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