A truism arts journalists and critics often encounter is that artists are not always the most incisive or articulate commentators on their own work. Some artists won’t talk about their work at all—preferring to let it “speak for itself”—and the ones who will don’t necessarily offer much in the way of insightful analysis.
Speaking as one who has encountered this phenomenon more than a few times, it was easy to feel empathy for former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell at the Walker Art Center as he tried to engage filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen in a wide-ranging discussion of their films on the eve of the release of their new movie, A Serious Man , which was filmed in the Twin Cities and opens nationally on Friday, October 2. In celebration, the Walker this month is showing a complete retrospective of the Coen brothers' catalogue, and the discussion with Mitchell was part of the Regis Dialogue series.
Not that there wasn’t a conversation—there was, two-and-a-half hours’ worth. It’s just that the discussion between Mitchell and the Coens didn’t yield much in the way of scintillating, revealing, or even humorous, interaction. Every time Mitchell pressed the brothers to talk about, say, their use of place, their fascination with regional details, their take on the issue of race, their use of music, or how their films featuring loners and outcasts are a kind of “post-modern take on Hemingway,” the brothers would nod their heads and respond with some version of, “Yep, that’s interesting. Hadnt' really thought about it that way, but . . .” After a clip showing the “Danny Boy” scene in Miller’s Crossing, in which Albert Finney outwits his would-be gangster assassins, riddling them with bullets to the melancholy strains of “Danny Boy,” Mitchell asked the brothers how they chose that song for the scene. Ethan Coen just shrugged and said, “He’s Irish.” When Mitchell asked them how they developed their acute sensibility for different regions of the country —Texas, the South, the West, Minnesota, etc.—and whether they traveled a lot as kids, their answer was basically, “No, we watched a lot of television and read a lot of books.” When asked about their attitude toward issues of race in their films, Ethan’s answer was a curt, “We just don’t give a shit about other people’s sensitivities.”
For much of the evening, in fact, Joel and Ethan Coen played the part of humble geniuses, often giving the impression that they don’t quite know how they do what they do—they just do it. Fans hoping that the Coen brothers would peel back the curtain and reveal the secrets of their moviemaking process largely had to settle for amusing tidbits of behind-the-scenes gossip and/or irony: That, for instance, most of the people dressed as KKK members for the “O Death” scene in O Brother Where Art Thou? were actually black—they were part of a military marching group; or that George Clooney wanted to sing his own songs in the movie, but auditioned and, according to Joel, “had the good sense to fire himself,”; or that it took a while to convince Jeff Bridges to do The Big Lebowski , and, when he was on the set, before a scene, he’d always ask, “So, did The Dude burn one on the way over?” If the answer was yes, which it almost always was, Bridges would rub his eyes to make them red.
Occasionally, Joel would offer a one-liner that sounded like it might hide something profound—such as his curious assertion that, “All movies are an attempt to re-make The Wizard of Oz ”— but as Mitchell, a black man with a wild mane of graying hair tied in a pony tail, tried gamely to craft questions that would elicit more than one-sentence responses, and the Coen brothers—both dressed in black—tried a little less gamely to answer them, it became increasingly apparent that this “dialogue” was between people who think about the film-making arts in entirely different ways, and that the difficulty in finding a point of connection illustrated how disparate the critic’s and audience’s experience of a film (or any art form, for that matter) is from the artist who made it.
In order to prepare for the conversation, for instance, it was clear that Mitchell had done his due diligence and watched all the Coen brothers' movies again, so all sorts of interesting thematic connections and structural similarities were rattling around in his head. Not so, the Coen brothers. At one point, Ethan pointed out that watching the movie clips was fun because they hadn’t seen many of them for fifteen or twenty years. When they’re done with a movie, he implied, they don’t go back and watch it—they move on to the next project. They don’t have time to look back. When asked about their reasons for shooting in, say, Austin, Texas for Blood Simple , you could almost see the flood of logistical details that swirled through Joel Coen’s head when he thought about it, because his answer to such seemingly simple questions inevitably involved the availability of actors and crew, the need to shoot under budget, or any number of other nuisances and restrictions directors must contend with in order to get a movie shot.
