A tribute to the Coen brothers

The Coens' latest, 'Burn After Reading', premieres at the Venice Film Festival next week. Geoffrey Macnab pays tribute to a pair of genre-defying, subversive mavericks

The Coen brothers' new feature, Burn After Reading, is a world premiere at the Venice Festival next week. The comedy-thriller will have a painfully topical resonance for British civil servants who've lost classified information in recent months by leaving it on the train, or trusting it to the whims of the postal service. It is the story of a computer disc containing highly sensitive CIA material that falls into the hands of two dim-witted gym instructors (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt). In time-honoured Coen fashion, these small-timers try to sell the information.

After their very dark Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country For Old Men, this is the Coen brothers back in a lighter groove. For most directors, making a big-budget film with several top Hollywood stars and rushing to finish it for the opening night in Venice would be a cause of extreme stress. However, on this, there have been no advance stories of budget overruns or Heaven's Gate-style meltdowns. James Schamus, the boss of Focus Features (which produced the film alongside Britain's Working Title) recalls being startled by the prevailing mood of calm during the film's making.

"It's like a dream. We started watching the dailies – and, of course, they were incredible. The other thing is that they finish their days early. When you have people who are that creative and original, you tend to assume that for them to be that way, there has to be chaos. But they [the Coens] are incredibly organised. "

Ask the brothers if they are indeed more orderly than most of their Hollywood brethren and they say it is impossible for them to tell. Ethan reflects, "Quite honestly, I don't know what goes on other sets. Part of it comes from the fact that we come from, and are still involved in, relatively low-budget film-making. A certain amount of organisation is key to be being able to operate in that world.... It is also possible that it is just a temperamental thing. Other people may function better in a chaotic environment than we do."

The Coens give the impression that they regard themselves as old-fashioned craftsmen. They claim to enjoy every aspect of film-making – from the "semi-solitary" writing of their screenplays, to production, and even editing. "It's nice that it changes. We enjoy all of it."

Their third key collaborator is the editor, Roderick Jaynes. Jaynes has worked on all their films. The one hitch about him is that he doesn't actually exist. The name is a pseudonym that the brothers first started using because they couldn't afford to hire an editor and ended up doing the job themselves. Joel has talked of the "strange, juvenile thrill" he still experiences when Jaynes's name comes up in the credits. To the brothers' detractors, this sort of skittish in-joke is precisely what can make their work so frustrating. There is a sense that they are directing films for themselves rather than for their audiences. Then again, they are defined by their maverick, absurdist streak.

"The boys live to make movies," the Coens' friend and former cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld remarked of them. "Money isn't important to them, except to make movies. They never want to be in a position where anyone has any power to tell them what to do." Generally, as long as their budgets aren't pegged too high, the brothers have complete liberty to make their movies just as they wish.

Perhaps because they are so disciplined and work under the radar, there is a tendency to take the Coens for granted. European festivals aren't always as welcoming to their work as might be expected. It's almost a quarter of a century now since the Minneapolis-born siblings made their feature debut with Blood Simple (1984). Since then they have turned out a steady string of astonishingly inventive films – Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn't There. Even movies pronounced by critics as relative misfires (The Ladykillers, The Hudsucker Proxy) would be considered highlights in most other directors' careers.

Not that the Coens seem much enamoured of these critics. The brothers were clearly irritated when reviewers treated No Country For Old Men as a return to the darker, richer themes of Fargo or Barton Fink after the (perceived) lightweight diversions of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. "It's a story that writes itself. That's what journalism is," Joel observed of the way he and Ethan are periodically accused of selling out when I spoke to the brothers late last year.

The brothers insist that there was no desire on their parts to make some deep artistic statement by tackling No Country For Old Men. "It got thrown into the transit by [producer] Scott Rudin. We liked it and we made it," they say. "There was no more conscious decision to place it into the body of everything else we were doing than that."

So what makes the Coens so special? Arguably, they are as close as contemporary US film-makers come to an old master like Billy Wilder. Like Wilder, they are outsiders with a perspective that is offbeat and subversive. He was from Germany; they're from Minneapolis in the frozen Midwest, where their parents were college professors. One of the reasons they left was to escape the cold weather. "We grew up in a typically middle-class family in the United States' equivalent of Siberia," Joel told The New York Times in a 1985 interview.

