Wednesday, January 20, 2016

John McFetridge and I take down the Coens and steal Jay Stringer's lunch money

Youngish crime writer Jay Stringer commented on an online article that ranked the Coen brothers' movies. John McFetridge and I weighed in. You won't believe what happened next.
Don't shoot me; my cultural
references are my art.
Peter Rozovsky: The Coen brothers are the perfect moviemakers for a smart-ass, self-referential epoch in American culture. That said, Fargo was good and their version of The Ladykillers is one of the worst movies ever made, so this list gets at least two things right. He's also right that O, Brother! Where Art Thou? has one of the great soundtracks in movie history. But the movie also may be the most overrated of my lifetime. And this guy was "riveted" by the "hysterical" story? This piece is not from one of those inferior Onion imitations that seem to be cropping up everywhere these days, is it?

John McFetridge: I want to like this many, many times, Peter.

P.R.: Say the word, and I'll post it again.

J.McF.:  I think when it comes to the Coens (much like when it comes to Quentin Tarantino), it's best to keep any comments other than unqualified praise to ourselves.

P.R.:  No, occasional criticism of Tarantino is permitted. The thing about criticizing the Coens is that it amounts to criticizing their culture and, hence, their fans. I think they appeal to an audience that is nervous that it won't get the joke, so must be told "Hey, this is just a joke!" even as it is told the joke.

Jay Stringer: I'm happy to hear the criticism. I disagree with it, but I like to hear the other side in things because I'm never afraid to change my mind

P.R.: The Coens and Tarantino are also brilliant visual stylists, which probably helps, even if the visual style is occasionally cringe-makingly arty and referential. That way, people who don't get the reference can enjoy the visual feast, and people who do get it can congratulate themselves for getting it.

J.McF.: I think there's also a fair amount of making fun of hicks in the Coens' movies. I suppose some pushback against the aw-shucks, wise man (I blame Will Rogers) is needed, but I don't like what I see.

J.S.: I wouldn't lump those two (well, three) artists together. Unless it's maybe as opposite ends of something. I think Tarantino has a conscious effort to be cool. I think the Coens have a conscious effort to be uncool. Whilst both are making that conscious effort, I think the latter leaves more room for interesting characters, stories, and, observations, whereas as 'cool' will always get in the way.

J.McF.: No, I don't think the movies have anything in common, I just find that both filmmakers have fans the way boy bands have fans. Which is fine, of course. I've come to accept that when it comes to art and culture I am pretty much universally wrong.

J.S.: John, I can agree with you on that. I see far less of that behavior among Coen fans, but then, I would, because I'm one of them.

P.R.: What about that nonsense with the hat blowing along the ground in, I think, Miller's Crossing? I think you may be right about the cool/uncool, Tarantino/Coen split. The key word in the case of both is "conscious," because it's a tiny leap from "conscious" to "forced."

J.S.: Peter, you're right, it's a very small leap from one to the other. And sometimes I think the Coens have taken that leap and made a mess (just as I think Tarantino has made one brilliant film, where he took enough of a step back) but I think they've stayed on the right side of that line for many great films

P.R.: You could be right, though I'm skeptical. I've seen just a few of their movies, but those include some that have been highly praised. Still, I don't pretend to be able to offer anything like an assessment of their career.

J.McF.: Remember your comments about "The River"? I think much of that applies here.

P.R.: When I have time, I may post later about George Clooney's performance in "O, Brother ... " Though the performance is enough to make me cringe, I can't fault Clooney because he was obviously performing in a style that had been dictated or at least indulged by the Coens, so I blame them. 

J.S.: John, I should clarify, the behavior I was saying I could see was the more 'fan' culture. But as for your point about them making fun of certain groups, I hadn't seen it, but maybe it's a fair point I can look for it in future.

J.S.: I think maybe for me, it's usually come down to it not sticking out that they single out one group, because so often EVERYONE in the film is an idiot. Burn After Reading did that (and was one of their most criticized films, but I loved it); the film is full of idiots.

J.McF.: It's probably me. People often told me the Coen brothers' movies were smart (or even that they were "for" smart people). So I probably approached them defensively (I used to struggle, being one of the least smart people in any room I was in, it doesn't bother me so much anymore), but there always seemed to be some winking about the idiots in the films. Sure, most of the characters are idiots, but we're not meant to empathize with them at all, we're meant to laugh at them.

J.S.: Oh I'd agree if that's how the films were being sold to you. Hate that in any field. "For smart people" is just another form of exclusivity to art. It's utter crap.

J.S.: But take Fargo as an example. I think what we're really being asked to laugh at in that film is pride. Ego. Self-delusion. That cuts across class and social barriers. Everyone loses in that film out of stupidity driven by one of those traits, and the only character who really has it screwed on is the down-to-earth, working, married mother-to-be.

