Category Archives: Film

A Team Worth Emulating

Quirky, post-modern and controversial, the Coen brothers are established champions of independent U.S. cinema. From their first script, an ill-fated, never to be produced screwball comedy written in the early eighties called Coast to Coast in which the Chinese Communist Party cloned Albert Einstein, right through their wide-reaching, illustrious oeuvre to the recent Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), the Coen brothers have inscribed a unique perspective onto the American filmic cosmos. Their films intellectually maintain a lightness of touch, sculpted by their stated intention of crafting their films – above all else – as entertainment. Audiences and critics adore them for it, and they have walked away with several Academy Awards as a result.

But alongside this adoration there exists a sense of distance, an elusive separation. We cannot get very close to the Coens for they do not provide firm admissions in interviews nor indulge in celebrity-director activities. When asked bluntly about their “working methods” in one interview they replied, “Preston Sturges had a big dog on the set that frequently barked and ruined takes. That’s more interesting than anything Sturges could tell me about his working methods”.

Similarly when asked about character archetypes, concepts derived from Jung and Campbell, Ethan Coen quipped “We have a lot of raging tycoons and fat men that scream”. Governing these wisecracks is the Coens’ postmodern hesitance to give concrete meanings to their films. The Coens embody and struggle alongside Barthes’ paradox of the “death of the author” – they have stated that “on the one hand, we want to talk about our movies … but the movies speak for themselves”.

Following in this vein, it may be pertinent to ask just exactly what and who the “the Coen brothers” is/are. Just as we can differentiate between the real individuals Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock and the “Hawks” or ‘Hitchcock’ auteur structures named after them, so should we distinguish Joel and Ethan Coen from their own structure of authorship. By delineating this sibling powerhouse we may reveal latent or blatant attitudes towards the crafts of filmmaking and film writing that can inform the films and our appreciation of them.

Joel and Ethan Coen, products of a heavily Jewish upbringing and liberal further education, made films together from an early age but only started taking their creative partnership seriously during their University studies. Joel has said that “it was only after leaving school that we really got to know each other” and Ethan corroborated “above all by writing together”. Based on this testimony, the process of writing together is what transformed the separate aspiring artists Joel and Ethan Coen into the jointly accomplished auteur structure of “the Coen brothers”. If this is the case, then we can assume that the process of writing still defines the Coen brothers’ creative enterprise today.

Although they also direct their films, Ethan believes that “creation really starts with the script … the shooting is only the conclusion”. This reinforces that writing is the keystone to the Coen collaboration and the guiding genesis of their films. That the Coens prioritise writing is also suggested by their hesitation to direct other people’s scripts. The Coen brothers are no stranger to using other people’s stories, as their adaptations O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), The Ladykillers (2004) and No Country for Old Men (2007) illustrate, but when adapting existing stories the Coens consistently write their own scripts. It is the creation of the script document and screen narrative that is integral to their vision of the film, not necessarily the invention of the story itself.

Looking at the Coens’ script formatting makes it even clearer that their focus on the script is integral to the literary, postmodern films that they produce. Ironically, Coen scripts resemble the commissioned studio documents of modernist Old Hollywood more than the current format used in the industry. Camera movements and transitions are written into Coen scripts, with language such as “We see …”, “We track …” and “We hold on …” being common in the big print, making the script a personal, crucial stage of the filmmaking process.

The idea of two writers stands in contrast to the stereotype of the solitary writer, channelling creative energy from the abyss. Joel is unromantic about their writing process: “it’s a dialogue … one person will suggest something and the other will respond to it.” What Joel is saying is that the language on the pages of a Coen script springs forth from within the slippery space of colliding minds, the space of conflict and compromise. This synthesis informs the Coen scripts with themes linked to conflict, desire and duality.

The Coens have expressed despair over the weaving nature of the Miller’s Crossing script in particular, but the brothers had faith in their criss-crossing screenplay and persisted, finishing it after two years – only to rewrite the majority of it during shooting. Critics still found fault with the intelligibility of the plot in the finished product, and Ethan responded in typical prickly fashion that “it doesn’t concern me if the audience sometimes loses the thread of the plot … It’s far more important to feel the relationships between the characters”.  This emphasis on feeling reveals the script’s impetus, an ironically firmly visual starting point: “A series of images, the desire to make a movie whose characters would be dressed in a certain way – the hats, the long coats”. For the authors, the 1930s prohibition era setting of Miller’s Crossing has an exoticism of the past that inspired and permeates the film’s narrative.

