[Uncut magazine, 1998]
A CLOUD of befuddlement passes over Ethan Coen's open, upturned face. He sets down his coffee cup, carefully. He looks faintly appalled.
“Have we ever what?” he asks.
Got tattooed. You know, had a sherry too many one night. Found yourself in a basement establishment. Wall charts covered in leaping tigers, coiled serpents and hearts skewered by daggers. A heavyset individual leaning over you with a vibrating needle: “Let me get this straight buddy. . . You want a flaming cine camera and the scrolled legend, ‘We're the Coen Brothers and you're not’?”
“Why,” demands Joel Coen bullishly, “would we want to do that? I even think ear-piercing is weird. You know what the new thing is?” He turns to his brother. “Embedded jewellery. They stick it under the skin so all you can see is the bump underneath.”
Ethan now looks aghast, but strangely pleased at this unprompted fashion report. He picks up his cup once more from the little table in the dainty Bayswater hotel suite and sips from it. “Maybe they missed out on acne when they were kids.”
These two men wrote and directed their first movie in 1984. It was called Blood Simple, and it involved grisly murders both faked and real, knives stuck through hands, live burials, that kind of malarkey. Their next, Raising Arizona, was about half-bright rednecks getting caught up with baby-snatching, bank-robbing and a bounty-hunting biker who bore more than a passing resemblence to Death. Since then they've done exploding Hollywood hotels, fat angels flapping through frozen time, a pregnant cop chasing killers in a blizzard and a kidnapping mystery set around an amateur bowling team. They think ear-piercing is weird.
Joel and Ethan Coen are very, very normal, and they want you to know it. They are the siblings who invented the independent thriller. Who brought high style to the world of low budgets. Opened the betting on celluloid black humour. They probably go to fancy dress parties as themselves, in check shirts, jeans and blazers. This pair would rather rub up against a brace of skunks than the glamour of the film industry.
“Independent movies? We were in at the start of all that bullshit,” they cheerfully assert. 14 years and 7 films on they have gained no more respect for the world they work in. Meanwhile indie flicks have become big business, with major studios bankrolling cheap movies - on the quiet, to avoid losing that all-important cachet. Everybody thinks they alone know what's going on, and nobody's really fooling anybody. It's all cack-handed subterfuge and preposterous lies. You can see why the Coens fit in so well. It's just like one of their scripts.
CACK-handed subterfuge and preposterous lies: a fair summary of The Big Lebowski, the Coens' latest release. Its predecessor, Fargo, made the dull Twin Cities of Minnesota and their bleak environs seems like one of the funniest places on God's own ludicrous planet. This time round, they've roped in Jeff Bridges to mosey through a meandering tale of modern LA - the only American city, reckons one commentator, stupider than Minneapolis.
Ethan is really tickled by that. “Yeah, LA, as someone once said, ‘Where even the Jews are dumb.’ I kind of like LA. Dumb doesn't quite say it. But it's true about the Minneapolis part. LA's got its share of dumbness, that's for sure. But yeah, the main guy, the Jeff Bridges guy, is supposed to be in a way emblematic of LA. He's not dumb exactly, but he's a little foggy. A little slow. Very relaxed. Jeff can do those sort of slow-metabolism characters without being boring. He's very funny, he works as the thread through the whole movie.”
Bridges' character, self-styled The Dude, is a guileless, easy-going drugs casualty who wanders into a kidnapping plot after being mistaken for a millionaire who shares his surname, Lebowski. Buffeted about like a leaf on a breeze, all the hapless Dude wants out of life is to play on the same bowling team as John Goodman and Steve Buscemi. A fine ambition, and most of us would settle for less. But chance has other plans for The Dude, and whatever hope he has of steering an even course through the weirdness that envelops him like polka-dot fog is well and truly scuppered by his maniac mate Walter Sobchak (Goodman).
