Thursday 7 August 2014

A few words on the Coen Brothers

   I’ve enjoyed most of their films and Blood Simple, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, True Grit and Inside Llewyn Davis are the ones I can happily watch again and again.

   Watching Miller’s Crossing again the other night reminded me of Will Self’s article in the Guardian a few years ago. At the time I seem to remember it wound me up but now I don’t see too much wrong. The films aren’t great, like those of Tarkovsky or Kiarostami are great but they’re good in interesting ways. It’s not that Self misses the point, he focuses correctly on their reflexivity—that they make films of films and films about films. It’s more that when so much modern culture of a knowing, ironic persuasion can feel empty and somewhat inane, the Coens’ films are straightforwardly pleasureable—Deakins’cinematography, great performances, apposite, ambiguous and humorous soundtracks often with Carter Burwell’s beautiful scores and great production design. Their reflexivity also acts to question tropes, expectations and the viewer's relationship with cinema in a ‘moderately clever’ and discursive way.

I’ll quote this excerpt that focuses in on True Grit:

On the face of it the Coens have made as straight and authentic a remake as is imaginable, the dialogue is crisp and with its idiosyncratic mixture of idioms – Victorian-portentous spliced with rangy slang – oddly convincing. Deakins has also put his quirky lens away in its box and done his best to shoot straight – just like Rooster Cogburn.

But when all's said and done, you have to ask yourself, why? This isn't a western nouveau to join the reinvigoration of the genre that began with Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and has continued through to Andrew Dominik's magisterial The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007); this True Grit says nothing more substantive about the role of Manifest Destiny in American self-conception (which is what, in the final analysis, all serious westerns are about) than the last one did; rather, I couldn't help feeling that somewhere in the Vulcan mind-meld of their creative sensibility, the brothers embarked on this project purely and simply as a vehicle for Bridges. And in as much as it was vehicle for Bridges, in a queered way True Grit is a companion piece to The Big Lebowski.

Think on it: in Lebowski Bridges plays a slacker whose very inanition helps him to rise above the nefariousness of all around him; while in True Grit he plays a man of action whose machismo functions in the same way. The two Jeff Bridges characters are in fact Janus-faces of the same, uh, actor. This, again, leads us back to the Coens' central problem: their reflexivity as directors, making films of films rather than films tout court. Still, in our benighted age, when films about amusement park rides and electronic fidgets scoop the honours, perhaps Hollywood redux is the best we can hope for.

   Lots to agree with here but what the film does, simply and brilliantly, and what Self doesn't seem to get is how True Grit shows the appeal of Rooster, LaBoeuf and Mattie—their principles, bravery, determination, charisma, self-belief whilst still managing to show how these traits can also be harsh, unappealing and unrelenting, and how they so easily translate into reactionary conclusions and actions. Compare it with the 1969 original, (a film I still love btw—Wayne, irascible and charismatic, the title song by Glen Campbell and those gorgeous autumnal colours) to find a very straightforward film, free of any kind of critique and nuance.


   Miller’s Crossing offers a slightly different kind of reflexivity. The film acknowledges and plays with many of the ideas and motifs common to gangster films and noir. Gabriel Byrne’s Tom is a seemingly a classic noir anti-hero. He’s the smart man behind the scenes, talking sense to ruthless mafiosos and psychopaths; he’s also a drinker, not much of a fighter—he takes countless beatings, and cool, in a downbeat, existential kind of way. We route for him perhaps only because the characters around him are even more deranged. We route for him too as we tend to do with all central characters—because its irresistible and because its part of the logic of narrative that we’re all so used to. He’s the movie equivalent of an unreliable narrator and as with many of the best violent thrillers the viewer becomes complicit in the dubious pleasures on offer. The violence is operatically staged and beautifully seductive. The scene when Albert Finney’s Leo guns down his would-be assassins compares favourably with the most sublime slices of movie violence ever staged - even the bar scene in Corbucci's Django. Those with weak minds—like me—will also leave the movie desperate for a slug of bourbon, a filter-less cigarette and a new suit.

   Nothing new then? Well not really, but it’s the panache with which it’s pulled off and it’s profound understanding of how movies work—the appeal of glamour, spectacle, violence, nostalgia, intelligence and that deep, deep desire to identify with others—that make it so good. The film incites a constant dialogue in your head. You explain away Tom’s behaviour because you yearn for him to have a shred of decency but slowly and surely the film forces you to face the truth, even before the final denouement. He’s the worst kind of bastard after all—he wants to keep the status quo, keep the slightly saner hoods in control and he’ll go to any length to do it.

   That he understands love and loyalty makes it all the worse.