Sunday Times, 17 September 2013
The British film industry was only a generation away from having the Coen brothers. Their father grew up in London and their grandmother lived in Hove.
“Hove!” I exclaim, incredulous. “Yeah, I know,” says Joel. “Hove is funny.” “It’s one letter away from love,” says Ethan. “My grandmother told me never to go to the end of the pier.” “Graham Greene never wrote a novel about Hove,” Joel muses. “Yeah, Hove Rock!”
Ethan launches into one of his, by my count, five different laughs, this one being soft and wheezy, with slight snorting.
In the event, two of the greatest film-makers on the planet grew up not in Hove, but in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. They were displaced people and the first human occupants of this bleak landscape. If you want to see what it looked — and felt — like, watch their 2009 film A Serious Man.
“We grew up,” says Ethan, “in tract housing that was new construction just carved out of the prairie. How Jews ended up there, I don’t know, it’s very incongruous.” “Yeah,” says Joel, “Jews from Eastern Europe, it’s just bizarre, that.” “Like, how did we get here?”
That, I reckon, makes three great Minnesotan artists — Bob Dylan is the other. “He wasn’t a suburban kid from the city, like we were,” says Joel. “He was from Hibbing, that’s in the Iron Range. That was really the sticks. He was Jewish, I knew one of his cousins, and I met his mother once, just in somebody’s house.”
Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens’ latest film, is all about Dylan, or, from another perspective, not at all about Dylan. You will have to see it to understand, but you will have to see it anyway, because it’s by the Coens and it’s one of their best. It made me cry on the Tube (I saw a preview in London). Ethan looks incredulous, but Joel is understanding. “Some people have been getting that reaction.”
(I am confused. One of the Coens — the older one is 58 — is tall, long-haired and quite slickly dressed; he could be a rock star. The younger one is 55 and shorter. He has short hair and wears an old T-shirt warning of the dangers of earthquakes; he could be a roadie. Now, Joel is a short name and Ethan a tall one, but their names are incorrectly allocated. So I keep having to remind myself: Joel is the rock star, Ethan the roadie.)
The film re-creates the New York folk scene of 1961, when middle-class people wanted to attain authenticity by dressing up like hobos and frequenting low dives in Greenwich Village. Or they wanted to put on thick white Aran sweaters and look like the Clancy Brothers. That name lights a spark in Ethan’s eyes.
Louis Killen, a one-time member of the Clancy Brothers, has just died aged 79. He died a woman — her name at death was Louisa Jo Killen — having undergone sex reassignment surgery in 2012. “He had this sex change, like, two years ago, to the surprise of all his friends.” “Yeah,” Joel interjects, “why wait until that age?” “Maybe he just thought, ‘Aw, what the hell.’”
The film re-creates the New York folk scene of 1961, when middle-class people wanted to attain authenticity by dressing up like hobos and frequenting low dives in Greenwich Village
Ethan emits one of his other laughs, a hoarse, evil chuckle. Joel nods sagely. Graham Greene said novelists had to have a splinter of ice in their heart; Ethan has about 12, Joel perhaps three. As Yeats recommended, they cast a cold eye on life, on death, producing chilly, funny, tragic, beautiful films.
What really makes them both laugh in this movie is the pursuit of authenticity. Take Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, a folkie hero of the 1960s who was, apparently, a crusty loner from somewhere out west. “He was, in fact,” says Joel, savouring the irony, “the son of a neurosurgeon from Queens who decided he wanted to wear cowboy outfits and sing cowboy songs… of course, Dylan had all that bullshit about being a hobo.”
(I was seeing the Coens at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, and the high point of my trip was a session when Joel told this story to a big crowd, and Ethan smoothly pointed out that Ramblin’ Jack was in the audience. Indeed he was. He didn’t seem remotely offended.)
“People did kind of invent themselves,” says Ethan, “but the highest value was authenticity. You were supposed to be doing the music…pretending to be the salt of the earth.”
It all started when the brothers imagined somebody beating up a folkie; the film is very loosely based on a book by Dave Van Ronk, one of the leaders of the movement. “It was something incongruous,” says Joel. “Why would somebody beat up a folk singer, of all people? They’re kind of harmless, you know. Why would a folk singer get beaten up?”
