This fall I wanted to run an Adult Night School Film Course at Haddon Twp. High School. I thought it would be interesting to focus on one filmmaker and show nine movies that by default are connected in some way. I chose the Coen Brothers and decided to show nine of their films in chronological order starting with Blood Simple (1984).
I took a chance having such a narrow focus, but I had planned different type of courses in the future that would be genre driven, like Film Noir and Horror. On the plus side, I thought the Coen Brothers were attractive to a large group of people. And I didn’t need that many people: eleven.
Unfortunately, only six people signed up. I blame myself for not selling the course more to people I met around town. I wondered, too, what else was the problem. Maybe people who liked the Coen Brothers had already seen the films and didn’t feel the need to see them again, although I expected enough fanatics for The Big Lebowski (1998) and Raising Arizona (1987), like myself, couldn’t watch these and other Coen features enough. Besides, I was creating a course that would make the Coens more coherent and comprehensible to all who attended the course. I would hate to think that very few people are interested in understanding films.
With this blog, I can vicariously teach the course or, at least, write about the Coens and their films. In past blogs, I have dealt with Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing (1990), with the latter being the second film that I showed at the Collingswood Movie Club in 2012. I have written two articles for Bright Lights Film Journal, dealing respectively with Raising Arizona and Fargo (1995).
Initially, I wanted to start the course with the film that I felt contained the essence of Coen Brothers’ themes: No Country for Old Men (2007). From there, I would have alternate what are considered their comic films, like Raising Arizona, and serious films, like The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). I scrapped this plan and went the chronological route because I wanted time the first night to discuss the Coens in some depth. Blood Simple is 23 minutes shorter than No Country.
One of the contexts I wished to talk about was the various influences on their films. Indeed, much of the cinematic past is used in Coen Brothers films, none more so than film noir, starting with Blood Simple. Some of their films directly tap into specific movies. Miller’s Crossing is a (hidden) remake of The Glass Key (1942); The Big Lebowski parodies The Big Sleep (1946) in its complicated plotting; O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) takes its title and several scenes from Sullivan’s Travels (1941); The Man Who Wasn’t There follows the structure and irony of The Postman Always Rings Twice (2001). They remade The Ladykillers (1955) and True Grit (2009).
Their films are inundated with references to past films, so much so that some critics see the Coens’s films as derivative. From this launching pad, many cannot see them as great filmmakers. This along with a few that in too many of their films the Coens give the impression of feeling superior to ther characters. Put another away, their characters are usually dimwitted. The Coens in an interview have fueled this feeling by describing George Clooney’s characters in O Brother, Intolerable Cruelty (2003), and Burn After Reading (2008) as a trilogy of idiocy.
Nowhere does their reliance or reverence or affiliation on another body of work that the films of Stanley Kubrick. My two articles in Bright Lights Film Journal specially linked Raising Arizona to Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Fargo to The Shining (1980). Plus, I have found in nearly all of their films a specific reference(s) to a Kubrick film or films. I’ll give two examples.
In The Man Who Wasn’t There, Billy Bob Thornton plays a barber. In an early scene, he’s cutting hair and we see the hair hitting and piling up on the floor. This references the opening scene in Full Metal Jacket (1987) when the Marine recruits have their heads shorn and we see the hair accumulating on the floor. In True Grit (2010), the girl follows Rooster Cogburn from a court trial to an outhouse. She holds a conversation with him standing beside the outhouse while Rooster is taking a crap. This scene echoes one in Dr. Strangelove when General Turgidson’s mistress must tell the General about a nuclear attack on Russia while he’s indisposed on the crapper.
The purpose of the course would have been to illuminate the meaning of these and other references – and not just ones to Kubrick. Raising Arizona, for instance, has a direct reference to Psycho (1960), as well as references to The Shining (which itself refers to Psycho).
I teach a film course to high school students and, basically, my goal is to watch the films closely, to understand what is happening, and then to see beyond what they see happening. My hope is they will make connections and find meaning in those connections. The film course that isn’t there this fall would have been trying to achieve the same (except no one would have to write a paper).