It all started with a parachute.
Sometime in the mid-sixties, after mowing every yard in their neighborhood, little Joey Coen saved enough money to buy a Vivitar Super-8 camera for him and his brother Ethan. They were soon proud filmmakers, and produced Ziemers in Zambia (named after leading man and neighborhood friend Mark Zimering). Loaded with amateur special effects, the film featured a “spectacular” shot of a man parachuting from a plane, the boys using miniatures and a white sheet as background. The problem was, their suburban Minnesota home was nowhere near a flight path, so they had to wait for weeks to get a shot of a plane passing overhead. This kind of patience-present in them even as children-was just one of the qualities that would establish them as modern cinematic marvels.
Growing up in the Minneapolis suburbs, the Coens were influenced by an odd array of films; Joel once claimed that PillowTalk, with Rock Hudson and Doris Day, had a “surreal influence” on their theatrical vision.
After finishing college-Joel at NYU, Ethan at Princeton-the pair began patiently forging their niche in the film industry. One huge breakthrough was Joel’s job as assistant editor on the 1981 cult horror classic The Evil Dead, made by Sam Raimi (later of SpiderMan fame). The two quickly forged a lifelong friendship, and Raimi became a mentor of sorts to the brothers.
Raimi had raised the money-the little cash it took-to produce Evil Dead entirely on his own. With Hollywood budgets becoming grossly obese, the idea of making an “independent” film appealed hugely to the Coens; auteurs though they were, they had no intentions of producing the next E.T. So with Raimi guiding them, they spent a year or two pounding the pavement in search of investors for their own feature film-which became Blood Simple(1984). Borrowing heavily from the film noir style-the flick has since been dubbed “neo-noir”-the movie starred Frances McDormand, who, along with Raimi, actor Scott Spiegel, and some unknown chick named Holly Hunter, all shared an apartment. (Joel married McDormand in 1984.) Unsettling and stylish, the film was a huge critical success, and helped usher in the era of independent film.
Ever patient, the Coens waited five years to release their next offering-the vomitoriously funny Raising Arizona(1989). Filled with hilarious sound bytes, and starring now-groupies Hunter, McDormand, Nicolas Cage, and John Goodman, this one centers around a foiled kidnapping. (Crimes gone wrong are a Coen staple.) Next was Miller’s Crossing(1990), an homage to classic gangster films but with the odd Coen quirks. With much of the dialogue taken directly from the Dashiell Hammett novel The Glass Key(1934), the brothers once again proved their cinematic versatility by tackling a fresh genre.
Barton Fink(1991) followed soon thereafter, starring John Turturro and John Goodman. Probably the most underrated of the Coens’ films, this visually stunning tale about the seedy underbelly of Hollywood won a Triple Crown at the Cannes Film Festival, garnering Best Actor for Turturro, Best Director, and the Golden Palm for best film. (It was later shut out at the Oscars, losing in all three categories for which it was nominated.)
But even as their names were becoming Hollywood legends, Joel and Ethan had yet to produce the “one”-a film that caused mainstream America to drag their noses out of their Starbucks mugs and take notice. So in 1994, they offered up The Hudsucker Proxy, a screwball comedy about the corporate world starring Tim Robbins and Paul Newman – two stars that brought box office success with them.
Centering around the invention of the hula-hoop, the film was a takeoff on the zany fast-talking comedies of the 40’s (usually with Abbott & Costello, or Bing Crosby). The film had a comparatively huge budget, at least for the Coens ($25 million!! A whopper compared to their previous average of about $3 million), and was a critical and box-office bomb. Once again disproving the adage that it takes money to make money, the brothers would have to wait a little longer for their stars to shine-but their planets were quickly aligning.
Fargo, North Dakota. Home of blinding snow, weird Midwestern accents, and the inspiration for Fargo(1996), easily one of the best films of the 1990’s. Bleak, disconcerting, alternately hilarious and terrifying, the Coens’ masterpiece was nominated for seven Academy Awards (it won two, for Best Original Screenplay and for McDormand as Best Actress). Falsely claiming to be based on a true story, Fargo’s plot again centered around a foiled kidnapping scheme, and introduced the Coens (along with William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi) to mainstream moviegoers. This movie contained one of the most distressing scenes in modern cinema-Buscemi’s character “gets rid” of evidence by feeding a body through a wood-chipper. Because of Fargo, the brothers instantly vaulted themselves into the realm of Hollywood’s elite.
Even with the success of Fargo, Hollywood fame proved ever-fleeting with the Coens’ release of The Big Lebowski(1998). This movie, centered around Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski(Jeff Bridges) as a quintessential L.A. loser, enjoyed only minor success, but has since gained a cult following. The script, yet again about a doomed crime in which The Dude is mistaken for a wealthy civic leader with the same name, is plainly one of the Coens’ funniest. The Dude and his cronies-one of his villains is Flea as a German Nihilist-deliver scene upon scene of hilarity with their twisted, Vietnam-era, slackeresque views on life. To add a Coenesque bit of surreality, the film is “narrated” by Sam Elliott (who appears from time to time simply as “The Stranger.”)
