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.