Coen Marathon: The Man Who Wasn’t There

“He told them to look not at the facts, but at the meaning of the facts. Then he said the facts had no meaning.”

“They got this guy, in Germany. Fritz Something-or-other. Or is it? Maybe it’s Werner. Anyway, he’s got this theory, you wanna test something, you know, scientifically – how the planets go round the sun, what sunspots are made of, why the water comes out of the tap – well, you gotta look at it. But sometimes you look at it, your looking changes it. Ya can’t know the reality of what happened, or what would’ve happened if you hadn’t-a stuck in your own g-ddamn schnozz. So there is no ‘what happened’? Not in any sense that we can grasp, with our puny minds. Because our minds… our minds get in the way. Looking at something changes it. They call it the “Uncertainty Principle”. Sure, it sounds screwy, but even Einstein says the guy’s on to something.”

“I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. No one saw me. I was the barber.” 

The words come as Ed Crane (known as the Barber) played by Billy Bob Thornton sits alone in his house.  His wife, Doris (another Frances McDormand appearance) is in jail for a murder she did not commit but that he did.  Was the crime a murder or self-defense?  The scene of violence, which the audience sees, can certainly be interpreted as the latter but how does the factor that the Barber was blackmailing his victim play into the whole situation? The Barber has also discovered she was having an affair on him with the man he killed.  Yet, he still loves his wife.

Nothing seems easy within the confines of this Coen film shot beautifully in black and white as if the gray on screen is an eerie poetry.  “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is probably one of the more obscure movies in the Coen catalog.  In some ways that is a shame because the movie is well worth watching however, it would also be fair to say that this is not their top tier work.  The writing is top notch and offers incredible insight and depth to how human beings think about things.  Reason. Doubt. Science.  Faith. Reasonable Doubt.  The film is also immaculately shot by Roger Deakins (the frequent Coen contributor) who was nominated for an Oscar for his work.

The issue for some is probably the pacing and, as with any Coen work, some strange elements but they may be pushing the boundaries of strange with this film.

The setting is again California (this time in northern CA and in a small town) in 1949.  The Barber cuts hair, of course, and thinks of wanting to open a dry cleaning business (a new technology at that point).  He is a laconic, chain smoker with big, sad eyes.  The decision to blackmail Big Dave (James Gandolfini who was playing Tony Soprano at the time) to obtain money to open the dry cleaner goes terribly wrong.  At one point, Big Dave’s wife Ann, comes to the Barber and confesses that she and Big Dave had seen a UFO and had a bizarre experience.  Here we have the window for the Coens to explore the California moonbeam culture.

A thematic element is strongly suggested as being scientific knowledge is not enough for people to find meaning in life.  A character exclaims: “Knowledge can be a curse.”  People must have an overarching philosophy that guides and colors how they perceive and see the world.  For Big Dave and Ann, this was an encounter with aliens in a UFO.  What is it for the Barber?  Maybe his love for his wife.

This theme about science and perception is further developed by Scarlet Johansson who plays Birdy Abundas. She is a technically great piano player but is criticized by a piano teacher for having no soul in her music.  She can hit all the right notes in rudimentary fashion but where is the passion behind her art?

“The Man Who Wasn’t There” is definitely the most serious of the Coen Brother filmography.  The only time I laughed out loud was during a scene where the Barber wakes up in a hospital bed to three faces peering in at him.  I won’t reveal why he is there or who is talking to him during this scene but it is funny.  Actually, given the humor in this scene, there does seem to be a disconnect with the rest of the film because the proceedings are so melancholy and reflective.

The Coens often pay homage to film history in ways and here they going for the classic 1940s film noir.  It may be one of their more serious films but it also has engaging poetic reflections on life.  One of the Barber’s final narrations illustrates this very point:  “I don’t know where I’m being taken. I don’t know what I’ll find, beyond the earth and sky. But I’m not afraid to go. Maybe the things I don’t understand will be clearer there, like when a fog blows away. Maybe Doris will be there. And maybe there I can tell her all those things they don’t have words for here.”

Lester Lauding Level:  3.5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

Fargo (review here)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (review here)

The Big Lebowski (review here)

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (Review here)

Advertisements
Posted in Film Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Coen Marathon: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Most people remember “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” for the massive hit soundtrack that the movie spawned but forget that the movie itself is very good.  This is the closest that the Coens have come to doing an outright musical.  The movie is, uh, incredibly loosely inspired by Homer’s poem “The Odyssey”, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is a quest through 1930s depression era Mississippi.  The title of the film comes from the classic movie “Sullivan’s Travels”.

