Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Blind Spots 1: The Coen Brothers

Ok, first, this series of ruminations is not a list of artists I think are overrated. I think the term overrated is  lazy-minded. Like "pretentious" or  "obscure" it's a term I've heard used when someone wants to dwarf something that has dwarfed them. Giants, puh, overrated.

This series will be me questioning just how much I do admire of some of my professed favourites. Others, I don't admire who yet should warrant some praise. And others still whose garnered praise baffles me (Wes Anderson chief among them but he's for another installment). Today, it's a subject I've almost dreaded typing about as it's one so profoundly beloved among my friends and has been for decades now: the films of Joel and Ethan Coen.

It occurred to me recently that the only Coen Brothers film I'd call great is Blood Simple, their first. I've counted myself a fan since then and am quick to defend them but increasingly I think that rather than enjoying their subsequent work I've excused it. I don't think it's poor. The Coens work hard for their audiences and deserve their applause. It's just that I can never quite like a whole film after that first one.

I mentioned this to a friend recently and he immediately brought up Barton Fink. But here's the thing: he didn't say, "what about Barton Fink?" He said, " what about that one where the playwright is trying to write a screenplay in a hotel --" Until I interrupted him with a slap to my own forehead.  Of course! I always forget that one whenever I pick from the list. Why?

The first Coen film I felt dissatisfied with was The Hudsucker Proxy. I came away from it feeling it was cover without the version, a 30s screwball comedy like something by Frank Capra. But while it hit all the generic traits it forgot that a Capra film's performances, be they ever so hyper are still orchestrated and measured so that they never get exhausting. Between Tim Robbins gawpy ingenuousness and Jennifer Jason Leigh's bludgeoning Hepburn/Russell motor-mouthing there is no room for Charles Durning's ukulele playing angel or Paul Newman's hard-arsed wall-streeter to move or breathe. The tale was also so inconsequential that rather than think of it as a bad film I could only think: why did they bother making that?

Put here also, Burn After Reading, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers (one of the most pointless remakes in history), and The Big Lebowski. Not pointless but unaffecting I'd call The Man Who Wasn't There, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, O Brother Where Art Thou, Miller's Crossing and Raising Arizona. I haven't seen A Serious Man and probably should but I'm just not inclined to. Anyway, that leaves only Barton Fink which I like almost as much as Blood Simple.

I read an interview with them in which one said that he wished people would stop thinking that they only made spoofs. At first I applauded the appeal but a second thought asked, "who's to blame for that?" With so much evocation of the Ghost of Hollywood Past, so much arch scholarship and winking reference invading every frame of most of their work, what else are we to call it? Like a 90s Britpop band who replayed the chops of British bands of the 60s without the filter of originality that might have made them sound influenced rather than unimaginative, the Coen brothers to me are filmmakers whose films have no centre, no purpose beyond the demonstration of skill. Quentin Tarantino, a filmmaker whose work I generally find enjoyable but forgettable, has to his credit the admission that he's doing little more than emulating movies he likes. The Coens are concerned that people think they only make spoofs. I don't think they just make spoofs but I don't know what they think they're making.

So why do I forget Barton Fink if I think it's so great? I have no idea. I've only seen it once (and Blood Simple only twice) but it has left me with a feeling that none of the others apart from the first one has left, they seem to have believed in it. Barton Fink's tale of Hollywood's corrupting noise and its bizarre effects is told with a strength and depth that none of the others approach and I can't help feeling it's a direct comment on the brothers' own experiences in the belly of the beast. The casting alone is sensational: John Tuturro in the lead, John Goodman, avuncular and terrifying, bug eyed Steve Buscemi and a superbly world weary Judy Davis. You can pick the references to historical figures in the characters if you like but it simply isn't necessary.