Anticipation, Disappointment, and the Coen Brothers

As I sit and anticipate the release of True Grit (2010), I am reminded of my friends, who, over a decade ago, anticipated the release of the first episode of Star Wars.

When Star Wars: Episode I (1999) was released, a couple of my friends, avid Star Wars fans,  visited Taco Bells and other fast food chains in an effort to collect the various trinkets and items marketed and sold in conjunction with the film’s release.  I have no idea as to whether or not the cadmium and other chemicals in the toys and trinkets were more damaging to their health than the food they consumed at the various establishments.  After their gorging and collecting, they then proceeded to attend two or three different showings of The Phantom Menace, which might have been just as harmful to their health as any amount of cadmium.

I was fond enough of the original Star Wars features, but I had no investment in the brand and could not generate excitement about the “pre-quel.”   Eventually I went along to see the film with a friend who was convinced that it would be magnificent because, well, Star Wars had to be magnificent.   I do not need to take up much time recounting how bad Episode I is, but my friend could not or would not be convinced that it was a truly awful film.  He was not in the habit of liking awful films, but to admit that Episode I had no redeeming qualities would be to admit that George Lucas and the franchise behind Star Wars had not been worth his energy and devotion.  He was not ready to do that, so he tried to invent reasons why the film was good and why it was worth seeing three times.  As he did this, I perceived that he did not fully believe his own logic, but he could not come to grips with being disappointed by Star Wars.

While I could not share in the disappointment over The Phantom Menace, I did have a similar experience with film and refusing to believe that my favorite film makers make could possibly produce a dud.  Fortunately, though, my experience did not involve consuming copious amounts of Taco Bell.

Frances McDormand in "Fargo."

During the early and mid-nineties, I began watching all of the Coen brothers’ films.  I rented every one multiple times, with Barton Fink (1991) being the most frequently watched.  When a new Coen film was about to open, I would trek up from Tacoma to Seattle, which had more theaters designed for independent cinema.  Initially, I thought that they could do no wrong.  I felt that The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) was a brilliant visual comedy and perfectly cast with Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Paul Newman (probably his last, best role).  And Fargo (1996) was, above all else, gorgeous from the opening snowy sequence.  Flaws were explained away, problems were swept under the rug, and objections to their work were chalked up to neophytes “not getting it.”  I maintained this defiant tone for nearly a decade Finally, after viewing The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), I decided that these guys could make a pretty lousy film, and I was genuinely disappointed, not necessarily by the lousiness of the film (which I could not watch again), but by the fact that the filmmakers who I had adopted as “my team” failed in ways that I could no longer attempt to justify.

“My team,” Joel and Ethan Coen, has become renowned and (sometimes) despised for their indie/semi-mainstream films.  Over the last twenty years (almost), their works have migrated from the art houses to the cineplexes, and they have won Academy Awards for best picture (No Country for Old Men – 2008)) and best writing (Fargo – 1997).  Even if the Coens’ films fail to draw large audiences at the box office, their name brand has penetrated the mass market.  Undoubtedly, their ability to wrangle major Hollywood stars into their films has helped their visibility. People will discuss them and their movies even if they do not go and see them.

All of their films, flops or successes, share the Coens’ terrific ability to make all their scenes visually appetizing, even if the characters and plot are uninspiring.  Scenes and sets from O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) and Intolerable Cruelty (2003), two of their weaker efforts, have gorgeously shot scenes and equally gorgeous actors.  They have also managed to garner a mostly deserved reputation suitable to attract Hollywood A-listers (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks) for projects that will be lucky to gross $100 million from ticket revenues.  Such photogenic stars enhance and are enhanced by the Coens’ ability to make their scenes pop and sparkle.

Left to right: "The Dude" (Jeff Bridges), Donny (Steve Buscemi) and Walter (John Goodman).

Yet despite their technical prowess, I am now far too often disappointed in their efforts.  I guess that I have abandoned the notion of identifying with the Coens as “my team” and needing to explain away their flaws. For every film in which they complement their directorial skill and sly black humor with genuine human sympathy and emotion – Fargo, The Big Lebowski (1998), and No Country for Old Men – they produce two or three in which all of their characters seemingly exist only to be mocked and ridiculed by the directors and the audience: Burn After Reading (2008), Intolerable Cruelty, A Serious Man (2009), The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Ladykillers (2004).  At best, such mocking and ridicule is boring.  At worst it is cruel, and I don’t enjoy participating in cruelty when watching films.

Burn After Reading may have been the most disappointing of all of their efforts.  Every character that had a chance to be redeemed or likeable was given a cruel, unnecessary fate.   The Coens even managed some rather impossible feats; they wasted a performance by the amazing Richard Jenkins and relegated the undervalued J.K. Simmons to dreadfully dull desk duty.

Yet films such as Burn After Reading disappoint me not because they are “bad” films.  As I mentioned in a previous post, having three children forces me to watch a lot of poorly made films.  However, I cannot accurately claim to be “disappointed” by the tediousness of and narrative holes in Legend of the Guardians: the Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010).  When one has no expectations, it is hard to be disappointed.  (Actually, Legend of the Guardians kept my four and six year old from climbing over the Byrd Theater seats, so, in one sense, it was an amazing success, and I was generally pleased.) I am disappointed in the lack of quality because, on the one hand, I have seen the Coens produce remarkable stuff and, on the other, I have my own investment in their success and talent drained by their failures.

Jeff Bridges as "Rooster Cogburn" in the Coen Brothers' version of "True Grit."

I am holding out hope that their soon to be released True Grit lives up to its advanced billing.  I was impressed with how the Coens utilized the genre of the Western in No Country For Old Men and drew upon strains from Sam Peckinpah in doing so.  True Grit also represents the first time that Jeff Bridges has worked with the Coens since he immortalized “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski.  So I have legitimate reasons for anticipating True Grit and believing that it should be great.  Yet if it fails to live up to my expectations, if it is genuinely lousy, or if it has enormous flaws, I can handle the disappointment and will not lament over the fact that “my team” did not win.

And disappointment is not always the worst thing; indeed, disappointment can be encouraging sign.  It indicates that we are invested in the production and viewing of film, that we desire for film to be great, that we believe it can be great, and, in the end, that we hold out hope that the next film can/will be great.  Disappointment occurs only because we have previously experienced or believe that we can experience something great.  Hopefully, that “something great” will occur when I view True Grit.

About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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4 Responses to Anticipation, Disappointment, and the Coen Brothers

  1. Peter Schilling says:

    Damn, I thought they were cruel to their characters in No Country as well. I haven’t liked a Coen brothers movie in a long time (Grit included, unfortunately.) Here’s my take on No Country:

  2. thstarkweather says:

    The characters met cruel ends in No Country, but I never sensed that they were held up for scorn or ridicule. Brolin’s character is resourceful and valiant in the face of a superior opponent, and Tommy Lee Jones is outmatched but genuine and heartfelt. I find redeeming qualities in many of the main characters in No Country. I can’t say the same for many of the more recent Coen brother efforts.

  3. Pingback: Coen Brothers Redux | James River Film Journal

  4. Present says:

    I was lucky to find your web site. You truly can write and teach and inspire. Keep writing – I’ll keep reading.

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