The Coens are a great subject for auteur theory because their work exemplifies what the theory was intended for; differentiating the great from the good, as shown in excellence within a body of work, identifying recurrent characteristics of style, and probing the interior meaning of the artist’s expression. This method of differentiating the great from good with its three elements was given by American film critic Andrew Sarris in 1962. Sarris is most often quoted as the person who gave the closest definition for the term though he said at the beginning of his article, “As far as I know there is no definition in the English language for auteur theory.” Then he proceeded to attempt to define it. He gave three premises as “criterion of value”: first is “technical competence,” that is he must be skillful and above average, second, “Over a group of films a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature,” and third, “The ultimate premise of the auteur theory is concerned with interior meaning,…Truffaut has called it, “the temperature of the director on the set.'” Sarris concedes that the last element, interior meaning is the most allusive. He thinks of it as emerging from the tension between the artist’s personality and his material. He also gives a visual illustration of three concentric circles with the outer one being technique, middle circle is style, the inner circle being interior meaning. As we examine the Coens we will do it with auteur theory as our reference point, considering the three elements, and finally answering the question, “Do the Coens truly qualify as auteur?” I think we will find that the Coens do qualify as auteur; they qualify in a unique way; as a team; writer, producer and director.
Joel Coen; born 1954 in St. Louis Park, MN, studied at Bard College and New York University, film studies. Joel’s thesis film was Soundings, “depicting a woman engaging in sex with her deaf boyfriend, while verbally fantasizing about sex with her boyfriend’s best friend” (Wiki). Ethan Coen; born 1957 in St. Louis Park, MN, studied at Bard College, and Princeton University, NJ (philosophy). It is important to notice Ethan’s formal education in philosophy because the Coen films are highly philosophical. Joel and Ethan, of Jewish heritage are children of educated parents both employed by universities. In all of my searching I cannot find a specific statement from either Coen about their personal belief about religion or God, or their present thoughts on their Jewish heritage.
The Coen film style is classic neo-noir in form with the addition of modern absurdity. I use the term absurdity as it reflects the philosophies of nihilism and anarchy. The film noir (French for black film) has a definite form from the 1940’s and 50’s and it was modernized in the 60’s to become neo-noir. The noir film typically is skeptical of modern optimism, usually has a desperate hero, a femme fatale and is filmed with shadows and obscure angles with unbalanced shots. The noir film carries its own philosophical brand of nihilism which reflected the era of the World Wars in Europe (Conard). Mark Conard who has written extensively on noir, neo-noir and the Coens says, “Blood Simple is a quite self-conscious neo-noir and The Man Who Wasn’t There, is clearly an homage to classic noir…many or most of the brother’s other movies can be identified as noirs.” The Coen style is to take this form and infuse it with modern absurdity, often reversing everything that is expected.
Coen Brothers filmography 2011:
Writer, W; Director, D; Producer, P; Editor, E; Screenplay, S;
Blood Simple; 1984: Joel; W D E Ethan; W P E
Crimewave; 1985: Joel; W Ethan; W P
Raising Arizona; 1987: Joel; W D Ethan; W P
Miller’s Crossing; 1987: Joel; W D Ethan; W P
Barton Fink; 1991: Joel; W D Ethan; W P
The Hudsucker Proxy; 1994: Joel; W D Ethan; W P
Fargo; 1996: Joel; W D Ethan; W P
The Big Lebowski; 1998: Joel; W D Ethan; W P
O Brother, Where Art Thou; 2000: Joel; W D Ethan; W P
The Man Who Wasn’t There; 2001 Joel; W D Ethan; W P
Intolerable Cruelty; 2003 Joel; S D Ethan; S P
The Lady Killers; 2004 Joel; S D P Ethan; S P D
No Country for Old Men; 2007 Joel; S D P Ethan; W P D
Burn After Reading; 2008: Joel; W D P Ethan; W P D
A Serious Man; 2009: Joel; W D P Ethan; W P D
True Grit; 2010: Joel; S D P Ethan; W P D Anderson 3
Gambit; 2012: Joel; S Ethan; W
Harve Karbo; 2012: Joel; TV movie D P Ethan; W P
Inside Liewyn Davis; 2013: Joel; S D P Ethan; W P
Paris, Je T’ Aime; 2006 segment Joel; W D Ethan; P D
To Each His Own; 2007 segment Joel; D Ethan;
Bad Santa; 2003: Joel; Exec. Prod. Ethan; Exec. Prod.
