“You should change into a suit.”
Joel and Ethan Coen’s previous film won four of its eight Oscar nominations. They followed the most acclaimed – and bleakest – film of their career with a return to what they do better than anyone – a screwball black comedy based on an original story.
In fact, Burn After Reading (2008) was the first film based on an original story by Joel and Ethan Coen since 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Part of Burn After Reading’s genius is in casting the A-list ensemble as total idiots. George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins all excel as earnest people with small, insignificant lives.
The film is a playful homage to the genre of Cold War spy movies.
Civilians Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand accidently find a copy of what they believe to be top-secret information belonging to a high level CIA agent. In fact, their find is merely the inconsequential memoirs of a disgruntled analyst with a drinking problem and an abusive, philandering, wife.
The characters are all idiots, on an idiotic mission. But they believe they are in real danger, involved in high-level espionage. Continue reading →
This is the second installment in a three-part series. Read part one here.
“The law? Law is a human institution.”
The Invocation of the Muse, swinging picks building into rhythm, human voices chanting in song – the sound of the men working on the chain gang. Black men in black and white stripes, washed out color film.
And so the Coen Brothers begin the new millennium with a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey, set in Depression-era Mississippi – as a musical comedy.
Smooth talking Ulysses Everett McGill escapes from the chain gang (for practicing law without a license), shackled to two dimwitted fellow convicts. He is set on a journey home to see his estranged wife, Penny, and their daughters.
Along the way they encounter a blind prophet on the railroad, real-life delta bluesman Tommy Johnson (who, like his better-known namefellow Robert, allegedly sold his soul to the devil), Lotus-eaters in the form of a mass baptism in the river (the Coens continuously mash up Homer’s Greek traditions with the Christian themes of the film’s Southern setting) washerwomen Sirens, a Cyclops Bible salesman and the Ku Klux Klan (robed as white sheep) all while being pursued by the empty-eyed Poseidon devil, in the form of a relentless Sherriff in shades.
They even manage to record an unlikely hit record.
Like all the music in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” is a traditional folk song of the American South. The song dates back to the turn of the last century, but was popularized in the 1950s by the Stanley Brothers. In the early 1960s it became a folk staple. Bob Dylan included a version on his debut album.
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. Continue reading →
It seems to me that the timing is right for an unapologetically mercenary post that plays with both my innate passion for making lists and my desire for starting arguments. This means that this post will be more self-indulgent than usual. –how can that be?
Here is what I propose: a three-part series that argues not for the twenty-five most important American film comedies but, more specifically, the twenty-five most important American film comedy scenes as represented by screenshots. By “important,” I mean “iconic,” “seminal,” “best,” “most hilarious,” “provocative,” or, in other words, “my favorites.” They should be yours, too.
I intend to start with 7 screenshots that indicate essential comedic moments in American film history in this the first of three posts on the topic. I hope to encourage others to chime in with their favorites by commenting on this post and, ideally, including links or files with the screenshots they suggests. I will follow in subsequent posts with the growing list.
For now, the images are not ranked or presented in any order other than my impulses as I think of them or run through my library of screenshots. In the end, I may try to rank them just for the hell of it.
Here are the first seven:
From Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In perhaps one of the most iconic moments in film comedy history, the Tramp is consumed by the industrial machine but continues to perform his job. It is a concise but cogent statement of class tensions and the perils of the “factory worker” caught in the cogs of industrialism. It is so iconic that one cannot talk about it without puns and symbolic flourishes. See above.
From Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. This first appearance of Clark Gable’s torso provides more than the titillation that such a statement implies. The scene is a remarkable and intricate power struggle between two formidable performers in a comedic gem. The scene, the film as a whole for that matter, would go one to influence the romantic comedy formula to this day. If he had only tried a similar approach to Scarlett.
From the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers. This is a shot from the big finale scene wherein everybody gets on stage like the closing of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards show–lots of folks on the stage but with only a few who do anything worthwhile. In this case, that is fine because it is the Marx brothers who demand the attention in every scene. This scene demonstrates the wonderful comic interplay between the brothers but also mocks the pretensions of respectable society and the smug coziness of the officer’s advice to the subversive Harpo.
From Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. This panoramic shot of the big board and the big table captures a more elaborate scene that the other screenshots selected. It is meant to imply the entire sequence of the power brokers at work to save the world–or at least themselves. In short this shot cuts to the core of all American satire by implicating the inherent horror of a star chamber, no matter how comic.
From Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. This is the money shot–well, that sounds wrong. What I mean is that this shot has its own iconic status and provides the core symbol for both the dramatic and comedic aspects of the film. The triangulating power of Mrs. Robinson’s leg, and little big man Benjamin trying to keep up.
From Harold Ramis’s Caddyshack. No apologies for this one. This shot is from arguably the most concise illustration of the American dream at work in the mind of an inherent loser. Yes, Cinderella is the most American of the European fairy tales. He is the working man dreaming of a Masters championship when all he will end up with is more work replacing the flowers he is destroying.
From The Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona. This shot is a shot within a shot. The McDonnoughs try to record for posterity their new family portrait, complete with their freshly stolen child. “It’s about to pop, honey.” As we say in the business, this is funny.
Please send suggestions for other essential screenshots via comments to this post.