The Eclectic Genesis of Ethan and Joel Coen

Ethan and Joel Coen.

Ethan and Joel Coen.

I always find it an interesting process to read screenplays.  It is not common that they are published, so it can be hard to get a hold of them.  For the most part, they are not meant to be published.  The end goal for the screenwriter is not to be read, but rather to be watched, so reading them can be an interesting experiment.   Screenwriters may be trying to communicate their ideas to a prospective director, rather than an audience, or perhaps simply trying to lay down instructions for actors or editors.  Since film is seen by many as the great art form of the 20th century, and likely the 21st century as well, it is important to examine these works.  It is only a matter of time before screenplays are read in the same fashion that plays are, so I see myself simply as getting a head start on matter.  In the past I’ve only read screenplays by Quentin Tarantino because his works are more often published than are the works of other screenwriters (though I have seen the screenplay for Zero Dark Thirty available, as well as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy).  There are few film makers as decorated as Ethan and Joel Coen though, and few filmmakers whose work I like more, so when I saw a collection of screenplays by the duo, I picked it up right away.


"Raising Arizona", starring Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter.

“Raising Arizona”, starring Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter.

First and foremost, I must admit, just as is the case with Shakespeare, I am not a fan of all the comedies by the Coen brothers (Intolerable Cruelty and Raising Arizona are simply never going to be among my favorite movies, though darker comedies like Lady Killers and Burn After Reading are more than entertaining).  The collection I picked up features the first four films by the Coen brothers, so Raising Arizona is among them.  While reading Raising Arizona I did find that there were some scenes I thought would translate well to the screen.  There is a scene where an ignorant character, Glen, is telling some Polish jokes to the simple-minded protagonist of the film, H.I. McDunnough.  The irony of the scene is that whilst Glen is attempting to disparage an ethnic group by making jokes about how stupid they are, he himself is unable to deliver the jokes properly, nor is he able to explain them, demonstrating his own stupidity.  The jokes themselves are not even remotely funny, but the dialogue is great.  Watching the film though, the actors seem to be utterly lacking in comedic timing (perhaps this is not their fault, but simply the instructions of the director).  The lines come out in rapid fire order, with each actor seemingly waiting for the other actor to finish their lines so that they can say their own, rather than following the natural course of a conversation.  The plot for this work is contrived; the dialogue is stiff, and the characters underdeveloped.   It was neither a pleasure to read the script, or watch the film, but this is the lone exception in the collection.  All the other works can stand among the finest contemporary plays.



"Blood Simple", starring Frances McDormand and John Getz.

“Blood Simple”, starring Frances McDormand and John Getz.

The first screenplay in the collection is Blood Simple, and though not as well rounded as Miller’s Crossing, the third screenplay in the collection; it does demonstrate the potential that is fulfilled in the later script.  It is a classic American tragedy.  A battered wife, named Abby, a sympathetic man named Ray, who is an employee of Abby’s husband Julian, who looks to help Abby escape her abuser and eventually becomes her lover.  The characters are misguided but relatable, and Ray especially is loyal.  A self-serving private investigator with a conscience complicated matters.  A murder plot is hatched, a man is buried alive, tragedy ensues and happiness eludes everybody.  It is story telling in its purest and most entertaining form and is a tragedy that can stand among Shakespeare’s fienst.  It would have been interesting to see a woman who is more active.  The plot, as is the case with a number of Coen brothers’ films, is driven by the men, but it serves as a critic of the capitalist system and does so subtly and in a way that entertains.


"Miller's Crossing", starring Gabriel Byrne.

“Miller’s Crossing”, starring Gabriel Byrne.

Miller’s Crossing is another great work, much in the tradition of the classic detective novel, or film noir, only rather than following an private investigator on a case, we follow a man who serves as an advisor to the king pin in an organized crime family, though blood ties are not present in this film the way they are in other organized crime films like The Godfather.  Crime boss Leo O’Bannon finds himself at odds with Johnny Casper over a bookie named Bernie, trouble ensues, in part because Leo is having an affair with Bernie’s sister Verna.  Leo’s trusted advisor, Tom Reagan, is also sleeping with Verna, but has no sympathy for Bernie and suggests that Leo let Johnny Casper do what he likes, but Leo seeks to protect his lover’s brother.  What ensues is a great deal of trouble and bloodshed, and Tom serves as the organized crime’s equivalent to Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe.  He navigates both sides of the conflict, solves murders and returns things to their natural order, though, like most protagonists in classic detective novels, Tom ends up alone and empty handed.  The narrative is again driven by the male characters for the most part, though the female character is perhaps the most fully formed in the Coen brother’s oeuvre up until this point in their careers.  As a film, it is perhaps the most entertaining of the Coen brothers’ pre-Fargo work, and Gabriel Burn delivers what is perhaps the best performance in any Coen brothers’ film before Fargo.


"Barton Fink", starring John Turturro and John Goodman.

“Barton Fink”, starring John Turturro and John Goodman.

