A Tale of Two West Side Stories

I famously “hate musicals”, but I know I’m wrong. Both in live theater and in film, musicals carry massive cultural import that are beloved by millions, so the problem is most likely me. Perhaps some are indeed simply bad, but I don’t yet have the vocabulary to identify which ones and explain why.

A friend of mine who is literate in both film and musical theater suggested that it would be a useful exercise to watch the 1961 version of West Side Story and compare it to Steven Spielberg’s newly-released remake version.

I needed to develop a working theory of how musicals should be read or judged. I heard someone on a podcast say that one feature of the musical is that it is meant to be understood by people who don’t speak the language it’s performed in. Even if you don’t know the plot details, you should know from the songs how the characters feel. This might be more true of Opera than the modern musical, but the insight formalized a crucial piece of understanding: the songs in musicals are meant to convey the emotional content of the story. This is the lens through which I’ll attempt judge Spielberg’s effort to update West Side Story. In doing so, I’m hoping that I can knock loose a better appreciation of the form.

1961

West Side Story (1961) worked surprisingly well for me on an emotional level. The most prevalent cultural joke, and implicit critique, related to this film is how silly it is that the Jets and the Sharks dance and sing in a manner unbefitting the gangster personas that they are meant to embody. Yes, it takes a minute to acclimate to this — West Side Story is significantly more stagey than what I’m used to viewing. But the biggest ask in terms of suspension of disbelief is not the neighborhood toughs doing ballet twirls, it’s the central relationship. We have to believe in the love between Tony and Maria. If we don’t, the whole plot is inherently pretty ridiculous, because she sticks with the guy even after he murders her own brother in cold blood.

West Side Story (1961) accomplishes this not through the facts of the narrative, but by the charisma of its leads (Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer) and with the emotional impact of the songs. And the songs, to put it bluntly, are bangers. To my (untrained) ears they’re more melodic than what I’m used to hearing from modern musicals, and express the characters’ feelings in the moment instead of just being dialogue in song form. According to my friend, this is Leonard Bernstein’s super power.

By my estimation, Somewhere is the emotional centerpiece of West Side Story.

When you hear this song and see it performed by these leads, you understand that their relationship is not just what they see in each other after a very brief amount of time, but the potential to escape the conflict that they’ve been born into. Do they fall in love suddenly without knowing each other? Yes. But this song gives us reasonable clues as to why. The emotion carried by the melody itself brings us the rest of the way there.

2021

So why did West Side Story need an update? Well, per Spielberg:

“Divisions between un-likeminded people is as old as time itself. … And the divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were profound. But not as divided as we find ourselves today. It turned out in the middle of the development of the script, things widened, which I think in a sense, sadly, made the story of those racial divides – not just territorial divides – more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957.”

I don’t think that structural white supremacy is the same thing as “divisions between un-likeminded people”, so this pitch is hard to get behind. It’s also framed more as a mid-production realization than a fundamental reason for the remake. I think this movie exists mostly because Spielberg has done everything else in his career and thought filming his favorite musical would be fun. That’s fine, I guess. Let’s dive into what’s different.

As cinematic techniques gain sophistication over time, there’s a natural and perhaps unavoidable movement towards realism in films. We could almost take it as a given that Spielberg’s West Side Story would be less stagey and more grounded than its antecedent. It’s stunning to look at, richly textured and masterfully filmed with a kineticism that tracks with equally great choreography. At a base level, this is all-time great filmmaker with a huge budget. That alone is worth showing up for.

An increase in visual realism arguably demands a commensurate increase in narrative realism. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner definitely seem to believe this: in the opening seconds, we’re given a socioeconomic context for the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks. Both gangs are feeling the pressure of eviction as the city plans a slum clearance and construction of high-end apartments in their contested territory.

Some characters are given more detailed backstories: Tony (Ansel Elgort) has recently been released from prison after nearly beating a Shark to death, which is the reason for his reformation and reluctance to participate in the Jets/Shark conflict. He’s “scared of himself”. Also he’s on parole.

Other characters are simply made to explain themselves with more words. Riff (Mike Faist) opines:

“I don’t know who I am, and who cares who I am? Nobody, including me. I know that this dust that’s covering everything now, that’s the four-story buildings that was standing here when you went upstate a year ago. I wake up to everything I know either getting sold or wrecked or being taken over by people that I don’t like. And they don’t like me. Know what’s left outta all of that? The Jets. My guys. My guys who’re just like me.”

Reading this back, it almost feels like an attempt to make the Jets’ racism seem relatable or understandable. Or sorry, their “divisions between un-likeminded people”.

In many cases, plot points and thematic elements that were implicit in the original are made explicit. The Jets’ attempted rape of Anita is called what it is. Anybody’s, a queer-coded but textually female character in the 1961 version, is portrayed as unambiguously transmasculine.

Fundamentally, Spielberg has given us a more information-rich version of West Side Story. Mercifully and impressively, this only results in about five extra minutes of runtime. But does all of this information serve the movie’s function as a musical? Again, I am focusing on how the film conveys emotional beats via the songs.

The songs themselves are still the songs: bangers. Their performances are mostly beautifully executed, in some cases exhilaratingly so. However, more realism and context around them adds little to their emotional function.

One song-related choice that baffled me was the displacement of Somewhere to the end of the story, where it is sung by Rita Moreno’s shopkeeper character over a montage. Arguably this version broadens the song’s meaning to be about a community rather than two people, but that sacrifices its vital contribution to our investment in the Tony/Maria relationship.

But even a great performance of Somewhere wouldn’t have salvaged the love story: I did not buy it here, mostly due to the complete mishandling of Tony. The changes to the character in the script combined with Ansel Elgort’s oafish screen presence make him come off as dumb and desperate, a far cry from the bright-eyed dreamer Richard Beymer portrayed in 1961. Newcomer Rachel Zegler does what she can opposite him, but at times it’s not clear why she even likes Tony, let alone loves him. I expected Spielberg and Kushner to slow-burn the romance a bit to make it easier to believe, but Tony and Maria’s connection is if anything even more sudden and aggressive than in the original. More backstory didn’t help at all.

The characters in the original West Side story were by nature more symbolic and archetypical than they were grounded and layered. By attempting to make them more of the latter, it’s possible that Spielberg and Kushner only succeeded in undercutting the emotional punch of the entire story.

Bernardo is super hot, though!

Spider-Man: No Way Home

SPOILERS AHEAD

Even during these doldrums of late-stage Marvel fatigue, I was hyped for Spider-Man: No Way Home. The Tom Holland entries to the canon have managed to be utterly charming and relatively low-stakes when compared to their self-important and bloated mainline Avengers installments. The strong implication that No Way Home would also include spider-men and spider-villains past was enough to temporarily revert my psyche to that of my circa 2007 self: really, really excited to see Spidey up on the screen.

Here’s the thing: No Way Home delivers the goods, just way too much of them. After a kinetic first act, proceedings drag to a baffling degree: nearly every scene in the movie overstays its welcome by several minutes. It’s not a long movie in terms of plot content, it’s a short movie dragged out to be a long movie with unnecessary business.