Romance and Cigarettes; 2005: Joel; Ethan; Exec. Prod.
A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop; 2009 from 1984 Blood Simple screenplay
A Fever in the Blood; 2002 (short) Ethan; story
Where the Girls Are; 2003 Doc short Ethan producer
The film examples
Film: Blood Simple; 1984, Written by Joel and Ethan, directed by Joel produced by Ethan.
The Coen signature was established within this, their first film.
Abby (Francis Mc Dormand); unfaithful wife, blond, should be cast as femme fatale but does not fit stereo type. In classic film noir the femme fatale would be dangerously seductive and probably die in the end. This young lady is way too much like the average girl next door. She does not die in the end but is the unlikely victor.
Julian Marty aka Marty (Dan Hedaya); is husband and bar owner employer of Ray and Meurice. Marty is Italian, is not a mobster, and does not fit stereo type of country bar owner.
Ray (John Getz); boy friend and employee, plaid shirt does not fit stereo type of dangerous criminal. A desperate bad guy would have some tattoos, a leather jacket and curse a lot. When Ray takes off his shirt there are no tattoos; he is a clean cut man, just real stupid for playing with the bosses wife.
Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) narrator in opening scene, private investigator and murder contractor, not a Humphry Boggart type, he is a sloppy PI, has crazy laugh, antipathetic, is narrator in opening scene but dies at end which does not fit formula. I don’t know if any film has ever had the narrator die!
Great scenes: excellence in writing and directing
The opening scene of landscape with narrator typifies noir philosophy of landscape being larger than man and mankind’s lack of control (Conard). Much is written about the Coen’s choice of settings but the Coen’s defer saying simply that every story needs a setting.
Scene two is a rainy night driving, classic noir style, dialog between lovers contemplating choices, soundtrack of drums beating with windshield wipers, headlights approaching. But in light of headlights we see that couple is not the criminal type but average people, this repeated use of average people is one element of the Coen signature.
Scene near the end; the killer is pursuing Abby in a house and she flees to the bathroom. When the killer enters the bathroom the camera is overhead looking down and it is intentionally reminiscent of Hitchcock’s shower scene. The killer pulls back the shower curtain but she is not there, she has escaped out the window but not far. As he reaches his hand for her she stabs his hand and now he is pinned and is quickly becoming the victim. What an incredible twist on a classic form. They have taken Hitchcock’s classic scene and turned the villain into the victim!
Coen signature traits
This first film shows the Coen signature of taking the classic form of a film noir and upending it. This film also introduces to the Coen philosophies. We cannot determine exactly what these philosophies are because they apparently change over the years. But the basic core values introduced here and consistent through the Coen films are; good and evil are mixed, anarchy, absurdity of life, good may triumph in the likely places from the least likely characters. The stated philosophy of this film is by the narrator in the opening scene as we fist look down a long desolate road and then around the Texas landscape, “The world is full of complainers; the fact is that nothing comes with a guarantee.”
Film; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; 2000; Writers; Joel, Ethan, director; Joel, producer; Ethan
George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, Holly Hunter, John Goodman,
The philosophy of this film is a huge shift from previous Coen films. It addresses explicitly themes of faith and the age of reason or intellectualism. These are tied together beautifully by a storyline loosely following Homer’s Odyssey. The main character, Everett T. McGillis (George Clooney) apparently represents modern intellectualism. He speaks with vocabulary pretentiously elevated above his two sidekicks Pete, (John Turturro) and Delmar, (Tim Blake Nelson). The three (comparison to the Three Stooges by Joel) escape prison and head off on a plan devised by Everett but also led by the unseen hand of fate. They receive a prophecy from a blind man, which is discounted by the intellectual Everett, but comes to fulfillment. They encounter a religious baptism service and intellectually inferior Delmar seizes the opportunity to join and get his sins washed away. Delmar rejoices claiming, “The preacher says all my sins have been washed away and there ain’t nothing God or man can hold against me!” Everett calls this “superstition”. Later, Everett reasons that, even if God has forgiven him the state of Mississippi has not. But, in fates amazing way, the governor, Pappy O’Daniels gives them all a pardon. There is a dramatic scene when they are faced with execution by the devil-prison warden, and Everett kneels and prays, and miraculously, a flood intervenes and they are spared. Even then Everett devises a logical explanation. This film may not be nihilistic or even pessimistic, but it has the Coen signature of a great story, with philosophical themes, a classical form, turned on end in absurdity.
