The Coen brothers: the cartographers of cinema

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Art Fag
The Coen brothers: the cartographers of cinema

Guardian UK

Tom Shone

January 27, 2011


In the gilded hospitality suite of New York's Ritz-Carlton, the Coen brothers are pondering their success. "We are part of the system more than you would suspect," says Ethan, the younger, more combative (and, one suspects, more emotional) of the two brothers. "We are like Hollywood insiders now. It's really weird."

This draws a nod from Joel, the older, more laconic one. (You could imagine him playing bass for Patti Smith.) "One day you wake up and you realise that's happened and it's a shock," he says. "You find yourself at the Academy awards, or wherever the hell it is, and suddenly you know all these people. And you think: 'How the fuck did I get here?'"
Ethan finishes the point. "And Matt Damon is your best buddy. Which is nice. He's a nice guy. But it's also weird."

Actually, Matt Damon – who is a nice guy, but possibly a little weird in the role of BFF – is next door right now, giving interviews to promote True Grit , the Coens' new film, which they would have you see more as an adaptation of the original Charles Portis novel than a remake of the 1969 John Wayne Oscar-winner. The Coens have only just finished sound-mixing the film, in what was for them an abnormally accelerated production schedule.

"From the beginning, when we first went to them, the studio asked us: 'Can you finish it in time for Christmas?'" says Joel. "We thought that a was a perfectly smart thing to do. The ambition was for it to appeal to a broader demographic. It was one of the things that was most interesting to us about doing it: 'Well, here is a story told by a 14-year-old-girl that might be interesting for a 14-year-old girl to see.'"

Come again? The Coens doing a Christmas movie? For 14-year-old-girls? There have even been unconfirmed reports of audience weeping in the final reel – not that Barton Fink feeling, but the genuine article. What the hell is going on?

In the event, the Coens' idea of a Christmas movie and everyone else's idea of a Christmas movie was not the most exact of matches. Shifting attention away from the Rooster Cogburn role, here played by Jeff Bridges as a sort of boozy cousin to Crazy Heart's Bad Blake, and back on to the book's narrator, 14-year-old Mattie Ross, a plucky Presbyterian (played by newcomer Hailee Steinfield), the Coen's True Grit is a flinty, wintry period piece that cleaves to the rococo cussedness of Portis's vision of the west ("I have been abandoned to a congress of louts") and feels a million miles from the lyricism of, say, John Ford. To hear the Coens tell it, their True Grit may not even be a western.

"The ambition when doing a period movie is not to sand the edges off the past," says Joel. "In our minds, we never got real close to thinking about it in terms of the western. We weren't thinking: let's shoot it in widescreen like Sergio Leone."

"Sergio Leone has this weird western opera thing," Ethan interrupts, "and it's definitely not opera. And it's definitely not that John Ford tragic thing. Our sensibility has nothing to do with that."

"If anything," Joel continues, "we were thinking about it more in terms of Alice in Wonderland. She goes across the river into a place where she sees all these weird things, weird landscapes – "
"Yeah," Ethan says, nodding.

" – and then it becomes weirder and weirder, pushing it more towards a fairytale thing, or Night of the Hunter, in the sense of the landscape becoming more self-consciously poetic. That's about as far from Ford as you can get."

In other words: a Coen brothers movie. It is their 14th to date, and the latest instalment in what appears to be a concerted effort to cover the length and breadth of America with Coen brothers movies. Maybe because their preoccupations seem so resolutely antiheroic, or because their ambitions fit so snugly within their love of genre, the scale of this project was hard to spot at first. While everyone else was lost in hyperspace, the Coens have been quietly wallpapering their homeland. They've covered New York in the 1950s (The Hudsucker Proxy), Los Angeles in the 1940s (Barton Fink), Mississippi in the 1930s (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?) and 1990s (The Ladykillers), Texas in the 1980s twice (Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men), Minnesota in the 1960s (A Serious Man) and 1990s (Fargo), not to mention Arizona, Washington, North Dakota, Santa Rosa and now, for good measure, Arkansas in the 1880s. A few more like this – covering Ohio in the 1970s, say, or Wyoming in the 1900s – and their work will be complete: nothing less than a patchwork quilt of America.

"It's true," says Ethan. "But we're not crossing off a list."

Then Joel: "Every now and again you come up with a story idea and you think well, the natural place for this story is a specific period and it's something you haven't done," says Joel. "And you think that would be fun."

"We haven't done the 70s," says Ethan.

"We have a script set in New York in the 60s," says Joel. "It takes place in the folk revival of the early 1960s, that whole weird thing."

There's also a script of theirs about the cold war, called 62 Skidoo. "We wanted to get Henry Kissinger, but he's getting too old," says Joel.

"What else?"

"Let me think …"

They scratch their heads.

