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.

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