Few American filmmakers and writers have been as successful at mining American myopia for dark laughs as Joel and Ethan Coen. Generally regarded as comedic directors, the highly lauded siblings have dabbled in surrealism, farce, lowbrow comedy, crime drama, political allegory, and suspense just to name a few, but one thing remains largely consistent across many of their often award winning works.
These are filmmakers who have probably done the best job of mining the American ideal of “looking out for number one” the most consistently without ever making it feel stale as a trope. From conniving criminals and con-men in a great deal of their most notable films, to weary and sometimes narrow sighted lawmen and women, to possibly their most laid back and beloved creation of The Dude, the Coens have always made films about people simply living their lives and trying to get ahead or get by in their own outlandish ways. Their world is populated largely by people who know their actions, weight the odds that they’re doing something smart versus the odds they’re doing something foolish, and then they often go ahead and do it anyway.
Of course, that’s just one person’s opinion and starting this Monday film writer Adam Nayman (The Grid, Cinema Scope) will be returning to Toronto’s Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre for another 8 weeks of classes in his In Nayman’s Terms series. Focusing on the bulk of the Coen’s careers from February 28th through April 29th, Nayman will be mostly pairing up films that are thematically similar before closing – quite appropriately – with a look at their most personal film, A Serious Man, on its own. Those familiar with Nayman’s previous classes on controversial directors or Stanley Kubrick know to expect a myriad of opinions, great discussion, and an exemplary presentation from the man at the head of the class.
We caught up to Nayman and asked him a few questions about what to expect from this look at American’s greatest tandem auteurs.
Dork Shelf: You had been circling doing a class on the Coens for quite some time. How long did this one take to pull together?
Adam Nayman: I’m still pulling it together: there are a lot of movies to cover here, and rewatching them is just the beginning. I was actually inspired to do the class when I realized how much I felt like seeing some of their less beloved movies again: Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Burn After Reading. Many filmmakers’ “lesser” efforts feel half-hearted, but the Coens lavish the same attention and intelligence on all of their productions, and so I wondered if these movies could stand up to the same sort of auteurist analysis as classics like Fargo or The Big Lebowski. It turns out that the answer in most cases is “yes” — which is not the same thing as saying that all of their movies are great. But I think there is something interesting and relevant to deconstruct in each of them. I’ve tried in each class to place their movies in “conversation” with one another and see what comes out. I hope some of the pairings are surprising to people, and that they all serve to bring out what’s crucial about each individual movie, but I realize that I could have just as easily matched the movies up a dozen other different ways. Fargo and The Ladykillers are both stories of a decent woman set against a group of alpha-male malefactors. The Hudsucker Proxy and The Man who Wasn’t There both deal with the onset of fads at the end of the 1950s. Burn After Reading and Blood Simple are both murderous farces about infidelity. Intolerable Cruelty and Millers Crossing feature macho characters who are deep inside the closet. And so on.
DS: I think for a lot of film buffs and scholars the Coens are among a small handful of auteurs that people born in the 80s actually grew up with and could trace their rise. What was the first film from them that made you take notice of their work?
AN: I remember being very excited to see Barton Fink when I was in Grade 7: you know, like the Simpsons bit where the kids drive into town to see an “R-rated” movie, chanting BAR-ON-FINK! BART-ON FINK! Fargo was a big movie for someone like me who grew up reading reviews and trying to master the contemporary canon; by the time Lebowski came out, I was a fan, and I was also one of the only people in my little circle of high school friends who enjoyed it on first contact. I think I saw it three times in theatres and then bought the VHS as soon as I could.
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DS: Would you be hesitant to say that the Coens are really only comedic directors like some would claim?
AN: I think all of their films have comic elements, even the “serious” ones like No Country for Old Men (and here I am thinking of Javier Bardem’s haircut). In fact, I think that when they try to suppress that attitude, they get themselves into some trouble, because they’re inherently funny guys — like Woody Allen, they have an almost automatic ability to write amusing dialogue. Sometimes they can play the zaniness too broadly, like in Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers, although there are also genuinely hilarious bits in both of those movies. I guess what I’m really hesitant towards is the idea that “comedic” directors can’t access genuinely serious themes, because of course they can. Many of the most profound movies I’ve ever seen are comedies.
DS: The Coens have produced several films that have been extremely divisive in how they were received by audiences and critics. If you were to choose, which of their films is generally the most unfairly maligned?
AN: The Big Lebowski was badly received but it’s so beloved now that I can’t pick it for this question. I panned Burn After Reading when it came out but I think it’s actually pretty good in retrospect: at the time, it seemed like a smug cousin to the Ocean’s series with a bunch of mugging movie stars, but I think it’s a sophisticated satire of paranoid political thrillers and a surprisingly perceptive portrait of institutionalized arrogance and megalomania. I’ll also stick up –a little bit — for The Ladykillers, which dares to completely recontextualize its source material and also to poke fun at a lot of different aspects of American life, including, in a very Lebowskian fashion, the trickle-down of 60s idealism into something faintly ridiculous and sad.
DS: As someone with a brother who also has a deep interest in films and filmmaking, do you see something special in the working dynamic of the Coens that a lot of other people might miss or take for granted?
AN: I can’t speculate on the Coens’ process but I do think that as a pair, they were able to cultivate a very self-contained, us-against-the-world mentality. I think it’s interesting that so many of their movies focus on or feature incompetent criminal duos — some of whom are brothers or otherwise related — but I try not to read too much into that. Their more recent decision to take joint credit for directing and producing instead of separating them only reinforces the sense of them as unified creative force, but of course they’ve also always worked with a very talented group of collaborators. I’d say that Roger Deakins is an honorary Coen brother, for example.
Coen Brothers in Nayman’s Terms runs from February 25th through April 29th on Monday nights from 7pm-9pm (excluding March 25th and April 1st) at the Miles Nadal JCC (750 Spadina Avenue, Toronto). Series Price: $90; Single Ticket drop-in, $12 ($6 for students and Toronto Jewish Film Society Members with valid ID). For a full list of classes, films, dates, and more information, head on over to the Miles Nadal JCC website.