As a Santa Monica College film student, Tatiana is taking a Coen Bros. appreciation course. She’s in the midst of watching a long list of their films for preparation, and I’ve watched two or three with her. Unfortunately this immersion has reminded me of some aspects of their films that I don’t like all that much any more. Certain strategies or indulgences that I found captivating or delightful 20 or 30-plus years ago have lost some of their intrigue.
For the most part Blood Simple (’84) has lost none of its deliciously manipulative, film-nerd brilliance. The dying M. Emmet Walsh (as the sleazy gumshoe) looking up at that tiny glob of sink water and waiting with a mixture of apprehension and panic for it to drop onto his face is one of my all-time favorite closing sequences. Brilliant! But I also found myself irritated by the none-too-bright behavior of John Getz‘s “Ray” and especially his unquestioned and unexplored assumption that Frances McDormand‘s “Abby” killed her husband (Dan Hedaya‘s “Marty”), and his decision to make sure Marty is dead and then bury his body. I’ll accept a certain amount of stupidity on the part of a central character, but when he/she crosses the line I’m out.
I found myself doubling down on my hate for Raising Arizona (’87). I wrote last March about a friend slipping me a draft of the script in early ’86, before they began filming. I loved the dark humor, the flirting with absurdity, the Preston Sturges-like tone. But I was envisioning a film that would work against all that with a tone of low-key naturalism.
When I saw the finished film I was horrified. It was pushed way too hard — too pedal-to-the-metal. And I hated, hated, HATED John Goodman‘s Gale and William Forsythe‘s Evelle.” Simon Pegg once described Raising Arizona as “a living, breathing Looney Tunes cartoon” — that’s precisely what I hated about it.”
Then we watched Barton Fink (’91), which I hadn’t seen since…I forget but sometime in the mid to late ’90s. My first reaction was that the various horrors experienced by John Turturro‘s impossibly pretentious screenwriter (based, I’ve always assumed, on Clifford Odets) are a metaphor for a terrible case of writer’s block and the feeling of suppressed panic that takes over when you’re unable to make an idea or some kind of writing challenge “work” — to put it down on the page in a way that feels right and true and perhaps even profound. Hell, the inability to write anything along these lines and the self-doubt that creeps into your system the longer the blockage lasts.
This time I was filled with more and more irritation for Fink’s general arrogance and stupidity — his obstinate mindset, his inability (i.e., the Coen’s refusal) to share his thoughts, the refusal to watch a few Wallace Beery films or peruse some scripts for research, his inability to at least type out a few random ideas or at least write stuff on napkins. Once I succumbed to this negativity I started focusing on his ridiculous Eraserhead haircut, and the way his bare feet looked and the awful cut of his thick tweed suit and the fact that he travelled all the way from New York to California with some kind of overnight suitcase with room for maybe a shirt or two, a couple of boxer shorts and a couple pairs of socks but that’s all.
“What a moron,” I kept saying to myself. “He took the job for the money, but he’s so caught up in his ‘elevate the plight of the common man’ bullshit that he can’t summon the elemental smarts to bang out some kind of formulaic hodgepodge, which is all the studio wants in the first place, or even bullshit or stall his way through a poolside chat with studio boss Michael Lerner. No social skills, no ability to think on his feet…the kind of head-in-the-clouds writer who would never get past the studio gates under the usual circumstances. He comes to town with his New York playwright legend backing him up and be blows it almost immediately. And then the Godz finally release him from blockage but he writes something that totally doesn’t work for Lerner…great.”
I love the spooky dream image of the woman on the beach, but I don’t know, man. I probably won’t be be watching Barton Fink again any time soon.
From “My Heart Aches For The Coens,” posted on 11.13.19:
If you ask me the last real Coen brothers film was Inside Llewyn Davis (’13).
I “liked” but didn’t love True Grit (’10) all that much. It was basically about Jeff Burly Bridges going “shnawwhhhhr-rawwwhhrr-rawwrrluurrllllh.” It certainly wasn’t an elegant, blue-ribbon, balls-to-the-wall, ars gratia artis Coen pic — it was a well-written, slow-moving western with serious authenticity, noteworthy camerawork, tip-top production design and, okay, a few noteworthy scenes.
Let’s just call the last ten years a difficult, in-and-out, up-and-down saga, but at the same time acknowledge that the Coens have enjoyed two golden periods of shining creativity and productivity.
The first golden period was a four-film run — Blood Simple (’84), Raising Arizona (’87), Miller’s Crossing (’90) and Barton Fink (’91). The Hudsucker Proxy (’94) was a weird, half-successful, half-sputtering in-betweener. The second golden period (’96 to ’09) was a nine-film run — Fargo (’96), The Big Lebowski (’98), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (’00), The Man Who Wasn’t There (’01), Intolerable Cruelty (’03), The Ladykillers (’04), No Country for Old Men (’07), Burn After Reading (’08) and A Serious Man (’09).
My moviegoing life has been diminished by the absence of the “real” Coen Brothers. If I was a mega-millionaire I would invest in whatever they want to make.