Saturday, June 1, 2013

Joel and Ethan's America: Coast to coast with the Coen Brothers

My preliminary attempt at mapping the feature films of the Coen Brothers.

With the imminent release of Joel and Ethan Coen's next feature, Inside Llewyn Davis, I thought it was a good time to discuss an aspect of the brothers' career which has thus far escaped critical notice. Taken in total, their films provide a portrait of our nation from one coast to the other. Their America is a skewed, surreal and often dangerous place populated by misfits, outlaws, rebels, big shots, and fiercely independent eccentrics. 

While American society becomes more and more homogeneous over time, most Coen films heavily emphasize the local customs, accents, and attitudes of the places where they are set. In a sense, the filmmakers have a vested interested in preserving the so-called "old weird America" before it's obliterated by television, the Internet, and nationwide retail and restaurant chains.

I believe that the brothers are fascinated with American iconography above all other themes and have used their movies to explore various American archetypes which loom large in our collective imagination. It goes without saying that a Coen film will be "weird" to one extent or another, but the particular flavor of "weird" depends on where the film is set and which American subculture is being satirized, venerated, or simply observed in the script. 

Marge Gunderson and the Dude may be contemporaries, for example, but they do not lead similar lives and would probably not have much to say to one another if they were seated side-by-side on a long bus trip. Meanwhile, Ed Crane's America is not Norville Barnes' America. Geographically, sure, it's the same place but philosophically, it's not even close.

To better understand the Coen Brothers' attitude toward their homeland (or certain sections of it, anyway), I have organized their films geographically.

THE SOUTHWEST (Texas, Arizona, and Arkansas)

M. Emmet Walsh and Dan Hedaya in the relentless Texas heat of Blood Simple.

Films: Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, True Grit, No Country for Old Men

More than any other region of the country -- even their native Minnesota or their adoptive California -- it is the Great American Southwest where the Coen Brothers have done their most potent myth-making. For them, this is a spooky and merciless place where guns, drugs, and money hold sway and where Revenge is often the law.

Their first feature, Blood Simple, famously begins with a monologue by sleazy private eye Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) who explains life in Texas to us: asking your neighbors for help is useless, he says, because "down here, you're on your own." Visser's cynical speech is accompanied by a series of eerily beautiful but foreboding shots of Texas, all composed as meticulously as a Mark Rothko canvas. We see highways, farmers' fields, oil derricks, and a drive-in theater, but not a human being in sight. This sets up a pattern the Coens will repeat in The Hudsucker Proxy and The Big Lebowski: introduce the place first, minus the people, while an off-screen character narrates, and then let the camera "find" the movie's protagonist after a few minutes. The Texas we see in this movie is a desolate, barren, and hopeless place with plenty of wide open stretches where people can commit horrible crimes without police interference.

A little over two decades later, the Cones returned to the Lone Star State for No Country for Old Men, a downbeat crime drama which makes Blood Simple look like a carefree romp in comparison. Here, the law maintains a token presence, represented by Tommy Lee Jones' grizzled Sheriff Bell, but is ultimately impotent against a new breed of pitiless super-criminals like Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). "The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure," Sheriff Bell wearily tells us.

Raising Arizona: Bounty hunter Leonard Smalls is armed and unafraid.

True Grit and Raising Arizona are rather more optimistic than the Coens' two Texas films. How could they not be? In these movies, at least, the guilty are duly punished and the heroes are (more or less) satisfied at the end. But even here, the protagonists are often at the mercy of violent, ruthless men --Randall "Tex" Cobb's Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona and Josh Brolin's treacherous Tom Cheney in True Grit -- who are motivated solely by greed and who will gladly kill to further their own ends. These men have no permanent home and do not fear the law, so our heroes must face them and defeat them without help. One blogger, by the way, has actually written an article comparing Leonard Smalls and Anton Chigurh. Give it a read, won't you?

And while you're at it, I invite you to compare and contrast the opening scenes from No Country for Old Men and Blood Simple. Though the films were released 24 years apart, the stories in them occur only four years apart. No Country takes place principally in West Texas, along the Mexican border, while Blood Simple is set somewhere in Central Texas. Both films begin with thoughtful, contemplative  monologues, but one of our narrators is an honorable man and the other an opportunistic swine. The question to consider here is: are these men being pessimistic or realistic when they describe the Texas they know?