Three further credits are essential. First, there is Carey Mulligan as the sort of girlfriend. I have always felt the quirky but extreme prettiness of her face somehow distorted the films she was in; I now realise this is because she belongs in 1961, in a polo-neck sweater and long black hair. “Exactly,” says Joel. “Some actors have faces that work for certain periods and some don’t. It’s not necessarily their physiognomy, it’s something in their look.”
Then there’s T-Bone Burnett, a grand, besuited Texan who is one of the masters of American music. He worked with the Coens on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Ladykillers and The Big Lebowski. T-Bone knows his stuff, he was there — “I went through that whole period,” he says — and he later played with Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour.
Finally, there is Oscar Isaac, who plays Llewyn Davis. This film should make him a star. He was terrified on set, bewildered by the directing style of the Coens. “They don’t tell you if you’re doing a good job,” he tells me, “so the first week is everybody is insecure. But what’s smart about that is they take away that variable, so you’re no longer looking for approval.”
The Coens also seemed to use deliberate mystification. Llewyn has to pick a song at a crucial moment, and Isaac naively started working on some gutsy, bluesy numbers, but they, without explanation, insisted on an old English folk song. “I didn’t understand. They don’t go in for the big psychological picture, it’s all very practical and just seems to come from their pleasure at the idea.”
In the end, Llewyn Davis is tortured almost as much as Larry Gopnik, the Job figure in A Serious Man. The Coens like their heroes to suffer. “Yeah, we do seem to do that a lot,” says Ethan, with a light snicker.
Isaac fattened up to play poor old Llewyn. He slouched as if he was always walking uphill, wore thick New York winter clothes and bought a very small guitar to make himself look more bulky. This is a classic Coen character, deeply uncomfortable in the world, always in the wrong place at the wrong time, like the Eastern European Jews in suburban Minnesota. And, perhaps the ultimate cruelty, Llewyn is actually very good at what he does.
“It just seemed more interesting,” says Ethan, “to have a protagonist with a tortured relationship to his art, as opposed to somebody who is just a success story. It does seem to have some grist for the narrative mill. I mean, what would you do with Bob Dylan in a narrative sense?”
Isaac was on to something when he said of the Coens on set: “They don’t go in for the big stuff.” By this he means psychology, philo-sophy or meaning. On set, the Coens are all pragmatism, concerned only with what works and what doesn’t. There are no head-clutching debates about motivation. Off set, they are exactly the same. This is the heart of the matter, the clue to the reception of their films, to their public statements and to the startling closeness and confidence of their relationship.
Take the hat in their 1990 film Miller’s Crossing. A man’s hat blows about in a wood to the plangent, lovely music of Carter Burwell. It seems to mean so much, and yet what?
‘It just seemed more interesting to have a protagonist with a tortured relationship to his art, as opposed to somebody who is just a success story. It does seem to have some grist for the narrative mill. I mean, what would you do with Bob Dylan in a narrative sense?’
“It’s not part of the process between us,” says Joel, “to impose something ex post facto. When we are doing a scene, if one of us says ‘the hat’, the other one doesn’t say ‘what does the hat mean?’ It feels right to both of us and we mutually understand what the purpose is. It’s a vibe thing, as opposed to a break-it-down-and-analyse-it thing. Being asked to impose that for somebody else doesn’t make any sense at all, we’re not doing that.”
“It’s not just a film critic thing,” says Ethan, “it’s a human audience thing. They might respond to the feeling, which is what we are responding to, but they want to explain it, they want it to be a story with symbols that code into something.”
“People,” says Joel, “have permission to take us in as they please. If they find it funny, it doesn’t bother us if they laugh, or if they don’t at something that amuses us, that’s OK too.”
“Yeah, “ Ethan says (basic hoarse chuckle), “we could be saying people are horrible and that’s terrible, or we could say people are horrible and that’s f****** funny.”