Whether “understood” or “felt” Miller’s Crossing is the tale of protagonist Tom Reagan, the confidant of gangster and political boss Leo O’Bannon, and his attempts to reason through and overcome obstacles to Leo’s continued rule, such as the rival gangster and Aristotelian gentleman Johnny Caspar. It can also be directly linked to the literature of Dashiell Hammett, as the Coen brothers themselves are first to admit. Critics have written prodigiously on the Hammett influence in Miller’s Crossing.

The influence of literature is also readily apparent in the brothers’ approach to the script of the noir-esque The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) in the guise of James Cain, another noir writer. Cain is renowned for his interest in every-day crime, a theme that the brothers were interested in as far back as Blood Simple (1984). In The Man Who Wasn’t There, the barber Ed Crane (who was initially modelled on the actor Bob Crane) decides to invest in a dry-cleaning scheme, and begins a chain of events that result in murder, his wife’s incarceration and eventually his own existential demise. This kind of true-crime focus stands in stark contrast to the stylised underground of professional criminals in Miller’s Crossing, however both The Man Who Wasn’t There and the former have a shared literary influences in the hard-boiled, pulp novel. Also like Miller’s Crossing, the setting of the The Man Who Wasn’t There – 1950’s suburban anxiety – was apparently a foundation of the film script’s evolution.

The dichotomy between language and aesthetics appears to be at the forefront of the Coen brothers’ writing style. They are influenced by literature and inspired by imagery. In their approaches to Miller’s Crossing and The Man Who Wasn’t There, the brothers used visual images, a “feeling” starting point, and then drawn on literature to “understand,” and complete the cinematic story. This gives us a general insight into the Coens’ film stories, but what about the characters of the films themselves? Can we learn anything from the chosen agents of the Coens?

For Tom Reagan in Miller’s Crossing the only justifiable ground for action is reason and he spends the majority of the film pondering upon “the angles” that interpenetrate the social networks around him. At the film’s beginning Tom has principles that are in conflict – namely loyalty (devotion to Leo) and disloyalty (betrayal of Leo by courting Verna). The contradiction in his actions and principles, although theoretically started with good intent (keeping tabs on Verna for Leo’s sake), has morphed into something else. Tom is in anguish.

Tom’s “heart” has gotten in the way and for the first time he has made a “bone-headed play,” an unforgiveable misstep to a man whose aspiration is reason. Other people make bone-headed plays, and Tom takes advantage of them – he doesn’t make them himself. It is telling that as spectators we never see Tom doing anything with his guard down – his supposed passions for gambling and for Verna are pursued off camera.

By excluding these scenes in the narrative the Coens portray Tom as a reserved, careful man, with a whole other level of experience and desire that remains elusive to the viewer. In this sense, the story of Miller’s Crossing is the story of a man in chaos returning his life to order. It takes Tom the whole film to achieve this, but he finally secures Leo’s position, and can then do what needs to be done: severing his ties to both Leo and Verna. At film’s end Tom is set adrift in the forest, with only a wad of cash and the horses for company, but he can again carry his full set of morals without shame.

Ed Crane, frustrated by injustices in life, views the universe as a concatenation of sudden, incomprehensible and irretrievable losses. He complements Tom’s state of anguish. Crane’s own brand of suffering has been postulated by critics as continuing the existential tradition of Sartre, Camus and others – but equal to Ed’s anguish is his despair.

Ed is getting a bum rap. His job is boring. His workmate irritates him. His wife is cheating on him. When Ed acts to change these realities, consequences spiral out of control and the people around him, disgusted, demand “What kind of man are you?!”. Ed’s view of the world provokes a significant despair that manifests itself in Kierkegaardian ways: the man who isn’t there.

Just as Tom Reagan sacrifices his social bonds at the end of Miller’s Crossing, Ed Crane suffers the loss of his life in the film’s closing moments. And like Tom, Ed achieves a kind of personal satisfaction by doing so. When Tom willingly and necessarily severs ties with the two people closest to him, his final longing glance causes discomfort in the audience. In The Man Who Wasn’t There, we sympathise with Ed’s plight as he sits on death row and experiences the same discomfort. We have the nagging tick that this just shouldn’t be. He didn’t do anything wrong, really. Did he?

