As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Coen night #2: Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink & The Hudsucker Proxy

Posted by Hedwig on January 16, 2008

Click here for the blurbs.

It’s funny what happens when you see so many (5) films by the same director(s) in such a short time (1.5 weeks). You start seeing patterns, recurring motifs. The movies stay separate, each in their own neatly defined little period of history, each built on the foundations of a different genre, but through them you start seeing the brains at work.

Miller’s Crossing takes place during prohibition. Barton Fink in 1941. The Hudsucker Proxy in 1958. The former is a pretty straightforward (at least for the Coens) variation on the lone-guy-playing-two-crime-syndicates-against-one-another story – as seen in Yojimbo & A Fistful of Dollars, but truly going on the way back to two Dashiell Hammett novels, Red Harvest & the Glass Key. Barton Fink is almost a horror film, creepy and with a grand apocalyptic finale, a tale about writing and pretension. The Hudsucker Proxy is kind of a screwball comedy. Still, I don’t really want to discuss them one by one as separate, free-standing entities. Instead, I want to talk about the echos and reflections I saw.

I’m not really talking about the more obvious things, like the Coens’ obsession with circles, although it is very prominent in all three, from the hats in Miller’s to a shot of an all too metaphorical sink in Barton to, of course, the hula hoop. I think that’s more a conscious stylistic trick than really something significant. And I think there’s an extended scream in all five movies that I’ve seen so far in my little retrospective, most of them used for laughs, but I’m not sure if there’s anything more to that then, you know, that the Coens find screaming people very funny.

But for instance, I noticed that they often use POV shots of a wall, or pans across a wall, accompanied by sounds suggesting what’s behind them. It’s almost perverse: the filmmakers who keep insisting that there’s nothing hidden behind their works at the same time work hard to keep us fascinated by hiding things behind walls. With often deadly consequence: in both Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing, someone is shot through a wall. And anyone who’s seen No Country For Old Men will remember that it derives a lot of tension from what’s behind certain walls too, and that a shot is fired through a door.

As was mentioned in the discussion about the previous Coen post, another distinctive feature is the language. It has a very strange, mannered cadence, with often needlessly complicated words and constructions. Miller’s Crossing even has it’s own lingo, with everyone asking “What’s the rumpus” and referring to women as “twists”. What’s more, the Coens seem to be really interested in the power dynamics of conversations. Their films often revolve around information: who has it, who wants it, how do they get it. But it’s more than that.

Take the first conversation Barton Fink has with his neighbor, Charlie Meadows. First, Charlie is in control, blustering in, accusing Barton. But then he lets the reins go, apologising. For a while, the conversation is on an even footing, the two men talking about as much, bonding, but then Barton feels emboldened enough to take over the conversation. He goes on and on about the common man… and twice interrupts Charlie Meadows when he says “I could tell you some stories!”. Later, all of Barton’s misfortunes turn out to be “because you don’t listen!” Norville Barnes follows a similar trajectory in the whole of The Hudsucker Proxy: first he can’t get a word in and he gets lucky. His downfall begins once he stops listening.

Talking and listening, and how you do it: in the universe(s) of the Coen brothers, it can determine your fate.

Next up: the killer combo of Fargo & The Big Lebowski. More yelling. More shots of doorways. And who knows, maybe even a glimpse into the Coens’ combined brain.

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2 Responses to “Coen night #2: Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink & The Hudsucker Proxy”

  1. “You start seeing patterns, recurring motifs. The movies stay separate, each in their own neatly defined little period of history, each built on the foundations of a different genre, but through them you start seeing the brains at work.”

    This is exactly why I like watching big chunks of an artists filmography all at once. What’s even better is when someone else does it and points out things you hadn’t really focused on like you’ve done here. I hadn’t really considered the conversational dynamics you talk about, I get more caught up in the language itself, but you’re right. Talking is both a reflection of the characters and the primary way they interact and compete with one another. It always gets physical at a certain point, but first there is the talking.

    For the record, Miller’s Crossing is one of my favorites. Barton Fink is not, but it’s one of the most fascinating. I love it in its own way, but it’s not as entertaining on a surface level as all their others. To me it’s the perfect realization of writer’s block and supposedly they wrote it to break the ice while having huge problems with Miller’s Crossing. Hudsucker I wish I liked better than I do. It’s got such great elements, but they don’t quite come together for me.

  2. sarcastig said

    Haha, yes, that’s a characteristic I forgot to mention: I think in all of the Coens’ movies, at least one person gets punched in the face. I love that two such sophisticated filmmakers are absolutely not beyond some straightforward physical comedy, appealing to our lowest instincts.

    I am loving watching so many of their movies in quick succession. I’m even considering doing another retrospective after the film festival. Maybe Tarantino, maybe Gus van Sant, either one of the Andersons…I don’t know.

    I didn’t really love Hudsucker either, to be honest. I liked it, I thought it had brilliant moments, ‘great elements’, as you say, but the complete movie seems a little…slight? I love Miller’s because it’s such pure noir, and I do like Barton Fink a lot too, although I find it hard to watch. I think it’s the Coens’ most unsettling film. It captures the claustrophobia and quiet panic of writer’s block perfectly.

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