Sticking up for the murderers on your DVD shelf
I was sixteen, and I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even know that a teenager was supposed to assume that they knew everything. But I knew Entertainment Weekly was wrong.
For an obsessive young movie lover who hasn’t learned the difference between advertisement and journalism, let alone the difference between “satisfying movie experience” and “I just watched a movie,” Entertainment Weekly is a candy-colored catalogue, a promise that you can keep your ignorance forever blissful. But that was spoiled for me when, weeks before I’d even seen O Brother Where Art Thou in the mythical year 2000, the EW film critic Owen Gleiberman gave O Brother an F.
Literally, an F. Standing for “failure,” as is tradition. Seriously! Here, look.
Now, I know. Film is subjective. And people are allowed to dislike any movie, for any reason. And Gleiberman is a professional. And hindsight is 20/20. And it’s not like it takes much to discredit Entertainment Weekly. But, to paraphrase every opinion piece ever written, Come ON. An F? A total, offensive, incompetent failure? Even if the film’s reels flew off the projector like Frisbees and sliced your loved ones to ribbons, you could still give the film a D- off the strength of the music alone. Not even factoring in the pioneering digital color correction that turned a lush green into an iconic brown dustbowl. Or the fact that pretty much everything about O Brother is… y’know. Really good.
Gleiberman even declared it The Worst Film of 2000 on his year-end list. Number Two was Battlefield Earth.
After I read that single letter grade, without having even seen the film, I stopped reading the reviews in Entertainment Weekly. And a few months later my subscription ran out, unnoticed, never missed.
So began a customary practice with me, a lifelong habit of standing up for two stubborn artists who have made a career of standing up for themselves. They not only need to be the smartest pair in the room, they need to spread to hundreds of thousands of rooms. The Coen Brothers are that rarest of things: modern day filmmakers who surprise. If you’re a film lover, the surprise can be a relief. If you’re a film critic, the surprise can throw you off of your game. “How can I quantify this? Do I embrace the newness or write it off as a fluke, and therefore worthless?” (see also: fellow EW critic Lisa Schwarzbaum’s D rating of Fight Club. Hindsight gets a couple of black eyes on that one.)
And if you’re an apologist, the surprise becomes the drug that you defend long after the exhilaration’s worn off and you can quote the moments leading up to… well, off the top of my head, someone blowing off the top of someone’s head with a handgun.
What is an apologist? It’s a fan who loves something or someone who is above apologizing. It’s the proclamation of an artist as untouchable, beyond reproach. Spielberg gets this a lot because he’s made things that everyone loves. Joss Whedon gets this a lot because he’s made things that a small handful of people love. Kevin Smith gets this a lot because he always validates things for his fans that are popularly considered time-wasters, like comic books, pot, and Kevin Smith movies.
I’m a Coen apologist. Why? It’s as personal as their films are impersonal. They inspire me the deepest and the most regularly, and I’m grateful for it. I’ve been pulled out of a lot by their works, but I never get pulled out of their works. They are able to simultaneously defy my expectations and give me a guarantee of quality. Subsequently, I can argue against every single criticism that levies against them like a lightning round in a game show. “Style over substance” is a biggie. Depends on where you find substance. “Repeating themselves” is a major one. You can slap a bumper sticker slogan over that one: It’s an auteur thing. Screaming fat men are their versions of John Woo’s slow motion turtledoves. “Terrible interview subjects”… well, you can only be asked, “How do you guys write together? Does one dictate and the other type?” so many times. “The Ladykillers sucked.” Um… I kinda like it?
But there’s one constant critique with them that makes for fascinating food-for-thought.
“The Coen Brothers hate their characters.”
I love that one. Think about it! They actively hate fictional characters that they created! How is that even possible? And how can you argue against that?
Well, to begin with, it’s the greatest backhanded compliment ever. The implication is that these characters are so sympathetic, so magnetic, so full of inner life that the cold, calculated fates that befall them are inhumane. Not accounting for the characters in their incredibly faithful adaptations of books, this is a brilliant commendation of the writer-directors, as well as their ability to both cast and lead actors through their often counterintuitive narratives. Creating a character that connects with you so much that you’d want to intervene into their preordained life is the goal of every storyteller and the mark of masters.
