Joel and Ethan Coen are known in the movie world as ‘The Coen Brothers’ due to their ability to successfully seamlessly direct and write screenplays together (as well as being actual biological brothers). Raised in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, Joel and Ethan Coen started early with their passion for cinema. After saving enough pocket money, Joel bought a super 8 camera and proceeded to direct both his brothers, and their childhood neighboring friends in short films full of action and adventure.
Flash forward a decade or two, and both Joel and Ethan are graduates of Bard College, MA. Joel earned a bachelors degree in Film studies from New York University, and Ethan earned a degree in philosophy from Princeton University. Both brothers live in New York; Joel is married to the actress Francis McDormand, where they met on the set of one of his earliest films, she has been cast in the majority of his films to date.
The brothers became widely known in the 1980’s with their movie ‘Blood Simple’. ‘Blood Simple’, an Independent film, set the stage thematically for the rest of the movies made by the Coen brothers. Awkward relationships, complex plots, nasty and interesting personalities that build upon character stereotypes, combined with twists that involve botched heists or cons, are combined to tell original stories that make for dark comedy interspersed with drama.
While the Coen brother’s films do not overtly involve computer-generated effects, the scenes in their films are meticulously chosen to set the characters in their banal natural habitat. The attention that the Coen brothers give to finding the right setting for the plot of their films adds dimension to sometimes sparsely written dialogue between the characters. (Below are the two primary sets chosen for each movie. Top: Burn after reading, Home of Osbourne and Kate in Washington D.C, Below that is the LA Bowling alley, the local hangout for Dude, Walter and co.)
The Narrative intent of particular scenes I explored is in: ‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998) ‘Burn After Reading’ (2008). Through these films I will explore the Coen brothers directing style and how they achieve certain effects.
Perhaps the cult following that ‘The Big Lebowski’ created is in part due to the comedic relationship, between the Dude (Jeff Bridges) and his Vietnam veteran friend Walter (John Goodman) continuously involved in plans that seem destined to fail from the start.
DUDE Walter, I'm sure there's a reason
You brought your dirty undies—
WALTER Thaaaat's right, Dude. The weight. The ringer can't look empty.
DUDE Walter--what the fuck are you thinking?
WALTER Well you're right, Dude, I got to thinking. I got to thinking why should we settle for a measly fucking twenty grand—
DUDE We? What the fuck we? You said you
Just wanted to come along—
WALTER My point, Dude, is why should we settle for twenty grand when we can keep the entire million. Am I wrong?
DUDE Yes you're wrong. This isn't a fucking game, Walter—
WALTER It is a fucking game. You said so yourself, Dude--she kidnapped herself--
Walter and The Dude are shown in the above scene, in a ¾ close up driving in Dude’s brown 1974 Ford Torino. The car, chosen for it’s crappy mediocrity
Adds dimension to the humorously dismal scene. The Dude is financially insecure; he leads a super simple slacker bachelor existence that cannot afford him a nice car. But, to his defense it’s also a statement on his pacifistic alternative Californian approach to life.
Walter is both metaphorically and physically in charge in this scene as he is driving the car. He has a plan that the Dude is unaware of until they are well on their way to the ‘pick up’ that ultimately fails. The Dude is aware historically of these failed plans on Walter’s part. He unsuccessfully tries to convince him not to go ahead with the phony money exchange for Mr. Lebowski’s ‘ransomed’ wife Bunny. Walter’s attempt ends in him flinging himself out of the car, an Uzi accidentally spraying shots and the kidnappers getting away as the Dude crashes his car off the road.
The dialogue in this scene holds tension that is both humorous and unpredictable. This combination is fascinating to watch and keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat. In addition to these variables, the Dude cannot communicate effectively with Walter on any sort of rational level. The conversation goes around and around, where the Dude does not take back control of the situation from Walter and his crazy scheme.
The complex plot of the big Lebowski unfolds with the Dude being mistaken for a millionaire by the same last name, a rug that has been peed on, a faked kidnapping, plots hatched with two of the Dude’s bowling buddies, German nihilists and a terrifying killer weasel. And to top it off a disgruntled estranged daughter of the millionaire who is secretly trying to use the Dude’s sperm to get pregnant.
The Coen brothers tend to have the protagonist in their movies sort of get roped into the plot, they are innocent bystanders that somehow through coercion and absurd circumstances, become involved in bad situations.
This is further reinforced by the opening shots of ‘The Big Lebowski’ the Dude is shopping for half and half to make a white Russian, in his bathrobe. His small L.A apartment and the local bowling alley are both great locations. The lighting of the nostalgic 1960’s bowling alley has bright tube lighting and neon light decorations on the inside and outside walls. These light ‘starbursts’ are also used throughout the film in scenes when the Dude gets knocked unconscious or has taken drugs.
