Joel and Ethan Coen | Critical Review by Eric Pooley

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Joel and Ethan Coen.
This section contains 3,549 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Eric Pooley

Critical Review by Eric Pooley

SOURCE: "Warped in America," in New York, Vol. 20, No. 12, March 23, 1987, pp. 44, 46-48.

In the following review, Pooley discusses the Coens' film production methods.

It's the last week of February, and 400 people have turned up at the Gotham theater for a screening of a comedy called Raising Arizona. The film has excellent word of mouth, and a host of industry types, including director Jonathan Demme, are on hand to see it—but Joel Coen, 32, who directed and co-wrote the film, is not among them. Neither is his brother, Ethan, 29, who produced and co-wrote it. Instead of seeing what people think of their second movie (their first was the stylish, godless cult hit Blood Simple), the brothers are on their way across town, to a small screening of a film called Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn.

When the Coens slouch into the lobby before the horror film begins, a man spots them. "Hey," he says. "I thought you guys'd be at the other movie."

"Nah," says Joel, flicking some hair out of his face. "We've seen that one."

Actually, they've seen this one too. But the Coens hate to be the center of attention; and they hate watching their own movies—they waited in the lobby during a 1984 New York Film Festival screening of Blood Simple. And besides, Evil Dead 2, directed by their friend Sam Raimi, is a hoot—a series of inventive chain-sawings, shotgunnings, and battles with the demons from Beyond.

"Heh, heh, heh," laughs Joel as a man is attacked by his own severed hand.

"Heh, heh, heh," laughs Ethan.

At one point, a character looks at someone who's been beaten senseless and says, "Crazy buck's gone blood simple." A few people laugh. Joel and Ethan don't—they just sit in the dark, smiling.

When Blood Simple was released in 1985, the lives of Joel and Ethan Coen changed in a way that many would-be filmmakers dream about while sitting over someone else's moviola. Joel, an NYU film-school graduate from suburban Minneapolis, had spent years working on the fringes of the industry—editing mad-slasher flicks like The Evil Dead, working on rock-video crews. Ethan, who has a philosophy degree from Princeton, had moved to New York in 1979 and got a job as a typist at Macy's. They wrote Blood Simple in 1980, raised $750,000 for it in 1981, shot it in 1982, edited it in 1983, searched for a distributor in 1984, and finally released it in 1985—to almost universal acclaim and a place on several ten-best lists. A taut, redemptionless tale of death and double cross at a Texas roadhouse, Blood Simple is funny, disturbing, and outrageously self-conscious; New York's film critic, David Denby, called it "one of the most brazenly self-assured directorial debuts in American film history." Steven Spielberg asked the Coens to come for a visit. Hugh Hefner invited them to his mansion.

In another way, though, the lives of the Coen brothers didn't change at all when Blood Simple came out. Joel didn't cut his hair, become polite to people he didn't like, or start hanging around with Hollywood directors. Ethan still avoided parties—not because he was shy, but because he wasn't interested. The Coens remained aloof from both the big studios and the arty independent-film scene, preferring the company of directors like Raimi. "The boys"—as their friends call them—didn't want to make pictures for Spielberg, and Hefner and his mansion were a joke to them. They signed a four picture deal with an independent production company, not a studio, because the deal gave them complete creative control, and controlling the process of moviemaking was all that mattered.

"The boys live to make movies," says their friend and cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld. "Money isn't important to them, except to make movies. They never want to be in a position where anyone has any power to tell them what to do. They could make more by going with a studio, but I don't believe they ever will. And that's intimidating to a lot of people in the business. It's frightening that two people can be that self-contained."

In fact, it is sometimes hard to tell where one Coen ends and the other begins. "They're like identical twins," says Sonnenfeld. "Alike, but very different."

"It's the yin and yang of one being," says Raimi. Joel, with dark, deep-set eyes and an air of rude mischief, is brilliant in a quiet, absentminded, artistic way. Ethan, with finer features and an even quieter air, is brilliant in a more analytical way. Ethan reads all the time; Joel is more visual. They pace the floor in step with each other, chain-smoke the same brand (Camel Lights), and share a telepathic sense of humor—they'll laugh at a joke without bothering to say it aloud. They are, together, an autonomous filmmaking unit. "Joel is theoretically the director and Ethan is theoretically the producer," says Sonnenfeld, "but they both do everything." Sonnenfeld was talking about the Coens to actress-director Penny Marshall not long ago. "They're so easy to work with," he said. "It's like working with one person."

"Sure," said Marshall. "One of them's mute."

