Friday, March 23, 2012

The Auteurs #9: Joel & Ethan Coen Pt. 1



Part 1

Considered to be one of the great filmmaking duos/siblings working today in cinema, Joel and Ethan Coen have amassed a spectacular library of films that is as diverse and prolific. From zany, low-brow comedies to stylish, noir-style crime films, the Coen Brothers are filmmakers who definitely have no boundaries in what they do. Even if it involves character who are truly out of the norm and are from very different worlds as they try to fit in or make sense of what is happening around them. While they would often use the same actors and work with the same people, they’re a duo that doesn’t repeat their work or to try and gravitate towards the trends of the time.

Born from the state of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, Joel David Coen arrived on November 29, 1954 while Ethan Jesse Coen arrived on September 21, 1957 as both were raised by their Jewish parents in their economist father Edward and art historian mother Rena. The two both attended the St. Louis Park High School as Joel graduated in 1973 and Ethan three years later as both went to different schools as Joel went to New York University and Ethan going to Princeton.

The brothers both shared a love for film and pulp novels as Joel would meet another young filmmaker whose career was starting out in Sam Raimi. Joel’s talent in editing had Raimi hired him to co-edit his 1981 debut in the horror flick The Evil Dead as the two became friends as they also brought in Ethan as the trio would write a script for Raimi’s second film that would be the 1985 black comedy Crimewave.



Inspired by the writings of Dashiell Hammett, Joel and Ethan Coen wrote a project that was inspired by Hammett’s work and their love for film noir and horror. Entitled Blood Simple, the film told the story of a bar owner who hires private detective to kill his wife and her lover in Texas. The film’s plot is synonymous in what is expected with film noir but the Coen Brothers knew they had to do things to make it different. Notably as it was the 1980s and film noir had sort of returned in films like Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 debut film Body Heat.

With the help of their cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, the Coen Brothers would create moody shots to emphasize the sense of dread that occurs while utilizing bits of humor into the film. Notably as it involves a bartender who always plays the Four Tops’ Same Old Song to quiet things down. Another element of the film that strayed from a lot of the ideas of film noir are the characters as Dan Hedaya’s Julian Marty is not some angry husband who wants his wife dead while Frances McDormand’s Abby character isn’t a typical straying wife. Added to this toxic mix of adultery and revenge is the Loren Visser character played by M. Emmett Walsh who would be the man that would play his own rules and set the fates for everyone involved.

This approach to the noir narrative gave the Coen Brothers a chance to stand out on their own in the way by letting the characters be more fleshed out but also create scenes where it’s all about the dialogue and planning. The scene where John Getz’s Ray character tries to bury Marty’s body after finding him dead as he is lost in the desert is among one of the most chilling moments in the film. Notably as he tries to play against what Visser is trying to do making things much more complicated. These would be the kind of elements that Joel and Ethan Coen would later use to help find a certain genre formula and re-tool it in order to find something new.

While the Coen Brothers also co-edited the film under a pseudonym in Roderick Jaynes whom they would use for almost the entirety of their career. The film would also feature key people who would be part of the Coen Brothers’ extended family. Among them was Joel Coen’s then-girlfriend Frances McDormand in whom he would be married to as she would become one of the Coen Brothers key acting regulars. With cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld part of the team of regular collaborators at the time. Two other individuals would become key players into the film work of the Coen Brothers for the entirety of their film career. The first was sound editor Skip Lievsay who would help set the mood for a lot of the sound used in their films. The other is music composer Carter Burwell who helped provided a dark, melancholic score with eerie piano textures needed for the film.

The film made its premiere at the 1984 Toronto Film Festival and later making its U.S. debut a month later at the New York Film Festival. The film would be a major festival hit as well as one of the key touchstone pictures to help set the burgeoning new wave of American filmmakers emerging outside of the studio system. Though Joel Coen was credited as the director and Ethan as the producer due to guild rules at the time. The film would mark their arrival while in 2000 after years of being out-of-print and not being shown on TV for some time. The duo re-released the film in a director’s cut by restoring the Four Tops song, which had been replaced by the Monkees on U.S. home video due to music rights reasons, as well as re-cutting a few scenes adding to the film’s lauded reputation.

In 2009, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou remade Blood Simple into a stylish period piece entitled A Simple Noodle Story that was more of a comedy than the dark thrillers of the original Coen Brothers film. While the film did received mixed reviews from audiences and critics, the Coen Brothers did praise Yimou’s version of their film adding to the revered reputation of Blood Simple.