Three things in their background seem to have created and sustained this high level of aesthetic self-possession. First, though they say little about their childhood, I’m pretty sure they spent a lot of time alone together building up this psychologically impregnable partnership. One clever man to whom I described their relationship remarked that they must have suffered some kind of cruelty in childhood. Second, Joel studied film at college and Ethan philosophy, a useful combination of the practical and the justificatory. Third, they have always retained maximum independence by keeping their costs below a level where investors could start making stupid demands. This fortifies them against dumb questions like “What do your films mean?”.
“We don’t have to answer that question,” says Joel. “‘Does it really mean anything?’ is finally unanswerable.”
“And at the end of the day,” says Ethan, not laughing, deadly serious, almost venomous, “‘What does it mean?’ is a philistine question, completely… A film is good because the characters are all credible, the behaviour is interesting and it makes a story that is a pretty thing. ‘Why did you make a pretty thing?’ — that’s the philistine question… There’s no false modesty here, it’s making a chair and it’s either good or bad.”
The Coens hand the burden of deciphering the imagery over to the audience. From the hat in Miller’s Crossing to the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis, the bits and pieces of their films just feel right to the brothers. This raises a further question: why do they feel right? Why this story as opposed to another? But we’ll have to answer those for ourselves.
The irony behind all this, I suggest, and Ethan agrees, is that the meaning in the bigger sense of the entire content of the films is always staggeringly obvious. “I like it when there’s no subtext, when they lay it all out. I don’t philosophise generally — I kind of lay it out and the story is the story.”
So the killer Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men effectively lectures the audience, and his victims, about the fact that this story is about the working of chance, about our helplessness in the face of random catastrophe. The context of Jewish mythology, of successive rabbis and the ever-mounting sufferings of Larry Gopnik, tells us that A Serious Man is a reprise of the Old Testament Job story that questions God’s justice. And in the wonderful Fargo, Frances McDormand — Joel’s wife — simply by her dogged and wide-eyed questioning, exposes the film as a meditation on the fallen condition of humanity, the way we seem to go out of our way to avoid happiness and virtue. All of their films are about difficulty, displacement, discomfort and the funny or tragic fallen world.
Alongside the frustration of audiences and critics about imagery and meaning runs the sharper criticism that the Coens are “heartless”. Well, as I said, they have splinters of ice in their hearts, but that’s a professional necessity; heartless is something else entirely. No word is more commonly applied to their films, often with the added suggestion that they are just playing postmodern games. But the truth is that their games are just not the ones played by most mainstream directors. They don’t needlessly console, they don’t deliver big messages. They let their stories go where they will and, above all, they give their characters the freedom of their oddity. Critics often call these grotesques. This riles Ethan, who feels it betrays an inability to look in the mirror.
“The whole people-taking-it-as-grotesques thing is they don’t see it or they want to disavow parts of themselves by saying, ‘Oh those people are weird.’”
“Also,” Joel adds, “culturally people are used to watching certain kinds of movies, and a lot of movies have genre types as characters, and those are the people you see in movies. They are used to seeing Tom Cruise play Jaaaack Reeeeacher,” he slurs the name sarcastically, “and the characters are all kind of the same.”
They don’t needlessly console, they don’t deliver big messages. They let their stories go where they will and, above all, they give their characters the freedom of their oddity
So, are they consciously working against the mainstream? “No, not at all,” says Ethan quickly. “You know, you do the thing that you can do, that interests you. It’s not a reaction to what other people are doing.”
It’s consistent throughout our conversation — the Coens just do what they do, they follow their instincts, they pay little attention to the mainstream or, it seems, to very much else. I am stunned to discover that they know nothing of the great achievements of long-form American TV. Ethan says he has seen none, and Joel says he has seen two episodes of The Sopranos, his wife keeps nagging him to watch The Wire, and he has heard that Breaking Bad is a very Coen-influenced show. But he’s not really interested in a shrunken screen or domestic cinema setups. He wants a big screen and a big theatre.
The Coens are aesthetes in the best possible sense: their devotion is solely to their art. This makes some people feel excluded, but the truth is quite the opposite. Everybody is invited in to make what they will of these strange and beautiful stories. Join in, it’s fun, never more so than when Llewyn Davis reaches rock bottom and briefly glimpses a brighter, smarter future than he can possibly imagine. It was all, just at that moment, true and full of heart. In Hove as much as in New York. That’s what made me weep on the Tube.