ALTERNATE REALITIES: THE INSIDE-OUT WORLD OF JOEL AND ETHAN COEN
© 2020, by M. Keith Booker
The America we see in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen is a sort of alternate reality America that produces fresh (though slightly skewed) perspectives on real-world cultural history. Though they have worked on a few other projects, the Coens’ principal oeuvre consists of the nineteen feature films that they have written, directed, and produced in tandem—from Blood Simple (1984) to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018). Each of these films is set in a fictional version of a specific American time and place; in each case, however, the fictional version involved does not quite seem to coincide with the same time and place in the real America but is instead slightly offset from reality (and in ways that are distinct to the Coens). Building their films from bits and pieces extracted from American cultural history, the Coens have produced some of the most intricately crafted and intellectually sophisticated films of the past several decades, yet they have done so largely without sacrificing intelligibility or entertainment value. The Coens’ films are complex enough, however, that it does help to approach them armed with a few special insights and interpretive tools, which this volume will endeavor to supply.
The Brothers Coen are two of the most original and distinctive American filmmakers of the past three-and-a-half decades. Joel was born in 1954, Ethan three years later. The brothers grew up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. From the beginning, then, they saw American society from the seemingly mainstream position of a middle-class suburban family in the Midwest. The brothers had what was in many ways a classic American upbringing, living in material comfort, their minds nourished by the still-new medium of television, especially when they were driven indoors during the long Minnesota winters. On the other hand, as the children of Jewish intellectuals, they also grew up viewing America from a decidedly off-center position. This situation of being both insiders and outsiders relative to the American mainstream is, I think, also quite descriptive of their films and of the unique point of view from which their films observe American culture and American society.
The Coen Brothers and Alternate Reality
Most of the films of the Coens are, at least to an extent, reworkings of classic Hollywood film genres. However, the Coens approach these genres from a distinctly contemporary point of view, even if they also approach the genres with affection and respect, with little in the way of real revisionary intent. Indeed, they have pursued their creative engagement with a variety of different well-established film genres largely because they themselves are such big fans of genres such as film noir, the Western, and screwball comedies. In addition, individual Coen Brothers films often engage with several different genres at once, producing new and unique combinations. It’s always fun to try to guess which genre (or genres) they might take on next. They have, however, avoided one major film genre almost entirely and have, in fact, ruled out ever working in that genre. This genre is science fiction. As Ethan once said in an interview, we should never expect to find them working in science fiction because “neither of us is drawn to that kind of fiction. I don’t think we could get our minds around the whole spacesuit thing.” Thus, it seems only appropriate that, in the following study of the films of the Coen Brothers, I employ a concept from science fiction to tie all of their work together.
That concept, as I suggested above, is the alternate reality (or alternate history) narrative, in which the story takes place in a world that is very much like our own but differs from it in subtle ways, most commonly because some historical event in the past turned out differently than it did in our reality—such as the Germans winning World War II, which is the premise of any number of such narratives. At least this concept doesn’t generally require spacesuits. What it does require is a fairly detailed evocation of place and time, providing enough details gradually to make clear the fact that the reality of the story is not our own, a situation that also very nicely describes the films of the Coen Brothers. The Coens, as much as any filmmakers living or dead, set their films in specific and vividly realized places and times (often places that have figured prominently in American cultural history), from the Texas plains and honky-tonks of their first film, Blood Simple (1984), to the Hollywood hills and sound stages of Hail, Caesar! (2016). The films also tend to take place in clearly delineated time periods, very often in specific years and at crucial points in American history, as when Barton Fink (1991) is set in late 1941, just before and after the U.S. entry into World War II, or when A Serious Man (2009) is placed, by a variety of contextual clues, in 1967, the year of the Summer of Love. And yet, the Coens also sprinkle their films with small (and sometimes large) anachronisms and inconsistencies that announce, not that they are sloppy filmmakers, but that they are very meticulous filmmakers who want us to realize that the places and times in which their films occur do not, in fact, quite correspond to places and times in the real world. Jeffrey Adams is clearly correct when he notes that the Coens seem to see themselves as American filmmakers who are “dedicated to making films in and about the United States of America.” But it is equally clear that their version of the U.S. resides in a different reality (or realities) than our own. Their films take place, in short, in alternate realities.