Even moments that had me screaming with joy at the outset ran on for an uncomfortable duration. One of the MacGuire/Garfield/Holland scenes that should have been a cathartic moment for longtime fans felt like an extended and unfunny SNL sketch. The meandering excess of every sequence made the pacing feel more like a Disney+ miniseries than a feature film. This is doubly frustrating because I enjoyed most of the plot beats and character moments in the movie, and adored quite a few — the movie just wasn’t edited down to a digestible shape.

I’m not sure what drove this editing decision. Do movies just need to be too long for streaming now? Would No Way Home have really made Marvel and Sony significantly less money if it had been forty minutes shorter? Is this how cinema dies? Help me out here!

Learned: This is really screenwriting 101 stuff: enter late, leave early. LEAVE. EARLY. But you can still make one and a half billion dollars by not leaving early, so nothing means anything I guess!

The Power of the Dog

I would argue that what Campion does in The Power of the Dog is a more subtle version of what Christopher Nolan does in many of his films: she creates a puzzle for the viewer.

SPOILERS AHEAD. WATCH THE MOVIE FIRST.

I watched my first Jane Campion film, The Piano, last year out of respect for the G.O.A.T. Holly Hunter (bless her name). I enjoyed it, but seeing The Power of the Dog cemented Campion in my mind as a rare filmmaker who leverages the medium in specifically innovative ways. This is what I’m always chasing as a viewer: what can cinema do that other forms of storytelling can’t?

I would argue that what Campion does in The Power of the Dog is a more subtle version of what Christopher Nolan does in many of his films: she creates a puzzle for the viewer. Most won’t see the whole picture of the story until the very end, and even then it could take some pondering or even a rewatch before things come clearly into focus.

How is this puzzle set up? On the surface, the events of the film are straightforward and by themselves don’t really comprise a story. Here’s what technically happens in The Power of the Dog:

– A man (Phil) bullies a woman and her son (Peter)
– Phil’s brother marries woman
– Phil befriends Peter
– Phil dies from an infected wound

But in the end, we realize there’s an entire sub-narrative happening between these beats that is conveyed with hints from visuals, performance, and subtext. This is the story:

– A man (Phil) bullies woman and her son (Peter)
– Phil’s brother marries woman
– Peter discovers Phil’s weaknesses
– Peter gains Phil’s trust
– Peter kills Phil

It’s a revenge story. Peter repays the trauma that Phil inflicted on his mother, but it’s almost as hidden from us as it is from Phil. Campion is asking us to put this sub-narrative together ourselves. The characters themselves don’t necessarily arc, but if we solve the puzzle, our perception of them changes drastically.

Maybe the most brilliant hint is the rabbit sequences. As viewers, the second a cute little animal appears in a darker drama we just know it’s not long for this world. Popular film language tells us that it’ll be killed to demonstrate the monstrousness of the villain, who we assume is Phil. When the timid and frail Peter ends up calmly dissecting the animal, we’re initially confused, but we’re being shown who the monster actually is. Campion subverts our expectation and then reverts it when we finally understand what was going on all along.

Learned: Get your viewers to connect the dots themselves, making them an active participant in the storytelling. This is a pretty advanced technique for a n00b writer like myself, but it’s something to aspire to.

Quick Takes October/November

If you know me, you know why I am morally obligated to weigh in on a new James Bond film.

October was the Month of Television with me as I blazed through an unprecedented three series, two of which I will comment on here (my head is still spinning re: Succession). And of course, If you know me, you know why I am morally obligated to weigh in on a new James Bond film. Let’s goooooooo!

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ALL OF THESE SHOWS AND MOVIIES

Midnight Mass

I went into Midnight Mass with absolutely no information other than the title and the fact that Hamish Linklater plays a creepy-looking priest. All The Big Short alums instantly earn my attention, so I hit play in hopes of some sPoooKy fun.

Fun is not what occurs in Midnight Mass. The show’s lack of commitment to any genre makes the first three or so episodes difficult to get through: we’re not sure if we’re watching a small-town drama, a religious thriller, or a supernatural horror series. We receive enough hints of the latter two options to keep us going, but at the cost of a lot of extremely talky and slow-moving sequences of sad-sack Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) awkwardly existing in his Stephen King-sian island home town and re-connecting with high school crush and sweater-wearer Erin Greene (Kate Siegel).

In terms of identifiable screenwriting issues, this protagonist is extraordinarily inactive. Riley is not at home for any perceptible necessity, and is not trying to do anything in particular. This lack of causal fulcrum makes the show frustratingly meandering until the vampires show up.

Oh yeah! The vampires!

The appearance of a blood-sucking flying monster brings much-needed action but also a head-scratching layer of incoherence to the proceedings, especially given the religious ideas that the show has dealt with so far. So are angels actually vampires? Vampires actually angels?

The show also wants us to think (or at least consider) that vampirism just a scientifically explainable disease. So is the big vampire is just in the latest stages of that disease? If so, why the claw-ed wings and the ability to fly? We don’t know, and the show isn’t interested in letting us find out. But finding out is usually the most compelling part of a show of this type.

Thematic incoherence follows logical incoherence: we don’t know if the town’s religious hysteria is directed at anything real, so we don’t know how to view it in context of what the show is trying to say about human nature, or belief, or anything.

I wasn’t familiar with Mike Flanagan’s work before the show, but apparently he has a penchant for monologuing, which is absolutely out of control here. Show don’t tell? Yeah right, not in Mike’s world. Why show a story beat in two shots when you can accomplish the same thing in a three-minute anecdote about something tangentially related to the story beat?

Learned: Since Midnight Mass has been described as Mike Flanagan’s “passion project”, I think the best takeaway might be to never make a passion project. Kill you passions before they become boring television that only makes sense to you.

Squid Game

What can I really say about the global phenomenon that hasn’t been said? It’s brilliant, inventive, weird, messy, disappointing, and thrilling.

It might be worth just talking about the ways in which squid game inspired me personally, and the (smaller) ways in which it didn’t.

The first thing that hit me about Squid game was the sheer inventiveness of the concept, which is interesting because taking a step back, it isn’t at all new. The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, Saw, and plenty of others have all done different takes on the compete-for-your life subgenre.

So what made Squid game feel so fresh? I think it has to do with the details of the execution, especially in the design of the games themselves and the whole system that surrounds them. We understand early on that there will be games and the losers will die. The suspense comes from how specifically that will play out, and in what decisions that the characters will be forced to to make.

Maybe the best example of this is the Dalgona candy sequence, in which the characters are given a seemingly innocuous choice of four different simple shapes. We have no clue what these shapes will mean, but one character, Sang-Woo (Park Hae-soo) does. With this knowledge, he must decide whether to help his fellow players, or let them make a mistake that could kill them.

Squid Game gives us characters that we like and understand, and then pushes them to the absolute brink to show us who they really are. To tie it into my favorite Coen Brothers quote: “We get you invested, then shake the floor”.

Where the show broke down a bit for me was its need to give us a couple of last-episode reveals that if anything undercut the strong character work that was built up. I couldn’t come up with with a thematic point that the reveals underlined — they seemed to be there just for the sake of surprise. The show had so much dramatic power in its central engine that the gotchas felt cheap and meaningless, and also not the best setup for a second season.

Learned: Character is built by decisions made until pressure. Shake the floor hard.