With Blood Simple being an art house and film festival hit that garnered numerous critical acclaim, the Coen Brothers were becoming new filmmakers on the rise. In 1985, comedy director John Landis asked Joel Coen and Sam Raimi to make cameo appearances for his film Spies Like Us while Joel and Ethan Coen both helped Raimi making Raimi’s Crimewave released in 1985. It was during this time the Coen Brothers were trying to start work on a new project that was to be extremely different from Blood Simple. Inspired by the works of filmmaker Preston Sturges and the writing of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor for the film Raising Arizona.

The film is about an ex-convict loser and his former-cop wife whose attempt to have a child is shattered as the two learn about a set of quintuplets born whose father is an unpainted furniture entrepreneur. The two kidnap a baby to raise on their own as they later deal with two ex-convicts, responsibility, and a biker from hell. Unlike Blood Simple, the film would become a trademark of the Coen Brothers’ idiosyncratic and zany approach to comedy that would broaden their fan base for years to come.

With appearances from Frances McDormand and M. Emmet Walsh, the film starred Nicolas Cage as ex-convict H.I. McDunnough and McDormand’s college roommate Holly Hunter, who made a voice cameo in Blood Simple, as H.I.’s ex-cop wife Ed. The cast also included Randall “Tex” Cobb as the biker from hell Leonard Smalls, Trey Wilson, William Forsythe, and a future Coen Brothers regular in John Goodman as one of the two ex-convict friends of H.I. The casting would allow the Coen Brothers to create cartoonish characters who play to certain types while being more fleshed out as the film progresses. While the character of H.I. is a man struggling to be good and leave his criminal past behind. He feels pushed to live up to certain expectations that he can’t meet when his convict friends later try to get him to take part in a bank robbery.

The Snoat brothers that John Goodman and William Forsythe played are two guys who are a bit dim-witted but can be very smart when it comes to crime while they also seem to be very fond of the Arizona baby that H.I. and Ed kidnapped. Some of the key elements of the Coens humors included John Goodman screaming either in shock or in rage. Notably in the scene where he and Forsythe dug themselves out of jail. Another key element to the Coen Brothers’ approach to comedy is the quirky dialogue that is created. One famous line that Cage speaks is him trying to rob a convenience store as he tells the clerk, “I’ll be taking these Huggies and whatever cash you got” only for the robbery to go wrong leading to a hilarious chase involving dogs, cops, and a run-in at people’s houses and a supermarket.

While the film’s production had some difficulty due to the casting of the babies needed for the film along with issues with Nicolas Cage and Randall “Tex” Cobb though Cage later expressed his admiration for the duo. The film was released in early 1987 in the U.S. to mixed reviews as it would later win over audiences through the advent of home video and cable. The film also got a chance to screen out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 1987 giving the Coen Brothers their first taste of major international exposure. The film would eventually considered as one of the great comedies ever made when the AFI listed at 31 for their 100 Years… 100 Laughs list in 2000.



The cult success of Raising Arizona allowed the Coen Brothers time to work on their next project as they decide to go into the gangster-crime genre. Originally entitled The Bighead, it was to be a film that was once again inspired by the works of Dashiell Hammett about a gangster trying to play both sides in the middle of a gang war. Writing the project proved to be difficult for the Coen Brothers as the duo suffered writer’s block in trying to create the script that would become Miller’s Crossing.

During the time of writing the screenplay, the Coen Brothers would eventually create another script that would become another film entitled Barton Fink which they eventually wrote in three weeks. After finally completing the script for Miller’s Crossing, the duo finally went to work on the project set to shoot in New Orleans as the film was set during the American Prohibition era. With Irish actor Gabriel Byrne set to play the lead role of Tom Reagan, the cast included Albert Finney playing the role of crime boss Leo O’Bannon who took over for Trey Wilson who died two days before production was to start.

Also cast were Marcia Gay Harden, J.E. Freeman, and many other actors who would become Coen Brothers regulars as it featured John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Jon Polito, and Michael Badalucco along with appearances from Frances McDormand and Sam Raimi. With less emphasis on crazy shooting styles, the Coen Brothers aim for something that is much simpler but also more direct in their compositions. While the violence is more brutal than in Blood Simple, there is still an element of style present in the film. Notably as one of the film’s most memorable moments includes a scene where a hit on Leo O’Bannon fails as he grabs a tommy gun and kills his rival’s henchmen as they try to flee in their car and blows up.

