Their films reveal a host of influences, especially an inimitable fusing of the absurdist screwball comedy of Preston Sturges with the dark moral lessons of film noir. The films of the Coen Brothers – whether dark and violent or roariously silly – share many themes and aesthetic traits. The comedies have a philosophical moral undertone and the serious films are peppered with comedy.
The Jewish brothers from Minnesota are essentially co-auteurs (if such a word is allowed). They write, direct, produce and edit their films together. (Early credits assigning direction to Joel and production to Ethan were required by rigid guild rules. They edit their films under the alias Roderick Jaynes.)
Their films share a unique visual tapestry and a careful attention to sound and music, often working in tandem. The atmosphere of their stories is accentuated by a combination of original score and perfectly cultivated source music.
“Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else… that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, an’ down here… you’re on your own.”
The brothers’ first film announced the arrival of a new cinematic voice. 1984’s Blood Simple, a low budget neo-noir, somehow contains the multitudes of their entire body of work to come.
The film is contained – it feels like a film and it never lets you out. It opens with a wide shot of an open road and a colloquial narration – an image and a device they would revisit often. Other traits of the Coen stamp are all there: cartoonish but brutal violence, moral quandaries – the consequences of actions, regional locales – the setting as character (as with later films, such as Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy and the Big Lebowski, the opening narration puts us right in the location), protagonists who run from – and into – themselves, and an effective score coupled with well chosen source music.
The Coens hired Carter Burwell to score Blood Simple, even though the future-composer had never scored a film, and had no intention of ever doing so. The brothers became aware of Burwell through their sound editor, Skip Lievsay, who knew Burwell from his work as a keyboard player in the New York punk scene. Burwell and Lievsay remain a key part of the Coens’ creative team.
One of Burwell’s traits as composer when working with the Coens is to rework existing folk or classical melodies into his orchestral scores. In Blood Simple, for example, he reworks the Balinese Kecak into the cue, “Monkey Chant.” The bulk of the score to Blood Simple is a mix of ambient electronic sounds and a haunting noir theme plucked out on a tinkling piano.
The source music is equally effective. Patsy Cline’s version of Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams” unfolds from the jukebox as the camera swoops across a drunk asleep on the bar. A haunting “Rogaciano” plays over the brilliant, overtly violent finale. And what could be considered another musical “theme” of the film, the Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song.”
The Motown hit is used three times throughout the film, each time with a different shade. In an incongruous and cleverly filmed (and very Coen) moment, the black bartender cuts in front of a patron at the Texas roadhouse where he works to drop a quarter in the jukebox. He grooves back to the bar as “It’s the Same Old Song” blasts throughout the honky tonk.
Later, we know the bartender is in the bar after-hours entertaining a lady friend. Although we never see him, we hear voices and then the song on the jukebox. Finally, after the neo-noir story – which takes its name from Dashiell Hammett – of cheating, murder, and moral accountability has played out, the Four Tops blast suddenly over the closing credits – “It’s the same old song, but with a different meaning since you’ve been gone.”
Blood Simple is a brilliant debut, but it does have the feel of a low budget first picture. Rather than continuing with noir, the following Raising Arizona established the Coen Brothers as comedic geniuses.
“There’s what’s right and there’s what’s right and never the twain shall meet.”
Raising Arizona (1987) is raucous slapstick with dark philosophical moments. As with Blood Simple, the setting itself is a character (literally here, in the form of Nathan Arizona).
The use of sound and music in Raising Arizona stands out in every scene. For example, in the scene where the doctor is (comically) explaining that Ed cannot have children, there is the sound of lonesome desert winds, a device that plays throughout the film. The constant use of a chorale in the musical themes gives the score itself the role of Greek Chorus.
Again, Burwell incorporates existing music into his score. Here, there is prominent use of the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – picked out on banjo – and a melody from a Sons of the Pioneers song, “Way Out There,” written by Bob Nolan, complete with yodeling (The Coens would revisit the Sons of the Pioneers to open The Big Lebowski). The Coens brought these musical themes to Burwell’s attention through a medley Pete Seeger had recorded in the 1950s called the “Goofing-Off Suite.”
The music in Raising Arizona is critical in setting the tone of the film. The banjo and yodel score of “Way Out There,” for example, perfectly accompanies the screwball shoot-em-up sequence where the recidivist H.I. tries to get his new son some Huggies.
Other playful musical cues include the Jaws homage as the quintuplets break free from their crib. In the scene where H.I. and the biker Smalls have their final standoff, the camera work and the music combine in homage to the films of Sergio Leone and the music of Ennio Morricone.
There is also a dark theme used as a leitmotiv for the biker, which is reminiscent of the electronic ambiance of the Blood Simple score.