Joel has stated that all films are mere extensions of The Wizard of Oz so it is not surprising to see an example of his excellent in directing in a scene mirroring a scene from The Wizard of Oz. The three characters approach a KKK gathering to rescue a friend and sneak into the gathering just like the three friends of Dorothy. There is marching and chanting unmistably like the scene from the Wizard of Oz.
Film: A Serious Man; 2009, Joel and Ethan equally; writer, director, producer
Michael Stahlburg, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed
This film seems to be the least favorite of the public. Even in my research I found it practically ignored by film critics. It may be less entertaining than other films but I am guessing that it is the most autobiographical of the Coen brothers. If we really want to understand the cultural, religious and philosophical background of the Coens we should look here. The film is set in the same geographical and cultural environment that the Coens were raised in; a Jewish community in Minnesota. In its way, A Serious Man is a small primer on how to read the moral philosophy of the entire Coen oeuvre. (Stangl)
The film opens with a strange story about the ancestors of Larry Gopnik, (Michael Stahlburg). There is a curse involved if they receive this possible dead man, and a curse if they kill him; damned if you do or don’t! I could not find one confident interpretation of this so I will propose that is referring to the “curse of the Jews” because of Christ. I am not affirming this legend, or reinforcing anti-Semitism, just citing it as tradition. The story parallels the Biblical story of Job, which is philosophically possible to interpret as the quest of all mankind, in the face of the existence of evil, asking, “If there is a God, why this evil, why this suffering?” This is a universal question pondered in many religions and so is feasible in a philosophical Coen film.
Larry is a good faithful husband and responsible at work, yet his wife is leaving him and he is about to lose his application for tenure due to false accusations. Larry the physicist expects life to be orderly. He expects that a faithful man will be rewarded properly. Like someone who takes care of their health perfectly and then gets cancer, it just does not seem fair. As Job has counselors to advise him Larry turns to a series of rabbis. The first rabbi is way too busy to talk to him, what does this imply about God? The character seems to be puzzled; if there is a God does it even care?
The man stealing Larry’s wife is killed in a car wreck, is this from the hand of God, an answer to prayer? Most men would love that kind of answer! Larry attempts to adjust the antennae on his roof but the signal never comes in clear, implying that he is not getting clear guidance from God. I realize that these are subjective impositions upon the story, but that is the way literature works. For Larry, the philosophical and theological answer comes in the form of a Jefferson Airplane song, “Don’t you need somebody to love?”
Ethan’s classic film training infused with Joel’s philosophy provide for the richness of the Coen signature. It is the deep philosophical roots within the Coen films are what fascinate us. The philosophies are shocking to us because when we see what we profess to believe portrayed on screen, it seems absurd. We say that we believe in a random universe with no intelligent design but when we see that portrayed before our eyes it is quite disorienting. We are shocked when we see ordinary people commit horrendous crimes. We are confused when we see a man struggling for life, being buried alive, and we start to laugh because he is so pitiful. We see in Coen film, our assumptions of fate, justice, random chance, an orderly universe all questioned, probed and inverted. Then we go home wondering what that was all about, not sure if we should laugh or cry.
The Coen brother’s craft makes them auteurs because they excel as a team. Like the Beatles they are only great as a group. Together they are the Coen and excel in technical competence in all of their work, have a consistent signature that seems to be maturing and even stronger, and their internal meaning as seen in philosophical quest resonates with all humans who care to ponder the basic questions of life.
Copyright; Mark Anderson, 2014
“Coen Brothers.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 05 Nov. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2011. .
I support Wikipedia because it is available to edit even by the Coens. I used this source because it gave more details on background.
Johnson, Brent M. “Joel and Ethan Coen Biography.” Coenesque. 05 Nov. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2011. .
A great website created by a Coen brothers fan.
“Greatest Film Directors of All Time.” Greatest Films – The Best Movies in Cinematic History. Web. 05 Nov. 2011. .
The Genesis and Application of the Auteur Theory; article by Elana Starr
Andrew Sarris; “Notes on Auteur Theory in 1962” on www.fadedrequiem.com A scanned copy online
Conard, Mark T. The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 2009. Print. Digital online
Mark Conard is the editor and writer of introduction. The introduction is my main source but I also consulted other chapters by various authors.
Conard, Mark T. Introduction. The Philosophy of Neo-noir. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, 2007. Digital online
Stangl, Chris. “Secret Test!: A SERIOUS MAN (2009).” The Exploding Kinetoscope. 30 Oct. 2009. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. . Great analysis of A Serious Man