Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Directors: Joel Coen (Part 1/2)

Joel Coen - not pictured: Ethan
Read Part 2 Here.

It may be a cliché to say this, but the Coen brothers more than any other living American filmmaker know how to perfect every single field in their filmmaking. I'd rank them among the best living directors from any country. To me, they've never made a bad film, just some that don't quite live up to their expectations. So having them as a part of the ongoing Directors-series was a no-brainer and a long time coming.

As some posts in this series have been way too long, from now on I'll divide the filmography of directors with more than 10 films into two. This also allows me to dedicate a post to each of the Coen brothers. It's good to start with Joel, as their earlier films are usually credited by being directed by just him. In reality, this was a requirement for Hollywood's Screenwriters Guild. The Coens solved the problem by having Ethan have a sole Producer credit, although as well as in directing, both are done as a collaboration between the brothers.

Joel Daniel Coen (1954-) is the elder brother. He is also the one married to their favorite actress Frances McDormand. The pair have been married since even the opening of the Coen's debute film Blood Simple. From this first film on, the Coens have figured how to update classic American genres into modern settings. Although they hop genres, their trademark black humour stays intact from film to film. A lot of the power of the Coen's image is thanks to their cinematographer Roger Deakins, who hasn't got nearly enough praise for his iconic work.

Blood Simple (1984)
The State: Texas

The debut of the Coens has since somewhat defined their career. It's a dark neo noir-film, in fact one of their darkest films. In the film's world, anyone can double-cross anyone and cost them their lives at the process. All anyone seems to be after is money, and even the one central relationship seems to be on shaky grounds at best.

Abby (Frances McDormand), a bar owner's wife wants to leave her husband and run off with the bartender Ray (John Getz). However, the wealthy barowner husband Marty starts to suspect a relationship and as he can't break it off, hires a sleazy private detective Visser (M. Emmet Wash) to murder the couple. But Visser is not one to be trusted and his deception for a few dollars more begins a larger game of stalking and murdering.

Blood Simple was a return to the dark thrillers of the '40s before the term 'neo-noir' was even coined. The Director of Photography at this point was Barry Sonnenfield, who keeps the image as dark as the story. Sonnenfield later became a noted Hollywood director himself with films like The Addams Family and MIB - Men in Black.  The Texan landscape of the film seems well-researched, but it doesn't do any favors for the locals. I think the reason is rather to highpoint the dark barrenness of the nightly desert to the blackness in some character's hearts. The Coens are pretty ruthless and use slasher-film rules here. Only the most virtuous can be spared. Yet the script is a lot better than that with surprising twists and turns and great characterizations as always. So much so that Zhang Yimou could transfer them to ancient China in his recent re-imagining A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop. The result didn't get anywhere near the lofty heights of this, but then, what does?


Raising Arizona (1987)
State: Arizona

After reviving the suspense film genre, the Coens went on to do the same for screwball comedies. The fast-moving story begins as the habitual criminal "Hi" McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) starts wooing the police photographer Edwina (Holly Hunter). After each of his arrests, he gets to change a few more words with her, and eventually she agrees to marry him. But Ed wants a child, which they can't concieve. They decide to kidnap one of the babies in furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona's quintuplets, figuring no one would miss the baby or even notice it missing. Keeping the crime secret becomes Things complicated when Hi's friends (that have a way of blackmailing people) come for a suprise visit and Arizona sends a bounty hunter to find the missing baby.

Surprisingly, Joel Coen hasn't been satisfied with the film. It seems the brothers had some beef with Nicolas Cage's antics on the set of the film, as he has never worked with them since. Reprtedly Cage had too many suggestions for his performance and the film itself, while the Coens wished to keep their own, autocratic vision like the true auteurs they are. Nevertheless, Cage does a terrific performance here as a pretty despicable person who is still pretty lovable. It might be that Hi is just too dumb to be condemned for his actions. Yet there is something sinister in Holly Hunter's Ed as she goes from being a policewoman to sharing Hi's total disregard for law and ethics. She also gets Hi to do the things she wants. Other characters in this film are memorable, and the over-the-top villain in Leonard Smalls (Randall "Tex" Cobb) almost steals the whole show. Seriously, he's the kind of biker so bad he throws grenades at cuddly rabbits just for the hell of it. The film is still hilarious, yet perhaps the Coens prefer the more subtle approach of their later films. The camerawork, the symbolism, the jokes and the characteristics, they all work as well here.


