How strange that two of the movies I’ve liked best and been most surprised by at Cannes 2000 should turn out to be mutant forms of the musical. The Coens’ song-filled O Brother, Where Art Thou? taps into the power of mythic storytelling, the kind of exhilarating power that drives journeys from Homer’s Odyssey to Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’sTravels — both sources for O Brother’s down-and-dirty musical drift through an economically depressed America teetering on a future we’ve come, for better and worse, to live in.
The first weekend of the 53rd Cannes Film Festival couldn’t have dawned more auspiciously. The Coen brothers are back with their first movie of the millennium and it’s a doozy. Taking their title from a maudlin catchphrase of the Great Depression—and from the mock-allegory with which Preston Sturges’s 1942 classic Sullivan’s Travels began—they’ve come up (again) with a complete original: a hilarious lowbrow comedy that only highbrows could have made, filled with an exultant sense of how big and startling and beautiful the pleasures of movies can be.
[This article first appeared in the September-October 1990 issue of Film Comment. It was reprinted in the National Society of Film Critics anthology They Went Thataway: Redefining Film Genres (1995).]
Ice dropping into a heavy-bottomed glass: cold, hard, sensuous. The first image in Miller’s Crossing hits our ears before it hits the screen, but it’s nonetheless an image for that. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) has traveled the length of a room to build a drink. Not that we saw him in transit, not that we yet know he is Tom Reagan, and not that we see him clearly now as he turns and stalks back up the room, a silent, out-of-focus enigma at the edge of someone else’s closeup. Yet he is a story walking, as his deliberate, tangential progress, from background to middle distance and then out the side of the frame, is also a story – draining authority from the close-up Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) who’s come to insist, ironically enough, on the recognition of his territorial rights.
The place is a story, too, which we read as the scene unfolds. A private office; not Caspar’s, but not Reagan’s either – it’s city boss Liam “Leo” O’Bannion (Albert Finney) who sits behind the camera and his big desk, listening. An upstairs office, we know from the muted street traffic (without stopping to think about why we know). Night outside, but sunlight would never be welcome, or relevant, here. A masculine space, green lampshades amid the dark luster of wood, leather, whiskey. A remote train whistle sounds, functional and intrinsically forlorn; the distance from which it reaches us locates the office in space and in history. This room exists in a city big enough to support a multiplicity of criminal fiefdoms and a political machine that rules by maintaining the balance among them, yet it is still a town whose municipal core lies within faint earshot of its outskirts. Urban dreams of empire have not entirely crowded out the memory of wilderness, of implacable places roads and railroads can’t reach, even if one of them has been wishfully designated Miller’s Crossing. Hence we are not entirely surprised (though the aesthetic shock is deeply satisfying) when the opening master-scene, with its magisterial interior setting and dialogue fragrant with cross purpose, gives way to a silent (save for mournful Irish melody) credit sequence in an empty forest. And then to a title card announcing, almost superfluously, “An Eastern city in the United States, toward the end of the 1920s.”
Film critics and Parallax View partners Bruce Reid, Richard T. Jameson, and Kathleen Murphy gathered at the Scarecrow Video screening room on February 11, 2016 to discuss the TV series American Crime, grapple with the politics of awards shows, and celebrate the Coen Brothers with a discussion about the subtleties of Hail Caesar!
The Seattle Channel was there to record the event. It is now streaming via their website. Or you can see it here.
Inside Llewyn Davis (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, On Demand), the latest by the Joel and Ethan Coen, was almost entirely overlooked at the Oscars this year. Perhaps that’s because, despite the astounding recreation of the Greenwich Village scene and an atmosphere and texture that you can almost feel through the screen, struggling folk singer Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is not a particularly likable guy. Which is not to say he’s a villain or even a bigger jerk than some of the folks around him, but while he’s not mean-spirited or malevolent (well, apart from that one time, and you’ll know it when you see it), he is insensitive and self-absorbed. Despite the beauty of his musical performances, he doesn’t connect with people. And he certainly doesn’t get what folk audiences see in the rest of the musicians struggling for an audience at the local folk clubs.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a road movie that circles back on itself in pretty much every way, a road to oblivion that Llewyn tramps in hope of finding his success, but is not a success story. Llewyn has been called “a loser” by some critics, but that’s not fair. His failure isn’t artistic, it’s commercial, and he endures the bad luck that afflicts so many of the hard-luck characters of the Coen Bros. universe without the comic bounce or dogged resilience that saves those few who persevere. That sly, sardonic Coen tone is more understated here, found in the little details of existence and the odd nuances of the offbeat characters (and John Goodman is truly one outsized, offbeat creation as a jazz musician with a heroin addiction) and the unusual situations that get amplified and echoed throughout the film. Just don’t expect the punchlines or big dramatic payoffs you get from other filmmakers. It’s not altogether satisfying necessarily, but neither does it let go when it’s over. The music, which T-Bone Burnett once again helped create for the Coens, is superb.
The Broken Circle Breakdown (Tribeca, DVD, Digital, VOD), one of five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year (it lost to The Great Beauty), is devastating. And I mean that in all the best ways. The story of a passionate love rocked by tragedy, it is both joyous and anguished, celebratory and sad. It’s set in a subculture of bluegrass aficionados in Belgium (who knew?), where it is practically love at first sight for banjo player and singer Didier (Johan Heldenbergh, who also wrote the original play) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens), who soon joins the band as the sole female voice in the male harmonies. When their child, a little girl showered with love, is diagnosed with a deadly illness, they face the crisis in very different, unharmonious ways.