Another moment of the film’s rise in maturity is in the way the Coens were able to direct actors and framing them for a shot. While there was still elements of humor, there is a bit of a restraint to the way the Coen Brothers play up the drama such as Tom’s conversation with John Turturro’s Bernie character as the latter is in hiding after Tom secretly spared Bernie from death. That scene would be recreated in towards the end of the film as Bernie makes the same plea to Tom as it would reveal Tom’s true character. It’s a film that would prove the Coen Brothers’ ability to not play nice when it comes to violence while creating ambiguity in its characters.

Released on September 1990, the film drew rave review with critics as the Coen Brothers were able to score once again with its critics and a growing fan base. Commercially, the film only grossed $5 million against its $14 million budget making it a box-office bomb as 1990 also saw the release of various gangster crime films like Phil Joanou’s State of Grace and Martin Scorsese’s much-lauded Goodfellas as all three films were released around the same time while the much-anticipated Francis Ford Coppola film The Godfather Part III came out on Christmas of that year. Despite the film’s unfortunate timing of its release, the film did grow in its reputation thanks to home video as the Coen Brothers were rising high.



During the troubled writing period for Miller’s Crossing, inspiration came in the form of Charles Shyer’s 1987 comedy Baby Boom as the duo watched it one night and would write a script that would become their fourth feature film Barton Fink. Barton Fink told the story of a playwright who travels to Hollywood where he’s asked by a B-movie studio head to write a movie about pro wrestling as the writer struggles with writer’s block and the world of Hollywood. The film would allow the duo to bend genre ranging from suspense, drama, comedy, and character study as they explore the world of the writer.

Playing the titular character would be John Turturro, who had previously appeared in Miller’s Crossing while new Coen regulars like John Goodman, Jon Polito, and Steve Buscemi would make appearances for the film. Also cast were Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Judy Davis, and Tony Shalhoub as the film was set in pre-World War II 1941 as the Coen Brothers aimed to explore the world highbrow and lowbrow culture in film, theater, and literature. Notably as it centers around this writer who would face compromises and everything that pushes the writer down in a world where conformity and commerce is king.

While the film also featured contributions from regular collaborators Skip Lievsay, Carter Burwell, set decorator Nancy Haigh, production designer Dennis Gassner, and co-casting director John S. Lyons. The biggest change in their group of collaborators would in the form of British cinematographer Roger Deakins who had replaced the duo’s previous cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld who would forge a successful career as a filmmaker in directing such hit franchises for films like The Addams Family and Men In Black. While Sonnenfeld made a cameo for the film, it would be Deakins’ work as a cinematographer that would broaden the visual palette and choice of theatrical aspect ratios.

With Deakins widening their look as the film had a set piece of a hotel that served as an allegory for hell. The Coen Brothers were also able to find humor in a lot of the characters and settings for the film while bringing a sense of ambiguity that occurs in Barton Fink’s exploration into the world of Hollywood. Particularly as he would have a meeting with a revered writer who turns out to be an abusive, ignorant drunk while his hotel neighbor is a traveling salesman whom Fink claims are the kind of people he writes about. What would happen is that Fink’s character, played with tremendous gusto by John Turturro, would face all of the trials and tribulations going into what he would face as a writer as well as the fact that he should be writing for himself while not stating that he writes about this group of people or whatever.

The film premiered at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival in France where it was a major hit winning three big prizes. Along with a Best Actor prize to John Turturro and a Best Director prize to Joel Coen, the film received the festival’s biggest prize in the Palme D’or via unanimous decision from its jury and jury president Roman Polanski. The only person unhappy about the Coen Brothers’ victory was bad-boy Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier who left the ceremony early upon learning he wasn’t going to win the Palme D’or. Despite the critical acclaim and accolades the film received including three Oscar nominations for art direction, costume design, and a Best Supporting Actor nod to Michael Lerner. The film didn’t do well in the box office despite its limited release and $6 million box office gross against its $9 million budget cost.



The acclaim for Barton Fink gave the Coen Brothers some clout as the duo also hoped to gain steam in the commercial front as the duo decided to revive an old script they had written with friend/filmmaker Sam Raimi called The Hudsucker Proxy. The story of a na├»ve business graduate who unknowingly becomes a victim of a scam by a company director to become a company president only for the scheme to backfire when he invents the hula-hoop. Meanwhile, various people including a fast-talking reporter get involved to play with the fates of the scheme as it’s all set in late 1950s New York City.