No Time to Die

In February of 2020, my friend Laura and I came to the sad realization that pragmatically, we would probably never get around to watching every single James Bond movie.

Unless… we dared each other to watch one every single day for 24 days. We threw in the two non-canonical Bond movies for good measure, topped the month off with Austin Powers, and the 29 days of Bond February was born. It was a true test of endurance and sanity, but we came out on the other side with priceless confidence in the knowledge that NO ONE has seen more Bond than us.

Therefore it was with great anticipation that I approached the long-delayed No Time to Die, since I am now a leading authority on the subject.

I could easily nit-pick the film, but I had fun watching it and was engaged for all of its (very long) runtime. Fun set pieces, entertaining new characters (Ana De Armas and Lashana Lynch), and a third act that was one big callback to Dr. No made this a worthy conclusion to the comparatively outstanding Daniel Craig entries of the series.

This got me thinking about how the franchise could logically move forward, which I think boils down to one important question: what is the dramatic engine of James Bond?

While you can change his external features, Bond’s nucleus has to remain intact: he’s fundamentally a hardened killer who does not allow personal matters to get in the way of his job. Because of this, there’s really only one way for any semblance of an arc to be introduced into a Bond film: give him someone to care about against his better judgement, and then take that person away from him, either by their death or betrayal (or, in Casino Royale, both simultaneously). This breaks down his hard exterior and reveals a human man underneath. No Time to Die repeats the betrayal beat (then takes it back), which might be a bit predictable, but again, there’s not many other things to do with him.

Then my thought experiment became the following: what would happen if you reversed that dramatic arrow, starting with Bond as human and then showing how he loses that? Would it still be a Bond Movie? Just a thought, I dunno.

However I do have a pitch for the next Bond: Make James Bond Kinda Lame Again. We all fell in love with the super cool, super buff, super not embarrassing Craig Bond, but what if we headed back into Roger Moore territory of corny uncoolness? I think this is what we need to breathe life into the franchise, and there’s only one actor for the job:

Yes, big-eared softboi and The Crown‘s Prince Charles, Josh O’Connor. Unfortunately, googling “Josh O’Connor Bond” only yields the result of Josh O’Connor stating in an interview “I will not do Bond”, but let me dream, OK???

Learned: The distinctive core of a franchise character can limit the narrative choices that you can make, but that limitation must actually make for a really interesting writing challenge.

Last Night in Soho

LNIS_FP_005_R2 Thomasin McKenzie stars as Eloise and Anya Taylor-Joy as Sandie in Edgar Wright’s LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC

Last Night in Soho marks the arrival of Edgar Wright as a true auteur — i.e. a director who is successful to the point that everyone is afraid to tell him his script is a complete mess with nothing coherent to say. You can tell that meaningful notes were not sought out or given during the writing process, because Last Night in Soho is full of first draft problems.

Last Night in Soho is about Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), an aspiring fashion designer who leaves her home in the British countryside for London.

What happens next is as hard to explain as it is to comprehend while watching: Eloise has vivid waking (and not waking) dreams even before she arrives in London, but when she gets there, her apartment is also perhaps haunted. The dreams/hallucinations take an intense turn, with Eloise inhabiting the persona a woman who was possibly murdered there in the 1960s every time she goes to sleep. Here’s the first first-draft problem: Wright should have chosen either the hallucinations or the ghosts, or at least make it more clear how or if they are interacting with each other. As written, it’s incredibly confusing.

Last Night in Soho is on its surface meant to be a film about nostalgia: Eloise’s fascination with the 1960s is emphasized well, emphatically. However, that thematic line is not played out in any coherent way. The film fails to draw a meaningful distinction between the SoHo of the past and the SoHo of today, with both portrayed as a relentless hellscape for women with lots of colorful and moody lighting. Despite her discovery that the past is pretty scary, Eloise finds success and praise for her retro dress designs at the end of the film. Has her relationship with the past changed at all? If this is meant to be an indictment of nostalgia, it isn’t a very strong or clear one.

Edgar Wright’s approach to the experience of being a women is a predictable brand of nice-guy condescension. It’s implied that Eloise had never been harassed by random men before coming to the BIG CITY, as though seedy urban environments are really the problem, not, you know, men. Eloise is also given a saintly male love interest who is designed to make Scott Pilgrim fanboys comfortable. They can point and declare that they are like that guy: Nice To Women!

This note COULD be a nit-pick if the rest of the script was written better, but it’s actually worth pointing out that the entire plot, including the “twist”, hinges on the fact that the old actors do not look like their younger counterparts. This feels like a cheat because in any kind of realistic context knowing who the villain is would just be an observational no-brainer.

Learned: No one is so good that their first draft works.

Quick Takes August/September

Hi. After several abortive attempts to resurrect this blog that I didn’t have time to execute, I’m going to try writing about what I’m watching to capture what I learned (or didn’t learn) about storytelling. Here we go. 

The White Lotus

Mike White’s Hawaiian resort set mini series is the closest thing to a filmed adaptation of the iconic subreddit r/AmITheAssHole that we’re ever going to get. That question is the best way to describe nearly every permutation of character interactions that make up the show, and with a few exceptions, the answer is ESH: Everyone Sucks Here.

Bleak? Yes, very. White doesn’t give us a character that we can back 100%, which in less skilled hands could be a real problem. But like that subreddit that I spend too much time scrolling through, these dynamics are so interesting and so painfully realistic that you can’t look away. The promise of a dead body given in the show’s first moments wasn’t even necessary to keep me glued to the screen.

As a side note, Mike White being a huge fan of (and participant in) reality TV make me feel better about the fact that I’ve watched five seasons of Love Island in a fiscal year.

Learned: You don’t need any conceptual bells and whistles to make something incredibly compelling IF you’re good enough at writing characters.

Meanwhile, at Hulu…

Nine Perfect Strangers

When compared to The White Lotus, this ended up being a useful study in suspense versus mystery. Nine Perfect Strangers leans heavily on the implication that the strangers in question, and their weirdo Galadriel meets Gwyneth host played by Nicole Kidman, are hiding a lot. Much of the character information is doled out via rapid-cut silent flashbacks, which compared to the sharp character writing in White Lotus feels like a tiresome cheat.

I was mildly interested in the mechanics of what Kidman was trying to do to these people (mystery), but getting there wasn’t enough fun for me to stick around. I made it about five episodes before jumping ship.

Learned: A Big Question isn’t enough to sustain drama. You have to have interesting stuff going on the entire time.

Another Round

Mads Mikkelsen – Another Round

In September, I was thinking a lot about what it means for a film to have a concept, or premise. It’s easy to know it when you see it (or don’t see it) but a bit hard to define concretely. One way to say it could be the following: a good premise is an idea that inherently suggests character action.

An example I heard discussed on a podcast recently was Bruce Almighty:

Jim Carrey becomes God for a week.

That is a premise. I could have a decent idea of how to approach writing it. As a counterexample, Napoleon Dynamite does not have a premise. It is about a strange person’s boring life. Am I saying Bruce Almighty is better than Napoleon Dynamite? No. Napoleon Dynamite is one of the great films and you can quote me on that. But its creation was an act of God that cannot be replicated.

