“What do I stand to gain”? — “Everything”.
This sounds brutal and ruthless, but there’s something about the station owner’s quivering and confused expression and the criminal’s dead pan tone that reveals the Coen’s twisted, hidden and unique sense of humour.
I had this big poster on the wall of my room growing up as a kid. The room was a cramped overcrowded little space, packed with comic books and cassettes. It was a while ago, but there was this poster with a dry, Mississippi backdrop covering most of the wall. I remember ripping it out of some film magazine because I liked it and it made the room more colourful and bright. The foreground of the poster was made up of three faces. Three actors dressed up like prisoners. I recognised one of the names “George Clooney” on the top left hand side, but couldn’t quite match name to face. Some years later, I stumbled across that same poster on the window of my local video store, went in and rented the film immediately.
At the time, when the names “Joel and Ethan Coen” popped up during the end credits, I assumed that O Brother, Where Art Thou? had been my first Coen Brothers experience. Later, after a little research, I learnt that The Big Lebowski, a film I’d watched five years before, as an eight-year-old with my father had in fact been my first, and I just hadn’t known.
Looking back, I can see that this is how it all started. This was how I started to open my eyes to the world as a boy. It happened with music, it happened with food and it happened with the unusual and mysterious world of the Coen Brothers. I was exposed to all sorts of things as a kid, but it all happens without really knowing. Hearing Bob Dylan in your parents car strapped into a booster seat, choosing to play with another kid because he has a great toy, and watching an obscure, unknown comedy with a hippie Dad. It’s kind of true that you only consciously unravel the world after a certain age. The world becomes more of a choice, and less of a random pathway into the unknown.
Even today, as a big fan of their movies, I’ll tell you that I haven’t seen their first project, Blood Simple. I don’t know why, because I have it on DVD. Maybe it’s because I’m not ready to fully discover something irretrievable, I want a little more time. Over my high school and university years, I’d been devouring their work at a frightening rate. Now, the complete box set that my girlfriend and I share, sitting on the shelf of our flat is used like a bible. The dark, twisted yet deeply humorous world that is portrayed through the eyes of these two small town Jewish brothers preaches the message that seriousness shouldn’t be taken too seriously, or that some kind, any kind of revolution is stirring. Two truths that inspire me more than most.
The funny thing is that there’s little indication of the Coens background or personal lives in any of their films. When I first watched Barton Fink I assumed that it might be a sort of representation of their struggle in the film industry. The portrait of a young, Jewish, alternative writer facing scrutiny from the biggest studios in the world – see where a parallel might be drawn? But the truth is that the emerging brothers had an easy time in Hollywood. The setting of Fargo is reminiscent of their hometown in Minneapolis, but all their other films have been set in dry, desert landscapes, as if they are veering away from the snow, hailstones and icy winds of their past.
The Coens have the ability to laugh in the darkest of woods, the worst and most hopeless of situations, and force us go ahead and laugh with them. In No Country for Old Men, you’re sitting there, on the edge of your seat watching a dangerous convict scare the hell out of a simple minded petrol station owner with a mysterious grin on your face. I remember when the convict, Javier Bardem, takes out a coin and asks the petrol guy to choose heads or tails. The question he is then asked is “What do I stand to gain? And the cold-hearted response is “everything”. This sounds brutal and ruthless, but there’s something about the station owner’s quivering and confused expression and the criminal’s dead pan tone that reveals the Coen’s twisted, hidden and unique sense of humour.
There’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. I guess this take on life came out of the simple comedy that comes with a small town existence, the little human details that city life can distract you from. You could say that Joel and Ethan were just two intelligent and observant kids with a few questions, but what about the rest of them? Are they still stuck in Minnesota? What separates these two brothers from the thousands of others they grew up with? The now lorry drivers, mechanics, waitresses and teachers just waiting for another sleepy day to pass. I couldn’t really give you an answer, but it’s something to think about.