P.R.: In re making fun of hicks, I liked Fargo, and I think most people did. One criticism I heard was from somebody from that part of the county who said the accents in the movie were bad, that people don't talk the way the Coens had them talk.

J.McF.: I think the exaggerated accents are part of it. Like George Clooney's performance in O Brother, it's an artistic decision I don't understand. I suppose it simply goes over my head, but to me the exaggerated accents draw attention to and isolate the characters, making them more other and less likely for much of the audience to relate to them. And make them easy to make fun of. Of course, maybe going through those emotions while watching is supposed to make us in the audience (who think those things) uncomfortable with our own preconceived notions and with ourselves. I'm totally in favor.
Visual nonsense from Miller's
J.S.: I can certainly empathize with locals who don't like the Fargo accents. I get it every time I watch  Peaky Blinders. That's set in my patch, where my Miller books are set, and those weird accents drive me NUTS.

P.R.: I should make it clear that I don't remember noticing a problem with the accents; I've never been to that part of the United States. But I, in turn, can empathize with someone from Glasgow or Ireland being impatient with bad accents, since those are the sources of what are probably the most widely and badly imitated of accents in English.

P.R.: What bugged me about Clooney's performance in O, Brother... was that tag line that the Coens had him deliver throughout, something like: "Boy, that really hits the spot!" The Coens had him deliver the line in obvious imitation of a bad ham actor. If the idea was to show that George Clooney, sex symbol, was capable of light comedy, why not just have him do light comedy instead of imitating someone trying to imitate comedy? It's just one more bit of Coenish meta.

 J.McF.: Like Tim Robbins in The Hudsucker Proxy repeating, "You know, for kids."

J.S.: Can't argue. It's a fair criticism of writing being a little on the nose.

P.R.: Also in re making fun of hicks, remember those funny names that people on social media would make up about those Oregon folks who took over the wildlife refuge? The names included "Y'all-Qaeda" and "Yee-hadies" and such. Now, why is Southern speech used to mock an action led by two brothers from Oregon whose father was from Nebraska? No need to look far for an answer to that question. Vanilla ISIS is pretty funny, though.

J.S.: Yeah I didn't really like the way those people were/are turned into a joke. Not because I don't find them preposterous, but because I don't think it's the right way to address the issues. And I don't want to make jokes out of those guys, while being complicit in a media that in turn makes poor city street kids into villains and heroes.

"Peter, John & Jay discuss stuff." Should be a panel somewhere.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Blogger Monson said...

Nice conversation again.
I love the Cohen Brothers for a reason that I don't think is mentioned here, and that is that their movies have great fast-moving plots. They are interesting/fascinating almost all of the time. That's why I love Burn After Reading, for example, because every scene is fun to watching, every scene raises the stakes more and more and there is nothing wasteful and boring. You can't say that about a lot of other directors/filmmakers, especially Tarantino. Fargo is like that as well. If nothing else it's just a GREAT crime story.

Oh, and I always thought that Clooney talked that way because the character he played was aping the typical movie actor's way of speaking during that time period, that's kind of how he saw himself.

Oh, and I also love (okay I love most of them) Inside Llewyn Davis, though not much of a plot, still it was just so interesting and such a great snapshot (at least their snapshot) of a certain time and who else would even think of that? I mentioned earlier how urbanish black blues singers back then would show up for festivals in their Caddies and then change into farm hand clothes because the folk audience wanted authenticity, and I wished Inside Llewyn Davis would've included that somehow.

January 20, 2016  
Blogger Monson said...

I was referring to Clooney in Oh Brother not Burn.

January 20, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mike, thanks. That makes sense about fast-moving plots. Stuff happens in the Coens' movies, at least the ones I've seen, and the movies generally looks good.

You may be right about the Clooney character's reason for talking the way he did. But that would make the character just one more bit of smart-ass meta attention-mongering, and it was unbearable. A good actor, working under sensitive direction, would have been able to evoke movie-star mannerism without feeling that he had to hit the viewer over the head every time the character opened his mouth. Plenty of Hollywood satires have done it.

January 20, 2016  
Blogger Dana King said...

Damn. A lot got said here that inspires comment, but coming late to the party, where to start?

Tarantino. Immense talent with vastly overrated results. RESERVOIR DOGS was brilliant in its way, though flawed. PULP FICTION is a series of highly entertaining scenes that don't add up to a movie. JACKIE BROWN is probably his most successful effort as a film, in large part because he chose his source material wisely and didn't mess with its core aspects. The core problem is that Tarantino is more interested in making “Quentin Tarantino movies” than in making good ones. DJANGO UNCHAINED is a perfect example. Hell of a movie until the last 20 minutes or so, when QT seemed to think, “Oh, shit! This is just a good movie. It needs to be a Quentin Tarantino movie,” and things went off the rails.