I am not Jared Hess (or Mike White) and it is not 2004, so if I want to get paid to write someday, I need to stick to punchy concepts. This month I was on a five-hour flight, so I decided to go through the airline’s selection of streamable films to hunt for premises. After a few minutes I came across the description for Another Round:

Four high school teachers embark on an experiment to see if a constant level of alcohol in their blood will improve their lives.

Hell yes. Now we are talking. Hijinks must ensue!

I won’t go too far into analyzing the filmmaking of Another Round, but it was an absolute joy to watch and delivered on its premise in both humorous and heartbreaking ways. I did cry on the airplane.

I think this exercise was useful in separating out the ideas of premise/concept and world. Generally, when people think “high-concept”, they think elaborate world building, which in turn implies budget, vfx, and genre. The two can go together and frequently do, but they are not the same thing. Another Round is a concept-driven film populated by normal people in a normal place. Just because you have a lot of fancy visual stuff in your idea does not mean that you have a solid concept.

Learned: Concept-driven does not equal big budget genre studio film.

Motherless Brooklyn

This was another film that I found on my airplane premise hunt. The concept is not as strong as Another Round, but a 1950’s PI with Tourette’s syndrome was hooky enough for me. And having just visited Brooklyn for the first time, I was an easy mark.

Based on a novel, Motherless Brooklyn contains lots of interesting New York history, but the characters are all fictional. I think this is a better way to do historical drama. Being married to the facts can bring a lot of tedium and stilted storytelling to these type of period films, and the visuals frequently follow in the same boring vein.

This movie was… just really cute? The small-time gumshoes played by Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bobby Cannavale, and Dallas Roberts have a sweetness to their dynamic that you don’t see often in this type of movie. These guys really care about each other, and that’s what holds our interest more so than whatever detective plot mechanics are going on in the background. This warmth makes Motherless Brooklyn feel like a lot more than the sum of its fairly basic parts.

Learned: Warm character relationships go a long way towards making a movie fun to watch. We care about characters when we see them caring about each other.

Ocean’s 13/ Ocean’s 8

I joined my friend as she went through the Ocean’s movies for the first time, giving me the chance to watch Ocean’s 13 and Ocean’s 8 back to back. This afforded a stark illustration of the difference between great and just passable screenwriting. I’m not going to do a full forensic analysis of what went wrong with Ocean’s 8, but I will focus in on one moment that was illuminating for me.

My working understanding of plot is that events need to follow each causally, not just temporally. Matt Stone and Trey Parker formulate this idea as the “But and Therefore Rule”: between each plot event, you need to be able to insert a “but” or a “therefore”, not just a “then”.

In Ocean’s 8, Sandra Bullock gets out of prison, and THEN wants to rob the Met Gala. The screenwriters are aware of this glaring THEN in the middle of their first act, so they try to turn it into a THEREFORE with dialogue (recreated by me in WriterDuet): 

Not even Cate Blanchett’s character is buying this narrative band-aid. If anything, the problem is made worse by drawing attention to it.

I also can’t help but feel that Bullock was miscast as the lead here. She plays Debbie as “cool” and unaffected, which just reads as her not taking much joy in any of the fun crimes she’s committing. This is agonizing, because robbing the Met Gala is the most fun crime I can think of!

On a bright note, Anne Hathaway’s performance is incredible and it alone makes the movie worth watching.

Learned: Do not try to fix fundamental story issues by acknowledging them in dialogue.

The Coen Project Part 18: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Buster Scruggs is about people facing death and what comes after death. Each short gives us a different version of this through the lens of a different familiar western trope.

Coming to you live from a new ortholinear split keyboard that I don’t fully know how to use. I’m hoping that my new inability to type over ten words per minute will knock some well of latent creativity loose in my brain. I am as of yet unclear on how to write a parentheses or an exclamation point, so this may be a fruitful exercise in prosaic economy. We’ll see how it goes.

In 2018 The Coen Brothers did the most 2018 thing possible, joining the wave of Netflix auteurism with a western anthology film, something they most likely wouldn’t have been able to get away with in a traditional release.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs consists of six short films, each exploring a different facet of the Western genre. While the shorts range from serious to outright cartoony, there’s one obvious throughline — they’re dark. Really dark, even for the Coens. It’s tempting to think that the directors have arrived at some kind of nihilistic logical extreme, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. I’d argue that the relentless and at times uncomfortable bleakness of Buster Scruggs is more a product of its format than any other factor.

Due to the nature of our work, my friends and I are shown more animated short films than the average citizen. The ones we see are usually well made, but over the years we’ve noticed that they frequently border on emotional manipulation. Why? My working theory is that in order to stand out in a competitive field of shorts, creators feel the need to pack a feature-length level of emotional impact into a running time of under ten minutes.

The Buster Scruggs shorts operate similarly, but with violence and death instead of emotionalism. If you’ve only got less than twenty minutes, something has to happen, and it takes a lot longer to earn a happy ending without being trite.

I’m not going to go into all of them in equal depth into all of the shorts, but I’ll try to touch on how they build on each other thematically. After several watches, it became clear to me that Buster Scruggs is about people facing death and what comes after death. Each short gives us a different version of this through the lens of a different familiar western trope.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The title track of the anthology combines the blood-drenched depravity of Westworldwith the cheerful goofiness of singing cowboy heroes like Roy Rodgers, or more recently, Hobie Doyle.

Taken by itself, this is mostly a fun musical experiment and an excuse to let Tim Blake Nelson do his thing for seventeen minutes. But after a second viewing I realized that Scruggs introduces the major thematic thread of the anthology.

When Buster Scruggs is ultimately defeated by a newer singing sharpshooter, his soul leaves his perforated body and floats up to heaven on literal wings as he sings the Oscar-nominated song “When a Cowboy Gets His Wings”.

In voiceover, this is how Buster Scruggs frames his death:

I’ll see all of you sonofaguns in the bye and bye and we can sing them sweet airs together, and shake our heads over all that meanness in the used-to-be.

This feels a little odd because we just saw him murder a whole bunch of people. Buster does not apparently subscribe to a transactional theological model.

Near Algodones

The second short features James Franco as a bank robber who goes through an alternating series of lucky and and unlucky occurrences. After cheating death several times, he finally ends up sentenced to death by hanging for a crime he didn’t commit.

Here we get our next version of a confrontation with death. The robber is remarkably chill about it. Next to the him on the gallows is an old man who is crying uncontrollably out of fear. The robber looks over and remarks: “First time?”.

For me this short is mostly significant for its inclusion of one of the great Coen-isms, “sumbitch”, which has made appearances in Raising Arizona and O Brother Where Art Thou.

Meal Ticket

I will be honest: I spent the majority of this short’s run time screaming “IS THAT LIAM NEESON???” at my laptop screen.

Yes Christine, that is Liam Neeson, playing a sideshow impresario whose sole attraction is a limbless man (Harry Melling), listed in the credits as “The Artist,” who dramatically recites various passages from the English canon.

If the average person’s life in the Coen Brothers’ West is pretty bad, try being disabled. The Artist is smarter than the impresario, but has no power in their dynamic due to his physical difference. His talent appears superhuman to his audience, but he’s treated as sub-human, ultimately replaced by a literal animal.