The final screenplay in the collection is Barton Fink, which is perhaps my favorite Coen brothers’ film outside of No Country For Old Men and the first Coen brothers’ film I ever saw.  It is also the first film in which I saw John Turturro.  Reading it was as much of a joy as watching the film.  It is a dark comedy, and one where it is clear that the Coen brothers had managed to develop a distinct comedic voice.  As an aspiring writer, it is easy to identify with the title character whom is embarking on a career as a screenwriter, but the Coen brothers do not simply make a movie about making a movie, they are telling a different story entirely and the back drop just happens to be set in Hollywood.  There are some interesting literary conversations.  A writer is faced with having to choose between writing something with merit, and writing something that will sell.  There are also questions of authorship and originality present.  The screenplay features the most fully formed female character in the collection in Audrey Taylor (who plays a muse and ghost writer for both Barton Fink and her lover who is a screenwriter loosely based on William Faulkner).  Her abusive lover, W.P. Mayhew, has writers block, and it allows Audrey (played brilliantly in the film by the beautiful and very talented Judy Davis) to present her own work to the public under Mayhew’s name.  She is a writer in the truest form.  She does not care whether her name is known, only that her work is.  A writer without the ego, if one ever existed.  She is also the most redeemable character in the film.


The famous girl on the beach, from "Barton Fink".

The famous girl on the beach, from “Barton Fink”.

The comedy shows through in the film.  In a scene where Barton is asking for assistance in writing the screenplay from the film’s producer Ben Geisler, Geisler suggest Barton speak to another writer.  When Barton asks where he can find one, Geisler tells Barton to simply throw a rock in the restaurant where they are and that he will be sure to hit one.  Then he asks Barton to do him a favour and throw it hard.  The scene serves to demonstrate the contentious relationship that no doubt exists between producers who are out to turn a profit and writers who are hoping to produce great work, while also highlighting the overwhelming plenitude of aspiring writers in Hollywood.  There are darker elements to the humour.  Anti-Semitic attitudes prevail when a murder occurs.  Two police men, one with a German name and one with an Italian name question Barton and make off handed comments about his Jewish ancestry while also delivering some sharp and witty lines.  There is no good cop/bad cop routine here though, just an anti-Semitic asshole/anti-Semitic smartass routine.  There has been much written about the anti-Semitic overtones about the film, and some have said that the entire film is a metaphor for the Holocaust.  I’m not sure I see that, if it is there, it is lost on me, but there is certainly commentary on such issues.


Barton Fink's typewriter.

Barton Fink’s typewriter.

The criticism on the writer is sharp.  The title character wants to write about the working class experience, but he utterly fails to listen to anybody who is in the working class, instead opting to lecture them about how important their experience is.  This is made clear in one of the final scenes where John Goodman’s character, Charlie, described Barton as a “tourist with a typewriter”.  There are also questions of originality.  Both Barton and Mayhew depend on Audrey, and when Barton does finally manage to complete his script, we see that it has the same ending as his play which we saw at the beginning of the screenplay, suggesting that he is appropriating from himself.



The infamous box from "Barton Fink".  What is in there?!?!?!?

The infamous box from “Barton Fink”. What is in there?!?!?!?

The most curious part of the collection though is the introduction, written by Roderick Jaynes.  The man is a fictional character and is credited with editing every Coen brothers’ film save Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing.  The editing is done by the Coen brothers themselves who, for some reason, felt the need to create a fictional character.  Jaynes serves as a self-deprecating extension of the Coen brothers (he doesn’t insult himself, only the Coen brothers who birthed him).  He explains that the Coen brothers loved the editing done in the film Beyond Mombassa, which Jaynes says he was credited for despite being fired from the job for being “too damned Prussian”.  Ernest Walter was actually credited with editing that film.  The Coen brothers brought him out of retirement after a thirty year absence from the industry, at which point he confessed that he did not do the editing for the film they loved.  However, when they attempted to hire the man who did, they discovered that he had passed away, and so went back to Jaynes.  Jaynes suggests they were unhappy with his work on their first film (Blood Simple)and edited it themselves afterwards, but left his name on the credits.  For some reason they hired him again, and again, though repeatedly unhappy with his work.  Jaynes suggests that Raising Arizona was “the work of amateurs” (which I may agree with).  Through Jaynes the Coen brothers prove to be perhaps harsh to the only films of theirs which they did not edit (Michael R. Miller edited Raising Arisona and Miller’s Crossing).  As for his reading of the screenplays, Jaynes suggest that “inept though they may be… they prove superior to the films based upon them” and suggests that the “malformed thoughts contained in the scripts… are… intercepted prior to their being mucked about by the silliness of the Coens’ camera work”.  Jaynes also suggest that the scripts did not cause him “to revise [his] low opinion of the scriptwriting form”.  This is self-deprecation at its finest, but what is the point?  I come away from the introduction with more questions than conclusions, which is perhaps a sign of great writing.

Roderick Jaynes?  Nope.  Roderick Jaynes is not a real person.

Roderick Jaynes? Nope. Roderick Jaynes is not a real person.

I hope to pick up some more volumes of the Coen’s work (if they exist), as their writing is as good as any playwright I’ve read.  Their work is a prime example that screenwriting should be seen on a par with any other form of writing.  Playwrights were at one time considered inferior to poets, and it was not until Ben Jonson released his work in folio form that publishing plays to be read was considered a viable option.  My hope is that a prolific screenwriter follows Jonson’s example and that more works can be read, rather than simply watched.  It is true that the film offers its own unique experience which is in some way superior to the script (the director, set designer and a host of other contributors can add things to a scene that are not present in a script and actresses and actors can bring something to the characters that may be absent from the script), but the script has something of its own to offers.  In comparing the Coen’s work next to Tarantino’s, I’m inclined to believe that the Coen’s work is more polished.  Their words seem as though they are writing for themselves, where are Tarantino’s seem like he was writing to explain things to a producer who may not be as intelligent as his target audience.  The works of the Coens and Tarantino are great, but it seems the Coens have really taken the effort to prepare their work for publication, though Tarantino’s dialogue, when it is at its finest, it the most interesting dialogue I’ve ever read.


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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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