Walter, a survivalist type who runs his own security firm and acts as if he can't go down the newsagent without a Bowie knife clenched between his molars, is obsessed with his past as a grunt in Vietnam. The fact that he never went to Vietnam is by the by. Through the judicious deployment of shotguns, tire irons, pistols and rank idiocy, he succeeds in buggering up The Dude's progress at every halting step of the way. Bearing in mind Goodman's loose-cannon roles in Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, you have to wonder if the Coens don't take enormous pleasure in casting him as a variety of psychos.
“That's true,” nods Joel, “we've done it at least twice. In Barton Fink truly he was a psycho. I guess you could argue here that he's just rather volatile. I mean, okay, he does trash that Corvette with a crowbar. And then there's the part where he throws the guy out the wheelchair, but. . .” Joel pauses to stare evenly at Ethan, who has started to laugh like a drain. “But mainly he's just a volatile blowhard.”
While Goodman's role is typically flammable and Steve Buscemi's uncommonly low-key, another Coen regular, the ever-excellent John Turturro, turns in what may be the most memorable (if least dignified) performance of both the movie and his career. Not bad going, seeing as he's only on screen for about three minutes. . .
“. . . but he makes an impression,” gurgles Ethan. “He goes to the core.” By now he's emitting a strange, hicupping laugh, as if the memory alone is too hilarious to handle. “Originally he was just like a good bowler, the nemesis bowler, but we thought, make him an Hispanic pederast, it'll give John something to get his teeth into.” And sure enough, the sight of Turturro mincing up to Goodman in a pink jumpsuit and hissing, in a voice halfway between Speedy Gonzalez and Kaa the python, “If you try an' pull any of that pistol shit on me, I'm gonna jam that gun up your ass and pull the trigger until it goes click” - well, it's not one you're likely to forget in hurry.
“There's not a lot of vamping with the dialogue,” adds Ethan, “but John came up with touches like the hairnet and the little dance” - a minimal yet fantastically obscene gyration - “when he gets a strike. It's funny, you identify with his character after a while. We were thinking on set how that character could have his own TV series. It's a pity how you only see him for three minutes.”
THE COENS have a well-known liking for surrounding themselves with familiar faces, film after film, on both sides of the camera. Some cinema buffs have put this down to their unslakeable thirst for control; once the brothers have found people who'll do exactly what they want, claim the cineastes, then they stick with them. This all seems a bit sinister and not a little hysterical. Certainly, the Coens make no secret of their technique, in which scripts are precision instruments and each showy take is carefully mapped out in advance.
“We've been accused ever since we started of placing style over substance,” says Joel with a low chuckle, “and we've never taken any notice - or we would have learned our lesson by now.” Control is obviously not just important to them but necessary, which makes it all the more curious that the film The Big Lebowski most closely resembles is The Long Goodbye, made by that most rambling and unsettled of great directors, Robert Altman.
“Yeah, that's the most important antecedent to the movie,” agrees Ethan, “because it tends to update Raymond Chandler in a much more direct way than this. But also the Elliot Gould character is purposefully . . .”
“Anachronistic.” Joel stamps the word onto the end of Ethan's sentence.
“. . . anti-Marlowe,” continues Ethan, undeterred. “Of the current time and yet not, wandering around LA in a suit. In Lebowski, all the characters were supposed to be throwbacks to or defined by experiences they had in another era. The Dude is obviously a classic Sixties burnout case, but Goodman's character too identifies himself as a Vietnam vet. Julianne Moore is that kind of Fluxus artist who's kinda passé now. So they're all meant to be anachronistic in a way.”
“There's ways in which it's very much similar to and influenced by The Long Goodbye,” Joel puts in. “but it's also very different in that, it's true, we're very different kind of film-makers, from a very simple craft point of view. It's more deliberately a stylistic mish-mash.”