Finally, bringing it all full circle, Burwell scores the music over H.I.’s closing narration with the minor key melody of the Appalachian murder balled “Down In The Willow Garden” – a song sung from the point of view of a man who, for no given reason, poisons and stabs his girl before throwing her into the river – the same song Ed sang to Nathan Jr. earlier in the film as a lullaby.
“Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.”
With their third film, the Coens left both noir and screwball comedy to make a classic period gangster drama. Miller’s Crossing (1990) homages The Godfather in the opening scene, which starts mid-monologue as the Italian underworld figure appeals to the Irish boss from across his desk. Later, there is a kidnapping scene in a warehouse that harkens back to the Tom Hagen kidnapping scene in The Godfather, although broken up with comedy when the fast-talking Italian wife disrupts the nefarious activity.
Miller’s Crossing is not a comedy but the Coens can not help but put their absurdist comic stamp on much of the mise-en-scène. For example, there is a scene where a dead body is discovered in an alley. The scene is important to further a plot point, but it could have merely shown the body to accomplish this.
Instead, the Coens create a comical sequence with a shot of a dog in magic hour lighting, cut to a close-up of a boy with an odd expression. This makes the audience laugh. Then they cut quickly to the dead body. The audience realizes the filmmakers have set us up, which also makes us laugh. Then the boy steals the toupee from the dead man’s head, which makes us laugh again. They take a scene depicting a murdered corpse in an alley in the middle of a gangland war drama and make it funny.
Barry Sonnenfeld, who worked on Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing, used a long lens to shoot Miller’s Crossing, a departure from the wide lens that gave Raising Arizona and so many other subsequent Coen films their quirky look and feel. The idea was to give Miller’s Crossing a “handsome and muted” look and it remains one of their more beautifully shot works.
The score is equally grand and emotive. For the main theme of this story of Irish immigrant gangsters in America, Burwell incorporates the traditional Irish fiddle tune, “Limerick’s Lamentation.”
For the famous “Danny Boy” sequence, the filmmakers reached out to Frank Patterson, one of the legendary Irish tenors of the 20th century. The singer was living in New York at the time and, to the filmmakers’ surprise, happily agreed to record a new version of “Danny Boy” specifically for the film. Burwell arranged the song to fit the already shot sequence, where the Irish mob boss Leo, played by Albert Finney, defends himself against his would-be assassins.
The dialogue-less scene is important for showing Leo’s toughness and power, but it plays like a mini-film within the film, a common Coen device. The otherwise gratuitously violent scene is held together by the juxtaposition of the sentimental air, featuring Burwell’s exquisite arrangement and Patterson’s monumental and nuanced vocal.
“I’m a writer, you monsters!”
The Coens’ fourth film is externally about Hollywood. Internally, Barton Fink (1991) is about the creative process and “the life of the mind.”
Much of the film is borrowed in tone from Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Day of the Locust. The 1939 novel examines the pathetic lives of those not necessarily chasing the Hollywood dream, but living in its purgatory. There is little hope of success among the midget, cowboy, relic vaudevillian and legitimate artist-turned-set decorator. These mismatched characters have mostly accepted their fate even as they fantasize about the whole goddamn town being set ablaze.
Barton Fink is trapped in the hell of his own making, the hell of his own mind. This is personified in the Hotel Earle, where he stays upon his arrival in Hollywood. The hotel itself is almost a living organism. This is established by the hotel’s omnipresent sound effects. Bells ring ad finem and mosquitos hum – omens of impending doom. Springs creak and gears turn. Mysterious and ambiguous moans and laughs and cries emit from indiscernible rooms and corridors – the sounds of people having sex and people being murdered seep through the peeling walls.
Sound is always a prominent device in any Coen Brothers’ film, and they often write the sound cues into the script. Lievsay and Burwell work hand in hand for each Coen film, but never has sound and score been so intertwined than in Barton Fink.
Initially, the filmmakers toyed with the idea of having no music. The resulting subtle score works together with the sound effects almost as one inseparable device. Although there is a slight melodic theme plunked out on the high octaves of a piano, suggesting Fink’s suspended adolescence, the music sometimes slips in before we realize its presence. This is accomplished through sparse voicing of carefully chosen instruments, and even syncing the pitch of the score to the frequency of the ringing or humming sound featured in any given scene.
Burwell and Lievsay often divvy up the frequencies when beginning work on a film together. If, for example, the sound effect requires a high frequency, then Burwell will score the music over that moment in low frequencies, and vice versa.
The world of Barton Fink is mostly a world in his mind. As such, there is no source music used to drag us out of this carefully cultivated setting. Although there is a scene where John Mahoney’s character (a fictionalized version of William Faulkner) sings an acapella version of the Stephen Foster minstrel tune, “Old Black Joe,” a comment on his perceived life of indentured servitude to the studio system.
