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Monday, February 25, 2008

How Will the Coen's Handle Mainstream Success?

Just months before Joel and Ethan Coen released BLOOD SIMPLE in January of 1985 I attended a indie film conference in Los Angeles in conjunction with AFI/Filmex Festival. On the panel was Steven Spielberg who made the comment "I would love to make a low budget indie film but for me that is impossible."

The Coen's first film caused the TIME magazine critic Richard Corliss to rave BLOOD SIMPLE was the greatest directorial debut since Orson Wells. A comparison drawn to the fiercely independent Wells was not only for Joel and Ethan's original vision but also the outsider status the Coen's would come to represent in the film world. As time passed the Coen's remained isolated from the comings and goings of Hollywood studio bosses both with their productions as well with the releases of their films. Much of their recognition and film awards came from France.

Spielberg's envy of indie film and desire to make one was brought on by the ability to make decisions outside the controlling mechanisms of Hollywood studios. Despite the success and million upon millions Spielberg had earned by then on films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, E.T. and JAWS it hadn't given the Hollywood autuer the freedom or independence, instead only a bigger burden to make the type of movie on a scale that arrested control away from him. Or so the father of mega-mulitplex blockbuster movies claimed.

Now, after last night's Oscars and 3 more statues, Hollywood insiders embraced the two decade long outsiders -- the storied indie rebel Coen Brothers. The question now becomes, how will success effect the Coen Brothers and their future filmmaking?

Many like to point to Martin Scorsese as a former New York outsider who in his later years sought to be accepted and embraced by inside Hollywood. Before the former film teacher at NYU where Joel and Ethan went to school, hovered closer to the L.A. orbit, Scorsese made hard edged films like TAXI DRIVER, MEAN STREETS, KING OF COMEDY, THE LAST WALTZ, RAGING BULL, and GOODFELLAS. In these early focused New York films Scorsese bent, stretched and often redefined the rules of intelligent filmmaking. RAGING BULL came to be considered one of the greatest films of all times.

Then, fever struck Scorsese and he started making mainstream movies and epic multi-million dollar projects like GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE AVIATOR that many criticized as compromised, inferior, and that pandered to the Hollywood insider aesthetic.

THE AVIATOR was called vast but ultimately emotionally empty by critics. Film enthusiasts took it as a direct attempt to win an Oscar either for directing and/or best picture and GANGS OF NEW YORK also received a lurk-warm welcome only to be hyped by the Weinstein Brothers who staked their reputation as Oscar forgers on the film release. Although GANGS was nominated for 10 Oscars in 2002 it was shut out and this seemed only to intensify Scorsese's desire to fit in to the Hollywood mainstream.

Others have sited another outer borough born New Yorker, Woody Allen's career and his temperament to avoid disapproving critics and adulating awards equally. When Hollywood tried to pull Allen into its orbit after ANNIE HALL, the Manhattanite pulled away and avoided the trappings big finance can bring. Allen remained steadfastly in New York, continued to work with his regular crew, wrote scripts for specific actors and actresses, and refused to accept the high flung acclaim of Hollywood as reality. Allen kept making small films aimed at an art house audience.

How will the Coen's be affected by becoming Hollywood's most celebrated directors and producers? Time will tell.

Coen Brothers Photo by Sam Javanrouh at the Toronto International Film Festival used under Creative Commons limited license

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