Joel and Ethan Coen: Authors of the Obscure

by Ryan Kerr

Imagine for a moment, if you will, that you are sitting in a bowling alley in East Los Angeles. A bowling alley that in some twisted way resembles a seventies disco amalgamated with a nineteen twenties jazz bar in New Orleans. Across from you sits your three best friends, a Vietnam Veteran who has a penchant for referring every event of his life back to his war experience, a fiendish pot smoker who is ìaffectionatelyî referred to as ìthe dude,î and an unnoticed ever-present tag along. The conversation at this table is focused on a rug that has been urinated upon and those people who have been involved in the crime. The suspects include a paralyzed multi-millionaire with an extremely young trophy wife, an eighth grader with not so great marks in English, a neurotic feminist artist, and a group of bloodthirsty nihilists. Either you are trapped in the most horrifying nightmare of your life, or you are watching a film directed and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen. [1]

Over the past fifteen years the Coen Brothers have produced and directed eight films that have pushed the envelope of plot and character development. Unlike any other films produced during this time period, the Coen Brothers have seemingly succeeded inThe Dude, Lebouski and friend creating a genre of movies that belongs only to them. This new genre somehow encompasses a vast array of already existing genres. Relying on their own intelligence and the intelligence of their viewer, a Coen Brothers film relies on their audience getting the inside joke, and in that respect are extremely pretentious. These are not films to be taken at face value, but films that in many cases require numerous viewings in order to be understood, or "got".The Coenís have succeeded in becoming auteurs, that is, creating a style that is all their own. When one goes to a theater to watch a Coen Brotherís film they are expecting something that challenges their views of a ìnormalî contemporary film. The Coen Brothers are able to take the typical ideas of horror, comedy, drama, dark comedy, and gangster films and put them in the blender to create a vastly different and unique idea. This resulting idea is consistently approached in a way that is something different than has ever been done before, while still drawing on the work of numerous others. This ìbeing differentî is what fuels the Coen Brother's creative machine. [2]

While there are many stylized traits to a Coen Brothers film none are more recognizable than the tendency of the brothers to consistently hire the same actors and actresses in each of their films. They frequently cast the likes of John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand, and John Tuturro, not because they are good friends with these people, but because they trust each of these persons to portray the characters that they have created. Another not so quirky stylized trait of a Coen Brothers film is their tendency to center their plot on a botched crime or crooked criminal. This tendency is in part due to their fascination with film noir and the influential works of past directors such as Federico Fellini. With each new production the Coen Brothers find a way to place their fingerprints on the film in a unique way, and still are able to refuse making an over-budgeted non-independent film.[3]

While the Coen Brothers have received much praise from critics, as evidenced by Best Picture nominations for Fargo(1996), they have yet to be warmly received by a large commercial audience. This commercial success is not a main priority of the Coen Brothers, and neither is reveling in the Hollywood limelight that is already filled with countless numbers of fame hungry directors, actors, and producers. To understand the influences and motives behind a Coen Brother's film it is important to first look at their early beginnings.

Growing up in middle class Minnesota in the early sixties, Joel and Ethan were victims to an Orthodox Jewish upbringing. Both parents being college professors, the brothers were exposed to a vast array of stimuli during their early childhood from Aristotle to Doris Day. The brothers showed an interest in film from an early age, earning money from mowing lawns to purchase a Super 8 camera and film stock, the brothers then began filming the television set and making feeble attempts at reworking classic films. This love of classic film, and their attempts at reworking these films, can be seen in the contemporary projects of the Coen Brothers.

Living in frigid Minnesota also proved to be a major impact on the careers of the Coen Brothers, this unforgiving frozen landscape kept the adolescent brothers indoors for long periods of time during which they viewed a countless number of films. The landscape of their childhood also helped to provide the setting to perhaps their most successful film, Fargo. The unique dialect that is attributed to Minnesota natives is also portrayed in Fargo, and may have fueled the Coens' curiosity with regional dialects and stereotypes that we see in each of their films. [4]

While Joel studied film for four years at New York University, Ethan studied philosophy at Princeton, a degree that Ethan never completely finished. Joelís first official job in the filming industry was as production assistant to Barry Sonnenfeld, a young director of photography who would later move on to produce numerous corporate films. Sonnenfeld often referred to Joel as ìthe worst production assistant ever, but this did not stop Sonnenfeld from working with the brothers on their first three films. Later on, when Sonnenfeld abandoned the brothers to pursue a more lucrative genre of film, critics claimed that Sonnenfeld had joined a group of directors who were nothing more than Hollywood magicians with nothing up their sleeves.The Coens' continually avoid turning their independent style down this one way street, but are becoming increasingly popular in mainstream cinema.[5]

While Joel was making his rounds in the New York film scene, Ethan was busy taking odd jobs and working on scripts that he planned to later develop into films with his brother. It was during this period of time that the Coen Brothers came into contact with a young Sam Raimi and his seminal horror film Evil Dead (1982). Both brothers helped Raimi and are credited with the editing of this film, and later collaborated with Raimi on the writing of numerous projects, including their first film Blood Simple (1985). The influences of this collaboration can be seen from camera technique to writing style in each of the directors. Frequently in the entertainment business the Coen Brothers are referred to as a ìtwo-headed monster, if this monster lost a head the resulting director is believed by some to be Sam Raimi. [6]

From their early days in Minnesota watching films from the likes of Federico Fellini to their more recent collaborations with the likes of Sam Raimi and Barry Sonnenfeld, its easy to see that there are a vast array of influences on the Coen Brothers. Apparent also is the amazing creative spirit that drives the brothers in each of their productions. To understand these influences and the creativity of the directors it is necessary to take a more intense look at one of their films. Released in the middle of their career, and considered by some to be their most exemplary work, Barton Fink provides a more than adequate example of a Coen Brothers film. Serving as more than just an exemplary work, this film is also a disguised and twisted Coen Brothers autobiography.

