worry about filming the scenes. In essence they do half of their directing job while writing. Their movies have been described by some critics as so polished that they become almost clinical and without enough emotion. Other critics complain that their movies focus too much on the visual and too little on the dialog. The Coen brothers may be visually rich, but they take care to craft the intricate, painstakingly realistic dialogue, often in dialect.
The Coen brothers always share the credit for screenplay, Joel gets the directors credit, and Ethan gets the producer credit. The brothers work together equally on all of the jobs but say that they want to spread their names out as not to " totally dominate the credits." and scare some viewers off. The Coen brothers are the most original and talented independent directors in the last half of this century. They have helped to push the lower budget independent films into movie theaters across America (i.e. that to mention into award ceremonies). They have at least two block busters (they made double what they cost) with Blood Simple and Raising Arizona (1987), and a three critical hits Millers Crossing (1990), Barton Fink, and of course Fargo. They have only one large budgeted, $25 million, studio release The Hudsucker Proxywhich was their only flop. Their movie career has been blessed, they have won tons of little movie award statuettes and gained as a large and loyal cult following. They were violent before Quentin Tarrantino, they were independent before Spike Lee, and they were poor before Kevin Smith (of Clerks  fame).
The Coens have made an epic journey over that last eleven years and six moviestheir style has been refined as well as their tastes. It is easy to see Blood Simple as their start and Fargo as the final stage in their first stylistic period. The two moves are quite similar in many ways, but in many ways they mark the evolution of the Coen brothers. The plot structures of the two movies is radically different, as is the dialog and characterization. The visual style remains fundamentally the same, but the Coens have learned some new tricks. Each movie they make they learn from; each is a step in evolution to pure Coen perfection. As the brothers wrote in Blood Simple, "Yeah, he told me once himself. He said to me (points to her head) In here Im anal." The Coen brothers have found that they themselves are anal about scripting, choosing their financial backers, casting, and directing in order to get the movie they envisioned.
The year 1985 was big for the brothers. Their first all written, directed, and produced film Blood Simple opened on the same day as Crimewave (1985) a movie where they and friend Sam Raimi (who Joel met when Joel was editing Evil Dead (1983), the cult gore movie, directed by Raimi). Crimewave was forgettable, but Blood Simple took home two Independent Spirit Awards for best director for Joel Coen and best actor for M. Emmet Walsh. With their first venture out into the film world they had everyones attention. Blood Simple is an homage to film noir: It is dark, physically and mentally, all the characters are criminals, and violence is used as a motif. The characters, lighting, and cinematography all blend together into a highly stylized, all too real other world. To add to the ambiance, the actors all use thick, slow Texas dialects and the heat is so apparent it seems to come off the movie screen. The last third of the movie has very little dialogue, but we see so much there is little need for talking. The Coens meticulously wrote the filming directions for all the scenes. Take for instance a piece of the screenplay to Blood Simple describing one three second shot:
The point of view, sound, and action are all. This is actually less precise than the directions given to an action shot of any one of the protagonists.
The Coens fell in love with the complete freedom that they had in the writing and filming of Blood Simple and have refused to give up the ultimate say on any of their films since. Blood Simple is over the top violent, as the movie moves on the characters are more and more violent to one another. The plot plays out like a comedy of errors; mistaken identity, double and triple crossing, and misunderstandings fuel the script. It is mostly a suspense film with a hint of the ultra black comedy the Coens are so good at. The villain (sort of, for at least part of the movie), Marty, comes to terrorize his ex-lover, Abby, and her new boyfriend Ray, (John Getz), but Abby ends up breaking his finger and kicking him in the groin so hard the vomits. The hilarity is not over yetMarty gets into his car to flee the scene only to have it die on the first start but when he finally gets going Ray says "Like to have seen his face when he saw that dead end." As Ray finish talking as Marty drives by going the opposite direction.
In all Coen movies there is a special extra, a plot device to add another layer of meaning to the script. In Blood Simple it is Abbys pearl handled revolver. It is prominently show in many shots. Being a weapon, the gun is used to symbolize violence. Marty gave it to Abby before the movie begins, Ray uses it to ward off Marty, and the private detective/hit-man/scam artist (M. Emmet Walsh) uses it to kill Marty. Every person that touches the gun commits a very violent act. Although it is an excellent movie, Blood Simple still lacks the depth and meaning found in latter Coen movies.
