Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ethan Coen, Poet

Ethan Diversifies: The younger Coen makes high art of raunchy poetry

By Pamela Zoslov

“It’s a product of a really adolescent, juvenile sensibility writing to entertain himself,” says Ethan Coen, one half of the sibling filmmaking team Joel and Ethan Coen. Ethan, the younger and more diffident Coen, is explaining the impulse behind The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way (Crown), his book of poems that range from dark, cynical roundelays, like the title piece (“The loudest have the final say/The wanton win, the rash hold sway”) to six dozen eyebrow-raising dirty limericks (“Without pockets, a drunk in Belfast/Took to socking his change up his ass…”)

The book is the newest entry in a literary career that began, Ethan says, shortly after he and Joel made their first film, the clever noir send-up Blood Simple. “I was a kid then, 25,” he says. Now he is 44, and the brothers have made nine films together. Their skewed, idiosyncratic worldview and astonishing technical virtuosity have made them legends to film cultists, critics and, since the commercially successful Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, general audiences as well. Between movies, Ethan has made his mark as a writer of wry, offbeat fiction: his 1998 short-story collection, Gates of Eden, which showcased his talent for absurd, sardonic dialogue, was a bestseller.
"Ethan Coen lives outside of Marfa, Texas,” reads the “About the Author” blurb in the new book, “on the ranch he won arm wrestling Lady Bird Johnson in a cantina in Ensenada in 1962 (the ensuing love story was celebrated in his memoir Don’t Tell Lyndon).” The truth is that both Coens were born and raised in Minneapolis. Ethan studied philosophy at Princeton, and the brothers both live in New York.
Legend has it that the Coens write their screenplays together; Joel directs and Ethan produces. This division of labor, like so many nuggets the Coens like to float in the direction of credulous critics, is fiction. “It’s pretty much co-everything,” Coen explains. “When we started out co-directing, we thought it would have been kind of freakish — two brothers — but now there are others, like the Farrellys and the Hughes brothers.”
They also co-edit the films, always giving screen credit to the fusty Englishman Roderick Jaynes — another Coen figment.
Their latest film, The Man Who Wasn’t There — a stylish noir period piece starring Billy Bob Thornton as a barber who gets caught up in blackmail and murder — is earning effusive praise. Coen is, as always, surprised by the raves. “We always seem to get the same thing,” he says. “Mixed.” Except, of course, for Fargo, their lone critical and commercial success. “That was fluky. We always seem to really torque people off for some reason. This one [The Man Who Wasn’t There] they decided it’s okay.”
Unlike filmmaking, which involves crews of hundreds, writing poetry is a solitary pursuit, and Coen enjoyed the shift. “It’s really good, because you don’t have to deal with people. It’s just you, sitting in your little room. But I wouldn’t want to do it exclusively. Doing both is perfect for me.”
Although few things are as rare as a perfect collaboration between two writers, Coen describes the fraternal process as seamless and intuitive — so much so that neither Joel nor Ethan can recall who wrote which line. “There isn’t anything that distinguishes one person’s contribution from the other,” Ethan says. “It’s very much the product of a back-and-forth.”

The Coens take traditional cinematic forms — gangster melodrama, screwball comedy, film noir — and twist them into eccentric postmodern shapes. Ethan’s poetry does something similar, enlisting standard verse forms — quatrains, limericks, Poe-style balladry — to mock the literary conventions themselves. These are dirty poems, to be sure, but don’t they also represent a marriage of the sacred and profane? “Where’s the sacred?” he responds dryly. Okay, does he have any literary models? He says he doesn’t. How about Ogden Nash? “He’s okay,” he says without enthusiasm. “Too much of that stuff can get annoying — probably including mine.” He thinks for a moment. “I really enjoy reading Dorothy Parker.”

With the Coens, it’s easy to fall into the trap of overanalysis. They long ago confessed their infatuation with the novels of James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett, but Ethan says critics overestimate their literary influences. “They read too much into it,” he says. “We’re presumably these movie brats. They mention movies that we’re supposed to be influenced by — which we haven’t seen." No doubt that’s because the Coens’ movies revisit and reinterpret a wide range of popular film styles. “To be fair, we seem to invite that kind of exegesis, especially with Barton Fink. But you do stuff because it feels good for the story. There’s no code."