The film would become the Coen Brothers’ first collaboration with British producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of Working Title Pictures as it was also part of the burgeoning Polygram Filmed Entertainment studio from Britain. Helping the Coen Brothers to help fund the ambitious project would be producer Joel Silver who took the script to Warner Brothers studio as many thought it would be the project that would put the Coen Brothers right into the mainstream. With a lot of big stars attached to the project, Tim Robbins was eventually cast in the role of Norville Bates along with Paul Newman as the scheming Sidney J. Mussburger and Jennifer Jason Leigh as news reporter Amy Archer. Along with appearances from regulars Steve Buscemi, Jon Polito, John Mahoney, John Goodman as a newsreel voice, and Raimi regular Bruce Campbell. The project seemed to have the potential to be their ticket to the mainstream.

Instead, the very ambitious project filled with lots of visual effects and set pieces as its final budget was $25 million with an additional $15 million spent to market it. It would prove to be a massive undertaking considering the ambition the Coen Brothers had envisioned for the film as Sam Raimi helped out by shooting second unit work. Shot in Carolco studio in Wilmington, North Carolina from the fall of 1992 to early 1993, the Coen Brothers wanted to create a film that was had a big look as they recalled Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil as a major influence. For the film’s story, the Coen Brothers wanted to recall the comedy of Preston Sturges along with the films of Frank Capra and Howard Hawks while Jennifer Jason Leigh sported an accent similar to Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn. It was all part of an extravagant the Coen Brothers wanted in their exploration of a man’s rise and fall as he becomes a pawn in another man’s scheme.

The film made its premiere at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival to high anticipation as it was later released in the U.S. two months later. The film received mixed reviews with critics as it was a major box office bomb making over $2 million against its final $40 million budget. Despite a better reception in Europe where the film opened the 1994 Cannes Film Festival as it played in competition for the Palme D’or. The film’s failure had the Coen Brothers retreat though the film’s reputation manage to grow with its fans as many consider the film to be one of their most underrated features.



Following the disappointing response to The Hudsucker Proxy, the Coen Brothers decided to return to darker territory for a crime film that they claim was based on a true story. Fargo is the story of a car salesman who hires a couple of criminals to kidnap his wife in exchange for a hefty ransom from the man’s father-in-law. Meanwhile, a pregnant police chief investigates the kidnapping as well as a series of murders that occur. The film would eventually become a black comedy set in 1987 in both their native Minnesota and Fargo, North Dakota during the winter.

Shot on location in Minnesota, the Coen Brothers brought back a lot of their collaborators for the film as they also gained a new collaborator in costume designer Mary Zophres to be part of the team along with Ethan Coen‘s wife Tricia Cooke to help with the editing. For the role of the simple-minded yet determined police chief Marge Gunderson, Frances McDormand was cast in the role in her first collaboration with the Coen Brothers since her voice appearance in Barton Fink. Along with regular Steve Buscemi as the talkative kidnapper, the casting included William H. Macy, Peter Stormare, Harve Presnell, John Carroll Lynch, and comedian Steve Parks.

With a gorgeous yet eerie look captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins, the film aimed to be both a very dark crime film where the violence is graphic while the humor is also offbeat due to the Minnesotan aspects of the film where people said “Ja” throughout. With a chilling score by Carter Burwell, the Coen Brothers aim to create an unconventional approach to suspense as it would involve some very chilling scenes such as Peter Stormare’s silent yet deadly kidnapper who would kill a highway patrol officer and two witnesses in a dark, snowy night on the highway. The other chilling scene is the drop-off for the money where Buscemi’s character is supposed to meet William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard only to meet up with his father-in-law who tried to control of the situation only for the encounter to be very violent.

To balance the film’s dark nature would be its humor as it is presented through what many consider to be one of the great characters in film in the form of Marge Gunderson. Through Frances McDormand’s witty and heartfelt portrayal, Gunderson is a woman who is a small town police chief that is dealing with her pregnancy and these murders that is happening. A meeting with an old high school friend (Steve Parks) is a scene that some would feel was out of place. Instead, it becomes a big moment for Gunderson as this poor man she meets turns out to be not exactly who he is which would prompt her to question Jerry Lundegaard for the second time.

Whereas things seemed fine in her first interrogation with Lundegaard, things start to unravel in the second interview where Gunderson finally realizes that something is up. Notably as it would lead to this climatic moment where Gunderson would solve the case as she would comment over everything that has happened as it is presented in a simple yet poignant shot.

