Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ethan Coen

“Well, that’s just your opinion, man…”

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Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “Is there any work by an artist you love that is highly regarded and you know you should at least like, but you just can’t?”

I’ve spoken here before about the completist’s dilemma, or the sense that with so much content available at the click of a button—especially on television—it’s no longer enough to be a casual fan. It’s impossible to say that you like Community based on having seen a handful of episodes: you’re expected to have worked your way through all five seasons, even the gas-leak year, and have strong opinions about the relative worth of both installments of “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.” There’s a similar process at work when it comes to the artists you admire. I’ve always had qualms about saying that I’m a fan of an author, director, or musician if I haven’t delved deep into his or her entire catalog, and I’m quietly racked by guilt over any omissions. Am I really a David Bowie fan if I’ve never listened to Low? How can I say anything interesting at all about Thomas Pynchon if I’ve never been able to get through anything beyond Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49? And if most of the songs I’ve internalized by The Smiths, or even New Order, come from their greatest hits collections, do I have any business ranking them among my favorite bands of all time?

At the very least, when it comes to the major works of someone you like, it’s assumed that you’ll adore all the established masterpieces. It’s hard to imagine a Radiohead fan who didn’t care for OK Computer or The Bends—although I’m sure they exist—or a Kubrick enthusiast who can’t sit through Dr. Strangelove. Still, there are glaring exceptions here, too. I don’t know of any directors better than the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever rewatch The Tales of Hoffmann, which filmmakers as different as Martin Scorsese and George Romero have ranked among their favorites—it just strikes me as a collection of the Archers’ worst indulgences, with only occasional flashes of the greatness of their best movies. David Lynch is about as central to my own inner life as any artist can be, but I can’t stand Wild at Heart. And while I think of David Fincher as one of the four or five most gifted directors currently at work, of all the movies I’ve ever seen, Fight Club might be the one I like least, partly because of how it squanders so much undeniable talent. (To be fair, I haven’t revisited it in ten years or so, but I don’t expect that my opinion has changed.)

David Mamet

But perhaps that’s the mark of an interesting artist. An author or filmmaker whose works you love without qualification may be a genius, but it’s also possible that he or she sticks too consistently to what has worked in the past. I like just about everything I’ve seen by David Mamet, for example—yes, even Redbelt—but there’s a sense in which he tends to rely on the same handful of brilliant tricks, with punchy dialogue, pointedly flat performances, and an evenness of tone and conception that can make even his best movies seem like filmed exercises. Compared to a director like Lars von Trier, who takes insane chances with every picture, or even Curtis Hanson, whose search for new material often leads him into unpromising places, Mamet can seem a little staid. Over time, I’d rather hitch my wagon to a storyteller whose choices can’t be predicted in advance, even if the result is a dead end as often as it becomes a revelation. I don’t necessarily know what the hell Steven Soderbergh is thinking with half the movies he makes, but there’s no denying that the result has been one of the most interesting careers of the last half century.

And even when an artist you respect is operating within his or her comfort zone, it’s possible to be left cold by the result. I love Joel and Ethan Coen: Inside Llewyn Davis was one of my favorite movies from last year, and just last night I rewatched all of Fargo, intending to just leave it on in the background while I did a few things around the house, only to end up sucked in by the story yet again. Yet I’ve never quite been able to get into The Big Lebowski, despite years of trying. It literally works fine on paper: the screenplay is one of the most entertaining I’ve ever read. In execution, though, it all strikes me as mannered and overdetermined, the furthest thing imaginable from the spirit of the Dude. (Watching it alongside The Long Goodbye, one of its obvious inspirations, only underlines the difference between real spontaneity and its obsessively crafted simulation.) Aside from The Hudsucker Proxy, which I’m happy to watch again any night, I’m not sure the Coens are really made for pure comedy: their funniest moments emerge from the bleak clockwork of noir, a genre in which the helplessness of the characters within the plot is part of the joke. The Big Lebowski is fine, on its own terms, but I know they can do a lot better—and that’s what makes me a fan.

The singular destiny of David Fincher

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The most extraordinary thing about last night’s Academy Awards, which were otherwise inexplicably awkward, was the idea that in today’s Hollywood, five men like David Fincher, David O. Russell, Darren Aronofsky, and Joel and Ethan Coen could be competing for Best Director, with only the unstoppable force of Tom Hooper and The King’s Speech excluding Christopher Nolan from the final slot on that list. It was perhaps inevitable that Hooper would end up playing the spoiler, but despite the outcome, the sight of so many unpredictable, talented, and relatively young directors in one room was enough to make me feel lucky for the chance to watch their careers unfold—and that includes Hooper, as long as last night’s coronation doesn’t lull him into premature complacency. (His next big project, an adaptation of Les Misérables, doesn’t bode especially well.)

That said, David Fincher deserved to win. And one day he will. Of all the directors on that list, he’s the one who seems most capable of making a major movie that can stand with the greatest American films, which is something that I never would have guessed even five years ago. For a long time, Fincher struck me as the most erratic of technical perfectionists, at least as far as my own tastes were concerned: before The Social Network, he had made one of my favorite movies (Zodiac); one of my least favorite (Fight Club); one that was good, but limited (Seven); and several that I can barely remember (The Game, Panic Room, and the rest). But as of last night, he seems capable of anything—aside from the ambitious dead end of Benjamin Button, which only proves that Fincher needs to stay away from conventional prestige projects.