Miller's Crossing (1990)
The State: Illinois? (Not revealed)

Another 180 turn from the optimistic nature of Raising Arizona landed the Coens to do a darker, prohibition-era story of rivalling gangsters. Life is cheap again and the distrust toward friends and fellow men still intact. The film opens with a clear pastiche for The Godfather as a merchant has come to a mob boss to ask for a favour. The Coens throw genre-included baits a lot in the first act of the film, and the brown-scale photography in the beginning resembles 70's films very closely. Yet the film slowly turns into something else altogether and when the story starts flowing even more rapidly, the photography takes a more 90's approach of close-ups and camera tricks. The complex plot of twists and turns is of the patented Coen style, there's no doubt about that.

Two gangs get ever more hostile towards each other over the fate of Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), a bookie. The Italian gangsters blame him from spreding rumours about their fixed boxing matches and want his head for it. But Bernbaum is in the protection of Irish gangsters led by Leo (Albert Finney), whose right hand Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is caught in the middle of the conflict. Things are complicated by the fact that Reagan is in love with Bernie's sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), who Leo is also courting. Reagan begs Leo to hand over Bernie to the Italians to ensure peace, but as the truth about him and Verna leaks, Leo eventually turns his back on him.

The smooth storytelling style of the Coens takes the story though twists and turns like a train. The brothers have toned down the cartoonishness of their characters, but made an effort to write as snappy a dialogue as you would see in old gangster flicks starring Bogart or Cagney. Also Barry Sonnenfield's cinematography is at a peak here, as highly symbolic images such as a flying hat or treetops waving in the wind have never looked more beautiful. I'd say this is their first masterpiece if it wasn't for a little too much runtime and a little underwhelming ending.

★★★★ 1/2

Barton Fink (1991)
The State: California

The last of the big American genres the Coens hadn't yet touched would be the Western. That's time would come almost two decades later. Instead of that they decided to make their fourth feature film a story about their shared writer's block while writing Miller's Crossing. Barton Fink really doesn't resemble that many other movies. The most obvious comparison would of course be the films of David Lynch, which reveal the dark centre around Hollywood glitz with a very cinematic but surrealistic style, where nothing really is as it seems.

Barton Fink (John Turturro) is an acclaimed playwright, who is called to Hollywood to work on a wrestling picture's screenplay. The New York intellectual Fink doesn't know a whole lot about wrestling, but takes the job and sets himself in the Hotel Earle. Yet he doesn't really know where to start the work. He makes friends with his neighbour Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) who tries to help him but to no avail. With some twists and turns Fink will get more story than he bargained for.

The film got the Coens a Palm d'Or for their trouble and rightly so. It was also the first time the brothers worked with DoP Roger Deakins, as Sonnenfield went on to build his own career as a director. Both cinematographers are great, but Deakins really nails the spooky images representing Fink's own barren mind. The central of these is the Hotel Earle itself, filled with a dead and hot athmosphere of dread. By the end, it becomes ever more unclear whether the things on screen are happening in real world, or just in Fink's mind. Nevertheless, the film is surprisingly easy to follow. The Coens build the movie so you need to understand the mood and the character of the film, rather than the narrative and it works like a charm. The usual comedy stylings are best served by John Goodman, who really has only been at his own element in Coen pictures.


The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
The State: New York

The Hudsucker Proxy is the first Coen film which fell a little short from its aspiration. The Coens worked this time in collaboration with their friend Sam Raimi, who co-scripted the film and worked as a second unit director. Problem is, the verbal, dry humour of the Coens doesn't work that well with the more slapstick- and silliness inclined Raimi. Yet all of them can still write great dialogue. Like Raising Arizona, the film is a old-timey screwball comedy, but instead of lovable hicks, it concentrates on the corporate world of old time New York, circa 1958.

Waring Hudsucker, president of Hudsucker industries commits suicide by jumping off the window of his own scyscraper. His board of directors, led by Sidney J. Mussberger (Paul Newman) decide to earn big money on the accident, by getting a naive new president to run the comapany's stock to the ground and then acquire the stock and restore the company's business. The business graduate Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), having just started as a mail deliverer in the company, gets to the right place at the right time and earns the job. But he has some ideas of his own that people might not appreciate as much as they should.