The Artist’s death scene isn’t even shown on screen. Because he has no autonomy as a person, he doesn’t get to confront death on his own terms. Like his life, his death is orchestrated by those born with more power than him.

All Gold Canyon

All Gold Canyon offers a welcome relief from the literal and spiritual darkness of Meal Ticket — it’s a master class in landscape cinematography that made me angry I missed the film in theaters. They clearly had to lean pretty heavily into CG to execute it, but it’s beautifully done. Definitely better use of a CGI deer than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (never forget).

Plot-wise, it’s a man-versus-nature story that turns into a man-versus-man story. An old prospector (Tom Waits) painstakingly figures out the location of a vein of gold, only to be ambushed by an opportunistic thief.

The prospector comes out on top in the struggle despite getting shot in the stomach: “IT WENT CLEAN THROUGH! IT DIDN’T HIT NOTHING IMPORTANT”. Our geriatric hero faces down death and beats it fair and square.

This us our first and only happy ending of the anthology. And boy is it gonna go downhill from here.

The Gal Who Got Rattled

The Gal Who Got Rattled is the most fully realized story of the anthology, but it falls most unfortunately victim to the short film syndrome I mentioned earlier. This segment is so good, yet has such an unfair bummer of an ending.

The titular Gal is Alice Longabough (Zoe Kazan), sister of Gilbert Longabough (Jefferson Mays). Both Longaboughs are heading to Oregon via wagon train, looking forward to a theoretical business opportunity for Gilbert and a theoretical prospect of marriage for Alice when they get there.

Alice is smarter than her brother but has to endure his condescension and play along with his bone-headed schemes for the sake of her own survival. When Gilbert dies on the trail, Alice is forced to deal with his posthumous business ineptitude.

A chance to escape this joke of a life happens when Alice meets Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), a trail hand who feels similarly trapped in his situation. What follows is an incredibly sweet series of interactions that make Alice’s ultimate death pretty much unbearable to witness. Zoey Kazan and Bill Heck do way too good of a job making us love these people.

If this were a feature length effort, I’d have to imagine we’d get a happy or at least happier ending for our ultra-endearing romantic pairing. There would be plenty of dark moments along the way to temper the ultimate victory.

Despite leaving me feeling personally victimized, Gal gets to the meat of what the anthology has been hinting at thematically. A lot of this plays out in conversations between Alice and Billy. Alice explains her late brother’s worldview in contrast to her own experience.

He had very fixed political beliefs. All of his beliefs were quite fixed, even those that…fortune did not tend to endorse. He would upbraid me for being ‘wishy-washy’. I never had his certainties. I suppose it’s a defect.

Billy has spent enough time dealing with the hardships of the trail to know Gilbert’s certitude is an illusion:

Down the ages, from our remote past, what certainties survive? And yet we hurry to fashion new ones. Wanting their comfort.

This sentence could work as a thesis statement for much of the Coen’s filmography. It reminds me of the opening monologue from Blood Simple:

But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or even Man of the Year– something can always go wrong.

In light of this conversation, the ending of Gal at least makes sense — it’s a harsh enforcement of the truth of Billy’s outlook.

Billy also says the following:

Uncertainty——that is appropriate for the matters of this world. Only regarding the next are we vouchsafed certainty.

He’s talking about the afterlife, but it’s not clear if he means that he’s certain that there is one and he knows what it’s going to be, or that he won’t be certain about anything until he actually gets there and finds out. Buster Scruggs got to take his afterlife for granted. Is Billy correct in doing the same?

The Mortal Remains

Saul Rubinek is Frenchman, Tyne Daly is Lady, and Chelcie Ross is Trapper in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

The last short takes place in a stagecoach headed to Fort Morgan and consists mostly of a conversation among five characters. They are an old trapper (Chelcie Ross), a married religious lady (Tyne Daly), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), and two bounty hunters: Thigpin (Jonjo O’Neil) and Clarence (Brendan Gleeson).

Mortal Remains is a discussion of the theme present in all of the prior shorts: the human confrontation with death. The journey of the stagecoach and its arrival at the Fort Morgan hotel is an allegory for this confrontation. Once I figured this out, every line of dialogue and character action took on a clear significance.

At the beginning of the characters’ discussion, it is mentioned that only the bounty hunters have been to Fort Morgan before. For the other three, it’s their first time. The bounty hunters sit on the opposite side of the stagecoach from the others, giving us a clear visual barrier. Thigpin and Clarence have experienced death, the others haven’t.

The three non-bounty hunter characters express differing theories about humanity.

The Trapper believes that people are fundamentally knowable:

People are like ferrets. Or a beaver. All pretty much alike…I don’t doubt it’s the same even if you travel to Siam.

The Lady pushes back against this idea, asserting that people are not all alike, but instead are distinguished by their morality or lack thereof, as defined by religion:

People are not like ferrets. And I speak not on my own authority, but on that of the Holy Bible.

The Frenchman argues that we can’t actually know each other, only ourselves.

I know we must each spin our own wheel, and play our own hand. I cannot bet for you. Porquoi Pas? I cannot know you, not to this degree… We may call each other friend, but but we cannot know each other so.

The Lady again appeals to moral authority, saying that the Frenchman’s argument is invalid because he has pursued a life of “vice and dissipation”.

Eventually the Lady gets so worked up by the Frenchman’s attack on her reality that she almost passes out. The Frenchman tries to get the driver to stop the stagecoach, but Thigpin flatly informs him that the coachman will not stop. It’s policy. The road to death can’t be halted for anyone.

Once the commotion has died down, Thigpin and Clarence proceed to explain the nature of their work as hired assassins. Their M.O. is that Thigpin tells a story to distract their target so that Clarence can kill them. The stories are crucial to the operation:

People can’t get enough of them, like little children. Because, well, they connect the stories to themselves, I suppose. And we all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us, but notus. Not us in the end especially. The Midnight Caller gets him, not me. I’ll live forever.

Stories can distract us like they distract Thigpin and Clarence’s victims. But they also allow us to rehearse life events by living them second hand (us, but not us). This is especially true of death. We’ll only ever experience it once for real, but will have witnessed hundreds of people die on screen and in books before our time comes.

Thigpin goes on to describe the moment his victims die:

It’s always interesting watching them, once Clarence has worked his art. Watching them negotiate the passage… Watching them try to make sense of it as they pass to that other place.

The lady asks him if they ever succeed in making sense of it.

How would I know? I’m only watching.

At this moment the stagecoach abruptly stops — they’ve arrived at Fort Morgan. Thigpin and Clarence hop out and start to haul in their body, but the three passengers are hesitant to go into the hotel and face their (allegorical) deaths.

The Lady states that she must be helped down from the stagecoach. When the trio are at the door, she demands that one of the two men open the door for her. She expects this passage to be laid out for her with no surprises. In both cases, she is helped by the Trapper.

The Frenchman is the last to go in. He watches the stagecoach drive away — no turning back. After a long pause he puts his hat on and then enters the hotel confidently, shutting the doors behind him.

Each of the three characters have an incomplete version of reality, but the Frenchman’s outlook seems to prepare him the best for his confrontation with death and whatever comes after. Animals don’t think about death. We do, and that’s not insignificant. We can’t assume that there’s nothing on the other side, but we can’t act like we know precisely what it is (or isn’t) either. Both are paths of certainty, which Billy Knapp describes as “the easy path”. The Frenchman rejects certainty, so he’s the most equipped to “negotiate the passage” into the unknown.