Director Felix Van Groeningen breaks up the timeline, introducing the couple as the try to hold it together while their daughter undergoes hospital tests and procedures and then flashing back to their early romance to contrast with the contemporary story. The structure gets more fractured as it continues, amping up the anxiety and the urgency of their ordeal. But while the film doesn’t flinch from the heavy toll it takes on Didier and Elise and their relationship, this isn’t all about ordeal. Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens are compelling performers who invite you to invest in their lives and the band provides a community of support and love for them and their daughter. The music they make, all covers of classic bluegrass songs, overflows with joy, just as the romance that plays out in flashback. The triumph of Van Groeningen is wrapping the heartbreak and anger up in the love and the support and leaving us celebrating what was rather than mourning what’s lost.
Rolling Stone once called it “the most worshiped comedy of its generation.” I like to think of it the Book of Duderonomy, the lost gospel of the post-modern Testament. Now the beloved Coen Bros. classic of easy living and competitive bowling on the absurdist mean street of Los Angeles arrives on Blu-ray. Presenting The Big Lebowski: Limited Edition (Universal). You’ll like its style, man.
Jeff Bridges is brilliant as the Dude, one of the most strangely centered individuals in the movies. This bowler/stoner/free spirit is mistaken for a millionaire (David Huddleston) by a band of German punk nihilists, and John Goodman is his Vietnam Vet bowling buddy, who sinks him deeper into trouble with one testosterone-and-rig?hteous-indignation-f?ueled scheme after another. Think of it as a slacker “The Big Sleep,” a shaggy dog parody of classic L.A. detective stories where the passive hero is threatened, confronted, assaulted, seduced, drugged and so completely bummed out that he’s forced to solve a mystery so everyone will just leave him alone to enjoy his dope and his Dylan.
The Coens concoct an absurdist Chandler-esque mystery, drop in a couple hilarious dream fantasies (including a bowling dream sequence by way of Busby Berkley, complete with credits), and even bring in a drawling Sam Elliot to narrate this tall tale like a western myth. Julianne Moore co-stars as an avant-garde artist turned Valkyrie fantasy, and Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ben Gazzara co-star.
You can get a brief glimpse of highlights from the evening at Videodrone. The complete cast reunion Q&A — a very groovy event with Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and “music archivist” T-Bone Burnett — can be viewed via Livestream on the movie’s official Facebook page. See Jeff Bridges lead the audience in a chant, hear John Turturro describe his idea for a sequel starring The Jesus (it’s called, of course, “The Second Coming”) and enjoy the group answering questions they can barely hear due to screwy stage acoustics. But you’ll need to hurry — it will only be up for a week.
Great film making, they say, is supposed to be invisible. It takes repeated viewings to root out—and become increasingly touched by and attached to—those special moments that make a film come together in a way that delivers aesthetic frisson and confirms cinematic greatness. But every once in a while such a moment announces itself on a very first viewing of the film, drawing shivers, even a tear, as if you’d seen the movie a dozen times before and were visiting an old friend, not encountering a new one for the first time. Such a moment, combining narrative and stylistic power, evokes both emotion and the satisfaction of knowing that, as a viewer, you are in the best, most competent of cinematic hands. It places you simultaneously outside and within the film: it shows you how films, at their very best, are made to work, while at the same time making you feel inescapably a part of the world the film creates.
Such a moment occurs a little under a third of the way into the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, and is, for me, the best moment—and, as it turns out, minute—I spent in a movie theatre in 2010. Actually, True Grit offers several such moments; but this one stands out for the way it strikes you with its sheer beauty and rightness, combining artistry, craftsmanship, talent, vision, and an almost other-worldly grace.
The moment I am referring to is a modest little montage of Mattie Ross preparing to join Rooster Cogburn for “a great adventure”—a journey into the uncharted Choctaw territory in a search for the coward who killed her father, and for some kind of justice. Of course, it is not a “great adventure” to Cogburn. After Mattie stands up to him, giving him a little righteous hell for having disappointed her, Cogburn relents and agrees to undertake the journey and to allow Mattie to join in. “Meet me here at seven in the morning and we will begin our coon hunt,” he says, ironically reprising Mattie’s own invocation of having gone camping with her father as evidence of her ability to handle the wilderness. Cogburn had earlier objected to the comparison: “This ain’t no coon hunt!” To which Mattie emphatically responds, “It is the same idea as a coon hunt,” and she ought to know, since it is, after all, her idea—and she turns out to be right in so many different ways.
The remarkable montage sequence that follows neither begins nor ends sharply; Carter Burwell’s music begins before the Cogburn scene ends, builds throughout the montage, and then bridges us right back to the very place we began less than a minute ago: Cogburn’s shabby apartment in the back of Lee’s store. The previous scene began and ended with Cogburn in his fruit-crate bed, and the following sequence begins with a sleeping figure in the same bed.
Now a word about that music. What should have won the Oscar for the year’s best score was not only not even nominated but was actually disqualified from consideration. The reason had something to do with the score’s having been built on three or four traditional gospel tunes, and therefore containing too much “pre-existing material” to be considered an “original score.” As if a film score composer were nothing but a tunesmith whose job is to invent melodies. Burwell’s score is a towering achievement, building those humble down-home spirituals into such ecstasies of orchestral texture, pacing, repetition and variation, matching music to image, evoking deepest emotion and most breath-taking grandeur. That, not song-writing, is what film score composers do. And as much as any other aspect of the film—which also masterfully showcases the designers’, directors’, cinematographer’s, and editors’ art—Burwell’s magnificent score not only makes the film what it is, but lives in the mind and heart so as to make both score and film unforgettable.