Barton Fink is an odd film, perhaps even an art film. But it has very funny moments amid the engulfing madness.
“Sure, sure, the music plays, the wheel turns, and our spin ain’t over yet.”
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) was meant to be the Coens’ big commercial breakthrough. It flopped hard.
While not a masterpiece, this underappreciated gem is a mash-up homage of a few different film genres. It is a classic 1930’s screwball comedy ala Howard Hawks, while also a tribute to the urban romantic comedies of the 1940s and 1950s. There are traces of Metropolis and Modern Times and a general Capra-esque (and Sturges-esque) quality that shines over the whole thing. We are constantly reminded the year is 1958, yet the period art direction is often ambiguous, at times resembling the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
In many ways Hudsucker works as a companion piece to Barton Fink. Both films feature buildings that seem to be living organisms – a dilapidated hotel in Fink and a cold, mechanical skyscraper in Hudsucker. Both stories unfold in insular, fantastical worlds. The buildings – and the elevator operators – stand in stark contrast. One film examines New York corporate big business, the other Hollywood of yesteryear before the corporations took over the studios. In the Coens’ universe, they are equally soul sucking.
Unlike Barton Fink’s sparse score, there is a lot going on musically in The Hudsucker Proxy. The score, like those of the films it homages, is bold and prominent. The main title theme plays like a classic movie, with grand, full orchestration against deco titles.
Again, Burwell borrows from existing music, here, primarily, the work of Aram Khachaturian.
The fantastical opening sequence where the metropolis of Manhattan is revealed like an Advent Calendar is synced to “Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia” from Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus. Other scenes incorporate Khachaturian’s Gayane ballet suite. The wonderful “Hula Hoop” sequence is also scored to Spartacus, and the famous “Sabre Dance” from Gayane plays as the boy first discovers the discarded hoop in the street.
For whatever reason, The Hudsucker Proxy missed its mark.
Almost every Coen Brothers protagonist finds him or herself in over their head, motivated by a false sense of confidence in their abilities, only to discover the number one rule of noir: one misstep unravels a series of events that will end badly. We never identify too closely with these characters. The filmmakers keep an emotional distance between us.
Ironically, Tim Robbins’ Norville Barnes is one of the more sympathetic of the Coens’ fools. His small town awe shucks demeanor (right out of Preston Sturges) is genuine. He only wants to belong. He’s a fool with women and even when he fires the elevator boy it is in imitation of how he believes a man in his position is meant to act. He has no will of his own, he lacks the capacity. In the scene where he wanders into the beatnik bar where Steve Buscemi is bartending on New Year’s Eve, alone, he orders a martini because that’s what he thinks he’s supposed to order.
“Martinis are for squares,” says the bartender to the man who invented the circle.
“There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that?”
The Coens’ first major flop was followed by their mainstream breakthrough. Fargo (1996) perfectly fused the brothers’ unique blend of comedy and noir, garnering seven Oscar nominations and a win for the brothers for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress for Frances McDormand (Joel’s real-life wife, who plays pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson and who played the unlikely femme fetal in Blood Simple).
Somehow, Burwell’s brilliant score was not among the seven Oscar nominations. The film opens with a bleak, snow-blind shot slowly revealing headlights fighting an open road in the middle of a dense Minnesota winter against Burwell’s haunting score. As with the Irish folk song used in Miller’s Crossing, a film about Irish gangsters, here Burwell incorporates the Norwegian folk song, “Den Bortkomne Sauen” (The Lost Sheep), to accompany this story of evil invading Scandinavian Minnesota. Burwell also studied film noir scores, such as Miklós Rózsa’s score to the 1946 The Killers in preparation for Fargo, especially the use of low strings and low wind instruments.
The source music in Fargo originates from actual sources within the film. Merle Haggard’s “Big City” shuffles from a barroom jukebox. Boy George’s version of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” transitions from a radio in the car dealership garage to the radio in the kidnappers’ car. In a hilariously subtle scene, the Tonight Show’s “Johnny’s Theme” blares from a cheap motel television (we only see the glow and not the screen) as Steve Buscemi’s and Peter Stormare’s characters lay in post coital boredom watching Carson with a pair of hookers. Later, Buscemi and an escort go to the Celebrity Room to watch José Feliciano – “You know, José Feliciano you got no complaints.”
One of Burwell’s strengths as composer is to know what to leave out. In the scene depicting the growing rift between the two hoods as they are stuck in the hideout, a tense theme plays as Buscemi pounds the television with futility trying to find reception – any reception – that will cut through his maddening cabin fever. But in other scenes, such as William H. Macy’s hopeless “interrogation” in his office and the awkward meeting between Marge and an old high school acquaintance, the absence of any music heightens the tension.
