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July 15th, 2019

A Coens-flavored world

I saw Raising Arizona first-run at Northern Virginia's Fair Oaks Mall in April 1987. I laughed one of the hardest, most sustained laughs I'd ever laughed up to that point, during the robbery/chase scene; I laughed hard enough to unsettle my stomach and start feeling a little sick. Luckily, I didn't get sick. Good first exposure to writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen, I'll tell you.*

(Another time I laughed almost as hard at their work? When I first saw what happened to the ashes in The Big Lebowski.)

They're on my mind again. Two Saturdays ago I finally watched their 2010 adaptation of the Charles Portis novel True Grit, a year after I'd seen the 1960s adaptation starring John Wayne. (Friends had advised me "both are good; see the John Wayne version, then the Coens version.") There's quiet urgency to that film, existing side-by-side with eccentric touches and filtered through that dialogue — and then it gets loudly, grippingly urgent. And it should go without saying that the film's beautiful; I wonder if Roger Deakins, their Director of Photography since their fourth film in 1991, is capable of lighting and shooting a movie badly. I wish I'd gotten around to seeing it in theaters.

As they tend to do for lots of people, surprising bits of their films stay with me. Slow-flowing blood and later fire in Barton Fink; throwing away a man's hat at a key moment in Miller's Crossing; how the theme that composer Carter Burwell wrote for Miller's Crossing stayed in my head until I forgot its origin, it was just a pretty tune I'd think of sometimes; the scene in The Hudsucker Proxy where undercover reporter Jennifer Jason Leigh can't tell her boss Tim Robbins she wrote the article about him headlined "MORON RUNS HUDSUCKER / Not A Brain In His Head"; the surprise, um, device in Burn After Reading; the elegance of the final shot of O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Sam Elliot first showing up on camera in Lebowski; how in Hail, Caesar!, two characters are flirting outrageously but are so deadpan that no one else realizes it at first. In the Coens-scripted Bridge of Spies, which Steven Spielberg directed, the Russians send people to the West who pretend to be the Russian family of the spy played by Mark Rylance; Tom Hanks, as the spy's attorney, has to go along with the charade, and no one involved ever drops the act; that felt especially Coens-esque to me. (Did that in fact happen? If it did, it seems like the sort of detail that the Coens would be drawn to.)

They plugged away doing Their Thing, usually doing just well enough to keep going and to survive the occasional outright flop, like Hudsucker; they never had anything even approaching a blockbuster until O, Brother, 16 years into their career. (Fargo, as great as the reviews were, did okay, not great.) And they're still doing Their Thing.

I like their approach. They seem like good people. I heard a story that the Coens once apologized to Burwell for how Lebowski was an unsatisfying job for him, as he got to write maybe five minutes of disjointed music instead of the big, bold score he'd gotten to do for their previous film Fargo. (They'd decided Lebowski should sound like it was scored with a mix tape; Burwell wrote a couple of brief song-like pieces for a couple of moments. That was it.) People have stayed intensely loyal to them over decades. William Goldman loved their work, and was also perplexed by it: he realized they'd make story choices he not only wouldn't make, but couldn't make. (Lebowski made such a big deal of Walter, Jesus and the upcoming blowing tournament that Goldman on first viewing was sure the climax would be a Walter-vs.-Jesus bowling battle, but the Coens told him they'd never planned to show the tournament.)

I also like that they have the ever-evolving in-joke of their "editor" Roderick Jaynes, really the pseudonym they use when they edit their own films; they pretend Jaynes is this old British guy who doesn't particularly like them or their work. Twice Jaynes, meaning the Coens, has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Editing (for Fargo and No Country for Old Men), and the filmmakers planned how to make it seem like Jaynes was a real person who couldn't (or wouldn't) accept that possible Oscar. (This short video touches on Roderick Jaynes.) It's slightly off and slightly odd; they keep finding new ways to be slightly off and slightly odd.

And they're prolific, so that as I work through their filmography I have plenty of movies I still get to dive into for a first viewing, like A Serious Man, which was inspired by their growing up Jewish in the Twin Cities area. Among other reasons, I want to see it to understand a detail Bobby Roberts said years ago, that A Serious Man seems to end about 10 minutes earlier than you expect it to. How did they do that in a way that was satisfying? I'll see.



* I had other, surprising (to me) thoughts on Raising Arizona years later, where I saw the film in a nicely different light.