Friday, August 29, 2008

Movies: Coen Brothers at MoMA: Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, and Fargo

Yowza. Contrary to what I may have said before, these guys know how to make a movie. Of course (and as always), I have my complaints (they rely too often on magical/supernatural intervention for plot propulsion), but ultimately, between their writing, their casting, their timing, and most importantly, their eye for design (they recreate the relevant reality to such a heightened degree of verisimilitude as to create purely visual comedy), they succeed at levels most filmmakers wouldn't even dare to attempt.

Contrary to popular belief, The Big Lebowski, in spite of its unbelievably brilliant cast of strange and fascinating characters, is not the best movie of all time, nor is it even the best Coen brothers film (to say this is, I realize, rather sacrilegious). This surreal-yet-real Los Angeles semi-picaresque for contemporary times could have been a perfect movie, but for two things, one being a rather silly song-and-dance dream sequence (recycled into an equally annoying full-length feature by John Turturro in Romance and Cigarettes) and the other being the narrative framing by the Stranger, a deep voiced cowboy who makes a few appearances in the middle of the story (his is the supernatural element in this film; in The Hudsucker Proxy it's the "magic negro" Moses, the clockworker; in Barton Fink it's John Goodman's character after he undergoes a change at the film's end, but I'll discuss that later, as it's a bit different. Fargo doesn't have any magical or supernatural element, and that is why it's easily the best film these brothers have made; it's cleanly real, pure of the adulteration of fantasy). The opening scenes of The Big Lebowski, during which a ball of tumbleweed rolls through the desert and into the city of Los Angeles, stopping at last on the beach, while the famous Tumbling Tumbleweeds song plays and the Stranger extemporizes on the city of Los Angeles are, to be honest, the precise kind of pretentious crap that film school students find useful. The real opening scene, though, in which the dude stands in the middle of a grocery store aisle, sticking his nose into a carton of half n' half to determine its freshness, and then purchases it, writing a check for $0.69, is completely brilliant, and sets the tone for the rest of the richly detailed brilliance that follows, which I cannot even begin to enumerate here. It can simply be said that Bridges is brilliant, Goodman is brilliant, Turturro is brilliant, Moore is brilliant, and everyone is unbelievably good. Goodman's facial hair is astounding, Moore's lines are astounding, and the smoke stains on the cracked tiles of the Dude's bathtub are astounding. The whole goddamned thing is astounding.

But it's loud. It is sown with the seeds of farce that would grow to bear this travesty; it gave other filmmakers the notion that they could take a character like Jesus Quinana and make an entire movie about him (you can't; he's only funny for ten lines of dialogue, as one of a hundred different kooks). Fargo, conversely, is quiet. What's humorous here is the room in which Norm paints his ducks, the two bobbing heads of the smushed-face prostitutes being interviewed by Police Chief Marge Gunderson (the astounding Frances McDormand), Jean Lundegaard sitting on the couch, knitting something the exact same color as her sweater while she watches late-morning television in her pajamas, moments before the dangerously inept kidnappers break into her home. William H. Macy creates something deeply distressing, a man you pity and loathe but hope for, against all odds.

That said, Barton Fink may be my favorite of the bunch, both because of personal identification with the struggling hero (a writer rudely transplanted from his native Brooklyn to the hyperweird and isolating Hollywood) and because of the film's breathtaking visuals (Barton's hotel room, with its oozing, peeling, living wallpaper, is practically a character in and of itself). John Goodman, as Charlie Meadows, Barton's neighbor and only friendly acquaintance, is a brilliantly steamy, sweaty, fat man, shifting from angry to jolly to lonely with a speed and facility shocking to behold. The man can bloody act. It's because of Goodman's brilliance, the slippery despair of his character, and the (bad-)dreaminess of the entire hotel that we are able to suspend our disbelief at the end of the film, when Goodman reappears as psycho-killer Madman Mundt and the entire hotel bursts into flames around him, flames which, like a gas stove's pilot light, continue to burn without quite destroying anything, including Barton, who finally flees with his finally-written screenplay.

The Hudsucker Proxy, a kind of capitalist fairytale, pales in comparison with these other movies, even though that's not quite fair. It suffers the most strongly for the Coen's magical inclination, but that aside, Tim Robbins and especially Jennifer Jason Leigh are flawless, the visuals (as usual) are pitch-perfect (the Hudsucker building, the Hudsucker boardroom, the Hudsucker logo, Norville Barnes' homemade prototype for the hula hoop: a plain circle printed on a yellowed, folded scrap of paper that he keeps in his shoe), and the scene in which Barnes is oriented with the mailroom is probably the greatest of its kind ever. Really, I could do without narrator/magical clock-keeper Moses and his epic battle with the lurking door painter, and without the reappearance of Mr. Hudsucker as an angel, but a fairy tale's a fairy tale, and there's no reason for me to want this movie to be as real as Fargo. So I'll quit nitpicking.

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