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The Coen Brothers and Classical Hollywood Cinema

by Ethan Tussey

by Dewey Musante for IN MEDIA RESRecently, the trailer for the Coen Brothers' newest film, Hail, Caesar! (2016) was released (embedded on the left) and, like many of the Coen's previous films, presents us with an aspect of their cinema that is frequently an object of study, but never totally or cohesively reconciled with their themes or justified in their aesthetics. Why the hell do such (roundly considered) postmodern filmmakers keep returning to the well of Classical Hollywood Cinema? Critics, academics, actors, and even the Coens themselves seem unable (or unwilling) to answer this question coherently and, based on its return once again in their film coming out this February, I would like to pose this question to the IMR community: How or in what ways can we begin to attempt to categorize or clarify exactly what the draw of Classical Hollywood style and aesthetics are for the Coens? Of course, it would be easy to take the typical postmodern route and decry the empty use of pastiche or schizophrenia outlined by Fredric Jameson in his seminal work on postmodernism, but I would argue that there is something deeper and more complex in the Coen's references. Although they frequently subvert Classical Hollywood style and narrative (in films like Barton Fink (1991), Miller's Crossing (1990), The Big Lebowski (1998), and Blood Simple (1984)) they also have an odd, irreverent, reverence for it (in True Grit (2010), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), and The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)). Hence, it is not that easy to shrug off their meticulous obsession with the Golden Age of Hollywood as mere cinephilia nor, conversely, to totally ground it in a postmodern, fractured psyche. In many ways, it is paradoxically both. How would we categorize this weird dialectic? Is it distinctly a Coen trait? Could we read this dialectic into their aesthetics? If so, how? From this initial question, the side questions multiply, but they all orbit around the kernel of Classical Hollywood at the center of many of the Coen's films. Admittedly, I don't have a clear answer for this complex paradox, but it may be an inroad to some deeper study about the Coen's films and, in light of yet another trip down Hollywood's memory lane in Hail Caesar!, these questions and the inroads they reveal seem particularly relevant.

Coen Bros and Hail, Caesar!

The trailer for Hail, Caesar!

from Hail, Caesar! (2015)
Creator: Coen Bros
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey
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