Released in 1991, Barton Fink is the story of a Jewish playwright in New York who is offered the chance to write scripts for ìwrestling filmsî for a major production company in Hollywood. Fink moves to a hotel in Hollywood which quickly becomes a metaphor for his own personal hell. The walls seem to move in closer and closer on Fink as the movie wears on and he struggles to come up with ideas for a script. Finkís writerís block is made worse by the head of the company who is constantly pushing for a finished product from Fink, and Fink begins to look for help elsewhere. He seeks the advice of another writer who advises Fink to give up writing anything with meaning and simply give the production company what they want. Finkís only release is his neighbor in the hotel, Charlie Meadows.[7]

The overweight and charismatic Meadows, an insurance salesman, tries numerous ways to encourage Fink but is unsuccessful. Fink is driven further into his writerís block and apparent depression as the movie wears on, and is drawn into the problems of Meadows, who turns out to be a serial killer. After a number of surreal events involving Meadows, Fink finishes his script, which is condemned by the production company as inferior. Instead of being fired, Fink is told that he will remain under contract, and will have to continue writing scripts which will never make it into production. Fink, at the end of the film, has literally entered his own personal hell. [8]

At the time that this script was penned by the Coen Brothers they were in the middle of the production of Millerís Crossing (1990). Under high pressure to finish Millerís Crossing the Coen Brothers themselves had experienced a little bit of writerís block similar to that experienced by Barton Fink. Once they had finished off Finkís story they were able to move on and finish the production of Millerís Crossing. One of the main fears of the brothers is selling out to a production company in order to turn some sort of profit. The Coens fight to maintain some sense of an independent atmosphere within their productions, and Barton Fink is a comment on what they think of the non-independent/non-creative world of Hollywood. Surprisingly enough this film enjoyed great success at international film festivals such as Cannes, but once again enjoyed little success in the domestic box office. [9]

Publicity Poster for Barton Fink showing 2 Coen Stars

Within Barton Fink there is much surreal imagery that is typical to a Coen Brothers film. Throughout the film in Finkís hotel room there are repeated close-ups of the wallpaper peeling off the wall. Also in Finkís hotel room hangs a picture of a woman lounging on a beach, Fink frequently gazes upon this picture and we hear non-diegetic sounds of the ocean. As important as the human characters are to this film, the hotel room itself becomes an important character as well, taking on many human-like traits. The deteriorating hotel room becomes, in many ways, similar to the deteriorating mind of Barton Fink. This use of a physical environment as a character is also a sign of the influence of Roman Polanskiís work on the Coen Brothers. Polanskiís films such as The Tenant (1976) and Repulsion(1965) use the physical environment in much the same way as the Coen Brothers do in Fink. [10]

Overall Barton Fink is a shining example of the brothers fascination with the development of the character in a surreal setting. While one would not expect much out of a film about writerís block, the brothers are able to draw the viewer into the film with quirky characters and a set that has a life of its own. In each of the Coenís projects they are able to create a landscape that has so many layers it hard to break down just one within a two-hour space. For these reasons the Coen Brothers can not be placed into a genre. Many viewers may see their films as a simple comedy that makes them laugh, others may see the same film as deeply meaningful and thought provoking, and still there are others who turn the film off after fifteen minutes because the plot is so jumbled that it makes them dizzy. Either way, the Coen Brothers are able to bring back their viewers for more and garner the praise of many critics.

The brothers obviously have a wide range of influences, but these influences are not so obvious that we directly think of Fellini or Polanski when watching a Coen Brothers film. The Coen Brothers are clearly more than a director and a producer, but rather artists who are capable of painting a unique and varied canvas every time they approach it.

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Bibliography
Levine, Josh. The Coen Brothers: The Story of Two American Filmmakers. Toronto. ECW Press. 2000.

Mottram, James. The Coen Brothers: The Life of the Mind. Virginia; Brasseyís. 2000.

Russel, Carolyn R. The Films of Joel and Ethan Coen. London. Mcfarland. 2001.

Films:

The Big Lebowski. Dir. Joel Coen. Perf. Jeff Bridges and John Goodman. Polygram. 1998.

Barton Fink. Dir. Joel Coen. Perf. John Tuturro and John Goodman. Circle Films Inc. 1991.

Background Information (dates):

Internet Movie Database: www.imdb.com

Return to Volume 2, Issue 1

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[1] The Big Lebowski. Dir. Joel Coen. Perf. Jeff Bridges and John Goodman. Polygram. 1998.

[2] Mottram, James. The Coen Brothers: The Life of the Mind. Virginia; Brasseyís. 2000.

[3] Mottram pgs. 11-19

[4] Mottram pgs. 11-19

[5] Mottram pgs. 11-19

[6] Mottram pgs. 16-18 and Russel, Carolyn R. The Films of Joel and Ethan Coen. London. Mcfarland. 2001

[7] Levine, Josh. The Coen Brothers: The Story of Two American Filmmakers. Toronto. ECW Press. 2000.

Pgs. 81-102

[8] Levine, Josh. Pgs. 81-102.

[9] Mottram, James. Pgs 74-92.

[10] Russell, Carolyn R. pg. 89.