Two years after the release of Blood Simple, the Coens released Raising Arizona, which was also finical success. This time the comedy was not so black- maybe a lighter shade of gray. The brothers had nearly perfected writing quirky and unique dialects for their characters to speak in. The hero of Raising Arizona, HI (Nicolas Cage), has a slow monotonous speech pattern. HI is the narrator for the movie, as well as its slow minded hero, and a robber. The narration is beautiful. The Coen brothers have HI, the well intentioned three time jailbird, saying things we cannot believe he has enough brains in his head to think to say. When he finds out that his new wife Ed (Holly Hunter) is infertile, he says in narration, "At first I didnt believe it, that this woman who looked as fertile as the Tennessee Valley could not bear children. But the doctor explained that her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase. Ed was inconsolable." Ed retires from the police force (where she met HI) and the two decide to kidnap one of a set of quintuplets and start a family that way.
The scene when he tries to pick one of the babies and keep them all content, safe, and quiet is a piece of cinematic perfection. As soon as HI is in the room one by one the five babies start crying. He picks them up in turn, pacifies them, and places them on the floor. Soon there are babies crawling everywhere, and HI must save one from falling down the stairs. This scene is intercut with the parents sitting downstairs wondering what all the commotion in their room is and wondering whether or not to go up and check on them. This scene has mounds of suspense and humor of the slapstick variety. Another piece of directing magic is the five minute chase scene. HI, unbeknownst to Ed who is waiting in the car, starts to rob a convince store of its money and some Huggies. The cashier pulls out a large gun, Ed drives off, HI runs down the street. By the time HI is lucky enough to be picked up by Ed he was being chased by the police, a pack of dogs, and a store owner through a store, a house, down alleys, and across backyards. Also, like with Blood Simple there is a thematic extra- the biker of the apocalypse, Leonard Smalls (Randall "Tex" Cobb) is literally HIs worst nightmare. During this narration there are intercuts of HI sleeping restlessly and the bike riding throwing bomb and shooting small animals:
Eventually HI and Ed are forced into a showdown with this nightmare refined in a. bounty hunter (Smalls) looking for Nathan Jr. (T.J. Kuhn). He embodies all that HI fears. Overall, Raising Arizona incorporates two things missing in Blood Simple: real humor and a real hero.
The next movie the Coen brothers actualized was Millers Crossing. It opened during the early 90s gangster film sweepstakes: GoodFellas (1990), Dick Tracy (1990), Bugsy (1991). Millers Crossing is an over the top genre film that exploits every gangster film cliché there is and some that are not. It, like Blood Simple, is dark both visually and mentally. Being a period piece, it is almost more visually interesting than other Coen brother movies. The sets are for the most part tall, lush, and spacious and add to the overall intense ambiance. The characters are all bad people looking out for their own special interests, which differ vastly. Hats are the device of choice for Millers Crossing there are gratuitous shots of everyone fedoras. In one scene Tommy (Gabriel Byrne), the gangster protagonist, tells Vira (Marcia Gay Harden), Tommys lover but also the big mans girlfriend, about his dream his hat had blown off. Vira asks if he chased it Tommy replies "..and there is nothing as foolish as a man chasing his hat." During there conversation there is intercutting of a hat silently blowing in the wind and Tommys face, not unlike the crosscutting in the dream sequence in Raising Arizona. The hats can symbolize many things, but the most probable is power. Take for instance the movie posterit is a scene where Tommy, with a hat, has all the power over Bernie (John Turturro), who is hatless.
The most exciting scene is an escape and shoot out featuring Leo (Albert Finney), the big man. Leo is resting and listening to Danny Boysome goons break in shoot, the guards, start a fire, and try to get him. Leo escapes and mows down the goons in the house and the goons in the getaway carright as Danny Boy is over. This scene especially benefits from the brothers heightened skill at writing in dialect and their intimate awareness of period style and tone.
Barton Fink failed financially, but swept up at award festivals. It won Best Actor (John Turturro), Best Director (Joel Coen) and Best Film at the Cannes Film Festival 1991; Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actor (Michael Lerner) at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards; Best Cinematography at the National Film Critics Society Awards; and three Academy Award nominations. It is another period piece; this time set in 1940s Hollywood. The sets play an important role in the overall tone, especially Barton Finks (John Turturro) apartment. The wallpaper constantly falls off the wall, the pipes rattle, the mattress is dirty, and the guy next door is crazy. The next door neighbor, Charlie (John Goodman), is remarkably like the nightmarish biker of the apocalypse in Raising Arizona. He is the anti-Barton. Barton is a small meek man, he is a total hypocrite, and swollen headed. Charlie seems to be the working man that is Bartons cause/muse, but he is in fact a homicidal maniac. The special device is the mention of the mind, in reference to intelligence, but also to the fact both Barton and Charlie has problems in their mind. Barton has writers block and starts to crack under the pressure of a deadlineCharlie is crazy all the while and merely concealing it. Barton Fink is unlike any other Coen film. The plot is subtle and there is little action. For the most part it is a character study of almost but not quite likeable protagonist Barton Fink.
