Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Sense of Authorship: Joel and Ethan Coen

- Although not particularly cemented in film history yet (as their careers are still unfolding before us) my favorite filmmaker is the cinematic two-headed monster of Joel and Ethan Coen. I have enjoyed literally every single film the Coen Brothers have produced (to varying degrees, naturally) and they have yet to let me down, a trend that continues through my viewing of their latest film True Grit (2010). A sense of authorship can be clearly seen in all of the Coen Brothers’ films but I will specifically address this regarding three specific films that the Brothers have created.

One of the many great things about the never disappointing Coen Brothers is that they simply leave little room for disappointment. It might sound a bit trivial, but I have had my experience of viewing other films ruined by the hype and/or my own personal expectations that surround them for a variety of reasons. This never happens with the Coen Brothers however. One never knows what a Coen Brothers film will deliver as seen through the way that audiences often laugh out loud during one of their most suspenseful thrillers or are frozen in suspense during one of their most laugh-out-loud comedies. Also, whether or not one particularly enjoys every film that Joel and Ethan Coen have produced, great credit must be granted to the Brothers for the way they continuously create very original films. Even their screen adaptations of unoriginal work have more of a Coen Brothers signature than the signature of the original author, such as their adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey: O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000).

Despite the consistent uniqueness of every Coen Brothers film, a thread entwines throughout each Coen Brothers film that binds their filmography together. Some directors make one film after the other that differs from their past films in almost every way. Ron Howard and Sydney Pollack come to mind right away as directors whose new releases were 180 degrees different from their past work (tell me that Willow (1988), Ransom (1996), and Cinderella Man (2005) or They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), The Yakuza (1974), and Tootsie (1982) have anything in common). The Coen Brothers, while delivering one unique film year after year, do have many similarities stylistically and content-wise that tie them all together despite many differences. This factor plays into why the Coen Brothers are so revered and popular: no one else makes films like Joel and Ethan Coen and no one else can. One could argue that other directors make better or worse films but the fact remains that Joel and Ethan Coen are one-of-a-kind pair of filmmakers.

Perhaps no better example of this Coen trend of filmmaking can be seen outside of the Coen Brothers’ works from 2007-2009. If the Coen Brothers can claim O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and Burn After Reading (2008) - related only by the presence of actor George Clooney - as their unofficial “Idiot Trilogy” then I will claim No Country For Old Men (2007), 
Burn After Reading and A Serious Man (2009) as their unofficial “Life Sucks Trilogy.” These films are very different from one another but they also have a lot of similarities; presenting related messages that link them together while also remaining unique stand-alone Coen Brothers films.

This unofficial Coen Brothers trilogy does have some fundamental differences between them. For starters, No Country For Old Men is an adaptation of a novel by Cormac McCarthy, unlike Burn After Reading and A Serious Man which are original stories written directly for the screen. Another obvious difference rings loud and clear: the three films are a part of different genres. No Country For Old Men is a straight-up thriller with the Coen Brothers flare; a lot like the Brothers' first film, Blood Simple (1984), in that each nook and cranny of every scene is not drenched in the Coen Brothers visual and emotional atmosphere but is driven by their great talent of creating an eerie sense of suspense. Burn After Reading is a deliberate attempt to make the audience laugh, presented in a spoof-like manner (in this case, it is shot as a serious espionage thriller, except the main characters are generally clueless). Unlike No Country For Old Men, gravely serious content with a few laughs peppered throughout the film, Burn After Reading is a no-holds-barred comedy but with a few dramatic gasps peppered throughout the film.

A Serious Man is different from both films entirely and is actually very difficult to categorize. The film is neither completely dramatic nor completely comedic, some scenes are as shocking as No Country For Old Men and other scenes are as hilarious as Burn After Reading but the entire film never really takes a particular path to walk. Also, A Serious Man has more Biblical parallels in its story - not only is the story almost a direct adaptation of Book of Job, other Biblical scenes are transferred from scroll to film (such as main character Larry’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) rooftop glancing at the naked Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker) being similar to King David’s rooftop noticing of the bathing Bathsheba).