A mish-mash which very likely stretched to the limit the skills of the Coen's regular film editor, Roderick Jaynes. A tall, florid Englishman with a taste for Saville Row suits, Jaynes keeps a low profile and is little known outside the technical side of the movie industry. Or at least he was until last year, when he was nominated for an Acadamy Award for his work on Fargo, and the Coens were forced by Oscar protocol to admit that he doesn't exist. They edit their own movies.
“We had a long discussion with the academy,” explains Ethan, “in the event that he won. We thought of sending an actor, but they won't let you accept by proxy any more, not after the Marlon Brando thing. . .”
In 1973, Marlon Brando refused to turn up to accept his Best Actor award for The Godfather, sending in his place an American Indian woman called Sacheen Littlefeather, to protest discrimination against Indians and the erosion of their fishing rights. In a twist worthy of Ethan and Joel, Brando's Indian turned out to be a little-known Californian actress by the name of Maria Cruz. It's not known whether her fishing rights had been molested at any point.
Couldn't the Coens have picked up the award themselves - perhaps with one standing on the other's shoulders, wearing a very long overcoat?
Even Joel finds the notion entertaining. Ethan, meanwhile, has all but dropped off his chair.
“We - could - always,” he gasps, “have - dressed - up - like - a - pantomime - horse.”
The pair's taste for jokes, lies and concealments got them into more serious trouble when Fargo, announcing itself as a true story, was revealed by a diligent journalist as being 100 per cent proof pure fiction, unsullied by even a hint of fact. Was that yet another Coen Brothers prank?
“Fargo wasn't a prank,” protests Ethan. “It wasn't like Sleepers, where the writer said it was based on his own life and it turned out he probably invented it. We wanted to do one of those true-story type movies. It just so happened we didn't know any true stories that were interesting. So we made one up. We weren't trying to put one over on people, we just wanted that dispensation in the terms of the narrative. Once you've committed yourself in that way, it's like Richard Nixon, you know, you can't stop lying.
“The Roderick Jaynes thing, that was more of a prank,” allows Joel. “It was kind of like, how many times do you want to put your name on the credits?”
LOOKING at the two immaculately American-casual types sitting in front of me, it's hard to imagine that their own lives in any way resemble the films they make. Think of other left-field film-makers and you can picture them in the same world as their movies. Abel Ferrara is by many accounts just as intense, twisted and drugged-up as his own work. Quentin Tarantino makes films as an expression of what he would love to be, and often insists on acting out his fantasies in them. But as for the the Coens - “Oh Lord, no, HEH HEH HEH HEH!” Joel is all but covulsed by the idea. “Can you imagine? No, neither of us, I don't think, connects their lives to the movies in one way or another. Our lives are like the movies only in the weird
respect that when you make a movie about Minnesota, then you spend five months traipsing around looking for snow up there. And then you spend five months in bowling alleys in LA. Your life starts to get segmented by the subject matter of the movies.”
So, for instance, when The Dude gets knocked out not once but twice in The Big Lebowski, had the brothers done any hands-on research for the acid-flashback dreams he experiences?
“We were big pot smokers,” says Joel. “We're not any more. I mean, I used to be when I was a kid.”
“Yeah,” concurs Ethan. “We're not method writers, if there is such a thing. I smoked a lot of pot in high school. It's the kind of thing you're glad you did when you were young, so you got over it.”
That would explain why both sequences in the film were closer to Busby Berkely than, say, Peter Fonda's The Trip.
“Yeah,” says Ethan. “A very rigid drug scene. Hahahahahaha.”
That's the Coen Brothers, then. Very, very normal. And say what you like about that, but it seems to work for them. They've never made a boring film, and not even the bloke who directed Nice Girls Suck Dick 3 can make that highfalutin boast. Here's to them, Mr and Mr Normal and their freakish imaginations. Cheers.
