Thursday, December 24, 2009

Directors of the Decade: Joel and Ethan Coen

Robert here, continuing my series of the directors that shaped the past 10 years. This week’s directors have achieved new heights critically and commercially in the past ten years. They may be (collectively) the greatest director(s) of the decade. I speak of: Joel and Ethan. The Coen Brothers.

Number of Films: Seven
Modern Masterpieces: Two. No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man.
Total Disasters: The Ladykillers has maybe a few good things going for it.
Better than you remember: Burn After Reading was very much a love-it-or-hate-it film. If you hated it, it’s far better than you remember.
Awards: Director and Picture Oscars for No Country for Old Men
Box Office: That film is also their best performer w/ over 75 mil.
Critical Consensus: ...and received their most consistent raves.
Favorite Actor: If you said George Clooney, you’d be right! Also Stephen Root and Richard Jenkins. Three films each.

Let’s talk about:
Meaninglessness. It’s the major thematic thread through the Coen Brothers’ filmography, and best describes their view on life; a sequence of meaningless events full of sound and fury signifying nothing. But there’s a stylistic thread in the brothers’ films as well. It’s their favorite way to tell their tales of meaningless... By mixing and mis-matching various genres. The Coen brother’s films can reasonably be separated into two kinds. Those that are heavier on the genre fun (like The Big Lebowski where although it’s clear that The Dude’s misadventures add up to nothing the enjoyment comes from watching the stoner comedy meet Raymond Chandler). Or those that are heavier on the meaningless motif (like Fargo where the combined comedy and crime genre’s are essential, but the heart of the film lies within Marge’s “and what for?” monologue.)

Ethan, Joel, Roger

The Coen Brothers started off the decade with three films heavy on genre play and ended by digging deeper into the futility of their universe than ever before. O Brother Where Art Thou? is titled after a fictional film from Preston SturgesSullivan’s Travels. And the film is their definitive love-letter to the 1930’s comedies that have inspired them from Raising Arizona onward. Sprinke in a little religious allegory and a lot of Greek myth (not to forget the contributions of T. Bone Burnett, one of their finest collaborators) and you’ve got classic Coen genre goofiness. Of course even after our fugitive protagonists save the day and get pardoned, they still find themselves senselessly at the whim of the film’s villain, followed by a Deus ex Machina ending that, from any other director, would be frustratingly unnatural. But not in the world of the Coens. After this came The Man Who Wasn’t There, the brothers’ definitive love-letter to film noir. Just as its predecessor the delights of the film come from watching noir elements congeal with staples of old time sci-fi and allusions to Nabakov’s Lolita (with a lot of aesthetic help from Roger Deankins, another invaluable contributor). And just as before not much that happens has any real meaning. It’s life. Man against a world out to punish him via ambivalence.

The Coen Brothers’ winning streak would tank a bit with their next film, Intolerable Cruelty. As long as they were making genre-based love letters, they might have as well thrown in screwball comedy. But they barely loaded the genre blender and as a result the film seems too safe (though it’s saved by Clooney’s inspired performance and an aside with a character named Wheezy Joe). Forget homage, The Ladykillers, their next film was an all-out remake, and like most remakes, came off as rather unnecessary. But the prospect of character after character getting bumped off in meaningless ways must have appealed to the Coens. And once again the film’s most worthwhile asset is its leading performance (nice to see Tom Hanks chew up the scenery comedically again).

Then, a high-water mark. Somehow The Academy Awards went for No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brother’s most nihilistic picture of the decade and a good example of the second kind of Coen film (light on genre, heavy on theme). As with Fargo the Coen Brothers create a crime film where each new futile development adds up to little more than additional death, while using the film’s protagonist to view the lunacy and ponder what it all means. As with Fargo, the true protagonist doesn’t show up for 30 minutes and is left with no real answer. Though Sheriff Ed Tom learns what Sheriff Marge may already know: the world is no place for reasonable people. But “after a while you just have to try to get a tourniquet on it.” And that’s it. As for the exciting plot, the chases, the shootouts, the intrigue… there could never be a satisfying ending to it. And plenty of viewers were upset. Feel that ambivalent universe yet?


In Burn After Reading, the Coen’s again use a character who wonders out loud about it all. “What did we learn?” asks the CIA man. But “I don’t know” is really the only possible response. This isn’t a deep thematic contemplation. This is another fun-with-genre outing. What genre you ask? Only the most vogue of the decade, the (god I hate this term) hyperlink film, where the lives of random strangers intertwine to create some kind of poignant statement on the world. But the Coens mock it. They know that these films are so overly dependent on ridiculous coincidence and stupid characters that what was supposed to be meaningful can only be meaningless… perfect for the Brothers’ Coen.

Finally the Coens returned to thematic territory. Not that they don’t have fun combining the Book of Job with comedy elements. But essentially they’re again asking more questions about the meaning of meaninglessness, of the ambivalence of the world. Larry Gopnik has to know if the universe is out to get him, yes or no. But the answer is either unknowable like the Goy’s teeth, or no good can come from finding out, like the tale of the dybbuk. Better to let the answer be yes and no (like Schrodinger’s cat). Don’t look in the box. Embrace the mystery. Enjoy the parking lot (as Jerry Lundegaard never got to).