The Coen Project Part 17: Hail Caesar!

Mannix is a Christ figure, shouldering the sins of the actors he supervises to protect the films they appear in. A martyr for the cinema, Mannix receives none of the glory or wealth of his actor counterparts, but sacrifices the comforts of a normal life to the altar of storytelling.

I am normally chill about trailers. Some of my friends go out of their way to avoid seeing them, but I assume that their effect on my viewing experience will be negligible. This assumption was proven faulty when I saw the Coens’ seventeenth feature, Hail Caesar!

Based on my multiple viewings of the trailer on youtube, I expected a heavily plotted noir-comedy centered on the kidnapping of George Clooney’s movie star character. When the film I was looking forward to did not materialize on screen, my lizard brain deduced that Hail Caesar! was just an unfocused mess. I loved all of the scenes, but I was confused as to what they were supposed to coalesce into.

Re-watching the film two years later after I had forgotten why it disappointed me was an entirely different experience. The synopsis listed on Amazon video gave me a more accurate sense of the film’s intent than the trailer had: “Hail Caesar! follows a day in the life of a studio fixer”.

And as a day in the life of a studio fixer, it works fantastically. All other plot threads are ancillary to Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) and the decision that he has to make by the end of the day: whether or not to leave his job at Capitol Pictures for a cushier gig at an Lockheed.

Knowing what the film wasn’t left me free to enjoy the scenes featuring the actors under Mannix’s purview without expecting them to be propulsive plot points. These vignettes are so disconnected from each other that they could be reworked as short films; they’re also arguably the most fun comedic pieces the Coens have done.

The standout set of scenes features Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a specialist in corny westerns who has been transplanted onto the set of a romantic comedy helmed by auteur director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Things do not go well for Hobie, who hasn’t spoken many lines of dialogue in his career beyond “Whoah there”.

Hail Caesar’s production history dates back to 1999, when Joel and Ethan pitched George Clooney a “thought experiment” in which he would play an idiot 1920’s matinee idol — an opportunity to complete the “Numbskull Trilogy” that he began with O Brother Where Art Thou and Burn After Reading.

The project remained a thought experiment for over a decade. According to Joel: “Hail Caesar! is a movie that George Clooney keeps announcing to the press every couple of years, and it doesn’t even exist as a script; it’s only an idea.” By 2013 the Coens finally conceded that there was a “good chance” that Hail Caesar! would follow Inside Llewyn Davis as their seventeenth release.

Depicting the Golden Age studio system at the height of its post-war machinery, Hail Caesar! is the Coens’ most fully realized period piece, filmed with vintage techniques and richly textured production design at a where’s-where of classic Los Angeles locations. But these are the Coens, so it’s no doe-eyed “love letter”: the fakery of Hollywood’s most outwardly glamorous era is lambasted in every scene.

The film industry takedown is what most critics focused on. But Hail Caesar! goes one step further, replacing the facade with something more meaningful. Returning to a broader theme of narrative explored in O Brother Where Art Though,  Hail Caesar!  is a celebration the human duty of storytelling and the sacrifices that it demands.

Religion as a motif is present from the opening shots. We see a crucifix followed by Eddie Mannix in confession, boring the priest with some very minor sins. Later, Mannix holds a meeting with representatives of four religious traditions to get their opinion on the script of Capitol Picture’s tentpole release, Hail Caesar: A Story of the Christ. This devolves into a heated but pointless theological debate. (Highlight: “God’s a bachelor, and he’s very angry.”)

But unlike the theological exploration that is A Serious Man, Hail Caesar! has little of importance to say about the actual God. It’s really about another religion, the one that people of every creed partake in: cinema.

Baird Whitlock is Capitol’s biggest movie star. Played by George Clooney in his idiot wheelhouse, Whitlock’s time on the set of Hail Caesar! is cut short when he is roofied by an extra and transported to a house in Malibu. He awakes to find himself in the hands of a “study group” of communist screenwriters, who he promptly befriends, insisting that he too is on the side of “the little guy”. The only problem is that they’re holding him for ransom. 

When Whitlock is finally delivered from his captors and expresses a desire to quit acting to pursue Communism, he receives a strong dressing down from Mannix:

“You’re gonna do it because you’re an actor and that’s what you do, just like the director does and the writer and the script girl and the guy who claps the slate. You’re gonna do it because the picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture and you’re never gonna forget that again”

Baird’s sin isn’t being a casual revolutionary Marxist — it’s putting his own whims over the film that he’s supposed to be serving. His movie-star status counts for nothing if he fails to contribute to the story. Well told, the story is the ultimate good.

Mannix is a Christ figure, shouldering the sins of the actors he supervises to protect the films they appear in. Mannix receives none of the glory or wealth of his actor counterparts, but sacrifices the comforts of a normal life to the altar of storytelling.

Like Christ, Mannix is tempted by the Devil: the head-hunter from Lockheed who attempts to draw him away from his job by arguing that it isn’t important:

“I don’t mean to denigrate; I’m sure the picture business is pretty damned interesting. But it’s also pretty frivolous, isn’t it?”

Mannix knows that the frivolity is just on the surface. As I got into more specifically in my notes on O Brother Where Art Thou, storytelling is pretty crucial to our ability to function as human beings. And while we think of film and television as a form of entertainment, the moving image is the dominant form of storytelling culture in our time. On that level, it’s hard to understate how important the job of making movies is. Even the guy who claps the slate is serving humanity.

Stray Observations:

  • Best Tilda Swinton Quote: “Don’t play dumb Eddie, I’m talking about *dramatic pause* ON WINGS AS ANGELS”
  • Best Scarlett Johannsen quote, after Mannix referred to her ex-husband as a minor mob figure: “Vince was NOT minor”.
  • I’m gonna dog on La La Land again. Hail Caesar! is both a better movie about Los Angeles and a better movie about the movies. La La Land frames the film industry in the exact opposite way that Hail Caesar! does: as a granter or denier of ego-driven personal dreams, rather than a collective effort to make stories for the world.

The Coen Project Part 12: No Country for Old Men

No Country is an exceptionally difficult film because it doesn’t even hint at a resolution or solution to the fatalistic pessimism of the story. We’re left to figure out for ourselves whether harsh vision of reality it depicts is true.

I’ve been putting off writing this entry because watching No Country for Old Men never struck me as a refreshing activity for a weekend night. But since I’m anxious to make it to Hail Caesar it had to be done, so I’m glad I was able to work up the energy. The Coens’ Oscar-winning twelfth film is heavy stuff — if the violence doesn’t shake you, the existential despair probably will. While entertaining, it doesn’t give the viewer anything they’d typically want from a movie, like characters whose actions make sense, a happy ending, or an unambiguous moral. Instead, it unflinchingly performs fiction’s most important function: to hold a mirror up to the realities of human life, regardless of how disturbing the reflected image may be.

