Reviewing the Coen brothers’ films on home video
If a culture gets the artists it earns, it’s no surprise that the few American directors to warrant that label lately seem to have been bottle-fed on pop artifice. Think of Martin Scorsese’s film-junkie fervor or David Lynch’s baroque campiness. Think, above all, of the Coen brothers, who apparently see life entirely through other movies. At best, their hip revamps of classic Hollywood genres seem witty and knowing. But with the wildly praised Barton Fink, they’ve painted themselves into a cinematic corner.
That’s even clearer when you see Fink in the context of their three previous movies, Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller’s Crossing. One of video’s greatest strengths is that it allows you to watch an entire body of work in a few sittings; this is not, sadly, a process that flatters the Coens. Over the course of four films and seven years, the brothers (Joel directs, Ethan produces; they write the scripts together) have become the Steely Dan of moviemakers: coolly egghead, willfully obscure, taking pleasure in technical voluptuousness while backing off from emotional connection.
Blood Simple still stands as their most cohesive movie: It was released when the brothers had a name to make, and its ambition transforms what could have been a merely cruel white-trash film noir into something a little larger. Methodically tracing the crossings and double-crossings of a sadistic Texas nightclub owner (Dan Hedaya), his errant wife (Frances McDormand), her boyfriend (John Getz), and a redneck detective (M. Emmet Walsh) hired to murder the adulterous couple, Simple is so clinically detached that it turns into black farce. If that sounds callous, it is, yet the clever camera work (including a celebrated shot that hops neatly over a passed-out drunk while tracking along a bar) remains fresh, and McDormand’s worn, lived-in performance gives the movie a needed soul.
Cleverness is all that Raising Arizona has going for it, but that’s almost enough. Where Blood Simple raised the specter of crime novelist James M. Cain, the Coens’ second movie drops its hick characters into a live-action Road Runner cartoon. The hilarious pre-credit sequence is proof of the brothers’ formal brilliance: To a lonesome bluegrass score, we see career criminal H.I. McDonnough (Nicolas Cage) woo and wed police photographer Edwina (Holly Hunter) — all in the course of his regular arrests. But after the couple kidnaps one of a set of quintuplets, and one genius chase scene piles upon the other, you can feel the engine throttle out of control. There’s an eerily touching bit at the end, when H.I. dreams of a land ”not too far away where all parents are strong and capable and all children are happy and loved” — but the Coens, typically, defuse the mood with a gag: ”Maybe it was Utah.”
Another three years passed before Miller’s Crossing, the brothers’ deluxe throwback to early-’30s gang-war films. With an insanely complex plot and a cast full of intriguing faces, Crossing is like a mile-high chocolate layer cake: at first bite sensuously rich but cloying over the long haul. The key line of dialogue comes when, in response to John Turturro’s plea to ”look into your heart” before shooting him, Gabriel Byrne scoffs ”What heart?” Suddenly, the Coens’ sheer love of moviemaking feels overwhelmed by their evident contempt for everything else.
By Barton Fink, only the contempt is left. The title character (Turturro again) is a prissy intellectual playwright who sells his soul to ’30s Hollywood only to find writer’s block, humiliation, and an increasingly surreal set of psycho-nightmares that seem borrowed from David Lynch (cameras swooping into drainpipes and so forth). Just maybe the Coens are addressing their own fears of selling out, but I doubt it: This movie seems to exist mainly to put poor snobby Barton through the wringer while nudging our ribs with film-school in-jokes.
See, Barton’s based on playwright Clifford Odets, among others. And the dapper, dipsomaniacal screenwriter W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) is William Faulkner and a little bit of Fitzgerald, too. And the studio head played, in the movie’s one inspired ham job, by Michael Lerner is Louis B. Mayer. And — well, so what? Even if you like playing spot-the-references, they don’t add up to anything. The one remotely real character is Barton’s affable neighbor (John Goodman), and it’s a mark of the Coens’ confusion that even he’s a cryptic bogeyman by the end.
On the festival circuit, they eat this arty, self-referential stuff up: Barton Fink won the top prize at Cannes last year. The honor seems absurd, though, when you know that it beat Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever — which for all its flaws seems part of the world and not an obsessively contrived escape from it. Besides, what’s Barton guilty of that the Coens feel obliged to drag him through hell? That he’s a vain aesthete? That he’s not in touch with real life? This particular pot has never been blacker. Blood Simple: A-
Raising Arizona: B+
Miller’s Crossing: B-
Barton Fink: D-