Sunday, October 2, 2016

17 films in 32 Years. How the Coen Brothers Began their Filmmaking Career

One of the things I love about Ethan and Joel Coen is that they are prolific filmmakers. 
This has been a rarity in the Movie Business. Usually the more critically and/or financially successful a filmmaker becomes, the more likely it is to cause the film output to dwindle.  
Stanley Kubrick directed only 12 feature films in his entire career. 
Terrence Malick started his career directing two films in five years, but then did not shoot another movie for two decades. 
One of my favorite filmmakers working today, Paul Thomas Anderson, has only managed to shoot seven Feature Films in a career that goes back to 1988. 
The Coen Brothers have written/directed/and produced 17 feature films in 32 years. This works out to a pace of 1 film every 20 months. 
And they’ve managed to maintain this pace while working on other projects, including being credited with the writing of 5 Feature Films Directed/ Produced by other filmmakers. The only other major filmmaker that comes to mind who is working at the same pace is Woody Allen. 

What is probably even more incredible is the track record of creative quality that the Brothers have been able to 
maintain throughout their career. Not every movie they’ve shot is a masterpiece, but each one has its fair share of fans. And there’s not one out right bad movie in the entire bunch. 
Aspiring professional filmmakers can learn a lot from the Coen Brothers and their work. Maybe the best place to start is at the beginning. And there's no better guide
than critic Doug Pratt. In this month’s excerpt from The DVD Laser Disc Newsletter, Mr. Pratt examines the Coen Brothers’ first feature film - BLOOD SIMPLE

But that's not all!
We also have a treat for those who need to brush up on the work of the Coen Brothers. Following the excerpt is a compilation of Mr. Pratt’s thoughts on the Essential Films written, directed and produced by Joel and Ethan. 
My advice is to use the compilation to catch up fast. 
You don’t want to take the chance of falling further behind. Before you know it, there will be a couple more Coen Brothers movies released demanding to be seen.   

Simple Blu-Ray                                   DOUG PRATT

It can be instructive to revisit Joel and Ethan Coen’s engaging debut feature, BLOOD SIMPLE, especially now that it has been released on Blu-ray (the period that appears in the film’s title card does not appear on the jacket cover) by The Criterion Collection (UPC#715515186216, $40).  While it is generally and famously impossible to pin down the Coen Bros.’ output to a specific type of film, and while quirky comedies have made up a good portion of their filmography, their foundation has been and always will be crime thrillers.  The humor grows out of that.  Revisiting the 1984 feature, there are plainly moments that would probably not have made it into their later works, where the proverbial hammer hits the nail a bit too directly, particularly a dream sequence that should have been a little funkier.  But there are also twists and turns in the story that are unique to the Coen style, such as a cigarette lighter that plays a key part in moving the story forward, but is never noticed by anyone but the camera after it is misplaced.  Dan Hedaya is a bar owner who hires a private
detective, played by M. Emmet Walsh, to kill his wife and her lover, played by Frances McDormand and John Getz. Nothing works out quite the way it was planned, and more importantly, nobody but the viewer really knows what has happened.  Running 95 minutes, the film isn’t so much about the crimes or the passion as it is about the miscommunications, and the giddy black humor that arises from everyone’s mistakes.  In fact, if there is one theme that comes the closest to running through all of the Coen Bros. movies, it is miscommunication and the humor, irony, suspense or awkward pathos that manifests when one character does not know what another character is doing, or why.
The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1.  The image transfer looks fantastic, with rich pools of color and crisply defined fleshtones.  The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound—the film’s original pop singles were restored a while ago after they were altered for the first home video releases—has a few cute directional effects and a steady dimensionality, along with gunshots that blow you backwards. There are optional English subtitles and three trailers, including one that was conceived on spec, before the film was produced, to attract investors.  To capitalize on the horror craze, the trailer emphasizes the movie’s suspense and violent thrills, which was an important aspect of the film’s design.
The supplements are basically just interviews with the cast and the filmmakers, but they are as captivating and entertaining as the film itself (not to mention running longer), primarily because of the thoughtful manner in which each interviewee approaches memories of the production and how it has affected subsequent works.  The centerpiece is a 70-minute talk by the Coen Bros. and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who work their way through the entire film, using the kind of illustrating markings over clips of the movie that football commentators use to explain plays, talking about their budget-motivated shooting strategies, laughing over
their naiveté and rookie errors, and deconstructing their thought process at every step.  Sonnenfeld used an old-fashioned method to get what he wanted from the two brothers.  “Here’s something I learned, working with Joel and Ethan.  I was thinking of a setup.  If I wanted it to be [medium] or tighter, I would show it to Joel, and if I wanted it to be wider, I’d show it to Ethan.  Ethan always preferred things slightly wider, and Joel always preferred things slightly tighter.”
The other interviews may not be quite as lengthy, but they are just as rewarding.  There is another specific interview with the Coen Bros. conducted by author Dave Eggers, running 35 minutes, in which they talk about other aspects of the production besides the actual shoot, going over how the feature came to be their debut, how the script was developed, how the cast was chosen, the logistics of the shoot, and so on.  While not as showy as the other talk, and not quite as amusing without Sonnenfeld’s quips, it is still an insightful and revelatory discussion.
McDormand, talking for 25 minutes, explains that she got the part—her debut also—because her friend, Holly Hunter, couldn’t fit the production into her schedule. She talks about being petrified on the set and doing as little as possible so as not to make a mistake, only to discover somewhat inadvertently that doing as little as possible is what makes great screen actors.  “I thought that because I had no training in film, I just thought, ‘keep it immobile, and listen,’ which, in fact, keeping your face immobile is not the right way to think about it, but listening to your fellow actor on film is still the best advice for any film actor, if you really listen, and you’re listening to someone who is interesting to listen to, that’s all you have to do. Of course, since it was the Coens’ first movie, too, they had no idea how to work with actors, either, so they would accept any crazy thing she did to get herself into character, and it became a strategy that continued to be effective over their many collaborations.  She also speaks frankly about her marriage to Joel, and how that has been effectively integrated with their successful careers. 
Now who can resist sitting back in rapt attention and listening to the eighty-year old Walsh for 17 minutes? He talks about the early part of his career and how initially dubious he was of the two kids—he made them pay him in cash on a week-by-week basis, to the point where his pockets were loaded with $100 bills—but he also explains how he managed his accent and how the persona he established in the film rocketed his career to another level.
Finally, composer Carter Burwell and sound editor Skip Lievsay sit together for 25 minutes and discuss their experiences working in the movies for the first time on Blood Simple, coming up with various innovations because they didn’t know any better and they didn’t have any money to do better, anyway.  Burwell used many unusual pieces in the film, but his primary piano theme is haunting. “We began to realize, while we were recording the score, that the piano brought the characters together in a way, created human relationships in a way that I don’t think any of us actually anticipated.  What’s unusual about it isn’t the instrumentation. Pianos are a perfectly traditional instrument.  It’s the use of piano against scenes that are dark and are edgy and tense, and that became what was non-traditional in the score.”

