A Rather Long And At Times Meandering Essay On The Responsibility Of The Modern Film Director
Focusing Mainly On Alexander Payne And The Coen Brothers
By Leo Ziegler
Many people tend to criticize films they don’t like by saying that what happened in the film couldn’t really happen in real life. This may be a fair criticism for some films. Keep in mind, though, that these films are just that. They’re movies, flights of fancy meant to entertain. (Even a documentary aims at that same goal.)
The moment you sit in the plush theater seat and place your half-gallon of Diet Cherry Dr. Pepper in the cup holder, reality should be thrown completely out of the window. Reality, after all, is what we try to escape when we go to the movies. What we should be concerned with is whether the film feels genuine or not. Schindler’s List is historically accurate and wrought with heartbreakingly genuine performances, while Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator plays World War II for laughs but the performances endue the film with an emotional authenticity.
Of course, everyone involved in making the movie shares this responsibility. Film, however, is the director’s medium. (Or at least has evolved into one. Long gone are the days where John Ford had to shoot The Searchers shot for shot in-camera just to keep the studio from changing it.) The director is the nexus of what appears on the screen. Whether an auteur or a hired-hand, what the audience sees and hears, and therefore feels is because of them. (True. There are still cases of over-bearing studio meddling, just ask Terry Gilliam.)
In the early Sixties, Stanley Kubrick decided to adapt Peter George’s Cold War novel Red Alert. The result was Dr. Strangelove. Along with the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, Kubrick created the quintessential political satire. Strangelove lives and dies on Kubrick’s masterful direction. His ability to film the story of a rogue bomber flying over Russia with the intent of dropping a Hydrogen bomb with the intensity and suspense that such a situation deserves allows for the juxtaposition of the ludicrous characters and dialogue. This grows to its nadir with the introduction of the titular doctor in the final minutes of the film.
Under less deft hands than Kubrick’s, the film would have been suffocated by its vast array of caricatures (as brilliant as they may be). Good actors can give great performances in bad films but that alone cannot redeem the film itself. Sir Ben Kingsley, no matter how hard he tries, knows this all too well.
This is not just a matter of a certain directorial style trumping another but the ability to create a world that is recognizable and comforting to the viewer and, therefore, allowing them to accept what happens, no matter how outrageous, on the screen. There’s a very valid reason that, of all the movies released every year, there is only a small handful that will always be talked about. Whether it’s a Pixar film about talking toys or the latest Scorsese mob flick, the time and care that is put into those films will stay with us much longer than any silly voice that comes out of Adam Sandler’s needy mouth.
For the past thirty years, Joel and Ethan Coen have been creating worlds populated by slightly exaggerated characters in unique and dire circumstances. From their debut film Blood Simple, the Coen Brothers have been crafting a carnival mirror world filled with greed. Whether it’s Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter stealing one of a wealthy couple’s seven babies in the cartoonish Raising Arizona or Josh Brolin’s common everyman trying to stay alive with the bag full of money he found in the desert in the haunting No Country For Old Men, the audience sees how their dreams of quick and easy wealth and happiness can turn into a nightmare in a heartbeat.
The Coen Brothers are masters of creating characters that, at best, can be described as quirky. From John Torturro’s playwright turned failed screenwriter in Barton Fink to Jeff Bridges’ now iconic character the Dude in the Raymond Chandler inspired The Big Lebowski, the Coens take these off-beat characters and set them in a world that is, at once, easily recognizable to the viewer but just tilted enough for these peculiar individuals not to feel out of place.
This allows them to show us the absurdity of society and the crimes we commit while not appearing to lecture to the audience. From the gruesome denouement of Fargo to the absurdly silly series of deaths in their remake of The Ladykillers, the audience learns how actions always have consequences.
There is a fine line though that the Coens walk when they tell these twisted tales of greed. True, their caricatures help the audience to relax and be slowly drawn in to the suspense, but in order for that suspense to be fully exploited the world of the characters and their situation has to be relatable. When they succeed, their films are amongst some of the greatest in modern cinema. Whether it’s the dichotomy of Mid-Western norms and politeness and the unnecessary need for violence in our society shown in Fargo or the labyrinthian ‘40s style gangster film Miller’s Crossing, the viewer is not simply just drawn into these unique worlds but they also find something they can relate to.