For such a light film, Hudsucker's cinematography sure is dark. In fact, Deakin's work reminds of the photography in Barton Fink. Although this might be to reminiscence the black and white era, it doesn't fit the film too well. The film lacks the surreal storytelling and as a result struggles on the line between a light-hearted comedy and a dark satire. Unlike most Coen films, Hudsucker also feels too crammed with characters that really aren't among the most memorable Coen creations. For instance, it's nice to see Bruce Campbell in a Coen film but he really hasn't that much to do in the film. The dialogue is still snappy and there are a couple of good enough gags to keep the thing afloat. Y'know, for kids. But both Coens and Raimi could do better by themselves.


Fargo (1996)
The State: Minnesota

After Hudsucker bombed (and it's quite clear to see why) the Coens returned to form with a new thriller set to their native Minnesota. And they earned an Oscar for screenwriting to boot. Deakins' cinematography switched to the lightness of wintery sunshine to contrast the darkness within the story. Some night scenes also are reminiscent of Blood Simple. But it seems that unlike Texas, the Coens feel that despite all the bloodshed, greed and crime, not to mention chilly exterior, Minnesota has real warmth in its core.

That warmth is personified by Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a pregnant police officer set to investigate a series of murders in the Brainerd area. We viewers know exactly what has been going on. The sleazy but neurotic car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) has hired two hoodlums (Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi) to kidnap his wife in order to blackmail his father-in-law for money. Yet the thugs have bothed the operation, accidentally killing Lundegaard's wife and murdering witnesses as they happen to see them in their dirty deeds. The whole setting becomes a game of cat and mouse.

The result is one of the most finely balanced and perfected works in the Coen filmography. The brothers seem to have captured the essance of the nature, climate and people in their native state and built the film around that. The silly accents and the down-to-earth nature of (most of) the inhabitants creates a nice mood and a perfect contrast to the criminals from the outside. The quiet Stormare and the constantly-yapping Buscemi don't really understand their environment and respond with violence and other anti-social behaviour. The Coens use their black humour to take this to the extreme point, too, and create the film's famous climax which is almost too good to be true.


The Big Lebowski (1998)
The State: California

Next up was an even more perfect film than its predecessor and one of the few films I could never tire of seeing. The Big Lebowski is another crime film, yet with a wholly unique point of view. The kind of films that put slackers in the spotlight of their stories were not uncommon in the '90s, yet usually this just ended up with them just talking and occasionally doing drugs or having sex with each other. Plus more often than not these so-called protagonists were aimless teenagers. So one could think of the Coens' masterpiece about a modern hippie during the days of Gulf war as a parody of mumblecore, but I figure it was probably more of an answer of the times. The Coens wanted to make a Raymond Chandleresque mystery film, which is evident in the film's title. The mixture of slacking and mystery is probably the best idea they ever had.

Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski is the kind of guy who walks into a grocery store noon in a morning robe to buy milk to make himself a couple of White Russians. One night he gets visitors in his home. Too bad they are angry german nihilists who demand him money and when refused, pee all over his carpet. As the rug really tied the room together, he decides to ask for a new one from the Lebowski the germans mistook him for, millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston). This gets him involved in the eventual kidnapping of billionaire Lebowski's wife, Bunny. Things get further complicated as he asks for advice from his shell-shocked Vietnam vet buddy, Walter Sobchack (John Goodman).

Yes, The Big Lebowski is one of my favorite films of all time. I found the film as a teenager, just looking for a goofy comedy to rent from a video store, not knowing how big a cult film it is. Watching it, I was instantly sold. The Coens reportedly went to write caricatures of their friend circle when creating the unforgettable cast of characters in this film. Shows once again that they are the strongest when mixing something that they know by heart into something a bit more unexpected. While the film works as a pure, broad comedy as well, the central mystery really is kind of tricky as one has to focus to get every character's motivation and interest up. And of course if you invest in that sort of thing, you are going to get a slap to the end by the end.

One toe-length and a marmot above most other films. The Coens were on a high. But early 2000s were not too gentle for them. But that's a story for another time.


On to Part 2.

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