The film is loaded with marvelous slapstick sequences and quirky character humor.  While some viewers may find it too eccentric or too ready to make fun of blue collar America, most will find its comic surprises and unpredictable narrative to be most fulfilling, and to sustain its pleasures on multiple viewings. 

Although the movie has mobsters in it, it is not really a mobster movie.  It is, instead, a clever tale about a double-cross, supported by some very witty performances and exquisitely honed dialog.  The period detail and oddball slang are engaging, and the story is complicated but gratifying.  A barometer we keep in our head as we talk to everybody in the world about movies tells us that Joel and Ethan Coen's Miller's Crossing has staying power.

The 1994 film by Joel and Ethan Coen, with the collaboration of Sam Raimi, is a highly appealing and very funny original work, but it seems that there was just no way, short of giving out free tickets, the film’s backers could describe its pleasures well enough to get audiences to see it. 
The film begins as a cross between "The Producers" and "Brazil," with a touch of "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" thrown in, but is ultimately so unique and fresh it can’t even be compared to the Coens’ other movies, or Raimi’s. 

The critical consensus seems to be gathering that the 1996 Joel and Ethan Coen feature may be their masterpiece and one of the finest American films ever.  It is a highly enjoyable concoction, so 
rich with character that you can watch it many times and still look forward to seeing it again.  It seems to capture with perfection the rhythms and inanities of real life, managing almost magically to bend them into a coherent crime drama.

The Joel Coen and Ethan Coen comedy is about a playwright's experiences in Hollywood in the forties. Ostensibly about writer's block, the movie contains some marvelously sophisticated humor about Hollywood which alone is enough to justify multiple viewings. 

Sheer American poetry, the Joel and Ethan Coens’ 2000 comedy alludes to a dozen or more films,from "Bonnie and Clyde" to "The Wizard of Oz," and includes scenes and an overall structure specifically inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, but it nevertheless seems totally original and unique, and delightful.  

Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1998 feature almost seems like self-parody. It has a funny, eclectic humor, but the narrative is more abstract than the narratives in the Coens’ best films. There is a dream sequence staged as a Hollywood musical number and similar delights, but the characters with bizarre European accents, iron lung patients and other forced eccentricities call attention to themselves in too great abundance. It’s amusing, but artificial.

The ultimate Sun Belt thriller, i.e., the only Sun Belt thriller that ever won an Oscar for Best Picture, it opens with a transcendent montage of Southwest vistas, and sustains its feel for the heat and grit of its setting as its characters succumb to the inevitability of greed and violence that is as common to such films as caked mud and cactus scrub.