Just sit back and enjoy...

You probably thought that the Coen Brothers' movies were intricately woven, philosophically abstruse meditations on life, death and madness. You couldn't be more wrong. They're all about showing you a good time. By Ryan Gilbey

Joel and Ethan Coen are their names but the Coen Brothers sounds more lean, more sinister - like a gangland duo come to set about you with a monkey wrench. It has a studied, business-like ring; it suggests a gang, a team, a machine. The Coen Brothers' machine has been chugging away at an agreeable pace since 1984, producing a film every two or three years, each of them offering a natty twist on a familiar genre, and all of them technically perfect right down to the typography on the final credit crawl. But what are their films for? There's an easy answer. I think it's the only answer. Entertainment.

Many people would be disappointed with that conclusion, and it's their fruitless search to locate a more complex and intangible quality in the Coens' work: witness the way fans relentlessly pursue a meaning behind the symbol of the hat in Miller's Crossing, a film that has earned the Brothers the label of major artists - a reputation that it's possible to feel they have only won by association. Which is to say that, because their movies are distinguished by astonishing technical expertise, and littered with informed references to film history, audiences and critics alike find it easier to persuade themselves that the Coens are striving to create something more noble and adventurous than mere entertainment. As though films that attempt to entertain are not in their own way as noble and adventurous as those that require a furrowing of the brow and a working knowledge of Kierkegaard.

Ethan certainly possesses the latter, and quite possibly the former, having studied philosophy, a biographical detail that has perhaps led both admirers and detractors (like the writer John Harkness, who called the Brothers "sphinxes without riddles") to expect or demand more than these films can possibly yield. Ethan produces, and co-writes with Joel, who directs. Joel did a snappy job of editing their friend Sam Raimi's comic horror The Evil Dead at the start of his career and Raimi has been a frequent influence and collaborator - he directed the wonderful hula hoop sequence in The Hudsucker Proxy, and played a cop shot to pieces in Miller's Crossing, a fitting punishment perhaps for having written the crushingly unfunny Crimewave with the Coens.

Joel and Ethan continue to edit most of their own work under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, a supposedly spiky, eccentric Englishman who had an accidental brush with fame when "he" was nominated for an Oscar this year for editing Fargo. The Coens' films are so meticulously planned and storyboarded that it's only a mind immune to paranoia that wouldn't consider the possibility that each production is staffed in this pseudonymous fashion - that everyone from the hairdresser to the on-site caterer is a figment of the Brothers' imaginations, and it's actually Joel and Ethan running the whole show, their fingers in every available pie. I'm certain that if the logistics weren't so challenging, they'd have a go. Surely the margin for human error is too large a risk to films that are plotted out like motorway intersections.

It's a common complaint that the Coens fill the screen with virtuoso camerawork and production design to disguise the misanthropic heart at the centre of their work. Reviewing their first feature, the cruel noir thriller Blood Simple, Pauline Kael decided that "the reason the camera whoop-de-do is so noticeable is that there's nothing else going on", while David Thomson reached a similar conclusion: "Its skill and noirish expertise seemed without destination or purpose." It's true that, on its rerelease last year, the film appeared notable only for its vast influence on young American film-makers, and for its ugly, forbidding tone.

The Coens followed it with the exhilarating and imaginative Raising Arizona. A kidnapping comedy in which the camera is as restless as the picture's jittery jailbird hero (Nicolas Cage), it remains their most mature and honest work to date. Why is it more successful than the sombre gangster drama Miller's Crossing or the surreal Hollywood satire Barton Fink (which won the Palme D'Or and two other awards at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival), or the screwball pastiche The Hudsucker Proxy? Because it's the film in which the Coens have seemed most effortlessly at ease with their material, least conspicuous about their talent for economical storytelling (the throwaway pre-credit sequence is a whole movie in itself), and most in touch with the notion of a pure, sensual and involving cinema. In short, they show off in all the right places.

Viewed separately, the Coens' films can be bewitching, but if you tune in to Channel 4's season, starting tomorrow and charting all their work to date (excluding last year's Fargo), you will be struck by the absence of any cumulative excellence. To consider the Coens' films as a body of work in the auteurist sense is to be forced to confront their most glaring weaknesses: watching Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy - the movies which have aged least gracefully - side by side is like witnessing a scientist conducting the same experiment over and over again, smashing the test tubes at the culmination of each and starting afresh on the next, identical project.

There is a real, gnawing futility to these pictures, despite the fact that they each have priceless treasures buried within them - John Turturro begging for his life, twice, in Miller's Crossing, for instance, almost makes you forgive how grim and prissy the rest of the movie feels. Fargo marked a distinct progression in this area, giving us a character - the pregnant cop played by Oscar-winning Frances McDormand - who seemed to function independently of her creators. Ironic, really, when you consider that McDormand is Joel's wife. Her appearance half-way through defrosted a movie whose cruelty might otherwise have destroyed it. She defined the film - the first time the Coens have allowed a single performer such freedom.

It remains to be seen whether this generosity of characterisation will extend to their new film, The Big Lebowski, a comic thriller that stars Jeff Bridges as a bowling aficionado mistaken for a millionaire. It opens next year. Until then, enjoy the Channel 4 season, save the blank video tape for Raising Arizona and prepare to be neither dazzled nor mesmerised, just entertained.

The Channel 4 season of Coen Brothers films begins tomorrow at 10pm with `The Hudsucker Proxy' and continues next week with `Miller's Crossing'

News
people
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
News
news

Lincoln MP Karl McCartney 'denied all knowledge' of the Twitter activity

News
The author PD James, who died on 27 November 2014
people

Detective novelist who wrote Death comes to Pemberley passed away peacefully at her home, aged 94

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
filmDirector said film would 'never have been financed' with ethnic minority actors in key roles
Life and Style
View of champagne glasses at a beach bar set up along the Croisette during the 66th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes on May 17, 2013
food + drink(and for now, there's a clear winner)
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
arts + ents
Life and Style
tech

Sites using the popular Gigya comment platform were attacked by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA)

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Web Developer

    £20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of web an...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 Driver

    £12 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Our Client has been the leader in the events...

    Recruitment Genius: Finance and Office Administrator

    £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An award winning field marketing agency ...

    Recruitment Genius: Part Time Telesales / Appointment Maker

    £10000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A professional telesales/appoin...

    Day In a Page

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?