Saturday, July 06, 2013

The More You Look at Something the Less You See

After Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, and David Lynch, the Coen Brothers are the most crucial American filmmakers I have followed, appreciated, and critically studied for my entire adult life.

To separate movies from films, the Coen Brothers' widely praised works are typically their movies: Raising Arizona (1987), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), No Country for Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010); and unfortunately, it's been a long time since I've had the desire to revisit these in hopes of finding something new.

However, their films: Barton Fink (1991), The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), and A Serious Man (2009) easily remain some of the most intellectually stimulating and classically entertaining narratives any American filmmakers have crafted since the 1990s, in the modern era. Yet, their movies are necessary to identify them as auteurs, and their films only become stronger if you take their body of work as a whole.

Yesterday The Man Who Wasn't There screened in a 35mm print at a theatre. Since this movie was shot on 35mm and converted to a DI, watching it on DVD or digitally projected in a theatre leaves something to be desired. However, seeing the film projected in 35mm returns the black and white converted DI to its native analog look because the print shows dirt, dust and other debris and feels like you're watching an old black and white movie from the 40s.

The black and white look and the film's period small town somewhere near Sacramento, CA setting make this a Film Noir. Normally I confine Noirs between 1941-1958, but this 2001 movie qualifies because they set their film back then. But this isn't merely a Film Noir. It's more like the Coen Brothers making a Neo Noir because they are drawing heavily from the established conventions of historical Film Noirs, but have crafted the film as an existential crisis--with a plethora of big questions, most notably: "What kind of a man are you?" And in addition to all of this, they have succeeded in delivering one of their most sparkling deadpan comedies, with one of their most uniquely droll and prosaic assortment of everyday small town folk, dryly skewering all things ordinary.

The look of this film separates it from B-movie Noirs. Roger Deakins primarily using the barbershop, photographs sublimely contrasty, detail cluttered set pieces almost as gorgeous as images Henri Alekan achieved in Der Himmel über Berlin (1987, Wim Wenders). Also, the Nerdlinger's department store features cavernous shadows and broad pillars of blackness against smoky shafts of light that create geometrically designed representations of the protagonist's psychological inner chaos like the films John Alton shot in the late '40s. And notice the striking use of medium to medium close up-framed dolly tracking shots, overcranked, and often rain soaked; these are among the most lyrical segues in the film.

Some of the strongest evidence to support categorizing this film as a Film Noir is Ed Crane's guarded near-paranoia. He's cynical, as are most hard-boiled Noir protagonists. And he's our narrator, so in a way, the film is cynical. Film Noir often means an American looks around sometime after The War and realizes people, society, or the government aren't what they seem. This is Ed Crane's path. Sizing people up seems to be his only reason for living. And he usually concludes that they're all phonies. Think about how often he slings that slur.

Birdy almost takes on an existential significance, as she's obviously something like a manifestation of Crane's ideal female. And in the glorious scene where she attempts to give him fellatio as a consolation prize, Crane's dreams are finally shattered once and for all, causing him to take account of his place in the universe one last time.

Existential is a big label that gets thrown around way to much. I'm not saying I'm the one to categorize this film as such, but I think it does ask big questions instead of setting the same conflicts and resolutions as most plot-driven works. There is something said without words that floored me when Crane gets his leg shaved before his execution--because we remember that everynight he used to shave his wife's legs in the bathtub--like, how odd that on his last night alive someone else would be shaving his. There's no point. It's a mere observation. But, what else is there? These shots may support the motif that Doris' marriage proposal suggests ("Why? Does it get better?").

She has a point.

Maybe this is all there is.

Doris (Frances McDormand) is a riot as the comedic relief, and Crane is here merely to serve as her foil mostly. She's got the balls and spits fire like one of Hawks's gals. And what cracks me up is that religion or a higher power isn't a governing factor for Ed or Doris (or anyone else in this movie really) but, she kind of symbolizes everything the ten commandments try to dissuade. Doris cusses like a sailor, loves to use blasphemy, "Enjoy your goddamn cherries," is racist, "I hate wops," is an alcoholic, commits adultery, commits grand larceny against he employer, and finally is convicted of murder. The irony is that even though Doris didn't kill Big Ed, one wonders how long before she might have.

Her first line in the film is a riot, "Bingo!" I saw McDormand on a Charlie Rose interview from the time of the film's release and I remember she said some of the best direction she had was in that scene because Ethan told her, "when she gets bingo, it's life or death for her."

The casting in this film is brilliant. No one holds a candle to Tony Shaloub (as Freddy Riedenschneider). Riedenschnieider's machine-gun rapid-fire dialogue as a fast talking big money attorney from Sacramento takes the second half of this film into vastly entertaining dimensions. Everyone is a small town rube, but he kicks the cobwebs off of the mausoleum once he arrives. He talks fast, eats fast (and voraciously), and thinks fast. He's arrogant, rude, manipulative, and driven. His musings on Heisenberg's uncertainty principle are ridiculously hilarious. Although my favorite Riedenscheider lines have always been his curt summary of how crummy Doris' case looks:

You say he was being blackmailed. By who?
You don't know. For having an affair. With
who? You don't know. Did anyone else know
about it? Probably not, you don't know.

Carter Burwell (he's scored every Coen Bros. movie) wrote one of the only scores in a Coen Brothers movie where I actually felt like they were being sentimental. The Burwell excerpt I'm talking about doesn't play until Act III, when Frank has to sell the barbershop over to the bank. And it is after this point I feel like the Coen Bros. have transcended most of the stuff they usually do, and why The Man Who Wasn't There is so important for me. (I wonder if Burwell's similarly heart-breaking score for Being John Malkovich (1999, Spike Jonze) was a breakthrough that paved the way for this?)

In closing, the haircuts for kids were:
The Butch
The Heine
The Flattop
The Ivy
The Junior Contour
(And occasionally) The Executive Contour

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