THE COEN BROTHERS' REPERTORY
Not since Orson Welles said to Joseph Cotton and Agnes Moorehead, “I've got a couple of ideas here that might interest you,” have so many actors worked again and again for the same directors. Here are a few you'll probably recognise
The unwitting femme fatale in Blood Simple is the longest serving of the Coens' regulars, perhaps because she's married to Joel. Played the grotesque sister-in-law Dot in Raising Arizona, then quashed any whispers of nepotism by deservedly taking the Best Actress Oscar for her role in the brothers' masterpiece, Fargo.
The huge and hugely talented Goodman has appeared in four Coen Bros' films, starting with Raising Arizona, in which he played oafish convict Gale. He was terrifying (and by far the best thing) in Barton Fink, and was heard but not seen as a newsreel announcer in the undervalued The Hudsucker Proxy. The Big Lebowski sees him play a cross between Dan Connor from Roseanne and the weapons store proprietor in The Simpsons.
Brilliant in almost everything he's ever done for the Coens or anyone else. Stole the show as the slithering Bernie in Miller's Crossing, and made the basically flawed role of Barton Fink watchable. So funny in The Big Lebowski you'll piss blood just watching him.
Appears in every Coen brothers film from Raising Arizona onwards, gradually rising up the cast list as his star has ascended, until he was foregrounded in Fargo. Not too busy to also appear in every other independent film made, ever. The Michael Caine of American indie cinema.
Played the lead oppsoite Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona and that would have been it had it not been for an earlier performance in Blood Simple as a voice on an answerphone.
Relatively new addition to the stable. Respected Scandinavian actor Stormare plays a heavy in Fargo and now a comedy nihilist alongside Flea in The Big Lebowski.
M EMMET WALSH
As the private detective in Blood Simple, Walsh was superbly sleazy, one of the most repugnant characters ever to drag his vile carcass across a cinema screen. Turned up briefly in a machine shop in Raising Arizona.
Now best known as Frasier Crane's dad, Mahoney brought his knowingly old-school charm to rogueish parts in both Miller's Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy.
A longtime collaborator of the Coens' (they worked on his entertaining Evil Dead series, he co-wrote The Hudsucker Proxy with them), Raimi is credited with the roles of Snickering Gunman in Miller's Crossing and Creative Bullpen in The Hudsucker Proxy.
[Melody Maker, 1996]
“THIS IS A true story.”
Thus the Coen Brothers' introduce Fargo to the screen. It's a remarkable change for director/writer Joel and producer/writer Ethan. Having cut their teeth on Sam Raimi's inventive, grisly and hugely enjoyable Evil Dead - their handiwork is clearly visible, in retrospect, as is Raimi's own influence on them - their own films made famous their high style, unlikely scripts and kinetic camerawork. Now they have made a low-key, slow-paced picture which places its emphasis on narrative and character. These characters are not the expected misfits, grotesques or eccentrics, but straightforward American mid-westerners who, even in the midst of villainy and violence, retain a kind of open-faced bewilderment. The only other Coen Brothers' film to which it bears any resemblance is Blood Simple, and then only in terms of its plot.
“WHAT WAS INTERESTING to us in the first place about doing this movie,” explains Joel, “was the fact that from every point of view, stylistically, the architecture of the narrative, the way the characters came across, it was an attempt to do something very far from what we'd done before. It's more naturalistic generally in terms of everything. Unembellished sets, real locations. If they're told up front that it's true, the audience gives you permission to do things that they might not if they're essentially coming in expecting to watch a fictive thriller.”
The characters are actually very banal, in a curiously wonderful way. That's what makes their behaviour so extraordinary, because they are - especially the hopeless criminal mastermind, Jerry - the least sinister people on earth. Did the Coens feel they were taking a risk, that banal characters might result in a banal movie?
“I would have put it in slightly different terms,” Joel says. “It was more an attempt to bring both the villains and the hero down to a recognisable, ordinary scale. The hero [Marge] isn't a super-cop. she's a very real ordinary person with ordinary and mundane concerns. As Ethan says, they're banal in the evil sense, in terms of Jerry, and banal in a good way in terms of Marge. But not with any sort of pejorative connotation, just ordinary.”