Now, with their second film getting great notices, the brothers seem even more intimidating: They appear capable of making any kind of movie they want. Where Blood Simple is dark, deliberate, and frightening, Raising Arizona is bright, lively, and hilarious. It's also sweet—the story of a sleepy convenience-store robber named H.I. (Nicolas Cage) and his ex-cop wife Ed (Holly Hunter) who steal a baby because, as H.I. says in his oddly formal, TV-preacher way, "Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase." The movie is all over the place: It's full of broad physical comedy (fights that become pro-wrestling parodies, shoot-outs in supermarkets). There are scores of sight gags, comic set pieces, and memorable bit parts; there's a Mad Biker of the Apocalypse who rides his Harley from H.I.'s nightmare into reality, tries to recover the stolen child, and gets blown to pieces at the end. As writers, directors, producers, and editors, the Coens—even in humorous excess—are in complete control.

"We wanted to make something different than Blood Simple," says Joel.

"After that one," says Ethan, "we were labeled film noir."

"So this time," says Joel, "we wanted to make one that was—"

"Sui generis," says Ethan.

In Blood Simple, there's a fifteen-minute stretch without a word of dialogue in which the dumb, woman-crazy bartender played by John Getz finds his boss dead and decides that his lover (the boss's wife) did it. He drives the body to a wide-open field, discovers that it is still crawling, tries to kill it with a shovel, and finally buries it alive against a soundtrack of shoveling, hard breathing, and the wretched, inhuman moans of the victim disappearing beneath the Texas dirt. Denby called it "a sequence of which Hitchcock could be proud."

"After the body was covered with dirt," says Ethan, "that was me squirming under there. I'm proud of that."

In Raising Arizona, there's a five-minute stretch without dialogue in which a wide-open, rain-soaked field gives birth—a head pops out of the ground, a man spits mud and scum from his mouth, starts bellowing, and hauls himself out of the slime. A tall, big-bellied guy, he dives back in and pulls out his little brother, another heavy load, feet first. The two dumb jailbirds Gale and Evelle Snopes are free, having tunneled out of prison through a sewer line, and they arch their backs and howl at the clouds.

The two scenes capture the difference between the two movies: Blood Simple is full of dumb, mean folks heading into the ground, and Raising Arizona is full of dumb, well-meaning folks trying to get off the ground—through their dreams, through their marriages, by having (or stealing) kids. But in other ways, the movies are alike. Both are full of exhilarating camera work—giddy tracking shots that hop over drunks and climb ladders, the kind of work that has always been found, not coincidentally, in the exploitation horror flicks that the Coens love. And both are populated by those dumb folks—what the Coens call hay-seeds—rubes who blunder around without a clue as to what they're doing. Only the Coens, in fact, ever really know what's going on in the worlds they create.

"There was a lot of talk about hayseeds on the set," says John Goodman, who plays Gale Snopes, the older brother. "We had some laughs at their expense."

"The boys move their characters around to create effects," says Sonnenfeld. "Put them where things can happen to them to scare the audience, or amuse it." As a result, they have been accused of cold, detached filmmaking—the Coens' favorite Blood Simple review says the film has "the heart of a Bloomingdale's window and the soul of a resumé." But the brothers do have their feeling side, and at the end of Raising Arizona, when H.I. has a sweet dream of the future, they produce their first truly emotional film moment—and promptly undercut it with a joke.

Sonnenfeld says, "I asked Ethan, 'Hey, did you guys really mean that stuff about love at the end?' He just gave me a look. I felt stupid for asking. And I never got the answer. They are emotionally hidden."

The Coens don't really know much about murdering people in Texas, or stealing babies in Arizona. They don't write from experience—"a movie about Minnesota people running around in snowsuits killing each other wouldn't be any fun," says Joel—and they don't research their pictures. Neither has children (Ethan is married; Joel lives with actress Frances McDormand, who is in both movies), but in Raising Arizona, they capture the baby-boomer's love for children and anxiety about having them: diptet shots, toddlers wrecking the mobile home, Dr. Spock's "instructions"—details that give the film richness. And in Blood Simple, they capture the soullessness of the best pulp fiction.

"A man crawls a mile with his brains blown out," the novelist Jim Thompson once wrote. "A man is hanged and poisoned and shot and he goes right on living." That's what Blood Simple is like—but the Coens hadn't read Thompson when they made the film. Somehow, growing up quietly in a placid, upper-middle-class suburb of Minneapolis, they had soaked up enough late-night dramas, James M. Cain thrillers, and tabloid headlines to fashion their very own vision. Like many suburban kids, their imaginations were fired by empty American landscapes, and by death.