Joel and Ethan occasionally stumble walking this line. Even these unfortunate films still deserve to be watched and many of them have a cult following. The major reason why films such as The Hudsucker Proxy and Intolerable Cruelty failed to resonate with the public is that they tend too far to the cartoonish spectrum of the Coens’ universe. Many modern day comedies, specifically ones starring Kevin James, are pretty much live-action cartoons and those films have their audience that give them money. When the Coens make a full out comedy though, their name alone has gained such gravitas that their audience often is not satisfied with only a simple, silly comedy; silly characters in silly situations without any of the real world consequences only feels like part of a movie. Now, not every character has to be fed through a wood chipper or blown up by their own grenade but there has to be something recognizable to the audience and actions must have their consequences.
Just like Joel and Ethan Coen, writer and director Alexander Payne is another filmmaker from the Mid-West. Though not as prolific as the Coens and not having been in the industry for as long, Payne’s films are distinctly recognizable. Much like his Mid-Western compatriots, Alexander Payne tells stories of characters dealing with the consequences of their actions. His films, however, are grounded in a hard reality. Anyone who did not grow up in the Mid-West or any small town across this country may think that Payne is mocking his characters but the truth is that his painstakingly real representation of his characters in About Schmidt and Nebraska is an ode to the working class. Unlike the Coens’ funhouse mirror view of the world, Payne simply looks out his window.
Payne’s subtle and deft craftsmanship evolved quickly after his first two films. Citizen Ruth and Election had the groundwork that he built on in his later films but fall victim to the off-beat, quirky style that was the fad of Indie filmmakers in the late Nineties.
It wasn’t until his third film that the writer/director seemed to feel comfortable with taking the audience fully into his world. In About Schmidt, Payne sent the titular character (a retired insurance salesman played by a subdued Jack Nicholson) on a panoramic cross-country trip across the Mid-West. At times the film may play a bit too much like a full on travelogue but it is saved by Nicholson’s introverted milquetoast discovering the world that he previously had happily avoided.
It was with Schmidt that Payne gained the confidence to abscond the typical trappings of the trade and focus heavily, if not exclusively, on the characters. These characters aren’t quirky and there really isn’t much that is unique about them. They aren’t thrown into life or death situations; they aren’t bestowed with any superhuman powers. The world that Payne populates them in is not any different than that of the common moviegoer. They’re just regular people doing their best to deal with varying degrees of tragedy. Sideways is just the simple story of two best friends dealing with their anxieties in Northern California wine country. Much like the Coen Brothers, Payne uses the every-day minutia to build tension in his films. Unlike the Coens, who use that minutia to validate the believability of their characters, Payne puts it front and center – finding beauty in the commonplace.
Perhaps that is the simple reason that Payne’s films are so successful. They point out the beauty in the world that we often take for granted. From the tropical Hawaiian Islands featured in The Descendants (which George Clooney is quick to point is anything but paradise) to the stark black and white, barren landscapes and desolated small towns in Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s camera reminds the viewer to take a brief moment to step back, no matter where you may be, and enjoy what is around you.
This beauty in the mundane is essential in separating Payne’s films from any of the other multitude of Slice of Life comedy-dramas littering the cinematic landscape. This is not to say that the actors in these films don’t give deeply emotional, yet subtle performances. Bruce Dern and Will Forte give some of the best performances in Nebraska recently captured on screen. As a director, Payne has the unique talent of removing all the layers of his actors until he reaches the raw honesty at their core and as a writer he hides the urgency of his stories under the simplicity of life itself.
Now the point of all this is not to simply state that one style is superior to the other. Alexander Payne and Joel and Ethan Coen are both talented filmmakers in their own right. Whether it is the subdued quiet world of Payne or the twisted (sometimes silly, sometimes dark) world of the Coen Brothers, the directors bring their own self-assured sense of style to the screen and though the two filmmakers are at opposite ends of the spectrum, they both create stories and characters that are genuine.