Friday, May 1, 2020

The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Filmes Together by Adam Nayman

I talk about my obsession with the films of the Coen Brothers way too much. I genuinely like every movie they’ve made except for The Ladykillers, and even it has its moments. In cases like Burn After Reading or A Serious Man I’ve grown to love them on rewatching after initial disappointment. I even like ones with mixed critical response like Hudsucker Proxy and Intolerable Cruelty. Miller’s Crossing has been my favorite of theirs for a long time, but the essay in this book about No Country For Old Men has me questioning that.

Adam Nayman, who I first encountered as a podcast guest on one of The Ringer movie podcasts promoting this book, has a lot of insight into the films and clearly loves them. This book would be worth the cover price if it were just his longform essays on each movie with shorter essays talking about where they were in their careers when they made them. These latter cover 3-4 movies a piece. But there are also interviews with Carter Burwell who writes their scores, Barry Sonnenfeld and Roger Deakens who have been their primary Directors of Photography as well as their set and costume designers, their storyboarder and pull quotes from actors they’ve worked with multiple times. It’s in a coffee table format so there are many screenshots, behind the scenes photos and art based on the films. It’s a great object as well as an interesting read (assuming you’re interested in their movies). Nayman’s essays touch on many themes, but the two points that I’ve been thinking about most involve No Country For Old Men and Inside Llewyn Davis.

About the former he posits that one small change that they make in Carla Jean Moss’s dialog changes the meaning of the film and makes the film their own. In the book she is fairly acquiescent when Chigurh confronts her with a coin flip for her life. But in the movie, she refuses to see him as an agent of fate saying, "The coin don't have no say. It's just you." This has made me rethink the film. It was already in my top 2-5 Coen films depending on the day I’m asked, but it actually makes me like the film more. After my most recent reread of the Cormac McCarthy novel, I had already decided it was one of the few times I actually liked the movie more than the book. Further thought might push it past Miller’s Crossing.

I’ve been a little bit of a heretic about Inside Llewyn Davis; it’s among their most well respected works, yet it’s very low on my list. This could be in part that it’s one of the ones I’ve watched the fewest times (3-4 tops). But among all the other things it is, Nayman says, it is about someone who was part of an artistic partnership before his counterpart died. In the context of the Odysseyan loop they’ve created here, they are considering what artistic life might be like without the other. I’m looking forward to seeing this again soon. With the exception of The Ladykillers, every time I’ve been disappointed with a Coens’ film, multiple rewatches have fixed that. I suspect this will be no different.

I would have liked a little more consideration of their themes of uncertainty. Nayman definitely touches on this, particularly in the essays on A Serious Man and The Man Who Wasn’t There but in other places as well, but I see that as the key to their work.I would have loved to read his essay on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which dropped on Netflix not long after the publication of the book (probably available on The Ringer and I should just Google it). But even where I disagreed with him I found the essays consistently engaging, and he really delivered on the promise of the title in the myriad connections he made between the films.

Highly Recommended if you’re a Coens fan.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 29/75

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