Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Course in Geography by The Coen Brothers

I've often said that I've learned a lot from movies, and that's actually quite true. Now don't freak out. I've had a proper education and a college degree and all that. I'm not saying that film would be an adequate substitute for an education, but it can be a nice supplement. Many different kinds of life lessons can be attained (like those of John Hughes) from watching movies. But more importantly, film has the power to transport viewers to an infinite list of locations and situations.

Being exposed to different landscapes, cultures, and people can help broaden our minds a bit. Introduction to new ideas and trains of thought are equally beneficial. A melting pot of ideas, stories and dreams. That's what draws me to film. Hmmm. Melting pot, huh? Sound familiar?

The celebration and success of diversity is one of the things that make our country so great. It's also one of my favorite aspects of going to the movies. In short, it's why I named this blog "Cinemerica." And the best films are capable of taking you anywhere.

Two of the most renown American directors working today are The Coen brothers. Joel and Ethan have set their stories all across this great land, exposing their audiences to a variety of different subcultures and eras in our nation's history.

Their cinema is like a tour of the United States, depicting many different people and customs. Each film has a distinctive stamp, colored by the Coens' signature elements. The deft use of offbeat dialogue, beautiful photography and especially their darker wit and sense of humor help give a new perspective to our land.

Usually silly, sometimes cynical, often upbeat, and always amusing, their films are so impactive that they could possibly shape a perception of a particular region. Seeing the idiosyncrasies that populate their movies, it would be fun to imagine what a state's demographic information would look like if based solely on some of their cinematic works.

What an interesting geography lesson that would be. Curious? Well then, keep reading. I think it would look something like this...

And now, with tongue firmly in cheek, I present "Geography by Joel and Ethan Coen." A look at seven of our United States.

Film: Raising Arizona (1987)
Industries: Kidnapping babies. Robbing hayseed banks.
Model Citizens:
- Herbert "H.I." McDunnough: Repeat offender trying to live the straight life
- Edwina "Ed" McDunnough: Policewoman. Wife to H.I.
Bad Apple: Leonard Smalls (The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse)
Famous Brand: Unpainted Arizona. A furniture store.
Arts/Culture: Yodeling, Telling Polish jokes, Balloons in funny shapes (if you think round is funny)
State Motto: "Well... it ain't 'Ozzie and Harriet.'"
Final Thoughts: They sure know how to survive out there in the desert. When there's no meat, they eat fowl. When there's no fowl, they eat crawdad. And when there's no crawdad, they eat sand. Ok, so maybe it's not the best place to raise a baby, and dreams of large families are ambiguous at best. As H.I. said, "I don't know. Maybe it was Utah."

Film: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Era: 1930s
Industries: Singing into a can. Selling one's soul to the devil. Shooting cattle.
Model Citizen: Ulysses Everett McGill. Escaped convict trying to prove he's bona fide.
Bad Apples: Big Dan Teague (Bible salesman). Gubernatorial candidate Homer Stokes.
Famous Brand: Dapper Dan, a hair pomade.
Arts/Culture: Old Timey Music, particularly those "Soggy Bottom Boys."
State Motto: "Well, ain't this place a geographical oddity. Two weeks from everywhere!"
Final Thoughts: Even the Great Depression looks marvelous in sepia-toned color correction. Looks like they have one heck of a governor's race going on. Oh, also be sure to watch out for "them syreens." They'll love you up and turn you into a horny toad. You know those things give you warts?

Film: Fargo (1996)
Era: 1987
Industries: Crooked car dealerships. Kidnapping one's own wife (and hiring morons to do so).
Model Citizen: Police Chief Marge Gunderson of Brainerd, Minnesota. Pregnant and savvy.
Bad Apple: Jerry Lundegaard, a car dealer (isn't that enough of a reason?)
Arts/Culture: Ice fishing. Watching ice hockey. Making duck paintings. Eating Arby's. Going to see Jose Feliciano.
State Motto: "The heck do ya mean? "
Final Thoughts: Oh heck, aren't they all a bunch of nice people there in Minnesota, donchaknow? But ya better stay away from them wood chippers, yah? Yah. You betcha.

Also, if you wish to learn about the Jewish lifestyle of Minnesota, try A Serious Man (2009).