As the film opens, three members of the chain gang are escaping through the southern fields occasionally popping up their heads to awkwardly run in unison.  They are brainiac Ulysses Everett McGill (welcome to the Coen filmography George Clooney), Pete (the Coen regular John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson).  The latter two are…shall we say…not the sharpest.  The quest they are on is to find treasure that Everett supposedly buried and must find the gold before the area is flooded to make a lake.

The Coens again demonstrate their fascination with Americana culture.  In “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?” there will be a one-eyed traveling Bible salesman (John Goodman, of course), a dark shades wearing Sheriff Cooley(Daniel von Bargen) who stands in as the devil, a blues singer who sells his soul to the devil (a character inspired by blues singer Robert Johnson and portrayed by Chris Thomas King), three sirens bathing while singing on rocks, a stand-in for Babyface Nelson who wields a tommy gun while robbing banks and shooting cows, and a KKK rally complete with orchestrated formations and a flaming cross falling on them at the end of the scene.  All in all, a snippet of historical, depression era southern culture done Coen-style.

One thing I have not written about in my reviews is how the Coens, through their movies, often investigate different elements of American culture.  “Blood Simple” took place in the heart of Texas.  “Raising Arizona” took place in the rural desert.  “Miller’s Crossing” was set, often in wooded scenes, in an unnamed northeastern town during prohibition.  Beginning in New York City but following a script writer to Hollywood, “Barton Fink” shows the life of a writer’s mind as he interacts with Hollywood producers and gatekeepers.  “The Hudsucker Proxy” follows a man coming from the Midwest to New York City for a job.  “Fargo” takes place in the barren snowfields of North Dakota.  “The Big Lebowski” returns to Los Angeles but shows a distinctly different side then “Barton Fink” reveling in the presence of a washed-up surfer type personality and other weirdos at a bowling alley.  The setting of a Coen Bros film might as well be a character itself and a fascinating lens to watch these movies through is by asking what exactly they are saying about American society, culture, and our values.

As a value in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, religion and spirituality take a more central position then any of the brothers other movies.  As Everett, Delmar, and Pete are in a forest after escaping from the police, they find themselves surrounded by a church group singing an acappella song in white robes. “As I went down in the river to pray/ Studying about that good old way/And who shall wear the starry crown/ Good Lord, show me the way!”  The group walks peacefully down to the river and a preacher begins to baptize the members in a lake.  Delmar charges out into the water and gets baptized.  As he emerges, he runs back toward Everett and Pete declaring that his sins have all been washed away.  Quite a message for a convict.  Everett, being a declared man of science, repudiates the baptism but Pete decides to wade in himself at the close of the scene.  In other places in the film, Delmar will reference his faith as a reason that he should not participate in unethical or criminal activities (although perhaps not always consistently).

On their journey, the three men even find fame although they don’t realize they have begun a singing sensation until the end when they team up with a gubernatorial candidate.  To the masses, they are the “Soggy Bottom Boys” who have a hit single “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow” which in real life was also a smash single.

In the final moments of the film, the clashing worldviews between Everett as a man of science and the duo of Pete and Delmar as men of faith comes to a head.  Sheriff Cooley is about to arrest them at the spot where they believe they will find the treasure.  The men begin to pray to God to get them out of this situation and spare their lives from the murderous sheriff and his scary dog.  Even Everett prays for mercy.  Suddenly, a big wall of water comes crashing toward them and washes everything away (the authorities making a lake of the area that was referenced earlier in the movie).  The three men pop up out of the water, their lives spared.  Everett begins to talk about there being a perfect, rational explanation for what has happened.  When he sees a cow on the roof of a shack (which was prophesized to the three men earlier) floating by he becomes speechless and perhaps receives a personal revelation that there was more to their rescue then a mere scientific explanation.

“O Brother, Where Art Thou” is the Coens’ near their best.  A visionary experience of the depression era south and some of the pop culture figures and groups that define that specific era are all mixed in with a classic tale about a journey (even if very loosely based).  Not too mention that Joel and Ethan Coen have mixed in their screwball and occasionally odd humor.

Lester Lauding level:  4.5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

Fargo (review here)

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Big Lebowski (review here)

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (Review here)

Posted in Film Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Make America Read Again: My May, June, and July reading List

Although I had some books started in May and June, I didn’t complete any (shame on me) so I decided to roll three months into one post.

Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business by Rana Foroohar

This seems like a very important book for our times.  Rana Foroohar, “The Curious Capitalist” columnist in Time Magazine, examines the effects of modern finance on the overall American economy.  Let’s just say, it is not a pretty picture if you are not a part of the 1%.

