A big chunk of the Coen Brothers’ filmography can be described as post-modern farce with touches of surrealism, forever in a limbo between slapstick and hard drama. Their unique approach to injecting contemporary narrative and technical approaches to retro styles can be found in many, if not all, of their works. The formula usually depends on a modern approach to an old Hollywood-style period backdrop.
However, the tide can go in the other direction, like the contemporary backdrop of “The Big Lebowski” being used to construct a story structure that stays surprisingly loyal to a 1940s Raymond Chandler-style noir mystery. Sometimes the post-modern layers dig a couple of levels deeper, like the Greek myth-depression era slapstick-modern technical visual approach (It was the first feature to completely use digital color correction) combo of “O Brother, Where Art Thou”.
If you’re interested in an in-depth examination of the brothers’ post-modern approach to their early work, check out The Directors Series’ half-hour video that dives into three of the Coens’ most appreciated works, “Miller’s Crossing”, “Barton Fink”, and “The Hudsucker Proxy”. Written, edited and narrated by filmmaker Cameron Beyl, The Directors Series is a collection of video essays that aims to deconstruct the works of contemporary and classic film directors. In this video, Beyl does an admirable job at going deep into the brothers’ unique style.
By focusing on three films that the Coens made back-to-back, instead of spreading himself thin by trying to create a career-spanning video, Beyl manages to focus on specific details in these three films that refer to the brothers’ post-modernist tendencies. After Beyl deftly examines how the old gangster film visuals and story structure of “Miller’s Crossing” is mixed with a contemporary approach, he moves on to “Barton Fink”, the second most terrifying horror film for writers, at least in this writer’s opinion (Losing first place by a hair to “The Lost Weekend”).
Beyl draws intriguing parallels between the surface story and the surreal context of the film, as he gives his two cents on fan theories regarding whether or not Hollywood represents hell, Barton’s contract with the studio is really a deal with the devil, and the hotel is actually limbo. Finally, we move on to “The Hudsucker Proxy”, where Beyl focuses on the existential conflict between the film’s rigid and grayscale art deco production design, and the protagonist’s obsession with colorful circular objects. In a way, isn’t most of the Coens’ output about characters who struggle to fit colorful circles into a colorless square world? You can watch the video below: