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American Independents, Directors, Hollywood, People

The Coen Brothers: Serious Men?

Ethan and Joel Coen at the 'True Grit' press conference during the opening day of the 61st Berlin International Film Festival on February 10, 2011 (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

I’m booked to run a day school with this title at the end of February and I’ve been working on some ideas in preparation for watching True Grit and then deciding how to structure the day. Films and filmmakers associated with major Hollywood studios are not the focus of this blog, but the Coens occupy an odd position, critically and commercially, a kind of no man’s land between mainstream and independent. At this time of year with virtually no high-profile releases from outside the US because of the awards season, they are getting a lot of attention. Their anomalous position is part of the their appeal to festival organisers – as in Berlin last week.

However, I realise that I’ve been watching Coen Bros. films since the 1980s without ever spending too much time thinking about them. What I do remember is an interesting presentation in the NFT by Julia Short, then of Polygram (?) explaining how the marketing of Fargo (1996) was handled in the UK (i.e. quite differently than in North America). Later I worked on a presentation about O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) which was mainly I think about Roger Deakins’ cinematography and the (then) new ways in which colour grading could be altered significantly at the digital intermediate stage. O Brother is possibly my favourite Coen Brothers film – primarily because of the music and the ensemble comedy playing of George Clooney, Holly Hunter, Tim Blake Nelson, John Turturro et al.

In a sense, I think I’ve just skated over some of the key Coen Brothers traits: excellent casting and performances, great music (e.g. T-Bone Burnett), great cinematography and a slightly odd position re Hollywood studios (UK production company, Working Title via Universal have been the consistent funding source since Barton Fink in 1991). Against this is a feeling that the Coens are talented filmmakers who sometimes just seem to make lazy choices of project. After the disappointing Intolerable Cruelty (2003) I decided to give The Ladykillers remake a miss. I’m not sure what I made of No Country For Old Men (2007) but I’m not sure it added that much to my experience of reading the novel, apart from the usual excellent ensemble acting and technical credits on cinematography etc. To begin my preparation for the school I watched The Big Lebowski (1998) and A Serious Man (2008). Predictably perhaps, I found the first entertaining with an interesting soundtrack, but not much more, whereas the latter seemed quite clever with an intriguing narrative structure and a refreshingly different approach to representing the Jewish community of their youth in the Mid West.

On Saturday Will Self, the novelist and once newspaper film reviewer, wrote a piece in the Guardian which felt rather like my own view of the Coens, though I suspect that we might disagree on which Coen Bros. films we preferred. I then watched the 1969 adaptation of True Grit directed by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne in his Oscar-winning role. I don’t think that I’d watched it before (Wayne’s Green Berets put me off him for several years I think) though I remembered the Glen Campbell song and the iconic Wayne/Cogburn charge towards the end of the film. I found the film entertaining, mainly for the dialogue which presumably comes from the novel and Kim Darby’s performance which was at least different. It is also beautifully shot by Lucien Ballard who also shot Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country (1962) and was one of the top visualisers of the West. I’m intrigued to see what Roger Deakins does for the Coens. At first, I thought that the film was very old-fashioned, reminding me of Western TV series and the ‘cleaner’ look of the 1950s movies. In the latter half when it becomes a ‘mountain Western’ I was reminded of Ride The High Country, in which a young woman is similarly in the charge of two (much older) men. In 1969, however, Peckinpah was bringing out The Wild Bunch and consciously changing the Western. The Wayne True Grit did seem more like a literary adaptation, i.e. of a classic novel – I’ve seen Mark Twain mentioned – rather than a Western novel. I’ve ordered the book to check out its style.

The Coen’s True Grit has been hyped to the skies and has been rewarded with a strong box office and heaps of critical praise. They have spoken at length about their intentions and how they have ignored the Wayne version. In another Guardian piece they are quoted as saying that their film isn’t really a Western at all. My feeling is that much of what they say could be just flim-flam, but I’ll wait and see what I make of their film this week. In some ways the most interesting aspect of all of this is to try to work out what audiences are getting from the film, the most successful ‘historical film’ from Hollywood in recent times. Why does something that at least looks like a Western appeal now? Is it because there is a more satisfying story than most contemporary Hollywood films – or because the folk memory of the Western as ‘the great American story’ is comforting during a recession (i.e. that genre recognition means more than the Coens claim)? After the first couple of weeks of the film’s run outside North America we’ll know if the feeling is similar for audiences globally. If it is, that prompts other questions. (The opening weekend in London saw True Grit topping the chart. In the rest of the UK it also did very well but couldn’t dislodge The Kings’s Speech from No 1 film outside the children’s market.)

I’m hoping to explore these ideas at the National Media Museum in Bradford on 26 February.

Discussion

2 thoughts on “The Coen Brothers: Serious Men?

  1. I generally agree with the above. However, I thought Will Self’s piece suffered from the criticisms he made of the Coen Brothers, long on comment, short on substance.
    I am not sure they are lazy. Perhaps it is more that they think they are ‘post-modern’. I do find that the more self-referential their film is the more it annoys me. The comedies in particular induce that feeling.
    I think this has got more noticeable in their films as time goes on. So I really like Miller’s Crossing, right back early in their career. And A Serious Man alternatively bored and annoyed me.
    I found True Grit an oddity. Impressive prodcution values, but it seemed to be a mixture of the Wayne film and Coen Brothers tropes. Some scenes looked almost identical. Apparently the Wayne version is closer to the book?
    As for their impact. They have a reputation. And I think some modern audiences like ‘spotting’ film references. I supose there is also irony, though I prefer irony with a little more subtlety.

    Posted by keith1942 | February 24, 2011, 15:28
  2. Yes, ‘lazy’ was the wrong adjective – perhaps ‘safe’? I agree that any claims to postmodernity etc. don’t really hold up. I think I’m still trying to work out why they choose the projects they undertake. Why choose True Grit – other than to show that they can do it skilfully? They don’t seem to do anything with the western as a genre or with the idea of a historical narrative centred on a 14 year-old (the book alludes to her general meanness and narrowmindedness more effectively, I think. Of course, we should be grateful for a well-made genre piece, but the Coens encourage the hype that it is something more. I haven’t seen either the Ladykillers remake or Burn Without Reading – partly because I couldn’t work out why I should bother. I disagree with you about A Serious Man though.

    Posted by venicelion | February 24, 2011, 21:19

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