The Coen Brothers
by Ronald Bergan
Published by Orion
242 pages, 2000
Reviewed by Aaron Blanton
The brothers Coen -- like their work -- do not inspire ambivalence. Quirky, idiosyncratic and, some would say, eccentric, Joel and Ethan Coen have eschewed commercial Hollywood clichés and triumphed against all odds. Though not all of the films they have made have enjoyed huge commercial success, enough of them have been noteworthy at both the box office and the critics' bench that this fraternal team can enjoy a special place in the history of film. If, that is, this duo would enjoy such a place. After reading The Coen Brothers by Ronald Bergan, I sort of doubt it. As he begins The Coen Brothers, Bergan recalls the day he first approached the brothers about writing a book about them:
It was a situation that reminded me of a cartoon I once saw of a man opening the door of his apartment to a stranger. "Excuse me," says the visitor. "You don't know me but I'm your biographer." Joel asked me, "Why would you want to write a biography of us? Listen, you've written books on Jean Renoir and Sergei Eisenstein, We can't compare to them in any way. We're boring."
After the brothers relent and agree to cooperate with Bergan -- a pretty good story in itself -- the author is told that he will be contacting them through one Alan J. Schoolcraft, who Bergan immediately suspected wasn't a real person.
I admit that I subsequently spoke regularly to Schoolcraft on the phone, although his voice sounded suspiciously like Joel's.
Bergan gets suspicious once again while trying to contact their editor, Roderick Jaynes.
"... but I kept being told that he was either abroad or unavailable. I even stupidly began to question his existence, though I knew he had been nominated for an Oscar for his work on Fargo.... I analysed Roderick Jaynes' name. From where did the name derive? I remembered that Roderick Usher was incestuously attracted to his sister in Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher and Jaynes echoes Janus, the two-faced Roman god. And that was how the Coens were mostly seen -- as a two-headed, film-making mutant.
This sleight of hand -- or identity, or even reality -- seems typical of the brothers and their work. Think about the films in question: Blood Simple; Raising Arizona; Miller's Crossing; Barton Fink; The Hudsucker Proxy; Fargo; The Big Lebowski; O Brother, Where Art Thou?: all are, at some level, comedic. Most are essentially quite dark. "Yet," writes Bergan, "however different they are on the surface, each of the films contains elements of the other, horror edging into comic-strip farce, violence into slapstick and vice versa. One thing is clear: the Coens have little interest in what passes for 'realism' in Hollywood mainstream movies."
Bergan illustrates early on that he understands and appreciates his subjects. The author of biographies on Dustin Hoffman, Anthony Perkins, Katherine Hepburn and others as well as the non-fiction books The Great Theatres of London and The United Artists Story, he has also lectured on literature, theater and film. Bergan brings this film expertise to The Coen Brothers to great effect. We not only get a clear, sensitive, yet candid view of the mercurial brothers and their lives, but also a critical look at the films the pair have produced and directed and the places where those films connect with each other as well as their creators.
A highly readable biography of an esoteric duo, The Coen Brothers will strike a chord with those of us that love their movies. | March 2001
Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.