Even though Barton Fink only made $6 million dollars, a major studio wanted to produce their next film, The Hudsucker Proxy, and for the first time the Coens were working on a sizable budget. This is perhaps their most unliked movieit is too mainstream for Coen fans, but too dark and weird for the mainstream. Many critics note the over use of special effects and extravagant sets as pointless spending. The film flopped and lost millions of dollars. In an interview with the Coen brothers in Filmzone, when asked about why the movie failed, Ethan stated, "Critics are usually kinder to cheaper movies than to those they perceive to be big budgeted Hollywood releases. A case in point is that of Hudsucker. Some of the bad reviews stated that the movie cost 40 million. In fact, it cost 25 million. Its true that lot of money seems like a stick they want to beat you with. They cut you more slack if you spend less money, which makes no sense."
Despite the pans, The Hudsucker Proxy is a good movie a little light on the power but heavy on the style. It, more than any other one of their films, pays homage to many different directorial styles. The sets of 1950s era New York are breathtaking and the Coens use of long tracking shots takes advantage of them. Again the Coens use a device to add depth to the plotin the form of Moses (Bill Cobbs), he is guardian angel/janitor. But unlike the devices used in other Coen brothers movies, Moses simply moves the plot where they want it to go. Or perhaps he is just what he appears to be: a guardian angel who symbolizes nothing more than goodness and the return of Robbins characters innocence. In The Hudsucker Proxy the Coens are forging new territory; they are trying to appeal to a larger audience. After the bad reviews came out the Coens had to sit back and evaluate what when wrong and what went right. People liked having a hero, but missed the violence.
It took the Coen brothers three years to come out with their next film Fargo. The film did well and brought the brothers back to the top; Joel won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. It is based on a true crime. In an interview with Premiere, Joel said, "We always wanted to try something based on a real story and tell it in a way that was very pared down. Thats the reason for a lot less camera movement and the one-shot scenes, to give it a more observational kind of style." The plot is similar to the plot of Blood Simple, a husband Jerry (William H. Macy) hires two bumbling criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife in hopes that he can get her father to pay a ransom that he can split with the kidnapers. Things start to go awry from the start and a murderous rampage insues.
Many of Fargos scenes are set on the bleak snow-covered plains of North Dakota. In the opening shot, a car towing another car drives into the distance where there is no line between the white sky and the white earth. Another shot is an aerial of a parking lot filled with snow holding only one dark car. These shots are in contrast to the shots of the pregnant police chief Marges (Frances McDormand) home. In one particularly beautiful scene Marge and her husband (Steve Park) sit at their warm breakfast table very early on a wintery morning. The table sits to the left of the frame and the doorway is to the right. As Marge leaves for work we can see her go out the door and into her police car, we hear it not start, and see her return inside to ask her husband for a jump. The camera doesnt move at all, it is a wonderful use of deep focus. One camera angle makes the usually lush Coen style seem harsh and more realistic. Here too they are using plot enhancing devices; one is Marges pregnancy. This makes her not just the good guy, but the symbol of all that is goodlife as opposed to the pale kidnapers who embody death.
Fargo marks the ability of the Coen brothers to adapt their unique style to any type of film they want. Their visual and written grace can be transferred into almost any medium. Throughout their careers the Coens have learned form their triumphs and their mistakes. They are always pulling new tricks from up their sleeves. They have a special self-reflexive quality that indicates how fluid their work ishow one work runs into another. In Raising Arizona HI works for Hudsucker Industries and in Millers Crossing Tommy lives in the Barton Arms apartments. Not only are names recurrent but also themes. Kidnapping is integral to both Raising Arizona and Fargo. The nightmare turned reality is also common to Raising Arizona and Barton Fink. Blood Simple and Millers Crossing are both tributes to particular genres. Because the Coens so obviously link their pieces it is hard to view each movie as a separate work once the similarities are revealed.
Because the Coens spend over two years carefully crafting each film, it is easy to miss many of the layers of subtleties in it. There can never be one single explanation or interpretation due to their ultra-dense nature. But that is why the Coens are so good. In todays world of video rentals and cable TV it is nice to know that every viewing of a Coen brothers film can bring new ideas and understanding to old movies. They make visually, intellectually, carnally, and aurally pleasing movies that can be watched again and again.
(C) 1997 Sarah Wichlacz