"What I know about is Texas," they wrote in Blood Simple, even though they didn't. "And down here, you're on your own."

The Coens work out of a West 23rd Street industrial building full of printing and graphics shops. Taking the stairs to their sixth-floor room feels like a climb to the office of a private detective—dim light filters through the dust, voices are muffled behind steel doors. A body in the stairwell would not seem out of place. Their one-room office, with its dirty windows, framed portraits, and frosted-glass door, fits the picture, too, but the Coens themselves don't seem to. They are mild, inward: Joel sits, legs crossed, smokes, and talks quietly. Ethan sits, legs crossed, smokes, and talks hardly at all.

"We're not trying to educate the masses," says Joel.

"Does that make us bad people?" asks Ethan. They laugh. They hate talking film theory, like talking film technique, and love talking murder.

"Did you hear about the guy in Connecticut who put his wife in the wood chipper?" asks Joel.

"Heh, heh, heh," laughs Ethan.

"The cops said that one good rainfall would have washed her away," says Joel with satisfaction. "And they never would have found her." They pause a while and smoke in silence, pondering the cinematic possibilities.

"That was a good one," says Ethan.

"That was a good one," says Joel.

In the spring of 1980, Sam Raimi drove a station wagon from Detroit to New York, with the raw footage of Evil Dead in the backseat. He'd produced the film independently, raising money with a half-hour version he used to show (and sicken) investors. Now he was coming to edit the movie. "I'd never driven into New York before," says Raimi, "and I knew there'd be all sorts of hoodlums and bad characters about. When I pulled up to the building where the cutting room was, this guy came up to the car with long scraggly hair down his chest, looking undernourished. I thought he was trying to rip us off. That was my first meeting with Joel."

Coen had moved from Minneapolis—where his father is a University of Minnesota economics professor, his mother an art historian—to NYU in 1974. An average student in high school, he went to NYU "because it had a late application deadline—I missed all the others." After four desultory years there—"I made some movies, then some more"—he graduated and "chased a woman" to the University of Texas graduate film school in Austin. He quit after a semester, returned to New York, and took jobs as a production assistant and assistant editor.

"He was the world's worst P.A.," says Sonnenfeld, who hired him for some industrial jobs he was working on in those days. "He got three parking tickets, came late, set fire to the smoke machine." He was better in the cutting room, and spent four months there with Raimi, editing Evil Dead. Soon the two of them, with Ethan, were writing scripts in the Riverside Drive apartment the Coens shared.

"Writing with them was like watching a badminton game," says Raimi. "Joel would mention a line of dialogue, and Ethan would finish the sentence. Then Joel would say the punch line, and Ethan would type it up." When things weren't clicking, they would pace, following each other in designated tracks. "I could subtly torture them," says Raimi, "by altering the speed of my pace."

At about that time, the brothers were working on a script of their own, one that took place in the barren roads and road houses Joel had seen around Austin. To raise money, they made a slick two-minute "coming attraction" trailer for a movie that didn't exist. They shot it during a long weekend—it was their first time shooting 35 mm. film. When they watched the footage the next day, Sonnenfeld thought it looked great. "But Joel only said, 'Okay, bye.' I was crushed. Later, I found out he was really excited, too. But because they don't need compliments, they don't realize other people do. That's another thing that gets people mad at them. They never notice."

Joel took the clip—a gun being loaded, a man being buried alive, gunshots being fired through a wall and light streaming through the bullet holes—to Minneapolis, where he met a fund-raiser for Hadassah, the Jewish philanthropic organization. Armed, as Sonnenfeld says, "with a list of the hundred richest Jews in town," he raised $750,000 in nine months.

When the Coens wrote their script, they had in mind the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh for the sweaty, snickering divorce detective Visser, who cracks jokes, kills, and sticks in the memory like gum to the heel of a boot. "When I read the script," says Walsh, "I said, 'This character is so much fun, I'll flesh him out and use him in an important movie six or seven years down the road.' Because no one was ever going to hear about this movie. At best, it would be the third bill at an Alabama drive-in."

Walsh met the Coens in Austin before shooting began. "These two scrawny kids. I said, 'You boys got rich parents who're puttin' up the money?' They showed me this two-minute film; I thought, What the hell is this? Then I saw the storyboards and the shooting schedule, and I realized they knew exactly what they were doing."

In a trailer on the set of Raising Arizona, Joel was about to say something to Nicolas Cage.

"Hey, Joe," said Ethan.

Joel turned to his brother. "Yeah, Eth, I know. I was gonna tell him." Ethan nodded. "And you just knew," says Sonnenfeld, who was there, "that each knew what the other was thinking. It happened literally every day."

