What could movies as different as Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit have in common? Even casual cinephiles will take that as a silly question, knowing full well that all of them came from the same sibling writing-directing team of Joel and Ethan Coen, better known as the Coen brothers. But to those who really dig deep into movies, the question stands: what, aesthetically, formally, intellectually, or emotionally, does unify the filmography of the Coen brothers? Though it boasts more than its fair share of critical, commercial, and cult fan favorites, its auteurs seemingly prefer to mark their work with many subtle signatures rather than one bold and obvious one.
Cameron Beyl, creator of The Directors Series (whose examinations of Stanley Kubrick and David Fincher we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture), finds out just what makes a Coen brothers movie a Coen brothers movie in his seven-part, nearly four-hour set of video essays on the two Jewish brothers from the Minnesota suburbs who went on to make perhaps the most distinctive impact on the zeitgeist of their generation of American filmmakers.
He begins with the Coen brothers’ Texas noir debut Blood Simple and sophomore southwestern slapstick Raising Arizona, then goes on to their larger-scale postmodern period pieces Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and the Hudsucker Proxy.
The next chapter covers their breakout films of the late 1990s Fargo and The Big Lebowski, and then two highly stylized pictures, the Odyssey-inspired prison break O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the black-and-white noir The Man Who Wasn’t There. Then come Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, two 21st-century screwball comedies, followed by their “prestigious pinnacle,” the acclaimed four-picture stretch of No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, and True Grit.
The final chapter (below) looks at the Coen brothers’ two most recent works, both of which take on the culture industry: Inside Llewyn Davis, the tale of a would-be 1960s folk star, and Hail, Caesar!, one of early-1950s Hollywood.
Beyl’s analysis brings to the fore both the more and the less visible common elements of the Coen brothers’ movies. The former include their fondness for historical and “middle American” settings, their repeated use of actors like John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand, and John Turturro, and their tendency to move the camera with what Beyl several times describes as “breakneck speed.” The latter include easily missable place and character interconnections (for instance, how Barton Fink and Hail, Caesar!, set a decade apart and made a quarter-century apart, involve the same fictional Hollywood studio) and their simultaneous deployment and subversion of genre conventions, possibly owing to their lifelong “outsider” perspective.
But above all, nothing signals the work of the Coen brothers quite so clearly as their ever-more-refined mixture of zaniness and brutality, which Beyl puts in terms of their mixture of disparate filmmaking influences: Preston Sturges on one hand, for example, and Sam Peckinpah on the other. This comes with their films’ built-in resistance to straightforward interpretation, a kind of pleasurable complexity that prevents any one simple historical, social, or political reading from making much headway. In fact, as Beyl acknowledges in the first of these video essays, the Coen brothers would probably consider this sort of long-form examination of their work a waste of time, but if it sends viewers back to that work — and especially if it sends them back watching and noticing more closely — it does a favor to the rare kind of modern cinema that actually merits the word unique.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.