Mitt Romney, now infamously, alluded in an undercover video to rich donors that 47% of the population were “takers” (IE dependent on government services) versus the other 53% were “makers”.  Foroohar turns that controversial phrase on its head and declares Wall Street financers to be the takers against ordinary main street Americans working as makers.

Through a well-researched book that is challenging but never too complex for an ordinary, non-expert to understand, she lays out a compelling case for how Wall Street, banks, lobbyists and politicians are screwing us over.  Notable, however, is Foroohar never uses inflammatory language that other lesser writers would use.  Her writing style is extremely matter of fact and level-headed without venturing into annoying populism.

One of the statistics she throws out in her work is that finance (stock trading and therefore money as a theoretical concept) takes up 25% of our economy but only creates 4% of the jobs.  Now we know why trickle down (or supply side) economics is not working.  Money being exchanged for goods and services, in many ways, is being crowded out by the expansion of finance which tends to enrich people at the top and leave large portions of our society out of the elitist loop.  Hedge fund managers are doing well and their wealthier clients but not so much the rest of America.

A case she brings up in the book is none other then Robert McNamara when he was hired to drastically change the Ford Motor Company.  An accountant by training, McNamara came into a company hemorrhaging $9 million dollars a month.  He developed complex financial metrics to look at product viability.  Every dollar spent in every facet of the business had to be justified.  McNamara cut back on research and development (R&D).

Foroohar brings up this case (and McNamara’s decisions certainly make business sense from a certain vantage point) to discuss the falling investment in many large corporations R&D departments.  A large corporation, according to Foroohar, can reach a certain point where they are generating enough revenue that the larger corporation plays it safe and focuses exclusively on decisions that will reward shareholders.  R&D which employs inventors and engineers suffers and this disrupts the capitalist system to an extent.

To be sure, Foroohar isn’t totally against finance.  Her argument is mainly that it has become too big and is crowding out other economic factors in our country which would generate more wage growth for main street Americans.  As Warren Buffett once told her: “You’ve now got a body of people who’ve decided they’d rather go to the casino than the restaurant [of capitalism].”

When the end rolls around, I’m not convinced of Foroohar’s prescriptions for fixing the system.  They seemed wildly idealistic to me such as making Wall Street financiers take a hippocratic oath like doctors do.  Does anyone really believe that some of the sharks at the top of our economy will give a shit about an oath?

That being said, I don’t want to dismiss the rest of her work because it is well-written and extremely important in our day and age.  Foroohar is an expert at diagnosing the problem and sounding the alarm bells in a rational fashion.  She just didn’t have a persuasive and comprehensive case to fix the whole system.

Lester Lauding Level (LLL):  4 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“Today financial capitalism is fraught with special interests, corporate monopolies, and an opacity that would have boggled (Adam) Smith’s mind. Let me be clear: despite my criticism of our existing model of financial capitalism, this book isn’t anticapitalist. I am not in favor of a planned economy or a turn away from a market system. I simply don’t think that the system we have now is a properly functioning market system.”

Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation Edited by J.  Daryl Charles

Written in point and counterpoint fashion, this important work demonstrates the diversity of opinion among Evangelical (Protestant) scholars when the subject is interpreting Genesis chapters 1 and 2.  I imagine that if one asked an average person on the street what an Evangelical believes about Genesis 1 and 2 (therefore, the creation account), they would probably perceive them as literal, 24 hour day creationists and potentially suggest that they believed the earth was 6,000 or so years old.  This work shows some considerable diversity in the realm of Evangelical scholarship.

J. Daryl Charles edited the book which features prominent thinkers:  Richard Averbeck, Todd Beall, John Collins, Tremper Longman, John Walton and some others.  Each scholar gets space to articulate his views about Genesis 1-2 and then the others weigh in with rebuttals.  Virtually all of the authors acknowledge that the writing of Genesis 1 and 2 was inspired as a rebuttal against Ancient Near Eastern religions.  In other words, they postulate that Genesis was written to correct the record (so to speak) and argue for the true God.  I preached a sermon on this very idea earlier this year.

The guy who strays the most from the interpretation as a rebuttal is Todd Beall who is a 7 day creationist and takes Genesis 1 and 2 as a purely historical account.  While I disagree with Beall (and the other scholars do as well), his case is certainly arguable from the text and he is very well studied on the passages of Scripture.

Most impressive to me was Tremper Longman who focuses on the question of, within the historical context that the beginning of Genesis was written, what exactly is the text teaching?  What did it mean to the people who wrote down this account who had no knowledge of Charles Darwin?  I had been impressed before with Longman’s scholarship on Ecclesiastes and probably will seek out more books by him.

