Not long ago we lauded the Film Plays Itself series on the Criterion Channel, a collection of films about films that includes everything from Sunset Boulevard to 8½ to Hollywood Shuffle to Adaptation. Here, Tinseltown is by turns cynical, magical, savage, surreal, everything you could possibly hope for, anything you could possibly imagine. Here, film artists are by turns inspiring, insipid, visionary, avaricious, down on themselves, full of themselves. If you’re interested in movies about movies, Film Plays Itself represents a kaleidoscopic cross-section of Hollywood artistry that encapsulates pretty much everything you could want.
There may be no other gangster film in existence that walks the tightrope Miller’s Crossing walks. On the one hand, the third film from the Coen Brothers is of a piece with the 1930s gangster flicks that influenced it, full of colorful criminals and double-crosses and rat-a-tat action. The dialogue is straight from Dashiell Hammett and the production design is straight from the pre-Code era, à la Scarface and Little Caesar. The gangster subgenre and critical thinking on the subgenre are historically grounded in realism, unlike the mythic and symbolic trappings of the film Western, and Miller’s Crossing honors that in its gritty, ruminative approach to a complex plot. It is, in short, a quintessential gangster film.
On the other hand, stuff like this happens:
The pure gangster film we’ve described so far is constantly in sharp discordance with the Miller’s Crossing that knows it’s a gangster film. Self-awareness is not a traditional quality of the gangster picture. We’re supposed to be shocked when characters get riddled with bullets, not laugh at the absurdity of the manner of their demise (see above). Big hulking goons are supposed to be aces in fistfights, not whimper when they get bonked on the nose. And we’re not supposed to be expending energy reading into tophat dream symbolism during a traditional crime flick, right? In short, this is anything but a quintessential gangster film.
The Coen Brothers have been on my mind as of late. They usually are, granted, but especially so now that we’ve made the (ill-advised?) decision to dive into a complete Coen retrospective in our Director Series column. That means we’ve signed up for a lot of likable characters making drastically dumb decisions against a lovingly-rendered period America and a deep bench of memorable supporting players. You want pitch-black comedy? You got it. You want films that actually earn the moniker neo-noir? You got it, again and again. So how about a little break from the Coen-verse? Perhaps a new indie flick on Amazon to shake things up? Sure. Nice change of pace.
One of the most impressive things about the Coen Brothers is their ability to succeed in both self-aware comedy and super-serious drama, and their first two movies encapsulate both ends of that spectrum. Apart from No Country for Old Men, their debut Blood Simple is still their most stripped-down and somber effort. There’s only one real moment of self-awareness in that film, when the camera slides along the saloon counter and then jumps over a sleeping barfly before hitting the counter again. Coming only three years after that hardboiled crime drama, the cartoonishly bonkers Raising Arizona seems like the work of a different filmmaker altogether.
And maybe it is, in a way, given how much the Coens owe to Preston Sturges. The Golden Age screwball writer/director is often cited as a Coen inspiration, due in part to a few direct correlations between his Sullivan’s Travels and the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? But Raising Arizona lives more fully under the influence of Sturges, from the pratfalls to the simple-minded characters to the way dialogue reigns as simultaneously elevated and immature. Specific elements of three Sturges films from the most celebrated era of his career — Easy Living (1937), The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942) — offer some insight into how Raising Arizona came together with the King of ’40s Screwballs in mind.
As far as indicators of things to come are concerned, Blood Simple has everything you need to know about the Coen Brothers right there in the opening. Okay, maybe not everything — after all, daring to think you’ve nailed down the Coens is, as critic David Edelstein put it, “a sure way of looking like an ass.” The most immediate hallmark is a somewhat superficial one, what with Blood Simple sporting the same exact opening (drawling narration over barren establishing shots) as later Coen films The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There and No Country for Old Men. But from there, the way light and shadow pass through Blood Simple serves as a solid marker of the artistry for which the first-time filmmakers would someday be known.
After the opening narration, credits roll over Abby (Frances McDormand) and Ray (John Getz) having a conversation in the car at night. The credits don’t roll, actually, but flash brightly whenever passing headlights illuminate the car’s interior. The pair have a cryptic conversation about Abby leaving Marty (Dan Hedaya) to be with Ray, and in the next scene they’re rolling around in a motel room bed, headlights from the highway still illuminating them briefly.
Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.
“Writing about the Coens — and mining their oeuvre for Big Ideas — is a sure way of looking like an ass” — so says David Edelstein of New York Magazine in his original review of No Country for Old Men. There is duality to these words, a twin truth, that simultaneously drives and stays my critic’s pen at this very moment. One, Edelstein is absolutely right. Two, I am already quite accomplished when it comes to looking like an ass.
Despite the fact that most everything from the Brothers Coen seems intentionally built to endure traditional long-form critical analysis, maybe some bite-sized stream-of-consciousness notes on the relationship between two of their most celebrated films — Fargo and No Country for Old Men — will net more insight into how the Coens evolved (or devolved) as filmmakers in the decade between those efforts. Maybe we’ll stumble on a few of those Big Ideas before choosing to ignore them altogether. Maybe we’ll be responding in kind to scripts that are often episodic, meandering, content to leave ostensibly-vital plot threads hanging. Or maybe we’ll just look like asses.