THE SOUTHEAST (Mississippi)

George Clooney and pals seem about to be lynched in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Films: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Ladykillers

When it comes to covering the American Southeast, also known as the Deep South or the Old South, the Coen Brothers' attitudes are clearly rooted in nostalgia, folklore, and Hollywood romanticism than in any sort of reality. The Coens' South is a quaint, dusty, sepia-toned place where hobos carry bindlestiffs, freshly-baked pies sit cooling on windowsills, and there is nothing more sacred than Sunday service. And music, of course, is everywhere. It's just part of the atmosphere, flowing from every home and generating itself spontaneously in nature.

The Coens have described O Brother as a "hayseed comedy," and term applies just as well to their remake of Ealing Studio's The Ladykillers. Although the former is set during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the latter in the mid-2000s, Mississippi seems not to have changed much in the ensuing seven decades. 

In fact, take out the references to rap music (or "hippity hop") and a few other modern-day trappings like convenience stores, and The Ladykillers could take place simultaneously with O Brother. Both films are farces about groups of inept criminals led by motor-mouthed "gentlemen thieves" who never limit themselves to one- or two-word utterances when they could accomplish the same goal with 50 words. Like George Clooney's Ulysses Everett McGill, Tom Hanks' Professor Dorr uses his eccentric vocabulary and serpentine sentence structures to dazzle and disorient those around him. To put it simply, these fellas sure can talk.

As I said earlier, another thread which connects these films is their heavy use of traditional regional music. One group of thieves (in O Brother) actually does form a band along the way, while the other (in The Ladykillers) merely poses as one. It's possible that the Coens made these films simply for the opportunity to use old bluegrass and gospel recordings on the soundtrack. O Brother indeed created a chart-busting, Grammy-winning sensation with its companion album consisting of vintage 78s, field recordings, and songs newly recorded (most notably "Man of Constant Sorrow") in the style of days long past. 

Hurt by the film's critical and commercial failure, The Ladykillers soundtrack LP did not manage to do for old-time gospel what O Brother had done for bluegrass. The album is no less astonishing, though, and the music itself manages to raise the stakes of the film's plot. The Ladykillers is a dark comedy in which inept crooks are regularly killed off, but the religious music on the soundtrack constantly reminds us that the characters' actions may have far-reaching consequences in the Next World.

THE EAST COAST (New York, Washington D.C.)

Paul Newman enjoys a Monte Cristo against a backdrop of skyscrapers in The Hudsucker Proxy.

Films: The Hudsucker Proxy, Miller's Crossing [possibly], Burn After Reading, Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coens don't often head out East, but when they do, they tend to include a few common elements: men in well-tailored suits, rapid-fire dialogue peppered with brisk comebacks, copious alcohol consumption, and winner-take-all scenarios in which no quarter is asked or given. After all, it's a jungle out there. If you study the image above, you'll notice a distinct visual change from the Coen films set in the Southwest and Southeast. This being NYC in winter, the temperature has dropped considerably, and the film's color scheme has skewed to a blueish-gray hue in sympathy. 

Until Inside Llewyn Davis, which centers around the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s, The Hudsucker Proxy was the Coen Brothers' one-and-only true "New York movie." Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese have basically spent their whole careers in the Big Apple, but the Coens visited the place with great hopes in the 1990s, met with financial ruin there, and didn't return for two decades. Now they're giving the place a second chance.

From what I've seen in the trailer, Llewyn Davis is considerably more realistic than the completely fantastical, dreamlike New York of Hudsucker, a highly-stylized screwball comedy which is arguably the only Coen film to employ elements of the supernatural. The magical character of Moses the Clock Man (Bill Cobbs) is very much a precursor to the Stranger, the genial cowboy portrayed by Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski. In a way, Moses and the Stranger are East Coast and West Coast variations on the same role. Both are folksy storytellers who narrate their respective movies and watch over all the other characters like benevolent gods. (Perhaps it's telling of the difference between New York and LA that Moses intervenes when the hero, Norville Barnes, is in real trouble, but the Stranger simply watches from the sidelines.) Just as the Stranger kicks off Lebowski by giving us his personal take on Los Angeles, Moses welcomes us to The Hudsucker Proxy with a speech about the perils and pleasures of New York:

Elsewhere in the Coen filmography, we have a couple of hard-to-categorize outliers. Miller's Crossing is the duo's Prohibition-era gangster film, and it takes place in an undisclosed urban locale referred to only as "the city." I have arbitrarily placed the film in New York due to the presence of both Irish and Jewish gangsters, but the story could just as well be occurring in Chicago, Boston, or Philadelphia. It was shot in New Orleans, but no one in the film has any hint of a Louisiana accent so I have ruled it out as a setting. Wherever it takes place, Miller's Crossing is a handsome film which lends its various mob bosses, thugs, and gun molls a sense of old Hollywood glamour. It is interesting that the film, unlike most crime sagas, mixes urban and pastoral settings. The title location, for instance, is a forest clearing where bodies are dumped and executions carried out. Despite its grim function, the crossing still looks sumptuous and inviting due to the rich cinematography of Barry Sonnenfeld.

