Tuesday, May 22, 2007

"Whats the rumpus?"

I'm anticipating a lot of movies this year. Being a movie lover means that you live from release to release, looking forward to some more than others. In some ways its the best, purest part of loving movies. Anticipation is one of the keenest feelings, and there are various stages connected with the release of a new film. Theres its initial announcement, usually with a short description of the premise, perhaps an attached screenwriter and/or director. Theres the casting announcements. Then the first stills and pictures taken on set begin to show up on websites. Perhaps a poster appears. Then a trailer. Then another, longer trailer, and some early reviews taken from test screenings. Then the real reviews. Obviously anticipation oscillates during this long process, which usually occurs over the course of one or even two years. A trailer may kill all anticipation or raise its pitch a degree or two. Reviews may dampen expectations. Some films I'm sold on as soon as I hear they're in production. There a certain number of directors whose work interests me, and I'll go see anything any of them does, no matter what reviews or trailers lead me to believe. With others the premise attracts me - I'm predisposed to any Western, more or less, due to a love of the genre. Sometimes a still can suddenly make me interested, just the colour scheme or the lighting of a single frame can be enough. Trailers - an artform in their own right - are obviously designed to seduce the viewer, and they are damnably effective. So many bad films have had great trailers, but its the promise of the trailer, of what they reveal and what they conceal, that makes us go to the cinema on many occasions. The best trailers are the ones that make us feel like we've come to the wrong movie, the ones where you can feel the entire audience thinking "Forget this crap, I wanna see that movie NOW."

At the time of writing, the Coen Brothers' "No Country for Old Men" doesn't even have a trailer in circulation. Just a couple of stills (one of which sits at the top of this post) and a few reviews on geek sites from test screenings. It screened for critics at the Cannes film festival two nights ago, and the reviews have been rhapsodic, with many calling it their best ever film and a worthy Palme D'Or winner. Its based on Cormac McCarthy's 2005 modern Western manhunt novel about the repercussions of a botched drug deal on the Tex-Mex border, and stars Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones. I've written herebefore about my love for McCarthy's work, and that alone would be reason enough for me to look forward to this film. The reviews - a couple of them from critics I really respect - only make me anticipate it more excitedly. But I've had a troubled relationship with the work of Joel and Ethan Coen.

They are undeniably incredibly gifted filmakers. Each of their films - going back to 1984s debut "Blood Simple" - is brilliantly scripted, full of memorable characters and witty dialogue. Their ability to translate those scripts effectively to film is also fantastic, since they are so technically accomplished, demonstrating great mastery over camera placement, movement and editing, and an understanding of actors which enables them to draw good performances from a broad range of talent. In other words, the Brothers Coen have it all. They could seemingly do whatever they wished. The problem with their work has generally resided in exactly what they wished to do. They're clever boys, Joel and Ethan. Sometimes they seem too clever, in that they let their intelligence interfere with their cinema. One of their major themes is cosmic irony, and they seem to take little they do particularly seriously. Hence many of their films display a strangely mocking attitude to their own characters - the Coens seem to think their characters are frequently idiots, and its hard to root for a character when the creator of that character isn't even really rooting for him. In some cases it seems less that they are mocking their characters and more as if they cannot bridge the distance between themselves and their creations. There is always that sense of distance, that reserve. The Coens never seem to be emotionally invested in their material. They may be intellectually and aesthetically invested - the attention to detail and effortless sense of distinctive tone and place makes this evident - but at times over their career, it has appeared they were incapable of actually caring about their stories or characters.