John Walton is an accomplished scholar as well and his contribution, while persuasively argued, seems a little far out there to me.  Of course, he views reading Genesis 1-2 as ancient cosmology but ties in the creation accounts to the Israel temple.  When God rested on the seventh day, he argues this was common in that time to view a god anthropomorphically as resting in the temple.  Interesting reasoning but the conclusion seemed a little ways out from how I interpret the text.

All in all, for anyone interested in the opening chapters of the Bible, I would highly recommend this book that shows some of the diversity of opinion even within Evangelical scholarship (which is pretty narrow compared with the breadth of Christian thought).  The options are not just young earth creationism, theistic evolution or creationism but an old universe.  Thousands of years after Genesis was written, the inspired account still speaks to us as we wrestle to interpret it’s deep truths and meaning.

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink

The more I read about Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans and the further from the mammoth tragedy we get, I get more overwhelmed regarding the sheer scale of this storm.  Devastating and utterly destructive to a historic American city and it’s residents who were failed by layer upon layer of government fiascos.

Investigative journalist and New York Times correspondent Sheri Fink has us view the storm from the perspective of Memorial Medical Center in Louisiana. Fink had received the Pulitzer Prize for her 2010 report (published by ProPublica and the New York Times) on this subject.  Fashioning the material and expanding the reports led to this book.

As the flood waters rose and looting plagued the city in late August 2005, the staff at Memorial as well as a separate unit (run by a for profit corporation) were trapped inside a hospital caring for patients in impossible circumstances.  In post-9/11 America, many hospitals were prepared for terrorist attacks but not for massive hurricanes and their insidious aftermaths.

The power grid failed which invited a diesel generator to give partial electricity.  The toilets overflowed emitting an unrelenting stench.  Workers at the hospital broke windows to help circulate air and heard the fruits of the looting that was happening all around their city.  Gunshots rang through the air.

The staff of the hospital worked to care for these patients in the most unimaginable situations.  244 patients were at the hospital including stabbing victims.  The first half of the book covers this story from August 28, 2005 through September 1, 2005 when the patients were finally evacuated.  What was realized in the aftermath of all of this is where the book takes an exceedingly dark turn.

45 patients had died during the storm.  Forsenic investigators found 23 bodies had elevated levels of morphine.  They judged that 20 people in the hospital had been the victims of homicide.  Authorities began an investigation and eventually charged Dr. Anna Pou, Cheri Landry, and Lori Budo with second-degree murder for administering lethal doses of morphine to the deceased patients.  The charges were eventually dropped and a grand jury decided not to indict Dr. Pou.  Obviously, this did not stop the rabble of cable news talking heads for months.

Fink writes in a gripping and harrowing voice that details this tragic situation with a reporters detachment.  There are no “good guys” or “bad guys” here.  “Five Days at Memorial” tells of people in an excruciatingly difficult situation.  The decisions of the doctor and nurses are not glamourized but the question is still raised:  what if you were in that situation?  What if you had limited supplies and you did not know when the storm was going to let up?  Or when a rescue would come?  There are patients that are judged to be dying and beyond help.  There are also patients who can be helped with the limited supplies.  How does the Hippocratic oath apply to this situation?

As a Christian, I’m fiercely against euthanasia and think that the practice of intentionally ending someone’s life should be against every ethical code that medical professions operate under. Admittedly, this is an extreme situation and Fink brings out in compelling fashion the ethical and moral landmines even referencing how the Christian faith approaches this issue.

The first half of the book deals with the terrifying storm and the second half, the fallout of the legal and ethical ramifications of what happened to those 20 patients.  Through the entire work, Fink demonstrates that she is a top tier writer almost born to cover subject matter like this.  While working hard to avoid taking sides, she also engages the reader in all of the sweltering emotions that arose out of this historic storm.  “Five Days at Memorial” comes as highly recommended reading.

Lester Lauding Level:  4.5 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“Life and death in the critical first hours of a calamity typically hinged on the preparedness, resources, and abilities of those in the affected community with the power to help themselves and others in their vicinity. Those who did better were those who didn’t wait idly for help to arrive. In the end, with systems crashing and failing, what mattered most and had the greatest immediate effects were the actions and decisions made in the midst of a crisis by individuals.”

“Emergencies are crucibles that contain and reveal the daily, slower-burning problems of medicine and beyond—our vulnerabilities; our trouble grappling with uncertainty, how we die, how we prioritize and divide what is most precious and vital and limited; even our biases and blindnesses.”

“Concepts of triage and medical rationing are a barometer of how those in power in a society value human life.”