Because the crucial thing about Fincher is that his technical proficiency is the least interesting or distinctive thing about him. The world is full of directors who can do marvelous things with digital video, who know how to choreograph physical and verbal violence, and who display a fanatic’s obsession with art direction, sound, and special effects. What sets Fincher apart is his willingness, which even Nolan lacks, to lavish these considerable resources on small, surprising stories. Many of my favorite movies, from Ikiru to The Insider, are the result of a great director training his gifts on subjects that might seem better suited for television. The Social Network, which grows deeper and sadder the more often I watch it, belongs proudly to that tradition. And I have a feeling that an Oscar would have made it much harder for Fincher to continue along that path.

A win last night might also have calcified Fincher’s perfectionist habits into mere self-indulgence, which is a risk that will never entirely go away. Fincher has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to elicit fine performances from his actors, but his approach to filmmaking, with its countless takes, has more often been an emotional dead end for directors. In On Directing Film, David Mamet sums up the traditional case against multiple takes:

I’ve seen directors do as many as sixty takes of a shot. Now, any director who’s watched dailies knows that after the third or fourth take he can’t remember the first; and on the set, when shooting the tenth take, you can’t remember the purpose of the scene. And after shooting the twelfth, you can’t remember why you were born. Why do directors, then, shoot this many takes? Because they don’t know what they want to take a picture of. And they’re frightened.

Fincher, of course, is more likely to ask for a hundred takes of a shot, let alone sixty. So far, the results speak for themselves: The Social Network and Zodiac are two of the most beautifully acted ensemble movies of the last decade. They’re so good, in fact, that they’ve singlehandedly forced me to rethink my own feelings about multiple takes in the digital era. In the old days, when  film stock was too expensive to be kept running for long, the need to stop and restart the camera after every take quickly sucked all the energy out of a set. Now that videotape is essentially free, multiple takes become more of a chance to play and explore, and can result in acting of impressive nuance and subtlety. (In a recent post, David Bordwell does a nice job of highlighting how good Jesse Eisenberg’s performance in The Social Network really is.) But they’re only useful if the director remains hungry enough to channel these takes into unforgettable stories. An Oscar, I suspect, would have taken much of that hunger away.

My gut feeling, after last night, is that if Fincher continues to grow, his potential is limitless. Over the past few years, he has already matured from a director who, early on, seemed interested in design above all else to an artist whose technique is constantly in the service of story, as well as an authentic interest in his characters and the worlds they inhabit. This mixture of humanism (but not sentimentality) and technical virtuosity is precious and rare, and it’s enough to put Fincher at the head of his generation of filmmakers, as long as he continues to follow his gift into surprising places. At first glance, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo seems like a step back, but at least it affords the range of tones and locations that he needs. And if last night’s loss forces him to search all the more urgently for great material, then perhaps we’re all better off in the end.

True Grit and the Coen Brothers

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I mean, who says exactly what they’re thinking? What kind of game is that?
—Kelly Kapoor, The Office

True Grit, as many critics have already noted, is the first movie that Joel and Ethan Coen have made without irony. I liked it a lot, but spent the entire movie waiting for a Coenesque twist that never came—which left me wondering if the twist was the fact that there was no twist. The truth, I think, is somewhat simpler: a combination of affection for the original source material and a desire by the Coens to show what they could do with a straightforward genre piece. (I also suspect that, after decades of thriving in the margins, the Coens were juiced by the prospect of their first real blockbuster.)

As much as I enjoyed True Grit, I found myself nostalgic for the old Coens, rather to my own surprise. There was a time, not long ago, when I would have argued that the Coen brothers, for all their craft and intelligence, were the most overrated directors in the world. In particular, I felt that the very qualities that made them so exceptional—their craft, their visual elegance, their astonishing control—made them especially unsuited for comedy, which requires more spontaneity and improvisation than they once seemed willing to allow. And even their best movies, like Fargo, never escaped a faint air of condescension toward their own characters.

As a result, with the notable exception of The Hudsucker Proxy, which I’ve always loved, I’ve never found the Coens all that funny—or at least not as funny as their admirers insist. Despite my affection for The Dude, I was never as big a fan of the movie in which he found himself, which reads wonderfully as a script, but never really takes off on the screen. And when the Coens try to work in pure comedic mode—as in The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, and the inexplicable Burn After Reading (which, I’ll grant, does have its admirers)—I find the results close to unwatchable.

In recent years, though, something happened. No Country For Old Men, though it never quite justifies the narrative confusion of its last twenty minutes, is both incredibly tense on the first viewing and hugely amusing thereafter. A Serious Man struck me as close to perfect—their best since Miller’s Crossing, which is still their masterpiece. The Coens, it seemed, had finally relaxed. Their craft, as flawless as ever, had been internalized, instead of storyboarded. Age and success had made them more humane. True Grit feels like the logical culmination of this trend: it’s a movie made, strangely enough, for the audience.

That said, though, I hope that their next movie finds the Coens back in their usual mode. (The rumor that they might still adapt The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is very promising.) True Grit is dandy, but it’s a movie that any number of other directors (like Steven Spielberg, its producer) might have made. For most filmmakers, this retreat from eccentricity would be a good thing, but the Coens have earned the right to be prickly and distinctive. With True Grit, they’ve proven their point: they can make a mainstream movie with the best of them. Now it’s time to get back to work.

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