This attitude actually suits some of their material. When they work in the Noir genre, the Coen sensibility finds its pitch-perfect match. Here is a genre which demands that its characters be viewed through narrowed eyes, a genre where absolutely nobody is to be trusted, everybody has an agenda, and cynical twists in the narrative tail are only to be expected. The Coens have made four films which can be categorised as Noirs - "Blood Simple". "Millers Crossing", "The Big Lebowski" and "The Man Who Wasn't There". "Blood Simple", their straightest, most accessible film, is a noir from the James M Cain/Jim Thompson school, sweaty and angsty and full of twists and lies. Its also brilliantly made, the Coens (alongside their young cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld) showing what they could do if given the scope on their very first try. "Millers Crossing" is an almost-adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's "Red Harvest" (also the source for "Yojimbo", "A Fistful of Dollars" and "Last Man Standing"), and a great leap forward in their filmaking. Lacking the hyperactive ostentation of "Raising Arizona", the comedy which preceded it, "Millers Crossing" has probably the greatest script of the Coens' ouevre, with a convoluted plot of cross and double-cross all delivered in a hard-boiled series of clipped exchanges of rapid-fire rapier wit. Its filmed in beautifully evocative tones, mainly of moss green and oaken brown, and the (since overused) Carter Burwell score is absolutely lovely. It also features a couple of outstanding set-pieces, Gabriel Byrne's best performance and a great Coen mcguffin in the guise of Tom's hat. The fact that their next film, "Barton Fink", was written during a bout of serious writers block on "Millers Crossing" puts the two films into proper perspective.

"The Big Lebowski" may not seem like a Noir, but its from the LA school, paying tribute to Robert Altman's "the Long Goodbye" and Ross McDonald's Lew Archer books (and indeed the Paul Newman "Harper" films based upon them). Modern LA Noir replaces the pools of shadow of the High Noir period with sunlight, but its heroes are questing detectives in the tradition of Phillip Marlowe. What makes "The Big Lebowski" work so well is the Coens' ability to wrap this genre in their own surrealist comedy, filling the film with characters like John Turturro's Jesus Quintana, Busby Berkely dream sequences, and having the whole thing narrated by Sam Elliott in his most cartoonish cowboy mode. All these elements - which again suggest the distance between the filmakers and their narrative - works astoundingly well, and "the Big Lebowski" is perhaps their funniest comedy.
"The Man Who Wasnt there" is an attempt to return to noir in its most classical form, and probably the best example of the Coens' cleverness at its most conceited and inaccessible. The film is their blackest comedy, but it inherits the shallow characterisation which blights many of their more outright comedies, and all of the visual style and clever dialogue cannot overcome that. The UFO scene, which is the sort of thing filling "Raising Arizona" and "The Big Lebowski" is jarring in the context of such a sombre, distinctively toned film. Billy Bob Thornton's performance is admirably restrained to the extent that it becomes utterly boring.

All of their comedies, in fact, with the exception of the sublime "The Big Lebowski" are the films I have the most problems with. They write good jokes and construct sight gags as well as anybody, but there is that distance, and a coldness and cynicism about people in just about all of their work that becomes difficult in a comedy, where a certain warmth and regard for character can be desirable over the course of a feature film. "This is Spinal Tap" pokes fun at its characters, of course, but it does it affectionately. The Farrelly brothers always put their characters through the wringer, but their affection for those characters always seems evident. Even Woody Allen, while generally skewering his characters pretensions and hypocrasy, is obviously fond of most of the people he creates , for all of their flaws. There is little affection in the Coens' comedy, and what there is is overshadowed by the intellectual snobbery and mockery that colours all their work. In their dramas, however, their worldview makes sense of their characterisation. "Fargo" is partly about the disparity between Margey and the killers she is pursuing, and though the Coens never really reveal their hand directly in terms of thematic content, in that film, their mockery of Margey and her friends feels relatively gentle, even tender. Much of this is down to Frances McDormand's performance, just as Jeff Bridges gives the Dude in "The Big Lebowski" more dignity than the character may have had on the page. "Fargo" is probably their most universally admired film, and it is possibly their most mainstream, in many ways, their offbeat plotting and odd characterisations folded into a genre narrative with enough humour to make the film still seem edgy and interesting. But there is yet that lingering discomfort with the way they dwell on the oddness of the Minneasota accent, the mundane reality of the lives of their characters with a vaguely satirical intent.