Burn After Reading, on the other hand, does not portray its setting, Washington D.C., in such a flattering manner. This is a cold-blooded comedy of errors whose inept, unsympathetic characters routinely betray, threaten, and deceive one another. Fittingly, they inhabit what seems to be a godless, indifferent, and comfortless universe. This being our nation's capital, there are a number of massive government buildings which figure into the plot (including CIA headquarters and the Russian embassy), but these are portrayed in an unappetizing manner -- they're imposing rather than impressive -- and they must share screen time with such shabby, work-a-day locations as an unremarkable apartment, a blandly ugly gymnasium, and an uninspiring movie multiplex. There are some more photogenic neighborhoods in Burn After Reading, but these are inhabited by some of the movie's nastiest characters.


A storm approaches at the end of A Serious Man.

Films: Fargo, A Serious Man

It took a while for the the Coen Brothers to get back to their Minnesota roots, but when they did, they did so in a big way. Interestingly, Ethan Coen's 1998 short story collection, Gates of Eden, contains a fair amount of commentary on his family's home state. Minnesota, in fact, may be called one of the book's primary motifs. One character, for instance, uncharitably describes Minneapolis as a "strange frozen city where people's breath hovers about them, where fingers tingle and go dead, where spit snaps and freezes before it hits the ground." Another narrator is more forgiving:
The city had not much serious crime. It was dotted with scenic lakes. The people were polite. Many owned boats. In the summer they engaged in water sports; in the winter they skied. The solid northern stock seemed immune to the great miseries and grand passions upon which crime traditionally feeds.
Minnesota is the setting for two of the Coen Brothers' most accomplished and fulfilling works: Fargo and A Serious Man. As anyone who has seen these films can confirm, the characters indeed experience "great miseries and grand passions" and are nowhere near "immune" to these emotions, even though they maintain the outward stoicism for which the region is famous. (An old joke: "Did you hear bout the Norwegian who loved his wife so much he almost told her?") 

The perceived nothingness of the state, the utter blankness of Minnesota, is what makes the plots of Fargo and Serious all the more shocking. "A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere" went the tagline for the former. When local police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) arrives at the site of a grisly roadside shooting, she guesses that the suspects are not from Brainerd. She's right, of course, but Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), the hapless car salesman whose kidnapping scheme is the catalyst for the whole movie, actually is from Brainerd. Evil lurks behind the blandest of facades.

The two films work as a diptych: Minnesota in winter, Minnesota in spring. Fargo gives us seemingly endless terrain blanketed in snow, while Serious lets us see what the place looks like after it's thawed out. Ironically, the lack of snow only serves to emphasize the featureless desolation of the land. A Serious Man largely takes place in a newly-built suburban community, and the lack of trees and vegetation gives the place an unsettling starkness. Struggling with the TV antenna on his roof, ineffectual college math prof Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is at least as pitiful as Jerry Lundegaard, who loses his composure while scraping the ice from his car window in a dismal parking lot after a business meeting with his father-in-law doesn't go as he'd hoped. Note how the high camera angle at the beginning emphasizes Jerry's laughable insignificance.

What separates Fargo from A Serious Man is ethnicity. Fargo takes us into the world of "Swedes, Poles, and German Lutherans" (Ethan's words again) which comprise much of the population there. The film's two most-noticed details were the characters' heavy Minnesotan accents (with frequent repetitions of "yah" and "you betcha") and their unflagging, almost superhuman politeness (a tradition dubbed "Minnesota Nice"). 

The use of dialect was the most controversial aspect of the film upon its initial release, with some critics dismissing the film entirely based on that one aspect of the production. However, a great many more were charmed by the accent and found themselves imitating it after seeing the film. It's tough not to. The accent was certainly exaggerated for the film, a point which irked some native Minnesotans, but I feel it was done with affection. This was how the people of Minnesota must have sounded to Joel and Ethan growing up. Which brings us to that other Coen Brothers film set in their home state...