However, in a typical Coen Brothers fashion, their Oscar-winning no-nonsense thriller No Country For Old Men, ensemble oddball comedy Burn After Reading and humorously tragic moral tale A Serious Man have some major similarities even though they fit into three completely different genres. Stylistically speaking, all three films are very similar. Both No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man were shot by the same director of photography, Roger Deakins (a frequent collaborator of Joel & Ethan’s), and all three of the films in question have a similar lighting scheme of high contrast within a more mellow-colored palette. Also, the Coen Brothers employ a similar wide-use of camera angles for each scene (never staying with flat-angled shots for very long) and all three films feature what I like to call the Coen Camera Creep. The Coen Camera Creep is quite simply a shot in which the camera, ever so slightly, creeps up to confront a character/object or follows a character/object from behind. Now, other filmmakers use and have used a slow-moving close up or follow-along technique in many films but the Coen Brothers add a unique touch to make a technique all their own.

The role of money in the plot as a catalyst for catastrophe is seen in No Country For Old Men (money being the reason why Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is chasing Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin)), Burn After Reading (in hopes to fund her plastic surgeries, Linda (Frances McDormand) unwittingly sends two men to their death looking for information to sell to the Russians) and A Serious Man (moments after accepting a bribe and changing his student’s grade, Larry gets a bad phone call about his health and the tornado forms outside of his son’s school). This goes for much of films that are a part of the Coen Brothers filmography – the best example of which is Fargo (1996) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). The old film noir adage that money can take an average person down into a dangerous situation permeates throughout the work of the Coen Brothers and is particularly evident here in the Coens’ “Life Sucks” trilogy.

Other similarities, ones that I would say are the greatest similarities between the three films, can be found in the film’s themes. The main underlying theme found in each film can be applied to either film: What is the point? My unofficial Coen Brothers “Life Sucks Trilogy” beings in 2007 with No Country For Old Men and I wonder if the Coen Brothers got to thinking long-term about the unexplainable nature and randomness of life after working on No Country For Old Men as their next two films, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man, also explore such themes. The Coen Brothers address three oddities of life: violence in No Country For Old Men, chaos in Burn After Reading and uncertainty in A Serious Man. At one point or another, some or all of the characters in the films cannot understand these oddities that life offers. In No Country For Old Men, Sherriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) cannot understand the intense series of violent acts he has witnessed – and neither can Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) and Carla Jean Moss (Kelly MacDonald), who expressively say as much, ending up victims of such violence. The CIA supervisor (J.K. Simmons) in Burn After Reading cannot fathom the bizarre chaotic events propelled by vanity, paranoia and stupidity; and, in A Serious Man, Larry Gopnick cannot come to terms with why all of these bad things are happening in his life. All of these subjects point to a randomness of life that the Coen Brothers expose – seen best in Anton Chigurh’s coin tossing in No Country For Old Men and in A Serious Man when Larry Gopnick says that the uncertainty principle means “we don’t really know what is going on.”

The main point that each film makes can be interchangeable: Ed Tom Bell could have said “what did we learn?” in No Country For Old Men when reflecting on the unexplainable violence he has witnessed, rather than the CIA Chief saying it in Burn After Reading in response to the chaotic set of events he experienced. The other CIA officer
(David Rasche) could have responded to the Chief’s question with the line spoken in A Serious Man: “accept the mystery.” Who can honestly explain the oddities that occur in life? Also, the bluntly honest line from No Country For Old Men, “you can’t stop what’s coming,” might as well have been said at the end of A Serious Man as the tornado materialized in front of Larry’s son’s eyes. There is truth to the stories that the Coen Brothers tell: inconceivable violence is nothing new to society; stupidity, paranoia, and vanity go hand in hand to a chaotic end; and sometimes bad things just happen in life for unknown reasons. The themes that are shared by No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man show a distinct sense of authorship from Joel and Ethan Coen.

Authorship: some filmmakers have it and others do not; but the Coen Brothers definitely own a unique signature style and theme. Take a look at any one of the current Coen Brothers films and you will find something to compare, Joel and Ethan present original works that always contain their own style of filmmaking. No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man carry the distinguishable Coen Brothers style with them, finding creative ways to ask life’s big question: What’s the point? 

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