The Coens. They’ve made some good, some great, some mediocre, and some lousy films. I seem to like many of those other do not. For example, I think BURN AFTER READING is hilarious. Maybe it’s because I’m not deep enough to look for the meta aspects and take the movies as I see them on the screen. That said, I’m always happy to watch BLOOD SIMPLE, MILLER’S CROSSING, FARGO, THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, BURN AFTER READING, O BROTHER, TRUE GRIT, and some others that aren’t coming to me right now. The Beloved Spouse and I have an appointment to watch THE BIG LEBOWSI every New Year’s Eve.

I don’t get those who think they too routinely make fun of hicks. I can see it in O BROTHER, but that’s more of a satire on close-mindedness to me. In FARGO it’s the locals who have their lives figured out. They may be lives city folk might look down on, but these people are happy, and they’re not getting fooled by the bullshit they see around them. Margie does her job and her husband gets up early to make her eggs. Jerry Lundegaard is the bad apple who brings in the outside influence. Everyone else was, and remains fine. Maybe I see it differently because I grew up in a small town and look more for that sort of thing the longer I’m away from it.

This comment is already too long. Looks like I’ll be snowbound this weekend, so maybe a blog post of my own is in order.

January 21, 2016  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...


I think you buried the lede a bit here. Where's the link to the Coen Brothers rated article?

I think its sort of amusing that youse get so worked up about the Coens or Tarantino. They are only movies. Whats the big deal?

Peter you hate the hat blowing around in Millers Crossing. Do you also hate every shot in every Terrence Malick movie? Does everything always have to forward the plot? Cinema is a visual medium why not just enjoy some visuals a propos of nothing? Why get so worked up about a 10 second shot of a hat blowing through a wood accompanied by the Lament of Limerick?

A better argument against the hat is that it's aesthetically not your cup of tea but its reactionary and reductive to ask what the point of the scene is and demand the removal of all such similar scenes.

here's my ranking of their movies:

1984 Blood Simple B
1987 Raising Arizona A
1990 Miller's Crossing A
1991 Barton Fink A
1994 The Hudsucker Proxy F
1996 Fargo A
1998 The Big Lebowski A
2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou? D
2001 The Man Who Wasn't There F
2003 Intolerable Cruelty F
2004 The Ladykillers F
2007 No Country for Old Men C
2008 Burn After Reading F
2009 A Serious Man C
2010 True Grit B
2013 Inside Llewyn Davis A
2016 Hail Caesar

Hail Caesar being a George Cloony/Coen Brothers joint I'm guessing its going to be abother F for me.

January 21, 2016  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

oh and those who long for a jihad against "visual nonsense" are going down a slippery slope that will lead to the elimination of things like this (below) - for me the high point of twentieth century cinema:

January 21, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana: That was a terrific reply I wrote to your comment, but Blogger ate it. Here it is again.

That was an interesting comment, that Tarantino is less interested in making good movies than in making Tarantino movies. This is a man who announces at the beginning of each movie, after all, that we are about to see "The xxth movie by Quentin Tarantino."

I remember thinking that Kill Bill was beautiful to look at, but amounted to evidence that a Western director was capable of making a visually convincing Asian-style martial arts movie. That's certainly of cultural interest, but ultimately it suggests to me that Tarantino is a more than competent technician, a show-off, or both. Is that all we require of our major directors?

January 21, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I deliberately avoided linking to the list because I thought it included a bit of silliness. but here it is:

Blogger must have eaten more than just my reply to Dana because I can't find that demand you apparently think I made that all purely visual scenes be removed from movies. I don't hate every shot in a Terrence Malick movie or in a John Ford Western, for that matter, but one could argue that the visuals are very largely the point in those movies.

I would argue that the hat in Miller's Crossing, on the other hand, exists at least as much to demonstrate that the Coens have read books as it is to have the viewer revel in ravishing visual beauty. And no, I forget which Hammett story or novel included what is fairly obviously their source. The shooting up of the house in the same movie, on the other hand, and the guy with the machine gun are visually arresting scenes that have something to do with the movie if which they are a part.

The Marx Brothers clip is an easier problem. It's a terrific scene, a wonderful moment, but isn't that what their movies are about? They are responsible for some of the great comic moments in American culture as well as three of the culture's iconic figures, but is any of their movies a great movie? Not a collection of great scenes, or iconic moments or hysterically funny names, but a great movie? Does anyone mention A Day at the Races in the same breath as The Generalor Trouble in Paradise? If a movie is a collection of comic sketches rather than a coherent story, the argument about whether a given comic bit has anything to do with any other is irrelevant.