More bad news for Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man.

A Serious Man is very explicitly about the experience of being Jewish in Minnesota in the 1960s, surrounded by skeptical Midwestern Protestants on all sides. It's a world the Coens obviously knew first-hand, and it comes up again and again in Gates of Eden. Some of the details in this movie, such as the sister who spends all of her time in the bathroom, were first described in Ethan's book. Ethan also wrote with great humor about the drudgery of attending Hebrew school with its glowering, humorless rabbis and arcane lessons. 

It's no surprise that A Serious Man is the brothers' most openly religious film. The plot is essentially the Book of Job translated to LBJ-era American suburbia: a decent and devout family man, the previously-mentioned Larry Gopnik, suddenly faces a series of familial, professional, legal, and financial setbacks. Towards the end, just as his fortunes seem to be improving somewhat, a whole new set of problems descend upon him and the film ends on a note of dread, with many of Larry's issues left unresolved.

Many viewers and critics intuited that God is personally and unfairly punishing Larry in this film, but that notion presupposes the very existence of God, which I don't necessarily think is a given in the Coen world. Larry might just be having a string of rotten luck. It's up to the viewer to decide whether or not these events have any theological significance. But what we can safely say is that poor Larry Gopnik is denied the solace afforded to Marge Gunderson at the end of Fargo. She can take comfort in her loving husband and soon-to-be born child, while he can only pray for the best to a God who may or may not be listening and who may not even exist.

THE WEST COAST (California)

The Big Lebowski's Tara Reid at home in the land of fruits and nuts.

Films: The Big Lebowski, Intolerable Cruelty, Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn't There

And now, from the Land of a Thousand Lakes, we travel two-thousand miles westward to the "Land of a Thousand Flakes," as Mad magazine once put it. A mere thousand seems like an awfully low estimate, though, especially from what we see of California in the Coen Brothers' movies. The rest of the country sees the state as a place where America's most shallow, greedy, deluded, and debauched individuals have gathered to take advantage of one another. 

The Coens tend to reinforce this idea through their work. Intolerable Cruelty takes place in a number of locations, including Las Vegas, but the film's main action centers around Los Angeles and gives us all the typical targets we'd expect from such a story: conniving lawyers, unfaithful husbands, gold-digging wives, bitter divorce cases, iron-clad prenuptial agreements, ridiculous reality television shows (America's Funniest Divorce Videos), and pets who are treated like spoiled children. In Gates of Eden, Ethan gives us a distinctly Jewish-American spin on the topic as he describes the fate of a Hebrew schoolmate:
For the next several months, Michael was a model student, if somewhat robotic, until his family moved to California, where (it was common knowledge) all meshuggenehs end up.
Of all the characters in the Coen canon, there are two whose lives somewhat mirror those of the brothers themselves. One is Barton Fink (John Turturro) and the other is Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid). Both Barton and Bunny travel to the Golden State in order to work in the exciting field of motion pictures: he as a writer, she as a starlet. Like the Coens, Barton is a nerdy, socially awkward Jewish writer, while Bunny (the former Fawn Knutsen of Moorhead, MN) is another transplanted Minnesotan*. Unlike Joel and Ethan, however, these two fail to find success in Hollywood. 

Having conquered Broadway, Barton is assigned to write a "Wallace Beery wrestling picture" and struggles to complete a first draft while getting embroiled in a gruesome homicide case. His move from New York to Los Angeles, a blatant cash-grab suggested by his unscrupulous agent, seems ill-advised from the start. The actual transition is suggested by an ominous shot of a wave crashing against a rock on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. 

Like A Serious Man, Barton Fink can be interpreted as a biblical parable. The dilapidated hotel where Barton lives may be Hell, while his neighbor (John Goodman) and boss (Michael Lerner) make pretty good stand-ins for Satan and God. Like "Hotel California" by the Eagles, Barton Fink makes a case for Los Angeles as a kind of Inferno or Purgatory. Meanwhile, in The Big Lebowski (whose protagonist hates "the fuckin' Eagles"), the only screen work Bunny can get is in a cheaply-produced pornographic film called Logjammin'. The former high school cheerleader winds up a drug-addicted trophy wife who owes a hefty sum of money to the film's Hugh Hefner-esque producer, Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara). To summarize, then, the Coen Brothers do not present Hollywood as a place where people's dreams come true.