The missing piece of the jigsaw, of course, is the one film with which every auteur seems to kickstart their career: that autobiographical first film, like Mean Streets, or Pi, in which the aspiring filmmaker stakes out their piece of turf and says, with a self-announcing flourish: here, look at this, this is me, check me out. But the Coens have never been the most likely candidates for an appearance on Oprah. Pooling their forcefields, they repel personal questions as if they Lilliputian arrows. "Sometimes we do gang up on people," Joel admits. "There's two of us and only one of you," points out Ethan.

Tellingly, it wasn't until last year's A Serious Man that they got around to even touching on their adolescence in suburban Minneapolis in the 60s, and even then, with typical perversity, they took their parents' point of view.

"In retrospect it seems very odd that there was this thriving Jewish community on the plains of the midwest," Joel says. "But only in retrospect. At the time it is what it is. You accept everything."

"What is striking in Minnesota," Ethan says, "is the invisible horizon line. On a grey day, when there's snow on the ground, the sky and the ground are one tone. Every-one appears to be hanging in mid-air."

Something of that sense of incongruity and displacement runs through all their films, from Barton Fink's vision of a stranded New York intellectual doggy-paddling through Hollywood's sharks; to the killers of Fargo, blown across the snowy midwestern plains; to the Mexican drug deal that spills over into the Texas of No Country for Old Men; and now the 14-year-old girl pursuing her father's killer in Indian country in True Grit. In a country known for its population shifts and land grabs, the Coens track the American diaspora by means of a surprisingly adaptable paradox, making film after film in which people pursue business in a place they have no business.

"Yeah, that's a good way of saying it. People pursuing business where they have no business," says Joel. "It has something to do with the way we're attracted to stories: there's a very direct relationship of character and story to landscape, or location. It's hard for us to come up with a story unless we establish that pretty early. It's hard for us to write a story that can take place just as easily here or there. It has to be specific. The 'here' is where you start."

More recently the big question with regard to the Coens has been: where will they end up? Are they happy to occupy a Preston Sturges-sized niche in film history, or do they have their eye on something grander? If their skewed vision pivots on their status as rank outsiders, what happens now that every A-list actor in Hollywood wants to work with them? Have the outsiders come in from the cold? Something of these issues seemed to vex the brothers when they picked up their Oscars for No Country for Old Men in 2007, their faces wearing the mixed glee and discombobulation of pranksters who had just been dragged to the front of the class and voted class president.
"We spent a lot of time on the outside initially by necessity," Joel says, "and that becomes part of your identity in terms of how you think about yourself. So when the system turns around and embraces you, it upends all those idea you have about yourself.

"Part of that is the genuine sense that at a certain level what you do doesn't feel any different from when you were messing just around in your backyard with a movie camera. It's still just messing around, trying to get that person through that thing without the camera shaking. That's all it is."
"Suddenly this great hand reaches down and deposits you at the Academy awards," Ethan says. "It's frightening. And disconcerting. You wonder what you did wrong."

That literary adaptations have provided them with a path out of the impasse should come as no surprise, both because the Coens have the most literary ear in Hollywood, fine-tuning past work with precision to the internal hum of Hammett and Faulkner, but also because it allows them to take the Coens out of the equation a little more. Look at their most recent films – No Country, A Serious Man, True Grit – and you sense the emergence of a new tone to their work, cleaner, sparer, a reminder of what classical film-makers they can be when they ease up on the howling fat men. Some critics of True Grit have even complained the new film is not Coen-like enough.

"That's actually surprised me," says Ethan, irked. "I mean we always try to make each one as unCoen-like as possible – whatever that means. People ask you about your signature on the movie, or whatever. Nobody wanted to sign the damn movie. You know what I mean? We're just trying to do justice to the story. Were not trying to pee on it."

The irony is that it could turn out to be the most Coen-like of all. The next few years will be interesting ones for the Coens. They arrived on the scene so fully formed: maybe only now are they getting around to telling us who they really are.
Dr. Heywood R. Floyd

What the Hell traits a person could have which would cause me to think of them in terms of being a bassist for Patti Smith is something I will never know.

President Camacho
I still think Damon was overshadowed heavily by Bridges in the former's role as the Virginia gentleman-turned Texas Ranger. This was partly intentional, because a large part of the role is for comedic relief, but someone else could have carried the dramatic moments better...

To toss one name out there-- now that the Coens have pick of the acting litter-- Gary Oldman. In the "Fifth Element" he played the quirky gun dealer with the Southern drawl that would have been perfect for the True Grit role, and unlike Damon he would have been able to hold his own in dialogue with Bridges.
Dr. Heywood R. Floyd

The Damon character was supposed to be just a little bit of a buffoon. I'm not really visualizing that aspect coming out in a Gary Oldman portrayal. But as a general rule, its always best to eschew Matt Damon.