Ed says he doesn’t regret anything: “not a thing,” or at least any more: “I used to regret being the barber”. On death row all the disconnected things seem to hook up and Crane can finally make sense of the absurd path he’s taken through the maze of life. The knowledge of imminent death for Crane gives him the framework he needs to make meaning of his experiences. For a despairing, anguished man who never found pleasure from activity, death can be a stimulating and even positive event. Finally, closure.

In this sense Tom and Ed differ substantially.   Whilst Ed sees a bleak, absurd universe, Tom sees a puzzle of angles with goals and significance. Whereas Ed is unsettled by people, Tom is intrigued by them. This follows through to their actions. Tom acts on logic and takes positive action right throughout Miller’s Crossing to set his world in order. Ed instead remains reactive, passive, and mostly silent – except in his Hamlet-like voiceovers, which reveal the depth of his anguish – and it is inferred that he has always been this way (by the story of courting of Doris). The few positive actions Ed does take either backfire or fail (his patronage of Birdy, his blackmail attempt), and ultimately lead him to the electric chair.

A cursory look at other Coen films reveals a remarkable consistency in the character-driven themes of reason, desire, despair and anguish (Ray in Blood Simple, Ed Tom Bell in No Country For Old Men, Lawrence in A Serious Man) and several book chapters have been devoted to teasing out the philosophical significance of these themes.

However, these themes are also recurrent because they are products of the writing process of the Coen brothers; they represent the duality of the authorship structure, and the differing viewpoints of the two agents that make up the whole. To elaborate, neither of the Coen brothers controls the whole of their creative worlds; they must make concessions, sacrifice and find accord to realise their creative aspirations. They collaborate, they compromise, but they are essentially in conflict. In this sense, their very writing process is one of reason, desire, despair and anguish, so it is no surprise that these themes inform their characters.

By defining “the Coen brothers” and chronicling their attitudes to writing, we can draw links between literature, imagery and the genesis of their screenplays. Miller’s Crossing and The Man Who Wasn’t There display these links and feature protagonists dealing with absurd internal worlds wrought with themes resultant of the creative synthesis that is the Coen writing process. As the Coen brothers write together, they feed on a third, spontaneous entity that can never be defined.

It is telling that in their thirty-year career the Coen brothers have never publicly separated, never fractured and never wavered from each other. Until they do so, they will continue to prove the adage that the whole is stronger than the sum of its parts.

Persepolis and Subjective Documentary

In the closing years of the emerging noughties there was an influx of animated, autobiographical documentaries such as Sita Sings the Blues (2008), Persepolis (2007) and Waltz with Bashir (2008). Persepolis in particular asserts a personal point of view and narrative, blurring purposefully the objective/subjective divide. This article focuses on how Persepolis’ subjective representations of self, family and culture force revision of the assumed objective, externalising, documentary practice.

Traditionally, film documentary represents the observable world within a discourse of sobriety by claiming that its depiction of the socio-historical world is factual and truthful. Documentary makes an objective truth claim: Believe Me – which audiences are cued to accept. This subtle contract is ambitious, problematic and continually tested inside every documentary, with brash deviations (mockumentaries, reality TV, re-creations) causing befuddlement. Persepolis itself is a “documentary re-creation” that begun life as a graphic novel of the same name.

Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s stirring account of growing up in Iran as a child, adolescent and young adult, following a chronological narrative of memories that succeed each other in irregular leaps and bounds. The film begins in the late 1970s, when an economic crisis precipitated a popular revolution in Iran resulting in the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Iran is subject in numerous documentaries, perhaps because few countries were more revolutionary, and therefore ripe for documenting, than Iran throughout the twentieth century.

A typical example is Letters to the President (2009), an explicitly political, observational documentary that records the lead-up to the turbulent elections of 2009. The film is very much in the tradition of an objective, externalising documentary practice, and is therefore a good point of comparison to Persepolis’ subjective representations.

Letters to the President utilises several objective documentary conventions, including interviews, talking heads and long-takes. Its subjects are voters, bureaucrats and the (now ex-) president himself, and the film is explicitly concerned with politics. In this way Letters to the President tries to represent historical events objectively, and in scope, whereas Persepolis approaches historical events as fundamentally human events imbued with emotion.

Although political, Persepolis is much more about humanism. It is Satrapi’s coming of age story, an exploration of her relationship with the world over a key period in Iran’s and her own development, and was recognised as such during its initial critical reception. The film couples the turmoil of a tense time in history with the agitation of adolescence, and offers a distinct, insightful entrance into Satrapi’s internal mediation of the external Iran. Satrapi’s world is just as deserving of documentary as whatever is outside of it.

