Saturday, April 30, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (True Grit)

Having spent 26 years making cartoonish genre pastiches, Joel and Ethan Coen finally deliver a relatively straightforward example of classical filmmaking with their fifteenth feature film, True Grit (2010).  The second bigscreen adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel – the first was a 1969 John Wayne vehicle – True Grit follows the adventures of fourteen-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, who is trying to locate and bring to justice the man (Josh Brolin) who killed her father.  Steinfeld enlists the help of U.S. Marshall Jeff Bridges, an expert on the rough territory where the killer is suspected to be hiding, and Texas Ranger Matt Damon, a man who has been tracking Brolin for a separate crime.  The motley trio eventually catches up to Brolin, but the film is less about the Steinfeld-Brolin conflict than it is about the young girl’s relationship with the two lawmen, who essentially serve as two possible father figures.

The Coen Brothers seem to be paying tribute to some of their own filmic father figures with the largely traditional aesthetic they are utilizing here.  Repeated use of the hymnal “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” calls to mind similar use of spirituals in Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown(1950), while a Bridges-Damon shooting contest is similar to several such scenes in Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950).  The gorgeous widescreen shot compositions call to mind a number of films by John Ford; in fact, one of the most iconic shots from The Searchers (1956) is replicated toward the end of True Grit.  In past films, the Coens used references to past films and filmic styles in a cynical, postmodern fashion, often mocking the same traditions that their own films were built around.  Think, for example, of their clumsy misuse of the aesthetics of Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and Frank Capra in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994).  At this point in their careers, the Coens are comfortable enough to work in an old-fashioned style (the western) without having to pretend that they are above it.  Where the Coens used to rely on sarcastic pastiche to drive their films forward, they can now tell their stories simply and with a technical mastery that makes them peers rather than imitators of the great filmmakers mentioned above.

The Coens had a strong grip on the technical nuts and bolts of filmmaking ever since their first film, Blood Simple (1984), but their skills have gradually improved over the years.  True Grit might be their most impressive film from a purely technical standpoint.  Cinematographer Roger Deakins has outdone himself again, doing for color cinematography what he did for black and white in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001).  Every shot is iconic and beautiful.  The editing – credited, as usual, to Coen pseudonym Roderick Jaynes – is dazzling, with the film’s stoic classicism being frequently punctuated by vividly brutal moments of violence.  Virtually all of the brothers’ films have contained at least one wild action setpiece, and True Grit has several particularly good ones.  My favorite is probably the horseback shootout that features one man falling and cracking his skull on a boulder, but a tense skirmish between Damon and a group of outlaws (seen largely from the distant vantage point of Bridges and Steinfeld) is a close runner up.  With the possible exception of No Country for Old Men (2007), True Grit is the most purely visceral and exciting of the Coens’ films.  Some of the action movie excitement is undercut by the abruptness of Steinfeld’s climactic showdown with Brolin, but at least the sense of anticlimax appears to be intentional and purposeful.

Steinfeld does manage to get her revenge on Brolin by shooting him and knocking him off of a cliff, but she (and the audience, who witness Brolin’s death from her viewpoint) doesn’t get to enjoy it for long.  The unexpected force of the gunshot knocks Steinfeld back into a cave where she is trapped in a vine and bitten by a snake.  Bridges, in his one truly heroic act in the entire film, manages to cut Steinfeld loose and get her to a doctor, but he has to kill her beloved horse to get there.  An epilogue set many years after the film’s events shows that our now one-armed heroine's preoccupation with revenge has left her a bitter, friendless spinster.  Her two father figures are also gone; Bridges has apparently died of natural causes while Damon has simply disappeared from Steinfeld’s life.  Though the characters’ religious convictions are presented with a straight face, True Grit is a movie set in an unstable, uncertain world, and haunted by brutal and apparently meaningless deaths.  In that sense, it’s actually a fairly logical follow-up to A Serious Man (2009), though hardly an obvious one.

Unlike A Serious Man, True Grit’s excellent cast is filled largely with big names.  Bridges’ performance is nearly as funny as his turn in The Big Lebowski (1998), and he manages to find some real pathos in between his blustery, mush-mouthed speeches and drunken stumbling.  Damon has rarely been as good as he is here, as a prima donna whose vanity makes an effective contrast to Bridges’ more rustic brand of braggadocio.  Brolin takes great advantage of his limited screen time, as does Barry Pepper, who has a vivid bit part as the leader of a gang that Brolin falls in with.  But the film really belongs to the previously unknown Steinfeld, who manages to make her character convincingly wise beyond her years without resorting to easy cuteness, while still never allowing the viewer to forget that her character is essentially a child trapped in a horrible situation.  The character work throughout the film is fantastic, and a good display of how far the Coens have come from the mocking stereotypes of their early films (and some recent ones, such as 2008’s Burn After Reading).  Who would’ve thought that a film as grown up as True Grit or A Serious Man could come from the guys who debuted with Blood Simple?