“Even Steve Buscemi's character,” agrees Ethan, “violent as he is and heinous as the things he does are, you're right, you couldn't call him sinister.”
The only thing that any of them really have in common with previous Coen characters is that dumb pig-headedness, that inability to recognise the reality of situations.
“Yes, in a way,” says Joel, “but the people who do these kinds of crimes, generally, in reality, are not rocket scientists. There's a tendency in movies to make criminals much smarter than they are in real life. I mean, if you read about how these things usually happen, it's incredible stupidity that usually trips these people up. Marge, on the other hand, is easy to underestimate.”
FARGO IS SET in Minnesota, where the brothers grew up. Is it an accurate representation?
“No,” ponders Joel, “in a sense, it's kind of a distorted view of Minnesota. Distorted in its selection. In New York or LA, people think we're putting them on with the accents.”
Is the setting deliberately unusual?
“Yeah, definitely. I mean, it wasn't as if we were looking for a movie to do there, but this was immediately attractive to us for that reason. It's the juxtaposition of the politeness of the culture and the horrible stuff that's engendered by these crimes. Almost the opposite of Blood Simple: that was essentially an overheated melodrama. Americans especially associate Texas with crimes of passion.”
And is the austere look a reaction to the commercial failure of the lavish The Hudsucker Proxy?
“It's a reaction to the self-conscious artifice of Hudsucker,” replies Ethan, “in terms of wanting to do something different, not because the last film failed, although it did, but just because we always do.”
Were you stung by the critical barbs aimed at Hudsucker? Do you take any notice of complaints about “style over substance”?
“People have been saying that about our movies since we started,” Joel laughs, “so, no, not really - or we would have learned our lesson by now.”
“If you took it to heart when they said a movie was really terrible,” adds Ethan, “You'd have to take it to heart when they said it was really great. It gets very unhealthy in either direction.”
FARGO IS AS good as anything the Coens have done, and that's saying something. One of its most effective traits is what Frances McDormand (coincidentally Mrs Joel Cohen), who plays Marge, calls the inclination of “rural mid-America to resist self-analysis.” This makes it a far more effective psychological thriller than any of those stalked by the shadow of Freud. We never fully understand why the people in it do the things they do. Just like life, really.
JOEL AND ETHAN COEN: A FILMOGRAPHY
BLOOD SIMPLE (1985)
The brothers' debut, packed with dark passions and unlikely goings-on in a small town in Texas, played on thriller formulae with such style and humour that it instantly catapulted the pair to the forefront of independent movie scene. Sleazy, hilarious, scary, crackling fun.
RAISING ARIZONA (1987)
Flash, frenetic, a breathtakingly fast, technically superb and awesomely precise caper, as well as an ode to the best and the worst in stereotypical white trash. Wild At Heart, Red Rock West, The Last Seduction and all their ilk are up to their armpits in hock to the Coen Brothers' brilliant brace of early films.
MILLER'S CROSSING (1990)
Taking on the old-fashioned gangster movie this time, the Coens cast that most anxiously suave of actors, Gabriel Byrne, as the owner of a superior mind moving amongst thugs and hoodlums as one of their own. Complex and unpredictable, it is an absolute delight in every respect.
BARTON FINK (1991)
Seen as the bros' most profound film by the intelligentsia, but considered pretentious and over-ambitious by others, Fink is all of these things. It may overreach itself but it does so wonderfully, with immaculate flair, and it contains some genuinely harrowing moments, as well as some hysterically funny ones.
THE HUDSUCKER PROXY (1994)
A weird, hi-tech attempt at a Frank Capra pastiche, the Coens' first and to date only big-budget movie was unfairly slated on release. Accusations of gimmickry ignored the ingenuity of the gimmicks, which are still being plundered by advertisers; and the cries of “style over substance” missed the point; the style is the substance. Not a great film, but a bizarre, bold and highly entertaining one.
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