“Rather than thinking about exceptional moral rules for exceptional moral situations,” Harvard’s Dr. Lachlan Forrow, who is also a palliative care specialist, wrote, “we should almost always see exceptional moral situations as opportunities for us to show exceptionally deep commitment to our deepest moral values.”

“Gunshots assumed to have been aimed at rescuers may have been gunshots aimed, however misguidedly, at alerting those rescuers to the presence of desperate survivors.”

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Coen Marathon: The Big Lebowski

“The Stranger:  How have things been going?
The Dude:  Well, you know, strikes and gutters, ups and downs.”

“Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

A tumbleweed blows through the SoCal desert and enters the City of Angels as it moves along a busy highway.  Eventually, the circular free-roaming bush happens upon the beach and rolls toward the ocean.

We are introduced to The Dude, Jeff Lebowski (the best Jeff Bridges’ performance ever) who is a weed smoking slacker, consumer of White Russians and by nightfall an avid bowler.  His wardrobe consists of consignment sale shirts, Bermuda shorts, flip-flops and a tan (ish) bathrobe while sporting a shaggy goatee.  The Coen Bros reportedly based the character of The Dude on Jeff Dowd, a freelance publicist who was a key player in helping them launch their first film “Blood Simple”.  If there truly is a person like The Dude in real life, this is somebody to know.

“The Big Lebowski” is, shall we say, the least plotted of all the Coen Bros movies.  The Dude meets the Big Lebowski (David Huddleston) who is confined to a wheelchair and married to Bunny (Tara Reid) after two goons attack The Dude in his house.  They think the Dude is the Big Lebowski and they are attempting to collect money for a porn magnate named Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) as Bunny owes them a lot of cash.  Of course, the goons realize they have the wrong Lebowski and piss on his rug on the way out.  The desecration of the rug makes The Dude very angry as it “tied the room together”.  Visiting the other Lebowski, The Dude demands compensation for his rug.  The eccentric millionaire declines so The Dude steals a rug from him.  The wealthy Lebowski soon informs The Dude that his wife Bunny has been kidnapped and enlists him and his friend, Walter Sobchak (Coen regular John Goodman), to help get her back.

So yeah, the plot revolves around The Dude being mad about his rug being urinated on that sets everything else into motion.  The storyline here is clearly an after thought as it is simply used as a device to introduce these rather colorful characters and strange situations.  Normally, I would not like a movie with such a shoe-string and bizarre plot line but this is very much an exception.  There is a brilliance to “The Big Lebowski” and a good degree of hilarity (this is easily their funniest movie since “Raising Arizona”).

Other than The Dude, his good friend Walter is a Vietnam war veteran with a hair-trigger temper (people always talk about Bridges’ performance but forget about how amazing Goodman is in this film), and Donny (Steve Buscemi fresh off getting put in the Fargo wood chipper) who is never really allowed to finish a complete sentence when bowling with his buddies.  There is also millionaire Lebowski’s daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore) who fastens herself to an overhead harness and zooms across of the ceiling of a building in order to paint, German nihilists (including actor Peter Stormare who put Buscemi in the wood chipper in Fargo), a young Philip Seymour Hoffman as Brandt (an assistant for Big Lebowski), and a character named Jesus (John Turturro) who is seen at the bowling alley.

The movie also contains memorable sequences such as The Dude flying north over Los Angeles in a dream, the aforementioned Maude painting in her studio while flying across the room on her harness, and Walter hitting a German nihilist in the midsection with his bowling ball during a climatic fight. Hell, the Coens even have another dream sequence where The Dude is trapped on the bowling ball conveyor track as the giant ball rolls toward him (reminds me of the famous opening sequence of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” kind of).  The Dude goes into the finger hole of the bowling ball and the audience experiences a point-of-view shot from inside the bowling ball (looking out the finger hole) as it rolls down the lane.

Yes, this film is insane and that is a beautiful thing.  Unexpected with all the hilarity is that “The Big Lebowski” also has more contemplative views on life.  These are provided by the mysterious stranger (who also narrates) played by Sam Elliott who at the end looks directly into the camera for the final monologue.  Glimpses of what will happen to the characters are revealed and the Stranger says that he will see us soon.  “I guess that’s the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself down through the generations. Westward the wagons, across the sands of time until we – ah, look at me. I’m ramblin’ again.” An interesting angle on spirituality?  Does the Stranger weirdly represent a sort of contemporary western frontier?  Who knows.

The Dude abides.

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

Fargo (review here)

The Big Lebowski

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (Review here)

Posted in Film Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Coen Marathon: Fargo

“I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Lou.”

