The Coen Brothers doesn’t purport to get inside the heads of these modern masters, but it does give readers a fly-on-the-wall peek.
“I can’t imagine a story where nothing bad happens to the characters.” That quote from Ethan Coen, relayed in Ian Nathan’s “unofficial and unauthorized” glossy photo-laden biography The Coen Brothers: The Iconic Filmmakers and Their Work, aptly encapsulates the famed filmmaking duo’s narrative sensibilities, especially when Ethan follows that line of thinking to its logical conclusion that “something worse happening would be even more interesting.” Throughout their careers, the Coens have largely fixated on buffoons who get in over their heads and perplexed individuals futilely trying to make sense of chaos. They render these stories—which are both wholly unique and existing in the seams between homage and parody of a host of cinematic influences—on a pendulum that swings from zany to serious from project to project.
Nathan may not have obtained the Coen stamp of approval for this gorgeously-compiled book, but the former Empire editor’s numerous interviews with the famously aloof brothers constitute the most compelling and insightful aspects of the work. Peering into their formative years in Minnesota, Nathan even chronicles the juvenilia the brothers produced with a Super 8 (with such alternatingly ostentatious and sophomoric titles as “Would That I Circumambulate” and “My Pits Smell Sublime”). Their parody-meets-homage leanings formed early, as the they reimagined some of their favorite films, such as the Lassie-aping “Ed…A Dog.”
From there, Nathan chronologically runs through the Coens’ oeuvre film by film, from Blood Simple to Hail Caesar!. Each page is adorned with immaculate film stills, which often dominate the page and prompt wraparound text, along with behind-the-scenes shots of the camera-shy brothers at work. Nathan is clearly a major fan, someone who may even identify as a “Coenhead,” a term on which he leans a bit too heavily throughout the book. He’s also perhaps a bit too deferential, imbuing the brothers’ often vague or simplistic answers with the gravity of staggering genius. And other nuggets seem a bit difficult to believe, as in his recounting that Jeff Bridges’s only requests for direction consisted of inquiring how much weed The Dude had smoked before any given scene in The Big Lebowski or how much whiskey Rooster Cogburn had just drank in True Grit.
But those quibbles—and a distracting number of typos—aside, The Coen Brothers is a spellbinding look into the filmmakers’ fascinating and often enigmatic body of work. Nathan avoids diving into deep analysis of themes, in keeping with the Coens’ own hesitancy to dissect their own intentions. Instead, the author peppers in discussion of thematic elements, often to establish spiritual links between various pictures that may have been made years or decades apart. What we get in place of analysis is a vivid historical account of the Coen chronology, one which focuses heavily on the various players to enter their orbit—not only the actors who repeatedly show up in their pictures (most notably Joel’s wife Frances McDormand, who he fell in love with on the set of Blood Simple), but also names like Sam Raimi, who co-wrote The Hudsucker Proxy and, years earlier, offered the Coens a couch to crash on when they visited L.A., or Roger Deakins, whose cinematography has proven so vital to much of the brothers’ work.
The Coen Brothers doesn’t purport to get inside the heads of these modern masters, but it does give readers a fly-on-the-wall peek into what it was like to be a part of the brothers’ 17 feature films, from the inchoate stages of story development all the way to the Oscar stage. And, really, that’s just a bonus, because this book is worth picking up for the sumptuous photos alone.