By the No Country‘s release in 2007 the Coens had proved willing to indulge themselves, playing with their favorite genre tropes and over-the-top dialogue for their own amusement. Look no further for examples than their two most recent films at the time, The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty. In a sharp turnaround, No Country For Old Men presents the filmmakers at their most restrained, mature, and in command of their craft and creative voices. If Fargo’s success and acclaim secured Joel and Ethan’s ongoing careers,  No Country cemented their place as masters in the canon of film history.

No Country is a direct adaptation of a book, Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same title. This fact didn’t surprise me — while the narrative plays to the Coens’ strengths as filmmakers, I don’t believe they would have necessarily arrived at it on their own. In fact, they didn’t even come up with the idea to adapt the novel: producer Scott Rudin sent Joel and Ethan an as-yet-unpublished manuscript of the book, to which he had just acquired the film rights.

The script was written as a faithful transposition of the source material onto film — much of the dialog is taken verbatim from the book. As Joel described the writing process: “…one of us types into the computer while the other holds the spine of the book open flat. That’s why there needs to be two of us — otherwise he’s gotta type one-handed.”

Like many of the Coens’ best films, the story is closely tied with the surrounding landscape, in this case the same 1980’s West Texas that was explored in Blood Simple.

No-Country-for-Old-Men

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a young Vietnam veteran who stumbles upon the scene of a botched drug deal while hunting in the desert. He snags a briefcase full of cash left behind in the struggle without hesitation, but leaves a surviving man bleeding out in the front seat of a truck. Later that night he decides to go back and help the man, but his compassion is quickly punished when he is spotted and pursued by two other drug dealers. Although he is able to escape, Llewelyn becomes the target of the psychotic cartel hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who sets out to kill Llewelyn and retrieve the stolen money.

The plot then centers on Llewelyn’s attempts to thwart his pursuer, their violent encounters resulting in some the most suspenseful scenes in the Coen filmography. Following the trail of destruction left by the two men is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an aging detective baffled by the illogical nature of the violence he’s witnessing.

Thematically, the film hinges on the characterization of Anton Chigurh, one of the most terrifying villains ever presented on screen. Equipped with an unsettling haircut and a pneumatic bolt gun normally used to slaughter cattle, he kills not just because it’s his job, but because he seems to believe himself to be an agent of fate. He makes this idea literal in his habit of flipping a coin in order to decide whether to allow people to live or to kill them.

Llewelyn believes that he can fight fire with fire and defeat Chigurh, pushing back against fate. He succeeds in this for a short while, shooting Chigurh in the leg and escaping with only a wounded arm. But soon after, another group of drug dealers kill him while he waits to reunite with his wife in a motel room. By Chigurh’s logic, it didn’t really matter whether he was to one to kill Llwelyn or not. The result was the same — fate still found a way.

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Llewelyn’s wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) attempts to retaliate against Chigurh’s bloody crusade with reason instead of violence. When he confronts her in her home, she attempts to convince him that he has the human agency to spare her life in the following exchange:

Carla Jean: You don’t have to do this.

Chigurh: People always say the same thing.

Carla Jean: What do they say?

Chigurh: They say, “you don’t have to do this.”

Carla Jean: You don’t.

Carla Jean reasons that a normal person should be able to walk out the door without killing anyone. But is Chigurh isn’t a normal person — he pulls out his coin to let chance decide instead.

Chigurh: Call it.

Carla Jean: No, I ain’t gonna call it.

Chigurh: Call it.

Carla Jean: The coin don’t have no say! It’s just you!

Chigurh: I got here the same way the coin did

Carla Jean refuses to allow a coin flip to determine if she lives or dies — she wants to prove to Chigurh that he alone can choose. But in Chigurh’s mind, there is no such thing as choosing when everything that leads up to the choice is random. Free will becomes an illusion.

The third character standing in opposition to Chigurh is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who attempts to protect Llewelyn, Carla Jean, and others from the madman’s vortex of destruction by following the rules of police work that he’s practiced for most of his life. But his rules don’t work against a killer who follows no ordinary patterns of criminal behavior. He can’t understand Chigurh, so he can’t fight him. He decides to retire because he feels “overmatched”.  Faith can’t provide him the order that he craves, either: “I always thought when I got older God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t.”

No Country is an exceptionally difficult film because it doesn’t even hint at a resolution or solution to the fatalistic pessimism of the story. We’re left to figure out for ourselves whether the harsh vision of reality it depicts is true.

How can we make sense of No Country’s pessimism in the context of the Coen filmography? An obvious parallel to draw is with the Coens’ very first film. 1987’s Blood Simple is also a violent thriller set in Texas, but the darkness in No Country runs deeper. Blood Simple is about bad choices that cascade into violence, and the basest aspects of human nature that drive us to make those choices. It’s the first in a long tradition of Coen films focusing on stupid people making stupid decisions, sometimes tragically (Miller’s Crossing), but more often hilariously (Raising Arizona).

In No Country, however, we’re not so certain that choices can be made at all. Everything feels inevitable: even Llewelyn’s initial decision to steal the money was made without much reflection on potential alternatives. Carla Jean offers us an opposing view, but her belief in choice was still unable to save her.

Fargo can provide another fruitful point of comparison. On the surface, No Country and Fargo are strikingly similar films: both involve a crime that spirals out of control, a killer on the loose, and a police officer who is left to deal with the wreckage, all set in an unforgiving rural environment. But even though Fargo presents a world of comparable brutality and randomness, it offers us a respite in the form of detective Marge Gunderson. Marge is able not only to survive and defeat the bad guys, but also to retain a sense of optimism and compassion in the face of the darkness surrounding her. This contrasts sharply with Ed Tom, who despite his best efforts fails and gives in to despair. In Fargo, humanity triumphs. In No Country, the best humanity can do is to soldier on.

The thematic content is a lot to parse through, but I’ll touch on No Country’s deservedly Oscar-winning direction by talking a little about this scene, in which Llewlyn faces down Chigurh in a hotel:

It’s the most pure piece of visual storytelling the Coens have ever done. Almost every shot is a micro story beat, especially in the beginning of the sequence: the flashing transponder, the door, the shotgun being pulled from the bag. On top of that, each sound we hear conveys story information. Similar scenes rely on music to cue the audience, but that shortcut isn’t used here — intervals of silence punctuated by perfectly timed noises are that’s needed to build the suspense to a terrifying peak. With this one scene, the Coens beat Alfred Hitchcock at his own game.

The Coen Project Part 6: Fargo

In my mind, I draw a dividing line in the filmography of the Coen Brothers at Fargo, the blood-soaked, comedic take on the police thriller genre set in the filmmakers’ native Minnesota. While my appreciation for the Coens’ earlier work has grown over the course of writing this series, Fargo is the first of a run of three films that are touchstones in my life as a movie-watcher, followed by The Big Lebowski and Oh Brother Where Art Thou. But Fargo isn’t just a personal favorite of mine, it’s one of the greatest movies ever made: a riveting and hilarious examination of the ability of humanity to endure in the face of darkness.

A lot was riding on the release of the Coens’ sixth feature. After three consecutive financial failures, Joel and Ethan needed a hit in order to continue making movies on their own terms. Fargo came through in a big way: it was a relative box-office smash, earning $60 million. It racked up seven Oscar nominations, bringing home both Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress for Frances McDormand’s career-defining performance as police chief Marge Gunderson. The Coens had finally struck a major chord with both the critics and the public, setting themselves up for the rest of their careers.

