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Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen: Raising Cain

Dialogue: Joel and Ethan Coen

  • Retrospective: September 18–October 17, 2009

“It’s probable that most filmmakers love making movies, but few of them express this love with such voracious, crazy ardor. The brothers are a pair of brilliant oxymorons: shaggy-dog formalists, at once obsessed with every detail and apt to let their stories run wild.”
—A.O. Scott, New York Times

The Walker celebrates the 50th Regis Dialogue and Retrospective with Minnesota’s own Joel and Ethan Coen in the 25th-anniversary year of their stunning debut, Blood Simple, and upon the release of their 14th feature, the locally filmed A Serious Man.

Natives of St. Louis Park, Joel and Ethan Coen grew up leading self-proclaimed “mundane” lives, spending their childhood making 8mm versions of The Naked Prey, Advise & Consent, and other films they’d seen on the locally produced program Mel Jass’ Matinee Movie. In his twenties, Joel broke into the film business as an assistant editor, notably on Sam Raimi’s cult classic The Evil Dead. Fascinated by pulp fiction, the brothers admired the hard-boiled style of James M. Cain’s novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.

With their first film, Blood Simple, in 1984, the Coens endeavored to make a modern version of a Cain story. It was a trial by fire, as virtually no one on the cast and crew, including writer/director/editor/producers Ethan and Joel, had ever been on a film set before. After rejections from every major studio, the film garnered critical notice at festivals and finally got distribution, launching the careers of the brothers known in the film business as “the two-headed director.” The Coens’ movies are a cooperative—some might say conspiratorial—enterprise, with Joel and Ethan writing, directing, and editing together (using the crusty pseudonym Roderick Jaynes for the latter role).

The brothers’ singular and elaborate worlds are a mix of pastiche and homage, referencing everything from musicals and old movies to Faulkner, pulp novels, and comic books, along with dazzling cinematography and intricate design. One cannot extract the films from their landscapes: the stifling hot Texas of Blood Simple; the stultifying, gleaming New York cityscape of The Hudsucker Proxy; the frozen tundralike setting of Fargo, and so on. Their unique sense of place is flawlessly conceived, right down to the distinctive jargon of the characters, reflecting a stylized form of American vernacular to fit the time and place and genre. As the New York Times described it, the Coens create “a postmodern cinematic world … where everything seems vaguely unhinged.”

Within these worlds the brothers create open-ended stories, often using first-person narrations and a cavalry of gifted actors who sign on for the ride again and again. Frequent fellow-travelers include the intense John Turturro, the consummate everyman Steve Buscemi, and John Goodman, a boisterous and fearless kindred spirit. Frances McDormand first appeared in Blood Simple because her roommate, Holly Hunter, bowed out, and went on to become the brothers’ most prolific muse (and Joel’s wife), appearing in seven films and winning an Oscar for her portrayal of police detective Marge Gunderson in Fargo.

Though they’ve mined many genres throughout their careers, noir seems to be the Coens’ touchstone. From the gritty thriller Blood Simple to the luminous, moody Man Who Wasn’t There to The Big Lebowski with its Philip Marlow-esque “Dude,” they have done noir every which way, filtering its absurdity, sense of disorientation, alienation, and cynicism through their uniquely skewed sensibility. Yet the Coens also toss a funny bone into their movies, employing brazen slapstick, deliciously clever banter, gallows humor, and even sight gags with relish. Their films seem to embody the pure joy they take in their work.

Once called “the Hardy Boys from Hell” by Rolling Stone, the Coen brothers have confounded and at times divided critics and audiences alike. While these genre-bending, period-twisting shape-shifters can be difficult to pin down, it’s abundantly clear that they are filmmakers whose love for the movies is matched by the vastness of their imaginations.

Joel and Ethan Coen on the set of A Serious Man