Having now seen all of the Coens’ features in chronological order, I still feel a bit on the fence about their work overall.  I generally find more things to like than dislike in their oeuvre.  Their versatility is impressive, as is their sheer technical ability (and that of their recurring collaborators).  The Coens’ films look and sound like little else in theatres, even when they are self-consciously aping other filmmakers and genres, and they almost always attract excellent casts.  On the other hand, most of their films present a condescending attitude toward their characters, an attitude that usually seems to be mitigated solely by the nuanced work of actors like Jeff Bridges or Billy Bob Thornton.  And while the brothers have an undeniable knack for creating oddball surfaces for their films, the social attitudes they express are often as banal as those of the average sitcom. 

But the good news is that the Coens seem to have largely evolved beyond the flaws of their earlier work.  A Serious Man and True Grit are their best films to date, the most narratively tight, all-around well performed, humane, and grown up movies that the Coens have made in their lengthy and prolific career.  (The recent No Country for Old Men is nearly on that same level, while The Big Lebowski is probably the best of the Coens’ pre-2000s work).  After 26 years, the Coen Brothers have finally become the excellent filmmakers that some critics claimed they were way back when they released Blood Simple.

Blood Simple (1984) = C
Raising Arizona (1987) = B-
Miller’s Crossing (1990) = C
Barton Fink (1991) = B
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) = C
Fargo (1996) = B
The Big Lebowski (1998) = B+
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) = B-
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) = B
Intolerable Cruelty (2003) = D+
The Ladykillers (2004) = C
No Country for Old Men (2007) = B+
Burn After Reading (2008) = C
A Serious Man (2009) = A-
True Grit (2010) = B+

Friday, April 22, 2011

Book Report: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt

Though best known for his stand-up comedy, Patton Oswalt has been successfully bringing his distinctive sensibility to a variety of mediums for years.  Because so much of Oswalt’s comedy revolves around his encyclopedic knowledge of and appreciation for high and low art, his appearances in films (ranging from Ratatouille to the underappreciated Big Fan) and television shows (including an extended cameo in Dollhouse and a recurring role on United States of Tara) are like stamps of quality.  Given Oswalt’s enviable versatility, it’s unsurprising to see him branching into the world of literature with the part-autobiography, part-comedy book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland.  And considering the high quality of the projects that Oswalt normally associates himself with, fans have every reason to have high hopes for his full-length print debut.

They won’t be let down, though the book is marred by its lack of a consistent throughline and by the unevenness inherent to essayistic literature by stand-ups.  Oswalt scores early with a grippingly detailed, hilariously worded, and movingly bittersweet chapter chronicling his misspent years as a directionless movie theatre usher whose cultured tastes (R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction was his soundtrack to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle) provide a contrast to his depressingly inert social life.   Oswalt displays a real talent for prose, and his voice makes an easy jump to the page.  But the less autobiographical chapters tend to seem like rough drafts of stand-up routines, minus the crucial vocal delivery that would sell the jokes.  A chapter about made up hobo folk songs might be hilarious if Oswalt were actually belting out the ridiculous lyrics onstage, but the jokes are only vaguely amusing in the context of the book.  And some of the more silly material would’ve been much more interesting and insightful if Oswalt would’ve drawn from real life rather than making up joke scenarios.  Surely the veteran script doctor has some amusing anecdotes about movies he’s been tangentially involved in, but the only allusion to this aspect of his career is an overlong note on improvements for a hypothetical romantic comedy script. 

Fortunately, the chapters tend to be short enough that even the less successful parts breeze by, while the more intriguing bits are infectiously re-readable.  A chapter about Dungeons & Dragons manages to make the game sound surprisingly fun without downplaying its essential nerdishness, while the titular chapter’s analysis of the three types of stories that young fiction writers tend to gravitate toward is simultaneously biting and touching.  Even the inevitable “shitty clubs I played when I was a struggling young comedian” chapter is full of trenchant social observations and vivid accounts of strip mall sleaze.  At only 189 pages, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland could be called slight, but its finest moments will leave readers restarting at page one and clamoring for a followup.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (A Serious Man)

