December 12th, 2010

Blow My Mind

The thank-God-it-happened-eventually success of the Coen Brothers

It was a one-two-three punch. Where the second punch wasn't obviously a punch. At least not at first.

This is about the Coen Brothers. They spent fully half of their so-far career as a niche filmmaking team, doing okay commercially (and fantastic critically) but still with that touch of cult-that'll-never-quite-connect-with-a-big-audience. And how did they finally really connect with a bigger audience? Their 1996 followup to probably their least commercially successful movie, followed by a 1998 movie that made many people go "huh?," and finally -- finally -- a genuine populist hit in 2000 that remained as odd and unlikely as so much of their output.

It hit me this morning how surprising and gratifying the Coen Brothers's success has been. I've been watching much of their work since I saw Raising Arizona in the theater. Laughing like a bong-smoking hyena at that film was my gateway drug to them, as it was for a fair number of people. Raising Arizona (1987) wasn't a big hit, but it did all right. Miller's Crossing (1990) wasn't a big hit, either, Barton Fink (1991) was never meant to be a big hit, as best as I can tell: something that disturbing, interior, and difficult is never going to be a blockbuster.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) was. They finally got a big budget thanks to producer Joel Silver -- who once said he noticed the Coens because of the Blood Simple (1984) scene where M. Emmett Walsh was shooting through the wall so that shafts of light appeared on the other side, making Silver think I've made all these action films and none of them ever showed gunshots that way! -- and they did their dream-project 1940s-style screwball comedy with far more special effects than they'd used before and what we typically think of as circus music (Aram Khachaturian's Sabre Dance, used when that kid first uses a hula hoop). An unlikely hit. And it wasn't. It has its following, I and others enjoyed it, like Raising Arizona it showed their ability at manic comedy, and it's ridiculously technically accomplished. It's no Brazil, which is a genuine classic, but it's good. And sank like a stone.

And the Coens followed that with a multiple Oscar nominee. Fargo (1996): so well-made in completely different ways, stylish also in completely different ways, disturbing and funny and sad and all these things that seemingly shouldn't go together, all tied together with what's still one of Carter Burwell's best scores (and that's saying something), and THAT connected to the point of multiple Oscar nominations.

And the Coens followed THAT with what I've heard called "the cult film of cult films," The Big Lebowski. The critical reaction was bewildered -- I was part of it -- and some of its audience found it, but it had to go through a slow Shawshank Redemption-like rediscovery+. But it did.

Cult success is never guaranteed. A film that doesn't make a big, good first impression has a big strike against it, and is less likely to be rediscovered as more (and more and more) films get released. As much as it's seriously one of my favorite films ever, Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is likely never going to get that bigger success. It's unlikely to get re-discovered 21 years on. (But then 1939's The Wizard of Oz took decades to earn its classic status, so perhaps there's still a chance for the Baron...) The Big Lebowski did get that success. It's grown on me, and many others, like bacteria. Bacteria I'm glad to have. (Most bacteria is good to have, in fact.)

The Coen Brothers have done their own thing even when it wasn't a success, and have had chances (and enough success) to do things their own way. They didn't need to be populist to, eventually, make their first true populist hit, O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000). Still weird, still recognizably Coen-esque, still having fun with grotesques (and what joy there is seeing George Clooney completely torpedo his matinee-idol image for the sake of that film), and finally -- FINALLY -- truly paying off their "we can do this our way" work ethic.

The Coen Brothers's success snuck up on us. And I'm so glad for the sneaking.

It was a one-two-three punch. It just took the rest of us a while to realize that second punch was there.




+ Shawshank hit theaters when I was in college. I knew people who saw it on first release. They enthused about the film so much that I saw it in its theatrical re-release in very early 1995, re-released in hopes of getting Oscar nominations and more of an audience. Oscar noms happened, the audience increased somewhat, but it wasn't yet a phenomenon. I was part of that small second wave of people who realized Shawshank was something special; thank goodness people from those first two waves kept pushing it.