The key to this unique subjectivity is in the style of Persepolis’ reconstructed elements. The entire film can be read as a reconstruction of Satrapi’s memory. In comparable fashion to an author writing their experiences onto paper, Satrapi has directed words, images and sounds onto the screen. These reconstructions are animated, and therefore the film foregoes the indexical bond considered inescapable to filmed documentary. The fact that interpretation and manipulation of reality occurs at all stages of the documentary process is abundantly clear to the audience. Thanks to its stylised animation, Persepolis occupies a space of clarity within the murky epistemological discourse of documentary.

There are two palettes and three primary modes of animation at work in Persepolis that meld together to form the film’s unique, absurd and expressionistic aesthetic. The two palettes, colour and black and white, create a temporal space for the film’s reconstructions that draws attention to the film’s perceptual bias. Persepolis uses its colour scenes as a nostalgic axis that brackets the black and white flashbacks. Satrapi humorously draws attention to this, saying Persepolis “is a ninety-six minute colour film with a ninety-two minute black and white flashback”. The reduction of colour also creates a unified image of humanity across borders – all humans have white skin in Satrapi’s black and white reconstructions, whatever their ethnicity.

Outside of palettes, the three major modes of animation in Persepolis are cartoon, shadow and puppetry (each dictated by the film’s hand-drawn technique). The majority of the film is drawn as a cartoon, including all the reconstructions of Satrapi’s direct memory, such as Marjane and all her family. In violent scenes depicting riots, war and death the film employs a shadow mode of animation, where humans and shapes are drawn opaquely as silhouettes. This can be seen as symbolic of Satrapi’s reluctance to relive the gruesome details of the social turmoil she experienced in her youth. Finally, the puppetry mode is used when Marjan is being told humorous political anecdotes. It is a marked departure from the cartoon style and represents Satrapi’s vision of her childhood imagination.

Although these three modes make up the bulk of Persepolis’ animation, a varied use of backgrounds extends the animation’s possibilities even further, creating a myriad of aesthetic transformations that permeate the film’s style. Persepolis presents an abstract realism, drifting through memory, treating animated reality and fantasy with equal candour, tempting the audience to question the importance of supposed factual history. This abstract realism was a conscious choice and is tied to the use of animation. This is, in a sense, the power of the cartoon.

It is also a method for circumventing or subverting controversy outside the filmic world given documentaries regularly have an impact off-screen as well as on. Satrapi’s family still lives in Iran, under what is largely considered a controversial and even repressive regime by most of the world – certainly the Anglosphere at least. Unlike externalising documentaries, Persepolis contains animated dilutions of its social actors; they are ideas and memories, tinted shadows of the external world instead of indexical representations of real people, and because of this the film distances itself from solid critical positions on its subjects and social actors.

The film also contains animated dilutions of the self that undermine objectivity. A clear example is the scene where Marjane enters puberty. Marjane spirals inhumanly, the bold lines deforming her body in alien ways, and through the voice-over of the older Marjane we are audibly and kinetically imbued with Satrapi’s bewilderment and initial rejection of her changing body.

This is consistent not only with representations of self but of friends as well. Enabled by animation, Persepolis’ visual style allows a very liberal use of visual metaphor, as we see when Marjane’s friends turn into birds and literally ‘fly the coup’ in Vienna, a sequence of the film with a marked shift in tone, connected to the introduction of the theme of adolescence. Of further note in the Vienna sequence is the transformation of Marjane’s prince charming into an ogre, achieved through literal visual means. The entire Vienna sequence, whilst beginning as fantasy, eventually evolves a distinctly neo-realist edge and depicts Marjane descending into destitution for the first time in her life. This is followed by the drug-fuelled nervous break-down sequence that forgoes the unique aesthetic of Vienna, but is similar in mood and tone, as Marjane refuses to interact with her old friends.

When she bounces back, however, it is with a gusto equalled only by the soundtrack. The life-affirming rock montage that follows represents how Satrapi regained a positive outlook on life, complete with the lyrics to ‘Eye of the Tiger’ being sung by the newly adult Marjane. This is one of several rock-out sections in the film that turn the sound of electric chords into an audible motif for action and positivity. This particular sequence also directly refers to the previous scene where Marjane rocks out to “I-Ron Mai-Den” as a teenager, a time when she was far more spirited and more idealistic. In this way, rock music intermittently interrupts the usual haunting orchestral soundtrack of Persepolis and directly links the film’s audio to Satrapi’s story and subjectivity, which influences the mood of the film significantly.