Of course, one could argue that the blowing hat in Miller's Crossing is a brilliant piece of visual surrealism (possible a reference to Magritte, it occurs to me now) whose effect is due solely to its apparent clash with what surrounds it. But I choose not to make that argument.

January 21, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"I think its sort of amusing that youse get so worked up about the Coens or Tarantino. They are only movies. Whats the big deal?"

Right. It's not as if they're serious matters like, say, Scandinavian crime novels.

January 21, 2016  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...


Your caption calls the hat visual nonsense. I'm still not clear on your problem with visual nonsense.

Now you're arguing the Marx Brothers never made a great movie? You clearly have a problem with brothers....the Farrellys might be an easier target.

The Scandanavians? Taking bread from the mouths of my children, mate

January 21, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

An interesting choice of words: "The Marx Brothers never made a great movie," rather than, say, "The Marx Brothers never starred in a great movie." Unlike Chaplin, Keaton, Lubitsch, or the Coen brothers, they did not direct their own films, and I'm not sure they wrote any of them either. So it may be unfair to compare them to some of the other people under discussion here.

My problem with visual nonsense--subjective, I admit--is that for me a purely visual bit in a movie has to be visually arresting, narratively relevant, or both. For me, the blowing hat is neither. Nor is it so brilliant on its own as to justify its presence (in my view). Others might feel differently, and I have no quarrel with viewers to whom the blowing hat enhances the experience of the movie.

I should add that it's only partly true that movies are a visual medium. In fact, movies, at least what most of us have in mind when we talk about movies, are an integrated medium: visual, sonic, narrative, musical. That does not clinch the blowing-hat argument in one direction or the other, of course, but it does mean that calling a given scene a piece of obtrusive visual eye candy is a legitimate argument.

I love Warner Brothers movies and Max and Dave Fleischer cartoons. Whether the Mankiewiczes worked together on movies, I'm not sure.

January 21, 2016  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...


Now you're making an aesthetic argument. You did not like the visual imagery of the hat from an aesthetic standpoint. But before you called it nonsense. And I asked whats wrong with nonsense, to which I haven't yet a satisfactory answer, because there's nothing wrong with nonsense as Groucho demonstrates.

I hate to break up the celebratory black slapping party here but the three of you seem to be attacking a straw man hipster figure who doesnt actually exist.

"The movie (Oh Brother) also may be the most overrated of my lifetime." - it has a 77% rating on Rotten Tomatoes - hardly a ringing endorsement and there are plenty of critics who hated it. Just go to the site and read em.

"I think when it comes to the Coens (much like when it comes to Quentin Tarantino), it's best to keep any comments other than unqualified praise to ourselves."

- really you guys should read some film criticism some time. I can't find a single critic anywhere who has universally praised Tarantino or the Coens. The Hateful 8 for example has a 75% rating on Rotten Tomatoes which is hardly a ringing endorsement either. You should read some of the critiques of Death Proof or Inglorious Basterds. Or go all the way back to Pulp Fiction and find that brilliant bell hooks review.

"No, occasional criticism of Tarantino is permitted. The thing about criticizing the Coens is that it amounts to criticizing their culture and, hence, their fans. I think they appeal to an audience that is nervous that it won't get the joke, so must be told "Hey, this is just a joke!" even as it is told the joke."

Really you think no one is allowed to criticise Tarantino or the Coens? Where?

I guess I'm going to have to do the hard work for you:

Bell Hooks:

Peter Bradshaw:

January 21, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I will happily concede that my initial use of nonsense was philosophically imprecise.

January 21, 2016  
Anonymous Mary Beth said...

The collaboration of brothers in movies in Hollywood reminds me of what an actor (his name fails me) once quipped about another group of movie making brothers. He said the biggest outlaws in the West weren't Butch and Sundance, it was the Warner brothers.

January 22, 2016  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...


I watched all of Duck Soup last night and I'm happy to report that although it is a little slow in places the film is unquestionably a masterpiece.

January 22, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mary Beth: I wonder who the worst people in Hollywood were. I also wonder whether Hollywood was any more of a moral chess pool than is any other big industry.

January 22, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I haven't watched the Marx Brothers in years, and this is not an argument I want to get into because I like their work a lot. I simply had in mind that almost any movie of theirs will include romantic and musical filler. You and I love the idea of that silent lecher Harpo playing the harp, but watching him doing it, after being suitably silenced by his beatific expression, is pretty tiresome. (At least Chico would turn his piano playing into visual comedy.)

If the Marx Brothers has had creative control over their own movies, maybe some of the pro forma dross would have been cut, and they would have been Buster Keaton's anarchic counterparts.

January 22, 2016  
Blogger RoyalT said...

Just finished reading John m's books based in Toronto & I really enjoyed the experience. Thanks...

January 30, 2016  

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