The film premiered in March of 1996 in the U.S. to great acclaim as it was widely considered to be one of the year’s best films while it also became a major box office hit for the Coen Brothers grossing more than $60 million. The film was also a major festival hit as the film received all sorts of accolades where Joel Coen won directing prizes at Cannes as well as scoring a BAFTA for Best Director. The film would also win a Best Film prize from the New York Film Critics Circle and two Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay to the Coen Brothers and a Best Actress prize to Frances McDormand along with five other Oscar nods. In 2006, the film was selected to be part of the National Film Registry for the U.S. Film Preservation Society which would add to the Coen Brothers’ revered reputation.



The big success of Fargo allowed the Coen Brothers chance to pretty much do anything they wanted. With many expecting the Coen Brothers to follow-up Fargo with something with more prestige, the Coen Brothers decided to do what they do best and go somewhere else. What they would do is create what some consider to be one of the greatest comedies of all-time in a film called The Big Lebowski. The story of a middle-aged slacker who is mistaken to be a millionaire is asked by that millionaire to deliver a ransom only for things to go wrong as a lot of hilarity ensues involving nihilists, porn stars, rival bowlers, a vagina-based artist, and all sorts of things as all the protagonist wants is compensation for his rug that tied the room together.

Whereas Fargo was this high-brow black comedy that was very dark, The Big Lebowski was the Coen Brothers aiming very low for a low-brow comedy inspired by the works of Raymond Chandler and a man they met named Jeff Lebowski back in the mid-1980s. While the script was written around the same time they were working on Barton Fink, they were unable to do the film due to production schedules as they were able to get regular John Goodman for the role of sidekick Walter Sobchak. For the role of the film’s protagonist known as the Dude, the Coens wanted Jeff Bridges for the part as he immediately accepted as he would bring his own clothes to set to play the laid-back bowler who likes to drink White Russians and smoke pot.

The cast also includes Coen regulars Steve Buscemi, Jon Polito, Peter Stormare, and John Turturro in the role of rival bowler Jesus Quintana along with Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Huddleston, David Thewlis, Ben Gazzara, musicians Aimee Mann and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea as Stormare’s fellow nihilists, and Sam Elliot as the film’s sarsaparilla-obsessed narrator.

Set in early 1990s Los Angeles, the Coens aimed for a film that was very colorful but also zany in tune with their love for stoner comedies. Filled with a lot of off-the-wall humor, stylish dialogues, and surreal fantasy sequences. The Coen Brothers aimed to create a film that was the exact opposite of Fargo in terms of its style and dialogue. Notably as the film had John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak constantly tell Steve Buscemi’s Donny character to “shut the fuck up” since Buscemi’s character in Fargo talked constantly. Many of the characters such as the Dude, Walter, and Julianne Moore’s Maude Lebowski were based on real-life individuals as the actors were asked to give exaggerated performances while Jeff Bridges chose to remain laid-back with the character making the Dude one of cinema’s most unlikely icons.

Knowing that the film’s music had to include more than Carter Burwell’s score, the Coen Brothers brought in musician T-Bone Burnett to help compile a soundtrack for the film. With artists ranging from Bob Dylan, Kenny Rogers & the First Edition, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Gypsy Kings, and many others. One track Burnett wanted was Townes Van Zandt’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ Dead Flowers in which Burnett had to convince former Stones’ manager Allen Klein to get permission to have the song in the soundtrack. By showing Klein a rough cut of the film, Klein gave permission to have Van Zandt’s cover used after the scene in which the Dude stated that he hates the fuckin’ Eagles.

The film premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival while getting its official release two months later in March where the film received mixed reviews from audiences and critics. Despite its modest box office, the film wasn’t immediately seen as a great film until years later due to its release on home video and midnight screenings of the film where it would become a major cult classic that eventually led to an annual festival in Louisville, Kentucky celebrating the film known as Lebowski Fest. With many critics re-evaluating their opinion since its release, the film’s stature grew as many consider it to be one of the greatest comedies ever made.


© thevoid99 2012

2 comments:

David said...

I'm surprised you know Zhang Yimou's remake of Blood Simple,that film sounds very silly to me and I will never watch it.

thevoid99 said...

It's not a complete waste of time but the whole story was quite pedestrian if you had seen Blood Simple. Plus, some of the humor in Yimou's film doesn't work.