Film: The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Era: 1958
Industries: Anything by Hudsucker Industries. Talk about your corporate monsters!
Model Citizen: Norville Barnes, a mailroom clerk.
Bad Apple: Sidney J. Mussburger, Board of Directors: Hudsucker Industries.
Famous Brand: Again, anything by Hudsucker.
Arts/Culture: Reading The Manhattan Argus, a local newspaper. Talking fast. Chain-smoking.
State Motto: "You know, for kids."
Final Thoughts: This is the Coen take on the capitalistic side of our society. It deals with Big Business, the American dream, rags to riches (to rags, again), the role of media influence, economics, and hula-hoops.

Film: Burn After Reading (2008)
Industries: Getting in bed with everyone (literally). Writing memoirs. Selling secrets.
Model Citizen: This is tough... Um, no one?
Bad Apples: I dunno. How about... everyone?
Famous Brand: Hardbodies, a local gym.
Arts/Culture: Cruising the internet. Working out. Extortion. Lying. Saving up for plastic surgery.
State Motto: "Appearances can be... deceptive."
Final Thoughts: While most of their films are populated by morons and idiots, this one has much more bite than most. The characters are a bit foolish and unlikable, but don't fret, residents of the District of Columbia (there are people like that everywhere). To sum up their take on the seat of power in America, the Coens have one clear message: Central Intelligence is anything but.

Film: No Country for Old Men (2007)
Era: 1980s
Industries: Well, nothing pays as well as finding the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad near the Mexican border.
Model Citizen: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Possibly Llewelyn Moss (who made off with drug money).
Bad Apples: Anton Chigurh (A verrrrry scary hitman). Possibly Llewelyn Moss (who's endangered his loved ones by making off with the drug money).
Arts/Culture: Lamenting how crazy the world is now. Hotel room hopping. If you're a lunatic hitman, then having a Dutchboy haircut seems to be alright (no one's gonna tell you that you look ridiculous when you're pointing a shotgun with a silencer at them).
State Motto: "Whatcha got ain't nothin new. This country's hard on people, you can't stop what's coming, it ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity."
Final Thoughts: Dios mio. No matter how big the state is, there's no place to hide. Between this and 1984's Blood Simple, it seems the Lone Star State is a prime location for murder. I'd take exception with that, but I was taught to Remember the Alamo. And we all know how that turned out.

Film: The Big Lebowski (1998)
Era: 1991
Industries: Holding trophy wives for ransom. Making avant-garde art. Drinking White Russians.
Model Citizen: Jeff Lebowski, The Dude.
Bad Apples: Nihilists. Jesus Quintana, a pederast.
Big Fish: Jackie Treehorn, porn mogul. Jeffrey Lebowski, the "Big" Lebowski.
Arts/Culture: "Oh, the usual. I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback."
State Motto: "The Dude abides."
Final Thoughts: The Coens have made two films about Minnesota (their home state), and four set in this state (where they live in now). Clearly, they feel this is the most absurd state in our union. For example, Barton Fink shows the absurdity of Hollywood and Intolerable Cruelty illustrates the vanity and facetious nature of the area. And Lebowski? Well, it condemns the absurd and the lazy. But don't take my word for it. Here's a portion of the opening narration.

"Now this here story I'm about to unfold took place back in the early '90s - just about the time of our conflict with Sad'm and the I-raqis. I only mention it because sometimes there's a man... I won't say a hero, 'cause, what's a hero? But sometimes, there's a man. And I'm talkin' about the Dude here. Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's the Dude, in Los Angeles. And even if he's a lazy man - and the Dude was most certainly that. Quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin' for laziest worldwide. But sometimes there's a man, sometimes, there's a man."

On the plus side, no matter how crazy things get... The Dude abides.

Like America itself, Joel and Ethan have had peaks and valleys. Good times and bad, including artistic recessions (The Ladykillers, anyone?). It's doubtful they will complete movies on the remaining 40+ states, but luckily for us we have a solid collection of their films to enjoy for decades to come. Contrary to what many may say, these two are not just making movies to poke fun at Americans. If anything, they show that we can all become players in a theater of the most preposterous circumstances. Maybe we can all learn something from these portrayals.

Or heck, just watch them for the inherent silliness. I'm sure they won't mind.

The Big Lebowski will screen on Sunday, Sept. 5th at The Paramount Theatere in Austin, TX.
At 2pm, join us for a film-themed scavenger hunt before the 3 pm screening.

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