"It's hard to figure just what Ethan's role is on the set," says Walsh, who has a fine cameo in Raising Arizona.

"He just smokes and whispers in Joel's ear," says John Goodman.

It's what they whisper about that counts. They talk in a filmbuff's code—"Let's have a Mean Streets look" or "a Love Boat look." A spotlight that lighting designers call a "magenta kicker," the Coens refer to as "hell light."

They don't have money to spare—Raising Arizona was made for just $5 million—so they can't waste film on shots that won't make the final cut. The key is a long and meticulous preproduction process that begins with the script. When Joel and Ethan began to write Raising Arizona, in May 1985, they worked in a disciplined, visual way, and when they were through, the result was a lean shooting script—a blueprint with no excess. Reading the script is like watching the movie—the thing emerged so fully formed from their imaginations that little changed between typewriter and camera.

In August, they began the period of casting and technical preparation, which takes them almost twice as long as it takes other filmmakers. "If I were a producer," says Sonnenfeld, "I'd have my director take as much preproduction time as they do. It's the cheapest way to make movies."

In December, Joel, Ethan, and Sonnenfeld sat down with a storyboard artist to draw what the camera would see in each shot of the movie. (Another film-maker who storyboarded that obsessively was named Hitchcock.) The Coens knew 90 percent of the shots going into the session; "we wouldn't have written the scenes," says Joel, "if we didn't know how we were going to shoot them." The storyboard session defines the look of the movie, and also its pacing; it is the time when each scene is constructed shot by shot, setup by setup, and it is arguably the most creative moment in a Coen film. "By the time you get on their set," says Walsh, "they've got it worked out like a commercial shoot—preplanned to the nth degree. They never went to work without knowing what they were up to. To the point where if you made a suggestion, it almost got in the way."

"If we didn't preplan it," says Joel, "I don't think we'd be able to handle the pressure. I couldn't walk out there without knowing just what I was after. I'd flounder, and the movie would get away from me, and I'd face the horror of watching it veer off into the ditch. There's no way to stop it at that point—it's impossible to wrestle back on course. It's got its own … horrible momentum." They both break into eerie laughter, the kind they spilled out during Evil Dead 2.

When the Coens start filming, they love to come up with cheap, jury-rigged solutions to filmmaking problems. ("A USC film graduate has to solve a problem, he calls his uncle at Universal," says Walsh. "The Coens do it themselves.") A studio would rent a huge crane to film a complicated tracking shot, but the Coens use a "shaky cam"—a camera mounted on a twelve-foot beam, Joel on one end, Ethan on the other, running the thing while the camera rolls. Or a "blankey cam"—Sonnenfeld on his belly on a blanket, dragged along while he films. The idea is to do things in the simplest, least expensive way—to get as many camera setups as possible, to allow the brothers as many editing options as possible. Judging by the result, it works. And as long as it keeps working, they'll be happy—two brothers, playing together.

"We're not really habitués of Nathan's," says Joel, eating with his brother in the Times Square hot-dog joint. "We like Flamers on 42nd Street—but that burned down—or Harvey's, the lunch counter at Woolworth's." They enjoy their dogs, though, and admire the security force. "I like a restaurant," says Joel, "where six-foot-four guards swing clubs." Then Ethan gets an idea.

"Hey," he says. "Let's go ride the elevators at the Portman."

The Mariott Marquis, the futurist-suburban atrium hotel designed by John Portman, was the object of considerable scorn when it touched down in Times Square in 1985; the Coens love the place. When the hotel opened, they would invade it to ride the glass elevators that glide up the outside of the grooved-cement shaft scaling the center of the 37-story atrium. And tonight, after Nathan's, the Coens do it again.

"Doesn't it look like a Ridley Scott set?" says Joel, referring to the Blade Runner director, "before decay has set in?" They're leaning against a balcony in the lobby, gazing up at the soundless elevators slipping out of sight. "Imagine what this will look like in twenty years, with a layer of grime, this obsolete vision of the future. People will say, 'What could they have been thinking of?'"

"Wouldn't this be a great place to shoot a low-budget thriller?" says Ethan.

"Let's ride," says Joel.

Inside the elevator, they smile and stare down as the thing slides up 37 stories. At the top, they get out, lean over a balcony rail, and peer down at the lobby floor. "Tempted to spit?" asks Joel.

Back in the elevator, they are joined by two young brothers—perhaps eight and eleven—for the voyage back. And the two sets of brothers ride down the elevator, noses pressed to glass, happy just to be riding.

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This section contains 3,549 words
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