Marjane makes it through her teenage crisis with the assistance of a spiritual patron she connects with in her dreams. This universal figure of divinity is a bearded man in the clouds, with any further identity deliberately vague. Marjane rejects both Islam in Iran and Catholicism in Austria, and both depictions of religion are associated with authoritarianism and indoctrination in the film, shown by the brutal law-enforcement scenes in Iran and the demeaning education scenes in Austria. Marjane’s spirituality only shines when she transcends the waking world and sleeps.

Dreams in Persepolis call into question types of reality, not just in the dichotomy of filmic and non-filmic worlds, but through separate layers of existence within the filmic world itself. The exploration of the dream world in the film is a reflexive element that takes autobiographical documentary into exciting territory. In Persepolis, Marjane’s dreams form a concrete, causal portion of her memories and reality. Her story would not be complete without them.

Aptly, Satrapi concludes her experiences of making Persepolis in a statement full of subjective terminology. “We’re not conducting an investigation into reality … we’re trying to get as close as possible to the truth”. In this context, reality can be seen as the objective, external world, and truth as Satrapi’s subjective, experiential story. Persepolis uses its animated reconstructions to represent the self, friends and family from a personal point of view (hovering between memory, experience and the dream world) and in this way calls into question the validity and objective nature of the traditional documentary practice. It recognises and complements assertions by subjectivists that reality – and the truth – ultimately rest within the feelings and experiences of viewers.

If the language of documentary does not evolve it is possible that the form will ossify and become hollow, ceasing to contribute to our understanding and knowledge. The noughties trend of animated autobiographical documentaries is a direct evolution of the language of documentary and Persepolis is exemplary of this movement.

As its bold lines draw the world another human story, Persepolis revises objective documentary practice and points to a brighter future for real lives remembered on-screen.

The Lifeguard

The Lifeguard is an endearing, low-budget U.S. film fitting directly into the “indie flick” mould that has come to undergird the interesting aspects of American film for the last thirty years. The protagonist Leigh is a woman on the cusp of turning thirty – working hard in New York City in journalism, having an illicit fling with her cheating boss and looking after her cat “Moose” in her tiny apartment. The opening montage setting this premise is a beautiful piece of film, a lush snapshot of a wondering, wandering life, through dalliances, encounters and emotional reflections in Queens and Manhattan.

After her boss proposes to his (other) girlfriend, Leigh moves back to Connecticut to soul-search. Tensions arise and drama prevails with her parents, old friends and new acquaintances. The narrative is simple, quaint, predictable but works well enough to deliver a respectable film that will appeal to its target demographic. The pace can be slow, the acting does not always convince, but its themes of love, ageism, sex and sexuality and – of course – existential angst are worthwhile indulging in.

As a purely indulgent aside, I found the constant references to Vermont delightful. The holy Mecca for disaffected youth: Vermont. Only an hour away from Connecticut, yet so different, so free. Filled with organic lesbians; a caricature, yes, but the singularity of Vermont is tricky to pin down. It is like a chip off the northwest marooned beside New England and floating over the more brazen lands of New York state and Pennsylvania.

The Lifeguard. Nothing special, but worth it if you’re in your twenties and still wondering what to do.

Beer “As We Like It”

It astounds me that this “educational” 1950s film by the U.S. Brewers’ Foundation has racked up only 700 views on YouTube. You would think the retro-heads would love it and beer fiends in particular would be lauding it as somewhat of a cheesy precursor to the ridiculous How Beer Saved the World. Alas, As We Like It is yet to find its 2015 audience. Tied into McCarthyism and all the other rubbish of that time, it claims that if you’re against beer, you’re simply unAmerican.

Gracious living. Self-government. Freedom … That’s the way we Americans like it.

“Gracious living” is repeated several times. It supposedly refers to some kind of utopia where everyone drinks beer happily in friendliness, cleanliness and in observance of the law. Wow, sign me up. Do not however sign me up to be a publican in 1950s U.S.A.:

Being a good citizen is the fifth principle of good tavern operation.”

Yes, it lists in detail the other four principles. One includes being involved in cancer research. Aspirational or descriptive? Hmm.