This is not to say that the Coens are secretly (or inadvertently) making science fiction films or that their claim to have an aversion to the genre is an attempt at misdirection (or a case of misrecognition). Nor do the Coens create this alternate reality effect for the same reasons that motivate science fiction writers, who often create worlds that differ from our own in a mode of political satire that produces fresh perspectives on our own reality, often for the purpose of making subtle political points about the fact that our own world doesn’t have to be the way it is. The Coens, in contrast, employ their alternate reality technique primarily out of a self-consciously postmodern awareness that their films are fictions and that the worlds shown to us within fictional films can never be the same as the real world, no matter how scrupulously the filmmakers might attempt to match up their fictional worlds with the real ones. Rather than make such an attempt, the Coens embrace the fictionality of their filmic worlds and use it as a crucial resource in constructing their films. Going well beyond the trivial observation that fictional worlds are never quite the same as the real one, the Coens carefully create fictional worlds that differ from the real one in specific ways that are, first and foremost, entertaining.
The Films of the Coen Brothers: That’s Entertainment
In certain circles, of course, “entertainment” is a bad word. For some, it connotes the bland, insipid, superficial products of a popular culture designed to numb minds, blunt critical thinking, and convert its audiences into an army of programmed, smiling robots, lacking in self-awareness and blindly devoted to the consumption of more and more of the products of modern capitalism—including popular culture itself. The Frankfurt School Marxist theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno began warning us about the dire effects of this sort of entertainment culture as long ago as the 1940s, with Hollywood films as a central target of their critique. Beginning in the 1950s, the rise of commercial television broadened the urgency of such critiques, as cultural critics on both the left and the right became concerned about the detrimental effects of the new “mass” medium. This new wave of concern perhaps culminated in Neil Postman’s bestselling 1985 volume Amusing Ourselves to Death, which still stands as an influential expression of concern that contemporary popular culture, designed merely to amuse and entertain, was not only incapable of conveying serious ideas but even acted to render its consumers incapable of processing such ideas—much in the mold (as Postman himself notes) of the mind-numbing popular culture envisioned in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopian classic Brave New World.
Brave New World, of course, is a science fiction satire set in an alternate reality that is precisely intended to warn readers of dangerous trends in their own contemporary world, long before the rise of television made that warning more urgent than ever.Postman’s critique, meanwhile, focuses first and foremost on television, but the subsequent development of internet and then cellphone culture has in many ways made his observations seem even more cogent. On the other hand, a number of recent “quality” television series—including such stellar examples as The Sopranos (1999–2007), Mad Men (2007–2015), and Breaking Bad (2008–2013)—have ushered in what many critics have called a Golden Age of Television, calling into question Postman’s belief that certain media (such as television) simply cannot bear the weight of quality content. Still, despite occasional concerns in some circles about its potential negative effects on the morals of viewers (especially children), film has to some extent succeeded in maintaining a reputation as a medium that retains the potential ability to produce genuinely thoughtful and artistic works, even if the box office is dominated by a seemingly endless stream of mindless comedies, flashy action films, and interchangeable superhero extravaganzas.
The Coens are pioneers in the kind of innovative, independent filmmaking that has helped to promulgate the notion that film has a greater potential to produce quality products than does television. At the same time, the Coens (almost despite themselves) have also been pioneers in breaking down conventional distinctions among media. For example, the FX cable network series Fargo (which premiered in 2014 and is still in production as of this writing) was inspired by the 1996 Coen Brothers film of the same title and has managed, through the three seasons produced thus far, to maintain a Coenesque feel even without the active participation of the brothers in its production (though both are listed among the executive producers of the series). Perhaps more tellingly, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), the Coens’ latest effort, was rumored to be a television series for Netflix but was then released as an anthology film just in time to premiere in competition at the Venice International Film Festival, before moving to Netflix. Buster Scruggs, then, becomes a prime example of the ways in which the boundaries among different media (especially film and television) are under siege in the age of Netflix.