The last Coen film I was anticipating the way I am anticipating "No Country for Old Men" was "To The White Sea". An adaptation of Deliverance author James Dickey's novel, the Coens wrote a screenplay, had cast Brad Pitt in the lead role, and negotiated a $60 Million budget. But the film would have made a curious $60 Million Blockbuster. It follows a WWII American bomber pilot after his plane goes down over Japan during a raid. After the dogfight of the opening sequence, there is no dialogue. The American does not speak Japanese. He makes his way across the country towards the coast, where he intends to steal a boat, killing to survive when he (quite frequently) has to, generally hiding and sticking to the most remote areas. He endures flashbacks to his youth, hunting in the great American wilderness.
Such a narrative would have tested the Coens storytelling, and probably brought out the best in them. The novel is extraordinarily violent, but it has an intensity and thematic concerns unlike anything in any of the Coens work. The similarities to McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men" - both stories of survival and survivors, both based on novels by extremely masculine writers which fixate on landscape and are told in a uniquely American sort of tersely poetic language - are striking. But Brad Pitt dropped out of "To the White Sea", there were budgetary issues, and the film went into turnaround. It had seemed as if Joel and Ethan - always so clever - had known that they needed to make such a film next. Their last film had been "O Brother Where Art Thou", a one-note, one-joke comedy, and there was a sense that their career was drifting into a cul-de-sac of their own making, where they turn out smug hipster comedy after smug hipster comedy. They needed to stretch themselves somewhat, to make a film that relied on their visual flair instead of their gift for quirky characterisation and brilliant dialogue.
Instead, the film the Coens made next was "Intolerable Cruelty", which had originated in a generic romantic comedy script they had rewritten, Coen-style. In practice it played as Coen-lite, succeeding neither as romantic comedy nor as Coen movie. They followed it with "The Ladykillers", an illthough remake of the Ealing classic, and the mediocrity of the former followed by the disaster of the latter damaged their critical reputations immeasurably. Hence the three year gap before "No Country For Old Men", during which time they have reportedly written several screenplays and have been linked with many projects, a version of "Tarzan" among them.

"No country for Old Men" is currently scheduled for UK release in February 2008, which means many months of fluctuating anticipation lie instore for me. But thats ok, its even part of the pleasure. One great thing about the coens best films is their endless rewatchability: I've got "the Big Lebowski" and "Millers Crossing" on dvd, and they're full of dialogue like this:

Eddie Dane: How'd you get the fat lip?
Tom Reagan: Old war wound. Acts up around morons.

And this:

Malibu Police Chief: I don't like your jerk-off name, I don't like your jerk-off face, I don't like your jerk-off behavior and I don't like you... jerk-off. Do I make myself clear?
The Dude: [long pause] I'm sorry, I wasn't listening.



Blogger Monsterwork said...

Check it out cabalero.


11:59 am  
Blogger David N said...

Damn that looks perfect. The casting looked on the money from a distance but up close it looks even better. Finally somebody figures out how to use Josh Brolin properly.

1:05 am  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

Miller's Crossing has been one of my favourite films since I saw it in a Coens season on channel 4 many moons ago, I like to think as Tom is pretty much the only character they've written who actually seems to think...the writer's block was down to him outwitting them for a while.

I seem to remember years ago there was something about them buying the rights to Elmore Leonard's Cuba Libre, which could have been interesting.

11:02 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Yeah they wrote a screenplay of Cuba Libre but it was for somebody else to direct. Obviously, nothing ever came of it. When "O Brother" came out there was an Omnibus or Horizon or some other BBC arts show special on them and in their office there was a bookcase full of the unproduced screenplays the've written. Some of them are still on the production slate, according to IMDB anyway...

I imagine they would make Cuba Libre quite funny, because Leonard's sensibility and the nature of that book allows for it, whereas McCarthy is a lot more serious. Though Bardem's performance looks pretty funny, in its way.

If anybody should make Cuba Libre into a film, its John Milius or Walter Hill.

11:15 pm  

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