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oh, brother, what is this?

10.17.99

The more I hear about the Coen brothers' upcoming movie O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, the more I think it's going to suck. This is a good sign.

Nobody -- except maybe their wives -- is as big a fan of Joel and Ethan Coen as I am. Seven movies, seven gems. Yet at least five of those gems sounded to me as though they were going to suck -- before they came out.

MILLER'S CROSSING was one among roughly 6,000 gangster movies in the fall of 1990. I didn't expect much from it. Turned out, in my estimation, to be the best -- yes, I do prefer it to GOODFELLAS. How about BARTON FINK? How about that title, first of all? And the promo stills of John Turturro with his Eraserhead hair. And the "plot" involving writer's block. Well, that turned out to be one of the strangest, finest horror-comedies since ERASERHEAD -- the comparison was earned. Then there was THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, an expensive period comedy with Tim Robbins goofing around and inventing the hula hoop. Big budget, Joel Silver producing -- I figured, fuck, this time the Coens have put their foot in the flaming trashcan. A lot of Coen fans do single HUDSUCKER out as the Blemish, the bad film among masterpieces, but I think it's great fun. I mean, after Paul Newman's double-stitch flashback, you either roll with it or you don't.

Then FARGO, the Coen movie everyone loves. (Shocker: FARGO is not my favorite Coen film. It's second or third, depending on how recently I've pissed my pants laughing at RAISING ARIZONA. To me, the Coen masterpiece to beat is MILLER'S CROSSING.) Anyway, FARGO didn't look like anything special before it came out. A lot of snow. Frances McDormand waddling around pregnant. Steve Buscemi doing his Steve Buscemi bit. A kidnapping story -- yawn. Well, FARGO took everyone's head off, even those who didn't know the Coen brothers from the Dust Brothers.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI? No question, this was finally going to be the stinker marring a perfect track record. I mean, a movie about bowling? And kidnapping, again? With Jeff Bridges, fresh from THE MIRROR HAS TWO FACES? Five enthusiastic viewings later, I can testify that all this movie would've needed to unseat RAISING ARIZONA as the funniest Coen movie is more Buscemi and less of the German nihilists, who are really only funny the first time.

And now comes O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? Oh, brother, what is this? It's a period comedy and a rural comedy -- gee, the Coens haven't done that before. PREMIERE describes the plot thusly: "The comedy follows three chain-gang escapees on a mystical, musical journey through 1930s Mississippi" -- my, doesn't that sound fascinating. It has George Clooney looking like a goofball in a slick mustache, and John Turturro mugging as always (I take this impression from the photo accompanying the PREMIERE article). Even the title is cutesy film-geek stuff -- a reference to the film-within-a-film in Preston Sturges' SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS.

I dread seeing this obviously stupid movie, and I eagerly await being proven wrong, again.

What is it about the Coens? Why do their movies always look so bad on paper? Well, for one thing, cinema isn't paper. You can say FARGO is about a kidnapping scheme gone awry, but that doesn't come close to the tone and flavor, the texture of the film -- the scene with Marge's loving husband bringing her a big sloppy hamburger at work, the famously unnecessary scene with the "I'm so lonely" guy in the restaurant, Peter Stormare's pancake fetish, the crunch-crunch of heavy boots in the snow, the spectacular wordless scene of primal frustration when William H. Macy tries to scrape the fucking frost off his windshield. (Maybe only people who've lived in snowy parts of the world can really appreciate that bit.) And no synopsis, still, or trailer of THE BIG LEBOWSKI could do justice to its full pot-headed efflorescence, the deadpan incongruity of Sam Elliott as the cowboy narrator, the zonked hilarity of Jeff Bridges mumbling "Jackie Treehorn treats objects like women" or going "Eeeee! Eeeee!" as a joint smolders in his lap and he crashes his car into a dumpster.

Also, the Coens never do the same thing twice. Almost alone among modern filmmakers, they are the true heirs to Howard Hawks, who dabbled in just about every genre. (John Carpenter, no mean Hawks admirer, would like to accomplish this, but he keeps getting pulled back into horror. He keeps trying to sneak into other genres under the lucrative guises of horror/sci-fi -- VAMPIRES was really his western, CHRISTINE was really his teen rock-and-roll flick, etc.) Motifs may recur in the Coen catalog -- the boys do seem to enjoy the kidnapping plot, and they laughingly cop to their affection for fat men yelling at the top of their lungs -- but BLOOD SIMPLE isn't like RAISING ARIZONA isn't like MILLER'S CROSSING isn't like BARTON FINK isn't like HUDSUCKER isn't like FARGO isn't like LEBOWSKI. Here you have seven diametrically opposed universes that nonetheless could not have emerged from any other sensibility. The vision is complete, consistent, almost hermetic. The films feel connected in ways that elude words.

Because the Coens never do the same thing twice, our tendency -- okay, my tendency -- may be to give the hairy eyeball to a newly announced Coen opus and say, "Hey, that's not anything like FARGO or MILLER'S or the other Coen movies I love." Yes, exactly. No one Coen film I love is anything like any of the other Coen movies I love. This is tough to get used to. With Carpenter, with Cronenberg, with Spielberg or Scorsese, you pretty much know what to expect (although Scorsese occasionally goes afield -- either successfully, as in KUNDUN, or not, as in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE). Carpenter is Grim Scary Bad-Ass Guy. Cronenberg is Cold Canadian Weird Shit Guy. Spielberg is Uplift Guy or Entertainment Guy, depending on whether he wants an Oscar that year. Scorsese is Imploding Urban Manhood Guy.

The Coens? They're ... uh ... gimme a minute ... Okay, the Coens are purely and simply the Coens. Any label you stick on them will peel off whenever they bring a new movie out. The only label you could come close to fashioning for them is Warped Throwbacks to the Golden Age of Cinema Guys, but then they'll do some wonky modern shit, after which they become Wonky Modern Shit Guys, and ... and why bother?

So, will O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? suck? I heartily say, yes, absolutely. Call it the reverse jinx. I've been saying that for a decade and I've never been disappointed. I only wish every other movie that looks like it'll suck didn't actually turn out to suck ...


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