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.
“The setting is the Texas-Mexico border. The time is our own.”
This is how the synopsis on the back of the first edition of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men begins. One of these things is inarguable: we’re definitely in the Southwestern U.S. borderlands, weaving along the imaginary line separating Texas from Mexico. But the other bit — “the time is our own” — seems at the very least a strange thing to say about a story set in 1980. Then again, one could sit through the Coen Brothers’ meticulous 2007 adaptation and reasonably assume it to be set in the present day. Maybe the dusty West will always be stuck in time throughout the future of American film, a land pioneered from the 1800s but never truly transformed in the ensuing centuries. One of two hints in No Country comes when Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) references Vietnam explicitly, having served in two tours in 1966 and ’68; the other, of course, comes courtesy of the oracular Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who holds up a quarter from 1958 and muses on the coin’s 22-year journey into his hand.
But the ill-defined nature of time is more than just a peculiar facet of this bloody yarn. We mistake the time period for today, and yet in actuality it’s nearly forty years in the past; if the film centers on the concept of progress, then this curiosity becomes darkly ironic. As is the case with nearly everything by the Coen Brothers (and everything by McCarthy, for that matter), the assertion of numerous interpretations and readings usually leads only to more questions, more ambiguities, more uncertainty. This uncertainty is admittedly fitting of the landscape of the film, and of its inexplicable antagonist. But moreso than “Chigurh as Fate” or “Chigurh as Death” or “Chigurh as Capitalism,” the implication of Anton Chigurh as the living manifestation of Progress seems to make the death knell of No Country for Old Men ring all the louder.
You’re out late on a weekday night at the only bar in the whole dusty town. Been a rough day, not that you want to talk about it. Not that there’s anyone else in the bar even if you did want talk about it, except the bartender. He’s a wiry hipster in skintight plaid and heavy black glasses, like the 3D kind they give out at the movies only with the red and blue lenses removed. The kid perks when you arrive, a lone customer, live in three dimensions. He offers you a berry-infused session ale inspired by some monks somewhere, which you decline in favor of the cheap stuff inspired by simple thirst. “I’m Dylan if you need me,” he says, and you nod as if to confirm this is the perfect name for him. After an hour of drinking in silence the kid can’t help himself and he pours the monk berry ale into what looks like an Erlenmeyer flask and says “on the house” with a wink. You thank him, sip the syrupy purple goo. “Such a unique finish,” Dylan notes. “Anyone joining you tonight?” You shake your head. He recommends an app for meeting new people.
It’s just as aimless out on the street, despite the single sandy road leading only one place. The cinema, glowing like the lure of an anglerfish, is showing a double feature tonight: Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth and the Coens’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs. You buy a ticket from the ancient woman at the box office, her spindly witch’s fingers clutching your money and then waving you into the theater. You sit with your popcorn as the first segment of Jarmusch’s film begins. The only other people in the theater are a young couple talking loudly a few rows behind you, a guy and a girl, but their voices sound so similar it’s hard to tell who’s who. One says “Gimme some Skittles, Sammy, willya?” and the other says “Why didn’t you get your own? Jeez. Syd, stop it. Okay. Just put your hand out and I’ll pour them.”
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.
By now you’ve heard that Joseph Fiennes has been cast as Michael Jackson in a series that is ostensibly both a comedy and about 9/11. In other news, Michael Cera will be playing Audrey Hepburn and Dakota Fanning has been cast as Gary Coleman. Samuel L. Jackson will meanwhile take on the role of everyone else in everything ever.
On the other end of the “gee, didn’t see that one coming” spectrum is a futuristic, gritty reboot of Zorro titled simply Z. Yes, really. The saving grace could be in the form of Jonas Cuaron as director, who will give us something special if he’s learned anything from his father Alfonso.
In the ever-expanding world of superhero adaptations, The Flash is set to cross over with Supergirl a few weeks from now, kinda-sorta-possibly bringing Kara Zor-El into the Arrow-verse. Who should play Batman in the Dark Knight’s inevitable appearance? How about Joseph Fiennes?
Guys: a Deadwood movie. We dare not dwell on this possibility and are currently knocking on every wooden object in the vicinity, but HBO and David Milch have stated that “it’s happening”. Lots of deserving shows bring up the possibility of concluding with a movie, but a Deadwood film just makes perfect sense.
Lots of TV news this week, as a matter of fact: Steven Soderbergh has revealed a six-year plan for The Knick, Ridley Scott has expressed interest in helming an adaptation of The Prisoner, and Arrested Development will be structuring its fifth season like Making a Murderer. All of those things sound awesome.
Christopher Nolan’s next film will be Dunkirk, and fellow collaborator Hans Zimmer has already signed on for scoring duties. Tom Hardy’s name has been thrown out for a starring role, but that’s just a rumor at this point.
Aaron Sorkin will make his directorial debut with Molly’s Game, a true-life tale of a championship skier who turns into a “gambling matron”. If Sorkin can cherrypick from the directors he’s collaborated with recently — David Fincher on The Social Network, Bennet Miller on Moneyball, Danny Boyle on Steve Jobs — then Molly’s Game will be one to watch.