But Tinseltown is fickle as a prom queen with five boyfriends, and two years later came another blockbuster, O Brother,Where Art Thou?(2000). By now Joel and Ethan had plenty of star-power; George Clooney agreed to star without even reading the script. A modern-day rural sendup of Homer’s The Odyssey (and the title, for some reason, taken from the film the director wants to make in Preston Sturges’ 1942 drama Sullivan’s Travels), O Brother follows three chain-gang escapees on a mystical, musical journey through 1930’s Mississippi. The cast list reads like a Coen Brothers greatest-hits list-along with Clooney, there’s John Turturro, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Charles Durning (also in Hudsucker Proxy), and Michael Badalucco (Miller’s Crossing). Central to the story are the Soggy Bottom Boys, a country-music group the escapees form; the film’s soundtrack has gone platinum five times over and won five Grammys.
About a year later, The Man Who Wasn’t There(2001) debuted to a surprisingly lukewarm audience. Shot in black-and-white, this film was a vehicle for Oscar-winner Billy Bob Thornton, and had the usual Coen actors in its stable-McDormand, Badalucco, and TV’s Monk star, Tony Shaloub (also in Barton Fink), to name a few. The Coens’ most noir-ish film yet, it was influenced most heavily by the novels of James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity).
Next up was Intolerable Cruelty(2003), a romantic comedy (if one attempts to categorize any Coen movie, this would be that) about divorce lawyers. Here the brothers made two departures from their norm: The script was originally written by someone else, and the film was a star vehicle-as much as the Coens would allow, anyway. On the movie’s official website, Joel explains: “In almost every other movie we’ve ever done, we’ve had particular actors in mind when we’ve written the parts. Since we didn’t write this originally as something we were going to do ourselves, that wasn’t the case here.” Along with Clooney, the film stars Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, and Cedric the Entertainer.
Apparently, the Coens’ attitude towards producing only original material had changed somewhat, because TheLadykillers(2004) is a remake of the 1955 classic that starred Alec Guinness. Here the Coens have practically guaranteed box-office success with the addition of Tom Hanks. (Ever the Method man, Hanks once said that he purposefully shied away from watching the original so that he wouldn’t be “influenced” by it.) In the movie, Hanks’ character assembles a gang of misfits who plan to rob a casino by tunneling under it from the basement of Hanks’ landlady, Irma P. Hall (played uproariously by Marva Munson). The gang is inept as always; note the exceptional performance of Marlon Wayans as one of the gangsters-his crackups are gut-busting.
So what’s next? you ask. Or rather, what’s left? is a better question. Well….how about a musical? In 2005, they released Romance & Cigarettes-a true musical, unlike O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in which the music, while great, was just an incidental part of the story. And true to the Coen universe, the film starred the sonofabitch himself, James Gandolfini. The Sopranos star is no stranger to the Coens, having previously performed in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Co-starring Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet, the film was only produced by Joel and Ethan; making his directoral debut was Coen disciple John Turturro. The film didn’t garner much success because of a very limited release, but critics poured praise over it.
Demystifying the Coenesque universe is an almost impossible task. The brothers have created their own solar system, with unique laws of physics-dialogue, camera work, and music all have a special place here. Most scenes in their films seem to have mostly improvised dialogue-but read one of their screenplays. Every pause, every line of gibberish, every phrase that’s repeated in a film-it’s all spoken exactly the way it’s written. Period. Also, the brothers have an affinity for revealing character attributes through a “style” of speaking. I’ll explain: In The Big Lebowski, The Dude repeats catchphrases that other people say (“In the parlance of our times” and “trophy wife” are two that come to mind), simply because he’s too lazy to think of them himself. In The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ed uses catchphrases with dripping sarcasm, showing his utter disdain for the human race. These oh-so-particular nuances put the Coens in a galaxy all their own.
The Coens’ visual genius occupies another planet, too. They use storyboards extensively, and favor moving shots over still ones. (Even in a “static” shot, the camera still drifts slightly.) They also employ the Hitchcock technique of using lenses to “hide,” rather than reveal, information; the scene in Fargo with Jean Lundegaard hiding from her kidnappers in the shower is eerily reminiscent of Psycho. Plus, the Coens are famous for the “Raimi cam rush,” in which the camera “rushes” forward suddenly for dramatic effect. (Raimi used rushes in abundance in The Evil Dead.) Much of this thanks the Coens owe to their cinematographers – notably Barry Sonnenfeld, who later became a successful director-but the pictures were all borne of the brothers’ imaginations. And the “Two-Headed Director” from the title? Because they direct together, that nickname was given to them during shooting of their first film.
In their use of music, the Coens add even more quirkiness. In addition to the aforementioned success of the O Brother,Where Art Thou? soundtrack, the Coens have a knack for choosing the perfect, if unexpected, songs for their films. One of their most odd habits is an affinity for Latino versions of classic-rock songs. (Blood Simple had a mariachi sendup of “Louie Louie,” and Lebowski had a flamenco-flavored “Hotel California.”) These tunes seem to add an air of frivolity to the various capers in the films.
The next time you watch a Coen brothers movie, indulge yourself: Imagine that Joel and Ethan are sitting on the couch with you. If you do, you’ll surely hear them laughing-as much at themselves as at the movie. And maybe, just for a little while, you’ll be a part of their Coenesque universe, too-if you have any idea where that is.