In many aspects, Fargo resembles the Coen’s first film. Like Blood Simple, Fargo is an unraveling vortex of bad decisions and their violent consequences set in an unforgiving and bleak environment. But unlike Blood Simple, it has a ferociously capable, smart, and moral protagonist in the eye of the storm: Marge Gunderson, the Coens’ first true hero.

In defiance of every screenwriting tract ever published, this protagonist doesn’t show up until thirty minutes into the movie. Before that, the story sets itself up from the point of view of Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy), a perfectly nice Minnesota car salesman. Jerry is in a large amount of debt. Thinking big, he hires small-time criminals Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, hoping to extort a large ransom sum from his wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell) and split it with his accomplices. This idea is just as stupid as it sounds, and goes even worse than you’d imagine. When bodies start piling up, Marge is summoned onto the case. 

Like Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, Fargo depends heavily on its locational setting. The characters’ manner of expression is specific to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas, where the culture (and the weather) has more in common with Scandinavia than with New York. Everyone is polite and pleasant all of the time, regardless of their actual feelings. This serves to subvert the police procedural genre in interesting and funny ways. Take this scene, in which Marge questions Jerry in the car dealership. The typical genre cop in this situation would aim to intimidate; “Sir, you have no call to get snippy with me,” is about as rough as Marge gets.

It’s rare to see a woman leading a murder investigation on film, even rarer a pregnant woman. Marge’s condition isn’t portrayed as a burden to be overcome — it doesn’t even get in the way of her police work beyond an eight-second spell of morning sickness: “Well, that passed!”.

Meanwhile, Jerry is too incompetent to safely pull off his nefarious shenanigans. He’s so concerned with the appearance of success (especially in the eyes of his ultra-successful, ultra-masculine father in law) that he bargains with his wife’s life, swindles everyone around him, and ignores his son, all while remaining convinced that he’s a decent guy. He convinces us for a while, too: his “Minnesota Nice” demeanor is just as pleasant as everyone else’s. It takes a while to realize that he’s as much of a villain as Carl and Gaear.

By contrast, Marge’s husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) gives a very different version of American masculinity, one that wakes up at five in the morning to fix his wife breakfast before she heads to a crime scene. Norm and Marge are equals in their relationship. He designs stamps, she puts killers in jail: “Heck Norm, you know, we’re doin’ pretty good”.

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Marge isn’t a hero just because she’s a great detective. She’s a hero because of her compassion, patience and utter lack of cynicism in the face of the relentless bleakness of the world around her. “And it’s a beautiful day, ” she reminds the killer in the back of her squad car. Not only does she retain her own humanity, she never for a moment views anyone else as less human than herself, even if she just saw them feed a body through a wood chipper. 

Stray Observations:

  • A paragraph at the beginning of the film states “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987.” This is almost completely false. The Coens lifted a few bits and pieces from real news stories in the area, but that’s it. When asked about it in an interview, Ethan said: “…in warning viewers that we had found our inspiration from a real story, we were preparing them to not view the film like an ordinary thriller”. The way I see it, the fiction of the film has already started when we see this text. 
  • I didn’t talk about the scene in the restaurant with Mike Yanagita, one of the most discussed and theorized-over scenes in the Coens’ filmography. But I did find this great analysis of it by comic book writer Matt Fraction.
  • Stand-out moment: the look of utter betrayal an Gaear’s face when Carl suggests they shouldn’t have pancakes for dinner.
  • Steve Buscemi’s best line is heard over the phone in the car dealership: “Things have changed. Circumstances, Jerry, beyond, uh, the acts of God. Force Majeure.”
  • Peter Stormare is exactly what Ryan Gosling is gonna look like in ten years, right?

The Coen Project Part 5: The Hudsucker Proxy

After a string of critical if not financial hits, the Coen Brothers had built up a solid reputation in the industry. Their success caught the attention of the successful action movie producer Joel Silver, whose credits included Predator, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard. Given an opportunity by Silver to work with a significantly larger budget, Joel and Ethan sprung at the chance to produce an ambitious script that they had written in the early 80’s with their mentor Sam Raimi: The Hudsucker Proxy.

With 25 million dollars in hand, the brothers embarked on the production of what was to be their first truly commercial film, intended for a mainstream audience. What actually got made is a beautiful but confused genre mashup that failed miserably at the box office and is now considered a lesser entry in the Coen filmography. Since I first saw The Hudsucker Proxy with very little contextual information four or five years ago, I was eager to delve more precisely into what about this film works and what doesn’t.

When the vaguely industrial Hudsucker Industries loses its CEO to a top-floor suicide dive, chairman of the board of directors Sidney J. Mussberger (Paul Newman) sets out to bomb the company’s stock so that he can buy a controlling interest before the shares go public. To do this he needs to temporarily install a “proxy” as CEO, someone who will fail miserably at running the company. Enter Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), an eager young graduate of the Muncie College of Business Administration, who is plucked from the mailroom and launched into a new role as chief executive. The sudden change in leadership piques the interest of fast-talking reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who decides to go undercover to get the scoop on the new corporate stooge. Meanwhile, Norville has some circle-shaped ideas of his own that threaten to throw a wrench into Mussberger’s plan.

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If you think this sounds like Mr Deeds Goes to Town with some His Girl Friday thrown in, you’re not far off. The Hudsucker Proxy is an amalgamation of genre references, pulling from Frank Capra’s folksy urban fantasies, Preston Sturges’ screwball comedies, and Fritz-Lang inspired corporate dystopia (think Brazil). 

I find it funny that the Coens believed this movie, among all their other movies, to be the most commercially viable. It’s hard to imagine that the general public in 1994 would be lining up to see a love letter to thirties and forties cinema set in the late fifties, no matter how much money got poured into it. If you were to show me this and Raising Arizona side by side and ask me which film was meant to appeal to a broader audience, I’d guess Raising Arizona, hands down

Far from being a big-studio sell-out, The Hudsucker Proxy feels like the Coens at their most self-indulgently esoteric, trying to make the film their own cinematic heroes of the past would have made if they had access to modern resources and technology. For fans of those movies, it’s a wonderful homage to a bygone era of filmmaking, but not much else.

Still, all that money resulted in some beautiful visuals. The Coens and cinematographer Roger Deakens created a fantastical, dream-like version New York City, full of art-deco skyscrapers, rendered in shades of grey. Everything is a little bit larger and stranger than life. My favorite set piece is the mailroom: an endless, bustling perpetual motion machine, with cartoonish screaming managers (“THEY DOCK YA”) and letters and packages flying every which way.

 

Stray Observations:

  • The motif of the circle is woven throughout the film (the hula hoop, the coffee stain around the job listing).  Again, the symbols in the Coen’s films aren’t always worth analyzing, but I do like how this one ties the narrative together visually.
  • On a related note, I’m pretty sure the only reason this movie was set in 1959 is that the year roughly coincides with the invention of the actual hula hoop.
  • Apparently Joel and Ethan had to be talked out of making this film in black and white. Great commercial instincts, guys.
  • Look at this image and tell me it doesn’t remind you of the last shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark:43n4HoEyD4Q3pQb2yy15knNmi9u.jpg