Nationality: American. Born: Minneapolis, 1955. Education: Attended Simon's Rock College, Massachusetts, and New York University. Family: Married actress Frances McDormand, 1984. Career: Worked as an assistant film editor on Fear No Evil and Evil Dead; collaborated on screenplays with brother Ethan Coen (b. 1958); with Ethan produced first film, Blood Simple, 1984. Awards: Grand Jury Prize, U.S. Film Festival, for Blood Simple, 1984; Best Director Award, Cannes Film Festival, for Barton Fink, 1991. Address: c/o UTA, 9560 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 500, Beverly Hills, California 90212, U.S.A.
Films as Director and Co-scriptwriter:
(All co-written and produced by brother, Ethan Coen)
The Hudsucker Proxy
The Big Lebowski
To the White Sea
By COEN: articles—
"Bloodlines," an interview with Hal Hinson, in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1985.
"Too Weird for Words," an interview with Geoff Andrew, in TimeOut (London), 5 February 1992.
Interview, in EPD Film (Frankfurt), July 1994.
Interview, in Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 38, no. 5(266), 1996.
"Back to Basics," an interview with P. Zimmerman, in Film Threat (Beverly Hills), April 1996.
"Hell Freezes Over," an interview with Lizzie Francke, in Sight andSound (London), May 1996.
"Pros and Coens," an interview with Geoff Andrew, in Time Out (London), 15 May 1996.
Interview, in Positif (Paris), May 1998.
On COEN: books—
Korte, Peter, and Georg Seesslen, Joel and Ethan Coen, Boston, 1995.
Preston Robertson, William, and others, The Big Lebowski: TheMaking of a Coen Brothers Film, New York, 1998.
Woods, Paul, editor, Blood Siblings: The Cinema of Joel and EthanCoen, London, 1999.
Bergan, Ronald, Coen Brothers, New York, 2000.
Mottram, James, Coen Brothers, New York, 2000.
On COEN: articles—
Ansen, D., "The Coens: Partners in Crime," in Newsweek (New York), 21 January 1985.
Breitbart, E., "Leaving the Seventies Behind: Four Independents Find Happiness Making Movies in the Manner of Hollywood," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), May 1985.
Edelstein, D., "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1987.
Handelman, D., "The Brothers from Another Planet," in RollingStone (New York), 21 May 1987.
Seidenberg, Robert, "Miller's Crossing: John Turturro Meets the Coen Brothers," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1990.
Valot, J., "Joel Coen," in Revue du Cinèma (Paris), May 1990.
Sharkey, Betsy, "Movies of Their Very Own," in New York TimesMagazine, July 8, 1990.
Richardson, J. H., "The Joel and Ethan Coen Story," in Premiere, October 1990.
Robertson, William Preston, "What's the Goopus?," in AmericanFilm (Washington, D.C.), August 1991.
Horowitz, M., "Coen Brothers A-Z: The Big Two-headed Picture," in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1991.
Ferguson, K., "From Two Directions," in Film Monthly, February 1992.
Giavarini, J., "Joel et Ethan Coen," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1992.
Clark, John, "Strange Bedfellows," in Premiere, April 1994.
Robertson, William Preston, "The Coen Brothers Made Easy," in Playboy, April 1994.
Friend, Tad, "Inside the Coen Heads," in Vogue, April 1994.
Lally, K., "Up North with the Coen Brothers," in Film Journal (New York), February 1996.
Burdeau, Emmanuel, and Nicolas Saada, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), September 1996.
* * *
Although Joel Coen had worked as an assistant film editor on commercial projects and had made valuable contacts within the industry (particularly director Sam Raimi), he and brother Ethan decided to produce their first feature film independently, raising $750,000 to shoot their jointly written script for Blood Simple, a neonoir thriller with a Dashiell Hammett title and a script full of homages to Jim Thompson. Though Joel received screen credit for direction and Ethan for the script, this distinction is somewhat artificial both here and in their subsequent productions. Joel and Ethan co-write their scripts and meticulously prepare storyboards in a collaborative effort unusual for the American cinema (the closest analogy perhaps comes from abroad with the British team of Powell and Pressburger).
Blood Simple was hardly the first film the brothers Coen made together. Addicted to TV and movies at an early age, they spent a good deal of their childhood writing films and then shooting them on a Super-8 camera. Movie brats in the Spielberg tradition, Ethan and Joel desired commercial success but were determined to retain control over what they produced. Hence their initial decision to make an independent film rather than continue working in an industry where Joel was already beginning to be established.
