Sunday, 2 February 2014

A Week of Coen

As those who know me well know well, I have quite a large soft spot for the Minnesotan film makers the Coen brothers. The dark, idiosyncratic humour the brothers share just appeals to me, and in their more serious turns their sharp focus on deeply complex characters is compelling. Anyway, a week or so I decided to watch my DVD of Raising Arizona, their second feature, for no other reason than I'd never watched it before and I suddenly had time. As it turned out, this was the first of three Coen films I'd end up watching that week, with The Big Lebowski and Inside Llewyn Davis, their newest, following not long after.

Raising Arizona (1987)

As the brothers' second feature, the fast-paced comedy Raising Arizona is a fun opportunity to try and catch the beginnings of the many hallmarks that appear in their films. The Coens are more devoted to a certain number of hallmarks than your average directors, as if they have a few lucky charms they can rely on to make the film a success. These include the actors John Goodman, John Turturro and Frances MacDormand (Joel Coen's wife), as well as their use of quirky characters, southern accents, recorded music and long speeches (such as the one that opens The Big Lebowski, or the ones that end No Country For Old Men and Fargo). Raising Arizona ticks five of these boxes.

Nicolas Cage, the man who does mental like nobody else, stars as Hi McDunnough, a small-time criminal who, after being caught and released many times, falls in love with Ed, the police photographer who takes his mugshot after every arrest. They end up getting married and, after discovering Ed is unable to have kids and being turned down at every adoption agency in town, Hi manages to steal a baby from a local unpainted furniture magnate. It's never going to end well, and it doesn't. As wacko after wacko enters their lives, Hi and Ed struggle to keep the child in their undeserved possession. It's a yarn with such ridiculous imagination it's difficult to not get swept away with it. When it comes round to one of the strangest chases in cinema history, it's clear that the Coens must have had a whale of a time creating it.

And it is the Coens' film. In a well-known anecdote, Cage said he would constantly suggest new ideas for the character of Hi or for the movie, only for them to be smashed down by Joel or Ethan. They have a very clear idea of what the movie's going to look like, and you can't blame them for not wanting interference when the story's this complicated and winding. It's the sort of thing I wish I could write, the cinematic equivalent of taking a line for a walk. You just come up with the original premise, then run with any ideas that come into your head, no matter how ridiculous they get, until you reach a satisfying conclusion. It's something they do incredibly well, and it's just as much fun to watch as it would be to write.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

I know, I have written a full post about this one before, but the fact remains that every time I come back to it, which is not as often as I'd like, I'll stumble across something new or notice something I hadn't before which reveals a little more about the supremely unique plot of The Big Lebowski. I came back to it this week for the saddest of reasons: the shocking and untimely death of the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays The Big Jeffrey Lebowski's assistant Brandt in the movie. The best tribute to the man's huge talent I could think of was to watch and enjoy his performance in this, one of my very favourite movies.

Like Raising Arizona but better, The Big Lebowski takes an even more trivial thing, namely an intruder relieving himself over the rug of a man called The Dude, and uses it as a catalyst to set in motion a Rube Goldberg machine of unconventional madness. There is a spark that lights in the opening scenes and continues until the closing credits roll. The imagination of it is startling, and I'd be hard pressed to think of a film I've ever enjoyed more. Anyway, if you want to read more about what I think of The Big Lebowski, check out the post I wrote a few months back. There, that's saved some time.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

This was the third time I tried to see this film. The first Saturday, my friend Michael couldn't find the time to come with me. A week later, my friend Chris came along as well. We first checked the Vue, but the times were too late. We then checked the Filmhouse, but the ideal times I found turned out to be for two week's time. We visited the Cameo, but they had sold out, and the Odeon weren't showing it at all. So, we ran across Edinburgh to the Dominion cinema at Morningside, where they told us that the film reel of Llewyn Davis hadn't arrived on time, so they had to push back the showing of it another week. At this point, we had run out of cinemas, so we retired to a pizza place and tried again on Monday, when two more friends, Lewis and Connor, came along to see the film at the Cameo again, where they let us in because we'd ordered the tickets. I was glad I did, because the Cameo has incredibly comfortable seating.

And, of course, Inside Llewyn Davis did not disappoint. The film opens with Oscar Isaac's pitch-perfect Davis performing to a packed bar in Greenwich Village, New York. As with every other song in the movie, the Coens just let it run for the entire length, allowing the cinema audience to become the crowd listening. The soundtrack is the movie, the movie is the soundtrack. Every tune is given the directors', and the audience's, full attention, and there is no other music that isn't performed in front of the camera. It may just prove to be one of my favourite soundtracks of all, in fact. Michael went home and bought the album immediately.

As vital as the music is to the story of folk musicians and the fickle world of the music industry, the tale of Llewyn Davis remains compelling independently. It's a melancholy picture, emphasised by the dark-green, brown and wet cinematography of Bruno Delbonnin, following the singer's journey around the Eastern United States over the course of a week. As the people around him win recording contracts and fame, Davis refuses to comply to the advice of others when they suggest he finds someone to perform with. He sleeps on the couches of people he is barely friends with, he is temperamental and blunt, and yet your heart breaks when a record producer responds to his soulful and pained performance with, 'I don't see any money here'.

Success is a reward which is seldom earned without compromise. As Davis walks around the wintry city, guitar case in one hand and symbolic cat in the other, he sees compromise as an insult to his former singing partner, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge. He doesn't enjoy the folk singing life, he sees it as the only career choice he can make that stops him from the horror of merely 'existing'. His problem is, the music world doesn't like him either, and so he is destined to keep moving between friends' apartments forever. Like a rolling stone. He will only ever achieve if he lets go of his old life, but perhaps he's missing all these opportunities on purpose, punishing himself and constantly reminding himself of how useless he is alone now his only partner is gone forever.

It really is an incredible and beautiful film. Make a point of going to see it if you haven't yet. It serves as another reminder of the genius and skill of the Coen brothers, and I can't wait to see what comes next from the two filmmakers who never seem to come down from the top of their game.

Please, Mr Kennedy, follow me on Twitter: @crunro

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