Cinema of the Coens: Part II

Welcome to Cinema of the Coens, Part II.

It’s not often I get to write a blog with a theme song, but the Coen Bros. bring many surprises. After working ten years, their success was limited but significant. The opportunity for more was there and they kept seeking it, but never at the expense of what they loved. The Coens, in the end, are filmmakers through and through. It’s this attitude that’s made them respected. Many of the senior crew positions have been filled by the same people for every film they’ve made (cinematographer, costume, stunts, it continues). They make what they enjoy, regardless of whether it’ll make $10 million or $100 million, and people flock to the unity and creativity this inspires. At the same time, we’ll see that their second decade in the business will bring many of the films, and songs, that shaped the Coens into what they are today.

Fargo (1996)

Fargo is their first big hit. Starring Francis McDormand, Bill Macy, and Steve Buschemi, it is the tale of a kidnapping gone wrong. As one would expect, there’s money and murder involved along with a ton of miscommunication. It’s a tale of simple-minded Midwest folk who find themselves trapped in a very complex, very dirty situation. It’s a dark comedy, and a top notch one at that. Fargo is by all standards an excellent film. It’s intelligently written, well acted, written, directed. Which is probably the reason it won Oscars for Original Screenplay and Leading Actress, along with another five nominations.

Like most Coen films, Fargo has a touch of history in it. Set in a Minnesota suburb similar to where they grew up, many of the locations are actual sites in Minnesota. It’s as home grown as one can get, with the thick and very specific accents being the first thing that hits you. The accents are probably one of the most memorable things from the film (besides a few key deaths), turning lines into quotes still spoken today. Everything about the film is perfect.

Ebert said that Fargo “is why I love movies.” It won big at Cannes and was critically praised by all. Add to this the box office profit made off its small budget (mistakes learned from The Hudsucker Proxy), and there really isn’t much to complain about. After working in the industry over ten years, the Coen Bros. filmography was impressive, but now, with Fargo, they became a household name. It was the rope they’d been searching for since Barton Fink. They could finally pull themselves and their legacy as filmmakers from the edge of obscurity. Success had come, but with it came a higher standard and expectation.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

At the time of release, their next film seemed to be only a better version of Hudsucker. This time, following their hit Fargo, was The Big Lebowski. As eclectic a story there ever was, it’s hard to try to describe in a short sentence. The best I can do is give keywords: hippie Jeff Bridges, PTSD sufferer John Goodman, weirdo Steve Buscemi, bowling, and a conspiracy that, as always, involves lost money. The characters are insane, literally. Which is funny because it makes Bridge’s character, a complete bum, the most sane and normal of them. Goodman steals every scene he’s in, and the two men share amazing chemistry as friends to the end.

It’s a comedy by definition, but admittedly not for everyone. Especially if you don’t know what to expect when you hit play. Fargo is your typical (that’s the wrong word, for the Coens) murder mystery, but Lebowski is something in a category of its own. This is probably the reason it failed when first released to mixed reviews and disappointing (after Fargo) box office numbers. This is one of those films that could not be conceived by anyone other then the Coens, and for that reason it’s off-putting. By the time I saw it, I had already been subjected to those parts of our pop culture it has now, after all these years, influenced. While somewhat of a letdown at the time, Big Lebowski has since gone on to become one of the banners of “cult film.” It’s one of those films with fans who love it so much they’ve seen it a hundred times. It’s a film you buy, rather then rent. Watching it now, it’s just…fun.

Lebowski is one of the Coens’ that proves they’re here to make movies, not money. They understand the business of Hollywood and its importance to do what they love, but they don’t let people tell them what to make. They had a vision and set out to do it. It may not have succeeded at the time, but that didn’t stop them from being proud of what they made, and now, in the long run, it’s paid off. Now there are few people who would say that they didn’t enjoy The Big Lebowski. I mean, what’s not to enjoy about it? It’s crazy and ridiculously entertaining. Two things the Coens exceed at.

O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)

There are some films that strike one’s consciousness not on a visual level, but an audible one. There are some films that you love watching, yet it’s not the Blu-Ray you buy but the soundtrack. O Brother is one of those. It is a re-imagining of the Odyssey set in 1937 rural Mississippi and starring George Clooney, Jon Turturro (again), Tim Blake Nelson, and Goodman (again). Already, it’s awesome. It’s got all the mythical elements of the classic story with the added comedy of Coen Bros. genius and dedicated actors. Add to this the soundtrack, and O Brother is a major hit.

Major enough to win a Grammy, along with two Oscar noms (screenplay – the Coens are used to this one – and Cinematography). The film was praised by critics for its modern interpretation and successful enough at the box office for everyone to be happy.

It’s a little ironic, to me, how popular and good the soundtrack is. Up through those first five films, I was generally unimpressed by the score, all done by Carter Burwell. He still does the scores, yet they became much better. One difference is that the Coens started using songs instead of all original. It worked well and I think they noticed, because after Lebowski their films are increasingly soundtrack-based. Burwell still scores for them and does a good job. He scores many films, and I think he has progressed as a composer in the same way the Coens have progressed as filmmakers.

I like to think of O Brother as the first modern Coen film. They have always, as any valid filmmaker should, learned through their careers what works and what doesn’t. By 2000, they knew writing and acting and were quickly learning the importance that score can serve. O Brother is also one of their first uses of strong color correction – giving everything a sepia tone to add to the ambiance of the scenes. These are tools that would add to their artistic repertoire.

In many ways, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? can be viewed as a Coen Bros. trilogy. They are not connected story-wise in any way. They are, however, the transitionary phase from working directors to well-known filmmakers. These three films brought the Coens critical and box office success while teaching them what not only makes a better movie but a more entertaining one – soundtrack, manipulation of color, framing of the screen. I’m not attempting to de-value their first five, only proposing a hypothesis that it was through these three that they started to truly recognize the potential that film technology had to offer storytelling. No doubt advances in camera, computers, and high-definition at the turn of the century helped.

There was little doubt, however, that the Coens of the 21st century would prove to be a duo to remember. They had made their mark and were here to stay. And the best is still to come.

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