Joel and Ethan Coen, the famously "quirky" filmmaking brother team responsible for eight of Hollywood's most distinguishable films, including "Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona," "Barton Fink" and "Fargo," are again making the trip from New York to Hollywood to sit in the audience at the Academy Awards this year. They have to their latest film, the Depression-era escaped-convict road comedy, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is up for two Oscars: Best Cinematography, by deserving Coens stalwart Roger Deakins, and this is the good one Best Adapted Screenplay, by Joel and Ethan Coen, from "The Odyssey" by Homer.
You just can't make this stuff up.
It was the Coens' own fault, for putting up a playful screen credit to the Greek poet and naming George Clooney's Gable-esque lead stumblebum Ulysses Everett McGill. There was a blind prophet, and John Goodman's treacherous Bible salesman had only one eye. But really, there wasn't much else.
Suffice it to say the Coens and Hollywood, as represented by the Academy, continue to run on parallel tracks, each rarely casting more than a quizzical sidelong glance in the other's direction. Whatever it is that is uniquely compelling about the brothers' films and there is definitely something, because the Coens have some of the most cultish fans in modern American movies either eludes mainstream Hollywood completely or just makes it uncomfortable.
It's true that the films are easy for the Academy to dismiss. They have all had budgets of $25 million and under, and none has ever grossed more than $30 million. (The most expensive one, the Capra tribute "The Hudsucker Proxy," was also the biggest box-office bust.) And despite the Coens' working within the Hollywood system since self-financing their first film, the Texan noir "Blood Simple," in 1984, their movies have been placed in the box marked "indies," a category for which Oscar's affinity has been sporadic at best.
But there was that one time the Coens took Hollywood and the Oscars by storm: with 1996's "Fargo," which netted a slew of nominations Best Picture, Best Director (Joel), Best Actress (Joel's wife, Frances McDormand), Best Supporting Actor (William H. Macy), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), Best Original Screenplay (Joel and Ethan) and Best Editing (Joel and Ethan again, under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, a name the brothers invented for "Blood Simple" because they thought there were enough Coens on the credits already.)
Besides the one shot for "O Brother" and a few ripples for the critically acclaimed "Barton Fink," which received three nominations Best Costume Design, Best Art DirectionSet Decoration, and a Best Supporting Actor (Michael Lerner) no other Coen brothers film, before "Fargo" or since, has garnered any serious interest from the Academy.
O critics, why art thou?
The most common criticism of the Coens' films is that they distance themselves emotionally from the audience. Fruitless armchair psychoanalysis aside, the fundamental technical reason for this is the brothers' love affair often over the objections of their cinematographer with the wide-angle lens. From "The Complete Film Dictionary" by Ira Konigsberg:
"Wide-Angle Shot: Such shots are effective for giving a wider panorama of a location, and for placing a character in the context of an area. Since objects in the rear are abnormally small and those close to the camera are abnormally large, the area between the various planes seems to be exaggerated and action to or away from the camera appears accelerated."
That technique is especially pronounced, to good comic effect in "Raising Arizona," but the affinity for distancing, distortive, referential, set-piece filmmaking is for the Coens a wider, stylistic one. The brothers generally have a comic view of all human strivings, especially domestic ones, which distill for the moviegoer into a kind of empty space between the eyeballs/heart and the screen, which for many a moviegoer in the age of "The English Patient" is alienating and off-putting.
They also get battered for self-consciousness. There's the preternaturally beautiful sets and scenery (Roger Ebert cited Leo's impossibly baroque office as the reason he didn't like "Miller's Crossing"). There's the overt references to favorite films, from "The Third Man" (the ending of "Miller's Crossing") to "The Wizard of Oz" (the Klan scene in "O Brother") to Busby Berkeley (the bowling-themed dance-number/dream sequence in "The Big Lebowski").
The Coens also tend to travel in a pack, as if they all went to high school together. MacDormand met the brothers when they cast her in her first movie role as the femme fatale of "Blood Simple," later married Joel, and had small roles in "Raising Arizona" and "Miller's Crossing" as well as her Oscar-winning part in "Fargo."
After "Blood Simple," McDormand introduced the brothers to her roommate at the time, Holly Hunter. The Coens promptly wrote "Raising Arizona" with her in the female "but honey!" domesticatrix role opposite Nicolas Cage (with McDormand chewing scenery in a small but pitch-perfect comic turn as Dot, the uncoveted neighbor's wife). The brothers returned to Hunter for a similar role opposite Clooney in "O Brother."
The Coens tend to rotate out the top few slots in each film, and have had an impressive roster of guest-starring lead actors M. Emmet Walsh in "Blood Simple," Cage in "Arizona," Gabriel Byrne in "Miller's Crossing," Tim Robbins in "Hudsucker Proxy," William H. Macy in "Fargo," Jeff Bridges in "The Big Lebowski," Clooney in "O Brother" with most turning in some of the best work of their careers. (The Coens' next two films star Billy Bob Thornton and Brad Pitt.)
The rest is what amounts to a troupe. John Turturro and John Goodman, who took their turn as the leads in "Barton Fink," are in nearly every Coen brothers film as supporting players, as is Steve Buscemi. They have other favorites John Mahoney pops up twice, as does Walsh, and Joel and Ethan clearly had plans for Trey Wilson, who played the quintuplets' father, Nathan Arizona, in "Arizona" they wrote the part of Irish boss Leo in "Miller's Crossing" for Wilson, but the actor died of a stroke shortly before filming began. (Their second choice, Albert Finney, turned in a performance that was a gift from the gods.)
Carter Burwell does all the original music, and T-Bone Burnett is the brothers' archivist. They've used two cinematographers (Barry Sonnenfeld until he made it big following "Miller's Crossing" and Roger Deakins ever since), one storyboard artist (J. Todd Anderson,) and two costume designers (dying of AIDS at the time of "Fargo," Richard Hornung recommended a former assistant, Mary Zophres, who has stayed with the brothers ever since.)
This clubbishness is neither standoffish nor amateurish, merely a habit that started with "Blood Simple" and the cost-conscious brothers' reliance on preproduction rather than on-set discussion, in order to keep budgets lean. It also has to do with the fact that they are brothers who witnesses swear think with a single brain their biographer even took to quoting them as one person, a convention we'll continue here.
Put it all together, and even fans can get the sneaking suspicion that the Coens, though they profess to be earnest mainstream filmmakers, don't really care whether you like their movies or not, as long as they themselves are amused.
Oscar hates that sort of thing.
As for any higher-end literary references that get ascribed to the films, don't take them too seriously. (The Coens certainly don't, hence Homer's "Odyssey"). As Ethan said to Coen biographer Ronald Bergan about the critics' strainings on "Barton Fink": "As some journalists have suggested that we were influenced by 'The Castle,' I'm keen to read it."