The decorating at the Dude’s apartment is also woven into the movie well. The Persian rug that was the catalyst for finding the real Mr. Lebowski strangely unfolds as the returning point that manipulates the Dude into a complex series of interactions with other people; the rug is used in three ways through the story line. Firstly, the rug is the initial reason for the dude being introduced to the Mr. Liebowski, as he seeks retribution for the rug. Second, the Dude takes a replacement rug. Thirdly, the estranged daughter is introduced into the plot as she takes back the replacement rug for sentimental reasons and meets the Dude.
Other elements the Brothers create are by using effective camera placements during the scene when the Nihilists break into the Dude’s house while he is in the bath. There is a ¾ shot of him smoking a roach soaking in the tub, a pan to the candles in the bathroom, then a pan around to the tape player and a tape that says ‘Whale sounds’. The Germans break in and the camera shot is from the Dude’s perspective in the bath looking into the living room. The choices in cinematography involve the camera as a spectator and as a character in the movie.
Similarly, the narrative in ‘Burn After Reading’, is set with a similarly complex plot and humorous characters. This scene I’d like to write about deals with who is trying to take control of the situation. This is achieved through body language, choice of clothing for the characters, and close ups of characters with the phone to their ear. In addition the camera shots are interspersed between the three people in the scene jolting between each person speaking.
Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormond) are co-workers trying to blackmail Osbourne with a disk that was found by a janitor at the gym where they work. The plan that has been hatched by Chad and Linda is a bleakly thin plot assuming that the information they found on the disk is of highly secret character. In fact nothing on the disk is from the secret service. It is a disk of memoirs and tax forms stolen by Osbourne’s wife Katie to secretly start a divorce process with Osbourne. Katie gave the disk to her lawyers’ assistant, who then lost it while at the gym. Complex, humorous, disastrous dialogue is incorporated in this movie and in particularly this scene to create a thematically absurd plot.
The following script is set in Linda’s super modest, outdated and quite pitiful condo in Washington D.C. The place is verging on sterile, with furnishings from the late 80’s early 90’s that lack any saturated color. Linda is sitting in her pink sack-like pajamas and Chad in his uber athletic cycling gear with frosted blonde hair. Osbourne has had his sleep interrupted by the two; the shot of him is in his unhappy matrimonial bed, with Katie asking who is on the phone.
Chad and Linda have not rehearsed what they will say to Osbourne, nor have they communicated about a plan B if the ransoming effort for the disk of Osbourne’s goes south. Chad has already repeated himself on the phone, trying to sound like a character from a mystery movie. Osbourne becomes irate having to communicate with two imbeciles who have captured him in circular conversation.
Don’t blow a gasket, Osbourne. I
How did you get a hold of that!
It’s not important where I——
You’re in way over your fucking head!
Who the fuck are you? You have no
idea what you’re doing!
Oh! Why so uptight, Osbourne Cox?
I’m just a Good Samaritan, like, a
traveler on the road who has happened
We’re going to return it, we just
Linda, I’ll do it!
Ozzie, what is going on?
Like a Good Samaritan tax——
Who the fuck——
Well, yeah, uh... why not? I mean,
this is not——am I out of line here?
All right, you two clowns listen to me
very very carefully. I don’t know who
you are, but I warn you most
You warn us? You warn us? You know
what, Mr., Mr. Intelligence? We warn
you! We’ll call you back with our demands!
The different personalities of the characters are presented in this scene, although it is only about half of the characters that are actually involved in the web of narrative in the film. We have a sullen, uptight monetarily successful soon to be ex-wife lying in bed next to a newly unemployed unaware Osbourne who drinks too much and verges mostly on angry emotions yelling on the phone from their ritzy brownstone D.C apartment. Then on the other end of the phone line, there are two lower to middle class working folk sitting in Linda’s very modest apartment with two drastically different outfits, conveying very different personalities but an affiliation with the school of hard knocks and with being co-workers.
In a way, the Coen brothers use their Jewish heritage and American nationality as a building block to explore western centric stereotypes / archetypes. For example, the Dude is a stereotypical baby boomer from the hippy era that is still happily or possibly unconsciously stuck in his developmental stage of free love and pacifism. Walter is a cliché of a Vietnam Vet. Living with P.S.D. The millionaire Mr. Liebowski is a grumpy Jewish businessman a paraplegic with an immature troublesome trophy wife.
In ‘Burn after Reading’, the stereotypes explored are an angry former secret service employee Osbourne who is a nerd, and his uptight upper class, no-nonsense British wife. A ditsy gym rat Chad who exists on a base human level. Linda who is a sheltered simpleton stuck in an aging body. As well as all the supporting characters, that is involved in various degrees of deceit with each other.
The Coen brothers make Independent films that rest upon black humor. The eccentricities of humans and their complex and varying interactions with each other are magnified and parodied through chance, misinterpretation and miscommunication. The Coen Brothers build upon character stereotyping in a humorous universal way. A huge portion of their material thematically explores; power struggles, through dialogue and botched cons and heists. Through these various ways, the brothers delve deeper into the characters psyche and use these dysfunctions of personality types to create interconnecting plots. Succeeding in very unique and fascinating movies.