All of the films of the Coens are highly entertaining and most of them are quite funny—even the grim No Country for Old Men (2007) has its amusing moments. And the brothers have consistently maintained that they have no serious agenda (political or otherwise) in their films. But the works of the Coen Brothers suggest that the dichotomy between “serious” culture and “entertainment” culture is a false one. Thus, entertainment or no entertainment—and even though the Coens do not appear to employ their alternate reality technique in the specifically satirical mode of much science fiction—their technique of creating alternate versions of America and American cultural history does effectively suggest some new ways of looking at America and its history that have the potential to change our ways of thinking, whether the Coens intended this effect or not.
The Complex and Contradictory World(s) of the Coen Brothers
The Coens’ films break down all sorts of distinctions, in addition to the one between “serious” and “entertainment” programming. The films are highly original, with a distinctive quality that makes them almost immediately recognizable as a film by the brothers. Yet the Coens borrow material from previous films (and other sources) more extensively and more overtly than almost any other filmmakers in the history of the medium. The brothers write their own films (and generally write only their own films), yet their most important foray into writing for others—the 2015 Cold War espionage drama Bridge of Spies—was written for the ultimate mainstream director, Steven Spielberg, and won the brothers (along with collaborator Matt Chapman) an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The Coens are intensely independent filmmakers whose own quirky films are well outside the mainstream, both artistically and commercially. Yet films they have written and directed have won a total of 36 Oscar nominations (though only six victories), and they have been able to attract some of Hollywood’s biggest stars—George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Jeff Bridges, and Billy Bob Thornton immediately come to mind—to appear in their films. Other actors have become stars partly because of their roles in Coen Brothers films, including Josh Brolin, Oscar Isaac, and Frances McDormand (who also happens to have been married to Joel Coen since 1984). The brothers have even helped to propel virtually unknown teenage actors—Scarlett Johansson and Hailee Steinfeld—into important show-business careers. Yet the Coens’ films are not generally star-making vehicles but feature ensemble casts made up largely of talented character actors who have appeared in multiple films for the brothers. When John Turturro, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Richard Jenkins, Michael Badalucco, Jon Polito, and others appear on screen in a Coen Brothers film, it is almost like meeting an old friend. Clooney, who has appeared in four of the Coens’ films, should be included in this group of character actors as well, despite the fact that he is a major star even apart from his work with the brothers. In fact, all of these highly recognizable actors have had success outside of Coen Brothers films. McDormand, for example, won a Best Actress Oscar for the Coens’ Fargo, but also won one for the non-Coen film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). And some of her most memorable work with the Coens is in small-but-outrageous character roles (such as in Raising Arizona and Hail, Caesar!).Still, the appearances of all these actors with the Coens have a special flavor; with the Coens, they seem almost like a group of (very gifted) friends and neighbors who regularly perform together in their local community theater.
One of the most remarkable features of the Coens’ films is that each film seems distinctly different from the others, yet all are nevertheless distinctively Coenesque. The Coens make brilliant use of the resources of the medium of film, from the effective use of the actors noted above, to the dazzling (but often eccentric) camera work of British cinematographer Roger Deakins (who has shot most of their films), to a use of music (aided by collaborators such as Carter Burwell and T Bone Burnett) that is perhaps more effective than in the films of any other contemporary filmmakers—despite the fact that the brothers have never made a film that could be rightly described as a “musical.” On the other hand, the style of a Coen Brothers film can vary significantly from one film to another, partly because they work in a number of entirely different genres (or combinations of genres). But even films that participate in the same principal genre can vary substantially. Blood Simple (1984), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1999), The Ladykillers (2004), and No Country for Old Men (2007) are all primarily crime films, yet each one differs sharply from the others, ranging from the slapstick farce of The Ladykillers to the dark and brooding menace of No Country for Old Men.
What really ties the Coen Brothers’ films together as a distinctive, immediately recognizable body of work is the fact that each of their films engages in a dialogue with some aspect (or aspects) of American culture, history, and society in a way that is uniquely their own. In many cases, the most important engagement is with a specific film genre, but engagements with specific places and times—from the skewed perspective of the alternate history mode that I have outlined—are also crucial. Together, their films constitute a sort of reconstruction of American history from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century. As their frequent collaborator Burnett puts it, “The Coens are not just inspired filmmakers, but brilliant archaeologists, as well. They dig their films out of the past.”