Of course, this complaint also stems from the often-nightmarish deaths in their films. Sometimes a death in a Coen film is so vivid you’d swear they started there and wrote the character backwards. Even in their adaptations, this signals their abilities. What struck me the hardest the first time I saw No Country for Old Men was the sheer impact of its violence. They make it HURT. They took the most played-out, numb, desensitized toy in the moviemaker toybox – the gun – and they made it scary again. You fear for these people, you fear the gun, and you shake your fists at the Coens for putting you through the sadistic puppeteering of your senses.
But a lot of times, these deaths get a different sort of gut reaction from you. The bounty hunter’s demise in Raising Arizona ain’t pretty… but it’s HILARIOUS. It’s a perfect punchline. Likewise, the hit man in Intolerable Cruelty probably gives the film its best comedic payoff. Humor takes some humanity, even the Coens’ pitch-black blend. The disposal of Steve Buscemi’s body in a woodchipper is horrific. Grotesque. One of the most lasting images in film history. And it belongs to a film listed in AFI’s 100 FUNNIEST Movies of All Time! That’s not misanthropic; it’s a magic trick.
You can also make the counterpoint that the Coens usually make characters that don’t deserve much better. Would Buscemi’s character from Fargo be missed? Would M. Emmett Walsh’s in Blood Simple? Or the majority of Miller’s Crossing’s underworld? Crime and noir are the largest Coen sandboxes, and when they knock the castles down it’s with style… but also with a point. Even if the point, as Burn After Reading intentionally frustrated its viewers with, is “What’s the point?”
There are truly likeable Coen characters. Consider Marge from Fargo. She’s a sweetheart and a cop who’s actually good at her job. The fact that she and her baby make it to the end, snuggling warm and happy beside her husband, is all the more rewarding when you reflect on the fact that… well, it’s a Coen movie. When compared with the vicious fates that befall others, her survival is a true triumph.
Larry in A Serious Man suffers nonstop catastrophes of Biblical proportions. Do the Coens hate him? Hell, they ARE Larry. We all are. It’s the literal expression of that “Why Me? What Next?” feeling we all get. His trials are one part Old Testament, two parts Midwestern philosophy. As my mama used to say, “Life’s what happens between disasters.” Or maybe it was, “Life’s a series of disasters.” I forget.
And then there’s the poor bastard who managed the Hardbodies gym in Burn After Reading. What can you do to apologize for his awful lot in life? It’s a COMEDY. His awful death is a demonstration of how incompetent everyone is. All’s fair in farce, right?
Indeed, if you read that Gleiberman review, it sinks the sort of venom into an upbeat and harmless comedy that’s usually reserved for confrontational films out of Europe’s art scene that feature unedited rapes or abortions, or an avant-garde indie that portrays an aimless three-hour slice-of-life through a convenience store security camera. The characters do dumb things and he calls it “perverse;” they say ridiculous things and he calls them “goony dumb crackers.” Hell, Southerners and Midwesterners he’d claim righteous indignation for absolutely love O Brother. Most people do. Look past the slapstick and slack jaws and it’s probably the sweetest, most sincere film they’ve ever made. What comedy inspires this kind of hatred? The kind you’ve never seen before.
But when I wind up watching an average of one movie a day, a movie that truly feels like something I’ve never seen before is enough to stoke endless flames of loyalty. So I’m an apologist. I probably always will be. After all, the Coens wouldn’t – and shouldn’t – send fruit baskets to Gleiberman, or to me, or to anyone who doesn’t always “get it.” There’s not enough fruit in the world for that.
Would Gleiberman ever apologize to the Coens for being even further in their dust than most of us? Well, I’m looking at the cover of A Serious Man right now, made a decade after O Brother. The quote at the bottom raves:
“AUDACIOUSLY FUNNY, ORIGINAL AND RESONANT!” – Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
There’s another popular apologist motto: “You’ll come around eventually.”