For the Spring 2015 paper, I am happy to publish the paper by Blaine Cummings on The Coen Brothers.
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By Blaine Cummings
I’ve always admired the romance of film, the way I could escape and be convinced I was a true part of the adventure. Filmmakers will go to incredible feats to make sure the viewer gets lost in the stories they are telling, but the greats are the ones that succeed and change film history forever. Joel and Ethan Coen have worked vigorously to get where they are, and for at least my sake, I hope they don’t stop anytime soon.
These two brothers were born in the cold state of Minnesota—Joel Coen came into the world on November 19th, 1954, three years before Ethan on September 21st. They grew up spending most of their time inside, away from the frigid winters, watching a lot of films and tv, often having an odd outlook on the world and showing it through their films later in life. At a young age, Joel started up a lawn business, earning and saving up money to buy his very first camera, a Super-8. I’ve never used or even held a Super-8 camera, but learning that some of my favorite directors like Burton, Abrams, Spielberg, and others started off with the 8mm camera in hand, I plan on getting my own some day. With his new equipment, Joel went on to make many amateur movies with friends, and eventually went away to New York University to perfect his talents. Ethan traveled a different path, heading off to Princeton University to study philosophy. His teachings would shape the intricate and deep plots seen in their future scripts.
Joel found work in minor, at the time, horror movies. Using his editing skills, he earned a spot as Assistant-Editor on The Evil Dead, meeting a soon to be close friend Sam Raimi. Together they began writing the script for The Hudsucker Proxy in 1981, and eventually all three moved into a house. Their interests and influences, such as Frank Capra and Preston Sturges comedies, were very similar, allowing them to get along well.
The Coens’ first solo film, Blood Simple, in 1984, thrust them into the spotlight. Being their first, they were able to explore all kinds of creative liberties without an existing expectation from an audience. You may notice a lot of camera techniques in the film that resemble those of The Evil Dead. They learned to appreciate what the camera can really do besides capture film, using it as somewhat of a character itself. Seeing their success based on their innovative style, their production company gave them total control over their future films.
Raising Arizona and Barton Fink were among the next big films to come to the big screen. The world was picking up on the versatility and hypnotizing ways the Coens did their magic, and the world loved it. Barton Fink was a unique take on a brilliant author with writer’s block. The idea came to them in the middle of writing the script for Miller’s Crossing, one of the only times they said needed a break in the middle of writing. So they paused, taking only a few weeks to write Barton Fink in the meantime.
Many of the actors and others working with the duo say they have a connected mind, often turning to one another to express a change or idea with the other already knowing what to do. These collaborations are incredibly hard to come by, as many filmmakers through history have found working with someone else isn’t as easy as they make it seem. Ethan, being an extraordinarily fast typist, normally writes while Joel works alongside him. Both of their separate strengths work in sync to create brilliant dialogue.
Ethan, being the philosopher he is, often focuses on linguistics. He comes up with the rich speeches their characters often dive into throughout the films, as well as the underlying themes of morals and development. In an interview with Jeff Bridges, he talks about how every single word, pause, tone, and insinuation are highly important. For example, for his character of the Dude in The Big Lebowski, the “um’s,” “ahhh’s,” “ man’s,” and hilarious choices of swearing, come together to create a conversational dialogue. Things like this have intrigued me for years—the way they work their words is so difficult, and yet if they have done the job right, the audience will be enveloped in the character and never even think that there was a script to begin with.
The idea of the Coen Brothers being auteurs was seen very early on in their careers. They seamlessly weave their odd style and life experiences into their stories, creating something we’ve never seen before. They often cover unsolvable moral topics like greed, murder, violence, deeper thought, and hope. Fargo brought out everything they are, combining where they grew up, dark comedy, and a dialogue that kept us hooked. It heavily deals with morals and how people perceive evil. Growing up I watched all kinds of horror flicks filled with senseless killing, gore, and monsters, but through all that this was one of the first time I thought about consequences in a real way in a story. Marge, Frances McDormand’s character, was a refreshing take on positivity. Throughout the film she has an optimistic view on a hopeless world; you can see even in the end that nothing can break her resilient outlook, even though evil is sitting in her backseat. It left me thinking, not just about right and wrong, but all that lies in-between because it’s just not that simple.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? had us challenging the same ideals, this time bringing in a heavy religious theme without it being overbearing. The characters’ actions often outweigh the notion of how religious forgiveness is real and how it applies to consequences with the law. A lot of what is seen in the movie pertains to thousands; it’s a controversial topic that’s been around as long as time itself—religion and government, how the people go about their beliefs and how they perceive their own fate. The film does a wonderful job of using realistic characters and events to represent biblical occurrences, but it also allows an open window for the viewer to interpret the story in their own way. To most it’s known that it is loosely based off Homer’s Odyssey. I was surprised to find that the correlation between the two wasn’t brought on until after they started writing, later finding the connections and blending them.
There are many little quirks that the Coens have that draw us in. One of them is their use of recurring traits and actors. There’s a story I heard of their childhood from the Coen Brothers Documentary on BBC: they once had a dog, as it grew older it started to lose function in its back legs, only being able to drag itself around. There wasn’t much they could do except make the hard decision to put the dog down. Getting to the vet they could see the sorrow in the dogs eyes, he knew what was going to happen. With that thought a small miracle happened, the dog jumped up and took off running! As if it was a puppy again, it took off into the street…and was killed by a passing car. Sad as that story may be, true or not, this really represents the heart of their dark comedy. Just when your hero finds hope, an obstacle is ever present to stand in the way. You see many dogs throughout their films, as well as Steve Buscemi and John Goodman, both having six collaborated films in total.
Although in the credits, Joel is often seen as the director and Ethan the producer of their projects, but many that work closely with them say that it’s not entirely true. They work together like the left and right brain, contributing an equal amount and most times seeing the exact same vision in mind. They have a clear path of the direction they want to go, but still leave creative liberties to the actors. Even though their style and wit are always apparent, the broad range of different stories they come up with is always impressive. Much like The Hudsucker Proxy, which was written in the early 80s and made later in 1994, the ferocity in their ability to crank out so many scripts often leads them to be shelved for the future.
I’ve admired their determination to stay within what they know works. Over their careers they learned from failure and excelled to replace it with something beautiful. An example is the level of production—even though stories call for elaborate sets and a big look at the world, the brothers have a talent of keeping them personable. To me, this makes me feel like I’m right there with the character, like it could really happen to me. The latest feature I clung to was Inside Llewyn Davis, about a musician who just can’t catch a break. Sometimes a happy ending just isn’t needed, because that’s the way life is. The embodiment of the story takes everyone’s thoughts on “why can’t anything in my life go right?” and creates a unique musical from it. Going back to using the camera to tell the story, they take away the bright colors we normally see, leaving us in a sort of cloudy day purgatory. They have a knack for setting mood and initial feelings that later dialogue will strengthen.
Joel and Ethan Coen are two of today’s greatest filmmakers. They keep their anticipated style fresh with every project they complete. From their history and determination they will continue to bring us into their clever worlds, challenging us to think long after the film is over. To me that is what great story telling is, not only working together but working the audience to participate as well.
"Coen Brothers | Biography - American Filmmakers." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.
The Coen Brothers Documentary. Dir. Sarah Aspinall. Perf. George Clooney, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.
"Coenesque." Joel & Ethan Coen Biography. Brent M. Johnson, n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.
"Joel Coen Biography." Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.
Mottram, James. "THE COEN BROTHERS The Life of the Mind By James Mottram." The Coen Brothers; the Life of the Mind. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.