To my mind, the first really successful Coen Brothers film was Barton Fink (1991), the duo’s Palme d’Or-winning take on the psychodrama.  In the years since that milestone in their oeuvre, the Coens have had many creative ups and downs while working in a variety of genres, often following up strong works such as No Country for Old Men (2007) with fairly mediocre misfires like Burn After Reading (2008).  While the brothers have a roughly equal hit and miss ratio with comedies, noirs, and action movies, they have had consistent success with the psychodrama (a genre they returned to winningly for 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There).  The psychodrama plays to the Coens’ strengths (mood building, flashy stylistic touches, quirky dialogue, mannered performances) while allowing them to sidestep their weaknesses (lack of narrative momentum, sitcomish social messages, unconvincing depictions of eras past, a condescending attitude toward their characters).  A Serious Man (2009) is the Coens’ best application of the psychodrama, and their best film to date, because it manages to actually overcome many of their persistent flaws rather than merely covering them up.  The film shows the brothers actually growing in artistic maturity rather than simply tightening up their always solid craftsmanship.

Psychodramas don’t really require a believable or “realistic” depiction of their setting, since these films are usually told almost entirely from the highly subjective perspective of their main characters.  This is ideal for the Coens, whose recreations of past eras have often been marred by glaring anachronisms and by the general feeling that the brothers’ knowledge of (and interest in) their settings doesn’t extend beyond the way that they’ve been depicted by popular culture.  This persistent failure is more of a liability in movies like Miller’s Crossing (1990) and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) than it is in psychodramas like Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There, since, again, the latter two are basically set in their main characters’ heads.  Still, while it doesn’t really matter that Barton Fink isn’t convincingly set in the ‘40s and The Man Who Wasn’t There doesn’t really have anything to say about the ‘50s, the feeling of pastiche does hurt the viewer’s immersion into those films’ worlds.  Barton often feels like a mashup of Lynch and Polanski, while The Man seems to be set in a James M. Cain novel rather than Billy Bob Thornton’s head.

There are no such obvious precedents for the style or setting of A Serious Man, whose tragicomic world feels like a logical and organic extension of the anxieties of Michael Stuhlbarg’s uptight mathematics professor, who tries to maintain his sanity as every aspect of his quiet suburban life seems to unravel at once.  Stuhlbarg’s wife (Sari Lennick) announces that she’s leaving him for ultra-smug community pillar Fred Melamed, while his kids (Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus) steal money from him and complain about the TV reception, and his intellectually brilliant yet socially retarded brother (Richard Kind) lays on the couch and complains for hours on end about his hardships.  The professor tries to deal with these problems through his faith, and the film is structured around his visits to three rabbis, each of whom is less helpful than the last.

The Coens do, unsurprisingly, make a lot of jokes at the expense of the Jewish religion specifically, and at the search for a “meaning” in the universe in general.  At the same time, and uncharacteristically, they show a genuine sympathy and understanding for those who do seek meaning.  Perhaps the Coens don’t reduce the world of A Serious Man to shallow, cynical mockery because they know its world so well.  Amongst other things, the film is about the awkwardness of being Jewish in the American Midwest, something that they experienced firsthand growing up in Minnesota.  Stuhlbarg’s character is reportedly based partially on the Coens’ father (who also worked in education), and it’s easy to imagine that many of the other characters are based on people that they remember from their childhood (and the perpetually stoned Wolff might be a stand-in for the filmmakers themselves).  It certainly helps that Stuhlbarg gives such a rich, nuanced performance, bringing real pathos to his character’s quest for meaning while still getting a lot of laughs out of his ever-mounting frustration.  The supporting cast is very strong as well, with the velvet-voiced Melamed in particular providing some hilariously deadpan line readings.  Aside from a brief misstep involving Stuhlbarg’s fantasy (?) about an intimidating neighborhood shiksa (Amy Landecker), there are no moments where the Coens seem to be looking down on their characters with contempt.

A Serious Man is not just a triumph for its cast, but for its writer-producer-directors as well.  The hyper-specificity of the Coens’ dialogue receives its fullest expression to date, the esoteric Jewish terminology playing out both more musically and more plausibly than the Midwestern hick speak in Fargo (1996).  While the film doesn’t have as much conventional “action” as most of the Coens’ other films, the hilarious visits to the rabbis more than fill the “outrageous setpiece” void. The use of music is typically strong.  Though Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” is a far more obvious music cue for this film’s late ‘60s setting than “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In” or “A Man of Constant Sorrow” were for The Big Lebowski (1998) or O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), it is played at such a volume and used in such constrained contexts that it feels as liberating (and scary) as it presumably did in 1967.  The setting is heightened enough to be funny and slightly surreal, but for the first time in their careers, the Coens have made something that seems fully grounded in the real world, something relevant to the shifting social codes of the era that it’s set in, and something that speaks honestly to the human condition.

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