Like Wilder, they relish US pulp novels and film noir. They are steeped in the world of James M Cain and Dashiell Hammett. Also in common with Wilder, they have an extraordinarily anarchic sense of humour and an ability to make their dialogue zing. In their comedies, actors who generally pose and hog close-ups seem to lose their narcissism and learn the value of delivering their lines briskly.

The Coens' work frequently harks back to the past but does so in a satirical, barbed and even vicious way. Blood Simple may have been "a suave, taunting film noir," but it is hard to think of many old film noirs with moments as gruesome as the sequence in which a hand is stabbed through with a knife. The Big Lebowski begins in a brutal fashion with thugs breaking into the apartment belonging to the Dude (Jeff Bridges), plunging him face down in the lavatory bowl and urinating on his beloved carpet. Only the Coens could make a scene as traumatic as this appear comic.

Another factor that contributes to their continuing popularity is that their work appeals to genre fans and highbrow critics alike. Joel began his career working as an assistant editor on such films as Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead and Fear No Evil. When it comes to Grand Guignol-style violence, he is never afraid of shock tactics. Ethan, meanwhile, is a Princeton philosophy graduate. Film scholars have long pored over the Coens' work, looking for its hidden meanings. They study the references to Homer's Odyssey in O Brother, Where Art Thou? or look at the allusions to Clifford Odets and the Group Theatre in Barton Fink.

Sometimes, the knowing quality in their work can be off-putting. You admire their cleverness without always feeling emotionally engaged. The brothers can appear aloof and their films risk seeming as chilly as the Minnesota landscapes in Fargo.

When they were making Blood Simple, the brothers raised the $1.5m budget by approaching a small army of potential private investors. "It's a very time-consuming way to go, but it gave us complete freedom," Ethan noted. At first, no distributors would go near a project which so wilfully blurred genre lines, mixing comic, horror and thriller elements, and which was pitched somewhere between arthouse and exploitation. However, when it was eventually released, it was an immediate hit.

The brothers were courted by everybody from Hugh Hefner to Steven Spielberg. They had the chance to join the mainstream but were more interested in pursuing their own projects. That same spirit of independence still characterises their work today. As they put it, "We've been able to do what we want to do." That is not a claim that many other film-makers have been able to make.

The 65th Venice International Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September (www.labiennale. org/en/cinema/festival/)

Come on, they're not that good...

The intriguing thing about the present idolisation of the Coen brothers, the breathless, squirming anticipation aroused by every announcement of a new project, is that even their most excitable fans (and I'm certainly on the fringes of that group) know that, as likely as not, disappointment is on the way. For every 'Miller's Crossing', there's a 'Hudsucker Proxy', for every 'Fargo', an 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?', for every 'No Country for Old Men', a 'Ladykillers'.

Their films have always been enriched by an extraordinary awareness of Hollywood history (you don't have to have heard of Clifford Odets or Wallace Beery to get 'Barton Fink', but it makes more sense if you have); sometimes, though, they seem to work on the assumption that as long as you've got your film references down, plot and character can take a walk. 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' is, in the end, a great soundtrack and a couple of gags strung together with a vague Homeric conceit and a nod to Preston Sturges in the title. The little-man-vs-big-corporation comedy of 'The Hudsucker Proxy' (1994) bounces smartly off Sturges and Frank Capra – and award yourself bonus points if you spot that Jennifer Jason Leigh's reporter is a mélange of Rosalind Russell in 'His Girl Friday' and Katharine Hepburn – but coming between 'Barton Fink' (1991) and 'Fargo' (1996), it seems tinny and heartless. Most critics thought that 'Intolerable Cruelty' (2003) lived up to its name; the fact that it was spoofing the genre of divorce comedies wasn't an excuse.

And the brothers' reverence for the past didn't prevent 'The Ladykillers' (2004) – if ever a film wasn't in need of remaking, it was Alexander Mackendrick's perfectly paced, perfectly English 1955 masterpiece; and it sure as hell didn't need remaking in the Deep South, with Tom Hanks putting on an accent. Robert Hanks

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?