Customer service: Minnesota-style vs. California-style

The Big Lebowski is the Coen Brothers' definitive "California movie," and it serves as both a tribute to and parody of the so-called Land of Fruits and Nuts. While fans across the country and around the world have embraced the laid-back lifestyle of the film's hero, the Dude (Jeff Bridges), the film offers a panoramic view of Los Angeles and its surrounding communities. Those with an intimate knowledge of SoCal culture must experience an extra level of enjoyment when they watch this film. With the Dude as our informal tour guide, we travel to stuffy Pasadena, ultra-casual Venice, ritzy and exclusive Malibu, scuzzy Simi Valley, and humble North Hollywood, where a former television writer wheezes his days away in the iron lung which keeps him alive.

Of course, we have an assortment of California kooks on hand, too, many of whom have convinced themselves they they are somehow part of the art world, music world, or movie industry. The Dude's shy, chubby landlord, Marty, gives an interpretive dance recital and (in classic Hollywood fashion) asks his constantly-in-arrears lodger to attend and give him "notes." Then there are the Nihilists (led by Peter Stormare): three washed-up German techno musicians who, in their desperation, have cooked up a ransom scheme which they hope will net them $1 million. (It won't.) 

Much higher up in the food chain is Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), a woman whose inheritance from her mother has allowed her to live the life of a bohemian artist in a stylishly-appointed loft where she drizzles paint onto a giant canvas while dangling nude from a harness. Her dear friend, the fey, giggling Knox Harrington (David Thewlis) is supposedly a "video artist" but seems more apt to be a trust-fund-draining layabout. And we haven't even gotten to the film's most celebrated supporting characters: belligerent Vietnam vet Walter (John Goodman), leering pedophile Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), and perpetually bewildered surfer and bowling prodigy Donny (Steve Buscemi).

Before we leave Lebowski, it's worth pointing out that it was the follow-up to the critical and commercial triumph of Fargo. Since the films had several key cast members in common (Buscemi, Goodman, Stormare, and others), the public might have been expecting a quasi-sequel or continuation. The Coens, however, let us know within the first few minutes of The Big Lebowski that we're not in Brainerd anymore. While Fargo was peopled by impossibly cheerful cashiers, waitresses, parking lot attendants, and even prostitutes, Lebowski gives us California's brand of customer service. Apart from the Dude, the first human being we see in the film is an obviously-bored Ralph's checkout girl (Robin Jones) who glares with disgust at our hero as he writes a $0.69 check for his half and half.
* The Big Lebowski's theme music is "The Man in Me" by Bob Dylan, another Minnesota-born Jew who left his home state and, like Bunny Lebowski, adopted a new name (his real moniker is Robert Zimmerman) and a new persona to go with it.
Northern California noir: Frances McDormand and Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn't There.

We find a very different California in The Man Who Wasn't There, a James M. Cain-inspired noir tale set in 1949 and presented in gorgeous black-and-white. Our protagonist -- you'd be hard pressed to call him a hero -- is Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), an impossibly reserved and tight-lipped barber who lives with his adulterous bookkeeper wife (Frances McDormand) in the quiet suburban community of Santa Rosa. We're a long way from Los Angeles -- a good 427 miles north of the Dude's slovenly bungalow.  These aren't the crackpots and showbiz wannabes of the Coens' other California flicks. These are solid, practical-minded folks, much closer in spirit to the characters in Fargo and A Serious Man.

But just as with those films, the sedate setting of The Man Who Wasn't There is no deterrent to "great passions and grand miseries." Just like Jerry Lundegaard and phony millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski before him, Ed Crane tries to raise some cash through a scheme which directly endangers his own wife. In this case, he plans to blackmail Doris' lover (James Gandolfini) and use the proceeds to go in on a dry-cleaning business. This being a Coen film, the plan backfires spectacularly and the plot goes off on unexpected tangents involving Beethoven, UFOs, and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Moody and haunting, The Man Who Wasn't There ranks among my very favorite Coen films.

So there you have it folks!

We've managed to cover the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. As the map at the beginning shows, there's still plenty more territory for the boys to cover. They've yet to do a film set in the Great Plains, the Pacific Northwest, New England, or anywhere in the Midwest besides Minnesota. Much of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions remain untouched as well. Still in all, their feature films function as a kind of prism through which we can view this wonderful, terrible country of ours -- distorting some of its features and bringing others into sharper focus.