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.
This year’s New York Film Festival played host to a 15th Anniversary screening of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens’ Dirty Thirties road movie, though it hardly seems like that much time has passed. I might have described O Brother differently — say, the Coens’ Dust Bowl love letter or the Coens’ Homer homage or the period highbrow escapee buddy whatever — except that the directing duo melted all of that babble away in the post-screening “discussion” of their writing process. “We just started with ‘three guys on the road'” said Joel; Ethan added, “then we tarted it up with Homer.” That was that. Next question. The Coens are experts at both of those things: interpretive film direction and film interpretation deflection.
But they were no less the storytellers on stage, despite their succinctness, and they were joined by O Brother stars George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as well as legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. The latter was a pleasant surprise, and though the Coens have recently worked with the likes of Emmanuel Lubezki and Bruno Delbonnel it’s endlessly exciting that Deakins will return to the fold (as will Clooney) for the next Coen film Hail, Caesar!; if it’s at all the blend of O Brother and Barton Fink that it appears to be, then it can’t come soon enough.