And the Coens continue to explore the universe, utilizing more techniques and exploring even far more territory than I’ve been able to describe here. Their films are filled with layers, yet crammed with delights. Over the past decade, no directors have managed to combine the cerebral and the comical with such success. And in the last ten years their status has grown from quirky and clever cult directors to two of the best minds working in American cinema.


Amir said...

since the series started i was waiting for them to come.
they would be my personal pick for the director(s) of the decade.
so, great post!


I still don't get A Serious Man. I think someone really needs to sit down with me and map out why it's brilliant cuz I don't see it. Still, I did enjoy it. But for me this decade it totally goes

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN -total greatness
INTOLERABLE CRUELTY -better than people say
O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? -well, it definitely has its moments.

and i didn't see THE LADYKILLERS

Henry said...

I really think the Coens brothers' attempts at comedy early in the decade are still underrated. People seem to love to trash O' Brother, Where Art Thou, Intolerable Cruelty, and The Ladykillers. I maintain each is better than people think and get better with each viewing.

Robert said...

Nathaniel, there was a great letter posted on Roger Ebert's website on A Serious Man. I'm not sure if reading is the clue to getting it (which I'm not sure I do either) but it's good food for thought.

Henry said...

But I'm also one of those people who thought No Country For Old Men wasn't as good as people made it out to be. Especially when I view it in comparison to There Will Be Blood, which gets better with every viewing. I still maintain the Academy made a mistake in handing No Country... Best Picture.

brandz said...

imo, best Coen Bros. film is Blood Simple. it's often overlooked.

Poppy said...

I only hate one movie of theirs and its Burn After Reading. How is that movie good? Sooo unfunny, annoying characters, boring, and with a stupid ending. Maybe I need to see it again or just accept my opinion but, dear God, I don't see many merits for the film.
Anyway, I think No Country For Old Men deserved its best picture oscar. I know some people say TWBB should have got it but no. Both are exceptional movies but TWBB had a terrible box-office. I know B.O. Doesn't translate into quality but it is a movie's job to look good and be desired and even with its critical acclaim, probably better than the others to critics, it still was way behind, B.O. Wise to the other movies. No Country did great with audiences and critics.
Do people who aren't movie buffs even know about TWBB? Maybe, but I don't know any.

Morgan Leigh Davies said...

This was great. I adore the Coen Brothers and really enjoyed reminding myself of everything they've done this decade (not all of which I have seen).

A Serious Man is one of my favorites of the year. I really liked it at the time but it has grown on me more and more as time has worn on.

Ángel Ramos said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ángel Ramos said...

The Man Who Wasn't There is my favorite Coen Brothers Film. It is a Master Piece, and in my opinion Billy Bob Thornton gives one of the greatest performances of the past 10 years. Also Roger Deakins gives his best work so far, and say that is a big deal.

Excuseme for my Bad English. I follow your blog since two years or so. It is great and very fun. I'm from Coatzacoalcos Mexico (Salma Hayek birth town)


notanotherblog said...

Burn After reading was dull except for Tilda Swinton. For a movie I considered mediocre, I don't understand why I keep quoting "Ossie, did you get the cheeses?!" They sure know how to write lines or direct people to say them properly like in A Serious Man, "Have you participated in the latest freedoms?"

NCFOM channeled Cormac McCarthy's prose but not the devastated reactions of Anton's victims. He doesn't describe because the words they say are enough to break you. If I directed the movie (yeah right), Kelly MacDonald would be on the floor crying.

Nonetheless, Fargo is still their magnum opus and the nineties were so much better for them than this decade.

Melanie said...

Fargo is one of my favorite movies. I've probably watched it 20 times and I hope I'll be able to watch it another 20 times before I pass from this meaningless existence.


cal roth said...

I've already said it here, but people MUST see The Man Who Wasn't There again. Absolute masterpiece.

Nate Tyson said...

They have yet to make a bad film in my eyes.

My most watched Coen Bros film is O Brother, which never gets enough respect (but, then again, comedy never does).

They, like all great artists I guess, are magnificent collaborators, and I love them so much for illuminating Clooney's true identity to the world: The Perfect Post-Post-Modern American Film Icon. They realized his potential before anybody else.

Chris Na Taraja said...

BURN AFTER READING is some of John Malcoviches best work. he is hysterical in that film. It's not their best film, but it really had some good moments.

Plus Tilda can do no wrong!

Chris Na Taraja said...

i just watched Fargo again, and it's just as good as I remembered it. AND, the ending still shocks and horrifies me. I had actually blocked it out, and recreated a nicer less disturbing ending.

Anonymous said...

"As with Fargo, the true protagonist doesn’t show up for 30 minutes and is left with no real answer. Though Sheriff Ed Tom learns what Sheriff Marge may already know..."

sheriff tom appears immediately in voice over. also, a strong argument can be made that llewelyn moss is the (or one of the) protagonist(s)


i think i'd argue that the sheriff is the protagonist of NO COUNTRY too. though it's really a three-hander.

Anonymous said...

although i know he's not a favourite around here, i do think Eastwood was crucial this decade. Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling, Invictus, Gran Torino, Mystic River, Flags of our Fathers. You've gotta like at least one of them, and it's noteworthy how much work he gets done.