THEIR DARK (SOURCE) MATERIALS
Today Joel and Ethan Coen proudly stand as a prolific and influential presence upon the landscape of contemporary American cinema. For over two decades the Minnesota born siblings have crafted their own mischievously iconic brand of dark fairy tales; dripping in blood, devilish humour and gothic Americana.
Their films span environments both vibrant and unforgiving, their narratives dance through decades of joyous laughter and inherited pain, and from dudes to deadly assassins they have brought forth unforgettable characters of all different shapes, sizes, and degrees of madness. Yet the brooding, often violent, sometimes romantic, but always memorable body (or several unidentified, most likely dismembered bodies) of work they possess is undoubtedly indebted to a figurative road trip of influences.
Destination: No Country for Old Men
Influence: Cormac McCarthy & The American Gothic
The Brothers have visited the haunted valleys and buckshot strewn motel rooms of literary giant Cormac McCarthy only once on paper, for 2007’s Oscar baiting No Country for Old Men, a direct adaptation of McCarthy’s celebrated novel, but they undoubtedly hold a special, somewhat disturbed, place in their hearts for the author and his uncompromising prose.
Though simplified and condensed for cinemas, the Coens’ interpretation perfectly captured McCarthy’s signature sense of omnipresent menace, and gave rise to one of cinema’s greatest villains in sock-footed assassin Anton Chigurh. Cannibals, incestuous families, death, spiritual rebirth, and the blackest of black humour all rest upon the desolate prairies of McCarthy’s novels – a sinister and shadowy backdrop which is mirrored by many of the Coens’ films.
Influence: The Murder of Helle Crafts
Beyond fiction lies folklore: stories passed around over grocery store counters and fishing trips down at the lake. Make believe narratives that the Coens heard as young men and like to make us believe actually happened in someplace, somewhere not too different from where you sit watching their big screen tales.
Besides being a unique Academy Award winning piece of cinema, 1996’s Fargo also trades upon those stories constructed from both actual events and the Chinese whispers which have turned hearsay to legend – specifically through its infamous “woodchipper scene”. On November 19th 1986 airline pilot Richard Crafts brutally murdered his Danish flight attendant wife Helle. He proceeded to dispose of her body; firstly with a chainsaw, then he passed the remains through a woodchipper he hired for $900. Without a body, Crafts could not be tried for his heinous crimes but police strived to establish a grizzly evidence trail.
It would be a snowplow driver’s testimony and Helle’s recovered remains, including a pink toenail and dental-work, which eventually sentenced the pilot to fifty-years in state prison, and brought about the first murder conviction in the state of Connecticut in which a body was never found.
Destination: A Serious Man
Influence: Norling’s Familiarly Subversive photographs
While much of the Coen’s influence is derived from the written words and scripts of literary or filmic source material, the pair’s unique visuals have also borrowed greatly from real life iconography. Though somewhat sedate by the filmmaking duo’s standards, 2009’s A Serious Man and its tale of the sudden personal and professional collapse of an unassuming man’s life, is still abundant with context and backstory.
Journalist Brad Zellar’s book, Suburban World: The Norling Photographs, proved a key influence upon the brothers. This captivating distillation of suburban America throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, specifically the town of Bloomington, Minnesota, proved an aesthetic goldmine for the Coens – unveiling the bizarre day-to-day happenings occurring beneath the wholesome sheen of a middle-class suburb.
Norling, an expert at capturing the “familiarly subversive”, photographed murder-suicides which took place in family kitchens, fatal high-street fender-benders, and the beautiful girl-next-door lining up her shot in the bowling alley – amongst other surreal and captivating shots. Even Irwin Norling himself seemingly proved an inspiration; the photographer’s thick-rimmed spectacles and expressionless collection of facial features near identical to the film’s lead protagonist, Larry Gopnik.
Destination: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Influence: Bluegrass, Folk, and Epic Greek Poetry
Music and its great immeasurable lineage have proved an influence to countless filmmakers. Seemingly, every single genre, sub-genre and musical cultural movement has been the subject of a silver-screen biopic. The Coens themselves have often sat around crackling campfires, summoning the mythical rhythms and melodies of America’s musical origins, and taking it upon themselves to drape folklore’s axe wielding heroes in either glory or condemnation.
Teaming with their favourite filmic fool, George Clooney, the directors satirically tackled the politics and culture of America’s deep-south with a contemporary re-telling of Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. Despite this unique approach to storytelling, it is the film’s Grammy winning (2002 Album of the Year) soundtrack, featuring several members of folk music royalty, that nearly fifteen years later stands as one the genre’s crowning and most beloved achievements. The Coens may not have played the instruments themselves but the loyalty to their story’s locations, era, and their sounds gave rise to one of the finest OSTs ever recorded.
Destination: Inside Llewyn Davis
Influence: Dave Van Ronk and The Village Scene
Many names are synonymous with New York City’s arts scene: Dylan, Ginsberg, Kerouac, to name but a few, but the name Van Ronk may well not ring a bell, pen a poem, or strum a string in your vast library of cultural knowledge.
Despite the musician’s low-profile in comparison to such artistic greats, it didn’t stop the Coens from utilising the life and times (both factual and fictional) of Dave Van Ronk’s as the foundation upon which to build the melancholy and beautifully evocative story of their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis. Van Ronk’s posthumously published autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, acted as the primary influence this time around, as the Coens combed its pages for play-by-play details of the Village scene and its many outspoken voices.
Built over many years the directors began fleshing out their Van Ronk doppelgänger Llewyn Davis, creating scene after scene for him to inhabit – all the while keeping in mind Van Ronk and his contemporaries that ran wild through boroughs of a 1960’s New York City. Finally, check out the cover of the 1964 album, Inside Dave Van Ronk – there’s even a cat just like the one Llewyn carries around with him.