The opening to Fargo claims it is based on true events. Of course, this isn’t so. But in a way it is. For the filmmakers who dissect the essence of each film’s locale, it took them until their sixth film to examine the land of their own origins (they would revisit this in the more overtly autobiographical A Serious Man). From the clothing to the home décor to the food – and especially the mannerisms and speech – Fargo is a dark and twisted tribute to Joel and Ethan’s Minnesota home.
The cynical filmmakers present their native land as perhaps the only example of innocence in any of their films. While flawed locals certainly commit heinous acts, the hired hoods represent pure evil invading a place of purity. Perhaps the only virtuous character in any Coen Brother’s film takes the form of a small town local police chief, born and bred in Fargo, and played by Joel’s wife.
“They call Los Angeles the City of Angels. I didn’t find it to be that exactly.”
Fargo was by far the Coens’ most popular film to date. The follow-up would bring them immortality. Nothing about The Big Lebowski (1998) works on paper, yet the result is a glorious – and hilarious – masterpiece. The Coens take a burnout Venice stoner and place him in the middle of a Raymond Chandler story. As with Chandler, Los Angeles itself is the most vivid character. The Dude’s Los Angeles is one of late-night trips to Ralph’s, bowling alleys, coffee shops and “the occasional acid flashback.”
Barton Fink was a comment on the soullessness of Hollywood – all the things wrong with Los Angeles. The Big Lebowski shows us glimpses of old money Pasadena and the Malibu porn set, but these worlds, as with Philip Marlowe, are seen with an outsider’s eye. The protagonists are far removed from wealth and glamour. In many ways the film is a love letter to the real Los Angeles, to the people who buy milk at Ralph’s in the middle of the night, the people who go bowling. It is possible the Coens intended the beautifully shot bowling sequences to be ironic, or even cynical, but they don’t play that way. They play like poetry.
Lebowski is best loved for its effective source music, overseen by T Bone Burnett. The Coens knew going in they wanted to use Creedence Clearwater Revival as well as the Gipsy Kings’ version of “Hotel California” and the Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s hit version of the Mickey Newbury-penned “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).”
“Just Dropped In” was synced to The Dude’s dream sequence, shot in the style of a classic Busby Berkeley musical number. Compare this sequence to one from 1933’s Gold Diggers.
The Sons of the Pioneers originally formed in the early 1930s by Bob Nolan, a gifted yodeler and songwriter, and a migrant fruit picker named Leonard Slye, who found superstardom under his stage name, Roy Rogers. They became local sensations on radio and film with their Western cowboy image.
The ethereal group harmonies of the Sons of the Pioneers worked so well for Raising Arizona, the Coens use their “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” to bring us into the Los Angeles basin from the canyons, referencing the way modern-day Los Angeles was founded by a westward ho that swept the nation.
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/22031630″>The Big Lebowski – First Scene Dude</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user5237590″>Cem Ertem</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
The rest of the selections were Burnett’s contributions. Dylan’s “The Man in Me” is used to glorious effect over the opening credits. Other semi-obscure gems complement the aesthetic: Captain Beefheart’s “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles” plays as The Dude checks his answering machine. Henry Mancini’s “Lujon” casts an uber-shag modernist vibe over Jackie Treehorn’s porn party. Moondog’s “Stomping Ground” sets the tone as Walter and The Dude begin to put it all together.
The film is scored almost primarily with source music, although Burwell has moments to shine. He composed the jazzy theme, “Dick On A Case,” which plays as The Dude confronts the shamus played by Jon Polito. The mancini-esque theme plays as score before we realize the music is coming from his car radio, which gets quieter when he slams the door.
Burwell also composed the techno pop parody “Wie Glauben,” the nihilist band Autobahn’s big hit record.
For the closing credits, they wanted Townes Van Zandt’s version of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers.” But Allen Klein, the infamous music mogul who owned the rights to the song, wanted too much money. The filmmakers invited Klein to a private screening in hopes of persuading him to go down on the price.
There is a now-iconic scene in the film where The Dude is taking a taxi. He’s had a rough night, and asks the cab driver to change the station, which is playing “Peaceful Easy Feeling” by the Eagles. When The Dude declares, “I hate the fuckin’ Eagles, man,” the cab driver freaks out. After this scene played in the screening, Klein stood up, declaring: “That’s it, you can have the song! That was beautiful.”
The Coen Brothers emerged from the financial flop of The Hudsucker Proxy on a roll. The dark comedy noir of Fargo earned them an Oscar and the screwball Chandler mash-up of Lebowski earned them cult status.
Their next film would usher in a new millennium by digging back into the origins of storytelling and, in so doing, would launch a musical revival phenomenon.
Or, well, that’s just, like, my opinion, man.