“Blood has been shed, Jerry”

During Christmas break in the year 1996, by my guess anyway, my friend Jake Wilkinson and I went to our local Video Update store.  Gone forever are the days where two high school friends would browse around a video rental store looking for something to watch for the evening.  On this particular night, we settled on renting “Fargo”.

Neither of us knew who the Coen Bros were.  I had never heard of Frances McDormand or Steve Buscemi or William H Macy.  Copies of “Fargo” were propped up on the back shelf of this movie rental store in the “new releases” section.  Something about the cover of this movie featuring the barren snow of a North Dakota winter and a female police detective crouched down in the snow over a bloodied dead body compelled us to check it out.  Plus, this was billed as a thriller so we figured there would be some suspense and action.

“Fargo” was striking to me after the first viewing as I had never seen any movie quite like it.  How does one classify “Fargo”?  Is the movie a comedy?  A crime drama?  A thriller?  At a time when Quentin Tarantino was re-mixing genre, the Coen Bros were turning genre on its head.  Made for an estimated $7 million, the film only grossed $25,882,374 at the box office.  A true independent movie that caught fire with critic reviews and word of mouth and ended up as a Best picture nominee at the Oscars (pathetically, “Fargo” lost to the overlong, melodrama “The English Patient”).  Roger Ebert not only named it one of the best movies of 1996 but later added “Fargo” to his Great Movies collection.

Funny enough, the action takes place in Brainerd more than Fargo (makes for a better movie title).  Jerry Lundegaard (played by Macy) meets up with two low-life crooks to hatch what is supposed to be a relatively small time cash grab.  Lundegaard seeks to employ Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi in a major role after a cameo in “The Hudsucker Proxy”) and Gaear Grimsrud (the Marlboro man lookalike Peter Stormare) to kidnap his own wife in order to get his wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell) to pay $80,000 in ransom.  Of course, the intention is to split this amount amongst themselves.  Sneaky Lundegaard though, a schmuck car sales executive who works for his father-in-law, is going to tell his father-in-law the ransom is $1 million and his plan is to pilfer this money to buy up parking lots to make his own living.

To attend to the cliché that things don’t go according to plan, in this case, would be a chasm of an understatement.  By the time the famous woodchipper scene comes around, the body count has reached Shakespearean tragedy proportions.

After the shooting of a police officer and the killing of random passerbys who witness that murder, one of cinema’s most famous characters debuts on the screen- Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand won the Oscar for this brilliant performance).  Making a quick assessment of the crime scene with a more stunning efficiency then her male partner who stands on the snow covered field overlooking the grisly slayings while saying “yah” repeatedly, she begins to track the bumbling criminals.

People can certainly discuss the genre classification of “Fargo” but I see the film, in a way, as a kind of clash of cultures.  Media in 2017 is fascinated by this idea of rural Americans versus big city Americans and examining that trope in the context of this film is an interesting discussion.  After all, the setting is the small town of Brainerd.  Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud are said to be from the big city.  In other words,  corrupt criminals from the big city come into a community of nice, country folk who think of themselves as good and morally upright (perhaps with the exception of the swindling Jerry Lundegaard).  The criminals participate in a half-baked kidnapping for ransom plot, hook up with prostitutes and kill people.

One would be mistaken for thinking the Coens were holding onto the idea that these rural people were stupid or hopelessly naïve.  I mean, some of them are but recall, Marge Gunderson is one of these rural Americans.  She is portrayed as being incredibly intelligent and dutifully dedicated to solving this horrific crime in her community.  The wood chipper scene (featuring McDormand, Stormare and Buscemi’s foot) at the end showcases her bravery for confronting a brutal, if incompetent, evil on her own.

Until a recent viewing of “Fargo”, I thought the only flaw in the movie was a bizarre scene where Marge goes to meet with a high school classmate, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park).  He is clearly trying to sleep with her and she is currently married and pregnant as she explains to him.  The desperation from this classmate becomes pathetic.  The next morning, a high school girlfriend calls Marge and tells her that Mike was lying about his wife passing away (which he had explained to Marge through tears).  The realization comes that a lonely and pathetic individual was using an emotional sob story to try and manipulate Marge to go to bed with him.  Now, ask yourself:  what is the point of this scene in the movie?  My first couple of viewings, I had no idea but this time I realized what comes after this strange encounter.  Marge goes back to interview Jerry Lundegaard for a second time.  The scene with the high school classmate mirrors the lies and manipulation that Lundegaard had used in his first interview with Marge.  In other words, it dawns on her that Lundegaard is lying.