Burnett is right, but the “past” that the Coens sift through is a complex and multiple past that consists not just of material reality but of cultural representations of reality in a variety of forms. A period piece such as Miller’s Crossing is not an attempt to create a representation of urban life at the end of the 1920s; it is an attempt to represent the cultural memory of that life as found in a variety of sources, especially including hard-boiled detective fiction and classic gangster films. Similarly, O Brother, Where Art Thou? tells us very little about the reality of life in the American South during the Great Depression, but it tells us a great deal about how the Depression-era South has been represented in a variety of other films—with an important additional dose of cultural memory derived from American roots music of the period. The Man Who Wasn’t There, set in California in 1949, does not attempt to recall that actual setting, but is instead a re-creation of the films noir of that period, while also reaching back in important ways to the kinds of hard-boiled fiction on which those films were frequently based. And so on.
The Coens and the Representation of “Reality”
In their films, the Coens produce representations of representations rather than representations of reality, a strategy that places their films at a double remove from the real world, creating the sense I have noted that their films are set in alternate realities. This phenomenon is actually quite common in the contemporary media environment. To cite a well-known example, I might note the family of superhero films and television shows that are set in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” placing those narratives within a particular reality that differs from our own in important ways—most obviously in that this reality is inhabited by a variety of superheroes and supervillains. And this universe results from the fact that the films and shows involved are not representations of our world but of the world of Marvel comic books, which have long attempted to maintain a certain narrative continuity (or at least consistency) among different comics.
The Coens have no reason to try to produce this sort of consistency, so it probably makes less sense to try to place all of their films in a single universe, though there are occasional crossovers from one film to another, as when a character early in Raising Arizona (played by M. Emmet Walsh, who had been a star of Blood Simple three years earlier) is shown wearing a jumpsuit that identifies him as an employee of Hudsucker Industries, thus anticipating The Hudsucker Proxy, which would be released seven years later.In a sense, then, this moment combines the worlds of three different films (appearing over the course of a decade) into a single shot. Similarly, the Coens’ two films about the Hollywood film industry (Barton Fink and Hail, Caesar!), though released a quarter of a century apart, are overtly set in the same universe (and even involve the same fictional film studio). In general, though, there is little to suggest that various Coen Brothers films are literally set in the same universe. Instead, what they all have in common is that they are set in avowedly and self-consciously fictional universes that resemble, but are not identical to, our own and that derive from a variety of cultural sources, including literature, film, and music. This realization helps, I think, to explain the out-of-kilter feel of the Coens’ films, as if the universes of their films are just slightly out of phase with our own—but also as if the usual rules governing the distinction between fiction and reality in our universe do not apply in the worlds of these films. The result is a delightful and diverse array of films that together constitute one of the most entertaining and distinctive bodies of work produced by any directors in the history of American film.
This book traces the development of that body of work. Each chapter looks at the Coens’ engagement with a specific genre or motif, beginning with the film in which that genre or motif first took center stage and then looking at one or more later films that returned to same general territory. For example, Chapter 1 begins with the Coens’ reinscription of film noir in Blood Simple and then looks at their return to film noir nearly two decades later in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Chapter 2 looks at the turn to anarchic, almost cartoonish comedy in the brothers’ second film, Raising Arizona, and then at the return to that mode in The Ladykillers and Burn After Reading. Subsequent chapters then look at the Coens’ engagement with hardboiled detective fiction (in Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski), the Hollywood film industry (in Barton Fink and Hail, Caesar!), screwball comedy (in The Hudsucker Proxy and Intolerable Cruelty), black comedy (in Fargo and A Serious Man), the American music industry (in Oh, Brother Where Art Thou and Llewyn Davis),and the Western (No Country for Old Men, True Grit, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs ). Together, these chapters demonstrate the wide variety of modes and genres in which the Coens work and the wide variety of materials that they draw upon in constructing their films. In so doing, they illuminate the work of the Coens in such a way that viewers can return to the films themselves armed with the sort of information that will make the appreciation and enjoyment of the films all the easier.
 “The Coen Brothers.”
 Adams, p. 167.
 On the phenomenon of “quality television,” see the volume edited by McCabe and Akass.
 See Burnett.