What will the Coens’ next movie be? “It’s gonna be a contemporary romantic comedy set in L.A. with George Clooney.” [Edit: That movie became the pleasant but quickly forgotten Intolerable Cruelty.]

So does this mean we won’t be seeing The Bob Crane Story, the movie the Coens wanted to make about the former Hogan’s Heroes star who became a sex-and-pornography addict who was bludgeoned to death with a camera tripod?

“That was our dream project for years,” he says ruefully. “Someone else is already making it. Someone’s gonna beat us to the punch.”

Shooting on the Clooney vehicle won’t begin for a while, because the Coens have to wait for the in-demand star to become available. A romantic comedy from the Coens, whose movies never feature so much as a kiss?

“Well, we’re selling out,” Coen says. “It’s going to be a big, dumb studio movie. It’ll be big and dumb.”
A Limerick from Ethan Coen’s book:
A man torn between lusts and pretensions
Bought a brothel but ringed it with gentians
And in it threw fêtes
At which leggy brunettes
Peformed giggling Latin declensions

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, November 21, 2001.

Wain's World

In the annals of filmmaking, the Ten Commandments have proved to be very durable subject matter. Cecil B. De Mille directed two spectacles based on the Biblical story, one silent and one with sound, and Krzysztof Kieslowski made it into a ten-part series, The Decalogue.

But neither director thought to explore the thematic possibilities of the Book of Exodus with prison rape, a summer sex fling with Jesus, a ventriloquist's dummy as a fetish object or a drug-dealing animated rhino. Those interpretations spring from the fevered imagination of David Wain, director and co-writer of The Ten. The movie, which Wain wrote with Ken Marino, is a wildly funny, unapologetically raunchy series of stories, each based loosely — very loosely — on one of the Big Ten, and threaded together by Paul Rudd's casual narration.

Why the Ten Commandments? "It wasn't actually our idea originally," Wain remarks dryly. "The original commandments came from God, and we kind of did a rewrite on it and expanded it a bit so we had an hour-and-a-half movie. It was very solid, time-tested source material."

Wain, 38, whose father is Cleveland radio entrepreneur Norman Wain, grew up in Shaker Heights and lives in Manhattan. He has had a variegated show-business career as a writer, director and actor. He's best known for his 1991 summer-camp movie Wet Hot American Summer, as well as the sketch-comedy television shows The State and Stella. As an actor, he's played roles in Spike Lee's Bamboozled, Keeping the Faith and Reno 911! Miami. "I don't think I'm the best actor," he says, "but I really enjoy seeing how other filmmakers work."

Most of Wain’s projects grew from his involvement with a group of like-minded friends he met while attending film school at New York University. With them, he founded the sketch comedy group The State, which turned into an MTV series. After that show ended, Wain and group members Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter formed the comedy trio Stella, which had a series on Comedy Central.

For many comedy writers, humor springs from a deep well of bitterness and despair. Not so for Wain, who reflects that his twisted comedy is the product of a childhood spent in the comfortable, leafy suburbs — the insistent "normality" of which tends to inspire an absurd worldview. "We all grew up in suburban environments," he says of himself and his creative cohorts. "Something about that bonded us together. I grew up in a very functional Shaker Heights household, and my comedy doesn't stem from anger and pain so much as looking at things from a silly perspective."

Silly doesn't begin to describe the surreal insanity of The Ten. The commandment against worshiping false gods is illustrated by the story of a man (Adam Brody) who, as a result of a skydiving accident, becomes permanently stuck in a hole in the ground. He becomes a media sensation and stars in a sitcom (Goin' Nowhere), becoming a sort of "false god" to the public. The law against murder becomes a black comedy about a surgeon (Ken Marino) who kills a patient, and his entire defense at trial is, "I did it as a goof!" The commandment against coveting your neighbor's wife is dramatized with the same Dr. Richie, this time as the prison "wife" of a brutal fellow inmate. In one of the most outrageous sequences, a woman on her honeymoon (Winona Ryder) falls in love with a ventriloquist's dummy, then runs away with the wooden man. Which commandment is that? Oh, yes, Thou Shall Not Steal.

Many of the members of The Ten's cast — Ryder, Liev Schreiber, Gretchen Mol, Oliver Platt — are better known for dramatic roles. Yaron Orbach's cinematography also lends the film a sober look that contrasts amusingly with its ridiculous content. "That was definitely intentional," Wain says. "We also did that on Wet Hot American Summer, and I really enjoyed the results. For the audience to see the actors do the serious treatment of our very silly material, and the way we shot it — I'm pleased with how it came out."