One of the major scenes in the movie, of course, is post-wood chipper.  Marge has arrested Gaear and he is riding in the back seat of her police cruiser.  The monologue goes:  “So, that was Mrs. Lundegaard (Kristin Rudrud) on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”  This usually makes me laugh because the first instinct that a viewer has may be to go to how hopelessly naïve Marge sounds trying to assign a moral lesson to the chaotic and stupid evil which has transpired.  However, I don’t think the Coens mean this scene as a joke at all.  When faced with scenes that are unfathomable to her small town life worldview, Marge has to assign a moral lesson to try and make sense of the horror and the randomness of the crime.  She has to categorize the vicious proceedings and fit them into how she sees her life and the world in general.

“Fargo” feels like a milestone culmination of the Coen Bros work and somewhat of a mixture of their previous films blended together.  A little bit of “Blood Simple” is here as well as the comedy of “Raising Arizona” and some of the seriousness of “Miller’s Crossing”.  Not to take away from “Fargo” though as the movie stands well on its own and is certainly original.  There was no movie like “Fargo” until it was released and now there are dozens of cheap imitators.

Barren, snowy landscape captured by the usual Coen cinematographer Roger Deakins accentuates the masterpiece of “Fargo” and is another character in and of itself.  The harsh winter snow will cover over the bag full of a million dollars that Carl Showalter leaves next to a simple wire fence that he incompetently tries to mark with an ice scraper.  It will soon be buried for a long time.  The entire point of the criminal plot here becomes meaningless.  Chaotic randomness up against Marge Gunderson’s sincere “moral of the story” viewpoints butt heads and maybe there actually is a resolution in the final scene.

“Fargo” is rightfully on a good many “best movies of all time” lists.  Not only one of the Coen’s greatest but one for the, yah, ages.

Lester Lauding Level:  5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

Fargo

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (Review here)

Posted in Film Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Coen Marathon: The Hudsucker Proxy

“You know, for kids.”

Toward the beginning of the film, we quickly discover that Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) has had enough.  While his board chatters on about business on the 44th floor of the Hudsucker skyscraper, Waring Hudsucker sets down a pocket watch, climbs up onto the board table, and starts stretching his legs like he is about to run a marathon.  The board members all turn their attention toward him in curiousity.  Hudsucker, with an odd grin on his face, charges down the long boardroom table, throws himself through the building window and falls to his death 44 stories below.  Board Member:  “He could have opened a window.”  Another board member:  “Waring Hudsucker never did anything the easy way.”

The Coens return to screwball comedy territory with “The Hudsucker Proxy” which was written by the Coens and Sam Raimi (the original Spiderman trilogy with Tobey Maguire).  Unlike “Raising Arizona” though which is pure insanity, Hudsucker is a comedy mixed with strong themes revolving around elite corporatists and workers.  The proletariats vs the bourgeoisie.

Sidney Mussburger (one of the best ever, Paul Newman) hatches a plan upon Hudsucker’s splatting on the pavement.  Many board members are concerned within their elitist bubble of the unwashed masses now being able to buy stock in Hudsucker Industries as a result of the president’s suicide.  They cannot allow normal, everyday people to own shares of their company.  Mussburger proposes hiring a moron to become CEO post-Hudsucker.  Stock prices would drop so low due to bumbling incompetence that Mussburger and his friends could then buy the stock for pennies on the dollar.  Therefore, they would take over control of the company and restore the fortunes.

Meanwhile, Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) has just started in the dirty and crowded mail room downstairs.  Carrying around a sheet of paper with a circle drawn on it and nothing else, Barnes loves to show people his revolutionary idea that took 2-3 years to come up with.  Upon a chance meeting with Mussburger, Barnes is installed as the president of Hudsucker Industries.  Mussburger’s plan is launched.  Unbeknownst to Mussburger, Barnes is on the verge of inventing the hula hoop.

Corporate cynicism is pitted against a naïve idealism represented by Mussburger and Barnes respectively.  Barnes means well, cares about his work and the company while not knowing about the more nefarious plans behind his back.  He is also unaware that his newly hired secretary is actually an investigative reporter (Amy Archer played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) looking for a scoop on what is going on within Hudsucker Industries.

Of course, the irony is laid on thick throughout the film.  Much reference is made to people “climbing the corporate ladder” and making their way from the bottom mail room floor to the upward spacious and immaculate corporate suites.  When people attain the top floor power position, many of them end up launching themselves off the building and falling to their deaths below.  The Coens again here show their existential core in relation to the “rat race” and attaining promotions for more power and money in the business world as being utterly absurd and meaningless.