A hit with many on the art film/independent circuit but also a commercial success in art house and cable release, Blood Simple was the perfect choice to achieve this aim. Here was a film that succeeded because of its individual, even quirky vision. Using the film noir conventions popular with American audiences for half a century, the Coens offer a clear narrative, solidly two-dimensional characters, and the requisite amount of riveting violent spectacle (including one scene that pictures a dying man buried alive and another featuring close-ups of a white-gloved hand suddenly impaled by a knife). Blood Simple, however, is by no means an ordinary thriller. The plot turns expertly and unexpectedly on a number of dramatic ironies (no character knows what the spectator does, and even the spectator is sometimes taken by surprise). Unlike hardboiled narrative à la Raymond Chandler, the narrative delights in its Aristotelian neatness, in its depiction of experiences that make perfect sense, climaxing in a poetic justice that the main character and narrator, a venal private detective, finds humorous even as it destroys him. Thematically, the Coens offer a compelling analysis of mauvaise foi in the Sartrean vein as they develop characters doomed by bad intentions or a failure to trust and communicate (an existentialist theme that results perhaps from the fact that Ethan majored in philosophy at Princeton). Blood Simple's most notable feature, however, is an expressive stylization of both sound and image that creates an experiential correlative for the viewer of the characters' confusion and disorientation. These effects are achieved by a Wellesian repertoire of tricks (wide-angle lenses, tracking set-ups, unusual framings, an artfully selected score of popular music, etc.). The film noir genre naturalizes this stylization to some degree, but Blood Simple exudes a riotous self-consciousness, a delight in the creation of an exciting cinema that offers moments of pure visceral or visual pleasure.
Though some critics thought Blood Simple a kind of pointless film-school exercise, audiences were impressed—as were the major studios who competed for releasing rights to the brothers' next project. The Coens' subsequent five films have all been made with substantial commercial backing; but these films continue to be independent in the sense that none fits into the routine categories of contemporary Hollywood production. In fact, the art cinema tradition of the seventies has been kept alive by the Coens and the few other mavericks (e.g., Quentin Tarantino) who have emerged to prominence.
The least successful of these films—Miller's Crossing—is the most traditional. A "realistic" drama (though the scenes of violence are highly stylized) with a well-developed plot line, this saga of Prohibition-era mobsters, like Scorsese's Goodfellas (released the year before), aims to debunk the romantic tradition of the gangster film most tellingly exemplified by The Godfather (1972). The central character, a "good guy" high up in the organization, confusingly seems more a victim of his poor circumstances than a force to be reckoned with. The plot is otherwise dependent upon unbelievable characters and unlikely twists and turns. Some elements of parody are present, but are not well integrated into the film's structure, indicating that the Coens were uncertain about how to proceed, whether to make a gangster film or send up the conventions of the genre.
The other films share a different representational regime, a magical realism that does not demand verisimilitude or logical closure, but has the virtue—for the Coens—of permitting more stylization, more moments of pure cinema. Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy offer postmodern versions of the traditional Hollywood madcap comedy; in both films, a series of zany adventures climax in romantic happiness for the male and female leads. Raising Arizona concerns the ultimately unsuccessful attempt of a zany and childless couple to kidnap a baby; The Hudsucker Proxy sends up, in mock Capra-corn style, the triumph of the virtuous, if obtuse, hero over the evil system that attempts to use him for its own purposes. Barton Fink, in contrast, is a darker story, heavily indebted to German Expressionism (an influence to be noted as well in the elaborately artificial sets and unnaturalistic acting of The Hudsucker Proxy). The film's main character is a thirties stereotype, a left-wing Jewish playwright committed to representing the miseries of what he calls "the common man." Hired away from Broadway by a Hollywood studio, he embarks unwittingly on a penitential journey that lays bare the forces of the id both in the apparently common man he meets (a salesman who is actually a serial killer) and in himself (abandoning his writing responsibility, he finds himself at film's end at the beach with the beautiful woman whose picture he first saw in a calendar).
All three of these films abound in bravura stylizations. A man dives out a skyscraper window and the camera traces the stages of his fall (Hudsucker); a baby's meanderings across the floor are captured by a camera literally at floor level (an elaborate mirror shot in Arizona); wallpaper peels off a hotel room wall revealing something warm and gooey like human flesh underneath (Barton Fink); exaggerated sounds—a mosquito's flight, a noisy bed, a whirling fan—perfectly express the main character's self-absorption and anxiety (Barton Fink again). With Fargo, their 1996 release, the Coen brothers return to the crime drama. Set primarily in Minnesota, the film follows an immensely likable and very pregnant sheriff (played by Frances McDormand, Joel Coen's wife) as she pursues a couple of dimwitted and cold-blooded kidnappers. A macabre thriller veined with moments of comedy, Fargo features the Coen brothers' trademark cinematic flair (though the landscape mutes this somewhat) and intelligent narrative focus.
The Coens appear to have abandoned for good the stylized realism and Aristotelian narrative that made Blood Simple such a success. But in an era that has witnessed the commercial success of cartoonish anti-naturalism (Dick Tracy, the Batman films), their concern with striking visual and aural effects may provide the basis for a long career, though difficult films like Barton Fink, despite critical acclaim, will never gain a wide audience.
—R. Barton Palmer