Early reactions to The Ten have been sharply divided. Many people posting online have praised it enthusiastically, while some have walked out of screenings in a huff. Wain is accustomed to inspiring polarized reactions. "My history with everything I've done is that half hate it, half think it's amazing. I think it's the nature of this kind of comedy." He takes a perverse pleasure in a scathing review of Wet Hot American Summer, in which Roger Ebert badly parodied Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" summer-camp song, with the memorably clunky couplet, "Watch David Wain's direction falter/Despite the help of co-writer Showalter."

"I think it's awesome that he took the time to figure out a whole rhyme scheme to say how much he hated the movie," Wain muses about Ebert. "He had a lot of choices. Like, 'I'm not going to review this.' But no, he's like, "Really, I want to eloquently express in a poetic way my distaste for this movie.'" Notwithstanding Ebert, Wet Hot, as it's known among its fans, has become a cult favorite.

Wain's parents are enthusiastically supportive of his work. "Beyond belief," he says. Are they at all troubled by the raunchiness of his material? "I think they are, actually. But it's overshadowed by the fact that they're proud to see their son's name in lights."

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

Gambling for Oscars

My predictions (in posts below) of the all-important Oscars (the least watched telecast in history) were partly accurate. I wouldn't have imagined Marion Cotillard's Best Actress win for La Vie en Rose, but only because I was able to watch only about a third of the movie on DVD, not being a fan of Edith Piaf. Wonderful, I guess, if you like that sort of thing. I don't.

Does any of this stuff matter? Well, of course not. But I did win $1.37 on the prediction website predictify.com. Woo! Let's go shopping.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Slick Willie in Love

Bill Clinton is a recurring presence not only as chief attack dog in his wife’s campaign, but also in writer-director Adam Brooks’ romantic comedy Definitely, Maybe. The movie is about a political consultant who starts his career working on Clinton’s campaign, and it has some things in common with the former president. It’s a little like the 1988 Clinton who, as Arkansas governor, delivered a notoriously long-winded speech at the Democratic convention that put delegates to sleep. Like that Clinton, Definitely, Maybe has an easy charm, but it tends to prattle on too long and overstay its welcome.

The movie’s hero, Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds, the smirky protagonist from Van Wilder) is an ad executive who, on the eve of finalizing his divorce, tells his inquisitive 11-year-old daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin, less cute than she was in Little Miss Sunshine) the story of three romantic relationships in his past. He changes the names of the women, and Maya offers to guess, as a game, which one became her mother.

Will’s reminiscence takes us back to 1992, when, as a Wisconsin college student, he decides to go to New York to work for Clinton, leaving behind his college sweetheart, Emily (Elizabeth Banks). Though he imagines himself writing great speeches for the candidate, Will instead finds himself fetching coffee and shelving toilet paper.

Nevertheless, the city provides the callow Wisconsinite with an extraordinary number of romantic opportunities. He and campaign-office intern April (Isla Fisher) “meet cute” by the copy machine, but because he is loyal to Emily, they become just friends. He then gets involved with Emily’s former roommate, Summer (Rachel Weisz), a flinty student journalist who shares the bed of her grizzled mentor-professor, Hampton Roth (Kevin Kline, putting the “ham” in “Hampton”).

The appearance of Roth, a Hunter Thompson-style author clad in a bathrobe and urging Will to get drunk in the daylight, suggests that Will is about to receive an interesting political education. But it doesn’t happen. Politics in this movie — busy campaign offices, televised Clinton speeches, a political consulting business Will co-founds with a colleague (Derek Luke) — are merely a backdrop for Will’s rather ordinary romantic adventures. It isn’t even clear what fuels Will’s political interest, aside from a dream he had one night of being elected president. Given his nebulous principles, his later career writing ads for kids’ breakfast cereal doesn’t seem all that great a compromise.

Brooks also doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to draw connections between Will the politico and Will the lover, which would make the story more cohesive. In both realms, Will is something of an opportunist, shilling for candidates whose backgrounds he doesn’t know and buying engagement rings for every woman he dates. When at last he ends up with his “true love,” it seems like an afterthought. Was the relationship meant to be, or was she just the last on the list?