Visually, the movie is striking while even being from 1994.  The camera navigates the steel and glass canyons of New York City.  The production values of the Coen Bros are always solid but this is one of their most compelling visual feasts.

The Coens even touch on religion in the movie with references to angels and perhaps a demon (depending on how one interprets one of the characters).  An angel makes a reference to climbing up beyond the giant earthly skyscraper into the kingdom in the sky which subtly references to me the mixture of capitalism and religious faith that has impacted many Americans views of Christianity.  This is only a brief part of the movie but I found the idea interesting and wished the Coens would have explored it more in their screenplay.

All in all, “The Hudsucker Proxy” is fun.  The setting is the late 1950s and it seems like the Coens were, overall, paying a sort of homage to old school Hollywood:  the good capitalist rises and invents something popular while battling the crony capitalisms who are hell bent on screwing everyone over and reveling in their greed.  All of this with old Americana religion being nodded to and used as a fascinating lever to further the plot and theme.

Lester Lauding Level:  3.5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy

Raising Arizona (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (Review here)

Posted in Film Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Coen Marathon: Barton Fink

“Look upon me!  I’ll show you the life of the mind.  Ahhhhh!”

After his Coen debut in “Miller’s Crossing” where he had a key monologue out in the woods where mob men execute their victims, John Turturro was ready for leading man status as Barton Fink.  Of course, this doesn’t mean a trip to the A-list but certainly a headliner of one of the most independent films the Coen brothers would be involved with (and that is saying something) and also, one of their more “out there” movies.

“Barton Fink” feels personal to Joel and Ethan Coen.  Fink is a Hollywood screenwriter who, of course, is fighting for his vision on his scripts.  The system of Hollywood, i.e. the men behind desks, are trying to corrupt him.  The towering film critic Roger Ebert had thoughts on the Coen’s including this consistent theme in their work:  “If there is a favorite image in the movies by the Coen brothers, it’s of crass, venal men behind desks, who possess power the heroes envy. Maybe that’s because, like all filmmakers, the Coens have spent a lot of time on the carpet, pitching projects to executives. In ‘Blood Simple,’ the guy behind the desk was M. Emmet Walsh, as a scheming private detective. In ‘Raising Arizona,’ it was Trey Wilson’s furniture czar. In ‘Miller’s Crossing,’ it was Albert Finney, as a mob boss. In ‘Barton Fink,’ it is Michael Lerner, as the head of a Hollywood studio. All of these men are vulgar, smoke cigars, and view their supplicants with contempt.”

The proceedings start in New York City where Fink is a renowned intellectual playwright.  He is tempted to go to Hollywood and told by his agent that he could make $1,000 dollars a week or maybe $2,000 a week to write a wrestling picture.  Big money in 1941.  Fink has an existential struggle.  His ideals are wanting to create theater for the common man but in the end, the money and prestige win out in his soul.  Moving to Hollywood and staying in an eerie hotel, Fink meets Jack Lipnik (Lerner) of Capitol Pictures who encourages Fink to begin writing his wrestling picture screenplay on a typewriter in his hotel room.

That’s when things really start, er, happening.  As one watches, they will begin to wonder how much of “Barton Fink” is actually taking place in real time or how much is simply the tortured writer’s mind.  After all, that is the entire point of this film and why this is so personal to the Coen brothers who are writer’s themselves and have mostly tried to buck the Hollywood system (with a few exceptions) in their career.

John Goodman is also staying at the hotel and portrays an insurance salesmen named Charlie Meadows.  He has long and strange conversations with Fink including about the life of the mind.  Toward the end, when the hotel is on fire and Goodman is running down the hall with a shotgun screaming, “Look upon me!  I’ll show you the life of the mind” we still wonder how much of this is supposed to be in literal reality.

One of the compelling things about this film is a picture that hangs above the desk where Fink’s typewriter sits in his hotel room.  It is a picture of a woman sitting on the beach with waves crashing in front of her.  Carefree and leaning back with her right hand shielding her eyes from the sun, she glances out to see. At times throughout the film, Fink hears the sounds of waves crashing.  This will all be important to the overall theme once you arrive at the end.  Speaking of which, I have now seen this movie twice in my life (the first time with my friend’s Mike Mason and Franklin Choate back in college).  Both times I have laughed out loud at the very last shot before the credits roll.  You will too.  The ending is quintessentially Coen.

This is may not be the Coen’s very best work but that does not mean that the movie is not good or interesting to watch.  If anything, it serves as a window into what the Coen’s themselves think of Hollywood (hint: not too highly).

Lester Lauding Level:  3/5

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink

Posted in Film Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments