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The Coen Brothers by Ronald Bergan
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The Coen Brothers (2000)

by Ronald Bergan

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I'm a fan of the Coen Brothers' films. Ever since I saw "Barton Fink" twenty+ years ago (how time flies!). "Fargo" was fantastic, and "The Big Lebowski" is, perhaps slightly inappropriately, a firm family favourite. There are of course many other great ones too. Their canon is one of the most significant of contemporary filmmakers. So, even though this book - published in 2000 - only really covers the first half of their careers, when I saw it on a bargain shelf for £1 a while back, I couldn't resist picking it up.

Ronald Bergan does a solid job here of reviewing their varied filmography, and objectively conveys the process of the brothers' art in the making. He covers the films one by one, more or less chronologically, and with each spends some time exploring the influences and inspirations for the making of each, the writing, the casting process, and the production; as well as the crucially important music scores, the overall design and 'feel' of the film, the publicity campaigns, and coverage of the critical and commercial receptions. There is enough about their private lives to be of interest - as far as it relates to their film making, though it stops short of prying and doesn't descend into gossip as some other books on Hollywood players can do.

Reading through their impressive roster of work: "Blood Simple", "Raising Arizona", "Miller's Crossing", "Barton Fink", "The Hudsucker Proxy", "Fargo", "The Big Lebowski", and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (the book finishes in 2000 as this last film is all but ready for general release) is an enjoyable process. One becomes increasingly aware of the Coen's subconscious (or sometimes perfectly conscious) desire to take an idea - typically inspired by a previous Hollywood representation - and re-mould it in their own inimitable and slightly off-beat comedic way. A good example of this is Preston Sturges' 1941 Hollywood Satire "Sullivan's Travels" - one of their favourite films - of which significant motifs or key scenes are recreated in their 2000 film "based upon the Odyssey" "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

It was also fascinating getting the lowdown on which authors and books, as well as the film makers, were the big influences on the brothers, though they probably won't come as too much of a surprise to any reasonably well-read fan of their work: James M Cain, Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Clifford Odets, F.Scott Fitzgerald, etc.

Then again, on occasion the literary inspiration has been overstated in parts of the media:

{Joel Coen on "Barton Fink" :- }

'It surprises me that some critics have mentioned Kafka, because I haven't read him since I was at university where I devoured works like "Metamorphosis". Some people have evoked "The Castle" and "The Penal Colony" which I've never read.' Ethan concurred. 'As some journalists have suggested that we were influenced by "The Castle", I'm keen to read it.'

As a fan of 'The Dude', it was particularly fun to read Jeff Bridges' explanation of just why he has such a weird smile on his face, as he glides upside down through the dancing girls' legs in the Busby Berkeley styled bowling alley dream sequence...

I'd love it if there is a new edition of this book at some point, to include some of the excellent films they have made in the years since 2000: "The Man Who Wasn't There", "No Country For Old Men", "Burn After Reading", and "A Serious Man" among them.

As the old cowboy fella at the end of "The Big Lebowski" put it:

'Whelp, that about does her, wraps her all up... I guess that's the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin' itself, down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands a time - aw, look at me, I'm ramblin' again. Wal, uh hope you folks enjoyed yourselves... Catch you further on down the trail...' ( )
2 vote Polaris- | Jan 18, 2014 |
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