This is a very cluttered movie, with too many characters and improbable situations. Why, for example, are the 11-year-olds in Maya’s class being given a very explicit sex-education lesson? And yet it is stylish, with appealing performances and clever dialogue. There’s a particularly endearing scene in which Will and April, having escaped to a rooftop during a dull party, discuss about his plan to ask Emily to marry him. He rehearses his proposal, and April, having forced him to get down on one knee, zangs him with a pungent speech denouncing the institution of marriage. April is also given the adorable trait of collecting used editions of Jane Eyre in a quixotic search for the inscribed copy that was her dead father’s last gift.

These lovely bits suggest that the movie (like our Bill) is capable of great things, but wastes time detailing things that are ultimately irrelevant (like the Clinton healthcare plan, or Monica Lewinsky) and elides things of importance, like Will’s marriage and the reasons for his divorce.But considering that its producer, Working Title, is best known for those hokey Richard Curtis “British-for-Dummies” romances (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually), this movie, unlike most politicians, actually exceeds expectations.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Broadcast News

I will be on WCPN 90.3 FM's "Around Noon" program with Dee Perry in Cleveland on Wednesday, February 20 at noon to discuss the Academy Awards. Tune in, call in, or listen here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

They Stoop to Pander

Another family-reunion comedy for the African American market, with the usual complement of dreary slapstick.

Here’s an audacious hope: that someday there will be an African American comedy that doesn’t resort to noisy slapstick to generate laughs. Writer-director Malcolm D. Lee’s Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, a family-reunion comedy starring Martin Lawrence, could easily have succeeded on its writing and talented comic cast. But, like many movies in this category, it stoops to pander, and the high-decibel mayhem — everything from bloody fistfights to someone getting skunked in the eyes — tends to drown out the funny dialogue.

Lawrence stars as R.J. Stevens, pseudonymous host of a popular L.A. talk show that seems to be a cross between Jerry Springer and Dr. Phil. He enjoys a pampered celebrity lifestyle, along with his model-gorgeous fiancée Bianca (Joy Bryant), whose claim to fame is that she won on Survivor! Their cozy world is upended when R.J., whose real name is Roscoe Jenkins, takes her to his family homestead in small-town Georgia for a celebration of the 50th wedding anniversary of his parents (Margaret Avery and James Earl Jones).

The L.A. couple’s nouveau-riche airs don’t impress Roscoe’s down-home relatives, who include muscle-bound brother Otis (Michael Clarke Duncan), the town sheriff; brassy sister Betty (Mo’Nique, whose lively rants are the best thing in the movie); hucksterish family friend Reggie (Mike Epps); and cousin Clyde (Cedric the Entertainer), Roscoe’s lifelong rival for the affections of his father, who raised him after Clyde’s parents died. The trip is fraught with disaster, ranging from lost luggage to the reigniting of Roscoe’s rivalry with Clyde. Roscoe also rekindles his youthful torch for the beautiful Lucinda (Nicole Ari Parker), realizes his fiancée is a controlling shrew, and heals his damaged relationship with his father, though it’s never adequately explained why Dad so clearly preferred Clyde to his own son. Lawrence is an unremarkable leading man, but the other players deliver a torrent of fast and funny dialogue that helps lift the movie above its baser tendencies.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Juno and the Payoff

Will Diablo Cody, the pseudonymous first-time screenwriter whose name is often found to the right of “former stripper,” win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Juno — or has Cody-mania peaked? Juno, the teen pregnancy comedy, has fans and detractors in equal measure. Middle America continues to kvell over the cuteness of the movie’s teen characters, who talk on hamburger phones and speak in the peculiar, faux-hip argot (“that’s one doodle that can’t be undiddled, homeskillet”; “honest to blog”) that is Cody’s trademark — while others are completely repelled by it.

I do believe the Academy will go for Juno, which fits the current ideals of “quirky” and “independent," though it isn't really an independent but a small studio production (Fox Searchilight). It is this year's "little film that could," a modestly budgeted film (around $7 million) that has grossed at least 15 times that amount in North America. Still, it's hardly of the caliber one associates with Academy Award nominees.

The closest Oscar contender is said to be Tony Gilroy for Michael Clayton, though I hardly think so. My own choice is Tamara Jenkins for The Savages. But the ubiquitous Cody, with her tattoos, stripper past and tassels-to-riches success (an agent found her writings about stripping while surfing for porn), is the better Hollywood story.