Critics and audiences only see the filmmaker’s final product; but the recollection of artists themselves about the process that birthed that beloved film is often a jumble of obstacles and hurdles and compromises so far removed from the final product that it’s hard for the filmmaker to imagine what it’s like to watch Barton Fink for the first time, say, without the cluttered memory of how it all came together. “Things just have a weird way of crystallizing,” was the closest Ethan Coen could come to explaining how certain artistic problems get resolved. In talking about the Homeric references in O Brother Where Art Thou? , for instance, Joel admitted that “it took a while for us to realize we were writing The Odyssey .” And when writing Fargo , the brothers admitted that at the 2/3 mark they were completely stumped, for months! , about how to end the movie—an indication that, in reality, their process is full of frustration, head-scratching, persistence, and, if they’re lucky, a little serendipity.
The one time Mitchell hit pay dirt was when he offered the observation that the basic plot line for Miller’s Crossing —the Coen Brothers’ 1990 film about the power struggle between two rival gangs—was essentially a rip-off of two Dashiell Hammett novels, The Red Harvest and The Glass Key . In film circles, The Red Harvest is a book that has famously been stolen from/adapted—most notably in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and the Clint Eastwood movie, A Fistful of Dollars —but has never been made into a movie itself. Joel Coen perked up at the observation and admitted that the thievery/homage was obvious, but ultimately offered a more important point: “People think our stuff is influenced by other movies, but the truth is that we’re more interested in the books those movies are based on.” So yes, Dashiell Hammett was an influence on Miller’s Crossing , but the important stuff they stole was from the books, not the movies (most notably The Maltese Falcon ) based on them. (In fact, the title for the Coen brothers' Blood Simple came from a line of dialogue in The Red Harvest .)
In The Big Lebowski , Joel explained, they deliberately tried to create the feel of a Raymond Chandler novel—but set in the early 1960s—and that toying with genres and contexts in such ways is one of their favorite tricks. But if people really want to understand the source of, say, the Coen brothers’ uncanny feel for the mood and tempo of the South, they shouldn’t see other movies set in the South, they should read the novels of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. Because when the Coen’s say they “read a lot of books” as kids, it means they digested pretty much the entire Western literary canon and are now in the process of appropriating bits and pieces of it for their own artistic purposes.
All that reading is also one of the reasons the Coen’s are so good at adapting books for the screen. They know that books and movies are different mediums, and, in Joel’s words, “strict adaptations of books present problems for moviemakers.” In Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men , for instance, the monologues go on forever; the trick, say the Coens, is in knowing what to “strip away” and when to take certain licenses that may not be in the book, but work for the movie and still honor the spirit of the original text. The Coen brothers’ next project is a remake of True Grit , but if you’re looking for clues about what it might look like, they say, don’t see the movie with John Wayne—go directly the source and read Charles Portis’s original novel.
Observing this odd and sometimes stilted conversation, it became increasingly apparent that the Coen brothers simply don’t think about their movies in the way most people do. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, but it can be a little disconcerting. The answer to pretty much every question Mitchell threw at them about the “why” of any given artistic decisions or the hidden social message in their films was: “It’s all about the specifics—the specific details necessary to tell the story. We are always asking ourselves what should happen here, or what could happen to make it more interesting. Details imply other details that imply other ideas that are necessary to move the story along. That’s how our minds work.” To the suggestion that they are somehow commenting upon or trying to communicate some larger social message in their movies, Joel vehemently denied it, saying, “It wouldn’t be interesting to us to do something that’s constructed just to make a social point.” They are storytellers through and through was the message—they’re not interested in soapboxing or speechmaking; they are interested in making smart, entertaining movies, period.
There wasn’t much talk of the Coen brothers’ new film, A Serious Man , other than to point out that it’s only biographical in its most basic details—Jewish family, dad’s an academic, they live in St. Louis Park—and the rest is “all made up.” When Twin Citians see the movie, however, it may look a bit strange, because in order to create the barren, new-suburb feel of the late 1960s in St. Louis Park, they had to digitally remove most of the trees. “Lots of architecture from that era is still around, but a lot of trees have grown since then,” explained Ethan. “Minneapolis has grown too. When we were growing up, Foshay Tower was the tallest building in Minneapolis.”
I’m fairly certain Elvis Mitchell had no idea what Ethan was talking about, but that’s pretty much how the evening went. Him talking, them trying to understand what he was asking. Them talking, him trying to fit their responses into his idea of who the Coen brothers are and what they do. Somewhere in between there was an exchange of ideas, a dialogue of sorts, but if you were looking for cohesion, depth, insight, or understanding about what makes a Coen brothers film tick, you probably didn’t get what you came for. Better to watch their movies and head to the library, because that’s where the real clues to the Coen brothers’ work are hidden.
The Walker Art Center's retrospective, The Coen Brothers: Raising Cain, continues through Oct. 17.