“I don’t pretend to be a critic, but lord knows I have a gut, and my gut tells me it’s simply marvellous.”
Adam Nayman’s The Coen Brothers; This Books Really Ties The Films Together reviewed by contributing writer, Niall James Holohan.
Joel and Ethan Coen have been making influential feature films for over thirty years now and so it stands to reason that Canadian critic Adam Nayman thought a full-bodied retrospective might be in order.
For any avid cinephile, being asked to name your favourite Coen Brothers’ movie is like being handed a Rubik’s cube of Sophie’s choices, to which the answer may change depending on the stakes but will most likely always begin with a plaintive ‘Oh Geez’. This is a testament to how elastic the brothers’ storytelling abilities are and, Nayman argues, affirmation of an enduring interest in the subversive.
In order to do this persuasively, This Book Really Ties The Films Together swings energetically between red-letter interviews with the Coen brothers as well as key collaborators like DOP Roger Deakins and Nayman’s own essays on the films that the brothers have written and directed. It is packed full of fun facts and Easter eggs for the über fan too. For example, did you know that fifteen different babies were cast to play the part of the Nathan Arizona’s kidnapped quintuplet in Raising Arizona? Or that the first draft script for Barton Fink (my favourite Coen brothers film) emerged during a week’s period of writer’s block while working on the screenplay for Miller’s Crossing (a film, by the way, which the brothers’ turned Warner Bros. Batman down to make).
From the ubiquitous uniformed lift operators to Gabriel Byrne’s hat, motifs are revealed and their significance discussed. What’s more, cinematic theme is considered not just within a particular film but across a body of work.
You’re darn tootin’
I have been a huge Coen brothers fan since I first saw Fargo, the film that pretended to be true, as a teenager in 1996 but so far-reaching is Nayman’s research and insight into the creative process behind the Coen’s cult classics that I am sure even the most avid fan will find this formidable book very revealing.
For instance, I learned that Marlon Brando was their first choice to play Jeffrey Lebowski and that while many chin-stroking film critics like to talk about O, Brother Where Are Thou? in terms of Homer’s Odyssey, the brothers themselves admit that they were really going for a Great Depression era Wizard of Oz so perhaps Ulysses, the peacocking cat featured heavily in Inside Llewyn Davis is the closest they’ve actually got to filming Odyssey.
That said, as you progress through the book, I couldn’t help but think of Reidenschneider in The Man Who Wasn’t There who says that “the more you look, the less you really know” but to judge the journey Nayman takes us on with this abundant trope would be to misunderstand that it is a far more instinctual book than it is an analytic one. In harnessing this wonderful abandon juxtaposed with a painstaking attention to detail, he effectively channels what I think we all love about the Coen Brothers themselves. Think about it. Whether it’s between art and commerce, peace and disruption or humility and hubris, the Coen Brothers’ characters are usually engaged in an epic and darkly comic battle between chaos and reason and often the absurdity of the notion that anything could be definitively logical and appropriate is all that prevails.
He was alive when I buried him.
Since the release of their dark neo-noir mystery Blood Simple in the mid-eighties, the brothers Coen have been hailed as ground-breaking chroniclers of the ruinous and riotous tale. So, if you have a friend who ever wondered how the inventor of the hula hoop might find himself suicidal at Christmas or how a baby in a car seat might survive a high-speed chase, then maybe they’d be reckless enough to pick up Nayman’s book.
There are few other filmmaking teams that can boast the latitude that the Coens have managed to explore in their work and Nayman’s book attempts to illustrate how it is possible to succeed in breaking such diverse productions as Barton Fink and True Grit or Intolerable Cruelty and A Serious Man.
Drawing heavily on his knowledge of film production methods and cinematic history and with a keen eye for the concepts that emerge and re-emerge in the Coen Brothers’ work, Nayman has put together an urgent and compelling tribute to the two mild-mannered brothers from Minnesota showed us the life of the mind. The Coen Brothers; This Books Really Ties The Films Together is a must for any film buff and required reading for all the stoned bowlers and murderous insurance salesman out there.
Adam Nayman is a contributing editor for Cinema Scope and writes on film for The Ringer, Sight and Sound, Reverse Shot, and Little White Lies. He has written books on Showgirls and the films of Ben Wheatley, and lectures on cinema and journalism at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University
Niall James Holohan is a contributing writer for Film Ireland, The Psychologist and the L.A. Review Of Books. He is currently a Psychology undergraduate at the University of East London and Film Studies undergraduate at the University of Cambridge.